Transforming Hollywood: The Future of Television Conference Videos (Part Two)

Last time, I shared videos of the opening sessions of the Transforming Hollywood: The Future of Television conference, recently hosted at UCLA, and organized by myself and Denise Mann (UCLA). I am grateful to David McKenna for his epic work in editing, mixing, and uploading these videos so quickly.

Today, I am sharing the video from the final two sessions of the conference — including my one-on-one exchange with Sleepy Hollow‘s Orlando Jones around the ways he has been using social media to interface with his fans and the politics of diversity and creativity in the contemporary television industry.

TMH5, Panel Four: Indie TV – Where Creators & Fans Pilot New Shows from UCLA Film & TV on Vimeo.

Indie TV: Where Creators and Fans Pilot New Shows

The Internet broke the network bottleneck. Through platforms such as YouTube and Vimeo, creators release series directly to fans who follow shows and share them with friends. Web-content creators can write stories in whatever length, style and genre they choose, on their own schedule, and with actors of their choosing. The result is a truly open television ecosystem, where creators, talent and fans work together to realize stories they want to see. Each of the producers on this panel contributes to this new vision of television by producing series for the Internet that are being shaped for traditional TV as well; (several of these web series are being developed for HBO). Issa Rae created The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl with a small team and expanded the show using a successful crowdfunding campaign. Rae went on to produce additional series, including Amy Rubin’s Little Horribles, which Rubin released via her own Barnacle Studios. In the process, Little Horribles has become a hit with fans and with critics at Variety, LA Weekly and Splitsider, among others. Dennis Dortch and Numa Perrier launched the Black & Sexy TV network to showcase indie comedy, releasing their own hit series The Couple, and releasing additional series created by other emerging Hollywood talent. Jay Bushman helped The Lizzie Bennet Diaries grow into a deeply engaging transmedia phenomenon, which prompted viewers of the Jane Austen-inspired series to follow characters from YouTube to Twitter and Pinterest. Raising tens of thousands of dollars from fans, Adam Goldman created and wrote two critically-acclaimed dramas, The Outs and Whatever this is, exploring the realities of being insecure in New York City. After showrunner Brad Bell co-created Husbands with Jane Espenson, the indie hit caught the eye of CW executives, who used the series to launch their new online network. As these examples convey, the Internet has become an incubator for talented, next-generation web creators and web celebs, who, in combination with fan followers, are reinventing television for the digital age.

Moderator: Aymar Jean Christian, assistant professor, Northwestern University

Panelists: Brad Bell, co-creator and star, Husbands
Jay Bushman, producer and writer, The Lizzie Bennet Diaries
Adam Goldman, writer and director, Whatever this is
Numa Perrier, co-founder, Black & Sexy
Issa Rae, creator and star, The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl
Amy Rubin, creator and star, Little Horribles

TMH5, Panel Five: Discussion on fandom and the future with Orlando Jones, the star of Fox’s “Sleepy Hollow” from UCLA Film & TV on Vimeo.

Fandom and the Future of Television Orlando Jones, Star, Writer, Producer, Sleepy Hollow with Henry Jenkins

At the opening of the panel, I share the story of how I first connected with Orlando Jones. Orlando, who is ever-present on Twitter, had referenced my book, Textual Poachers, which seemed to be a ready invitation to engage. I wrote back to say that I was following his new series, Sleepy Hollow, closely and enthusiastically. A few minutes later, I wrote back to see if he might be willing to visit my PhD seminar on fandom, participatory culture, and Web 2.0 the next time he was in Los Angeles, and within the course of 30 minutes, we had met, shared our mutual admiration, and he had agreed to do a guest lecture (already had his people working with me to pull this off). And of course, fans online were already speculating about whether there might be a Henry/Orlando ship forming (Horlando, perhaps?) and the answer is wouldn’t you like to know. His visit with my USC students was captured on video and today, I am finally able to share it with you also, so for my fellow Sleepy Hollow fans out there, this is a double dose of Orlando’s magic. And for everyone else, I hope you will agree with me that he is an extraordinary individual — deeply respectful of his fans, outrageously funny at the drop of a hat, and deeply thoughtful about his craft and about the changing media environment a second later. I’ve learned so much from my two conversations with him so far and am very happy to be sharing these exchanges with a broader public via this blog. Enjoy!

Orlando Jones from USC Annenberg Innovation Lab on Vimeo.

Further Information About Transforming Hollywood: The Future of Television

UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television

and

USC School of Cinematic Arts

Announce

Transforming Hollywood: The Futures of Television, April 4, 2014, UCLA 

Co-directors:

Denise Mann, UCLA

Henry Jenkins, USC

Presented by the  Andrew J. Kuehn  Jr. Foundation

Media Sponsor: Variety

Friday April 4   2014

James Bridges Theater, UCLA

TRANSFORMING HOLLYWOOD: THE FUTURE OF TELEVISION

Conference Description

This year, the fifth installment of Transmedia, Hollywood has been given a new name—Transforming Hollywood: The Future of Television—to reflect our desire to engage more fully with the radical changes taking place in the American television industry for creators, distributors and audiences. When future generations of historians write their accounts of the evolution of the American television industry, they will almost certainly point to the 2010s as a moment of dramatic change: We’ve seen the entry of Netflix, Hulu, Amazon and YouTube as major players shaping the production of original programming, gaining critical praise, courting industry awards, and perhaps, most dramatically, starting to compete, in terms of number of subscriptions, with the top cable networks. We’ve seen Kickstarter emerge as an alternative means for “crowdfunding” television content, allowing fans to exert a greater role in shaping the future of their favorite series. We’ve seen a continued growth in the number of independent producers creating and distributing their content through the web. With these other changes, we are seeing the industry and academia struggle to develop new insights into what it means to consume television content in this connected and yet dispersed marketplace. This conference will bring together key creative and corporate decision-makers who are shaping these changes and academics who are placing these shifts in their larger historical and cultural contexts. What does all of this mean for those of us who are making or watching television? 

 

Schedule

9:00-9:10 a.m.: Welcome and Opening Remarks – Denise Mann and Henry Jenkins

 

9:10-11:00 a.m.: PANEL 1
Virtual Entrepreneurs: Creators Who are Reinventing TV for the Digital Future
In Fall 2011, Google announced plans to invest $100 million dollars to forge original content partnerships with a number of talented YouTube creators in order to enhance the production value of their work and their value to brands. This panel gives voice to two new types of virtual entrepreneur: Individual web creators who are reinventing entertainment for the digital age, and the CEO of a new type of web-based multi-channel network (MCN), which is forging deals with individual web-creators in exchange for providing them with infrastructural support in the form of sound stages, green screens, higher quality cameras and editing equipment, enhanced social media marketing tools and brand alliances. Early entrepreneurs in this newly commercial, digital economy include Felicia Day and Sheri Bryant (Geek & Sundry), Freddie Wong (“Video Game High School) and Dane Boetlinger (“Annoying Orange), each of whom has catapulted themselves into the top tier of web celebs with huge fan followings. Many of these entrepreneurial web creators have sought out deals with MCNs such as Fullscreen, Maker Studios and Machinima in order to expand their budding entertainment enterprises. However, other creators are chafing inside long-term contracts with MCNs, frustrated by what they see as onerous terms — the split of advertising revenues and intellectual property rights. Today’s panel debates the viability of these new creative and business models, asking whether they represent a radical rethinking of entertainment that puts power back into the hands of creators or if they are transitional systems that will eventually be absorbed by Hollywood’s big media groups.
Moderator: Denise Mann, co-director, Transforming Hollywood / associate professor, head of Producers Program, UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television
Panelists:
Sheri Bryant, partner/co-founder, Geek & Sundry
Allen DeBevoise, chairman and CEO, Machinima, Inc.
Amanda Lotz, associate professor, University of Michigan
George Strompolos, founder and CEO, Fullscreen, Inc.

