Minecraft and the Future of Transmedia Learning

Barry Joseph has long been at the forefront of experiments in the use of virtual worlds and games for educational purposes. He helped suck me into the rabbit hole which was Second Life in its prime through asking me to engage with students from Global Kids via an avatar they crafted for me, which I still use as my portrait on Facebook. He now serves as the Associate Director of Digital Learning at The American Museum of Natural History. He shared with me today a blog post he developed for the DML Central website, which applied some ideas from the Annenberg Innovation Lab’s T Is For Transmedia report to discuss how “transmedia learning” works in the context of Minecraft. And I asked him if I could cross-post it here, since I felt it would be of interest to a range of my readers. So, enjoy!

 

Minecraft and the Future of Transmedia Learning

by Barry Joseph

 

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EPIC HEADSHOP: The Evolution of Minecraft
When my 8-year-old son typed “epic headshop at 31;65” into the command prompt, I realized the Minecraft I knew was dead. In its place something new had emerged. If I wanted to keep using it as a vehicle for advancing learning goals, it was high time for a serious reevaluation.

BEYOND GAME: The Rise of Transmedia Learning
“Minecraft is not a game.” If I had a dime for every time I’ve heard that since first learning of the worldwide phenomenon in Spring of 2011 at the Games For Change Festival… well, I’d have enough to run my own Minecraft server. My wife asked me, when she saw me writing this, “Isn’t it just like Legos?” I see her point. Legos are not a game. They are a toy. Minecraft offers little in the way of points to earn or levels to beat. You can’t really lose. It can look to an outsider like a giant digital sandbox. So yes, I get how understanding Minecraft as a toy can be of value, even accurate. It’s just less useful.

Calling Minecraft a “game,” however, seems to be a useful way to conceptualize the experience, not just for me but for the world at large. For those who monetize it, it’s a game; it’s listed as the No. 5 top-selling video game of 2014 by Forbes. For those who report on it, it’s a game; when Microsoft bought it in September for $2.5 billion in cash, the New York Times described Minecraft as “the world-building computer game.” For those who use it for teaching, it’s a game; the educator’s version of Minecraft, called MinecraftEdu, is the primary product of a company called TeacherGaming. In using Minecraft to teach everything in recent years from the power of poison to global injustice, in both libraries and museums, I’ve always understood it as a form of games-based learning. It’s not just that it was created by a game designer (Markus Alexej “Notch” Persson), or sold through a video game company, Mojang; understanding Minecraft as a game has been the most effective way for me to conceptualize what Minecraft affords within my informal learning communities.

Not any more. When the history of the 21st century is written, 2014 won’t be remembered as the year Microsoft bought Minecraft. Instead, it will be understood as the beginning of the wider understanding that Minecraft is more than just a game. Yes, it CAN be played like a game, it relies on technical components similar to games, it supports a user community around it in a manner similar to other games… but, the metaphor of “game” is no longer useful. It misses the bigger picture. It distracts us from the broader disruptions it is causing in the social fabric. So now I, too, will join the quiet chorus saying Minecraft is not just a game.

What then will I say?

This: Minecraft is our first look at the future of transmedia learning.

But what is transmedia learning? A 2013 report by the USC Annenberg Innovation Lab and the Joan Ganz Cooney Center, “T is for Transmedia: Learning Through Transmedia Play,” sheds a needed light on this emergent practice. “Transmedia,” the report notes, “by itself, means “across media” and describes any combination of relationships that might exist between the various texts (analog or digital) that constitute a contemporary

entertainment media experience.”

Henry Jenkins’ seminal 2006 White paper explored how transmedia navigation is a crucial digital literacy required by youth to understand life in the 21st century, in which a narrative is generated through combining elements expressed across multiple media. Pokemon is often offered as an example, which is a video game, animated series, and comic book, all at the same time, each piece reinforcing the others.

“T is for Transmedia” builds on that concept but takes it one step further, from transmedia storytelling to transmedia play. Transmedia play “involves experimentation with and participation in a transmedia experience, but also applies to media that has no storyline, such as open-ended video games.”

Open-ended games like Minecraft.

MINECRAFT CAMP: What My Son Learned During His Summer Vacation
The shift for me began last summer, when my 8-year old son attended what my wife and I considered a week-long Minecraft camp. The course was called “Adventures in Minecraft Game Design.” The program was run by iD Tech, which offers computer summer camps in universities and colleges around the country. I calculated that amongst their seven locations within and around my home in New York City, there were 80 different week-long sessions focused on Minecraft (and most were sold out).

My son entered the program already in love with Minecraft. He loved constructing his own buildings and structures, creating his own design challenges and solving them, imagining creative ideas and bringing them to life. Over the course of the program, however, his understanding of what Minecraft was, and what he could do with it, changed. He was not experiencing it just as a game but as a transmedia experience.

This went over my head for months until, one day, he asked me to join him in typing “epic headshop at 31;65” into his Minecraft command prompt. To understand what this meant, and the virtuous cycle that drove it, I first had to understand two major aspects of Minecraft that came to prominence in 2014: Minecraft Server Owner Communities and Minecraft Youtube Celebrities.

MINECRAFT SERVER OWNER COMMUNITIES
One of the first thing my son learned during camp was how to log into Mineplex. Most people understand that Minecraft, like all games, can be played in a solitary or on a multiplayer mode, the latter with friends through a local network connection (imagine students in a classroom or friends at a sleepover) or amongst strangers across the Internet (imagine, if you can, 1980s Bulletin Board systems, dialing into someone’s computer). Across those options, creativity has flourished, as a custom map created once can be infinitely distributed; MinecraftMaps.com, to choose just one website, offers more than 500 maps for free download, with categories ranging from Adventure and Puzzle to Creation and Parkour. But, something new had developed that was off my radar until my son brought it to my attention: Minecraft server owner communities.

For-profit server owner communities (and there are many nonprofit ones as well) make a business out of designing original and interesting Minecraft-based experiences then, charging players for premium access. No need to download custom maps — just log in (through Minecraft) and the server owner will take care of everything for you. And, each server — while still using Minecraft — offers different experiences, using software that allows them to technically mod (“modify”) the standard code.

According to the YouTuber treestompz (in his informative history “Minecraft Servers: Why They’re So Great”), the server owner community is in the size of thousands, or tens of thousands, but serving millions of users, each utilizing tens of thousands of publicly available plug-ins. The most popular servers, like Mineplex and Hipixel, reach more than a million players, supporting thousands of concurrent users. They offer new creative ways to experience Minecraft and, through competition with one another, set “the stage for a whole new level of innovation,” featuring parkour challenges, amusement park rides, “Hunger Games”-themed battles, scavenger hunts, and more. “People are using Minecraft as a sandbox,” treestompz reports, “almost as an entire game engine to create a whole new experience within Minecraft.”

Many even offer personal plots of land, like in the days of Second Life, where residents create their own economies and social activities. Players can shop in all sorts of stores, like headshops, both mundane and epic.

No, not “headshops,” as in stores that sell drug-related paraphernalia, but “headshops,” stores that literally sell heads. Not costumes an avatar might wear, but really more like busts, sculptures of some of the most famous people within this transmedia community: MineCraft YouTube celebrities.

MINECRAFT YOUTUBE CELEBRITIES
Some day, a book will be written about the relationship between YouTube and Minecraft (and how one made the other famous). Long story short, surf over to YouTube and do a search for “Minecraft.” This portmanteau is unique enough that you can be confident that the bulk of the 45,500,000 resulting videos are about this game. But, keep in mind, these are not the number of times these videos have been viewed, but simply the number of unique Minecraft videos on YouTube. If we turn to view counts, the numbers are equally astonishing. The official trailer for Minecraft has received more than 114 million views in just over two years.

More importantly, the bulk of the views are not going to “official” Minecraft videos, but posts by users. The most famous user is perhaps Stampy Cat (aka Stampylongnose, aka Stampylonghead, aka Joseph Garrett). Born in 1990, Stampy frequently creates videos of himself and friends playing Minecraft (whether in his own world, custom maps designed by others, or within the server owner community described above), targeting an audience of 6- to 14-year-olds. In 2014, Stampy rose from almost nowhere to become one of the 10 most watched YouTube channels in the world. His most popular video recently surpassed 33 million views.

Stampy might be one of the most popular Minecraft YouTubers, but his approach is common across the community. A typical Minecraft let’s play video (which is just one corner of a vast genre mashing gameplay with video production) involves demonstrating the latest and greatest in Minecraft — a fun new mod to explore, a challenging new map to play, a creative new server to visit. As Minecrafters learn to move seamlessly between these two modes of engagement — video consumer and game player — they take on a third identity, that of creator, as they try out techniques first viewed in the videos. Once players install that mod, or download that map, or visit that new server, the videos transform from entertainment to educational resource, with players often jumping between the two. And, eventually, they might make and post their own let’s play video. The virtuous cycle spins on.

