Where Fandom Studies Came From: An Interview with Kristina Busse and Karen Helleckson (Part Three)

Your definition of fan culture emphasizes “a specific amateur infrastructure for its creation, distribution and reception,” yet this infrastructure is part of what may be shifting in an age of Kindle Worlds and Wattpad. How should the study of fan fiction respond to those shifts? You seem ready to deal with the shift from printed zines to online distribution, not to mention a range of different kinds of online distribution practices (of the kind that Gail De Kosnik discusses in her forthcoming book). Are there some changes that would be so dramatic that they would fundamentally alter our understanding of what fan fiction is?

KB: Louisa Stein’s and my “Limit Play” (2009) discussed the vital importance of interfaces to the actual fan works themselves. One of the examples is LiveJournal role-playing games, a form of fan fiction but also an interactive performance. Recently I’ve been looking at Storium, a storytelling RPG that doesn’t come from the media fan perspective but rather a gaming approach, where the storytelling is basically how you play and succeed.

Likewise, Francesca Coppa’s (2006) argument about fan fiction as a type of performance effectively argues that we write fic in part because we can’t make films. Since then, however, vidders have begun using digital tools to manipulate footage into creating their own images (just like constructed reality vids have done for a while now). In other words, fan fiction is already interactive and multimedia and collaborative and all these things. As long as fans create texts about their favorite characters and universes and plot lines, we’ll probably continue to call it fan fiction and will continue to study it.

The issue with commercial platforms is actually less one of interfaces and technology as it is of profit and community. Karen and I have always foregrounded the role of community for fan fiction—while we obviously wouldn’t exclude, say, drawer fic from fan fiction, we’d consider it more an exception than the norm. We instead believe that our approach to fan fiction should include the community that produces, disseminates, and receives these artifacts. Given the social community structure of fandom, we cannot simply divorce fan fiction from its context and equate it with other forms of derivative creativity. Karen, in fact, has argued in regard to Kindle Worlds that “if you define fan fiction as ‘derivative texts written for free within the context of a specific community,’ then this isn’t that”. Interestingly, Jamison (2012) argues that Fifty Shades loses something when taken out of the context of mutually influential Twilight human AUs (and human BDSM AUs), an observation that reflects Woledge’s close textual study of fan turned pro fic (“From Slash to Mainstream,” in Fan Fictions and Fan Communities). The lines are obviously murky, but again, however interesting the border cases are, the fact remains that they only gain importance because we endeavor to properly define fan fiction.

KH: In a word, no. Fan fiction—the thing itself—connotes written texts, regardless of platform (zine, LiveJournal post, Tumblr entry, Wattpad post). I imagine there will be some Next Big Technological Interface Thing that fandom will rush toward, just the way that Tumblr caused much of fandom to leave LiveJournal, but the platform is independent of the writing, and the writing won’t stop. Further, technological considerations don’t seem to be adding all that much to what we’ve been seeing. It’s less sheer novelty and more old wine in new bottles.

When the Internet came along, everyone thought threaded stories, sort of like the old Choose Your Own Adventure books of my childhood, would be a Thing, but they never caught on. Likewise, it’s easy to embed illustrations, but to my eye, they evoke the hard-copy zines of yore to me, albeit with more color—occasional images, often by an artist who is not the same person as the text’s author.

The things I like best about technological tools are, first, the ability to comment, which basically takes the old SF zines’ Letters of Comment section and appends it to the item in question, which really helps build the fan community; and second, indexing, categorizing, and tagging, which makes it far easier to find texts of interest.

I’ve been doing work on World War II–era SF zines, which involves a lot of cross-zine discourse among relatively few players, and it’s amazing how little has changed. I could thread these in a LiveJournal-hotlinked post with dates and everything. I am always excited to see what new toys technology comes up with; but I would not be surprised if the shiny new toy was used to create a new mode of expression for an existing activity. Wattpad’s great innovation, for instance, is to have text in little short bursts that are ideal for reading on phones. That resulted in (created? self-selected to?) a particular kind of writer and writer.

Kristina cites my blog post about Kindle Worlds. I like the definition of fan fiction that I make there. The element of “community” is the most important. (We can argue about “free.” Suffice it to say that if it isn’t, it had better be a solution created by and for the community.) If I write a story for Kindle Worlds, then it would be work for hire (under monetary terms that most freelance writers would not accept), not a gift written for my fandom.

Kindle Worlds used the term fan fiction in its initial marketing (it no longer seems to use this term) as a shorthand for marketing purposes that targeted potential writers and readers, but the texts are derivative stories written as work for hire, with great limitations placed on what can be written—no overt sex, no crossovers, no death of major characters, that kind of thing. These limitations are no fun for lots of fan writers.

Kindle Worlds also seems to be struggling. The Daily Dot, for example, notes that Kindle Worlds seeded one World by commissioning a pro writer, Neal Pollack, to write for it, which hints at quantity and quality issues; and a post at Bustle addresses Kindle Worlds’ failure to catch on. The Bustle directs us to Rebecca Tushnet’s legal article about Kindle Worlds and fair use, which is a must read.

What could be changing is the meaning of the term fan fiction. I’m seeing a linguistic shift whereby the term’s connotation is broadening to mean “any derivative work,” not “a derivative work written by a self-identified fan within the context of a fan community, often as an item of exchange, and often for free.” I object to this broadened definition because the division conflates fan activity within a specialist community with nonfan commercial activity, and I personally value the distinction.

The study of fan fiction (used in its classical limited sense) will continue to address the ways that the interface affects the classic rhetorical situation of author–text–reader, as criticism always does; it will address concerns of power, gender, race, and class, as it always had; and it will continue to apply to fan fiction theories from various disciplines. Thus work on fan fiction will be ultimately evolutionary, not game-changingly disruptive. I’d personally like to see the focus on fan text rather than fan fiction, because it connotes a far wider range of fan expression: vids, artwork, comics, poetry, whatever.

Feminist and queer studies perspectives were key in defining the field of fan fiction studies, and rightly so, for many reasons your book does a good job of describing. Yet, there was from the start a serious neglect of what fandom studies might learn from critical race theory. Today, there is still a remarkable shortage of work which deals with racial politics in and through fandom. I know as editors you have been actively concerned about some of the silences around race, so I wanted to get your perspective on how those structuring absences have impacted our field and what might represent some generative approaches for re-engaging with those topics today.

KH: TWC published a special issue in 2011 guest edited by Robin Reid and Sarah N. Gatson on Race and Ethnicity in Fandom . I’d direct you particularly to the editorial and to Mel Stanfill’s essay. Fans are also intensely concerned with issues surrounding race. The huge Racefail imbroglio in 2009 is a good example. But I’m not seeing a lot of scholarly work being done on the topic in fan studies, and we’ve had bad luck with TWC when we’ve tried to solicit contributions in that arena, including a poor showing under open calls for submissions, an inability to directly solicit, and a guest editor of a proposed issue related to the topic of critical race theory pulling out. Right now I’m liking work on the topic done by fans, particularly for race in comic book depictions and race-based film-casting issues. I would love to see some of that formally theorized in an academic setting, but until then, check out Racalicious.

The absences have left a vacuum in the field that skews perceptions of fans as comprising primarily middle-class white girls and women (if media) or as middle-class white boys and men (if gaming or comics). Nonwhite concerns are perceived as outliers.

Further, I worry that white scholars don’t want to address the issue, in part because they have no lived experience and thus they feel inauthentic, and in part because they don’t want to be attacked. Yet of course scholars of color ought not shoulder the topic solely themselves. One important thing to do to generate more criticism and thought may be to reconfigure the Other oppositional binary: if a fan is an Other and not-white is an Other, than the fan of color is doubly Othered. How can this potential estrangement be turned? How is it useful? I’m also a big fan of cutting to the chase in any topic by assessing the power dynamics, what I call following the money. Why is it important to the white majority for it to retain and apportion their authority? What is at stake? How can that authority be usefully challenged?

KB: One of the more amusing things for me as an interdisciplinary scholar is the way different departments canonize different pieces by the same writer. Mention Deleuze in media studies, you get Cinema I and II. In English you’ll see a lot of references to Anti-Oedipus and Mille Plateaux, whereas in philosophy Difference and Repetition or even his books on Kant and on Nietzsche would be considered his central work.

Likewise, we have embraced “Encoding/Decoding” in fan studies without ever fully engaging with the fact that Stuart Hall, in fact, was not only a founder of the British Cultural Studies but also of BLACK British Cultural Studies (that was the name of the 1996 reader where I consciously read Hall for the first time). This is a really long way of saying that mostly US, mostly white, mostly middle-class fan scholars have done much better at addressing concerns of gender rather than race or class in the notorious trifecta. Given the overlaps between gender and queer studies (and possibly the larger number of GLTB acafans), we have done much better with queer issues than with race. Maybe a generative mode would be overlapping/applying critical race theory with gender or queer studies.

A fan review called the Fan Fiction Studies Reader “whitewashing” and commented that they’d like to see bell hooks write on fandom. Anyone’s response would be: ME TOO! bell hooks may have other things she wants to write about, but it behooves us to address this huge gap, both as a topic in our own essays and by creating an infrastructure that invites a focus on race as a dominant framework. I hope, though, that an increasing diversification, more awareness, and an (ever so slowly) changing media landscape may allow us to address these issues more. As always, acafans who are teaching the next generation of students must give them the context, background, and tools to help fill these gaps.

As you note, there have been significant shifts in the politics around gender and sexuality since the 1980s and 1990s. There have also been factors which have made fans and fan cultural production much more visible in the mainstream of the culture. In this context, what is still transgressive about fan fiction? In what senses might we still see its production as a kind of resistance to dominant values and institutions? Or is resistance still a useful frame for thinking about what fans do?

KH: The resistance paradigm is definitely falling among scholars, although it’s still useful. Much work has been done on how fan fiction is not subversive but actually reinforcing of dominant values and institutions. Fan-written mpreg and curtain fic, for example, may be read not as critiques of traditional marriage, setting up house, and having children (even if it’s the man getting pregnant) as they are genderswapped or all-male reproductions of the trappings of middle-class life.

However, if the content of fan fiction isn’t necessarily truly subversive and resistant but rather affirmational of traditional institutions, its locus of power may be: unauthorized, in conflict with The Powers That Be. One reason that Kindle Worlds is interesting to discuss right now is that Amazon is attempting to get rid of resistance by providing a paid, controlled, circumscribed outlet—one with a built-in community and fan base to drive sales.