 

11:10 a.m.-1:00 p.m.: PANEL 2
The Programmers of the Future in an Era of Cord-Cutters and Cord-Nevers
As consumers spend more of their free time online, viewing and sharing content on social networks such as YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, Vimeo, Tumblr and Vine, what does this mean for the future of television? Cord-cutters and cord-nevers represent a very real threat to the current big dogs of digital distribution — the multichannel video programming distributors (MVPDs), also known as subscription cable systems (Comcast, Time-Warner), satellite carriers (DirecTV, Dish) and telcos (AT&T U-verse, Verizon FiOS). At the same time, the MVPDs have been waging too many public battles with Hollywood broadcasters over their high re-transmission fees, resorting to theatrics by pulling favorite sporting events and sitcoms — behavior that alienates consumers and tests the patience of government policy-makers. These policy-makers are making little effort to curb the reckless deal-making taking place at over-the-top (OTT) premium video services such as Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu Plus and YouTube (as well as among other players such as Microsoft Xbox), as each makes moves to expand globally while freeing themselves from their dependency on Hollywood licensing deals. By creating their own libraries of critically-acclaimed original programming (Netflix’s “House of Cards” and “Orange is the New Black”; Amazon’s “Betas”) — the OTT services are creating legions of new, loyal consumers, paving the way for a future that may or may not include Hollywood’s premium content licensing deals going forward. Furthermore, the OTT services are attracting A-level talent by offering greater creative autonomy than their micro-managing counterparts at the studios and networks. Do these new programming and streaming options foretell the end of an era in Hollywood or the beginning of a revised set of practices for creators and additional viewing options for binging viewers? Only time will tell. 
Moderator: Andrew Wallenstein, editor-in-chief, digital, Variety
Panelists:
Belisa Balaban, senior vice president, alternative and live programming, Pivot/Participant Media
Jamie Byrne, director, content strategy, YouTube
David Craig, clinical assistant Professor, USC, and producer, Media Nation
Joe Lewis, head of original programming, Amazon Studios

 

1:00-2:00 p.m.: LUNCH BREAK – LUNCH OPTIONS AVAILABLE ON CAMPUS

 

2:00-3:50 p.m.: PANEL 3
Second Screens, Connected Viewing, Crowd-funding and Social Media: Re-imagining Television Consumption
As the television industry has been remapping the flow of media content, as new forms of producers and distributors enter the marketplace, there has also been an accompanying effort to rethink their interface with media audiences. Over the past decade, we’ve seen a renewed emphasis on audience engagement strategies which seek to ensure consumer loyalty and social buzz as a way for individual programs or networks to “break through the clutter” of the multiplying array of media options. New metrics are emerging for measuring the value of engaged viewers and the kinds of social and cultural capital they bring with them when they embrace a program. So, for example, the rise of Black Twitter has been credited with helping to rally support behind new programs with strong black protagonists, such as ABC’s “Scandal,” Fox’s “Sleepy Hollow” and BET’s “Being Mary Jane.”  Second-screen apps are becoming ubiquitous as television producers seek to hold onto the attention of a generation of viewers who are prone to multitasking impulses. The successful “Veronica Mars” Kickstarter campaign opens up the prospect of fans helping to provide funding in support of their favorite stars, creators or series. And the commercial success of “50 Shades of Gray,” which was adapted from a piece of “Twilight” fan fiction, has alerted the publishing world to the previously underappreciated value of women’s fan fiction writing as a recruiting ground for new talent and as a source for new creative material. Yet, for all this focus on engaged audiences, does the industry value some form of viewers and viewership more than others? Which groups are being underrepresented here and why? Are the new economic arrangements between fans and producers fair to all involved?
Moderator: Henry Jenkins, co-director, Transforming Hollywood / provost professor of Communication, Journalism, Cinematic Arts and Education, USC 
Panelists:
Ivan Askwith, lead strategist,Veronica Mars” Kickstarter CampaignVicky L Free, chief marketing officer, BET Networks
Stacey Lynn Schulman, senior vice president, chief research officer, TVB
Nick Loeffler, director of business development, Kindle Worlds
Sharon L. Strover, professor, College of Communication, University of Texas at Austin

 

 

4:00-6:15 p.m.: PANEL 4
Indie TV: Where Creators and Fans Pilot New Shows
The Internet broke the network bottleneck. Through platforms such as YouTube and Vimeo, creators release series directly to fans who follow shows and share them with friends. Web-content creators can write stories in whatever length, style and genre they choose, on their own schedule, and with actors of their choosing. The result is a truly open television ecosystem, where creators, talent and fans work together to realize stories they want to see. Each of the producers on this panel contributes to this new vision of television by producing series for the Internet that are being shaped for traditional TV as well; (several of these web series are being developed for HBO). Issa Rae created “The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl” with a small team and expanded the show using a successful crowdfunding campaign. Rae went on to produce additional series, including Amy Rubin’s “Little Horribles,” which Rubin released via her own Barnacle Studios. In the process, “Little Horribles” has become a hit with fans and with critics at Variety, LA Weekly and Splitsider, among others. Dennis Dortch and Numa Perrier launched the Black & Sexy TV network to showcase indie comedy, releasing their own hit series “The Couple,” and releasing additional series created by other emerging Hollywood talent. Jay Bushman helped “The Lizzie Bennet Diaries” grow into a deeply engaging transmedia phenomenon, which prompted viewers of the Jane Austen-inspired series to follow characters from YouTube to Twitter and Pinterest. Raising tens of thousands of dollars from fans, Adam Goldman created and wrote two critically-acclaimed dramas, “The Outs” and “Whatever this is,” exploring the realities of being insecure in New York City. After showrunner Brad Bell co-created “Husbands” with Jane Espenson, the indie hit caught the eye of CW executives, who used the series to launch their new online network. As these examples convey, the Internet has become an incubator for talented, next-generation web creators and web celebs, who, in combination with fan followers, are reinventing television for the digital age.
Moderator: Aymar Jean Christian, assistant professor, Northwestern University
Panelists:
Brad Bell, co-creator and star, “Husbands”
Jay Bushman, producer and writer, “The Lizzie Bennet Diaries”
Adam Goldman, writer and director, “Whatever this is”
Numa Perrier, co-founder, Black & Sexy
Issa Rae, creator and star, “The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl”
Amy Rubin, creator and star, “Little Horribles”

 

6:30-7:15 p.m. Fandom and the Future of Television

Orlando Jones, Star, Writer, Producer, Sleepy Hollow

with Henry Jenkins

Followed by:

RECEPTION – Lobby of the James Bridges Theater

 

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

For conference Registration, see : https://transforminghollywood5.eventbrite.com

Why Do We Need to “Understand” Fans?: A Conversation with Mark Duffett (Part Four)

There remains a strong emphasis within fan studies on issues of gender and sexuality, not to mention generation, yet there is still relatively limited focus on issues of race. One consequence is that the “whiteness” of fandom is often taken for granted, with very few examples here of the practices associated with fans of color. How might we expand current paradigms of fan studies to deal more fully with race or be more inclusive of diverse kinds of fan tastes and interests?

In the book’s conclusion I mention that there is much more work on fandom and race. There is a danger here, though, that we might essentialize “fans of color” and their practices, creating a kind of academic segregation by default. Instead, there are ways to explore fandom and race that might lead the discussion in fruitful directions.

The first is to explore fandom’s multiple implications within what we might reductively call “the colonial project.” After all, it is a type of blindness not to deal with race within its historical context of colonialism, production and labour. It would be a mistake here to see wider issues of identity and consumption as fully falling outside those concerns. Collecting has always been a means of defining identity. What therefore happened in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, when electronic media became the context within which such practices were defined? Fans operated from within the orientalist ideologies that defined the colonial and postcolonial era. I have not seen very much work like this, but I think it would be interesting to explore the orientalism at play within fans’ collections of ‘exotic’ artefacts or ‘exoticized’ media genres.

A second approach might involve examining the implication of fandom within specific racial or ethnic cultures. Blackface, in its later incarnations, is an obvious example here. Researchers like Eric Lott have made clear that it was a mode of performance primarily organized to define whiteness. It continued in its vestigial forms into many of our own lifetimes. To identify as a fan of blackface was necessarily to implicate oneself in racial terms. Equally, we might explore dimensions of racial ownership around things like the chitlin’ circuit. How did fandom function within on-going histories of race relations, as a way to express ethic or racial identities at particular junctures?