If you visit a Minecraft server, you might be logged in at the same time as a famous Youtube celebrity who has also featured it within one of their videos. For my son, things don’t get better than that. He’ll take a screenshot showing the logged-on status of the celebrity. He’ll visit “shops” run by other “residents” of that server, which offer objects you can acquire. Some of those objects are the heads of Youtube celebrities, sold in headshops, which can then be offered, in turn, within his own shop. Which is located at coordinates “31;65.” But, to advertise it, he needs to type it repeatedly into the public chat space to attract new customers.

But, I type faster than he. So there I am typing into Minecraft, over and over, “epic headshop at 31;65,” to help my son pretend to sell cubes colored to look like the Minecraft characters of famous people who post videos on Youtube of their having visited this very same server. He’s blending gaming with video watching, celebrity culture with entrepreneurial activity, 3D construction with advertising. And, coming to terms with all this is what makes me realize, this is NO longer his dad’s Minecraft that I introduced to him only four years earlier.

This is the future of transmedia learning.

MINECRAFT FOR LEARNING

This virtuous cycle between consumption and production has been, in many ways, the holy grail of the emerging digital media and learning (aka connected learning) community. It perhaps should come as little surprise, then, that one of its most important movers and shakers, Mimi Ito, recently announced a new educational initiative, Connected Camps and their Summer of Minecraft. Unlike with iD Tech, however, these camps are virtual, with counselors and campers meeting on shared Minecraft servers.

They are one of the first to explore the scale and potential of Minecraft at the center of a transmedia learning ecosystem.

But, let’s step back a moment and recall what most educational programs look like using Minecraft. Let’s use my world, for example, that of museum education, where we’re all about buildings. Well, buildings and objects, which makes sense: we are destinations and our buildings display objects. A quick survey of Minecraft in museum education highlights that the majority of these programs are focused on asking youth to reflect back our institutions in a mirror made of Minecraft. We ask, Rebuild our museum in a Minecraft map. Or: Use Minecraft to make museum-style exhibits to teach others. I’m no different. The first project we led at the American Museum of Natural History, FoodCraft, recreated the ideas from a new exhibit on food within a Minecraft map.

This is all fine and good, a perfect place to start exploring the educational potential of this popular and powerful new medium. But, now, that I have this new perspective on Minecraft I wonder what it will look like when we realize it is so much more than a game, that it is just the central point within a vast interconnected transmedia experience. What will happen when we start tapping into not just its game engine but all of its components — like its server communities and Youtube fandom — and start building our own virtuous cycles? What will happen when the current “Minecraft generation” grows up expecting engagement to carry them across multiple platforms, support their seamless transitioning amongst roles of consumers, players and creators, and require self-directed learning in order to pursue their passions?

Whatever it might be, if we do it right, expect it to be no less than epic.

Banner image credit: Barry Joseph

Barry Joseph is Associate Director of Digital Learning at the American Museum of Natural History. Since 2000, he has developed innovative programs in the areas of youth-produced video games, mobile and augmented learning, virtual worlds, digital fabrication, alternative assessments models, and more, always seeking to combine youth development practices with the development of high profile digital media projects that develop 21st Century Skills and New Media Literacies. Now, at the Museum, he is helping to guide youth learning programs to leverage digital tools to advance informal science learning. He has been hugged by Oprah and is writing the first history of seltzer. This work can be followed at http://Mooshme.org and @MMMooshme

 

East Los High Pays Tribute to Convergence Culture

After serious reflection, I am declaring intellectual bankruptcy — at least as far as the blog is concerned. I have been having an incredibly demanding semester and have a huge mound of dissertations to review before the end of the academic term. I don’t see any way that I can maintain the regular schedule of this blog on top of those other demands. I was planning to post content through some point in May (before taking off for the summer) but I think I need to discontinue regular postings as of now.

I do have a few outstanding interviews and when and if they come back to me, I will be posting them.  I will also be posting videos from Transforming Hollywood and the Cyberpunk event when they become available. But, I suspect things will be erratic from here until some point in the late summer or early fall.  I am going to be on the road this summer — visiting the Blue Ridge Mountains region in June, India in July, and Indonesia in early August. And then I will be having the first academic leave I’ve enjoyed in more than a decade, spending time in residence at Microsoft Research New England. I will be sharing details down the line about all of the above.  So, have no fear, I will return.

Today, as a parting gift, I wanted to share with you a video which warmed my heart. It was a tribute/gift from Mauricio Mota and Katie Elmore Mota, who are among the producers behind Hulu’s hit series, East Los High. Both are good friends, who I had the joy of introducing to each other shortly after I came to LA, and who are now working together professionally as well as married and raising a son together.  In this video, East Los High actor Gabriel Chavarria reads a passage from my book, Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collides.

If you are not watching East Los High, you are missing something significant. It’s a dramatic series — a kind of teen soap — produced on an independent scale here in Los Angeles with an almost-all Latino/a cast and writer’s room, seeking to tell stories that are meaningful to second and third generation Latino/a youth for whom English has become their preferred language (a group especially underserved by a English-language media which rarely offers representations of their culture and a Spanish-language media which also does not address their experiences). We are at a moment where diversity in representation is entering television from many different fronts, and East Los High is one of them. Not only is it telling stories that matter for the Latino/a community (and far beyond) but it is also doing so through the effective use of transmedia production practices in the service of entertainment education.

The series emerged from research which showed how urgently this Latino/a  community needed frank and reliable information about sexual health, nutrition, college readiness, voter participation, and a range of other topics, and the series has been produced in collaboration with a range of nonprofit organizations which seek to address these concerns. A growing body of  research shows that its mix of high gloss entertainment and serious conversations about important topics is having a highly constructive impact on how its viewers think and act around some of these issues.

When I am asked to identify contemporary transmedia projects which I think are important, I often speak about East Los High. I am anything but the target audience for this program, but I was engaged enough with it that I watched all of the first season, and I hope to spend time with Season 2 later this summer. So, given this history, I was deeply touched by having the cast and producers create this video for me, and I wanted to share it with you.

 

The Future Started 10 Minutes Ago and You Are Already Late To the Party!

 

I have teamed up with my USC Cinema School Colleagues  Scott Fisher and Howard Rodman to organize a special day-long salute to the legacy of the cyberpunk movement, which is being sponsored by the USC Visions and Voices Program, with help from the Annenberg Innovation Lab’s Geek Speaks series.

We are lucky enough to be able to pull together an astonishing mix of key science fiction authors (including Bruce Sterling, Rudy Rucker, and Nalo Hopkinson, with key creative artists from the realm of television (Wild Palm‘s Roger Triling), comics  (Black Kirby Project‘s John Jennings and Stacey Robinson), Games (Prince of Persia‘s Jordan Mechner), films (Sleep Dealers‘ Alex Riveria), robotics/street theater (Mark Pauline from the Survival Research Lab), and audio (YACHT’s Claire L. Evans, who is also editor of Terraform).

Steve Anderson has curated a video extravaganza showing how cyberpunk media has dealt with immersive technologies; we are also holding workshops where Jeff Watson and Geoffrey Long help coordinate the collective design of a future society.

If you live in the LA area (or can get here by the futuristic transportation system of your choice), you will not want to miss this, but be sure to register first since seats are limited. Priority on registration is given to USC affiliated folks but there are some general admission tickets available.

 

Why? Because the street finds its own uses for things. Because the future is already here and is just unequally distributed. Because mind, body, and machine are one.  In short, because cyberpunk gave us a new way to see the changes that were taking place in the world around us (and under our own skins).

 

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Showcasing the Civic Media Project (3): From #Destroythejoint to Far reaching Digital Activism

This is the second in a series of three entires, cross-posted from the Civic Media Project website. Check out the site for many more examples of the ways groups around the world are using digital media to help foster civic change. The site was created by Eric Gordon and Paul Mihailidis, the leaders of Emerson College’s Engagement Lab, in anticipation of their forthcoming book for MIT Press, Civic Media: Technology, Design, Practice.

FROM #DESTROYTHEJOINT TO FAR REACHING DIGITAL ACTIVISM:

FEMINIST REVITALISATION STEMMING FROM SOCIAL MEDIA AND REACHING BEYOND

Jessica McLean and Sophia Maalsen

Introduction

Civic engagement in digital activism involves diffuse yet powerful networks of individuals and organizations uniting, at least in some form, under a common interest. This case study of Destroy the Joint, a largely online group of over 52,000 people on Facebook and 14,800 on Twitter, shows how what began as a humorous turnaround of sexist comments on national talkback radio, is now a broad-based and effective unified but not uniform organization that aims to shine a light on sexism and misogyny. In analyzing its origins and accounting for its ongoing relevance nearly two years after the birth of #destroythejoint, we show how feminist activism in social media and elsewhere is growing in Australia, and other parts of the world.

