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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

One Book, One School, Or This is Henry’s Brain at Annenberg

When I left MIT three years ago, after having spent the whole of my professional career at one institution, I left with a sense that what I had produced so far represented who Henry was at MIT. I had been impacted by everything about that school — starting with the fact that I arrived there just in time to watch most of the progress of the “digital revolution” move outward from leading technical research institutions and hit the general population, and continuing through everything that had been involved in creating and sustaining the Comparative Media Studies Program for more than a decade. Add to this my experiences as a housemaster for Senior Haus for sixteen years, and you have a picture of someone who was deeply shaped by where they were and how they worked. As I reflect back, I keep discovering ways that I absorbed ideas from colleagues, even people I never really got to know, but whose ideas permeated the environment of the Institute.

I have now been at USC for the better part of three years, long enough for us to start to discover who I am in this new institutional environment. And the Annenberg School provided me with a great chance a week or so ago to reflect on the nature of the changes. The School has initiated what it is calling the “One School, One Book” program, where each year, they will showcase a book by a member of the faculty which they try to get the students, faculty, and staff to read and discuss. This first year, they chose my book, Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide. I was deeply honored and even more so, when they asked that I bring together some of the students I have worked with most closely in the school to share their insights into how the book had impacted their own research.

My joke these days has been that I have reached an age where I know longer want to be disciplined and I am not yet ready to be institutionalized, but it is only partially true in both cases.

If our institutions help to define what we know and what we think and what kinds of work we can do, a lot of that influence is through the students we have a chance to work with, and I have been profoundly lucky to have a chance to work with some extraordinary students in Annenberg, the Cinema School, and beyond. This occasion came at an interesting moment, having sent in the finished manuscript for my next book, Spreadable Media: Creating Meaning and Value in a Networked Society, which I co-authored with Sam Ford and Joshua Green. Due out in January 2013, this book represents in some ways the culmination of all of the work we did through the Convergence Culture Consortium at MIT. In my remarks here, I describe it as my transition book, one which is still strongly influenced by contacts and conversations at MIT, but still heavily influenced by my encounters and experiences at my new academic home.

After some opening remarks by our Dean Ernest Wilson and by myself about the experience of writing these two books, we turn the floor over to Francesca Marie Smith, Laurel Felt, Kevin Driscoll, and Meryl Alper, who describe how they relate to different aspects of the work I have begun in Los Angeles on fan studies, new media literacies, civic engagement, and transmedia play, respectively.

By the time this was over, I was bursting with pride over how articulate and thoughtful these students were. I had to share this experience with the loyal readers of this blog, so that you have a stronger sense of what my day to day experiences are like here in Southern California.

Do keep in mind that I also have several other intellectual families here through my work in the Cinema School and the School of Education.

C Is For Convergence: How the Cookie Monster Reformed Canadian Health Care

A few weeks ago, Glenn Kubish, an Alberta-based reader of this blog, wrote to me to share a remarkable story about the power of grassroots media and participatory culture. Like a typical U.S. yokel, I had no idea what had happened up in Canada, but was blown away by the story he told and asked him to share it with the other readers of this blog. Kubish is currently working on a thesis which explores more fully the implications of these events, and would be happy to receive insights or suggestions from you fine folks. With this in mind, I’ve included his contact information in the bio which follows this piece. For now, sit back, grab some cookies and milk, and read what happened.

C Is For Convergence!

by Glenn Kurbish

It’s fairly widely known that Canadians are passionate about health care and the state of hospitals, so what happened to the man who used to run Alberta Health Services (AHS) shouldn’t have come as too much of a surprise.

What was surprising was the role played by the Cookie Monster.

Welcome to my astonishing introduction to convergence culture.

You may not have heard of CTV Edmonton (the local television station in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, where I used to work as news director) or Stephen Duckett (who used to work as president and CEO of Alberta Health Services, the government agency that oversees all aspects of health delivery in this province), but you have heard of the Cookie Monster, and I guess that is part of the point. But first, the facts.

On the morning of November 19, 2010, we did what we in the broadcast news craft always did to start the day. We met around around a table and behind a door to discuss story ideas and decide the shape of the evening news. Emergency room wait times was again a big issue that day, as hospital leaders from around the province were themselves meeting around a table and behind a few sets of doors at a downtown hotel. Their goal was to establish new standards for care and admissions.

The center of attention was Stephen Duckett. As he left the meeting, he was met by our reporter, who asked if she could ask him a question.

Actually, my words won’t do justice to the 2:14 encounter. Some 337,000+ others took a look at it on YouTube.

Summary: Duckett wouldn’t answer conventional media questions because he was:

a) eating a cookie,

b) still eating a cookie,

c) interested in eating his cookie,

d) of the opinion that the media should not question him, but, rather, go to a news conference at which an underling would speak about the day’s discussions,

e) crossing the street, and

f) eating his cookie.

Dubbed the Cookie Affair and Cookiegate, that piece of video made it to the highest office in the province. The Alberta premier told the legislature, “I think everyone in Alberta watched and saw the offensive comments. I’ll just leave it at that.” Of course, he didn’t leave it at that; he fired Duckett later that day.

And, as it turned out, Albertans did more than just watch and see the video. They posted thousands of comments in that new public square, the YouTube rectangle. Some found fault with the media:

Damn! Let the man eat his cookie! #$#$ media! Would you even had to bother him if he was sitting in the toilet?!? (SpiderQED)

Others defended the reporters’ tack:

what a F**ing jerk. He is just so rude, so inconsiderate…They were asking him questions about the state of Alberta’s healthcare, something he is responsible for. (maymonk)

And, predictably, others responded by playing some version of the Sesame Street card:

COOOOOOOKIIIIIIIIEEEEEEEEEEMOOOOOOOOONNNNNNNNSSSSSSSAAAAAARRR!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!? (hunuthevolkswagen)

(It is fascinating how one 61-lettered, upper-cased, misspelled word gets the message across, complete with a moving image, with audio, of The Cookie Monster!)

And while many responded from their various perspectives, some recreated the video, using the video of the Duckett-media encounter as their own raw material in remixes that drew tens of thousands of views. Take a look (and tell me if you don’t smile at the editing touch at :50!)

Here’s another creative, autotune remix effort

And here’s one that combines contributions from mass media current and past (Sesame Street‘s Cookie Monster, NBC’s The Apprentice, CBS’s Hee Haw) to make a grassroots media case against Duckett.

All of this news and reaction dominated front pages, tops of newscasts, radio call-in shows, chat forums, political blogs, Twitter and Facebook pages. TV Tropes picked it up. I’m Eating My Cookie badges popped up.

For his part, Duckett, a day after the video was posted on YouTube, responded, conventionally, with a letter to the media, which ended:

Most regrettably, I did not convey what I deeply feel, which is the greatest respect for the difficult challenges our health care providers face every day, and their innumerable achievements, and what those challenges and achievements mean for our patients and their families. When I got back to my desk I finalized and uploaded a blog which conveys my feelings in my words.

The blog was seen by AHS staff, but what struck me at the time was what strikes me now as I hit the keyboard letters, and that’s how weak written words can be — especially up against the Cookie Monster! Admittedly, that’s not a new insight. Here, Lawrence Lessig in Remix makes the same point: “My favorite among the remixes I’ve seen are all cases in which the mix delivers a message more powerfully [emphasis added] than any original alone could, and certainly more than words alone could.”

But it was a new insight for me as a news director and for the newsroom I managed, even though the superior power of the image and the sound over the word was the price of admission into the TV news industry. This was different. It’s not that our station’s question-asking and video-recording sparked subsequent debate, because that was routine. It was that the media we produced in this case became the primary material for others, and not so much to produce their opinions as much as to express their opinions by producing their own media.

This, for me, was new territory where, in the words of Henry Jenkins, “old and new media collide, where grassroots and corporate media intersect, where the power of the media producer and the power of the media consumer interact in unpredictable ways.”

It is surely the case that Duckett, an erudite and by many accounts friendly and caring citizen, was caught unaware not some much by the pitch of his opponents’ attacks — he was, after all, no stranger to public and political criticism — but by the strange key in which it was composed, allowing notes from , well, muppets. Of course, this is my speculation, but it seems reasonable on the evidence that Duckett simply did not see the convergence culture moment he became trapped in and, ultimately, a victim of.

The evidence is admittedly indirect, but his retreat into the written word, and his wife’s subsequent written defence of her husband’s actions suggest, at the very least, a discomfort with the mashup tools arrayed against them.

“Alberta,” wrote Duckett’s wife in a letter the following month published in the capital city’s broadsheet newspaper, “will not find a more passionate defender of publicly funded health care.

“In retrospect…was it too flippant? Probably.”

This is all very reasonable. And it would have been very reasonable for the most vociferous of Duckett’s critics to debate the statistics around emergency room admissions and treatment versus the targets for the same. Just like it was very reasonable for Duckett, who was bestowed by the University of Bath with a Doctor of Business Administration degree in Higher Education Management, to remind reporters that a news briefing on those very questions would take place within the half hour. (I should note that our news station also covered that news conference).

But all this talk of reasonableness only makes Stephen Duncombe’s voice louder and his argument more insistent. In his 2007 book, Dream: Re-Imagining Progressive Politics In An Age Of Fantasy, Duncombe chastises progressive leaders for hitching their star to the rationalism wagon.

