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

Discussion of the internet is often polarized between those who stress the personalized or individualistic nature of net culture and those who see the network as a form of collective behavior. How might the idea of the meme clarify this discussion?

 

I think that the idea of internet memes is so powerful precisely because it bridges these two perceptions. While internet memes are all about individuals creating content, they are also all about individuals creating content with awareness of each other. Memes not only involve pervasive mimicry, they are also based on intense collaborative work and complex multi-participant choreographies. Moreover, studies conducted by Ryan Milner, Assaf Nissenbaum and Kate Miltner show that memes function as a type of cultural capital: knowledge about memes and the “right” ways to use them have become a marker of membership in some communities. In these contexts the duality of being both an individual and a part of a community is flagged on a daily basis: community members are expected to be original, but not too original, when creating memes.

 

Throughout, you place a strong emphasis on the visual nature of the meme as a mode of communication. What do you see as the implications of this shift towards the visual in contemporary net culture?

The implications of the visual turn are pervasive, going way beyond my somewhat narrow emphasis on memes. Within the scope of the book I discuss this issue mainly in the political context. I claim that visual display allows greater integration between politics and pop culture, as it becomes extremely easy to Photoshop the US president’s head on the body of a Jedi knight, for instance. A second implication of the visual nature of internet memes relates to their polysemic potential, that is, their tendency to be open to multiple readings. Whereas in verbal jokes the target of mockery and the scorn expressed towards it are often clear, the openness of visual images and the lack of a clear narrative may invoke contrasting interpretations.  A third implication relates to memes’ global spread: Images may potentially cross international borders much more easily than words. However, such international flows still depend on local norms and conversions:  In some cases, images need to be replaced or localized to make sense in new territories. For example, in the book I describe the migration of the American “Successful Black Guy” meme to Israel, which resulted in a local take titled  “Akivathe Humanist Ultra-Orthodox“.  I am currently exploring some other implications of this, focusing on photo-based memes. It seems that meme creators subvert some of the fundamental roles traditionally associated with photography, such as the notion of photographs as “windows to reality”. But I’ve just started thinking about these issues so I hope to have more to say in a couple of months…

 

 

Let’s talk a bit about what gets excluded in a meme culture. Are there some groups or individuals who are excluded — either implicitly or explicitly — from meme culture? Is it easier to use memes to support dominant frames of reference rather than to challenge existing structures of belief?

This is a crucial issue which I address only briefly in the book. It would certainly appear that many groups and individuals are excluded from meme culture.  Ryan Milner’s current work on memes traces some of the racist and misogynist modes of discourse emerging in 4chan and reddit—prominent meme hubs that seem to be governed by white, privileged men.  He shows that both gender and race representations in these websites are dominated by familiar hegemonic stereotypes. The framing of these stereotypes as ironic lulz is used in many cases to whitewash exclusion. At the very same time, Milner notes that at least in relation to gender, misogynistic framings are often resisted and attacked by many participants.  It is extremely important to continue thinking about these issues and broaden our scope of investigation beyond the major meme hubs. Phenomena such as “Shit X says”, which generated heated debates about sensitive issues, may constitute interesting cases for further research.

My main assertion in the book is that we should take memes seriously. And doing that also means – to a large extent – critically examining the power dynamics that constitute memes and that are constituted by them.

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

Is This the End of Television As We Know It?

The Future of Television- Annenberg Innovation Lab Summit from Annenberg Innovation Lab on Vimeo.

This video captures a really extraordinary and timely conversation that was recently hosted by the Annenberg Innovation Lab as part of its 2013 research summit. The panel was called “Transmedia and the Future of Television,” but it was really much more focused on exploring the future of television — particularly the future of the “program bundle” at a time of tremendous transition in the ways television operates within our culture. (If you want to know more about the research we are doing on transmedia, check out the “T is For Transmedia” report which the Innovation Lab released a few months ago in cooperation with the Joan Ganz Cooney Center).