The Origins of Destroy the Joint

The #destroythejoint movement began after a conservative Australian radio host, Alan Jones, declared on August 31st 2012 that several leading women in politics were ‘destroying the joint’ by their efforts to support gender equality and other miscellaneous acts. He had said:
“She [the Prime Minister] said that we know societies only reach their full potential if women are politically participating. Women are destroying the joint—Christine Nixon in Melbourne, Clover Moore here. Honestly.”
Jill Tomlinson, a surgeon and writer, ignited the campaign in conversation with education activist and writer Jane Caro, with the following tweet exchange:

 media-20141019 folder

Tomlinson responded with an invitation for others to contribute and originated the new hashtag:
 media-20141019 folder

Within one day, thousands had tweeted their own versions of acts and intentions to quash sexism and misogyny and a new digital activism moment and movement had begun (McLean and Maalsen, 2013).

First Destroy the Joint Actions

Initially, the Destroy the Joint (DTJ) hashtag was an online meeting point for people reflecting on the absurdity of claims that women in political life were destructive forces because of their gender, but grew to encompass critiques of gender inequality and lampooned sexist and misogynistic acts.
Australia’s first female Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, experienced frequent public sexism, from conservative commentators and politicians alike. In early October 2012, during a debate in parliament about the behavior and role of the then Speaker of the House, the leader of the Opposition, Tony Abbott, accused Gillard of sexism.  This accusation prompted the renowned anti-misogyny speech where Gillard declared to Tony Abbott that “I will not be lectured on misogyny and sexism by this man… and the Leader of the Opposition should think seriously about the role of women in public life and in Australian society because we are entitled to a better standard than this.”
Being entitled to a better standard of gender equality is a key objective DTJ’s activism. The first substantial intervention Destroy the Joint contributed to was against Alan Jones’ radio station, campaigning for advertisers to withdraw support for his show in response to his ongoing sexist behavior, particularly directed against Gillard. Over 100,000 people signed an online petition within a week and Jones’ radio station lost between AUD 1 and 1.5 million. The feminist campaign action enacted through social media thus affected a corporation in a material sense.

Micro-Campaigns under a Unified Anti-Sexism and Anti-Misogyny Collective

Multiple, micro-campaigns characterize the ongoing productive space that is Destroy the Joint, and extend its reach contributing to a feminist revitalization that operates in social media and beyond.  While DTJ started as a hashtag, now there is also a Twitter andFacebook presence for this digital activist collective.
Some of the micro-campaigns DTJ organized are shown in Table 1:

Digital Activism in DTJ: Connections to Global Campaigns 

Currently, feminist moments and movements are proliferating around the world, many emerging in digital spaces, such as #everydaysexism and #yesallwomen and often spring-boarding from these to other activist modes, including book publications, anti-corporate interventions, walks and gatherings.  For the Facebook supporters of DTJ, a prominent campaign to stop violence against women presently focuses DTJ activity (see Figure 3).
  Figure 3: Current Facebook home page for Destroy the Joint (March 2015)

Revitalizing Feminism?

Similarly to #destroythejoint, #everydaysexism and #yesallwomen provide meeting points for further engagement with feminist issues. The feminist revitalization has global reach and works to reinforce simultaneous campaigns and interventions. For instance, Destroy the Joint social media pages frequently cross-reference #everydaysexism and #yesallwomen and invite followers to contribute to these globally linked discursive feminist spaces. In this way they allow for distributed feminist networks to converge in online spaces to focus support on contemporary gender issues and create a community around this. Furthermore, despite being “online” their campaigns have physical and material effects as demonstrated in Table 1, suggesting that campaigns facilitated through new media are effective and useful ways of producing change.

References

McLean, Jessica and Sophia Maalsen. 2013. “Destroying the Joint and Dying of Shame? A Geography of Revitalised Feminism in Social Media and Beyond.” Geographical Research 51: 243–256. doi: 10.1111/1745-5871.12023
For Destroy the Joint on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/DestroyTheJoint
For Destroy the Joint on Twitter: https://twitter.com/jointdestroyer

 

Showcasing The Civic Media Project (1): Website to Weibo

Over the next few posts, I will be showcasing the Civic Media Project website, which Eric Gordon and Paul Mihailidis, the Director and Associate Director, respectively, of Emerson College’s new Engagement Lab,  launched a few weeks ago. The website was developed as an extension of a new book, Civic Media: Technology, Design, Practice , which MIT Press is are releasing later this year.  My Media, Activism, and Participatory Politics research team has written an essay for the MIT Press book, which centers on the ways that the figure of the superhero has function as a resource for fostering the civic imagination, looking at examples of how such characters have been critiqued, remixed, reimagined, and re-performed across a range of different activist movements — from the DREAMers to Occupy — in recent years. (You can get a taste of our approach via this blog post we recently developed in collaboration with Fusion).

The forthcoming book includes essays by some of the key thinkers on contemporary media and politics and we will be hearing more about it via this blog when the book is released.  As they were preparing the book, the editors solicited dozens of case studies, representing political movements from around the world, and written by scholars representing a broad range of disciplinary and ideological locations, and they have used the Civic Media Project website as a platform for generating discussion around these examples.  Here’s how Gordon and Milhailidis described their understanding of the concept of Civic Media:

Civic life is comprised of the attention and actions an individual devotes to a common good. Participating in a human rights rally, creating and sharing a video online about unfair labor practices, connecting with neighbors after a natural disaster: these are all civic actions wherein the actor seeks to benefit a perceived common good. But where and how civic life takes place, is an open question. The lines between the private and the public, the self-interested and the civic are blurring as digital cultures transform means and patterns of communication around the world.

As the definition of civic life is in flux, there is urgency in defining and questioning the mediated practices that compose it. Civic media are the mediated practices of designing, building, implementing or using digital tools to intervene in or participate in civic life. The Civic Media Project (CMP) is a collection of short case studies from scholars and practitioners from all over the world that range from the descriptive to the analytical, from the single tool to the national program, from the enthusiastic to the critical. What binds them together is not a particular technology or domain (i.e. government or social movements), but rather the intentionality of achieving a common good. Each of the case studies collected in this project reflects the practices associated with the intentional effort of one or many individuals to benefit or disrupt a community or institution outside of one’s intimate and professional spheres.

The editors have given me permission to re-post a selection of the pieces in the hopes that giving you a taste will encourage you to hit this link and check out the site as a whole. Given their involvement not only in participatory politics but also media literacy and civic education, they have also developed a learning guide to encourage educators to incorporate these resources into their teaching and to inspire thoughtful conversations about the role that new media platforms and practices might play in contemporary political life.  I strongly encourage my readers interested in new forms of political expression to check out and drill deep into this site’s rich collection.

Today, I am going to feature a report developed by some of my colleagues here in USC’s Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism — Daniela Gerson, Nien-Tsu Nancy Chen, Sandra Ball-Rokeach, and Michael Parks. “Website to Weibo” describes some of the work they have been doing working with the Chinese-American community in Alhambra, California.

WEBSITE TO WEIBO:

ACTIVATING THE LOCAL COMMUNICATION NETWORK AND CIVIC ENGAGEMENT IN A DIVERSE CITY

Daniela Gerson, Nien-Tsu Nancy Chen, Sandra Ball-Rokeach, and Michael Parks

Elections were canceled in the predominantly immigrant Los Angeles suburb of Alhambra in 2010. Nobody entered the race to unseat five incumbents. The city faced a challenge that is increasingly common across the United States: How to engage diverse residents and instill in them a sense of community (Ramakrishnan and Bloemraad 2008).

Two years earlier, a research group from University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism began investigating how a local news product could improve civic engagement in Alhambra. The group, the Alhambra Project, defined civic engagement in three ways – residents’ feelings of attachment to their local community and neighborly behaviors (neighborhood belonging), their belief that neighbors can be counted on to solve shared problems (collective efficacy), and their involvement in civic activities (civic participation). This research was informed by the communication infrastructure theory (CIT), which elucidates the role of networked local communication agents (e.g. residents, local media, community organizations and public institutions) in enhancing engagement (Kim and Ball Rokeach 2006a, 2006b).

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Clockwise description of images: Alhambra Source, a community news site in suburban Los Angeles, worked with the police department to develop an outreach initiative using Weibo, a Chinese version of Twitter.