Appeals to truth and reality, and faith in rational thought and action, are based in a fantasy of hte past, or, rather, past fantasy. Today’s world is linked by media systems and awash in advertising images…We live in a “society of the spectacle,” as the French theorist-provocateuer Guy Debord declared back in 1967.

Keep in mind the mediasphere that grew around the Duckett Cookie episode as Duncombe briefly surveys the work of cognitive linguist George Lakoff, who found in the mysterious human capacity for metaphor a radical admission that hard information, rationality, reasonableness are not enough. These categories and metaphors, he argues, allow us to “translate hard information and direct experience into a conceptual form familiar and comfortable for us.” He continues:

[P]rogressives need to think less about presenting facts and more about how to frame these facts in such a way that they make sense and hold meaning for everyday people.

Quite apart from whether you are in the progressive chorus, this is a solid stage on which to build a case for what really happened in the Duckett Cookie episode. Those who used the tools of spectacle, including raw material culled from pre-existing media and a laptop edit suite, have heard Duncombe’s admonition. Says Duncombe in a chilling remark: “Those who put their trust in Enlightenment principles and empircism today are doomed to political insignificance.”

As I continue to study this episode, and ask you for any thoughts or directions on finding and picking the theoretical fruit it contains, it is worth sharing a few provisional conclusions:

  1. It was not the bloggers nor the twitizens nor any other member of the new media who played the pivotal role of being in place to ask Duckett the questions and record his answers. The conventional media may indeed face a threatening business model, but we are not yet in the new world where public figures are directly asked questions by those other than the conventional media who have the resources (time, money) to do so.
  2. The Duckett Cookie episode is unthinkable without the contributions of mass media (Sesame Street) and the gamble, not much of one, that viewers of mashed up videos would immediately understand the Cookie Monster text.
  3. Laughter and ridicule remain potent politcal weapons. I am not the first to point out that once a public figure is ridiculed, he or she cannot be taken seriously.
  4. None of this would have happened if one unconventional decision was made in our conventional newsroom, and that was to post the raw video to YouTube in the first place. Why did we do this? For many reasons, including the feeling that the usual packaging of a television news story (heavily edited, 1:45 in length, reaction clips) did not serve our viewers in forming opinions about the issue.
  5. In convergence culture, the Cookie Monster matters.

Glenn Kubish is working towards a Master of Arts in Communications and Technology at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, where his final research project will analyze what happened in the 2:14 of video and in its sharing across social media. He can be reached at glenn.kubish@gmail.com

Sites of Convergence: An Interview for Brazillian Academics (Part Two)

Participation in a culture of convergence requires the development of certain cognitive capacities. Multitasking, for example, is a skill that young people, the digital “natives,” seem more comfortable with than those of older generations, who lived in less complex media environments and were expected to think linearly. In the current media environment, what do we lose and what do we gain in terms of cognitive skills? And can new ways of learning co-exist with old forms of knowledge?

I am often reminded of Plato, who reacted with horror at the thought that writing would displace oral language at the center of Ancient Greek culture; he feared that we would lose the capacity to remember the core values and traditions of our society as we became overly reliant on the technology of writing. He was right in some ways. We do not command the kind of oral-based memory that dominates in pre-literate societies, but it is hard to argue that we would have been better off as a society in the absence of writing – or later, of print.

Every new technology opens up rich possibilities for human communication and expands in significant ways our cognitive capacities. Yet, at the same time, there is always a loss of some skills, which have been valuable to us in the past. We are in such a moment of transition. It’s hard to see with any certainty all of the trade-offs we are going to be asked to make, but it is also clear that what is coming will dramatically expand our capacity to create, to learn, and to organize.

The question is how to balance the new skills with the old, how to embrace the capacity of the young to process multiple channels of information with the values of contemplation and meditation, which were the virtues of older forms of learning. We need students who can learn from computers and from books, rather than forcing a false choice between the two. We need young people who can embrace and deploy a range of different cognitive strategies to confront a range of different sources of information and to express themselves across a range of different discursive contexts.

For me, this is never about displacing traditional literacy with new media literacies, but rather expanding the ways young people learn to encompass what is most valuable about the new and retain what was most effective about the old.

How can humanist traditions of critical thinking survive the overflow of information that comes with new media?

To be honest, I don’t know. But we will need critical thinking now more than ever if individually and collectively we will navigate through a much more complex information-scape and be able to make quick, effective decisions about the reliability and value of the sea of documents and videos that pass over our eyeballs in the course of our day. One way forward is to embrace what Pierre Levy calls collective intelligence. Levy argues that, in a networked society, nobody knows everything – get rid of the idea of the Renaissance man and rid education of the concept that every student should learn the same things. Everybody knows something – foster a culture of diverse expertise and multiple ways of knowing. And what any given member knows is available to the group as needed – enhance mechanisms for allowing us to compare notes, to deliberate together, and learn from each other. Individually, we are no match against the tsunami of data that crests over us every day of our lives, but collectively, we have the mental capacity to tackle complex problems that would be far beyond our personal competencies.

For us to achieve that potential we have to embrace collaborative learning at every stage of our educational process and we have to allow individuals to develop their own distinctive expertise rather than push our schools towards greater standardization.

From this perspective, the use of new media can in fact help build communities. The opposite, however, also seems to be true. Some media scholars have insisted, for example, that YouTube undermines this promise of community building and collective action precisely because of the huge amount and wide range of information published by its users. Making information publicly available is not the same thing as organizing community or mobilizing action. How would you respond to those who argue that fragmentation and dispersal, rather than purposeful collective action, are the likely outcomes of information overflow? Does access really translate into agency?

I would argue that YouTube represents the opposite of fragmentation. It is a site where media producers of diverse backgrounds and goals pool their resources and share with each other what they have produced. We are more aware of the diversity of our culture when we look at YouTube in large part because it has brought us into contact with forms of cultural production that were once hidden from our view, drowned out by the amplified voice of mass media, and isolated from us by all the various structures of exclusion that shape our everyday cultural experience. This is the heart of what Yochai Benkler argues in The Wealth of Networks - that many of these new sites represent a meeting ground for diversely motivated groups and individuals.

There is, at least potentially, much greater flow of information across groups at the grassroots level now than ever before. Groups that were once invisible are now gaining greater public impact through bringing their cultural productions into these new common spaces. These materials move much more fluidly through the population because they do not have to rely on traditional gatekeepers.

I don’t want to overstate this point. Much recent research on social networks suggests that they reflect other kinds of segregation in our culture: people tend to gather online with people they know in their everyday lives rather than exploit the full capacity of a networked culture; they tend to seek out people like themselves rather than use the technology to build “bridging” relationships. And this tends to blunt the potential of a participatory culture to diversify our experiences and knowledge.

I would agree that access does not necessarily translate into agency: it certainly doesn’t in the absence of knowledge and skills to deploy the affordances of these new social networks effectively; it doesn’t in the absence of a mindset that places a real value on diversity or respects the dignity of all participants; it doesn’t in the absence of new forms of social organization that help us to leverage the potentials of digital media to confront the challenges and problems of the 21st century.

The concepts of authorship and intellectual property are key to current debates on new media. On the one hand, digital culture encourages appropriation and popular uses of mass cultural texts, offering increased public exposure to fan creativity. On the other, the surge in what you call “grassroots creativity” has met with growing efforts on the part of the media industry to control the use and circulation of information. Is the notion of intellectual property on the wrong side of history? And what role – if any – can it play in the world of media convergence?

Intellectual property is the battleground that will determine how participatory our culture becomes. In some ways, the mass media industries are opening up greater space for participation, are accepting more appropriation than I ever anticipated. But they are not likely to give up the fight to own the core stories, images, and sounds of our culture without some pretty serious pushback from the public.

If we look at the history of culture, we can see some broad movements, which argue against the long-term viability of our current models of intellectual property. First, there was a folk culture, which supported broad participation, which drew few lines between amateur and professional creators, which stressed the social rather than the economic value of our creative acts, and which relied on peer-to-peer teaching of skills and practices. Second, there was a mass media culture, where the production of culture was privatized and professionalized, where most of us consumed and a few produced, and where none of us could lay claim to the cultural traditions that had sustained us or to the stories that had captured our imagination.

Now, the rise of participatory culture represents the reassertion of the practices and logics of folk culture in the face of a hundred years of mass culture. We now have greater capacity to create again and we are forming communities around the practices of cultural production and circulation. We now have the ability to share what we create with a much larger public than was possible under folk culture, and yet our templates for what culture looks like are still largely formed around the contents and practices of mass culture. This is why fan culture thrives in this new environment. Participatory culture cannot grow without the capacity to archive, appropriate, and recirculate media content; it cannot sustain itself long term without an expanded notion of fair use and a reduction on the capacity of corporate media to exert a monopoly control over our culture.

Everyone sees that the future will be more participatory, but we are fighting over the terms of our participation. New business models seek to liberalize the terms, opening up more space to consumer control, much as autocratic regimes are often forced over time to allow some kinds of democratic practices and institutions as they struggle to stay in power. But my bet is that the public demand is going to be greater than their capacity to let go of their control over the mechanisms of cultural production and circulation. They are not going to be capable of moving far enough fast enough. More and more of us will become “pirates” as we seek to pursue our own interests in a media environment that supports greater participation and a legal environment that seeks to channel that participation in ways that serve the interest of major media conglomerates.