A third way of examining race in the context of fandom is to examine moments when race made a difference within particular fan cultures. How are fans of a particular background treated when they constitute a minority with a particular fan culture? What does that say about perceptions of the object or the ethics of the fan community? Should, for example, one’s status as a ‘black Doctor Who fan’ always be a point of discussion? To what extent are people actively using fan cultures for particular objects as ways to build or deny inter-racial alliances? The recent discussion in the journal Transformative Works about racism in cosplay was instructive there.

Also, to what extent it unproductively generalizing and essentialist to explore why particular ethnic groups claim ownership over certain fan objects, some of which at first appear unconnected with their specific cultures? We can generate hypotheses at least, for example that Morrissey’s Chicano fans connect with his Anglo-Irish status as a white ‘outsider,’ but such theories hold absolutely no weight until they are subjected to thorough empirical assessment.

 

A final direction for the study of race and fandom might be to consider the racial implications of fandoms based around racially controversial objects. For example, how do the fans of the vulgar contemporary blackface performer Shirley Q. Liquor see the racial connotations of their object? This kind of research is a rather thorny area; using unsolicited material might give us some traction.


You suggest that academics writing about fandom often have a very static conception, not doing research on how people become fans or for that matter, how specific fandoms emerge. What do you see as some possible steps towards addressing these questions?

The answer to your query has two possible directions: one for collective communities and the other for personal fan passions.

The emergence of specific communities and fandoms is amenable to historical study. A substantial number of younger researchers still see the online world of the present as the main place to research fandom, but I expect to see more of this historicizing work as fan studies further expands as a field. In consequence, we might then be able to start developing a more elaborate understanding of the history of media fandom itself. To set the ball rolling we need a greater historicization of fandoms specifically as living cultures, communities that go through periods of expansion and decline. There has been some interesting recent work on this, including your piece for Boom about the San Diego Comic-Con.

The question of how people become fans is still something of an elephant in the room for fan studies. There may be some scope there for a project comparing ‘becoming a fan’ stories. As I explain my book, however, serious methodological obstacles await anyone who uses such material to explain the emergence of personal fandom. Longitudinal studies of individual fans – even autobiographic or auto-ethnographic ones – always have a reflexive, ex post facto element. People can keep diaries, but fandom is hard to anticipate. Serial or genre fans who predictably move from one object to the next are already fans in a sense, so their personal stories are not the same as those of new fans.

As new fans progress through the process of initiation, they change their perspective and commitment. Self-reporting afterward is not going to create the same data as might be collected ‘live’ at each stage. Asking individuals who already keep diaries to reveal their contents during phases of first initiation would move the question forward, but such individuals were not primed to talk about things that might help to address theoretical concerns. It is quite a thorny issue, but we need to start addressing it to fully understand fandom.

You write at the end of the book, “a master theory of fandom may never be found, but it remains a worthy goal to understand the phenomenon as a special bundle of processes that interact in contingent ways.” How does this push for a more general theory of fandom relate to the push, elsewhere in the book, for ever more particular accounts of specific kinds of fans and fan practices?

The concern that you raise here is in some ways like squaring a circle, because fan studies has expanded so rapidly as a field. Media technology has continually changed. More researchers have become interested. New fandoms and new ways of pursuing fandom have sprung up. Empirical work on fandom has now rather exploded. Beyond this, Understanding Fandom was deliberately rich in detail because I was disappointed by some other media textbooks: volumes that were well organized but rather low on information.

Because the value of some recent work is yet to be decided by history, the world of textbooks moves a bit slower that the field that they discuss. Although articles are referenced in Understanding Fandom and sometimes discussed quite extensively, I focused quite deliberately on the ‘classic’ texts of fan studies. My hope was to get a balance between theory and empirical detail, especially when particular examples could further illuminate theoretical concerns and point a way forward.

The challenge of creating a textbook is to be able to frame the work that has been done, and – ideally – explain a bit about what is missing or offer some fresh perspectives. One of the things that seemed missing to me from fan studies was much discussion about celebrity-following. I hope that the book begins a dialogue that will encourage us to widen our scope a little further, beyond a focus on fan practices and communities to think more carefully about on fan motivations. Of course, ‘textual’ fans follow auteurs and celebrity actors, so celebrity-following is a practice or set of practices, not a separate set of fandoms, but it is a practice that forces us to think about the “why” of fandom, not just the “how.”

The fascinating thing about media fandom, for me, remains that it affectively unites commercial culture, individual subjectivity and collective empowerment. My aim with Understanding Fandom was to explain it in an ethical way that might connect research on practices with a wider spectrum, if you like, of work on representations, identities and processes.

Mark Duffett is a Senior Lecturer in media and cultural studies at the University of Chester with research interests spanning fandom and popular music culture. As well as publishing Understanding Fandom (Bloomsbury, 2013), he guest edited a recent special edition of the journal Popular Music and Society, and also edited a Routledge book called Popular Music Fandom(2013) which featured chapters by Cornel Sandvoss, Joli Jensen and Matt Hills. In 2010 he organized an International Symposium on music fandom at Chester and was keynote speaker in 2012 at the MARS music conference in Finland. He is currently writing a book on Elvis Presley for the Equinox Press series, Icons of Popular Music, and co-organizing an April 2014 international conference on rock music and love in Montpellier.

 

Why Do We Need to “Understand”Fans?: A Conversation with Mark Duffett (Part Three)

There has been ongoing tension in recent years over researchers who are interested in understanding the personal motivations of individual fans (who may have no strong social connections with other fans) and those who are studying fandom as a specific subcultural community with its own traditions, norms, and hierarchies. How do you negotiate this conflict in writing your account?

With respect, I think that the question begins from a false polarity. It is not so much that we have personal fandom on one side and the fan community on the other. Rather, we share in a conceptual separation of the private and public sphere that was never fully sustained in an age of electronic media and is even harder to discern in the digital era. If we can start to understand that the public constitutes, invades or invalidates the private – and also that versions of the private can exist in public – then I think we can get much further in this discussion.

In relation to fandom, reconsidering the validity of the full distinction means devising and embracing concepts that conjoin or embrace both spheres. Our traditional tools have been limited there. Psychoanalysis and psychology offer quite powerful explanations of individual behavior that often, I think, start to break down when we make collective generalizations. Equally, the transformative works tradition offered a way out of previous intellectual dilemmas, but it did not come with a strong conception of why individual people become fans (except, perhaps, as a kind of communitarian, ethical act).

If we ignore commonly circulating (public) assumptions that audience members take up, in some ways I think that fandom still appears to begin as a ‘private,’ personal interest – a kind of autonomous statement of personal conviction – but it can then become the basis of public collective activity. The question for researchers is how to think in ways that reduce the distinctions between private and public to order to approximate real life.

As a label, fandom broadly began as a way to define groups of people who built their identities around media consumption. Because fandom is, socially, about our passions and declarations of subjective interest, it has become a way to personally express oneself. Unfortunately, it has also become a term of abuse for our shared fascination with the products of commercial culture.

However, I don’t think that all humans are born fans. My humanity is more essential than my fandom, but what does that mean? I’d locate my fandom as a human response to a social and economic system that hijacks, reconfigures and transforms human relationships. What that means is that there’s no need – other than image management – to (re)locate fans as creative, political, active or social; all human beings have those qualities.

Rather than thinking about how we might redeem fandom socially by seeing fans as redeeming texts, I’d rather locate fandom as a set of human, social relationships emergent in an industrialized era of electronic mediation: an era where we electronic traces of others can prompt our emotional experiences. From that perspective, fandom is a form of human chemistry pursued within a context where it inevitably gets alienated, amplified and shaped or directed.

There is a danger that in talking about ‘human chemistry’ we are liable to essentialize arbitrarily posited needs. However, I think there are some absolute basics that we can talk about, like the idea that generally we like company and want to feel socially-valued as people, or that we appreciate great creativity. These are universal needs that happen to be expressed within fandom.