Within weeks of the elections being cancelled, the Alhambra Project launched the Alhambra Source. This local news outlet was set up to achieve several objectives, principally to promote a more engaged population and create connections across linguistic and cultural barriers (Chen et al. 2012). Alhambra is 53 percent Asian, 33 percent Hispanic, and 11 percent Anglo, according to the American Community Survey 2012 3-year summary data. Seventy-five percent of the population speaks a language other than English at home, with nearly half speaking an Asian language — primarily Mandarin or Cantonese — and 30 percent speaking Spanish. Research indicated that residents had overlapping local interests, but ethno-linguistic barriers had prevented them from engaging in information-sharing and civic dialogue. Without this type of communication, it is difficult to develop a sense of community and the capability for collective problem-solving (Anderson 1991, Friedland 2001). Consequently, the site’s coverage has focused on topics diverse residents identified as common concerns – such as crime, education, and city government — and these topics provided the basis for building virtual “communities of interest” across ethnicities.

To further cross language and cultural barriers, Alhambra Source provides select trilingual content through original reporting and translation. To reach the area’s substantial Chinese population, Alhambra Source editors created connections with the Chinese ethnic media in the area. More than a half dozen Asian outlets covered the site’s launch; content exchanges were created with the leading Chinese language press in Southern California, World Journal; and the editorial staff hosted multilingual community forums. Within three years, the site has developed a network of 90 community contributors who speak 10 languages. They have written hundreds of articles, attended scores of editorial meetings, and been critical for meeting the objective of enabling participatory local storytelling through new technologies. Still, while content contributors and readership comes from diverse backgrounds, both groups remain primarily English dominant.

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A USC Annenberg graduate student, Chi Zhang, tests out Weibo on Valley Boulevard in Alhambra.

Another objective was to help create connections among communication agents in the area, and this has led to one of the most interesting outcomes of the project. The strengthened communication network was the catalyst for the first US local law enforcement agency to launch a Sina Weibo account. Weibo is the Chinese equivalent of Twitter, and one of the most utilized social media platforms by Chinese at home and abroad1. The Alhambra Police Department, in launching its Weibo account, added a linguistic and cultural layer to a practice that public agencies across the country are increasingly adapting to reach marginalized residents.2

The use of Weibo is an example of how connecting with immigrant residents via their preferred social media platforms can impact civic engagement. Five days after launching, it attracted more than 5,000 followers, about five times the “likes” for the Facebook account the police department had spent more than a year building. Within four months, followers grew to more than 11,000. The immediate impact is clear: Cantonese and Mandarin calls to the department requiring translation increased 64 percent since launching.3 In an e-mail survey of users, more than 90 percent said they felt closer to and know more about local policing as a result of Weibo[i].

The Weibo initiative was triggered after Alhambra Police Chief Mark Yokoyama read an article in Alhambra Source on engagement techniques to reach the Chinese community.4 The chief asked for a meeting with the editorial staff and the author, courts interpreter and site community contributor Walter Yu. To reach younger and more recent immigrants, Yu suggested the department develop Weibo. He also offered to help make it happen by sharing his social media skills.

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Alhambra Police Chief Mark Yokoyama presents the department’s Weibo initiative.

While many of the recent Chinese immigrants in Alhambra did not read the site, some influential ones did. Yu is an example of how incorporating local voices into the communications outreach strategy can help activate and enhance Chinese local storytelling and connect it with mainstream outlets and government officials. The Alhambra Source, Yu and the police chief developed a system for taking in questions, translating them, and sharing them with the public, and Yu also created an #AskAmericanPolice campaign for the Alhambra Police Department. When questions arrive, at the height of dozens a day, Yu and a team of volunteer translators[ii] translate them into English and send them to the police chief. Yokoyama responds and sends them to Alhambra Source staff for a copy edit. Once approved, Yu translates them back into Chinese for Weibo and for cross-posting on the Alhambra Source.

weibo1

The former mayor of Alhambra, Stephen Sham displays the Weibo screen.

The Alhambra Police Weibo is both local and global in nature. The questions come from immigrants living in Alhambra, Los Angeles, across the country, and from people in China curious about how American policing works. Various local residents expressed relief, and sometimes surprise, to learn that they could actually call the police for help.

“We’re answering those questions that have probably been on the minds of people for a long time. They just didn’t know how to ask or who to ask,”Yokoyama said.

“It tells me people have some sense of trust in at least asking the question of the police.”5

With the dialogue also started to come tips, as the police realized this was a key population segment that could be activated to help solve crimes. When there was a Southern California Edison phone call scam, the police department put out a warning on Weibo. Soon people were reporting that they had been scammed. Others reported prostitution and drug sales. “I believe sometimes people are just afraid to report to the police because of repercussions,” Yu said, referring to different relationships with the police in China.6

weibo3

Alhambra Police Weibo page

The impact of the Weibo initiative has spread beyond social media to provide a bridge for the ethnic media to increase coverage of the police department and Alhambra. One prominent LA-based Asian-language TV station, for example, produced a feature story by shadowing the Alhambra police department for a day. The Weibo initiative is one of the many ways in which the Alhambra Project has put into practice the network perspective of CIT, where a participatory local news website helps forge connections between a key public agency and a major population group previously underserved due to ethno-linguistic barriers. As illustrated, this type of virtual connection has offline consequences, and it can be beneficial to creating an informed, active citizenry while enabling public institutions to better serve their diverse constituency.

References

Anderson, Benedict. 1991. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. New York: Verso.

Chen, Nien-Tsu N., Fang Dong, Sandra J. Ball-Rokeach, Michael Parks, and Jin Huang. 2012. “Building a new media platform for local storytelling and civic engagement in ethnically diverse neighborhoods.” New Media & Society 14 (6) (September): 931-950.

Friedland, Lewis A. 2001. “Communication, community, and democracy: Toward a theory of the communicatively integrated community.” Communication Research 28 (4) (August): 358-391.

Kim, Yong-Chan, and Sandra J. Ball-Rokeach. 2006a. “Community storytelling network, neighborhood context, and civic engagement: A multilevel approach.” Human Communication Research 32 (4): 411-439.

Kim, Yong-Chan., Joo-Young Jung, and Sandra J. Ball-Rokeach. 2006b.”‘Geo-ethnicity’ and neighborhood engagement: A communication infrastructure perspective.” Political Communication 23 (4) (December): 421-441.

Ramakrishnan, S. Karthic, and Irene Bloemraad, eds. 2008. Civic Hopes and Political Realities: Immigrants, Community Organizations, and Political Engagement. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.

Sandra Ball-Rokeach is a Professor of Communication and Sociology in the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, at the University of Southern California. She is also the Principal Investigator of the Metamorphosis Project. Sandra is author or editor of six books: Violence and the Media (with R. K. Baker), Theories of Mass Communication (with M. L. DeFleur), The Great American Values Test: Influencing Belief and Behavior through Television (with M. Rokeach & J. W. Grube), Media, Audience and Society (with M. G. Cantor), Paradoxes of Youth and Sport (with M. Gatz and M. Messner), and Technological Visions: The Hopes and Fears that Shape New Technologies (with M. Sturken and D. Thomas). Her published articles appear in such journals as Communication Research, Journalism Quarterly, Mass Communication and Society, American Sociological Review, Public Opinion Quarterly, Journal of Communication, New Media and Society, Social Problems, and The American Psychologist. She has been co-editor (with C. R. Berger) of Communication Research from 1992 to 1997, a Fulbright scholar at the Hebrew University and a Rockefeller Fellow at the Bellagio Study Center. She also serves on the advisory boards of the McCune Foundations, Southern California Public Radio, and the Research and Learning Group, BBC World Service Trust.

Nien-Tsu Nancy Chen is an Assistant Professor in Communication at California State University Channel Islands. She was a Postdoctoral Scholar in the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at the University of Southern California when this chapter was composed, and she has been involved with the research and development of the Alhambra Source since 2008. In addition to new media, civic engagement and intergroup relations, Nancy’s other research interest pertains to health communication with diverse populations.

Daniela Gerson directs the Civic Engagement and Journalism Initiative at University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. She is the founding editor of Alhambra Source, and developed Reporter Corps, a program to train young adults to report on their own communities. Daniela’s reporting focuses on immigration issues, and she has contributed to the Financial Times Magazine, The New York Times, PRI’s The World, Der Spiegel, WNYC: New York Public Radio and was a staff immigration reporter for the New York Sun. Daniela was an Alexander von Humboldt Foundation German Chancellor Fellow and an Arthur F. Burns Fellow, researching contemporary guest worker programs in Europe.