I was moderator and the panelists were:

  • Gabriel Kahn, Professor of Professional Practice, Journalism, USC
  • Hardie Tankersley, VP of Platforms and Innovation, Fox Broadcasting
  • Aaron DeBevoise, Executive Vice President, Network Programming, Machinima
  • Howard T. Stein, Strategist for Entertainment, Facebook Inc.

The concept of “bundling” — that is, the selling of a package of networks to subscribers rather than offering them a la carte — has been a foundation of the cable television industry over the past several decades: cable companies advertise based on the number of channels they offer, lesser interest networks survive because they are attached to high interest networks, and industry insiders claim that this is an approach that supports diversity. Others argue that bundling is to television which block booking was to the Hollywood studio era and that sooner or later, disagregation, which has hit the music and newspaper industries, will hit television also. Part of the premise of the panel was that events over the past year or so have been transformative in how television content gets funded, produced, and distributed, and how we consume it. Part of the goal of the panel was to get people from journalism, from the television industry, and from some of the emerging digital challengers to talk about these changes and how they feel they will impact the future of the medium.

What follows are some of the key indicators that the nature of television is undergoing some radical shifts as we write (some of them are discussed here, some did not get talked about because of time limits, and some have occurred since the conference, but they all represent good background for watching this session).

 

  • YouTube announces that 100 media companies and celebrities have signed up to launch their own channels for content distribution and the company has solicited a broader and more diverse group of people to curate their own playlists, directing attention on content which Wired describes as having a “cable feel” but being “way more niche than cable ever could.”

  • Surpassing the speed and scope of the earlier Susan Boyle phenomenon, Kony 2012,  a 30 minute documentary about child soldiers in Africa, reaches more than 77 million views in under four days through grassroots circulation, drawing more eyeballs that week than the highest rated television series on American television and the top grossing Hollywood box office hit that week, combined. Its success has since been followed by the global circulation of Psy’s “Gangem Style,” which has helped to introduce KPop content into the U.S. Market.

  • Hulu is offering an extensive array of international television programs as exclusive online content to their subscribers, suggesting that national borders are increasingly arbitrary in terms of television consumption, even for U.S. consumers.
  • Amazon announces that it is commissioning eleven pilots for production as web-based television series, with the pilots to be available to the public, which will help decide which ones will go into full production.

  • Some media observers note that brands may have gained greater advantage over their spontaneous social media responses during the Super Bowl blackout than they did for their paid advertising during the event. In any case, most of the brands now release their spots to YouTube and other video sharing sites prior to the Super Bowl event itself.

  • According to the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism, “Among adults younger than age 30, as many saw news on a social networking site the previous day (33%) as saw any television news (34%), with just 13% having read a newspaper either in print or digital form.”

  • A federal appeals court in New York upholds a lower court ruling in favor of Aereo, Barry Diller’s Internet startup company, which streams content from local stations via the internet without compensating the original rights holders.
  • Cablevision and Verizon have filed legal action challenging the bundling of television networks as an unreasonable constraint on trade and a threat to innovation.
  • Facebook invests heavily in becoming the central vehicle for supporting mobile television around the world.

  • Participant Media announces that their new television network, Pivot, will be available to “cordcutters” through a mobile app, whether or not they subscribe to cable television.
  • Prospect Park has brought former ABC soaps, All My Children and One Life to Live, from cancelation via web distribution.

Taken collectively, these shifts represent a significant tipping point in terms of how television is produced, distributed, and consumed. Does this spell the end of television as we know it? What happens when “television” is less a technology than a set of programming practices? What happens when more people “cut the cord” or when the industry no longer depends on the “bundle”? What happens when the intensity of fan response may become as important as the quantity of viewers in shaping which programs remain in production?