I’d therefore see the genesis of fandom – sympathetically – as an ideological process. Rather than suggesting that fandom is something that begins completely in private, it is important to remember that we all carry notions of the audience as a collective entity. When we watch someone on screen, we know that others are watching them too. In the case of live studio audiences, we can see actually them, but they are always implicitly there.

Unlike some of my colleagues, I don’t think that the Internet age has fully ended this kind of collectivization; by lowering the barriers of entry to public debate it may have allowed many of us find a low level of celebrity, but it has also created important new indices of mass popularity (YouTube hits, Twitter followers, etc). As a personally recognized, individual conviction, fandom begins within this context of our individual understanding of the wider audience. So, even if we consume and become fans in private, we are always in the matrix of something much more communal.

Indeed, when we are convinced by a performance, we are likely to know that others are convinced too. We recognize our connection with a dedicated fraction of the audience and locate ourselves as part of “the fandom” or “the fanbase.” This means, conceptually, that we don’t fully begin in private and go public. Instead, we always have assumptions about the public and our relationship to it.

Beyond thinking carefully about our prior understanding of audiencehood and concurrent notions of the fanbase, there are several other ways that I attempt to conceptualize that unified private-public fannish self in the book. One is the notion of a “knowing field,” which I’d locate as a kind of phenomenology of participation in the fanbase. This idea posits fannish conviction as a shared inner territory of emotional certainty: suggesting “knowing” almost in the carnal or mystical sense, rather than simply holding a stock of appropriate knowledge.

The “knowing field” becomes something that, as fans, we enter and/or move across, which I suppose makes it quite similar to Cornel Sandvoss’s notion of Heimat, the difference being that Sandvoss understands Heimat more through its linkage to personal safety or self-esteem. The idea of “knowing field” is more about conviction and does not posit psychological foundations, at least in the same way. You have sometimes located fandom as a kind of equivalent to sexual identity: inner, perhaps essentially felt, based on desire. I’d also see it, perhaps, as a bit like patriotism: a recognition of emotional commitment to something that we also know is shared with others.

A second bridging idea is to think about Durkheim’s notion of totemism: although not all fandom is the same or a secular substitute for religion, I do think that Durkheim’s notion of totemism can explain quite a lot about fannish motivations in relation to the the power associated with celebrities. Totems are foci of collective attention who gesturally return the energy of collective attention back to their individual followers through personal one to one transactions. The idea says quite a lot about notions of fame and human aura. It makes some sense to say that celebrity-following fandoms are an extension of totemism as a human process of attachment organized in a media age.

Another bridging concept I introduce in the book is the idea that we share “imagined memories” to describe socially prized moments of performance. Each imagined memory is based on a thing you wished you had experienced, but never did, like, say, being at Woodstock. It is not exactly a fantasy, because it really did happen to someone else. However, it is not your memory either, because it happened to someone else. By valorization in the media and more precisely in the narrative of history, it is therefore a kind of fantasy that authenticates itself as something like a memory.

The term points to the paucity of phrases like ‘cultural memory’ in describing the mediated past: for a few people these memories are real enough (although, even for them, the memories have been inflected by the subsequent story of the event). Imagined memories only matter because of what came after them and are therefore spaces of emotional investment that are necessarily contradictory. In a sense, then, they are commodity templates: they are both made to matter by stories and characterized by their own rarity value (not everyone has the ‘real’ memory). This is precisely why they become starting points for further commodities (media documentaries, heritage tourism, anniversaries, re-enactments, etc).

Each of those concepts – the “knowing field,” totemism, imagined memories – is deliberately partial and open enough to account for variety; each has its share of flaws, but does attempt to get beyond an artificially separated public and private sphere and to chart a course between personal and collective fandom. They attempt to talk about power, affect and communality without recourse to the usual generalizations.

Throughout, there’s an emphasis on exploring fandom as a “performed” identity rather than as a natural or essential one. What do we gain by this focus? What are some of the ways and contexts through which fan identity gets performed?

I do question essentialism in the book, but I’m not sure that I entirely replace it with performance. Personal fandom is, in my view, something that is neither essential nor, exactly, performed: it is not at the root of one’s very being, but it does begin as something internal.

When I talk about fannish subjectivity, I tend to locate its origin in a form of self-recognition (a kind of “I realized I was a fan…”): an inner recognition of connection and subjective fit rather than an outer attempt to persuade anyone else. However, I know that performative elements come into play once we start to look at social communications. I am therefore partly reporting on what existing writers like Matt Hills have said – performance, after all, is something that shows fans are active.

Beyond that explanation, I also think that we could do with more bridging concepts. The term “performers” is used quite a lot in the book to allow me to keep the register open and not narrow down to specifically speak about fan objects as “actors” or “singers.” Performance is, nevertheless, a powerful perspective precisely because it has the potential to easily make connections between our existing repertoire of ideas.

If used it with understanding, it allows us to begin mediating between issues of textuality, spectacle, identity, communication, empirical situatedness, temporality and history, creativity, agency, style and affect – all of which are relevant, I think, to discussing fandom. How can one discuss cosplay, for instance, without talking about performance?

One of the issues here, though, is that performance studies research has been seen as a separate scholarly tradition emerging from theatre studies and slowly integrating itself with cultural studies approaches. Scholars like Phil Auslander are beginning to integrate that tradition with the study of media cultures.

 Mark Duffett is a Senior Lecturer in media and cultural studies at the University of Chester with research interests spanning fandom and popular music culture. As well as publishing Understanding Fandom (Bloomsbury, 2013), he guest edited a recent special edition of the journal Popular Music and Society, and also edited a Routledge book called Popular Music Fandom(2013) which featured chapters by Cornel Sandvoss, Joli Jensen and Matt Hills. In 2010 he organized an International Symposium on music fandom at Chester and was keynote speaker in 2012 at the MARS music conference in Finland. He is currently writing a book on Elvis Presley for the Equinox Press series, Icons of Popular Music, and co-organizing an April 2014 international conference on rock music and love in Montpellier.

Why Do We Need to “Understand” Fans?: A Conversation with Mark Duffett (Part Two)

You argue here that anti-fandom is not necessarily always a totally outsider or oppositional perspective, that under some circumstances, the industry or individual performers actively “invite” the anti-fan response. At first glance, this may seem counter-intuitive since the industry clearly hopes to attract the largest number of consumers. So, what are some of the reasons why producers might court or encourage anti-fan responses?

The idea that the industry hopes to attract the largest number of consumers assumes a monolithic entity (the media industry) with one market place and one audience, ignoring notions of consumer targeting or niche marketing.

This is one of the areas where popular music studies might productively contribute. I cite Bob Dylan as a clear example of invited anti-fandom in the book. Courting controversy has been both a catalyst for publicity and a form of audience segmentation, particularly in rock. Controversies have expressed social change at certain points in time and have also been a familiar part of the production process. From around 1956 to 1976, some of the most commercially successful music was based on the idea of a generation gap that articulated, at its mildest, a kind of autonomy and permissiveness, and at its extreme represented a push towards obscenity. Allusions to sexual debauchery became a genre convention in rock and the knowing evocation of moral opposition was characteristic of whole subgenres – notably punk. Individual artists, from Jim Morrison and GG Allin to the Dayglo Abortions, continually at pushed the boundaries, sometimes without any other recognizable cultural project.

In his foreword to Understanding Fandom, Matt Hills seems to suggest that the process might be unique to popular music, but I am not so sure. Certain forms of exploitation or art cinema purposely push at boundaries and violate concerns, like Christianity, that groups in society hold dear. It’s clear that Srdjan Spasojevic’s movie A Serbian Film (2010), for instance, was designed to shock and provoke offence.

Perhaps what we need to think about the relationship between invited anti-fandom and different industrial regimes. One point here is that products that seem to deliberately evoke anti-fandom regularly go on to become ‘cult’ phenomena. Another is that parent corporations can treat them at arm’s length, signing independent producers to distribution-only deals so that they can skim profit but avoid the risk.