Michael Parks is a journalist and educator whose assignments have taken him around the globe, and whose “balanced and comprehensive” coverage of the struggle against apartheid in South Africa earned him the 1987 Pulitzer Prize for International Reporting. From 1997-2000, Parks served as editor of the Los Angeles Times, a period during which the Times garnered four additional Pulitzer Prizes. Parks joined the USC Annenberg faculty in Fall 2000 and served as Director of the School of Journalism from 2001 to 2008.

Scaffolding & Sustaining Participatory Politics Webinar/Twitter Chat Series: Highlights from Round 2

The following post was written by my Media, Activism and Participatory Politics research team, including Alexandra Margolin, Diana Lee, and Raffi Sarkissian.

At the end of February, the Media, Activism, and Participatory Politics team at USC wrapped up a 4-part webinar and twitter chat series on  Scaffolding & Sustaining Participatory Politics in partnership with Connected Learning. We recently shared a blog post that showcased highlights from the first webinar and twitter chats from the month. This post focuses on the second half of the month, as we shifted our attention from defining and measuring success to creating an action plan to achieve set goals. You can view a complete list of Webinar 2 participants here.

We had a few departures from both the scaffolding and thematic connections of the first webinar and twitter chat. First, we were excited to have two members from our research team take a more prominent role in the second half of this webinar series. Raffi Sarkissian and Diana Lee, two Ph.D. students at USC’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism who had previously taken a more behind-the-scenes role within the MAPP project, moderated the live webinar discussion. The second shift was in the connections between our second webinar conversation and twitter chat.

In our first webinar and twitter chat about defining and measuring success in participatory politics, the twitter chat served as an elaboration of webinar themes. In the second half this was not necessarily the case. Rather, in discussing what an action plan for engaging in participatory looks like webinar speakers focused much of their attention on steps that can be taken in the classroom or in collaboration with teachers. In the subsequent twitter chat, the focus shifted to outside the education system. The juxtaposition of these two conversations provides an interesting snapshot of where young people are engaging in participatory politics, the structures in place, and the challenges of engaging in this kind of work.

You can check out both the full webinar and twitter chat below. We have also provided some highlights if you don’t have time to watch and read it all.

 

Webinar 2: An Action Plan for Achieving Success in Participatory Politics

 

Some highlights include:

  • Nicole Mirra, a Postdoctoral Scholar at the UCLA Graduate School of Education (GSEIS) kicks things off by discussing some of the challenges facing youth-led research projects, particularly the perception of young people as “cute” or “fun,” rather than as truly engaged, active members of the community that should be listened to. Citizenship does not start when you turn 18 and young people participate in many different ways politically, often through digital media. Check out her comments 4:45 into the broadcast.
  • It is important to establish safe spaces for young people to explore topics that they care about (which may be different from what adults tell them to care about). Between 6:26-8:09 political science doctoral student and Black Youth Project coordinator Allen L. Linton II discusses some of the stigma around digital media tools in schools.  From 11:16-14:09 magazine editor Marium Mohiuddin outlines how the establishment of youth summits for American Muslim youth have provided a space for young people to find their own political voices.
  • Allen points out that it is important to work with schools and school districts. However when doing so it is imperative to gauge teacher attitudes and comfort levels in engaging with new media and participatory politics. The important part of participatory politics is participating, not going viral. Check out his comments at 17:45.
  • It is often difficult to know what things will go viral. At 32:29 Talitha Baker, former staff member at Invisible Children discusses how perception matters.
  • At 35:08, Marium emphasizes the importance of building relationships: “Networking and socializing are all part of building relationships, and it’s so vital to what we do as far as being civically involved, community activism and organizing. You can tweet, snapchat, and all you want to, but it always comes down to picking up that phone call or having coffee with somebody.”
  • The challenges of activism and organizing, are not “new” because of social and digital media. The structures are different and things move faster, but many of the core challenges are the same (45:26).
  • When engaging in participatory work, we often forget to take care of ourselves. See what the webinar participants have to say about sustainability and burnout at 50:03.
  • Learn what campaigns the participants look to for inspiration and insight starting at 53:36.

 

Twitter Chat 2: All questions were facilitated by the Connected Learning team (@theCLalliance).

  • Do you have any advice for youth activists who are not taken seriously because of their age?
    • TeachThought (@TeachThought): “Focus on “branding” the effort/function rather than themselves.”
    • Samantha Close (@ButNoCigar): “Some outlets will feature you bc young activists are ‘surprising’ – can be condescending but take advantage”
    • ByAnyMedia (@ByAnyMedia): “Stay on message- condescension is often used as a distraction from the powerful content of youth activism”
    • Raffi Sarkissian (@rSark): “Persistence should often pay off; if not in achieving your goal, then at least in showing the strength of youth . . . @TalithaBaker was mentioning this on webinar about youth persistence with changing govt representative’s stance.”
    • Diana Lee (@MsDianaLee): “@ButNoCigar Agree. Learning to navigate and code switch speaks back to condescension and other forms of discrimination”
  • What rookie moves should be avoided in modern civics and action? What advice do you have to someone starting out?
    • Samantha Close (@ButNoCigar): “Burnout – not knowing how or feeling you can’t take breaks to sustain . . . Maybe reaching out to those inspirational orgs we talked [about] at beginning can help Take advantage of their institutional memory and/or mentorship, grow #activist network & don’t feel alone”

As we wrap up this discussion, we are excited by the depth and introspection of the conversation. Thank you to all of our panelists and facilitators for sharing your insights. While the webinar series has concluded, the conversation is just getting started and we would love to hear your thoughts on this topic. You can join the conversation about Scaffolding & Sustaining Participatory Politics on Twitter by using #byanymedia. We look forward to additional conversations and collaborations in the months ahead.

Scaffolding & Sustaining Participatory Politics Webinar/Twitter Chat Series: Highlights from Round 1

The following post was written by my Media, Activism and Participatory Politics research team, including Alexandra Margolin, Yomna Ali, and Ritesh Mehta.

In February, the Media, Activism and Participatory Politics (MAPP) team at USC organized a series of conversations on Scaffolding & Sustaining Participatory Politics in partnership with Connected Learning. It had been a year since our last webinar series (see “Storytelling and Digital-Age Civics: First Sessions As Seen from the MAPP Situation Room”) and it felt like an ideal time to check back in with many of the activists that MAPP has partnered with in the past to tackle the often elusive concept of “success.”

This time around we also introduced a new component to the conversation: the twitter chat. Twitter has always been a part of MAPP’s webinar conversations, with members of the MAPP research team live-tweeting highlights from our webinar conversations. However, rather than operating as a back channel we decided to bring these twitter conversations to the forefront. One week after each of our two webinars, we hosted up a follow-up conversation on twitter using the hashtag #byanymedia to highlight questions and themes that emerged from the previous webinar conversation.

This post highlights some of the key thoughts and themes from the first webinar conversation and twitter chat from the series (see Webinar 1 Speakers here). The full webinar recording is embedded below, but if you don’t have time to watch it in its entirety we have also included some highlights.

 

Webinar 1: Measuring and Sustaining Participatory Politics Success

We wanted to kick off the series by raising the question of what does success look like in participatory politics? As an individual or organization, how do you define what your successes are and how do you determine if you have been successful? Some highlights include:

  • Harry Potter Alliance co-founder Paul DeGeorge discusses the success of the Occupy Movement at 5:48. Maybe Occupy “did not effect change at that moment, but I am hoping to see implants of those seeds of change, and you see grass roots levels are starting to pop at local levels.”
  • Longtime immigration rights activist and Miguel Contreras Foundation Director of Programs Ilse Escobar highlights the power of narrative and the agency that comes with communities of color knowing their histories at 9:30. To Ilse, the bottom line was to be realistic about who will be included and who will be left out, and helping immigrants understand the reality of their situation.
  • Zachary Cáceres,  entrepreneur and current Executive Director of the Startup Cities Institute and MPC Creative Learning Community at Universidad Francisco Marroquín, Guatemala City, discusses connecting with your intended audience (starting at 13:40) through “targeted media outreach. We were trying to figure out how to translate certain ideas that were very abstract very theoretical into language that people would understand” while still stay true to their own mission.
  • The participants discuss the role of learning with some differences in perspective. Is learning an end in itself, or a means to reach a specific goal? See their responses 16 minutes into the broadcast.
  • Sometimes successes can be clearly demarcated. Host Henry Jenkins asks Paul about the recent successful conclusion of an HPA campaign. See Paul’s answer at 22:10.
  • However, not all successes are so clearly measurable. As Zachary mentions it is easy to fall into the trap of traditional methods of measuring success which are not truly indicative of behavioral change. He suggests that this “comes with the territory of nonprofits.” See the clip at 25:40.
  • Once you reach an endpoint, what comes next? According to Paul (at 50 minutes): “We continue to learn from what we do. We continue to be ambitious in our thinking. But moderate that ambition from what we’ve learned from our past campaigns. . . What is the best fit for us going forward, not necessarily what other people want us to do.”