This isn’t to argue that all fan fiction is ultimately nontransgressive or can be read as such. Of course that isn’t the case. But the unequal power relations reside less in the text than in the opposition between a minority gift culture and a majority commerce culture.

KB: Fan fiction scholars (all of us included) have probably done the practice—if not the field—a disservice by focusing so much on resistance, opposition, and transgression. Obviously there are real political, cultural, and academic reasons for picking one example over another, for foregrounding the more literate pieces of fan fic or the more transgressive ones, but generalizing is thus often problematic, because we picked the text for its exceptional rather than representative value. But the question is whether that minimizes these stories’ value.

There always are a huge number of stories that make us feel good and happy, and that may not all be that progressive. (In fact, if one only knows fan fiction through the lens of academic discourse, reading the examples described by Lamb and Veith’s essay in our reader may indeed sound strange.) But I’d argue that if you go to any fandom tag on AO3  or Fanfiction.net, you will find that many of the stories with the most kudos and comments are exactly like that—comfort fic. On the other hand, the stories that often get discussed or cause controversy are those that transgress, whether thematically or politically. Coppa wrote about asexuality fic in Sherlock (2012), for example—a subgenre that fandoms don’t really have.

Conversations on Tumblr are often politically transgressive, questioning cultural values and challenging cultural norms. Not all of it translates directly into fic, but some of it does. Head canons for most characters may include characters who are intersex, asexual and/or a-romantic, disabled, aneurotypical, DFAB or DMAB, genderqueer, or mixed race. All of these are identities not previously well articulated or represented in fan fic, and clearly it is important—and, we’d argue, transgressive—if not to culture than at least to the text to explore them.

If the value is as much in the process of production as it is in the end result, if the transgressions are in the conversations surrounding it as much as they are in the fic itself, then the continued critical engagement with media texts remains as important as ever. Thus, while fan fiction may not be as resistant in terms of cultural values any more as it may have been, it becomes ever more important as a form of resistance in terms of economic and labor issues. Given that we’ve already talked about Kindle Worlds, fan fiction is transgressive now more than ever.

Whether it’s E. L. James publishing “pornography for women by women, with love” and topping best seller lists everywhere, or hundreds of OTW and AO3 volunteers providing a free not ad supported interface to share ALL THE FANFICS (RPF, explicit and all!)–fandom remains a way for people who are not mainstream and center to write back to the text. If their version becomes popular, all the better. Ideally, at some point, there may be no more need for oppositional readings anymore on a larger culture scale. But just looking at the debates surrounding a potential Black Widow movie, it is clear that day hasn’t come yet.

Kristina Busse has been an active media fan for more than a decade. She has published a variety of essays on fan fiction and fan culture and is, with Karen Hellekson, founding coeditor of the academic journal <em>Transformative Works and Cultures</em>.

Karen Hellekson (karenhellekson.com) is, with Kristina Busse, founding coeditor of the academic journal <em>Transformative Works and Cultures.</em> She has published in the fields of alternate history, science fiction literature, and fan studies.

Where Fandom Studies Came From: An Interview with Kristina Busse and Karen Helleckson (Part Two)

With your new book, your focus is looking backwards, tracing some of the earliest works to address fan fiction, as well as their impact on today’s scholars. What led you to this focus on forming a canon of sorts around the study of fan fiction? Why the focus on fan fiction as opposed to a more inclusive notion of fan cultural production? After all, you have also been involved in promoting more scholarship around fan vids, for example.

KB: Both of us are really traditionalists. We were both trained in English literature. Karen is now a copyeditor and I teach in a philosophy department. All of these fields relate to sources, quotations, terms, and ideas. We are heavily diachronic in an age where both culture itself (and with it fandom) and academia (and with it fan studies) often focus on the synchronic. It seemed important to us to share where we are all started. Really, we’d have loved to include Leslie Fiedler’s “Come Back to the Rat Ag’in, Huck Honey!” (1948) in our slash section, but clearly we had to pick and choose. The fascinating thing about going back to the original texts is how very different they are from how they get represented now in hindsight.

We had made a few decisions early on: (1) We would stay with fan fiction, because even though other fan works were discussed here and there early on, the nexus of different approaches and disciplines and the majority of academic work was on fan fiction. (2) We would stay with “media fandom,” because, again, that was where a lot of the early work was focused on and that was our own background. We felt that we would do better to strive for comprehensiveness rather than inclusion where one essay or two would stick out and not be representative of anything. (3) We would keep it in the early years and represent more recent essays with a very inclusive bibliography. That last one was basically a numbers game. For every current essay, we’d have to drop one of the more foundational texts, but those were the ones we wanted to share. Moreover, as we said above, fan studies exploded in the mid-2000s, and deciding on one particular text out of the many on a given topic with a given approach would have become even more impossible.

KH: Part of the impetus was to create a single text that would collect the things that we wish people had read. As editors of TWC, we see essays that don’t engage with the literature—that don’t seem aware that they are in dialogue with something, or that cite your Textual Poachers but don’t seem aware of the stuff that came after that critiqued and expanded those ideas (including your own work!). In addition, we’d heard from college-level teachers that they would like such a book. When we ran the draft table of contents by scholars in the field for their feedback, we got several “I would assign this right now!” comments. I am hopeful that master’s and PhD students coming up in the field will find it a good resource. I’m actually not uncomfortable with being in on some canon formation: I figure I have invested a lot of time learning about the field, and what I have to say is perfectly valid. Plus the good thing about canon is that someone will come along and bust it. (Yes!)

The Fan Fiction Studies Reader brings together foundational essays while also pointing to trending ideas. We worked hard on the headnote contextualizing essays that precede each of the reader’s sections, but of course the essays could be swapped around and reconfigured at will to form new topic blocks. Our choices were forced on us because of the difficulty in getting reprints; some were shockingly expensive, others too long. As editors of reprint anthologies everywhere know, “best of” doesn’t mean “best of.” It means “what we could get that we could afford and that was the right length, with certain key authors represented.” It’s not the ideal table of contents that we pitched to the press! However, that may be a feature, not a bug. We had to think outside our “best of” box. The press insisted on the Fan Fiction part of the title, in part because we couldn’t fit in everything we wanted to for it to be truly representative of the field in its broadest sense. However, although the words fan fiction are in the title, it could easily be used as a more general reader. Fan fiction is one kind of text and vids are another, yet the strategies for reading/assessing them are the same. I encourage teachers who assign the book to broaden “fan fiction” to mean “fan-created texts in general,” and to mess with the blocks we created to find new connections.

You reproduce in the introduction an increasingly widespread distinction between affirmative and transformative fans: “Affirmative fans tend to collect, view, and play, to discuss, analyze, and critique. Transformative fans, however, take a creative step to make the words and characters their own, be it by telling stories, cosplaying the characters, creating artworks, or engaging in any of the many other forms active fan participation can take.” I’ve also used this distinction—in Spreadable Media for example—but I am becoming more and more uncomfortable with it, going back to an earlier formulation which talked about all fandom as born of a mixture of fascination and frustration, and suggesting we look case by case at the different ways any kind of fan cultural production moves between these two polls. There are no forms of fan production by definition that are purely resistant, but they may also be none that reflect uncritical fascination without other factors entering the picture. You can make an argument that many forms of fan speculation and critique are also already transformational in that they encourage new ways of thinking about the fictional world and in the case, say, of a mystery series, they often construct quite elaborate explanations for why something is occurring which may, in their own right, be deeply transformational. Thoughts?

KB: The spread of this terminology is actually a perfect example as to why we should always read the original source. Obsession_inc, the person whose blog post pointed out this dichotomy, actually prefaces the definitions with the following: “I see both sections as celebrational fandom, first and foremost, and that there is a lot of joy and effort and creativity put into both, and that there is a certain amount of crossover.” It is useful to acknowledge the motivations as much as the results—that is, a critical, resistant, frustrated affirmational response is possible, just as a noncritical, fascinated, loving, transformational one is. (Let’s say, the first one is reblogging from the official Tumblr pics of a neglected character, the second one writing a missing scene that completely supports and expands the accepted/intended/TPTB-supported canon interpretation.) The two spectrums are maybe less in competition with one another and more perpendicular, creating a two-dimensional space.

For us, the dichotomy was useful because we wanted to look at resistant/critical/creative transformative fan works, and the essays we included all addressed this. Clearly, other approaches may need different distinctions. Yes, the term has been used a lot recently, but we are already beginning to complicate it—not just you, but also Matt Hills’s recent essay in TWC on “Mimetic Fandom and the Crafting of Replicas“, in which he studies fan works whose very “value” more or less rely on their mimetic accuracy.

The original articulation remains useful, especially when considering when and why Obsessive_inc coined it. The essay is a belated response to Racefail ’09 and other creator/fan conflicts: “in all of my fandoms, there have been battles between creators (backed up by their affirmational fanbase) and their transformational fanbase.” When looked at it from that perspective, the term transformative takes on yet another meaning that is neither fully about being oppositional readers nor about the “purportedly feminine cultural spaces of many media fandoms and fan studies,” as Matt Hills describes it. Instead, it is more closely linked to the notion of transformational works that are implied in the names of OTW and TWC—transformation in the legal sense. For better or worse, we are stuck with US copyright law and fair use exemptions.

You are of course correct that we shouldn’t fall into false binaries, and the sexier a shorthand is, the easier it is to fall into it. I love my “Man Collect; Women Connect,” but I certainly know that fan cultures are much more complicated—as are genders! Likewise, we are increasingly realizing that even generalizations, such as “straight middle-aged women” about the writers and readers of fan fiction zines, may not be as accurate as we used to think. But this is why it is useful to actually go back and reread the early texts—to know our intellectual antecedents, and maybe to realize that their arguments were already more complex and differentiated than we remember.

KH: I find the dichotomy useful, as it handily categorizes two perfectly valid forms of fan activity. More scholars are problematizing it than not, which is all to the good, but we also have to acknowledge how true Obsession_inc’s point feels. The gender issues inherent in her critique show that all the scholarly work in the world may not help the fan on the ground. Her essay is interesting not only for what she says and the impetus that caused her to write (as Kristina describes so well), but for what it reveals about fannish engagement, not to mention the terms of engagement she chooses. Power, appropriation, award, context—all these are inherent in her argument, and it may be useful to spend less time figuring out why the point is wrong and more time about why she made it.