I don’t, therefore, fully see anti-fans as a kind of free-floating audience; perhaps they too can be ‘courted’ by the industry as a marketing strategy. Perhaps we can even talk about ‘anti-fanagement.’

You argue, at places here, that academics miss some of the picture when they define fans in relation to political ideologies or corporate interests, suggesting that fans are never simply compliant or oppositional, but rather fans are “relatively indifferent” to the industry. Explain.


Fans use economic mechanisms for cultural purposes, while media industries use culture for economic ends. Both parties interact and are, to some extent, merged. They each, however, have distinct priorities. Fans are inspired by media products, but their concerns and practices cannot – as the Fiskean tradition demonstrated – be reduced to industrial planning.

The words I use quite a lot to talk about fans and their concerns in relation to the media industries are “tangential” and “collusive.” By this I mean that fans can be relatively indifferent, co-operative or oppositional, depending on which fan culture we decide to examine and when we decide to examine it.

While I have no doubt that fans can act collectively as ethical communities, I also think that is a danger that we tend to forget the “business as usual” aspect of fandom – that television fans were, for instance, generally more interested in watching the final episode of Breaking Bad than contesting High Bridge / Sony Pictures. This does not mean that they were pawns in someone else’s game who bought into hype. It means they felt that the show spoke to them, they enjoyed it, and they were engaged by its narrative. They became fascinated and dedicated.

As I think you noted in Textual Poachers, such fans may well “rescue” a series after the network stops broadcasting it – although, of course, networks themselves now often help to facilitate that. So maybe there is a kind of goal towards which fans are heading that can be further facilitated, either by agents in the industry or those outside it.

I think, though, that because our academic traditions work to ignore or reject a focus on the enjoyment of commercial culture, we are in danger of forgetting that win-win situations are part of this spectrum of relationships. Rather than searching for the dramatic moments where fans contest media producers, to understand fandom it seemed a greater challenge to me to start providing non-generalizing, non-reductionist frameworks within which we might explain why fans are sometimes complicit in doing what they do.

I should add, however, that “business as usual” is not static and also includes fans organizing into communities, creating different factions, and acting collectively. I do not necessarily see it as a term that excludes group ethics or politics, but rather one that encompasses ordinary activities and motivations.

Mark Duffett is a Senior Lecturer in media and cultural studies at the University of Chester with research interests spanning fandom and popular music culture. As well as publishing Understanding Fandom (Bloomsbury, 2013), he guest edited a recent special edition of the journal Popular Music and Society, and also edited a Routledge book called Popular Music Fandom(2013) which featured chapters by Cornel Sandvoss, Joli Jensen and Matt Hills. In 2010 he organized an International Symposium on music fandom at Chester and was keynote speaker in 2012 at the MARS music conference in Finland. He is currently writing a book on Elvis Presley for the Equinox Press series, Icons of Popular Music, and co-organizing an April 2014 international conference on rock music and love in Montpellier.

Why Do We Need to “Understand” Fans?: A Conversation with Mark Duffett (Part One)

When I visited England two years ago, as part of my grand European tour, I was struck that there was a new generation of British cultural and media scholars, often the offspring of old friends such as Roberta Pearson, Will Brooker, Matt Hills, Nickianne Moody, Mark Jancovich,  Peter Kramer, and others, who were turning their attention to the study of fans and media audiences. Most of them are not yet well known on this side of the Atlantic, but they are posed to leave their marks, and they are voices we are going to be hearing more from in the years to come.

Mark Duffett was one of the many young scholars I met on this trip, and he’s recently published a significant new book, Understanding Fandom, which is intended as a textbook for fan studies classes. I am using it as one of the core texts for my own graduate seminar this term on fandom, participatory culture, and web 2.0. Duffett sets out to provide a critical overview of some of the core texts which have helped to define the study of fandom; as one of the writers he discusses at some length, I felt that he was asking hard questions about how this work has withstood the tests of time and the challenges of next generation scholarship but he approached them with fairness, nuance, and much greater attention to detail than most other writers bring to this subject. I did not always agree with what he had to say about some of the key issues in the field, but I was glad he was pushing the discussion to the next level, and I am eager to see how others in the field react to his formulations.

Beyond summing up what has already been done, though, he points us in some new directions — as Matt Hills suggests in his introduction to the book — and that’s where I’ve chosen to focus my attention in this interview. I learned a lot from reading his account, especially because he is not necessarily beholding to some of the false distinctions which have held our work hostage for so long. He offers a great illustration, for example, of how ideas drawn from the study of music and celebrity fans might be brought into active conversation with works that deal with cult television and transformative works, and I think what he has to say here about the divide between Fan Studies and Fandom Studies (which has often been both gendered and geographically and disciplinarily rooted) may offer some interesting directions forward for the field.

Mark’s publisher has been nice enough to offer us a free preview of the book.

There are sure to be debates sparked around some of the book’s findings, but this is a book that we all need to engage with as we think through the current state and future direction of fan studies. I know we will be hearing more from Mark and from his contemporaries amongst British fan scholars.

You spend a good chunk of time across the book nuancing and negating some of the negative stereotypes about fans that have concerned fan scholars from the beginnings of this field – among them, the idea of fandom as a religion or the fan as stalker. What justifies the continued emphasis on these negative constructions of fandom, given how much progress has been made within academia in constructing alternative understandings of some of these same phenomenon?

The short answer to that is that entry level students (as opposed to fan studies course graduates) still have to unlearn the stereotypes. Understanding Fandom was commissioned as a textbook, but I hope it’s also a critical discussion of the history of the field. I wanted it to be something that I could pass across to a competent student and say, “Here is what I know about the study of media fandom.” In my fandom seminar class every year I used to ask students to do some initial word association on the term “fan” just to see what was already in their heads. The same words and phrases repeatedly came up – things like “geek,” “cult,” “stalking” and “hysteria.”

Unfortunately, society has not fully given up on depressingly familiar ideas that equate fandom with obsession, extremity and emotional excess. In its six year life span, for instance, Chris Croker’s ‘Leave Britney Alone’ video has had 47 million hits on YouTube. Although the contemporary film and television producers tend to court avid fans as a market place, approaches to marginalized fandoms in the tabloid press have not changed a great deal. Even in the Internet era, they still influence popular understanding.

Judging by Facebook hate pages and other indications, modes of stereotyping that have traditionally been articulated against media fandom as a whole are now being used by specific fan cultures to marginalize those in other fandoms. Unfortunately, too, some of the less nuanced discussion of the academic material is also falling into a trap. Introducing the recent Radio 4 documentary Fan Power in November 2013, for instance, one presenter explained:”This program is about fans or fandoms, and whether being a fan is different now from how it used to be, and whether fandoms can be mobilized for political or social change. It’s not so much about Beliebers and Directioners and their crazy rivalries, but about what happens when fandoms turn their attention away from their idol to the real outside world.”

The introduction recalls the history of debate on media fandom by using a set of binaries: old (implicitly naive or consumerist) and new (savvy and activist) fan cultures, ‘crazy’ pop fanaticism and serious, mobilized fandom, distracted idol worship and the “real outside world.” The documentary’s introduction mirrors a tendency in fan studies, I think, to separate ‘worthy’ aspects (film and TV cult fandom, cultural productivity, text-based and literary interests, real world political activism) from unworthy ones: celebrity following, pop music, distraction, obsession, consumption… The logical extension here is that “outside world” politics matters and fandom is interesting only as its tool.

In the book I distinguished media fandom research – in its broadest sense – from fan studies. Research about fandom exists well beyond cultural studies and not all scholars are sympathetic with the Fiskean conception of fandom. Psychologists like Lynn McCutcheon have hypothesized connections between media fandom, “celebrity worship” and intellectual under-achievement. A student wishing to explore “extreme” fandom might come upon some of this less sympathetic material. I wanted to think about its ideological work from a cultural studies perspective.