Vinicius Navarro is assistant professor of film studies at the Georgia Institute of Technology. He is the co-author (with Louise Spence) of Crafting Truth: Documentary Form and Meaning (Rutgers University Press, 2011). He is currently working on a book on performance, documentary, and new media.

Sites of Convergence: An Interview for Brazillian Academics

Vinicius Navarro has published an extensive interview with me in the current issue of Contracampo, a journal from Universidade Federal Fluminense (Brazil). Navarro and his editors have graciously allowed me to reprint an English version of the interview here on my blog. Done more than a year ago, Navarro covered a broad territory including ideas about convergence, collective intelligence, new media literacies, globalization, copyright, and transmedia storytelling.

Sites of Convergence: An Interview with Henry Jenkins

by Vinicius Navarro

Media convergence is not just a technological process; it is primarily a cultural phenomenon that involves new forms of exchange between producers and users of media content. This is one of the underlying arguments in Henry Jenkins’s Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide, a provocative study of how information travels through different media platforms and how we make sense of media content. Convergence, according to Jenkins, takes place “within the brains” of the consumers and “through their social interactions with others.” Just as information flows through different media channels, so do our lives, work, fantasies, relationships, and so on. In Convergence Culture, Jenkins explores these ideas in discussions that include the TV shows Survivor and American Idol, The Matrix franchise, fans of Harry Potter and Star Wars, as well as the 2004 American presidential campaign.

Henry Jenkins is one of the most influential contemporary media scholars. In addition to his book on media convergence, he is known for his work on Hollywood comedy, computer games, and fan communities. More broadly, Jenkins is an enthusiast of what he calls participatory culture. Contemporary media users, he argues, challenge the notion that we are passive consumers of media content or mere recipients of messages generated by the communications industry. Instead, these consumers are creative agents who help define how media content is used and, in some cases, help shape the content itself. Media convergence has expanded the possibility of participation because it allows greater access to the production and circulation of culture.

In this interview, Jenkins speaks generously about the promises and challenges of the current media environment and discusses the ways convergence is changing our lives. As usual, he celebrates the potential for consumer participation, but he also notes that our access to technology is uneven. And he calls for a more inclusive and diverse use of new media. One of the places in which these discrepancies are apparent is the classroom. Jenkins believes that we need new educational models that involve “a much more collaborative atmosphere” between teachers and students. He also argues that we must change our academic curricula to fit the interdisciplinary needs of our convergence culture.

These are some of the questions we must confront in the new media environment of the twenty-first century, an environment in which consumer creativity clashes with intellectual property laws, Ukrainian TV shows find their way into American homes via YouTube, and transmedia narratives reshape the way we think about filmmaking.

In Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide, you oppose “the digital revolution paradigm” – the idea that new media are “going to change everything” – to the notion of media convergence. You also say that “convergence is an old concept taking on new meanings.” What exactly is new about the current convergence paradigm? And what changes may we expect from the convergence (or collision) of old and new media?

The idea of the digital revolution was that new media would displace and, in some ways, replace mass media. There were predictions of the withering away of broadcasting, just as earlier generations of revolutionaries liked to imagine the withering away of the state. That’s not what has happened. We are seeing greater and greater interactions between old and new media. In certain cases, this has made new media more powerful rather than less. The power of the broadcast networks now co-exists with the power of the social networks. In some ways, this has pushed broadcasters to go where the consumers are, trying to satisfy a widespread demand for the media we want, when we want it, where we want it, demand for the ability to actively participate in shaping the production and circulation of media content. This is the heart of what I mean by convergence culture. The old notion of convergence was primarily technological – having to do with which black box the media would flow through. The new conception is cultural – having to do with the coordination of media content across a range of different media platforms.

We certainly are moving towards technological convergence – and the iPhone can be seen as an example of how far we’ve come since I wrote the book – but we are already living in an era of cultural convergence. This convergence potentially has an impact on aesthetics (through grassroots expression and transmedia storytelling), knowledge and education (through collective intelligence and new media literacy), politics (through new forms of public participation), and economics (through the web 2.0 business model).

What’s new? On the one hand, the flow of media content across media platforms and, on the other, the capacity of the public to deploy social networks to connect to each other in new ways, to actively shape the circulation of media content, to publicly challenge the interests of mass media producers. Convergence culture is both consolidating the power of media producers and consolidating the power of media consumers. But what is really interesting is how they come together – the ways consumers are developing skills at both filtering through and engaging more fully with that dispersed media content and the ways that the media producers are having to bow before the increased autonomy and collective knowledge of their consumers.

The concept of “convergence” brings to mind the related notions of co-existence, connection and, in some ways, community. In this culture of convergence, however, we continue to see a divide – social as well as generational – between those who participate in it and those who don’t. What can we do to narrow this gap and expand the promise of participation?

This is a serious problem that is being felt in countries around the world. Our access to the technology is uneven – this is what we mean by the digital divide. But there is also uneven access to the skills and knowledge required to meaningfully participate in this emerging culture – this is what we mean by the participation gap. As more and more functions of our lives move into the online world or get conducted through mobile communications, those who lack access to the technologies and to the social and cultural capital needed to use them meaningfully are being excluded from full participation.

What excites me about what I am calling participatory culture is that it has the potential to diversify the content of our culture and democratize access to the channels of communication. We are certainly seeing examples of oppositional groups in countries around the world start to route around governmental censorship; we are seeing a rise of independent media producers – from indie game designers to web comics producers – who are finding a public for their work and thus expanding the creative potential of our society.

What worries me the most about participatory culture is that we are seeing such uneven opportunities to participate, that some spaces – the comments section on YouTube for example – are incredibly hostile to real diversity, that our educational institutions are locking out the channels of participatory media rather than integrating them fully into their practices, and that companies are often using intellectual property law to shut down the public’s desire to more fully engage with the contents of our culture.

One place where the divide manifests itself very clearly is the classroom. In an interview for a recent documentary called Digital Nation (PBS), you said: “Right now, the teachers have one set of skills; the students have a different set of skills. And what they have to do is learn from each other how to develop strategies for processing information, constructing knowledge, sharing insights with each other.” What specific strategies do you have in mind? What educational model are you thinking about?

Last year, I had the students in my New Media Literacies class at USC do interviews with young people about their experiences with digital media. Because my students are global, this gave us some interesting snapshots of “normal” teens from many parts of the world – from India to Bulgaria to Lapland. In almost all cases, the young people enjoyed a much richer life online than they did at school; most found schools deadening and many of the brightest students were considering dropping out because they saw the teachers as hopelessly out of touch with the world they were living in.

Yet, on the other side of the coin, there are young people who lack any exposure to the core practices of the digital age, who depend upon schools to give them exposure to the core skills they need to be fully engaged with the new media landscape. And our schools, in countries all over the world, betray them, often by blocking access to social networks, blogging tools, YouTube, Wikipedia, and so many other key spaces where the new participatory culture is forming.

Over the past few years, I’ve been involved in a large-scale initiative launched by the MacArthur Foundation to explore digital media and learning. I wrote a white paper for the MacArthur Foundation, which identifies core social skills and cultural competencies required for participatory culture and then launched Project New Media Literacies to help translate those insights into resources for educators. The work we are doing through Project New Media Literacies (which was originally launched at MIT but which has traveled with me to USC) is trying to experiment with the ways we can integrate participatory modes of learning, common outside of school, with the core content which we see valuable within our educational institutions.

For us, teaching the new media literacies involves more than simply teaching kids how to use or even to program digital technologies. The new media landscape has as much to do with new social structures and cultural practices as it has to do with new tools and technologies. And as a consequence, we can teach new mindsets, new dispositions, even in the absence of rich technological environments. It is about helping young people to acquire the habits of mind required to fully engage within a networked public, to collaborate in a complex and diverse knowledge community, and to express themselves in a much more participatory culture. This new mode of learning requires teachers to embrace a much more collaborative atmosphere in their classrooms, allowing students to develop and assert distinctive expertise as they pool their knowledge to work through complex problems together.

Vinicius Navarro is assistant professor of film studies at the Georgia Institute of Technology. He is the co-author (with Louise Spence) of Crafting Truth: Documentary Form and Meaning (Rutgers University Press, 2011). He is currently working on a book on performance, documentary, and new media.

The Revenge of the Origami Unicorn: Seven Principles of Transmedia Storytelling (Well, Two Actually. Five More on Friday)

Across the next two weeks, we will be rolling out the webcast versions of the sessions we hosted during the recent Futures of Entertainment 4 conference held last month at MIT. (see Monday’s post for the session on Grant McCracken’s Chief Culture Officer). Many of the conference sessions were focused around the concept of transmedia entertainment. The team asked me to deliver some opening remarks at the conference which updated my own thinking about transmedia and introduced some basic vocabulary which might guide the discussion. My remarks were largely off the cuff in response to power point slides, but I am making an effort here to capture the key concepts in writing for the first time. You can watch the recording of the actual presentation here and/or read along with this text.

Many of these ideas were informed by the discussions I’ve been having all semester long within my Transmedia Storytelling and Entertainment class at the University of Southern California.

Revenge of the Oragami Unicorn: Seven Core Concepts of Transmedia Storytelling

[Electronic Arts game designer] Neil Young talks about “additive comprehension.” He cites the example of the director’s cut of Blade Runner, where adding a small segment showing Deckard discovering an origami unicorn invited viewers to question whether Deckard might be a replicant: “That changes your whole perception of the film, your perception of the ending…The challenge for us, especially with the Lord of the Rings is how do we deliver that one piece of information that makes you look at the films differently?” — Henry Jenkins, Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collides (2006).