 

Twitter Chat 1: All questions were facilitated by the Connected Learning team (@theCLalliance).

  • How do you move beyond numbers to measure #civics success? What metrics do *you* use?
    • Diana Lee (@MsDianaLee) : “Some successes are less quantifiable, but that doesn’t make them less important . . Things like belonging to, building & contributing to a community, and self-efficacy, hard to measure but vitally important.”
  • How do you show that minor/singular successes (campaign, events, etc.) are part of a larger success story?
    • Alexandra Margolin (@msmixedmargolin): “Narrative and framing [are] huge in demonstrating success or needs.”
    • Raffi Sarkissian (@rSark): “First the ‘larger success story’ should already [be] visible as larger goals of organization/activist, i.e. mission statement . . . [so] you can build on an ongoing narrative of the movement and its ‘movement’”
  • Knowing your community’s history can give you power/language to act. How do you use history in your work?
    • Samantha Close (@ButNoCigar): “Making sure your action ties back to things important to your community–not only to pundits or funders”
    • Alexandra Margolin (@msmixedmargolin): “Working in communities of color, knowing your history is imperative to grasp the context in which you are working in. . . Knowing the histories of your community/those around you, allows you to understand structures of power.”
    • Diana Lee (@MsDianaLee): “My work centers on people’s everyday lived experiences. “’Know history, know self. No history, no self.’”
    • Civic Paths (@civicpaths): “Many, multilingual & diverse are the voices of time’s passage. We can make them converse w/ each and other & w/the present.”
  • Civics/social justice work is never done. After achieving your goal(s), how do you start setting new ones?
    • Civic Paths (@civicpaths): “Sometimes it’s not about goals. It’s about staying with the aftermath. Re-presenting & appropriating for future history. . . ‘The rest of those who have gone before us cannot steady the unrest of those who follow.’ – [Finding Forrester] (2000)”
    • Samantha Close (@ButNoCigar): “See what worked tactically and what new problems it can be applied to #byanymedia that are important to you”
    • Raffi Sarkissian (@rSark): “I think reevaluation at every step of the process is a good practice. Successes [shouldn’t be] taken 4 granted nor overestimated”
    • Samantha Close (@ButNoCigar): “That there’s some good in the world, Mr. Frodo, and it’s worth fighting for.”

Look out for the next installment on this topic as we shift our focus from conceptualizing success to tackling the more concrete steps of achieving set goals.

Connected Learning, Participatory Politics, and Civic Education: An Interview with Ben Kirshner and Ellen Middaugh (Part Three)

You raise some questions in your conclusion about our current understandings of what constitutes “authentic” political engagement. What’s at stake in this shift? Why is there a tendency to see face-to-face engagement as more “authentic” or more “legitimate” than forms of politics that get connected online?

EM: This is something I definitely see, not just in critiques of so-called slacktivism, but at the classroom level. So often, the brainstorms about how to engage youth in civic action go straight to posters, letter writing campaigns, phone banking for candidates, bake sales, etc., which are all great efforts, but at times, leads toward a project that could be more effectively or efficiently handled through social media.

For example, is it worth doing a letter writing campaign to get street maintenance done in an underserved community if there is a website for such requests? Or might students have a greater chance of success if they mobilize their friends and family to “just click” so that the site gets a large number of requests? I’m not suggesting I know the answer. One could argue that the letter writing campaign takes more effort and therefore might hold more sway or one might suggest the larger numbers with less effort will hold more sway. I think these are important questions for people to consider.

This is a question that I think is going to take a while to answer. Right now, we have centuries of academic work that has focused on the question of what makes democracy work and only about 20 years of work that asks this question in the age of the internet. So many of our well established ideas of political engagement are bolstered by an historical view established prior to the internet.

I think there is always a tendency to want to see tangible results from our efforts–a candidate elected, a number of meals served, votes turned out. It’s a little less clear what it means when an issue trends on twitter, a comment gets a certain number of likes, or an email petition gets a large number of signatures. However, this is something that political parties and corporations are clearly working to figure out in their efforts to maximize their efforts, and I think it is worth consideration of how citizens might figure this out to maximize their own efforts to have influence. One thing I like about Chapter 11–LInton’s chapter– is that we see this process from the perspective of young people who are actively working to figure out how to use both methods to maximize their impact on the political process.

As you have worked with educators around participatory politics, what do you see as the major misconceptions or resistances you have encountered? What advice would you offer to teachers who are struggling with those issues?

EM: For teachers, there is a real and legitimate sense of risk when it comes to teaching for participatory politics. There is the risk of giving up control and the confidence that you will cover the content and skills you planned to (and that may be tested) when you allow students to, as one teacher put it, “go down the rabbit hole” of investigating an issue online.

When there is pressure to cover a large amount of curriculum and to avoid disciplinary issues, the natural response for many is to create a tightly controlled environment, minimizing the opportunities to go off topic or for students to get into arguments. Opportunities for experimentation and productive failure can feel like a luxury.

What has been striking to me is how when teachers start with what seem like relatively small steps–allowing students to research their own resources rather than providing them, to collaborate and comment on each others’ work via google docs, or to share information to a small controlled public audience through protected social networks–the students respond in a major way. Most of the teachers I spend time with care a lot about how well they are doing their jobs and if they are reaching their students, and those increases in student engagement seem to be a powerful motivation in the face of the risk of giving up some control and certainty.

So my advice is to start small–change one thing at a time–for example make a small amount of time for a new skill at regularly intervals, or pick a contained unit to try innovating with, connect students to a small but invested audience. I certainly wouldn’t discourage teachers from thinking big and innovative if that is their approach to teaching in general, but I think that too often, we start with examples of innovation that are hard to replicate and can be intimidating or unrealistic in the eyes of teachers. It is important to shed light on the power of first steps.

Johanna Paraiso speaks powerfully to this process as a teacher in her section in Chapter 10. The other thing I would recommend is finding a community of teachers who are innovating to serve as a support and place to bounce ideas around. This could be at your school site, if you are part of PLCs or through networks like Digital Is, the Teachers Teaching Teachers series, Facing History and Ourselves (Chapter 9) or Educator Innovator. Trying out new things in isolation can be tough. Having colleagues to check in with can be helpful.

A final thought is that it can be helpful to include students in the process. Let them know what you are trying to do and get their feedback and help. Not all students are technically savvy, but some are, and they can and often want to help. Again, even getting help from students in small ways can contribute to shifting the learning environment from one that is completely teacher centered to one in which students start to share responsibility.

BK: To pick up on Ellen’s point about including students…I have found that in cases where students become highly engaged in a participatory politics project—that differs from business as usual at the school—the most effective way of building support from colleagues and principals is when they see students excited about learning and persisting with challenging tasks. Though the latter might not always happen, in cases where student engagement is high, I encourage teachers to showcase this in creative ways, whether by inviting people to visit the classroom, setting up opportunities for students to present to colleagues, or distributing digital artifacts to school colleagues.

 

Ben Kirshner is an Associate Professor in the School of Education at CU Boulder and Faculty Director for CU Engage: Center for Community-Based Learning and Research. Through his work with CU Engage Ben seeks to develop and sustain university-community partnerships that leverage the resources of the university to address persistent public challenges. Ben’s research examines youth organizing, participatory action research, and new forms of digital media as contexts for learning, development, and social change. He is a Network Advisor for the MacArthur Foundation’s Connected Learning Research Network.

Ellen Middaugh is an Assistant Professor of Child and Adolescent Development at San Jose State University and Senior Researcher with the Mills College Civic Engagement Research Group. Her research focuses on how new media is changing the social context of adolescent development and the implications for educational practice. Current projects include studies of youth experiences with online conflict and of emerging classroom practices to support information literacy for civic understanding and engagement.

Showcasing the Civic Media Project (2): Binders Full of Election Memes

This is the second in a series of three entires, cross-posted from the Civic Media Project website. Check out the site for many more examples of the ways groups around the world are using digital media to help foster civic change. The site was created by Eric Gordon and Paul Mihailidis, the leaders of Emerson College’s Engagement Lab, in anticipation of their forthcoming book for MIT Press, Civic Media: Technology, Design, Practice. 

 

BINDERS FULL OF ELECTION MEMES:

PARTICIPATORY CULTURE INVADES THE 2012 U.S. ELECTION

Erhardt Graeff

Participatory culture handed the 2012 U.S. presidential election season a bumper crop of political memes.  These “election memes,” largely in the form of image macros, took sound bites from the candidates’ debates and speeches and turned them into “digital content units” of political satire “circulated, imitated, and/or transformed via the Internet by many users,” to paraphrase Limor Schifman’s definition of “internet meme” (2013, 177).