Bastard Culture!: An Interview with Mirko Tobias Schäfer (Part Two)

Your more recent work on Twitter has deployed the concept of a gift economy, building off some of the ideas in our original white paper on Spreadible Media. How are you defining gift economy? Why is this appropriate for talking about digital media? How do contemporary forms of gift economies in the context of capitalism differ from more classical understandings of this context?

It is less the ‘economy’ in gift economy than the ‘gift’ that interests us. The gift as a ‘public recognition’. And this initial public recognition with the intention of more exchanges in the future, is a key aspect in gift economies as Boris Malinowski has pointed out. Together with my colleagues Johannes Paßmann and Thomas Boeschoten we looked into Twitter data to retrieve patterns of communication (The Gift of the Gab. Retweet Cartels and Gift Economies on Twitter). When investigating two samples, the MP’s of Dutch parliament and the German top Twitter accounts, we noticed clusters of users who were retweeting each other frequently, so called retweet-cartells, similar to citation-cartels in academia. We argue that the retweet equals a ‘public recognition’ and it can serve as an ‘opening gift’ with the intention to receive retweets in return.

What does the notion of the gift economy help us to see when we look at patterns in how content travels through Twitter?

We explicitly refer to your recent work on spreadable media where you employ the notion of gift economy to explain spreadability. We agree with you that this concept provides more plausible explanations for the distribution of online content than the notion of ‘viral distribution’. The retweet, the repin, the favourite are intrinsically related to attention. However, they are ‘cheap’ gifts as they are abundant. But such a gift can gain more value through the status of the user retweeting a less popular account and hence drawing attention to it. Therefore it is unsurprising that we find politicians mostly retweeting their own party members. Members of the Favstar scene frequently retweet accounts that are equally popular. They form a retweet cartell, very similar to academic citation-cartels. However, when we look at the @replies within our sample of Dutch MP’s we can see that they do not limit their communication to their own party members but with colleagues from all parties. Therefore, we conclude that if attention is drawn to messages through retweeting, users become selective in whom to award the ‘gift’ of a retweet.

I do not know how Paßmann and Boeschoten feel about it, but I would not necessarily stick to the strict economic understanding of the ‘gift economy’. I think it will prove even more useful to adapt the term. It is most likely a feature of stimulating communication and connection. With communication, I mean ephemeral communication, not conversations. The ‘gift’ is important to fuel initial contact making. Features as the retweet, the favourite, the repin, the +1 etc. are the grease of initial social interaction on large platforms. They facilitate low threshold communication; communication is the wrong word, and even contact is not covering it. It is something between a mere ping, recognition and contact. But it is crucial to enable interaction of users and spreadability of content in social media.

Your research is interesting for the ways that it combines large-scale/quantiative “sentiment analysis” tools with more qualitative use of cultural theory. Does this reflect different skill sets within the team of researchers? Are there any insights you’d like to share about mixed methods research growing out of this project?

I’m teaching at a media studies department within the Utrecht University humanities faculty, where usually qualitative research methods are paramount. But researching new media where any user activity produces data that can be analyzed stimulates to employ those data for research. These digital methods -as Richard Rogers has dubbed them- are invaluable expansion of our tool set. In the meantime many applications are available and many more are underway. Commercial platforms provide tools, but also the two main pioneering groups in this area, Manovich’s Cultural Analytics  and Roger’s Digital Methods Initiative  provide handy tools on their websites. For our Utrecht Data School  we teamed up with Buzzcapture  as a technological partner that supports our research actively with tools for data aggregation and social media data analysis. We conduct research concerning specific questions for our partners from public administrations, NGO’s and corporations. However, we take the liberty of asking different questions than the partners posed, or approach things from different angle.

I can see that student teams quickly develop a sort of division of labor, where scraping of data, working in spreadsheets, visualizing data and networks are carried out by different members of a team. We try to prevent this as far as possible, because we want all students to be involved in the entire process of the research project from scraping the data, cleaning up the data and preparing them for analysis and visualization to interpretation and contextualization. However, this is not easy, as there are indeed many specific tasks that require specialized knowledge and skills.