I first introduced my concept of transmedia storytelling in my Technology Review column in 2003 and elaborated upon it through the “Searching for the Oragami Unicorn: The Matrix and Transmedia Storytelling” chapter in Convergence Culture. For me, the origami unicorn has remained emblematic of the core principles shaping my understanding of transmedia storytelling, a kind of patron saint for what has emerged as increasing passionate and motivated community of artists, storytellers, brands, game designers, and critics/scholars, for whom transmedia has emerged as a driving cause in their creative and intellectual lives. We all have somewhat different definitions of transmedia storytelling and indeed, we don’t even agree on the same term – with Frank Rose talking about “Deep Media” and Christy Dena talking about “Cross-media.”

As Frank has put it, same elephant, different blind men. We are all groping to grasp a significant shift in the underlying logic of commercial entertainment, one which has both commercial and aesthetic potentials we are still trying to understand, one which has to do with the interplay between different media systems and delivery platforms (and of course different media audiences and modes of engagement.)

Whatever we call it, transmedia entertainment is increasingly prominent in our conversations about how media operates in a digital era – from recent books (such as Jonathon Gray’s Show Sold Seperately: Promos, Spoilers, and Other Media Paratexts and Chuck Tryon’s Reinventing Cinema: Movies in the Age of Media Convergence) to dedicated websites (such as the Narrative Design Exploratorium which has been running a great series of interviews with transmedia designers and storytellers) and websites created by transmedia producers, such as Jeff Gomez, to explain the concept to their clients. We are seeing senior statesmen across multiple disciplines – from David Bordwell in film studies to Don Norman in design research – weigh in on the aesthetics and design of transmedia experiences. All of this influx of new interest invites us to pull back and lay out some core principles that might shape our development or analysis of transmedia narrative and to revise some of our earlier formulations of this topic.

Six years ago, fans and critics were shocked at the idea of transmedia as they first encountered what the Wachowski Brothers were doing around The Matrix. Now, there is almost a transmedia expectation, as occurred when fans of Flash Forward complained recently because the series introduced a Url on the air and then only provided impoverished extensions to those fans who tracked down the link. Have we reached the point where media franchises are going to be judged harshly if they do not sustain our hunger for transmedia content?

Let me start with the following definition of transmedia storytelling as an operating principle: “Transmedia storytelling represents a process where integral elements of a fiction get dispersed systematically across multiple delivery channels for the purpose of creating a unified and coordinated entertainment experience. Ideally, each medium makes its own unique contribution to the unfolding of the story.” Some of what I will say here will complicate this conception of a “unified and coordinated entertainment experience,” as we factor in the unauthorized, grassroots expansion of the text by fans or consider the ways that franchises might value diversity over coherence in their exploration of fictional worlds.

We should be clear that narrative represents simply one kind of transmedia logic which is shaping the contemporary entertainment realm. We might identify a range of others – including branding, spectacle, performance, games, perhaps others – which can operate either independently or may be combined within any given entertainment experience. During the conference, Nancy Baym asked us to think about when and how music has gone transmedia. We struggled to come up with examples – everyone of course immediately latched onto the ARG created around the Nine Inch Nails; I proposed the Comic Book Tatoo where artists and writers used Tori Amos songs as their inspiration. The question looks different, though, if we ask about transmedia performance, because most contemporary musical artists perform across multiple media – minimally live and recorded performance, but also video and social network sites and twitter and…

We might also draw a distinction between transmedia storytelling and transmedia branding, though these can also be closely intertwined. So, we can see something like Dark Lord: The Rise of Darth Vader as a extension of the transmedia narrative that has grown up around Star Wars because it provides back story and insights into a central character in that saga. (Thanks to Geoffrey Long for this example) By comparison, a Star Wars breakfast cereal may enhance the franchise’s branding but it may have limited contribution to make to our understanding of the narrative or the world of the story. The idea that Storm Troopers might be made of sugar sweet marshmellow bits probably contradicts rather than enhances the continuity and coherence of the fictional world George Lucas was creating.

Where does this leave the Star Wars action figures? Well, they represent resources where players can expand their understanding of the fictional world through their play. Minimally, they enhance transmedia play, but in so far as coherent stories emerge through this play, they may also contribute to the expansion of the transmedia story. And indeed, writers like Will Brooker and Jonathon Gray have made compelling arguments for the specific ways these toys expanded or reshaped the transmedia narrative, adding, for example, to the mystique around Boba Fett.

While we are making distinctions, we need to distinguish between adaptation, which reproduces the original narrative with minimum changes into a new medium and is essentially redundant to the original work, and extension, which expands our understanding of the original by introducing new elements into the fiction. Of course, this is a matter of degree – since any good adaptation contributes new insights into our understanding of the work and makes additions or omissions which reshape the story in significant ways. But, I think we can agree that Lawrence Olivier’s Hamlet is an adaptation, while Tom Stoppard’s Rosencranz & Guildenstern Are Dead expands Shakespeare’s original narrative through its refocalization around secondary characters from the play.

My own early writing about transmedia may have over-emphasized the “newness” of these developments, excited as I was to see how digital media was extending the potential for entertainment companies to deliver content around their franchises. Yet, Derrick Johnson has made strong arguments that the current transmedia moment needs to be understood in relation to a much longer history of different strategies for structuring and deploying media franchises. Indeed, when I head to University of Southern California each morning to teach, I am given a forceful reminder of these earlier stages in the evolution of transmedia entertainment in the form of a giant statue of Felix the Cat which has sat atop a local car dealership since the 1920s and has become a beloved Los Angeles landmark. Felix, as Donald Crafton, has shown us was a transmedia personality, whose exploits moved across the animated screen and comics to become the focus of popular music and merchandising, and he was one of the first personalities to get broadcast on network American television. We might well distinguish Felix as a character who is extracted from any specific narrative context (given each of his cartoons is self-contained and episodic) as opposed to a modern transmedia figure who carries with him or her the timeline and the world depicted on the “mother ship,” the primary work which anchors the franchise. As I move through this argument, I will connect transmedia to earlier historical practices, trying to identify similarities and differences along the way.

1. Spreadability vs. Drillability

At last year’s Futures of Entertainment conference, we unrolled the concept of “spreadability” which is the central focus of my next book, which is now being written with Sam Ford and Joshua Green. Spreadability refered to the capacity of the public to engage actively in the circulation of media content through social networks and in the process expand its economic value and cultural worth. Writing in response to that argument, Jason Mittell has proposed a counterveiling principle, what he calls “drillability” which has some close connection to Neil Young’s concept of “additive comprehension” cited above. Mitell’s discussion of drillability is worth quoting at length here:

“Perhaps we need a different metaphor to describe viewer engagement with narrative complexity. We might think of such programs as drillable rather than spreadable. They encourage a mode of forensic fandom that encourages viewers to dig deeper, probing beneath the surface to understand the compleity of a sotry and its telling. Such programs create magnets for engagement, drawing viewers into the storyworlds and urging them to drill down to discover more…The opposition between spreadable and drillable shouldn’t be thought of as a hierarchy, but rather as opposing vectors of cultural engagement. Spreadable media encourages horizontal ripples, accumulating eyeballs without necessarily encouraging more long-term engagement. Drillable media typically engage far fewer people, but occupy more of their time and energies in a vertical descent into a text’s complexities.”

A key phrase here may be “necessarily” since we’ve seen that helping to spread the message may well be central to enhancing viewer engagement and may encourage further participation – as we’ve seen in the past few weeks where the release of Susan Boyle’s album, more than six months after the participatory circulation of her original video, has broken sales records this year, swamping by something like seven to one the release of an album by American Idol winner Adam Lambert.

Yet, Mittell invites us to think of a world where many of us are constantly scanning for media franchises that interest us and they drilling down deeper once we find a fiction that captures our imagination. Both potentials may be built into the same transmedia franchise, yet they represent, as he suggests, different dimensions of the experience, and there may well be cases where a franchise sustains spreadability without offering any real depth to drill into or offers depth and complexity without offering strong incentives to pass it along through our social networks. More work needs to be done to fully understand the interplay between these two impulses which are shaping current entertainment experiences.

2. Continuity vs. Multiplicity

I mentioned earlier that some of my recent thinking about transmedia starts to challenge the idea of a “unified experience” which is “systematically” developed across multiple texts. It is certainly the case that many transmedia franchises do indeed seek to construct a very strong sense of “continuity” which contributes to our appreciation of the “coherence” and “plausibility” of their fictional worlds and that many hardcore fans see this kind of “continuity” as the real payoff for their investment of time and energy in collecting the scattered bits and assembling them into a meaningful whole. We can see the elaborate continuities developed around the DC and Marvel superheroes as a particular rich example of the kind of “continuity” structures long preferred by the most dedicated fans of transmedia entertainment.