Fifty Shades of Grey gets referenced often in your introduction as a text which has helped to change the public’s perception of fan fiction. Now that the dust has settled a little, what are your thoughts on Fifty Shades of Grey? Has its impact been largely positive, negative, or mixed? (As they say in the news, “Good thing or bad thing?”) And has its impact been short-lived or lasting?

KB: If nothing else, Fifty Shades‘s success now allows any fan scholar anywhere to point to it to explain what we do. Even my 90-year-old German grandmother has heard of it. Seriously, though, it feels like the publication was both the culmination of a general mainstreaming and mainstream acceptance of fans and fan fiction, and by its sheer overwhelming success, it is a watershed in ultimately settling whether fan fiction can become a commercial success.

Of course, given this specific text, I take its “success” with some ambivalence when we look at fan fiction communities and at erotic women’s writing in general. The fact that it so clearly is removed from its contextual cultural community ties (as Anne Jamison argues in her great essay in Fifty Writers on Fifty Shades of Grey, 2012) makes it ultimately less interesting as a work of fan fiction. (The seeming rejection of the fan community, unlike other fan fiction-turned-pro writers, doesn’t help much either.) Its mere existence as an explicit erotic work, as “pornography by women for women, with love” is crucial, but enough ink has been spilled about its problematic feminism and contentious portrayal of BDSM culture.

As for how lasting it will be: Let’s hope a generation from now, the “inner Goddess” will go the way of the “zipless fuck”, an interesting historical footnote rather than a perennial classic.

KH: The whole Fifty Shades thing fills me with weariness that is quickly becoming annoyance. Nonfan friends now have this whole idea about what I read and think and do that doesn’t reflect my lived reality. Something about the “nonnormality” (scare quotes intended!) of BDSM makes fans seem even more fanatic. Many books written by fans have had the serial numbers filed off and then were published professionally; it’s not like she did anything new, and she really did throw her fannish community under the bus, as Bethan Jones argues in an essay in TWC . However, the book has definitely highlighted fan fiction as a literary form and as a cultural phenomenon.

I have no idea if the impact will be lasting. It’s too soon to tell. Certainly many best sellers of yesterday are not remembered today. If Fifty Shades is remembered, I predict it will be cited (by people who do not go back to read any of the books in the series!) as the text that changed the publishing landscape for fan-written texts.

 


Kristina
 Busse
 has been an active media fan for more than a decade. She has published a variety of essays on fan fiction and fan culture and is, with Karen Hellekson, founding coeditor of the academic journal <em>Transformative Works and Cultures</em>.

Karen Hellekson (karenhellekson.com) is, with Kristina Busse, founding coeditor of the academic journal <em>Transformative Works and Cultures.</em> She has published in the fields of alternate history, science fiction literature, and fan studies.

Where Fandom Studies Came From: An Interview with Kristina Busse and Karen Hellekson (Part One)

Much has been written in recent years about 1991-92 as a kind of moment of birth for Fan Studies, a year in which key texts by Constance Penley, Camille Bacon-Smith, Lisa A. Lewis, and myself, helped to establish the study of fandom as a distinctive research project, emerging from the study of subcultures, readers, or audiences, all paradigms with a longer history in British Cultural Studies and elsewhere. I was flattered that the Journal of Fandom Studies published a special issue recently considering the impact of my book, Textual Poachers, on the field, and you can read my own reflections about the origins and potential futures of fandom studies in the current issue of that same journal.

But today’s post is intended to challenge this framework in two different ways. First, I would make the case that 2006-2007 was an equally important period for the development of the field, marked by the publication of two key anthologies — Karen Helleckson and Kristina Busse’s Fan Fiction and Fan Communities in the Age of the Internet: New Essays and Jonathan Gray, Cornel Sandvoss and C. Lee Herrington’s Fandom: Identities and Communities in a Mediated World. For there to be a field of Fan/Fandom Studies, there must in fact be not simply a few singular contributions but a large group of people doing original work in that space. While there were certainly new writers (Nancy Baym and Rhianon Bury being key figures) emerging in the decade plus between these two historic moments, there had also been a tendency for many other writers to fill in the broad outlines which had been mapped by the 1991-92 wave of publications. Often, there was still a cycling through of various justifications for studying fans and then a few quotes from our writings coupled with a new set of examples, arriving at more or less the same conclusions.  These 2006-2007 collections represented the arrival of a new generation of scholars who were coloring outside those lines, who represented important new voices and new perspectives, who pushed the field forward, and who established it as an ongoing academic pursuit.

I remember my excitement reading through these two books, my head spinning, and feeling like I was learning something new on every page. The works represented distinctive visions of what this field would look like — one doubling-down on the female-centered fan writing community as the locus of study even as it dealt comparatively with other communities from which transformative works were emerging, and the other expanding the scope of what kinds of fans we studied to bring together global and historical perspectives as well as a conversation between those who studied fans of cult media, popular music, sports, and even news and politics. There’s been some tension between these two approaches ever since. Almost a decade later, Gray, Sandvoss and Herrington are in the process of updating their collection while Helleckson and Busse have released their own second edited anthology, The Fan Fiction Studies Reader, which seeks to map key influences on the field of fan fiction studies.

And that brings us to the second thing that the focus on 1991-92 as the birth of fan studies may get wrong. The Fan Fiction Studies Reader is focused in expanding this time line in important ways, calling attention to the kinds of writing on fan fiction that existed prior to Enterprising Women or Textual Poachers, work that often came out of the second wave of feminism and was also embedded in the fan community itself. Many of these essays have been out of print or scattered across obscure journals so there is an enormous contribution in bringing them together again, reframing them for contemporary readers, and reappraising their contributions to the early development of this field.

There’s been an unfortunate tendency, which I have probably contributed to in some later interviews, to dismiss the work of earlier scholars as patronizing and pathologizing. There is certainly much such work to be found. But there was also work that was celebratory, seeking to understand fan fiction as forms of women’s writing, seeking to debate the ways fans were remixing pornography or erotica to reflect female tastes and interests. If you look closely at Textual Poachers, NASA/Trek and Enterprising Women, we cited and engaged with this work, but it has since been largely neglected by later generations of researchers. And this collection shows us that there is much to be regained by reconnecting with this past.

This week, I am interviewing Kristina Busse and Karen Helleckson about the two books, their contributions to the field of fan/fandom studies, and their perspective on some of the key issues being debated by fans and fan scholars in 2014. Busse and I have not always agreed about the directions that fan studies should be taking and some of our exchanges have been heated and public but I have always had deep admiration and respect for the leadership that Busse and Helleckson have brought to this field, not only through these two collections, but also through the publication of Transformative Works and Cultures, a scrupulously peer-reviewed and highly influential online journal which has kept alive the project of their first anthology in terms of identifying new authors, new topics, and new approaches to the study of fandom.

Fan Fiction and Fan Communities in the Age of the Internet came out almost a decade ago and looking back on it, it has turned out to be a watershed book in many ways. For one, you helped to bring together a generation of newer writers who represented the next wave of fandom research and we are now starting to see full-length books emerge from many of these scholars. Can you share with us how that book came to be and what brought this particular group of writers together?

KH: I initially pitched the original-essay book myself, without Kristina, to a press that had published a previous book of mine. However, just putting a call for papers out there does absolutely nothing. You have to solicit. I did some of that, but I quickly realized that the book as I had envisioned it wouldn’t come to be unless I brought in a coeditor. Kristina has a wide network, and I have the knowledge and contacts for book production. We’d met at International Conference of the Fantastic in the Arts in 2003 and had chatted, and once I asked Kristina to come on board, the project finally took off. That division of work is one we have maintained since: Kristina does front-end stuff, like solicitation, and I do all the scheduling, paperwork, copyediting/proofreading, and back-end stuff related to actually getting it into print.

I wanted the book to reflect my wishes for scholarship in the field: something timely, something that reflected changes in consumption of fan-written texts (i.e., the Internet), and particularly something where the writer didn’t have to justify herself. Fan studies was like the field of science fiction literature studies (my original field) all over again: writers were expected to spend time explaining why they were bothering with a low-culture trash genre, and they also had to position themselves in relation to the field—in particular, if they were fans, this needed to be disclosed and scholars had to distance themselves. SF had discarded these conventions, in part because writing about it became more mainstream and in part because SF scholars created venues dedicated to the field, such as academic journals, where background and justification could be dispensed with. I wanted the edited volume to reflect this. It seemed to me that fan studies scholars kept having to have the same conversation over and over again: justification, distance, and then lit review. We needed to create a space where we could dispense with that and use the words to have an actual conversation.

However, we did think that we needed to create a common vocabulary and a common—well, I guess the word would be canon: texts we’d all read and agreed were relevant. Our introduction provided these elements, which were common to all the papers we collected. This allowed us to create a good bibliography, which the press agreed to let me put up on my Web site. The contributors were thus able to use their words for their ideas, not for context or lit review. At the time, this was a major win. I think we moved the field forward in this regard: we just assumed this was all important, and by framing the book as we did, we made it so.

KB: We were at the International Conference of the Fantastic in the Arts in 2005, and we were having these amazing discussions there and on LiveJournal and people were writing amazing essays, and we weren’t seeing any of those folks getting published or any of those ideas explored. I don’t think there was a single essay out yet that had dealt with the change in fannish infrastructures, like the switch from Usenet to mailing lists and archives to blogs and LiveJournal. Most of us—me and Karen and the contributors—had met or knew one another through mailing lists or through LiveJournal.

We were very clear early on that we were tired of essays starting with definition of fan fiction and basically looking at a given text and saying, “Look, there, homoerotic subtext and SLASH!!!!” We agreed that we needed a framing introduction with all the terms and the history so that the essays could start within the discourse rather than spending half the time getting to their argument. But we also wanted the history and a shared resource so that everyone else could look at what had come before and where we were heading now and be on the same page. We were standing in a hotel hallway with Francesca Coppa, debating whether we should do it as two volumes, one with new essays and one a reprint anthology. It took us eight more years to finally get the second half out.