This work is inherently interdisciplinary. Software developers, computer scientists, data scientists, statisticians and also data journalists are great to team up with for different research projects. We frequently invite colleagues from very different areas to participate in the Utrecht Data School, either through directly contributing to a project or to teach students.

To the humanities researcher this development is exciting for two reasons: data analysis and visualization produces new insights in the online phenomena we are investigating. But through conducting these tools and methods we learn also about their role in epistemic processes. Our knowledge society increasingly thrives on computed results and automated information processing. The computer generated infographics appear persuasively convincing. It is therefore important to develop literacy that allows us to use the tools but also to be informed about their limitations and their persuasive effect. In view of your concerns about techno-determinism -which I share- I want to emphasize that we deliberately want them to develop critical understanding for the role of information technology in our epistemic processes.

We also want them to experience how unstable, how experimental and exploratory our research activities are. Although we think the results are often compelling, we want to keep up a healthy skepticism and remain open for doing things differently. We are also aware that we are in a data-rich environment, but that unfortunately research can appear analysis-poor. And I think it is necessary for the emerging ‘digital humanities’ to make this skepticism an inherent part of their use of information technology.

Mirko Tobias Schäfer is assistant professor of new media and digital culture at the University of Utrecht (Netherlands) and research fellow at Vienna University of Applied Arts. He blogs at www.mtschaefer.net.

Bastard Culture!: An Interview with Mirko Tobias Schäfer (Part One)

It says something about the compartmentalization of academic culture that I only belatedly discovered Mirko Tobias Schäfer’s Bastard Culture!: How User Participation Transforms Cultural Production (published by Amsterdam University Press in 2011) — a work which poses some important critiques of the concept of participatory culture, especially as it relates to recent developments around Web 2.0 and social media. Schäfer, based in the Netherlands, represents an important tradition of critical theory about new media which has emerged most emphatically from Europe and which should be better known among those of us working within the United States.

As we discuss here, he is especially interested in the ways that technological designs constrain or limit our participation, rendering it less meaningful, commodifying it, in ways that run directly counter to the explicit rhetoric about expanding participation and empowering users. Read closely, Schäfer’s work still embraces the value of democratic participation, yet he wants to hold companies, and scholars, to a high standard in terms of what constitutes meaningful forms of participation, and he is eager to push us beyond the first wave of enthusiastic response to these new affordances in order to look more closely and critically about how they are actually used. As my interview here suggests, there are points of disagreement between us, but there is also much common ground to be explored, and there is an urgent need for researchers from different critical and disciplinary perspectives to be working together to refine our understanding of the current media landscape. I had the pleasure of sitting down with Mirko at the recent Media in Transition conference at MIT and look forward to many future exchanges.

Having last week featured an interview with the editors of The Participatory Culture Handbook, I want to continue this focus on new theories of  participation by sharing this recent exchange I had with Schäfer.  I have come away with an even deeper respect and admiration for Schäfer’s nuanced critique of digital participation. The first installments of this interview involve looking backward to his Bastard Culture book, exploring the convergences and divergences in our thinking, and reflecting on how the debates around digital media have shifted since 2011. The closing segment shares more recent work Schäfer and his colleagues at Utrecht University have been doing using “big data” processes (in combination with more qualitative approaches) to better understand the kinds of social relations that are taking shape on Twitter.

The title of your book, “Bastard Culture,” is meant to suggest the ways that the worlds of users and producers, consumers and corporations, are “intertwined” or “blended” in the era of Web 2.0. I suspect we would agree that understanding the relations between these terms remains a central challenge in contemporary cultural theory. The goal is, as you suggest, to “provide an analysis that is not blurred by either utopian or cultural pessimistic assumptions.” Are we any closer to developing such an analysis today than we were when you first published Bastard Culture? If so, which contemporary accounts do you think help us to achieve this more balanced perspective?