I often go back to your discussion at the start of Textual Poachers to expose the stereotypes, but I think that addressing the stereotyping of fandom is something that is too important to only do once. We need to keep addressing the stereotypes, because if we don’t, in unexpected ways they will come back to bite us. To those students unfamiliar with 1990s cultural studies scholarship, the relative lack of recent work on fan stereotypes might seem to imply a critical silence. Perhaps we should consider addressing such estimations of fandom as a continual process.

 

You use the phrase, “media fandom,” in the book’s title. For you, this term includes fans of performers and celebrities, as well as fans of fictional texts. Indeed, some of the best contributions here come when you juxtapose work that has been done on what are often seen as radically different kinds of fans and find points of commonality between them. What do you think academics writing about fans of popular music, say, and academics writing about fans of “telefantasy” have to learn from each other? Why do you think these topics have been seen as separate for so long?

I will address your second question first, because it is a little easier to answer…

Perhaps we have also been concerned that different kinds of fan have been associated with each media form. I am reminded here of my colleague Phil Tagg’s claim that colleagues can be charged with ‘driving a disciplinary vehicle without a license’ if they dabble in a different field. Ironically, media studies and cultural studies have long offered a number of bridging concepts – consumption, genre, style, textuality, performance, affect – but these often seemed to contextualize fandom rather than fully explain it.

The separation of topics has partly been a matter of disciplinary specialisation. Television studies was relatively dominant in the cultural studies discussion about fandom. Many scholars in that area saw no need to look outside their own field. Popular music studies, on the other hand, rarely ventured to explore dedicated music audiences at all (specifically as fans), and either tended to focus either on texts (musicology) or sociological contexts (subcultural studies, scenes). It was not until the late 1990s that scholars like Dan Cavicchi started to explore music fandom. Fan studies did not have such a wide interdisciplinary reputation back then.

The way that fan studies focused on its object has gradually extended its reputation beyond television studies. In light of this there has been more ‘cross town traffic’: pop studies writers like myself picking up or working within the fan studies paradigm, and fan studies scholars – like Matt Hills and Cornel Sandvoss – refusing to draw narrow lines around the type of media fandom that they will investigate. I don’t actually think that the latest generation of researchers is as aware of those older distinctions, because fan studies has now begun to form its own vibrant and rapidly expanding research field.

To address the question of what researchers of different fan objects have to learn from each other…

Telefantasy research developed fan studies as a means to pay attention to fan activity, in the transformative works sense, and could therefore disrupt notions of “the pop fan” as one atom of a seduced mass. The problem for popular music research before the Internet was that in the public sphere fans were most visible in spaces associated with consumption and the mass audience: record shops, live concerts. Rock fans were respected, but the idea of pop traditionally linked music fandom to a feminized mainstream. Attention to your work has encouraged music researchers to think carefully about ethical dimensions when studying fandom and has offered us a framework within which to examine fan practices.

There is a textual focus in much of the television studies work. So I hope what some of the research on popular music fandom can offer telefantasy scholars in return is a focus on certain kinds of fandom as cultural fields organized around celebrity and affect. Popular music research always had to contend, in some ways, I think, with a disappearing object: relatively ephemeral, immaterial nature of emotionally engaging music. That was true at the level of the text itself – music’s meanings not being quite amenable to the usual modes of linguistic or representational analysis.

Yes, some music fans have textual objects (the song, the album, the genre), but there are many others who have become fascinated with a particular individual or group (the star, the band); in some senses the distinction itself is debatable because musical texts and their makers have inevitably become confused, raising questions of authorship and authenticity.

Celebrity-following is not unique to popular music, but rather popular music has often become associated with celebrity-following in the public sphere. Consequently, things that have sometimes been marginalized in the discussion of textual fandom, are right on the surface in popular music and require attention.

Take Lynn Zubernis and Katherine Larsen’s (2012) recent book on Supernatural fandom, for example. Precisely because they are exploring the interests of sections of the Supernatural fan community, Zubernis and Larsen focus as much or more on the consequences of female fans’ lustful identifications with the show’s lead actors as they do on show itself.

Their work reminds me of Susan Fast’s (2001) discussion of the way in which female fans perceived the lead singer of Led Zeppelin as an erotic object, or more recent work on boy band audiences. The commodification of romantic allure and sex appeal is a common theme across very different media forms. An interchange between different fields of fan research might help us better understand similar places that, in many ways, form common empirical ground.

In a wider sense, I think that we may be able to productively destabilize assumptions that come from our respective ‘home’ disciplines. This friendly destabilization could take the form of recognizing commonalities in fandom itself as a shared object. On one level, diverse fandoms operate within common social contexts and are have sometimes been marginalized in similar ways. Very different fandoms have been associated with, for example, the public performance of emotion and conviction.

On another level, different fandoms share common discourses and practices. Fans of very different objects can behave in surprisingly similar ways. Traditionally the similarities included things like collecting, canonization, displaying commitment and creating fanzines.

The realm of digital media offered a new context of convergence within which previously unrelated fandoms have shared common platforms and approaches: forums, fanfic writing, spoiling, video uploading, mash-ups, activism, nostalgia / archiving / heritage. Perhaps we should not be thinking in terms of media forms (say, TV serial or pop fandom) but in terms of different clusters of cultural capital: people liking similar cultural fields like, say, horror cinema and heavy metal.

Matt Hill’s notion of ‘inter-fandom’ is interesting in that respect. His concept is not about one kind of fandom, or even recognizing something common to different types, but instead about asking how – as media fans – we move between associated cultural fields to our efforts to display particular forms of cultural capital.

 Mark Duffett is a Senior Lecturer in media and cultural studies at the University of Chester with research interests spanning fandom and popular music culture. As well as publishing Understanding Fandom (Bloomsbury, 2013), he guest edited a recent special edition of the journal Popular Music and Society, and also edited a Routledge book called Popular Music Fandom(2013) which featured chapters by Cornel Sandvoss, Joli Jensen and Matt Hills. In 2010 he organized an International Symposium on music fandom at Chester and was keynote speaker in 2012 at the MARS music conference in Finland. He is currently writing a book on Elvis Presley for the Equinox Press series, Icons of Popular Music, and co-organizing an April 2014 international conference on rock music and love in Montpellier.

Deciphering Black Masculinities: An Interview with Mark Anthony Neal (Part One)

This is another in a series of interviews with the authors of books published as part of the Post-Millenial Pop book series which I edit with Karen Tongson for New York University Press.

Mark Anthony Neal’s weekly webcast, Left of Black, produced by Duke University’s John Hope Franklin Center of International and Interdisciplinary Studies,  is a powerful example of the roles academics can play as public intellectuals, brokering important conversations  the culture needs to be having, highlighting key scholarly and cultural works that deserve greater attention than they are apt to receive from mainstream media, and asking the most urgent questions his regular fans want answered about race as embodied by both lived experience and contemporary popular culture. Among topics recently addressed on the series include the thirty year history of the Urban Bush Women dance troupe, the story behind “We Shall Overcome” and other anthems of the civil rights era, the role of black barbers and barbershops in constructing the black public sphere, and parenting in a “post-racial” America.

Neal brings his diverse knowledge and interests to bear on various performances of black masculinity in his newest book, Looking for Leroy. Here, he argues that many constructions of black male identity in American culture are far too “legible”, reproducing the same lethal stereotypes where black male bodies are rendered as criminal, needing to be subjected to police authority and containment. Yet, he’s interested in the ways that some performers construct personas which are less legible, which challenge our expectations and force us to think differently about identity politics. The book ranges from Jay-Z and R. Kelly to Barack Obama, with stops along the way to talk about The Wire, Star Trek, Fame, and the Oscars. The writing throughout is direct, engaging, witty, and broadly accessible, which helps to explain why his work is attracting readers and listeners far beyond the university book store circuit. At the same time, he is the master of close reading, offering interpretations that are nuanced in their attention to detail and yet encompassing in their ability to link the specifics of individual performances into larger career trajectories and into their political contexts.

Neal is one of the busiest people in the field of cultural studies today, so I am grateful that he could spare some time to address my questions.