Image macros like the lolcat, feature bold text on top of an image, often a “stock character,” and like all Internet memes are “multi-participant creative expressions through which cultural and political identities are communicated and negotiated” (Ibid.). This case study focuses on three popular image macro-based election memes that came out of the 2012 US presidential election cycle: “Fired Big Bird,” “Binders Full of Women,” and “You Didn’t Build That,” and argues that sharing such memes is a valid form of political participation in the style of what Tommie Shelby calls “impure dissent” (forthcoming).

Case 1: Fired Big Bird

During the televised debate on October 3, 2012, Mitt Romney discussed ways he would reduce the deficit. One of which was the government subsidy to the non-profit public broadcaster PBS. He mentions the beloved character of Big Bird in course.

“I’m sorry Jim, I’m gonna stop the subsidy to PBS. […] I like PBS, I love Big Bird, I actually like you too, but I am not gonna keep spending money on things to borrow money from China to pay for.”

What emerges immediately is the proliferation of image macro memes, new Twitter parody accounts, and a significant amount of media attention.

The memes played with the tropes of Sesame Street,

The memes played with the tropes of Sesame Street,

Referenced earlier political discourse around Romney's work at Bain,

Referenced earlier political discourse around Romney’s work at Bain,

Referenced historical political imagery like "The Gadsden Flag,"

Referenced historical political imagery like “The Gadsden Flag,”

Referenced other recent political movements—here to the Egyptian Arab Spring mantra "We are all Khaled Said,"

Referenced other recent political movements—here to the Egyptian Arab Spring mantra “We are all Khaled Said,”

And there was even an attempt at campaign messaging construction “comparing” the two candidates' accomplishments and potential.

And there was even an attempt at campaign messaging construction “comparing” the two candidates’ accomplishments and potential.

We also saw Romney supporters enter into the discourse, exploiting the meme to make fun of Obama,

We also saw Romney supporters enter into the discourse, exploiting the meme to make fun of Obama,

Using the same tropes as jokes, to make it full circle.

Using the same tropes as jokes, to make it full circle.

This case sees political discourse play out as both Anti-Romney and Anti-Obama, with competing narratives when the meme hits some threshold of attention. And mainstream media plays a key role in amplifying the memes.

Using the media analysis tool Media Cloud, I found “pbs” among the most mentioned words in relation to “Romney” in stories from the top 25 most trafficked online mainstream media sources during the week of October 1, 2012.

Most Mentioned Words in Relation to "Romney" from Top 25 MSM Sources in Media Cloud during week beginning 2012-10-01

Most Mentioned Words in Relation to “Romney” from Top 25 MSM Sources in Media Cloud during week beginning 2012-10-01

Then, I used Media Cloud to browse the specific sentences mentioning PBS in those “Romney” articles.

Sentences mentioning "Romney" in Media Cloud during week beginning 2012-10-01

Sentences mentioning “Romney” in Media Cloud during week beginning 2012-10-01

A CNET article from the night of the debate discussed the social media discourse around the debate and Big Bird in particular. They even drop in one of the image macros shared on Twitter, with the caption “Credit: SadBirdBird/Twitter,” actually giving credit to one of the parody Twitter accounts. The NYT’s Lede blog, which covers the media, also included the memes and talked about how the Big Bird debate confused international election watchers.

The headlines and content of these articles addressed the meme directly, and journalists used the discussion of the shared image macros and parody Twitter accounts as part of their coverage of debate performance and public opinion. And while it is impossible to say that there wouldn’t have been a significant media event around PBS and Big Bird without the intervention of hundreds of memes and thousands of tweets, these indicators help make the case for memes as legitimate political discourse.

Furthermore, the Democratic Party and Obama Campaign immediately capitalized on the attention paid by the Internet and mainstream media to the Fired Big Bird election meme. The day after the debate the Campaign’s Tumblr account passed on two screenshots, one of a Fired Big Bird meme from The Democratic Party’s Twitter account and another meme from the Harris County Democratic Party’s Facebook page. Obama was also at a rally in Denver the day after the debate where he joked,We didn’t know Big Bird was driving the federal deficit!” And six days after the debate, the Obama Campaign released a polished campaign ad about Big Bird.

Case 2: Binders Full of Women

During the second presidential debate on October 16, Mitt Romney responds to a question about pay equity, mentioning that when he was Governor of Massachusetts he was given “binders full of women” as candidates for positions.

“And I said, ‘Well, gosh, can’t we—can’t we find some—some women that are also qualified?’ I went to a number of women’s groups and said, ‘Can you help us find folks?’ and they brought us whole binders full of women.”

23-year-old experienced social media manager Veronica de Souza was watching. And while parody accounts were springing up on Twitter, she went to Tumblr, registered bindersfullofwomen.tumblr.com, and started making memes and inviting others to contribute.

Many featured Trapper Keeper and Lisa Frank style imagery.

Many featured Trapper Keeper and Lisa Frank style imagery.

There were some classic cultural references.

There were some classic cultural references.

People started photographing made-up binders in their places of work and posting them online.

People started photographing made-up binders in their places of work and posting them online.

This case was strongly centered around the specific Tumblr blog created by de Souza the night of the debate. She made it open to contributions and curated them. Tumblr is designed for sharing content through its “submit” and “re-blog” features that in one click allow content to be shared on a Tumblr blog.

Mashable then interviewed de Souza after the fact. She talked about creating the Tumblr blog and a few starter memes: “It’s so easy to create a new Tumblr that is attached to your own. Creating a new Twitter account means you have to create a new email address…it’s more complicated. Also, with how fast Twitter was moving, it would be hard to break through” (Haberman 2012). She admits that she wanted to share and be noticed for her project.

De Souza also reflected on the political aspect of her meme curation: “People keep asking me politically charged questions. Will it swing voters? Maybe the original statement, but not the meme” (Ibid.). She continues, “I didn’t mean it as a political statement—I just thought it was funny and I knew it would be a thing” (Ibid.).

Even if de Souza didn’t believe the election meme would swing voters, the attention it drew to related issues was a potent opportunity for the Obama Campaign. Starting the night of the debate and lasting for the next three days they posted images andquotes to Tumblr highlighting the Obama’s stances on women’s equality and right to choose.

Case 3: You Didn’t Build That

President Obama gave a speech on July 13, 2012 at a fire station in Roanoke, Virginia. He was trying to make a point about the role of government and taking aim at the business credentials of the self-made Romney.

“If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help. […] Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you’ve got a business—you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen. The Internet didn’t get invented on its own….”

Republican and conservative Internet users started generating memes, eventually pulling in the Republican Party, Romney’s Campaign, and mainstream media.

Several of these election memes featured Obama dismissing famous American inventors.

Several of these election memes featured Obama dismissing famous American inventors.

They skewered Democratic Party veteran Al Gore and Obama simultaneously.

They skewered Democratic Party veteran Al Gore and Obama simultaneously.

Conservative groups made their own branded image macros.

Conservative groups made their own branded image macros.

The Republican Party of Iowa released a branded animated gif from video of Obama’s speech.

The Republican Party of Iowa released a branded animated gif from video of Obama’s speech.

And then the GOP itself created a set of slick branded image macros.

After a few days of individual Internet users and independent conservative activist organizations creating memes, on July 17, the Republican National Committee’s opposition research team caught on and generated five GOP.com branded memes, sharing them on their Tumblr blog. That same day, Romney’s Campaign Facebook page offered a shareable image retorting “The Government Doesn’t Build Businesses… Hard Working Americans Do.” The next day, the lead story in the RNC’s research memo was “You Didn’t Build That.” The media coverage of this election meme was strong enough that the Romney Campaign held on to the message over the next two months with slogans like, “I built my business, Mr. President,” “Built by Us,” “We Did Build It!” and then theming the GOP Convention on August 28, “We Built It.”

The Power of Sharing

From the start, the popularity of these image macro memes derives in part from the relative ease of generating and sharing them. Image macro meme generator websites, like quickmeme.com, memegenerator.net, and imgflip.com, make it even easier by managing the process of uploading your own image and overlaying the classic bold white font with your own words added through a text box. They also host galleries of all of the memes created using the same image, which may facilitate their sharing. I argue the real power of this form of political participation is the ease of sharing.

Sharing or circulating a simple image macro via personal social networks, what Jenkins, Ford, and Green call “spreadable media” (2013), represents a political speech act itself. In the networked public sphere (Benkler 2006), barriers to entry have been lowered but so to have the barriers to sharing, with ready audiences on Twitter coalescing into publics around hashtags, on Tumblr through tagging and curation, and on Facebook through shared identity construction.