We got the majority of the essays via direct solicitation. Most—nine of the 13—were people I was friends with on LiveJournal. A few essays didn’t work out, which is par for the course; the RPF popslash essay wasn’t supposed to have been mine but we needed to fill a hole. We decided that these were all topical essays, and given that production would take a year, we imposed a deadline of less than a year for essay delivery. From having the idea to having the book in our hands took about two years, which is very fast for academic publishing. But all these acafans were giving papers that they couldn’t find a venue to publish. The ideas were just there to be caught. We had a lot of grad students and unaffiliated folks among the contributors—I think only four of the 13 were tenure-track scholars. But that’s where there often are the most interesting and novel ideas.

The other thing that made this collection different and that we thought was really important was the fact that we all self-identified as fans. You had already brought in the fact in Textual Poachers (1992) that a central part of your identity was being a fan as well as an academic, and Matt Hills did his long autoethnography in Fan Cultures (2002). We decided to take that for granted. A lot of us had been fans and active in media fandom long before we were academics, and many of us came to fan studies through fandom rather than through media studies. We wrote our love into these essays and displayed our fandom affiliation in every sentence. That seemed to be different to a lot of the research that was happening at the time.

Beyond the individuals involved, the book also helped to reframe fan studies, opening up some important new paradigms—such as Francesca Coppa’s focus on fan fiction as performance or Gail De Kosnik’s focus on fan fiction and “the archive”, some reconfiguration of how this research related to gender and sexuality studies, a new focus on the literary dimensions of fan fiction, but also an engagement with the conditions of cultural production within fandom. I still find great value in your reminder that fan fiction is by its nature always a “work in progress” and that it is hard to understand fan fiction outside of the social relationships it helps to facilitate. Looking back, what do you see as the lasting conceptual impact of the book on our field?

KB: One (of the many) things that fandom and academia share is the ability to have many things be true at the same time. Collectively, we write hundreds different versions of what goes through our characters’ minds during a given crucial scene, and we give ever new interpretations of Hamlet during his major soliloquy. We (well, many of us :) can simultaneously ship Tony/Steve, Steve/Bucky, and Bucky/Natasha, and there’s this great Bedford St. Martin’s series that presents a given literary text with about a dozen different theoretical approaches (like Marxist, feminist, psychoanalytic, postcolonial, queer readings of Heart of Darkness). And even as they are sometimes mutually exclusive, they are also ALL VALID. If our collection has had any conceptual impact, we hope it is that understanding of WIP not only for fandom and academia, but also for fan studies in particular. We are realizing that there are huge gaps in areas we have not paid enough attention to, such as Critical Race Studies, Transculturalism/Transnationalism, and Marxist Labor Theory, to name just a few, and if the collection was ever supposed to be anything, it was a snapshot of that moment.

Maybe the most lasting impact of the book ended up being more logistic than conceptual: we were asked to found and edit the OTW’s academic journal, Transformative Works and Culture, which publishes its 17th issue in September for a collective of around 300 essays. Doing Fan Fiction and Fan Communities together gave us experience, credibility, and an acafannish community. You can see most of the contributors to the collection pop up again as contributors, editors, and peer reviewers. In a way, it is TWC that should be seen as the ever-expanding archive of the book itself. It’s a snapshot on so many levels: in terms of the fandoms that are used, such as Harry Potter, LOTRips, poplash, or even just in terms of interfaces, such as two essays focusing specifically on LiveJournal.

Moreover, as we already said, part of the intention of the collection was to create a text where everyone started from the same fannish and academic point to a degree. Our introduction is quite different from Gray, Sandvoss, and Harringon’s “Why Study Fans?” (2007), but that makes sense, because we start from such a different point and have a slightly different focus. We never really question why we should study fans, because we think we are important :) But also, our focus is somewhat narrower, for better or worse. We clearly don’t subscribe to the large “everyone is a fan” definition, and we are primarily focused on what Coppa has termed in her overview in the book “media fandom,” i.e., creative fan works for Western live-action shows and connected fandoms. That means that we purposefully limited ourselves, but it also means that we can focus on a given field and explore it in all its facet and with all these different approaches. And we can go deep and far, because we don’t need to explain what beta readers are or why Mary Sues are a highly contested genre.

KH: I’m glad the book helped reframe fan studies. I knew the book filled a hole in scholarship, if only for its acknowledgment of new modes of fannish consumption. However, what we did was simply let scholars be free to work in their field, combined with fan studies. Its lasting conceptual impact is merely that fan studies is not an offshoot of media studies. Rather, fan studies is a multidisciplinary field that can easily integrate other -isms and other disciplines: feminism, Marxism, sociology, anthropology, close analysis of a fan-created text, reader-response theory, affect, performativity, deconstruction, posthumanism, queer theory… Further, it’s an interesting site for application of theory, be it Schechner or Derrida.

Another important conceptual impact is that we are unapologetically fans ourselves. I write fan fiction and maintain a fic archive; I have helped create content for a fan-created informational wiki; I ran few multiauthored virtual seasons after my show was canceled. I don’t just read about this stuff; I live this stuff. The connection with the fan community has led us to do certain things, like (as for TWC) not hotlinking directly to spaces that fans perceive as private, or checking with a fan before we publish a link to a story in case the author wants us to hotlink to some other space, or not hotlink at all.

I am not interested in expanding the notion of the fan to include all aspects of what may be termed fannish behavior. Fans of stamp collecting or sports may engage in a sort of fandom, but they don’t tend to call it that. They may also configure their engagement and their passion differently. The word fandom may properly be applied to these activities, but to my ear, the connotation isn’t right. Broadening fan studies to all aspects of “fanatic” behavior merely because the activities match what the term denotes is certainly a valid point of view, but it’s not my point of view because I am interested in what it connotes and how fans work to build that connotation. The term also comes out of SF literature fandom, which I have studied, and in some ways I want to acknowledge fan studies’ outgrowth from SF fandom. Media fans adopted fanzines, apas, and other modes of dissemination from SF fans.

 

Kristina Busse has been an active media fan for more than a decade. She has published a variety of essays on fan fiction and fan culture and is, with Karen Hellekson, founding coeditor of the academic journal <em>Transformative Works and Cultures</em>.

Karen Hellekson (karenhellekson.com) is, with Kristina Busse, founding coeditor of the academic journal <em>Transformative Works and Cultures.</em> She has published in the fields of alternate history, science fiction literature, and fan studies.

Digital Youth With Disabilities: An Interview with Meryl Alper (Part Three)

 

You note that the kinds of warnings and labels that describe “age appropriate” media are problematic when talking about children with disabilities. Why? What are some of the ways that parents of children with disabilities are making choices about what kinds of media content to bring into their homes?

This question speaks to a larger pressure that parents in the U.S. are under for their children to keep up or be left behind. Paradoxically, contemporary middle class U.S. parents generally want their children not to grow up too quickly, yet they are increasingly being expected to be develop advanced literacy and math skills as a shield against an uncertain job market. Any discussion of what media is “age appropriate” for a child has to take into account the content of that media, the social context around their media use (e.g. peer group, home life), and also everything else about that child—their gender, race, ethnicity, class, language background, and range of abilities and disabilities.

For example, in one family I spent time with, the mother and father were artists and their 3-year-old son with cerebral palsy was a jazz music aficionado who used his iPad both for augmentative and alternative communication and also as a jukebox through iTunes. And in another family, a 13-year-old autistic boy liked to spend his free time on websites like PBSKids.com that were designed with a preschool audience in mind. These interests are outside the norm of that which is “age appropriate,” but they are appropriate for these children.

It is also important to note that in both of these families, parents were not alone in making choices about their child’s media use; the children weighed in as well. Though this sort of dialogue and negotiation process might look different in these families (particularly as neither child regularly communicated through oral speech), it is important for parents of children of all abilities to keep in mind their child’s perspective and agency.

You raise some key concerns about the ways that many of the platforms — YouTube for example — that support the grassroots production and sharing of media may not be able to fully support the needs of people with disabilities. What are the implications of this finding for those of us who care about participatory culture and learning?

I’ll dive right into the example of YouTube, as I think it is the main battleground right now over which individuals or what entities are responsible for making the internet an accessible and participatory space for cultural engagement and learning. YouTube’s automatic captioning feature is notoriously poor. It also offers no way for Deaf and hard-of-hearing YouTube users to search exclusively for videos with proper captioning. There have been some policy decisions that push online video in a more accessible direction, but there are many hurdles.

The U.S. Twenty-First Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act has mandated that all TV shows broadcast on television and then shown on the internet must have captioning (e.g. series that re-air on Hulu or Amazon Prime). However, the Act did not include programming that is exclusively distributed via the internet (e.g. user generated videos, online videos made by news organizations that never air on broadcast TV). These create huge captioning gaps on the internet. Different volunteer-driven crowdsourcing technologies such as Amara.org support DIY captioning and video descriptions at little or no cost to content creators and distributors (Ellcessor, 2012).DIY captioning sites though have been met with resistance from the entertainment and news industries, claiming that such practices violate the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. The main issue here is whether or not lack of online captioning options violates citizens’ rights to equally access public spaces, including the internet.

In terms of young people’s learning, there are a number of ramifications for these barriers to YouTube accessibility. First, closed captioning doesn’t just benefit Deaf and hard-of-hearing students. It also has demonstrated benefits in formal and informal learning settings, for example, for beginning readers (Linebarger, Piotrowski, & Greenwood, 2010). Second, beyond a U.S. context, closed captioning can also help make YouTube programming accessible in multiple languages, seeing as most views come from outside of the U.S. Also, with poor online captioning, YouTube also sends an implicit signal that it is not a space “for” Deaf and hard-of-hearing individuals. Lastly, adolescents and teenagers with disabilities should have the opportunity to be able to fit in with their peers and participate in the same online communities, especially those as fertile for grassroots production and sharing as YouTube.

Meryl Alper is a Ph.D. Candidate in Communication at the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at the University of Southern California.  She studies the social and cultural implications of networked communication technologies, with a particular focus on disability and digital media, children and families’ technology use, and mobile communication.  Prior to USC, she worked in the children’s media industry as a researcher and strategist with Sesame Workshop, Nickelodeon, and Disney.  She can be found on Twitter @merylalper and online at merylalper.com

 

Digital Youth with Disabilities: An Interview with Meryl Alper (Part One)

Meryl Alper’s new book, Digital Youth with Disabilities, releases shortly via the MacArthur Foundation’s distinguished series of reports on Digital Media and Learning, published by MIT Press. Alper is currently one of my PhD Candidates at USC’s Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism, where she is writing a dissertation under my supervision sharing what she’s learned through interviews and observations of the families of youth in Los Angeles who use adaptive technologies to help them deal with speech disabilities.