Yet, if we use these comic book publishers as a starting point, we can see them pushing beyond continuity in more recent publishing ventures which rely on what I described in my contributions to Third Person as a logic of “multiplicity.” So, for example, we can see Spider-Man as part of the mainstream continuity of the Marvel universe, but he also exists in the parallel continuity offered by the Ultimate Spider-Man franchise, and we can see a range of distinctly separate mini-franchises, such as Spider-Man India (which sets the story in Mumbai) or Spider-Man Loves Mary Jane (which stands alone as a romance comic series for young female readers). And indeed, some of these experiments – Spider-Man India, the DC Elseworlds series – use multiplicity – the possibility of alternative versions of the characters or parallel universe versions of the stories – as an alternative set of rewards for our mastery over the source material.

Multiplicity allows fans to take pleasure in alternative retellings, seeing the characters and events from fresh perspectives, and comics publishers trust their fans to sort out not only how the pieces fit together but also which version of the story any given work fits within. We can compare this with the laborious process the producers had to go through to launch the recent Star Trek film, showing us that it does indeed take place in the same universe as the original and is part of the original continuity, but the continuity has to be altered to make way for the new performers and their versions of the characters.

This pleasure in multiplicity is not restricted to comics, as is suggested by the recent trend to take works in public domain, especially literary classics, and mash them up with more contemporary genres – such as Pride and Predjudice and Zombies, Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters, or Little Women and Werewolves.

The concept of multiplicity paves the way for us to think about fan fiction and other forms of grassroots expression as part of the same transmedia logic – unauthorized extensions of the “mother ship” which may nevertheless enhance fan engagement and expand our understanding of the original. For those franchises where there is a strong desire to police and preserve continuity, fan fiction can be experienced by producers as a threat, something which may disrupt the coherence of their unfolding story, but where we embrace a logic of multiplicity, they simply become one version among many which may offer us interesting insights into who these characters are and what motivates their behavior.

In my class and at the conference, this concept of multiplicity has been experienced as liberating, allowing us to conceive of alternative configurations of transmedia, and lowering some of the anxiety about making sure every detail is “right” when collaborating across media platforms. My key point, though, would be that there needs to be clear signaling of whether you are introducing multiplicity within the franchise, as well as consistency within any given “alternative” version of the central storyline.

TO BE CONTINUED

Click Click Ranger: A Transmedia Experiment for Korean Television (Part One)

I am offering today’s post as part of the ongoing conversation I’ve been having throughout the semester about transmedia storytelling practices. Below you will find the first of two installments written by HyeRyoung OK, a recently minted USC PhD, who I have met through my work with a new MacArthur Foundation Research Hub on Youth, New Media, and Public Participation. She has done some groundbreaking research on the deployment of transmedia practices in Korean television, projects which have gotten very little attention on this side of the world, but which have a lot to offer as an alternative model for how mobile technologies and public space can be deployed as part of a transmedia strategy.

Click Click Ranger: A Transmedia Experiment for Korean Television

by HyeRyoung Ok

By now we all know that the mobile phone is not simply a phone anymore. Since its introduction, the mobile phone has evolved into something that constantly broadens and transforms its boundary. Indeed, it is one of the most convergent media devices available that materializes the paradigm of media convergence. In most countries where mobile technology is widely adopted, the mobile phone is rapidly becoming a new outlet for traditional media industries responding to the “visions of wireless phones becoming hand-held entertainment centers.” Yet the mobile phone’s entry into the existing media environment is not a natural and homogeneous process. Continuing, disrupting, and mixing existing media practices to a newer form, rather, it came to terms with conventional media in heterogeneous ways depending on the socio-culturally specific contexts.

Then, here comes the story of the mobile phone in Korea, the country recently known as “IT powerhouse” where the adventure of the mobile phone ever continues. The mobile phone in Korea is literally a focal point where technical, industrial, and cultural innovations to explore the ‘newer’ forms of media service converge (see my blog posts on general review of Korean IT practices). What is particularly unique about Korean mobile culture is the continuing emphasis on the potential of mobile phones as ‘screen’ media. It is not surprising phenomenon considering the weight of ‘screen’ related – all dimensions of hardware and software – industries in Korean society. I would like to illustrate how the mobile screen is positioned in the flux of these transmedia experiments across new and old media in a culturally specific way through the case of Click Click Rangers: aka Mobile Rangers, an entertainment program on channel MBC in Korea.

Click Click Rangers: aka Mobile Rangers, is an interesting case that shows how the media content is designed to be produced/consumed based on the principle of “connecting” multiple forms of screens: mobile screen, television screen, and outdoor LED screen. Click Click Ranger is one of three sections in the popular Sunday prime time entertainment show, titled !: Exclamation Mark which was broadcast from December 2004 to August 2005 on channel MBC – one of three major television networks in Korea. In Click Click Ranger, the mobile screen is used in two significant ways: mobile phone imaging for moving image production and mobile TV for moving image circulation. Although it was short-lived, this show set up a model for employing mobile phone technology thematically as well as formally into the television program format and inspired other shows in competing networks. As a prototype, Click Click Ranger raises several interesting issues on the relation between new media technology, the existing media conventions, and culture. Taking Click Click Ranger as a starting point, let’s begin to explore how Korean television mediates the mobile screen as part of the larger outdoor screen culture and thus complicates the issue of ‘convergence of spaces.

Click Click Ranger (aka Mobile Ranger): Capture Korea’s Today

Click Click Ranger’s catchphrase of “Capture Korea’s today” literally and symbolically sums up the goal and the structure of the show: To report the present realities of Korea. In terms of content, Click Click Ranger presents several short video clips of anonymous do-gooders and misbehaviors on the street in a fashion similar to citizen reports. These clips are captured and sent by random citizens and “mobile rangers,” a group of pre-selected young college students and volunteers (in total, 100 members). Technically, mobile rangers and anonymous participants capture videos on the street and send clips ‘in real time’ to the studio while the program is being pre-recorded. It is reported that ninety percent of participants use a mobile phone camera and send clips through the wireless internet on their mobile phone. Most interestingly, Click Click Ranger adopts a multi-screen format of display that tackles the paradigm of media convergence by manipulating the ‘flow’ of content across media (Jenkins, 2007). The clips captured by mobile phone camera and selected for showing on regular television are simultaneously broadcast on a large LED screen installed over Seoul City Hall Plaza. In fact, the program itself is shot on the rooftop of the city hall building, where two MCs run the show as if they were news reporters as is illustrated in the picture above. Hence, what the viewers on a regular television set at home actually watch are alternating shots between the outdoor screen display, the MCs, and small video clips in quick-time movie format. Later on, the program re-runs on Mobile TV, particularly on the channel BLUE of Satellite DMB (Digital Multimedia Broadcasting) service on the following Monday. Following this path, the clips of Click Click Ranger finish their journey from the street to multiple screens encompassing all hot spots (‘hot screens’) in the current mediascape of Korea as diagram below illustrates.

diagram(HR)(3).png

Creating the Public: Private Imaging and Public Exhibition

To the savvy viewers, who got used to all sorts of strategies to utilize the mobile phone for the television show by now, early attempt of Click Click Ranger may not look so fresh. What makes this show unique is the way in which it attempts to employ the mobile phone, an icon of personal media, in the service of constructing the ‘public space’ within a commercial entertainment. As a matter of fact, from the beginning, ! : Exclamation Mark has built a reputation for being a ‘public value concerned entertainment’ program. Previous and current sub-sections of the show have adopted ‘human documentary’ or ‘news report’ format in which show hosts visit and follow various people, with the goal of promoting the ‘good civilian life and consciousness’ in the fashion of a public service campaign. So far, its campaigns have been successful in generating issues in public discourse and have had real consequences in social life in Korea. Some of its famous campaigns include: “Let’s read books,” “Let’s obey the traffic sign,” “Let’s eat Breakfast,” “Street Lessons,” “Open your Eyes (Donation/Transference of cornea for the blind),” “Asia Asia (Illegal worker’s home visiting project)” and so on.

Partially, the show’s strategy to foreground public good within entertainment content reflects the unique hybrid characteristic of its network, MBC: MBC is private but at the same time closer to a public broadcasting network. It runs as a private company but is in fact indirectly owned by the government (by KBS, a major public network) and under the direct control of the Commission of Television Broadcasting. This dominant discourse of the program not only circumscribes the content of the clips in Click Click Ranger but also affects its program format. Typical clips of Click Click Ranger would feature various incidents such as violation of minor civil laws, misdemeanors, or good samaritans who help weak, elderly people at the subway station and so on. In each episode, if the best citizen is chosen among the good samaritans, the show’s host calls up the mobile ranger on the scene and runs to there to give the samaritan a reward-a golden badge.

(To be continued)

HyeRyoung Ok is a postdoctoral researcher at the University of California Humanities Research Institute, Irvine, working for the Digital Media and Learning Hub. Currently she is carrying out research for the Public Participation Research Network led by Joe Kahne. As a cultural studies scholar, HyeRyoung looks at newly emerging transmedia culture from interdisciplinary perspective, with a focus on the transition of cinematic tradition to digital media, mobile media culture, and transnational flow of cultural content, particularly in East Asian context.

Strange Overtures: Vodephone, Tchaikovsky, Ernie Kovacs and the “Wowness” of New Media

One of the great joys of our present moment is waking up to some delightful gift — a compelling bit of media content — sent to you by friends, family, or in this case, a former student (Eric Schmiedl). Several years ago, I wrote a blog post about the ways that YouTube has brought back many aspects of the vaudeville aesthetic that I discussed in my first book, What Made Pistachio Nuts?: Early Sound Comedy and the Vaudeville Aesthetic:

The video below is a great example — an advertisement produced in New Zealand for Vodephone which offers us a spectacular technological performance, one which calls attention to the emerging properties of our media environment in several ways.