It was indeed my goal to point out the general heterogeneity of online culture as well as to deconstruct the overly enthusiastic connotation of participation. Especially in academic discourse the unconditional enthusiasm for the so-called social media has cooled down by now. We can see important contributions criticizing social media platforms for their lack of cultural freedom (e.g. strict content monitoring), breach of privacy and their commercial use of user activities and user data.

I like to distinguish this critique in three general approaches, which separately focus on a) free labour, b) privacy issues and c) the public sphere quality of social media.

Drawing from Marxist theory these authors -among others Trebor Scholz, Mark Andrejewich, Christian Fuchs and partially Geert Lovink- criticize social media platforms for generating an unacknowledged surplus value from user activities and for determining effectively the scope of user activities in order to maximize commercial results. Scholz’s programmatic publication The Internet as Playground and as Factory is a strong example of this approach.

The strict regulations imposed by platform providers in combination with excessive data aggregation on users and their online activities sparked criticism concerning the lack of privacy by Michael Zimmer, Christian Fuchs and others. The general threat of surveillance -exerted by state authorities- has been convincingly addressed and criticized by Ronald Deibert, Evgeny Morozov, Wendy Chun, Jonathan Zittrain and others.

The public quality of interaction and communication on social media platforms has been described by Stefan Münker as “emerging digital publics”. Framing social media as a public sphere is not highly developed, but it provides in my opinion the most intriguing approach to understanding social media platforms and their impact on society.

Yes, I think we have made some progress in describing media practices more accurately and to give up on media myths that constituted the legend of new media as emancipating users. And this plays even out in the realm of the more general public. In Germany, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung -a conservative/market-liberal newspaper- calls for a society-wide debate on technology and provides a platform for members of Computer Chaos Club to criticize technocratic policies and short-sighted understanding of technology and media. Evgeny Morozov is also doing an excellent job with his crusade against techno-populism; or think of Jaron Laniers superb critique of imprudent media use and hasty enthusiasm. It is absolutely crucial to have these debates within the popular discourse, as it is the popular discourse that shapes the general understanding of technology. That is why I have tremendous respect for scholars who are able to reach out to general audiences and to translate complex issues in accessible language.

As you note, participation has become an increasingly problematic word that is used by many different people in support of many different and often contradictory claims about the relationship between new media technologies and consumer empowerment. What steps can we make to reclaim participatory culture as a productive category for cultural analysis?

My objective was to deconstruct the ideological connotation as well as the emotional charge of ‘participation’. Recently, we can see a similar problem with the metaphor ‘social media’. It fuels a misunderstanding of media and media practices and it structurally obscure the agency of technology (the back-end as well as the user interface), power structures and economic factors.

In my opinion, it would be already helpful to pay close attention to the language we use to describe media and media practices. Many scholars can easily identify with emancipation, anti-hegemonic attitude and political activism. However, in our enthusiasm we tend to overestimate certain practices and misrepresent media use. We have therefore to take off our blinkers. I often tell my students, that if you really like your object of research, the chance is high for making mistakes and for neglecting important facts that would distort your picture.

That’s funny. I tell my students that when you start from too critical perspective, it will be easy to flatten or simplify the phenomenon you are studying, to not look very deeply for redeeming or contradictory features, and to not take seriously what the activity might mean for those who embrace it.

Of course I agree. Being too critical is just as distorting as being too enthusiastic. What is needed is curious interest and willingness to get to the bottom of things, even if it will change your previous view of them. And research methods provide useful ways to do so.

‘Participatory culture’ can serve as productive category for cultural analysis if scholars distance themselves from their personal appreciation of media practices that might be close to their hearts but not necessarily representative for online culture. This would help to recognize the heterogeneity of the phenomenon we call participation as well as the ambiguity of technology. Taking technological aspects thoroughly into account, using ‘digital methods’ and putting case examples into perspective of the broader picture will help to do so.