Alpert came to me a few years ago having already had a distinguished career working in and around children’s media, including having worked with the Sesame Workshop’s Education and Research Department where she had done field work investigating the potential for developing an animated series focused on media literacy, with Northwestern University’s Children’s Digital Media Center where she worked directly with Barbara O’Keefe (a legend in the space of children’s media) and most recently, with the research division of Nick Jr. where again she did work with preschool aged children.

Since coming to USC, she has been part of a team at the Annenberg Innovation Lab which developed a white paper in collaboration with the Joan Ganz Cooney Center, T is For Transmedia, which I have featured here before. She has increasingly been focusing her attention onto the roles new media play as adaptive and assistive technologies for families who are living with disabilities. Her work, as you will see, emphasizes the social contexts within which these technologies are situated, a topic she writes about with enormous nuance and empathy; she explores the processes by which youth and their families develop voice and assert control over their lives, while negotiating with powerful institutions, especially schools but also the medical establishment, over access to and control over these technological resources.

I am so proud of what Alper has accomplished during her time at USC and know that she is going to become an outstanding professional as she enters the academic job market this year. I wanted to use this post to call attention to her book.

You begin the book with some of the ways that the concept of disability has been rethought through critical/feminist disability studies. To what degree have these insights been translated into terms that can be understood by educators, policy-makers, and parents? Is there a gap here between theory and practice?

Before diving in, I’ll give a brief overview of some of the key intersections between disability studies and critical studies, before discussing how these theoretical developments translate to the U.S. context of education and learning.

Disability is a constantly evolving concept, and my book partially captures it at one particular moment in history. It is a dimension of human difference, while also containing a multitude of differences. For example, while some disabilities are more visible and permanent (e.g. Down syndrome, paralysis), other conditions are less immediately apparent and fluctuate in severity more frequently (e.g. chronic fatigue syndrome, multiple chemical sensitivities).

Two broad ways of thinking about disability initially grew out of the field of disability studies: a medical model of disability, in which disability is understood as undesirable, individualized, and defined by deficit; and a social model, which distinguishes between impairment (as bodily difference) and disability (as the social and structural environment that disables different bodies).

A critical approach to disability studies challenges both models. While the medical model offers needed medical solutions for pain, discomfort, and fatigue, political and social transformations are also needed to make the world more accessible and safe for individuals with disabilities, their families, and caregivers. The social model does not account for the ways that disability is experienced on an individual level, the ways that impairment and disability mutually shape one another, and how these social constructions shift depending on time and place.

Critical feminist/queer disability studies scholars (including Robert McRuer, Alison Kafer, and David Serlin) offer ways of looking at disability as political that question overlapping status quos of power and privilege. It is important to note that people with disabilities are the largest minoritized group in the U.S.—19% of the population according to the U.S. Census. Critical disability studies is engaged with other disciplinary traditions that also challenge systems and structures of oppression, such as feminist studies, queer studies, ethnicity and race studies, and indigenous studies. To study any form of institutionalized discrimination in 2014 necessitates disentangling interactions between class, gender, sexuality, race, ethnicity, nationality, language, age, and especially disability.

The insights of critical disability studies are far from fully incorporated into educational practice and policy in the U.S. On a macro level, the U.S. education system is centered on the “normal” student, sorting and measuring ability through the big business of standardized testing. The system is designed to prepare students to make a “productive” contribution to society. However, this model of productivity is based on narrow ideas about what it means to contribute, primarily by adding economic value to the workforce. The ideal graduate of the U.S. educational system is nearly always able-bodied and able-minded. Critical disability scholars push back against a society that seeks to cure, rehabilitate, or make disability go away, and seeks alternative models of community and coalition building.

Another area where a critical disability studies intervention is needed is in addressing disparity among youth with disabilities. Black males are overrepresented in the high-incidence disability categories of intellectual disability, emotional disturbance, and learning disabilities (Aud et al., 2013; Ford, 2012). Though youth with disabilities comprise 13% of all U.S. students aged 3-21 (according to the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics), they make up 25% of students receiving multiple out-of-school suspensions, 23% of all students getting a school-related arrest, and 19% of expelled students (Lhamon & Samuels, 2014).

If any group has done the most to translate the insights of critical disability studies for parents, policy makers, and educators, it has been students and individuals with disabilities (who may also be parents, policy makers, and educators themselves). Unlike most people in the field of disability studies, I do not currently identify as an individual with a disability, and I am not the parent, sibling, or partner of someone with a disability. I have to work very hard to see things from a point of view that I cannot fully understand. I personally look towards organizations such as the Thinking Person’s Guide to Autism and disability rights activists such as Lydia Brown for their leadership in bridging theory and practice.

 

You also were one of the co-authors of T is for Transmedia, which advocated for transmedia play and learning. In what ways would the multimodality associated with transmedia enhance or detract from the media experiences of youth with disabilities?

A small but growing body of research suggests that emerging readers and writers with physical, cognitive, and intellectual disabilities may benefit from expanded opportunities to draw on their experiences with popular culture and leverage their multimodal text-making abilities (Flewitt, Kucirkova, & Messer, 2014; Peppler & Warschauer, 2012). However, the benefits or drawbacks of transmedia play for any one child depends not only on their specific set of abilities and disabilities, but—taking a more ecological approach to human development—also the social, cultural, and political context that underpins the child’s learning experiences in and out of the classroom.

I’ll provide an example from my dissertation research that illustrates these possibilities and limitations. Kevin is a non-speaking, 13-year-old mixed-race autistic boy from a lower-middle income family. While he is unable to articulate his grasp of the English language through embodied oral speech or handwriting, his mother, Rebecca, indicated that he demonstrated strength in print literacy and an array of new literacies including technological fluency and visual literacy.

She drew heavily on instances of her son’s media use to talk about his verbal abilities. For example, Rebecca told me that Kevin used the letter tile game Bananagrams to spell “‘Indiana Jones’ before he could spell his own name.” The Harry Potter DVD menu in particular provided rich seed material. Said Rebecca, “He would spell ‘prologue.’ Prologue was his word. Prologue, prologue, prologue. Then he would spell ‘quidditch pitch.’ He would spell ‘Florean Fortescue’s Ice Cream Parlour.’”

Kevin’s wordplay with the language of DVD menus provided an opportunity for learning. However, clinicians, behavioral therapists, and sometimes parents tend to pathologize repeated viewing of movie credits by autistic youth (Liss, Saulnier, Fein, & Kinsbourne, 2006). Though Rebecca described Kevin’s transmedia play as a positive pathway to spelling, certain kinds of play by disabled children often gets promoted or prevented depending on the various institutions in which their learning is embedded (Goodley & Runswick-Cole, 2010).

 

Meryl Alper is a Ph.D. Candidate in Communication at the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at the University of Southern California.  She studies the social and cultural implications of networked communication technologies, with a particular focus on disability and digital media, children and families’ technology use, and mobile communication.  Prior to USC, she worked in the children’s media industry as a researcher and strategist with Sesame Workshop, Nickelodeon, and Disney.  She can be found on Twitter @merylalper and online at merylalper.com

“I am Handmade”: Crafting in the Age of Computers

The following piece is contributed by Samantha Close, one of my PhD Candidates in USC’s Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism. She shares here some work she has been doing about crafting in a networked culture, work which has so far yielded a very compelling short documentary about the people who make the things we like to buy on Etsy, and which she believes will become the focus of her dissertation.

“I Am Handmade: Crafting in the Age of Computers”  Samantha Close I wasn’t prepared to fall in love with crafting. It was a brisk January in Boston, 2013, and I was at the Modern Language Association annual conference engaged in the serious business of academic talk about comics. But in the breezeway between the official conference hotel and the convention center, where more or less every academic in the United States (and beyond) who does work related to literature was presenting papers, lay the most fortunate Barnes and Nobles bookstore in the world. For the occasion, the store had moved everything related to classic and contemporary highbrow literature to front and center.

As a student of popular culture who had presented on Spider-Man adaptations the year previous, I sighed a bit at the bookstore’s idea of what academics would find interesting. Still, books are books. And sometimes, books are next to knitting magazines featuring fan-written patterns from which to knit items that Jane Austen’s characters might have worn at various points in her novels. As a fan of Jane Austen in general (Pride and Prejudice in specific) and an enthusiastic cosplayer, I was delighted. That I had no idea how to knit was a minor, insignificant detail.

A year and a half (and two shawls, three hats, and innumerable attempts at socks) later, my dissertation research has centered itself around transformations in the communities, economies, and meanings of creative work, with artists and crafters who sell their work on Etsy as my major case study. I made the documentary short “I Am Handmade: Crafting in the Age of Computers” as part of that research.  Throughout the film I’m exploring what it means to be handmade.

For some, it’s all about their hands and their materials. Physically crafting objects tends to involve repetitive motion and immersion in the feel of things, the flow. Others delight in tinkering, working out what merino fiber, silver poly clay, and broken metal sextants can become with some patient trial and error.

In the larger cultural context, I’d argue there’s more similarity than first meets the eye between spinners meeting up in a New York mall food court comparing fibers, techniques for making thread, spindles, and wheels, and athletes converging on the American Ninja Warrior obstacle course comparing training regimens, costumes, course-building techniques, and methods to get through Cannonball Alley. They’re both examples of embodied participatory culture.

However, as regular readers of this blog are no doubt aware, access to the materials of participatory culture is often contested. Many of the crafters and artists I spoke with are fans, who create their own patterns, jokes, items, and designs by riffing on and re-mixing popular culture. Fans have gradually won acceptance for this kind of work as legitimately creative and share-able, but the economic systems for exchanging fan crafts are still extremely murky. As Francesca Coppa points out, “In the past few years, the nature of the arguments I have been having as a fandom advocate has changed: In the past, I found myself arguing for the legitimacy of our works; now, I find myself arguing against their exploitation.”

Fans—and crafters more generally—should have the right to keep their work within the gift economy as well as the right to benefit economically from their work if they so choose, without ludicrously high licensing fees. The film’s larger narrative tracks several crafters who do seek to turn their passions into full-time jobs. This is harder than it sounds, and winning the fair use battle isn’t even the half of it.