Let’s talk about your title, “Looking for Leroy.” Can you share with us what it was about the figure of Leroy in Fame which inspired this particular path through black masculinities? In what sense are characters like Leroy “illegible” figures  when compared to more stereotypical representations of black masculinity?

 

My connection to Gene Anthony Ray’s character “Leroy” from the movie and series Fame was personal.  The series debuted just as I was developing a sense of who I was as a young man (I had just turned 16 at the time) and as the primary Black male character on the show I had a natural affinity for him.  Yet it was clear, at least to me, that the character or perhaps Ray were gay—this in an era when there were only a handful of gay characters on network television.  As a 16-Black kid from the Bronx, who was regularly “queered” because of my choice of clothing and the way I spoke—which was read amongst some of my Black male peers as both too soft and also too White (this was the era of the Preppie)—something about Leroy always resonated to me.  It was fitting that he would be one of the primary inspirations for the book and my own grappling with illegibility.

 

Given the harsh realities confronting many black men in this country, why should we be concerned with popular representations of black masculinities? In other words, what relationship are you positing between the constraints experienced by black men and the cultural construction of black masculinity?

As someone whose academic training is in Cultural Studies, I’m always concerned about whether my work addresses (in any way) the real crises being faced by young Black men in particularly.  Whether we’re looking at sports, the criminal justice system or even national politics, it’s clear that so many perceptions of Black masculinity are framed by media depictions of Black men and boys.  Hoping my work is but one intervention, poised to acknowledge the range of Black masculinities and also deconstructing (on some level) the most visible images of Black masculinity.  I think there is real connection between the limited view of Black masculinity available in US media and the limitations placed on Black men and boys in their everyday lives.

 

What motivated the choice of these particular case studies? What do these performers and characters, individually and collectively, help us to see about popular representations of black masculinity?

Virtually all the choices I make in the book with regard to case studies, represent figures that I had some personal affinity to. In the case of “Leroy” or Avery Brooks, they really were figures that impacted how I viewed Black masculinity as a younger man.  It was that affinity to Brooks’ “Hawk” that made Idris Elba’s “Stringer Bell” legible to me.  In the case of Luther Vandross and Jay Z, as a fan who had consumed so much of their art, they allowed the opportunity to do the kind of close readings that I wanted to do.  And admittedly, there are any number of other figures I wanted to bring into the mix—Kanye West, Erik LaSalle’s character on ER (though that will show up in a later project), Rob Brown 16-year-old character in Finding Forrester, and a whole host of “Queer” Soul and Gospel (which will also show up in another project)—but I’d still be working on the book, LOL.  What I hope I have presented is just an opening, for more work to be done, in terms of thinking about the publicness of Black masculinity.  In that regard looking forward to new books from Jeffrey McCune and C. Riley Snorton.

 

 Mark Anthony Neal is Professor of African and African American Studies at Duke University. He is the author of five books, What the Music Said: Black Popular Music and Black Public Culture (1998), Soul Babies: Black Popular Culture and the Post-Soul Aesthetic (2002), Songs in the Keys of Black Life: A Rhythm and Blues Nation (2003), New Black Man: Rethinking Black Masculinity (2005) and most recently, Looking for Leroy: Illegible Black Masculinities (2013).  He is the host of the weekly webcast Left of Black.

A Meme Is a Terrible Thing to Waste: An Interview with Limor Shifman (Part Two)

What motivates people to participate in a memetic culture, either in terms of generating new meme content or simply passing along content that has been framed in terms of a meme?

With regards to generating new content, I believe that three main types of motivation are at play—economic, social and cultural. The economic logic behind meme creation relates to the attention economy governing contemporary societies. In short, it claims that the most valuable resource in the information era is not information but the attention people pay to it. Creating memes seems to work well in this kind of economy: an emulation of a famous video may get attention because it will appear in YouTube’s suggestions bar or pop up as a highly relevant search result when one is looking for the original video. The second, social logic of meme creation can be related to what Barry Wellman and others describe as “networked individualism.” On the one hand, by uploading a self-made video or a Photoshopped image people are able to express their individuality: they signify that they are digitally literate, unique, and creative. On the other hand, the text that they upload often relates to a common, widely shared memetic video, image, or formula. Through this referencing, people simultaneously construct their individuality and their affiliation with a larger community. Finally, the cultural logic of meme creation suggests that it actually represents the continuation of norms that are rooted in the history of pop culture genres and fan cultures, as you discuss extensively in “Textual Poachers” and subsequent works.

I think that the second logic – the social one – is also extremely important when passing along content that has been framed as a “meme”. Spreading a meme signifies that someone is “in the know”, thus reflecting positively upon her personality and (often) perceived sense of humor. 

While there is a tendency to think of the content of memes as trivial or playful, there have also been some powerful examples where memes were used in the service of political speech — Pepperspray Cop and Binders of Women come to mind as examples from your book. Often, the same meme may blur the lines between entertainment and critical commentary.  In my essay, “Photoshop for Democracy,” I argued that such remixes might function as the people’s editorial cartoons, offering vivid and memorable representations of complex issues which broaden the language through which we discuss politics. Is this a legitimate description of what you’ve observed in terms of looking at memes as a form of political participation? Are there risks involved in the simplification of ideas required to produce an effective meme?

Your argument about remixes as the people’s editorial cartoons is absolutely pertinent to the ways memes function as forms of political participation. The main new element that has been added in recent years, with the labeling of many of these Photoshopped images as “memes”, relates to our previous discussion about meme genres. The tendency to create memes in particular formats turns memes into powerful bridges between the personal and the political: people express their personal opinions while consciously joining larger pleas or patterns. A striking example of this quality is the “We are the 99 Percent” meme. Born out of the Occupy Wall Street movement, it featured an individual holding a handwritten text depicting his or her gloomy story, leading to the shared motto, “I am the 99 percent.” This combination of repetition and variation conveyed the message that people’s miseries are not just personal problems: they stem from systemic economic and political illnesses.

As to your second question about risks—I believe that simplification is indeed a problem, yet what worries me more is the depoliticization of many memes, which come into the world as pointed political commentaries yet at some point turn into fluffy balls of amusement. For instance, alongside the political versions of the Pepper Spray Cop meme (featuring, for instance, officer Pike pepper-spraying iconic American symbols such as George Washington crossing the Delaware or the Constitution itself), other versions presented him spraying figures who are perceived as annoying, such as Keyboard Cat or Rebecca Black. In such instances, the original meaning of the meme as critical of Pike would appear to be reversed.

You make a distinction between virals and memes in the book. Explain. Why do you think these terms are so often conflated in popular discourse on the internet?

 The main feature that separates memes from virals, in my view, relates to variability:

while the viral mostly comprises a single cultural unit that propagates in many copies,  an internet meme is always a collection of texts. Therefore, a video such as “Leave Britney Alone” can be depicted as a viral video that spawned user-generated engagement and thus became part of an internet meme. Even so, this example shows that the border between memes and virals is fuzzy: Indeed, many memes started out as viral photos or videos.  This fuzziness is perhaps the reason for the constant conflation between the terms and the tendency among many people to use them interchangeably.  But I still think that even if the borderline is murky this differentiation is important: the simple act of “forwarding” or “sharing” is not the same as more creative modes of engagement with content. Moreover, the motivations associated with these two forms are not the same: the factors that lead us to share content are not the same as those that lead us to recreate or remix it.  In the book I chart some of these motivational differences, but I believe that much more work should be invested in this direction.

Limor Shifman is a Senior Lectureer at the Department of Communication and Journalism, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.  She is the author of Memes in Digital Culture (MIT Press, 2013) and Televised Humor and Social Cleavages in Israel (Magness Press, 2008 [in Hebrew]). Her work focuses on the intertwining of three fields: communication technologies, popular culture and the social construction of humor. Shifman’s journal articles explore phenomena such as internet-based humor about gender, politics and ethnicity; jokes and user-generated globalization; and memetic YouTube videos.