The forms of participation which interest me the most are explicit participation — that is, places where people are making conscious decisions to create media or otherwise communicate with each other about issues of mutual concern. Can you explain what you mean by implicit participation and how it relates to the claims being made by Web 2.0 companies to support participation? In what sense is it meaningful to describe “implicit participation” as participation? What are we participating within?

With implicit participation I describe how platform providers have integrated user activities into easy to use interface design and eventually implemented into business models. Implicit participation describes how user activities are channeled through the platform provider’s design decisions. This ranges from interface elements as the like-button, the incentive of views on Flickr or YouTube to strategies where user unknowingly participate in additional functions of the feature they are using on a platform. The reCAPTCHA is an example of implicit participation where information provided by users for accessing a web feature is re-used in a completely different context. Many so-called gamification practices are examples of implicit participation.

I would argue that the popular ‘social media’ platforms thrive on implicit participation. It reduces consequently their dependence on intrinsic motivation, which is so crucial in explicit participation. Explicit participation becomes merely optional. The key is to lower the threshold and encourage the generic production of content, through creating data by simply using the platform’s features or by spreading or multiplying content through the easy-to-use features of reproduction: retweet, repin, share etc. or to interact through ephemeral features as the like button. We will see many more and far better forms of implicit participation integrated into web platforms in future.

A key difference between our perspectives is that you place a much greater focus on the ways that technologies enable or constrain participation, where-as I primarily discuss the social and cultural motives which shape how people use technologies. Let’s assume we both believe that both technology and culture have played a role in defining the present moment as one where issues of participation are increasingly central to our understanding of the world. I would argue that there is a difference in understanding technology in terms of affordances and in terms of determinents, given the degree to which technologies are, as you note, subject to various forms of appropriation and redefinition once they have been designed and given that digital media can be re-coded and reprogrammed, even at the grassroots level, by those committed to alternative visions of social change. I worry, though, that ascribing too much power to technology results in models of technological determinism, which make certain outcomes seem inevitable. There has been such a strong tendency in this direction over the past several decades, whether critics worrying that Google has made us stupid, or advocates talking about the democratizing effects of the internet. Thoughts?

I am also worried about a simplified view of ‘technological effects’. Especially in the popular discourse. there is a plethora of short sighted publications on the potential benefits or downsides of technological development. However, I would not argue that those perspectives inquire the technology but abuse it as a black box that facilitates whatever effect they wish to see unfold. In opposite to scholars, those writers are in the business of selling books, not in the business of conducting research.

I do not think that I am supporting a techno-determinist perspective by investigating technological qualities and by paying attention to the way design affects user activities. The popular ‘social media’ applications teach us, that we have so far underestimated the role of interface design, back-end politics and API regulation in the cultural production and social interaction playing out on these platforms. I can’t possibly neglect that power also comes in shape of technology or as Andrew Feenberg put it: “technology is the key to cultural power”. I am not focused on technology as determining on its own account, but on its agency in close interrelation with designers, users, ownership structures, and media discourses, and others actors.


While my primary emphasis in talking about participatory culture might be described as symbolic appropriation (i.e. the manipulation of narratives, characters, symbols, icons, or brands), the central focus of your analysis is on “hacking” the material dimensions of technology, including, for example, game modifications or free software efforts. We might extend this focus to include a broader array of other material practices — including Makers and Crafters — who are central to current discussions of digital culture. What do you see as the consequences of this shift in focus in terms of our understanding of how participation works or what a more participatory culture looks like?