First, of course, the video demonstrates some of the expressive potentials of mobile phones, not to mention the prospects of using digital media to coordinate signals within a complex structure. This is a compelling example of technological virtuosity. My first response was to go “Wow” and in our modern age, “wowness” is a hard earned quality. Here’s what I wrote about it in my recent book, The Wow Climax: Tracing the Emotional Impact of Popular Culture::

Consider the singular beauty of the word ‘Wow.’ Think about the pleasure in forming that perfectly symmetrical phrase on your tongue. IOmagine the particular enthusiasm it expresses — the sense of wonderment, astonishment, absolute engagement. A ‘Wow’ in something that has to be earned, and in the modern age we distribute standing ovations far too often when we are just being polite, but we have become too jaded to give a wow. The term takes on a certain irony, as if it can only be uttered in quotation marks.

This immediate, visceral response makes this the kind of content you want to “spread” to others in your social network. Eric forwarded it to me; I’m posting it on my blog and sending it out through my Twitter feed; and perhaps you will like it well enough that you will pass it along further. This is at the heart of what we are calling “spreadable media.” And trust me, the folks at Vodephone are not going to be heartbroken at our circulation of their commercial message. They no doubt think this video has gone “viral” — It didn’t, god forbid. But a bunch of us did decide, for our own reasons, to keep it in constant and varied circulation.

One of the ways that Vodephone has found to extend our engagement with this video has been to create a “Making Of” segment which is in many ways just as fascinating as the original. That’s the great thing about technological virtuosity — we can admire it even when the magician invites us behind the red velvet curtain and shows us how he does his tricks. I am reminded of what the French media theorists Christian Metz wrote about “trucage” or what we Americans call “special effects.” That they are “artifaces” that are not so much hidden as proclaimed. When we all watch Avatar in a few weeks, we are not going to simply be immersed into the world of the film; we are going to stand back and gasp at the spectacular breakthroughs in special effects which have been publicized around the making of the film. And this fascination with how they did it will in no way diminish, may in fact increase the emotional impact of what we are seeing.

This being the age of participatory culture and interactive media, Vodephone takes this a step further on the webpage they’ve constructed around this advertisement, which allows us to take the basic building blocks behind this spot and remix them towards our own ends. This thus completes the process of technological amazement — allowing us to experience first hand the delights of expressing ourselves through ringtones.

When I first saw the Vodephone spot, though, I was reminded of a much earlier moment of technological virtuosity and the vaudeville aesthetic. Take a look and you will see why.

Ernie Kovacs was a spectacular visual comedian who worked in the early days of American television. Kovacs exploited for comic effect our heightened awareness of the visual properties of this new and emerging medium. Television was not yet ambient; we had not yet started to take the visuals (which, after all, are what separated television from radio) for granted. Kovacs counts on us not being able to take our eyes off the screen.

So, why do both of these artists draw upon Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s 1880 composition, 1812 Overture, as the basis for their spectacular performance. I suspect there are many reasons, starting with the fact that the 1812 Overture embodies the high art status we ascribe to classical music. New media seeking to gain recognition often signal their cultural ambitions by drawing on works which we already respect from older media traditions. They do Shakespeare or Mozart or Tchaikovsky. Second, these works at the same time poke fun at the cultural hierarchies they seek to transcend — there’s something really profoundly silly about the ways they are performing or illustrating the 1812 Overture in these segment. And finally, at least in the case of the Vodephone ad, they respect the complexity of this particular composition as a way of demonstrating their own mastery over the new technologies involved. The Vodephone ad would not be nearly as absorbing or engaging if the phones were playing Chopsticks or Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star.

So, if you want to learn more about our concept of spreadable media, check out the webinar which I will be conducting with Sam Ford and Joshua Green on Friday 6 November (from 12-1 pm EST). Registration is free!

Moving from “Sticky” to “Spreadable”: The Antidote to “Viral Marketing” and the Broadcast Mentality

Based on years of researching how and why people spread news, popular culture, and marketing content online through the Convergence Culture Consortium for the past several years , our speakers are currently working on a book entitled Spreadable Media. This Webinar will look at what “spreadable media” means, why the concept of “stickiness” is inadequate for measuring success for brands and content producers online and ultimately why marketers and producers should spend more time creating “spreadable material” for audiences than trying to perfect “viral marketing.” In this one-hour session, the speakers will share the ideas and strategy behind “spreadable media” and a variety of examples of best–and worst–practices online for both B2B and B2C campaigns.

This panel will address:

— The concept of “stickiness” and why it cannot solely be used as a way to measure success online;

— How and why viral marketing does not accurately describe how content spreads online;

— Why a “broadcast mentality” does not work in a social media space;

— The strategy companies should undertake when creating material for audiences to potentially spread online;

— Companies that have learned difficult lessons and/or gotten the idea of “spreadable media” right;

— Trends in popular culture/entertainment one which brands should keep a close eye;

— How “spreadable media” might apply to B2B audiences.

Reflections on Cultural Politics: My Interview for Poli (Part Two)

Today, I am running the second part of the English language translation of an interview I did last year with Maxime Cervulle for Poli, a French magazine of media and cultural theory. Last time, the focus was on cultural politics and cybercitizenship. In this part, I turn my attention more fully to issues around Web 2.0. Enjoy and as always, let me know what you think.

In the current context, user-generated content faces new forms of media concentration, and new types of worrying alliances between governmental power and media conglomerates (for example in the Italian and French political context). Is this a paradoxical situation, or does “participatory culture” sometimes serve as a smoke screen for new economic and political configurations?

At the current moment, participatory culture, user-generated content, web 2.0, refer to a range of different corporate and grassroots practices, some of which are more tightly controlled than others. Certainly, as writers like Tzianna Terranova have suggested, user-generated content can become another word for “free labor”, allowing for the outsourcing of expressive activity at considerable cost to those working in the creative industries. Certainly, as Trebor Sholtz and others have suggested, social networks seek to lock down our information, making it harder for us to port our data from space to space. As John Campbell has suggested, many of these sites invite us to trade privacy for access to powerful tools for producing and circulating media content, engaging in various forms of surveilance which may or may not be acknowledged to the users.

As I have suggested, a participatory culture is not necessarily a diverse culture. Indeed, sites like YouTube, which rely on user-moderation, often operate on majoritarian premises which place very little value on access to minority perspectives and in some cases, may be less diverse at their most visible levels than forms of public broadcasting which have a strong mandate for broad representation. So, we really do need to look all of these gift horses in the mouth and try to understand the paradoxes and contradictions of web 2.0 culture.

That said, the sheer proliferation of tools has made it much easier for grassroots communications to route around official censorship, whether corporate or governmental. For example, Huma Yusuf has studied the ways that a range of different media channels — YouTube, SMS, Facebook, Flickr, among them — were deployed by activists and citizen journalists to get word out about what was happening in Pakistan during the 2007-2008 state of national emergency. She argues that no sooner did the government seek to close off one channel, then activists rerouted towards a different platform. And when activists were

stiffled at the geographically local level, they were able to tap the participation of a larger diasporic community which remain strongly connected to Pakistan through these various participatory power.

The trick, in other words, is to see participatory culture as having some real potentials for grassroots empowerment even as we maintain a healthy skepticism towards

specific web 2.0 practices which restrain rather than enable meaningful participation.

Many of the European writers about web 2.0 raise important concerns that we all need to factor into our analysis, but they are also, in my opinion, too quick to dismiss any claims that these tools and platforms can be used to effect meaningful social, cultural, and political change. The evidence is all around us that even in their most corrupted forms, they offer significant new

opportunities for activism, for cultural experimentation, and for new kinds of knowledge production. This is at the heart of what some people are describing as Networked Publics. It’s easy to characterize my perspective as utopian, which often occurs in European responses to my work, yet if this is the case, I am not a blind utopian. For me, a recognition of the progressive potentials of these technologies and practices provides a basis for critiquing the abuses and manipulations which block such a deployment.

Does the recent turn to “creative industries” (in cultural studies as well as in public policy ­ see UNESCO for example) mark an obsolescence of the notion of “cultural industries”? How does this new notion might help us map new terrains in the relationship between culture, economy and society?

The term, “culture industries,” is so closely associated with the Frankfort School tradition that I’m afraid that it locks us into old theoretical models of how the entertainment industry operates. There is some danger that the term, “creative industries,” may similarly be coopted, especially as it gets deployed through public policy advocates, into a particular neo-Liberal inflection which may blind us to some of the critical issues I’ve raised above.

Yet, in the short run, it seems to me that the emergence of a new vocabulary allows us to ask some important questions about shifts in the patterns of cultural production and distribution, changes in the way information gets produced and deployed, and the degree to which our whole economic system may be shifting from commodity capitalism to a service economy to a creative economy, which has significant implications for culture and for education.

As we’ve seen, the power relations created around mass media, which formed the basis for many of our cultural theories, have been altered through the expansion of social networks and the increased visibility and centrality of participatory culture.This is not to say that commercial interests do not exert a strong influence over the communication environment. Of course, they do, but their power is no where near as totalizing as those classical accounts would suggest. This is not to say that these commercial interests do not seek to shape the hearts and minds of their consumers, but they are adopting rather different models of persuasion which depend upon our active participation and which are subject to our collective critique.