When what you love to do, you also ought to do, and ought to do for eight-plus hours a day, your body and mind can both rebel. It’s a dilemma that I’m intimately familiar with as an academic. Particularly as one who broke down and bought a ridiculously expensive ergonomic chair set-up when the simple act of sitting at my desk computer to edit this film became overwhelmingly painful. But I’m still glad I made the film. Ultimately, this is the larger meaning of what it is to be “handmade.”

People need different balances of work, play, and overlaps there-between, and we’re going to struggle to find them. We can and should build structures and communities of support, places where people can be real about the difficulties they’re facing and find some answers, and we must respect people who have found the amount and arena of struggle that works for them. You can’t make a silver origami cat without the kiln.

For those local to Southern California, “I Am Handmade” will screen at the CSU Long Beach Human Cinema Film Festival on Thursday, November 13. The screening will be followed by a Q&A with Samantha Close.

Samantha Close is a doctoral student in Communication at the University of Southern California.  Her research interests include fan studies, critical theory, theory-practice, new media, gender, and race. She focuses particularly on amateur media production and transforming models of creative industries and capitalism.  Her writing has recently appeared in the Sampling Media anthology published by Oxford University Press.  She also likes cats and knits.  A lot.

Playing the Piracy Card: An Interview with Aram Sinnreich (Part Three)

You write in the book about the “anti-piracy agenda.” What kinds of policies have emerged from the music industry’s anti-piracy efforts and what do you see as their “collateral damage”?

I’m glad you asked, because this is really the point that the book aims to make. Once we accept that the well-worn story of Napster-killed-the-music-industry is at best debatable and most likely pure bunk, we can take a closer look at the laws and policies that have been developed in the name of combating “piracy” and evaluate their broader social and economic impact, which is significant.

The general trend for copyright laws, treaties and policies over the years has been towards expansion: a broader range of cultural expression has been covered, for a wider set of uses, for longer periods of time, with harsher penalties for infringement. In the interest of pursuing infringers, American government offices ranging from the DOJ to the Department of Homeland Security to new, specialized ones like the Intellectual Property Enforcement Coordinator (a/k/a the Copyright Czar) are being called upon to police and enforce infringement on behalf of private rights holders. And corporations ranging from ISPs to email providers to social media platforms are being asked to track their users’ behaviors and share information about infringing communications and about infringers themselves with one another and with government offices. Congress has even tried, at least twice in the last few years, to pass laws giving the federal government the ability to flip an internet “kill switch,” pulling the plug on every single user, in response to a vague list of “cybersecurity threats,” which definitively include IP infringement.

Some of these laws and treaties have been ratified, others are in progress, and others have died on the vine. Together, they represent a well-planned, comprehensive wish list concocted by the music industry and its allies in Hollywood and Silicon Valley, purchased with literally billions of dollars in above-the-table lobbying and campaign finance contributions, to say nothing of other modes of inducement, such as the threat of economic devastation by the US Trade Representative against foreign sovereign states that resist participating in IP law “harmonization” via secretly-negotiated trade accords. This might sound like the plot of a lesser Alan J. Pakula paranoiafest from the ’70s, but thanks in part to whistleblowers like Chelsea Manning, as well as the tireless efforts of public advocates at organizations like EFF and Public Knowledge, I can confidently present these claims as factual, and support it with a wealth of documentation (my book has 34 pages of endnotes, and I could easily have doubled that figure).

The “collateral damage” from this antipiracy agenda spills into nearly every facet of our society, from the marketplace to the political process to the public sphere. On the commercial level, market titans including the major labels have wielded IP laws like bludgeons to crack down on competitors and innovators, using the threat of costly litigation and costlier damage awards to coerce startups into agreements that consign them to permanent insolvency, or to shutter the few that resist. Criminals and unethical actors ranging from phishing scammers to patent trolls to “copyright monetization companies” like RightsCorp and BayTSP have exploited the laws’ contours and complexities to cheat and extort untallied billions of dollars from small businesses and blameless individuals, while music and film companies have sued hundreds of thousands of their own best customers. Our courts are clogged with baseless litigations, the marketplace is littered with the remains of once-promising commercial ventures, and hundreds of thousands of families have faced economic hardship above and beyond the privations caused by our sputtering economy.

Even worse, however, are the threats posed by these laws to democratic self-governance and civil liberties, both in the US and elsewhere around the world. Relatively tame copyright laws like the DMCA have already been exploited successfully to remove viral presidential campaign videos from YouTube, to quell dissent and silence criticism, and to limit citizens’ access to online newspapers and public forums. The new breed of copyright laws promoted by today’s piracy crusaders aim to upgrade these powers, compelling businesses to spy on citizens without a warrant and report on their behaviors to governments agencies, and giving both commercial and public institutions the legal power to disconnect individual users, surveil their communications, and take down entire internet domains based on unproven allegations of infringement, all without transparency, accountability or easy recourse to appeal for those affected.

I wrote the bulk of this book in 2012 and early 2013, before the earth-shattering revelations of government overreach exposed by Edward Snowden, but even at that point it was easy to see that such powers would inevitably be used at best carelessly and in all probability corruptly, and that once they were granted, it would be nearly impossible to revoke them. To me, Snowden’s leaks only confirm this suspicion, and should give us further pause before we bestow such legal powers on either governments or corporations, especially given that a) they clearly possess the technological capacity to exploit such powers to the fullest, and b) they lack the organizational rigor and/or political will to prevent such powers from being exploited maliciously and anti-democratically. In the final analysis, is it really worth taking such risks to ward off a phantasmagorical boogeyman, and ineffectually at that?

You offer a strong critique throughout the book on the music industry’s position. What are you advocating as alternatives to the current system?

This is, of course, the trillion-dollar question. In the book, I don’t conclude with a specific set of agenda items; instead, I discuss a range of different solutions and amendments to intellectual property law proposed by critics and scholars across the political spectrum, both inside and outside the government, in the US and elsewhere around the world. There are some great ideas out there, some of them radical and some merely ameliatory, and I was more interested in reflecting this diversity of opinion than in furthering my own.

But since you ask… At the very least, I would support the following agenda items:

- Shorter copyright terms. Currently copyright lasts for an author’s life plus 70 years – an order of magnitude longer than the 14-year term originally applied when the law was created. In a recently leaked draft of the secret TPP treaty, Mexico proposed that all signatories extend copyright to author’s life plus 100 years (I wonder where they got that idea?). Even our own Register of Copyrights, Maria Pallante, has suggested that we revert to life plus 50 years. I think the term should be even shorter, maybe in the range of 20-30 years; beyond that point, I believe it functions more to protect entrenched economic interests than to incentivize new creative production.

- A digital citizens bill of rights. We need to make sure that, IP infringement notwithstanding, all citizens can communicate privately and securely, that they have guaranteed access to communications networks and the public sphere, and that they can express their political opinions and share their cultural ideas freely and openly without fear of censorship or recrimination. Ron Wyden and Daryl Issa tried to pass a law like this called the OPEN Act a few years ago, and it went nowhere. More recently, Brazil successfully passed a law with some of these provisions, called the Marco Civil da Internet. Ironically enough, it was Snowden’s whistleblowing that gave the Brazilian government the momentum it needed to get the bill passed.

- Protection against copyright and patent trolls. In recent years, the number of US patent cases has skyrocketed, and last year over two-thirds of them were initiated by “trolls,” or companies whose only economic stake resides in their ability to litigate. This is widely agreed to be a serious problem (President Obama himself raised this as a key issue in his most recent State of the Union address), but thus far our legislators failed to pass the potentially effective Innovation Act of 2013, and the watered down TROL Act of 2014 has yet to be voted on in the House.

- A right to remix. Our musical cultures and industries have thrived for decades because we have a compulsory right to cover songs. Once a composition has been recorded, anyone is free to make their own version of it, paying a statutory rate to the rights holder for the privilege. It’s hard to imagine how much more impoverished our musical landscape would be if that hadn’t been the case – if you had to ask permission and negotiate with publishers and composers every time you wanted to record or perform one of their songs. Yet that’s exactly how it is today with sample-based music like hip-hop, mashups, EDM and techno; if you want to sample even a millisecond of a recording, you’re at the mercy of the rights holder (most likely, a major record label) and licenses are often priced high enough to make sure that only other major labels can foot the bill. This is not the result of any clear statute, but rather due to a couple of dicey court decisions over a decade ago. As others have argued, this not only effectively stopped the evolution of hip-hop in its tracks, eviscerating its politically subversive and culturally resistant potential, but has also helped to turn us into a nation of criminals, as each of us carries the capacity to cut, paste and redistribute audio around in our pockets. Thus, we need a statutory right to remix akin to the right to cover compositions, and it needs to be affordable enough so that innovative artists in emerging genres distributing their own music or working with a smaller label can afford to do so and stay on the right side of the law.

- Small claims court for IP infringement. Currently, the statutory maximum penalty for “willful” copyright infringement in the US is $150,000 per work, and litigation attorneys bill upwards of $500/hour. These high stakes mean that the system only works for those with deep pockets, like major labels and publishers. Meanwhile, according to the Copyright Office, the median cost to litigate a copyright suit with less than a million dollars at stake is $350,000. This hurts independent artists and small businesses, whether they’re plaintiffs or defendants. A small claims court with lower damages, shorter litigation cycles, simpler processes and no precedential power would allow everyday people to pursue their rights and interests without risking economic catastrophe.

- Reduced risks and penalties for noncommercial infringement, and reduced secondary liability. One of the major victories of the piracy crusaders has been to elevate noncommercial infringement to the level of a felony, potentially punishable by hundreds of thousands of dollars fines and jail time. Given that it’s nearly impossible to use the internet without committing some form of noncommercial infringement (ever forward an email or post a page to Facebook? Gotcha!), this is an absurd and potentially dangerous state of affairs. We need to reaffirm that there is a substantive difference between those who mass-produce bootleg movies and CDs for sale in retail shops and those who distribute free mixtapes to their friends (yes, I realize there’s a lot of gray area, but I’m trying to be brief). We also need to reverse the encroachment of “secondary liability,” a legal doctrine that holds someone accountable for infringement if they played a role in a third-party’s infringement, often tenuously. For instance, even though Congress tried and failed to pass an act making it illegal to “induce” a third party to infringe copyright in 2004, that didn’t stop the Supreme Court from using exactly that standard to find Grokster liable for the actions of its users in 2005, a precedent that was applied to Limewire in 2010 (full disclosure: I served as an expert witness for the defense in both cases). This vague standard, and other similar ones, create a dangerous “chilling effect” in which blameless parties choose not to undertake actions that are well with their rights for fear of guilt by association with a third party.