What I really liked about Textual Poachers was that you compellingly showed how open media texts are, not only to interpretation as Fiske had pointed out, but directly to ‘material’ appropriation and how it contributed to an entire field of cultural production. The world wide web then made the textual poachers explicitly visible, for marketeers and the general public. The second aspect I find important, and unfortunately this aspect is frequently overlooked, is that you outlined the history and the predecessors of today’s read-write culture. With the maker culture similar debates concerning ‘poaching’ will unfold. We will see a new debate on copyrights and corporations will go out of their way to protect their designs from being ‘printed’. There will be attempts by providers of 3D printers to control the device and its use. I would assume that the dynamics which I have dubbed confrontation, implementation and integration will play out in relation to the makers culture as well. The recent debates on MakerBot’s decision to deviate from the open-source model indicate an attempt of implementation.


As you note, the initial wave of excitement about participatory culture has been met with strong critiques focused on issues of free labor and data mining as forms of exploiting the popular desire for more meaningful participation. Can you describe some of the ways that users have sought to assert their own claims on the technology in the face of their ownership and exploitation by the creative industries?

It’s remarkable that dissent with a corporate platform plays out in quite traditional forms of protest and petition. On Facebook users ‘like’ petitions that represent their claim for better privacy regulations, or they formulate a Social Media Bill of Rights, call for a QuitFacebookDay etc.

There are other examples such as the Social Media Suicide Machine which allows users to delete their profiles. Then there are alternatives to the commercial web platforms and services. Diaspora was heralded as the Facebook killer and is now depict as a barrel burst. The UnlikeUs conference has been established as a platform for critics of ‘social media monopolies’ to connect and to discuss alternatives. But we can also see that civil right groups and privacy advocates lobby on behalf of users. However, I am afraid that the majority of the users can’t be bothered with these issues.

You conclude the book with this important statement: “We must not sit on our hands while cultural resources are exploited and chances for enhancing education and civil liberties are at stake.” This seems like a powerful statement of what’s at stake in debates about participatory culture. So, what forms of action do you think we can or should take as scholars and as public intellectuals to respond to this situation?

The easy to use interfaces of the social web stimulated a new large group of users to use the world wide web. It also put the web again on the agenda of policy makers to regulate, to control and to monitor user activities. Designed as advertiser-friendly platforms, social media inherently provide the possibility for user assessment and control through API’s which are already routinely used by law enforcement. We can also see how the powerful companies as among others Apple, Facebook, Google and Amazon affect cultural freedom on the web. Facebook’s prudery appears (especially to us Europeans) as astonishingly weird and hostile to culture and freedom of expression. However, since social media platforms have emerged as an expanded public sphere, the censorship of items that might distort the rosy world-view of advertisers and the naivete of uninformed users is appalling. I would not mind if those platforms were a shopping mall somewhere in the margins of the world wide web, but they increasingly become a center part of the web and therefore an important role in our public sphere.

Unsurprisingly, Facebook is the poster boy for policy makers when thinking about eGovernance or other fancily dubbed forms of harmless civic participation. Facebook promises a dangerously safe way of dealing with citizens as their implicit participation features render participation into an easy-to-handle commodity that provides participation as a mere lip-service. Something, that even in democratic societies is still very appealing to policy makers.

What we need, is a society-wide debate on technology and its role in society. We need to discuss to what extent we accept platforms to distort the view upon reality by creating an controversy-free and advertiser-friendly filter bubble.

Mirko Tobias Schäfer is assistant professor of new media and digital culture at the University of Utrecht (Netherlands) and research fellow at Vienna University of Applied Arts. He blogs at www.mtschaefer.net.

Videos for Transmedia Hollywood 4: Spreading Change

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

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

Denise Mann (Moderator)

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

Rob Schuham
CEO, Action Marketing

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

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

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

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

Panel 2 Transmedia For a Change

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

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

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

Katie Elmore Mota
Producer, CEO of PRAJNA Productions

Sam Haren
Creative Director, Sandpit

Mahyad Tousi
Founder, BoomGen Studios

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

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

Panelists:

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

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

Erick Huerta
Immigrant’s rights activist

Jonathan MacIntosh
Pop Culture Hacker and Transformative Storyteller

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

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

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


Panel 4 The e-Entrepreneur as the New Philanthropist

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

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

Sean D. Carasso
Founder, Falling Whistles

Yael Cohen
Founder/CEO, Fuck Cancer

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

Milana Rabkin
Digital Media Agent

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Spreadable Media…At It’s Best

by Elisabeth Shabi, Reinhardt College

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

red

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

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

For statistics purposes, it should be noted:

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

Untitled

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

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

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

 

obama

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

sotomayor

 

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

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

Is this not spreadable media at its finest?