 

A Meme is a Terrible Thing to Waste: An Interview with Limor Shifman (Part One)

I have to be honest that the concept of meme is one which sets my teeth on edge. Sam Ford, Joshua Green and I spent a fair chunk of time in our book, Spreadable Media: Creating Meaning and Value in a Networked Culture, seeking to deconstruct the concept of “viral media” which has become such a common metaphor for thinking about how things circulate in digital culture, and along the way, we side-swipe Richard Dawkins’ conception of the meme for many of the same reasons. Sorry, Mr. Dawkins, but I don’t buy the concept of culture as “self-replicating”: such a concepts feels far too deterministic to me, stripping aside the role of agency at a time when the public is exerting much greater control of the content which spreads across the culture than ever before.

So, when I first met Limor Shifman at a conference held last summer by the London School of Economics, she knew I would be a hard sell in terms of the ideas being presented in her new MIT Press book, Memes in Digital Culture, but by the time our first conversation was over, she had largely disarmed my objections. She’s done her homework, reviewing previous claims which have been made about memes, and reframing the concept to better reflect the practices that have fascinated many of us about how contemporary digital culture operates.

Her approach is direct, deceptively simple, but surprisingly subtle and nuanced: she recognizes that people are making active and critical choices about what content to pass along to others in their networks, but she also recognizes that they are making tactical decisions about how to design content in order to increase the likelyhood it will circulate beyond their immediate circles. She represents the new generation of digital scholars, who came of age with the net, and have largely absorbed (and thought through) some of the core assumptions shaping its many subcultural communities and their practices.

A part of me remains skeptical that given its historic roots, the term, meme, can be redefined as fully as Shifman wants to do — or more accurately, as she claims has happened organically as 4 Chan and other net communities have applied it to their own cultural productions. Yet,  I found much of what she wrote in her book convincing and think that this project adds much needed clarity to the conversations around memes, viral media, spreadable media, call it what you wish. If nothing else, her book provides an essential introduction to the ways genres operate in a more participatory culture.

I welcomed the chance to talk through some of these issues with her as part of this interview for my blog.

Let’s start with something basic. :-) How are you defining meme within the context of this book? How does your use of the term differ from the original conception of meme proposed by Richard Dawkins and his followers?

Basic question, complex answer… There is clearly a gap between the meme concept as it was defined by Richard Dawkins back in the 1970s and the term meme as it is used in the context of digital culture.  My aim in this book is not to redefine the meme concept in its general sense, but to suggest a definition for the emergent phenomenon of internet memes. In other words, I limit myself to discussing memes in the digital world. I suggest defining an internet meme as (a) a group of digital items sharing common characteristics of content, form, and/or stance; (b) that were created with awareness of each other; and (c) were circulated, imitated, and transformed via the internet by multiple users. So, for instance, I would treat the numerous versions of “Harlem Shake” as manifestations of one, particularly successful, internet meme. It is important to note that this definition does not equate internet memes with jokes – While many memes are indeed humorous, some of them (such as the “It Gets Better” campaign) are deadly serious.

This definition departs from Dawkins’ conception in at least one fundamental way: Instead of depicting the meme as a single cultural unit that has propagated well, I treat memes as groups of content units. My shift from a singular to a plural account of memes derives from the new ways in which they are experienced in the digital age. If in the past individuals were exposed to one meme version at a given time (for instance, heard one version of a joke in a party), nowadays it takes only a couple of mouse clicks to see hundreds of versions of any meme imaginable  (try, “Heads in Freezers”, for instance J ). Thus, memes are now present in the public sphere not as sporadic entities but as enormous groups of texts and images.

 

If you are going to change Dawkins’ original formulation so dramatically, what is the continued use value of the concept?

The first answer to this question is that the term meme is a great meme. While widely disputed in academia, the concept has been enthusiastically picked up by internet users. It is flagged on a daily basis by numerous people, who describe what they do on the internet as creating, spreading or sharing “memes”.

But there is also a deeper rationale for using this term. I think that internet users are on to something. There is a fundamental compatibility between the term “meme”, as Dawkins formulated it, and the way contemporary participatory culture works. I describe this compatibility as incorporating three dimensions.

First, memes can be described as cultural information that passes along from person to person, yet gradually scales into a shared social phenomenon. This attribute is highly congruent with the workings of contemporary participatory culture. Platforms such as YouTube, Twitter or Facebook are based on content that is spread by individuals through their social networks and may scale up to mass levels within hours.  Moreover – the basic act of “sharing” information (or spreading memes) has become – as Nicholas John suggests in recent articles – a fundamental part of what participants experience as the digital sphere.

Second, memes reproduce by various means of repackaging or imitation: people become aware of memes, process them, and then “repackage” them in order to pass them along to others. While repackaging is not absolutely necessary on the internet (people can spread content as is), a quick look around reveals that people do choose to create their own versions of internet memes, and in startling volumes. People repackage either through mimicry (the recreation of a specific text by other people), or remix (technology-based manipulations of content, such as Photoshopping).

Finally, memes diffuse through competition and selection.  While processes of cultural selection are ancient, digital media allow us to trace the spread and evolution of memes in unprecedented ways. Moreover, meta-information about processes of competition and selection (for instance “like” or “view count” numbers)  is increasingly becoming a visible and influential part of the process itself: People take it into consideration before they decide to remake a video or Photoshop a political photo. In short, while the meme concept is far from perfect, it encapsulates some fundamental aspects of digital culture, and as such, I find it of great value.

In Spreadable Media, we make an argument against viral media — and by extension, some hard versions of meme theory — for their reliance on ideas of “self-replicating culture” which strip aside the collective and individual agency involved in generating and circulating memes. What roles does cultural agency play in your analysis of memes?

I could not agree more with the assertion underpinning your question. In my opinion, the problem is not with the meme concept itself, but with some of the ways in which it has been used, and especially those that undermine the role of agency in the process of memetic diffusion. In this regard, the argument that I develop in book largely follows the criticism that you raise in Spreadable Media. I call for researchers to jettison some of the excess baggage that the term has accumulated throughout the years, and to look at memes as cultural building blocks that are articulated and diffused by active human agents. This does not mean that people do not live in social and cultural worlds that constraint them – of course they do. Yet what drives processes of cultural diffusion is not the “mysterious” power of memes but the webs of meanings and structures people build around them. 

 

Part of what I really value in your account is your stress on remixing and intertextuality within meme culture. As with all remixed culture, there’s a tendency for some to dismiss the lack of originality and “creativity” involved, yet you see these cultural practices as generative. Why is it significant that these shared genres or reference points keep recurring across a range of different communities and networks?

I’m glad that you raise this issue as I find it fundamental to the way that memes work. While people are completely free to create almost any form of content, in practice most of them choose to work within the borders of existing meme genres. This ostensive rigidity may in fact have an important social function: following shared pathways for meme production is vital for creating a sense of communality in a fragmented world. Moreover, these emergent recurring patterns – or “meme genres” – often reflect contemporary social and cultural logics in unexpected and interesting ways. Let’s take, for instance, the “Stock Character Macros” genre: a set of memes featuring images of characters that represent stereotypical behaviors accompanied by funny captions.  This list of characters includes, for example, “Scumbag Steve” (who always acts in unethical, irresponsible, and anti-social ways) and his antithesis, “Good Guy Greg” (who always tries to help, even if it brings him harm); “Success Kid” (a baby with a with a self-satisfied grin, accompanied by a caption that describes a situation that has worked out better than expected); and “Successful Black Man” (who comically subverts racist assumptions about him by acting like a member of the middle class bourgeoisie). While each of these memes may be of interest in its own right, it is their combination —or the emergent map of stock characters that represent exaggerated forms of behavior—that may tell us something interesting about contemporary digital culture.

Limor Shifman is a Senior Lectureer at the Department of Communication and Journalism, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.  She is the author of Memes in Digital Culture (MIT Press, 2013) and Televised Humor and Social Cleavages in Israel (Magness Press, 2008 [in Hebrew]). Her work focuses on the intertwining of three fields: communication technologies, popular culture and the social construction of humor. Shifman’s journal articles explore phenomena such as internet-based humor about gender, politics and ethnicity; jokes and user-generated globalization; and memetic YouTube videos.

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

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

 

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

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