My full list could probably fill up an entire book on its own (hm, sounds like a worthwhile project, but I guess Bill Patry beat me to it), but for the sake of your readers, I’ll stop here.

Aram Sinnreich is an Assistant Professor at Rutgers University, in the Department of Journalism & Media Studies. His work focuses on the intersection of culture, law and technology, with an emphasis on emerging media and music. He is the author of two books, Mashed Up (2010), and The Piracy Crusade (2013), and has written for publications including the New York Times, Billboard and Wired. Prior to Rutgers, Sinnreich served as Director at media innovation lab OMD Ignition Factory, Managing Partner of media/tech consultancy Radar Research, Visiting Professor at NYU Steinhardt, and Senior Analyst at Jupiter Research. He is also a bassist and composer, and has played with groups and artists including progressive soul band Brave New Girl, dub-and-bass collective Dubistry, Agent 99, King Django, and Ari-Up, lead singer of the Slits. Sinnreich holds a Ph.D. in Communication from the University of Southern California, and a master’s in Journalism from Columbia University.

Young People’s Ethical Diconnects?: An Interview with Carrie James (Part Three)

Another common misperception is that young people do not care about intellectual property. What did you research show in terms of the attitudes towards “free downloads”?

 

I’ll start out by saying that my chapter on property was probably the most difficult one to write – in large part because the issues around intellectual property in a digital age are so complex and contested. The ease with which we can access and remix others’ content provides an array of positive opportunities, but also raises questions and concerns about ownership and authorship.

 

In our interviews with youth, we sought to understand to what extent their thinking about topics such as music downloading and other uses of online content was morally and ethically sensitive. In other words, to what extent did youth consider near or distant effects on others associated with a decision to download a piece of music illegally, or copy and paste a portion of someone else’s writing for a school assignment? As I report in the book, youth often embraced the belief that creators had a fundamental right to control how their content was used by others. In other words, “what’s theirs is theirs.” Yet, this belief was most often linked to uses of text (books and articles) for schoolwork. When they spoke about music downloading, a “free for all” or “free for me” mindset typically dominated.

 

On the whole, youth were often quite conscious of the implications of music downloading or improper use of online textual sources. Yet, their thinking was often (and sometimes exclusively) concerned with the potential negative sanctions they might suffer for a property violation. The moral or ethical dimensions of appropriation practices didn’t surface all that often and, when they did, were often dismissed or downplayed with mantras such as “everybody downloads.”

 

Around the time that I was writing the chapter, internet freedom activist Aaron Swartz committed suicide. I didn’t know Aaron personally, but I knew of him and deeply admired his perspective and courage. His activism was based on an explicit set of beliefs about open access, an ethical argument for free culture. As I pored over the perspectives young people shared with us about piracy and the like, I could see glimmers of Aaron’s beliefs here and there. Some teens and young adults pointed to the outrageous profits reaped by major record labels and the unfairly high costs that prevent low-income people from access to cultural goods. However, for the most part, youths’ thinking about these issues was deeply self-focused (“I don’t want to spend a dollar per song on iTunes”) and quite blind to the moral and ethical issues.

 

And, as with privacy issues, adult messages about property appeared to do little to encourage greater sensitivity to ethical considerations. According to youth, teachers tend to emphasize sanctions (a failing grade) for improper citation of sources over exploring the ethical rationale underpinning attribution. And none of the youth we talked with reported conversations with adults about the ethical dimensions of piracy or of unfair intellectual property restrictions.


You end the book talking about “conscientious connectivity.” How are you defining this term and what are some of the steps you are advocating towards achieving it?

 

I see conscientious connectivity as a disposition towards online life that is mindful or attentive to the kinds of moral and ethical issues I discuss throughout the book. In keeping with the work of my Project Zero colleagues on thinking dispositions, I talk about skills, sensitivity, and inclination as essential components of conscientious dispositions.

 

To be more specific, engaging digital ethical issues requires specific thinking skills. For example, the skill of complex perspective-taking – considering the perspectives of multiple stakeholders and audiences – is arguably important to engage as one considers whether or not to post on YouTube a video of one’s classmates engaged in a fight in the locker room, or engaged in a heated discussion of political issues.

 

Having the skills to consider these issues thoroughly is important, but before one can do so, one has to be sensitive to the potential for moral or ethical concerns. So conscientious mindsets are also based on sensitivity – being alert to potential adverse (and positive) implications for others that might follow in the wake of a tweet, Instagram photo, or YouTube video. Cultivating ethical sensitivity can help correct the kinds of ethical blind spots about online privacy, property, and participation that are my concern. But I’m also concerned with disconnects – attitudes that reflect a disinclination to engage moral and ethical themes. Therefore, conscientious connectivity also involves an inclination to wrestle with dilemmas, to fully reflect on and consider competing interests and implications that may flow from an online choice.

 

As noted, our educational materials co-developed with your team and with Common Sense Media have been purposively designed to support the development of ethical thinking skills, sensitivity, and an inclination to engage digital dilemmas.

 

Ultimately, though, conscientious connectivity is most powerful when it inspires socially positive online acts rather than simply preventing harmful behavior. So I also talk about the importance of cultivating a greater sense of agency in young people, supporting them to participate in active ways to create counter-narratives to the more troubling modes of discourse they may see on social media and in other online spaces. A powerful first step towards supporting ethical agency is calling attention to the exemplary ways in which some young people have leveraged digital and social media. In closing the book, I write about Samantha Stendal, a college student who was incensed and inspired to act after hearing details emerging from the Steubenville rape case. Beyond the rape itself, perpetrators and bystanders had circulated photos and video of the assault, including a 12½-minute YouTube video featuring onlookers joking about it. Stendal created a short and pointed video called, A Needed Response, that is a powerful counter-narrative to the attitudes expressed by those involved in the assault. To date, the video has over 9 million hits on YouTube.

 

Your more recent research has shifted towards a focus on youth and participatory politics. Here, again, you are developing a mixed picture of what is working and what isn’t working in the civic lives of American young people. Can you share some early findings from this research?

 

Your characterization of what we’re finding as a “mixed picture” is just right, I think. In our interviews with civically active youth, we’ve seen some truly impressive ways in which they are leveraging digital and social media in support of issues like AIDS awareness, youth violence, and marriage equality. The examples that are emerging from our work – and especially yours – have great potential to inspire other youth to participate in public life in new ways.

 

At the same time, we’ve been concerned about a set of findings that suggest that young activists are increasingly cautious about using digital means to engage in political and civic ways. Emily Weinstein, a terrific doctoral student on our research team, recently published a paper that describes how civic youth in our study managed the opportunities for civic voice afforded by social media in different ways. Most youth shared their civic and political ideas across social media platforms, while some differentiated by platform, holding back from talking about civic issues in some spaces while expressing in others. But some youth bounded their civic voices entirely online – that is, while they were actively involved in civic and political life offline, they purposively sought to keep evidence of their activities off the internet.

 

The reasons why some youth decided to bound the civic voice online varied. What was most worrying to us were the cases where youth reportedly held back because of concerns about uninterested or hostile audiences. To our minds, this suggests a need for supports to help youth manage uncivil discourse rather than simply opting out of online expression about public issues. As part of the Educating for Participatory Politics action group, we are collaborating with Facing History and Ourselves to develop educational supports to call attention to the great potentials of digital media for civic engagement. Supporting strategies for productive and meaningful discourse online is an important concern in this work.

 

Carrie James is a Research Director and Principal Investigator at Project Zero, and Lecturer on Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Her research explores young people’s digital, moral, and civic lives. Since arriving at Project Zero in 2003, Carrie has worked with Howard Gardner and colleagues on The Good Project. She co-directs the Good Play Project, a research and educational initiative focused youth, ethics, and the new digital media, and the Good Participation project, a study of how youth “do civics” in the digital age. Carrie is also co-PI of the Out of Eden Learn project, an educational companion to Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Paul Salopek’s epic Out of Eden walk. Her publications include Disconnected: Youth, New Media, and the Ethics Gap (The MIT Press, 2014). Carrie has an M.A. and a Ph.D. in Sociology from New York University. 

Young People’s Ethical Disconnects?: An Interview with Carrie James (Part Two)


Early on, you describe some of the concerns which motivate your work: “I harbor real concerns about the local and global consequences, often hidden, of the uncivil, cruel, and harmful conduct that is common, if not routine, in some online communities. I worry that such conduct discourages participation, thus undercutting one of the central promises of the Internet. I also worry about the general lack of attention to moral and ethical concerns on the Internet, compared with the emphasis on personal safety issues.” What role do you think we as scholars and researchers can play in addressing those concerns?

 

Scholars and researchers in the digital media and learning space have an important role to play here. While a number of scholars attend to these issues in their work (e.g., Whitney Phillips forthcoming book), I’ve often perceived a lack of interest – and sometimes even push back – in the DML community about focusing on digital misdeeds or areas of concern. I do appreciate the importance of calling attention to the positive learning, civic, and other opportunities that the internet provides for youth. I also appreciate the need to push against media panics that often dominate the discourse around the internet.  But what sometimes feels like an over-emphasis on the “good stuff” is at odds with the reality that online spaces can be unfriendly, hostile, and aggressive non-communities for some participants (female bloggers and gamers are a case in point).

 

With those thoughts on the table, I think we can do more to support one another in doing research that attends to all sides of digital life — from the very positive, supportive, and promising to the very troubling, disconcerting, and discouraging examples, and everything in between.

 

But research is really just the beginning, or only part of developing effective approaches to addressing negative behavior online. Scholars need to make their work accessible to parents, educators, and youth. We need to support them and, when appropriate, even partner with them to raise the status of these issues on the educational agenda. Some of this work is being done as part of efforts to stem cyberbullying. However, I worry about the emphasis on bullying and cyberbullying in the strict sense, which can exclude attention to more subtle acts of exclusion and meanness often propagated on social media sites, through apps and other digital means.

 

As noted, a big part of our work on the Good Play Project has been the educational piece. We’ve collaborated with your group and with Common Sense Media in the past to develop supports for conversations about digital citizenship in schools and other learning environments. Through our Project Zero summer institutes and offsite conferences, Katie Davis and I convene educators for workshops related to this work. In these sessions, we share ideas and tools for reflection on the ethical dilemmas that often arise online.