Videos, Videos, Videos….

Today, I wanted to share with you some videos from recent events where I have participated as a speaker or moderator.

A few weeks ago, I took the stage at the Tim O’Reilly Tools for Change conference in New York City with two amazing thinkers and good friends — Cory Doctorow, science fiction and Young Adult writer and digital advocate and Brian David Johnson, the man behind the recent book, Vintage Tomorrows: A Historian and a Futurist Travel Through Steampunk into the Future of Technology (for which I wrote an introduction).  Inspired by the Three Tenors, we jokingly billed ourselvesas the Three Geeks. In the conference context, the exchange — which spanned across everything from digital publishing to science fiction — was frustratingly short. We were just getting started, really, when the timer went off. We are hopeful we can bring a much longer conversation to some other venue before much longer.  But, in the meantime, we hope you will enjoy this video of the exchange.

Also, this past month, I was moderator for a Google Hangout discussion of Interacting with Transmedia, part of the InterActs series sponsored by . The featured panelists were:

Marc Smolowitz, Director, Producer, Executive Producer, Documentary Filmmaker

Luisa Dantas, Director/Producer/Editor, Land of Opportunity

Jo Ellen Kaiser, Executive Director, The Media Consortium

Ingrid Kopp, Director of Digital Initiatives at Tribeca Film Institute

Danielle Riendeau, Blogger for KillScreen, Instructor of Interactive Storytelling at Northeastern University, Communications Officer for ACLU-NorCal

InterActs is a conversation series created in partnership between NAMAC and the Daily Dot. Over the next several months, these two teams will host a series of online conversations on creative expression in digital environments. Unlike many programs on transmedia that focus on Hollywood producers and franchises, this event was centered on what people have called the East Coast School of Transmedia, where there is often a strong emphasis on independent and public media production, and here, on transmedia for social change. If you enjoy this video, we hope you will consider joining us for this year’s Transmedia Hollywood event, coming up on April 12 at UCLA, where the focus will be on different models for promoting social change in a world of spreadablity and transmedia production.

This past weekend, Sam Ford, Joshua Green, and I took our Spreadable Media book to South by Southwest, where we gave a talk to a packed auditorium, but also did a range of interviews. Here are a few of the ones that have already appeared on line. We note in the introduction that Spreadable Media tries to address a range of different audiences, and these interviews give some suggestion of how these various groups are taking up our ideas.

 

Here, you can see the three authors, seated rather uncomfortably on a coach, talking to a reporter from Gen/Connect about the role of the audience in creating value in a networked culture

Here are Sam and I sitting on another coach, this time in a house set up for librarians to gather and talk about the future of media. This time, the focus is on the implications of our work for education with a strong focus on media literacy, old and new.

Part One 

Part Two

Part Three

Part Four

Part Five

Part Six

Here, Sam and I participated in a podcast interview, speaking about the book’s implications for journalists and activists.

 

And here is me on a random street corner speaking to the folks from Leo Burnett: this time with a primary focus on what Spreadable Media means for brands and advertising.

#SXLB: Henry Jenkins, Author & Professor, USC, Pt. 1: Grassroots from Leo Burnett Worldwide on Vimeo.

We are on the road a lot these days, in various combinations, talking about the book and its implications for various audiences. I expect to share more videos before much longer.

As the Scarecrow says in The Wizard of Oz, That’s me … all over!