So, the most powerful reason to shift from talking about “culture industries” to ‘creative industries” is to signal that we need to question and challenge old assumptions and rethink old theories as we deal with some fundamental changes in the way media gets produced,circulated, and consumed in this era of convergence culture.

What do you mean by “creative economy”? Are you refering to the concept of “cognitive capitalism” ?

I was not familiar with the phrase, “cognitive capitalism,” but I took the logical next step in an era of collective intelligence: I looked it up on Wikipedia, where there happens to be a particularly good summary of its core ideas. Here’s part of what Wikipedia says: “The production of wealth is no longer based solely and exclusively on material production but is based increasingly on immaterial elements, in other words on raw materials that are intangible and difficult to measure and quantify, deriving directly from employment of the relational, affective and cerebral faculties of human beings.” The Wikipedia entry stresses that these “immaterial elements” are getting translated into “intellectual property” and are thus generating rents

through copyright protections. So, based on this definition, then I would say there’s a close relationship between the two concepts.

The “cognitive capitalist” model seems to adopt a largely critical stance on these developments, where-as most of those who use “creative economy” are celebrating the shifts. Both are describing a series of moves from commodity and industrial based modes of production towards a service based economy towards an economy based on brands and intellectual property. And there’s no question that the struggles over intellectual property will be the core conflicts which will shape our cultural and political lives for the coming decades. The good news is that we are seeing considerable activism emerging around issues of fair use, net neutrality, privacy, and control over personal information and these groups are gaining some ground in institutional change and much more ground in terms of actual cultural practice. The general public today embraces a model of intellectual property which differs fundamentally with the stated goals and

interests of the corporate sector, as they are increasingly taking media into their own hands, and that is forcing legal and economic changes that have to acknowledge, incorporate, and respect the emerging power of participatory culture.

So, if the intellectual property industries represent a form of “cognitive capitalism,” might we argue that Wikipedia itself represents a kind of “cognitive socialism?” After all, the content of the site is freely given by those who choose to participate; participates seek no material rewards but

rather are sharing knowledge for the common good; I was able to access that information without paying rents; and I was just able to deploy it in responding to your question. And that’s precisely the challenge I would pose to the most critical accounts of these trends.

There is something different taking place here in social organization and political behavior in a world where information can become a source of power and wealth, where social networks allow for new forms of collaborations between groups and individuals, where information can circulate with little to no direct costs, and where much information is being provided for free from groups which are not motivated primarily on a commercial basis. Certainly, we need to be very aware of how commercial interests may feed upon and exploit this grassroots effort at the production of information. But we also need to recognize the alternative economy which is represented by the growth of these new social networks.

In some current work, I’ve been looking closely at Lewis Hyde’s book, The Gift which talks about the ways that commodity capitalism intersects with the gift economy. I’m finding this as a very helpful starting point for understanding the tensions which are now defining our economic and legal systems. Many of the groups which have emerged on or moved to the web have historically operated not only according to different values than commodity culture but they have explicitly argued against making profits from the circulation of their work. This is certainly true of the female-centered fan culture which was the focus of my book, Textual Poachers, several decades ago. And the movement to the web has enabled them to lower costs of production and circulation even more, transforming their cultural goods into gifts which are freely bestowed on anyone who is interested. We can’t romanticize this new “gift economy.” We have to understands the strengths and limitations of its models. But we can’t

ignore it as a counterforce on “cognitive capitalism” if we are to develop a full understanding of the new information landscape.

The model of “cognitive capitalism,” at least as represented through Wikipedia, seems incomplete if it emphasizes only the mechanisms by which capitalism is reproducing itself in an era where intellectual property is king, and does not confront the alternative systems of production and distribution which are emerging from participatory culture. So, the wikipedia definition, based on the writings of Ed Emery, continues: “The subjection of the worker within the production process is no longer imposed in disciplinary fashion by direct command (foremen etc); most of the time it is introjected and developed through forms of conditioning and social control. Individualised contractual relations are the order of the day, and this tends to introduce individual competitiveness into people’s working behaviours.” Yet, we can also argue that

a networked society has enabled new forms of informal, noncommercialized collaboration and cooperation in which information is freely shared for the benefit of all.

Even as this new stage of capitalism you’re refering to could completely remap power relations and economic opportunities in new and imprevisible ways, it also implies that unequal access to technologies, computation power or high-speed connection might result in unequal economic developments. What kind of “access politics” should be deployed?

I make a distinction between the digital divide, which has to do with access to the technology, and the participation gap, which has to do with access to skills, knowledge, and cultural/social capital. In many ways, the first is a problem which can be and is being addressed through the provision of access to networked computers via schools and public libraries. The second, on the other hand, is a much more difficult problem to confront.

The Participation Gap is an educational issue: how do we insure that every citizen has access to the social skills and cultural competencies required to be a full participant in the new media landscape? It is also a cultural issue: how do we insure that all have a sense of “empowerment” or “entitlement” which insures that they feel comfortable entering into these emerging networked

publics? And in some ways, it is an economic one, having as much to do with the distribution of time as it does with the distribution of wealth and power, though it is hard to separate the three. So, certain classes of people, because of the restructuring of work, have more flexible or disposable time through which they can interface with networked publics, while others have lives

structured by routinized labor and the demands to struggle to support their families which makes it much harder for them to enter the rhythmns and flows of digital communications.

The participation gap refers to all of these obstacles to full participation. In my case, the work I am doing with the MacArthur Foundation around new media literacies is intended to represent a model for the kinds of “access politics” required to confront the participation gap. It starts from the recognition that the informal forms of participation and social networking which are part of the

lives of many American young people are not available to all. These sites of informal learning are the new “hidden curriculum.” Historically, educators note, those kids who have access to encyclopedias and opera records, dinner table conversations about politics and trips to the art museum, performed better, and were perceived to perform better, in schools than those young

people who lacked these experiences. These informal, domestic activities shaped their cultural capital as they entered institutional learning. Similarly, research shows that such kids are much more likely to go to public art institutions even if you lower economic barriers than those kids who lack this kind of cultural capital. Pierre Bourdieu’s work is a great illustration of the relationship between education and these forms of cultural distinction and discrimination. So, we are trying to develop resources which help broaden access to the kinds of skills, competencies, and self perceptions which emerge through these informal online activities. We are doing so as part of a network of researchers, across a range of disciplines and institutions, working with

the MacArthur Foundation, to reshape the core institutions that impact young people’s lives in response to the shifts in the cultural and informational environs.

Do new modes of knowledge production made possible by web 2.0 actually change the politics of knowledge? Can “collective intelligence” become a counter-hegemonic sphere or does it tends to reproduce -as you underlined with YouTube- majoritarian premises?

The first thing I’d stress is that the technologies in and of themselves guarantee nothing. What matters are the social practices, cultural norms, and institutions which emerge around these technologies. Too much early digital theory talked about the democratizing impact of new media without recognizing that those tools and platforms can be deployed towards many ends as they get inserted into different political, economic, and social contexts.

We can argue that there are a range of different models of collective intelligence shaping the digital realm at the present time. We might distinguish broadly between three different models: 1)An aggregative model which assumes that we can collect data based on the autonomous and anonymous decisions of “the crowd” and use it to gain insights into their collective behavior. This is the model which shapes Digg and to some degree, YouTube. 2)a curatorial model where grassroots intermediaries seek to represent their various constituencies and bring together information that they think is valuable. This is the model which shapes the blogosphere. 3)a deliberative model where many different voices come together, define problems, vet information, and find solutions which would be impossible for any individual to achieve. This is the model shaping Wikipedia or even more powerfully alternate universe games.

Of the three, the deliberative model offers the most democratic potentials, especially when it is tempered by ethical and political commitments to diversity. This is the model which Pierre Levy describes in his book, Collective Intelligence. Levy’s account stresses the affirmative value placed on diversity in such a culture. The more diverse the community, the broader range of possible information and insights can inform the deliberative process.

So, the Wikipedians talk about “systemic bias” to reflect the kinds of gaps or excesses in their information which comes from the predominance of geeks and the limited participation of some other groups in their authoring community. Some topics get extensive treatment while others get neglected as long as some groups are over-represented and others under-represented in the process. Yet, Wikipedia’s norms as a community stress the importance of insuring that as many

different points of view get represented. The group seeks to lower obstacles to more diverse participation and to make room for those viewpoints which might otherwise get silenced. This was seen as a way out of “edit wars” which would stall the project, but it also has the effect of creating a possitive value on broader representation and inclusiveness.

No such mechanism exists in YouTube, say, which does adopt a more majoritarian model. It isn’t that minority perspectives can’t be found on YouTube: the platform can be used by many groups who circulate its contents in their own communities through the curatorial processes of blogs and social network sites. But there’s nothing that places a positive value on insuring that this diversity gains visibility at the highest levels on the site: you can come to Youtube and

not be exposed to views or content which operates outside the dominant perspectives of its user base (though keep in mind that those perspectives may or may not align with those which govern “mainstream” mass media and so YouTube may still represent a challenge to old style hegemony.)