 

One of the most common misperceptions about youth today is that they have little to no interest in privacy. Yet your findings show something different. How would you characterize the attitudes towards privacy that emerged from your interviews?

 

When we spoke with youth even as young as 10 about online privacy issues, we found that they were keenly aware of and concerned about privacy risks online. For those of us in the digital research community, this is not news. A number of other studies have shown that youth care about privacy (e.g., boyd & Marwick, 2011). The misconception that they don’t is often based on cases where privacy isn’t perfectly handled by youth. Further, there may be misalignments between youth and adults about what should be private vs. semi-public vs. public.

 

Pushing beyond the question of whether or not youth care about privacy, I also sought to understand how they approached online privacy more generally. I wondered about their mindsets about privacy and, given the focus of my book, the extent to which their mindsets were attentive to the moral and ethical aspects of online privacy given the opportunities digital technologies afford for breaching other people’s privacy.

 

The findings here were quite interesting. Nearly all the youth we spoke with conveyed support in some way for the mindset that privacy is largely “in your hands” online. That is, they argued that it’s up to the individual to adjust privacy settings, to consider audiences, and to make thoughtful decisions about what to post or not. However, many of these youth also suggested that privacy is not fully in your hands online. This argument was part of the mindset that “privacy is forsaken” in a digital age – that full privacy is unattainable online, so one must be careful about what one posts or be resigned to fact that privacy lapses are bound to happen. Both mindsets are attentive in different ways to the privacy risks that exist today, yet they also contain blind spots. The privacy is “in your hands” approach, taken in absolute terms, can be blind to the numerous ways in which one’s privacy can be broken online, despite efforts to control it. The forsaken mindset is more realistic. Yet, we also observed that it sometimes went along with an “anything goes” attitude with respect to other people’s privacy. In other words, for some youth, the fact that everyone gives up some measure of privacy online justifies looking at, circulating, or leveraging any information found about someone online.

 

Given these blind spots, it was gratifying to find evidence of another mindset that attends more directly to moral and ethical themes: the “privacy is social” mindset. Here, youth spoke in eloquent terms about the need to be vigilant about other people’s potential privacy concerns online. Some youth spoke about routine practices of checking in with friends before posting any photos featuring them on social media. Others said they developed guidelines with friends, siblings, and parents for protecting and respecting each other’s privacy online. These measures are impressive in taking seriously that privacy is a social, moral, and ethical issue in an environment in which we can search and share freely about one another. Unfortunately, the privacy as social mindset, and explicit measures to achieve it, didn’t come up as often as the other attitudes. Related to this, messages from adults about online privacy almost always supported the privacy as forsaken and “in your hands” mindsets along with individual-centered (and ultimately insufficient) strategies for privacy protection. This is a front where educators and parents could be doing much more to shift the conversation in ways that support social, moral and ethical approaches to privacy.

 Carrie James is a Research Director and Principal Investigator at Project Zero, and Lecturer on Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Her research explores young people’s digital, moral, and civic lives. Since arriving at Project Zero in 2003, Carrie has worked with Howard Gardner and colleagues on The Good Project. She co-directs the Good Play Project, a research and educational initiative focused youth, ethics, and the new digital media, and the Good Participation project, a study of how youth “do civics” in the digital age. Carrie is also co-PI of the Out of Eden Learn project, an educational companion to Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Paul Salopek’s epic Out of Eden walk. Her publications include Disconnected: Youth, New Media, and the Ethics Gap (The MIT Press, 2014). Carrie has an M.A. and a Ph.D. in Sociology from New York University. 

 

Are Apps a Trap?: An Interview with Howard Gardner and Katie Davis (Part Three)

My readers are apt to be especially interested in your discussion of creativity in the era of apps. You draw some interesting conclusions by looking at student artworks and how they have evolved over the past few decades. One of the counterintuitive trends you identify is a shift from fantastical subject matter towards more faithful reconstruction of everyday realities. This is surprising to me in part because of the stereotype, which is grounded in some reality, that this is a generation which grew up reading Harry Potter, but some research suggests that schools have tended to have a strong towards realist or at least naturalistic reading, especially in a world where we moved away from the study of literature and towards a focus on deciphering short fragments in preparation for reading comprehension exams. What factors might contribute to this emphasis on realistic rather than fantastical forms of expression?

Perhaps the most innovative research in the book entailed the development of detailed coding categories that can be administered, blindly, to works of art and literature produced by young people between 1990 and 2011. The scrupulous application of these codes led to the conclusion that visual art by young people today seems more imaginative than art produced by young people in the early 1990s, while literary productions by today’s cohort are less imaginative, in our sample of creative works.

This is a single study and we’d be foolish to draw excessive conclusions one way or the other. We very much hope that other scholars and educators, both in the US and abroad, will make use of these or similar tools and see whether they come up with essentially the same findings.

With this disclaimer, we initially shared your surprise about the creative writing findings. It’s not what you’d necessarily expect from youth who grew up immersed in the extremely imaginative world of Harry Potter! But these youth are also growing up in a world of standardized testing, with its pressure to master the perfect five-paragraph essay;and in schools that, with the introduction of Common Core standards, increasingly emphasize nonfiction reading. These trends must certainly have an effect on their use of language.

Others have pointed out to us that young people may be more imaginative in the writing that they do online, for friends and in interest-driven communities, than in writing produced for school or for publication. That’s an interesting idea worth pursuing and one that Mimi Ito and colleagues in the Connected Learning Research Network are shedding light on. Of course, we are talking about general trends—no one would claim that there are no young people producing imaginative works. Indeed, perhaps in other areas—ranging from the visual arts to the creation of new businesses—they are more imaginative than peers in earlier eras. And it may even be the case that we come to think differently of creativity in a digitally-suffused era.

Many of us have argued that contemporary remix practices can encourage certain kinds of critical and creative responses to the culture around them, but you seem to be siding a bit more with Jaron Lanier that such forms of creativity are limited or constrained in so far as they build upon pre-existing cultural materials. Can you explain your position here?

Early in their careers, artists are always producing in relation to the works around them and the works that are most valued—either emulating them or consciously rejecting them….or both! We see mash ups, remixing, and sampling with digital media as an extension of an age-old practice of artists. And, like you, we recognize exciting new opportunities for youth to create, share, and receive feedback on their creative productions. Indeed, we observed these opportunities firsthand in our study of young fan fiction authors on LiveJournal. At the same time, perhaps it is easier in an app world than it was before just to keep remixing, with the constraints already present in the current technologies; and if so, perhaps, fewer individuals will go out entirely on a limb.

To illustrate the effects of technological constraints on the artistic process, we draw on the work of computer scientist and cultural critic Jaron Lanier. Lanier uses the expression “lock-in” to describe the limited range of actions and experiences open to users when they interact with computer software. As a result of a programmer’s (often arbitrary) design decisions, certain actions are possible—indeed, encouraged—while others don’t even present themselves as options.

Lanier’s primary example of lock-in involves MIDI, a music software program developed in the 1980s to allow musicians to represent musical notes digitally. Because its designer took the keyboard as his model, MIDI’s representation of musical notes doesn’t encompass the textures found in other instruments, such as the cello, flute, or human voice. Lanier argues that something important is lost when one makes explicit and finite an entity that is inherently unfathomable (or, to invoke another lexical contrast, when one seeks to render as digital what is properly seen as analogue). Moreover, since MIDI was an early and popular entrant into the music software industry, subsequent software had to follow its representation of musical notes in order to be compatible with it. As a result, the lock-in was reified. MIDI is a good example of how early design decisions can circumscribe subsequent creative acts.

Drawing on a well-known distinction within the study of creativity, we have suggested that there may be a new trend at work. In the past, scholars made a distinction between little c creativity (the way that most of us show some originality in how we plan a meal or a holiday) and BIG C creativity (the radical innovations that we value in an Einstein, a Virginia Woolf, a Steve Jobs). Perhaps going forward, there will be more “middle C creativity”—individuals working together online to push the envelope in certain directions, but perhaps less dramatically.

Steve Jobs is an interesting case-in-point here. On the one hand, he had as much to do with creating the “APP world” as anyone. And yet, Steve Jobs was the least likely person in the world to be constrained by the apps that anyone else had created.

You make clear by the end of the book (and now in the new preface) that you are not opposed to all apps. Can you share some of your criteria for judging what constitutes a good or bad app? What are some examples of apps which you think have indeed fostered greater creativity, more exploration of identity, and more prospects for intimacy with others?

We’re often asked for examples of apps that are enabling and apps that promote dependence. Our response is that any app can be used in a more enabling or more dependent way depending on what one does with it. Consider the drawing app, Doodle Buddy. In one setting of this app, users select a drawing implement and proceed directly to fill their canvas in a free-form way, much as they would an actual canvas. Another setting in the same app presents the user with an array of pre-fabricated images and backgrounds, which users select and arrange on their canvas in a paint-by-numbers way. In the first setting, users are encouraged to engage the app in an open-ended way, with few constraints imposed on them. In the second setting, users’ actions are highly constrained by the limited range of choices given to them.

In our review of various apps, we’ve found that many educational apps lean toward the app-dependent end of the spectrum—drill and kill apps for memorizing times tables, spelling, and state capitals that reward students with virtual smiley faces, candy, or pets that have little or no meaningful connection to the learning task at hand. So, when we judge an app—whether it’s an app used for educational purposes, self-expression, communication, or creative production—we judge it based on the degree to which it encourages users to engage with it in an open-ended way, as non-constrained as possible. Some promising examples of apps that promote open-ended exploration include Minecraft, Scratch, and Digicubes.

 

Howard Gardner is Hobbs Professor of Cognition and Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Best known for his theory of multiple intelligences, he has also written about creativity, leadership, and ethics in the professions. A member of the MacArthur Foundation network on “youth and participatory politics”‘, he has collaborated with Carrie James and Katie Davis on several studies of the effects of digital media on young people today.

Katie Davis is an Assistant Professor at The University of Washington Information School, where she studies the role of digital media technologies in adolescents’ academic, social, and moral lives. She also serves as an Advisory Board Member for MTV’s digital abuse campaign, A Thin Line. Katie holds two master’s degrees and a doctorate in Human Development and Education from Harvard Graduate School of Education. Prior to joining the faculty at the UW iSchool, Katie worked with Dr. Howard Gardner and colleagues at Harvard Project Zero, where she was a member of the GoodPlay Project and the Developing Minds and Digital Media Project research teams.