We are at a moment where a lot of social experimentation is taking place around collective intelligence. We have lots of models to chose from and there’s some key work for media scholars and theorists to be reflecting on the social mechanics and technical affordances of different sites to see which may best promote the democratization of knowledge production. There’s plenty of room for healthy skepticism in this process as well as I hope, some space for the utopian imagination. But, we get nowhere if the theorists adopt a purely cynical and critical perspective, seeing it all as more of the same, as capitalism in new bottles, and thus failing to make meaningful distinctions between different social and cultural practices that are emerging in cyberspace.

Reflections on Cultural Politics: My Interview for Poli (Part One)

Earlier this fall, the French cultural theory magazine, Poli, ran an extensive interview with me conducted by Maxime Cervulle. The interview explored a range of topics surrounding the cultural politics of participatory culture and web 2.0, specifically addressing concerns raised by European intellectuals about some of the themes I explored in Convergence Culture. I saw it as an opportunity to identify points of contact as well as differences in how we thought about digital media and political/economic change. The readership of this interview was academic so the language deployed may be a bit more high-flying than I usually would run in this blog. But I felt it would be valuable to distribute an English language translation of the exchange. By prior arrangements with the magazine’s editors, I’ve waited several months since it’s appearance in France and am now sharing it with you. Many of the themes are ones which have surfaced on this blog before but some of the topics were new to me and opened up some interesting lines of thinking. The interview came back to my mind this past week because of a series of exchanges with USC students about the relationship between work in cultural studies, such as my own, which was influenced by the work of John Fiske, my graduate mentor, and work in political economy, which has tended to be far more critical of developments in digital media.

When you first published Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Culture in 1992, the active audience you analyzed through the figure of the fan seemed to be quite a marginal phenomenon. With the development of interactive cultures, participative audiences seem now to have taken center stage. How does this 20 years reconfiguration of media audiences change the way we think the relationship between culture and audience?

When I began my career, some cultural and media scholars were prepared to acknowledge an “active,” “resistant” or “participatory” audience as a theoretical possibility. When I first began to document fan practices, it was assumed that this was a “minority” practice, that fans were “exceptional” readers. Increasingly, in the era of YouTube and FaceBook, it becomes clearer that many more people than even I imagined might want to actively engage with media content, appropriating and reshaping it to better reflect their personal and shared interests.

Today, it is meaningless to write about the changing media scape without paying close attention to various forms of audience participation and the various business models which have emerged under the banner of “web 2.0″ to capitalize on the desire of consumers to play a more visible and active role in shaping the production and circulation of media content. It is inconceivable to study YouTube without understanding the behavior of media consumers in a way that previous generations of film scholars might have dealt with cinema exclusively through the analysis of auteurs.

It doesn’t mean that media creators and media industries don’t matter. Of course,

they do and they exert much more power than the more wide-eyed cyberenthusiasts might acknowledge. Contrary to what you may have heard, we do not yet and probably never will live in a world without gatekeepers. We need to be paying close attention to the mechanisms by which media industries frame some kinds of audience participation as acceptable and others as unacceptable, even as they claim to expand the power of consumers and diversify the contents of our culture. We need to be attentive to the limits of participation even as we are excited about the broadening franchise which consumers do enjoy in this new convergence culture.

The fans I described in Textual Poachers were in many ways the shock troops of

this cultural transformation: they lived in virtual communities decades before the rest of us; they knew how to tap collective intelligence long before the general population had ever heard of this context; they were remixing video and circulating it amongst themselves decades before Youtube; they were writing their own stories and sharing them with each other before anyone termed the phrase “user-generated content.”

And it is significant that much of this early fan practice was done by women who are increasingly being written out of the history of digital media. Fan women played an important role in helping their friends make the transition into the new media scape and they modeled what a more participatory culture might look like when it meant patching two vcrs together. We should not forget that history even as we are fascinating with the broadening of participation that is being enabled by the lowering costs and ease of use embodied in the latest digital platforms.

How can we move from consumer participation to citizen participation, from a participatory culture to a participatory democracy? Are the two connected?

I am just now launching a new project to explore this issue more closely, so I can only paint in broad outlines here. I am interested in better understanding the mechanisms within fan communities that enable and sustain participation and in particular, the ways fan communities educate their members in order to prepare them to take collective action. So, for example, I think there’s a lot we can learn about new forms of activism by understanding how fan communities launch letter-writing campaigns to keep their favorite programs on the air or

to defend their appropriations of intellectual property in the face of threats from studio lawyers.

From there, we might look at some recently launched organizations which self-consciously fuse together the identities of fan and citizen. I am thinking about groups like the HP Alliance, which has mobilized Harry Potter fans in the global human rights movement, or The

Organization for Transformative Works, which has brought together fan professionals to develop a

more rigorous defense of Fair Use, or Global Kids which is using Second Life as a platform for kids to educate each other about issues impacting youth around the world.

Such organizations tap the playful fantasies and popular metaphors and grassroots infrastructure of the fan community and turn it towards the goal of transforming the society. In some cases, they are relying on a politics of volunteerism, sometimes governmental advocacy, but in every case, they have lowered the threshold for participation and engagement with political change. I am interested in how popular culture may offer a different set of metaphors for thinking about the political processes. Those of us who are academics forget how exclusionary and specialized much of political discourse can be. You really can’t understand this policy wonk talk unless you are already initiated into the language of politics and governance.

So, these groups are modeling a new kind of political language. They are also sites where average people are acquiring core skills at social networking, media production, collaborative problem solving, which are being turned to political causes.

What do you think of the use by political leaders, such as Barrack Obama in the U.S, of the rhetoric of “citizen participation” and/or “citizen expertise”?

The Obama campaign is a powerful example of how politics might play out in convergence culture. For one thing, the Obama campaign understood the need to spread its message across every available media platform. They not only worked with established media — television networks, newspapers — but they also experimented with the use of games systems, mobile phones, social networks, and YouTube as vehicles through which they could reach out and connect with voters. They saw campaigning not as the one-time delivery of a pitch but the building of a long-term network which linked the voters to each other to form a community of support. They embraced popular appropriations and remixing of Obama’s image so that people felt a great sense of possession over this man and his message. They adopted a “we” language which was highly compatible with their supporters lived experiences of social networks and collective intelligence.

In many ways, the Obama campaign was less a political movement and more a fandom. And that’s why the McCain people so actively sought to pathologize the emotional investments which Obama’s supporters made in the candidate and the campaign. There were a number of commercials ridiculing the candidate as a “celebrity” and his supporters as “fans,” suggesting that they were spooked by the “enthusiasm gap” between the two candidates — justly so, as it turns out, because Obama was drawing record crowds at his campaign stops and this translated into an extraordinarily diverse and far-reaching base of support. I am certain we are going to see similar tactics emerge in countries all over the world, because the Obama campaign so perfectly tapped the affordances and “structure of feeling” of the new participatory culture.

Since you are speaking of the “fan base” of Obama, and of the way he was sometimes seen as a “celebrity”, I’d like to ask you how you understand the political and cultural meaning of celebrity culture ? Can “celebrities” still be understood as a “mode of displacement” – as Richard Dyer argued in Stars – displacing politics to the “private” sphere, and displacing collective issues to a singular experience ; or is there a new relationship to celebrity

emerging ?

Richard Dyer’s work on Stars was enormously important in opening up a whole new model for the analysis of motion pictures, one which recognized that stars were a central organizing principle of the Hollywood entertainment system and that the meanings of stars needed to be constructed intertextually — across a range of different texts and media. I’ve learned a tremendous amount from his work.

But it’s also worth keeping mind he is describing how stars functioned in a very particular information environment. He’s describing a time when the meanings of stars were largely if not entirely articulated top down through mainstream media — either through the studio’s publicity mechanisms or through the scandel sheets which existed in parallel and sometimes in opposition to the studios. The stars, themselves, were under contracts which severely restricted their ability to exert their own voices through the public sphere and which thus gave them very little say in how the public perceived them. And the public might construct alternative fantasies around these stars, as we now know through, for example, Dyer’s account of how the gay community took up Judy Garland, but those meanings could not be easily spread from local communities to a larger public.

All of this has changed. Today’s celebrities are, for better and for worse, free agents who have their own publicity machines which help to shape their images. Many of them follow older patterns with an emphasis on their private lives and much of the news media focuses on the same kinds of romantic, sexual, and substance abuse scandals that titilated readers decades ago. But other stars are speaking out about political issues, endorsing candidates, lobbying for legislation, and supporting activist efforts. We might, for example, cite the example of the Will.i.am video produced for Obama in response to his “Yes We Can” theme as work that emerged from celebrities working together and using their power of publicity to increase public awareness of civic concerns. Or we might point to the role which hip hop performers like Chuck D, Kanye West, or Russell Simmons have played in rallying opposition to the Bush administration. Even a celebrity who might seem totally apolitical and focused purely on the private sphere may be pulled into political debates, as occurred when Paris Hilton produced her own video responding to McCain’s comparison between her and Obama. The video was partially humorous but it also gave her a platform to speak out about global warming.

At the same time, the public has a much greater ability to appropriate, remix, transform, and recirculate celebrity images than ever before, mobilizing them towards alternative fantasies or politics. Because celebrities are widely known, appropriations of their images circulate more widely and swiftly than more conventional kinds of political messages. Because they are mythic, larger than life figures, their meaning is always up for grabs. This phenomenon is not unique to the United States: film stars in India often cross over from Bollywood into politics, carrying with them mythic associations from their best known film roles, while in Mexico, Lucha Libre wrestlers can become powerful spokespeople for the underclass.