Shifman, Coleman, and Ward (2007) identified the growing importance of user-generated political humor during the 2005 UK general election as a form of online political participation, but the overwhelmingly cynical quality of the humor left the authors unclear on its utility to promote further participation. But looking at new social movement models like the Arab Spring, Occupy, and the Spanish indignados, Bennett and Segerberg (2012) identified the power of meme sharing, calling it the “linchpin of connective action.” They argue that sharing political memes can power “connective action networks” through personal expression shared over social networks rather than top-down forms of collective action. In some cases these networks can be organizationally-enabled through technological support and moderation to produce loosely coordinated, yet effective movements.

In the case of the 2012 U.S. presidential election memes, the organizations involved in the connective action are the campaigns. In past elections, they developed the capacity to curate attention toward and shape the framing around popular user-generated political content—most notably 2008’s “Yes We Can” video (Wallsten 2010). They now leverage networks of digital activists coordinating with celebrities who have large followings like those involved in the “Yes We Can” video, and backchanneling with savvy political operatives with prior campaign experience like Matt Ortega, the progenitor of several other 2012 election memes (Seitz-Wald 2012).

Although this corroborates the value of connective action and the argument that election memes represent legitimate political speech acts, it also calls into question the quality of personalized expression and grassroots mobilization involved. But “authentic” and even cynical political participation through memes can coexist with their adoption and exploitation by professional political organizations.

Election Memes as Impure Dissent

In a forthcoming paper, Tommie Shelby discusses hip hop as political speech act, and stresses that this form of dissent should not be understood on the model of civil disobedience: it is not meant to garner the notice of the state or other citizens to make a moral point, nor is it meant to demonstrate any moral purity or be respectable. Hip hop flaunts morally or politically objectionable content, which can lead to its dismissal by others: not unlike election memes which debase things or place them out of context to create humor.

Shelby cites Albert Hirschman’s classic text Exit, Voice, and Loyalty, in which dissent comes in two forms: exit and voice, which can be used in tandem as effective political action (1970). But in cases like resignation to the current political system, or an unwillingness to emigrate, voice is the only option. And voice is meant in most cases to influence power, to alter the status quo. But Shelby argues that we should expand voice to mean symbolic expression, which can still be highly political but not concerned with ultimate impact on those in power. This is how the creation and sharing of cynical election memes make for valid political participation.

The propagation of these politicized cultural artifacts may seem trivial and guilty of the slur of “slacktivism” online, but the sharing does real political work in terms of creating a moment and a networked public with power greater than the sum of its parts. Friends or followers are exposed to the sharer’s otherwise unspoken political opinions and given the opportunity to participate by forwarding the same meme they did.

Meme sharing indicates there is something worth paying attention to in that moment. Maybe it is just funny. Maybe it is a little too true, which underlies the humor and implores us to pass it on. A lot of memes act as shibboleths—they indicate that you are part of the in-crowd, you get the joke, you were there when it happened. This is the power of the meme speech act. It quickly creates a networked public from its in-group. That feeling of inclusion can inspire further and future discourse.

Shelby argues that the value of dissent may not be social or political but in how well it reaches its intended audience without having to incite them to activism. And dissent is a public act that creates a public among those it reaches. The messages of dissent call out to be agreed with, rebutted and sometimes acted upon, says Shelby, which is how memes are a form of impure dissent like hip hop, empowered by the act of sharing.

There is the fear that commercialization in hip hop or professionalization in internet memes undermines this power. Shelby argues that impure dissent is a personal act of expression and will always be judged by the audience, critiquing the attitude and justification of the source. Commercial rappers simply have less political credibility. While Stromer-Galley argues that cooption of participatory culture practices by contemporary campaigns have nothing to do with democratic practice and are just about winning (2014), there are real moments of political discourse that emerge through meme sharing—these are moments of personal identity construction and negotiation to return to Shifman’s definition of internet memes. There is room and a need for sharing election memes as impure dissent and as cynical political participation, which might be amplified by campaigns but cannot be replaced by them.

References

Benkler, Yochai. 2006. The Wealth of Networks: How Social Production Transforms Markets and Freedom. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Bennett, W. Lance, and Alexandra Segerberg. 2012. “The Logic of Connective Action.” Information, Communication & Society 15 (5): 739–68.

Haberman, Stephanie. 2012. “Talking Internet Gold With Creator of ‘Binders Full of Women’ Tumblr.” Mashable, October 17. Accessed June 7, 2014. http://mashable.com/2012/10/17/binders-full-of-women-tumblr/.

Hirschman, Albert. 1970. Exit, Voice, and Loyalty: Responses to Decline in Firms, Organizations, and States. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Jenkins, Henry, Sam Ford, and Joshua Green. 2013. Spreadable Media: Creating Value and Meaning in a Networked Culture. New York: NYU Press.

Seitz-Wald, Alex. 2012. “Matt Ortega: The Man behind Mitt Romney Memes.” Salon, March 23. Accessed June 7, 2014. http://www.salon.com/2012/03/23/matt_ortega_the_man_behind_mitt_romney_memes/.

Shelby, Tommie. forthcoming. “Impure Dissent: Hip Hop and the Political Ethics of Marginalized Black Urban Youth.” In From Voice to Influence: Understanding Citizenship in a Digital Age, edited by Danielle Allen and Jennifer Light.

Shifman, Limor. 2013. Memes in Digital Culture. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Shifman, Limor, Stephen Coleman, and Stephen Ward. 2007. “Only Joking? Online Humour in the 2005 UK General Election.” Information, Communication & Society 10 (4): 465–87.

Stromer-Galley, Jennifer. 2014. Presidential Campaigning in the Internet Age. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Zuckerman, Ethan. 2013. ‘Beyond “The Crisis in Civics.”’ Paper presented at the Digital Media and Learning Conference, Chicago, Illinois, March 14–16. Accessed June 7, 2014. http://www.ethanzuckerman.com/blog/2013/03/26/beyond-the-crisis-in-civics-notes-from-my-2013-dml-talk/.

Erhardt Graeff is a PhD researcher at the MIT Center for Civic Media and MIT Media Lab. His latest projects involve building civic technologies that empower people to be greater agents of change, performing quantified analysis of media ecosystems, and documenting new forms of civic participation enabled by digital media. Beyond academia, Erhardt is a founding trustee of The Awesome Foundation, which gives small grants to awesome projects. Erhardt holds master’s degrees from Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of Cambridge and two bachelor’s degrees from Rochester Institute of Technology.

 

 

Connected Learning, Participatory Politics, and Civic Education: An Interview with Ben Kirshner and Ellen Middaugh (Part Two)

As I was pulling together these questions, I stumbled on a Politico news-story about the ways that the candidates and campaigns are actively courting teens who will be old enough to vote in the next presidential election for the first time. I am sure we will be seeing more such coverage of the youth vote in the months ahead. Based on your books’ insights on participatory politics and civic learning, what do you see as missing from this conversation?

EM: One thing that seems to be missing from the Politico article is a view of young people as constituents to be represented rather than voters to be turned out and persuaded. Participatory politics is about understanding the conditions in which young people can take advantage of the tools, practices and networks associated with digital media in order to introduce their issues and ideas into the public discourse. So many party-based and youth mobilization efforts treat voting as the beginning and end of civic participation.

With that view, targeting young voters through social media does bring a lot of risks. However, if we think as civic educators and not just political strategists, we know that voting is just one small piece of what it means to be an engaged citizen. Young people need opportunities to learn how to evaluate and analyze information that comes in all kinds of forms. If contacting youth through media is going to expose them to attack ads and propaganda, the answer is not to simply avoid exposure, but to educate them to interpret these media and ask critical questions.

Educators have for many years addressed the questions of propaganda. Even the National Assessment of Educational Progress has questions about interpretation of political cartoons. We simply need to make sure that we update the genres and continue to engage young people in critical analysis of media. For example, a teacher associated with the EDDA project had their students analyze and create their own “rant” videos in the style of Bill O’Reilly and Keith Olberman as a way of helping them think critically about current genres of news.

I personally like the idea of reaching out to potential voters. Being invited into the process is important, and given the diversification of communications, doing it through a wide range of networks seems important. Not all young people are on twitter nor do they all check email regularly. I would just hope that those who are mining data to reach out to future voters are interested in catering to the issues represented in those tweets and posts to learn about what youth care about and to represent them, and not just to their potential for showing up to vote.

On the other side of the problem, I think there is great need to not just teach youth to critically consume informaton targeted at them, but to produce information that can be targeted for public attention. This means not only learning how to share information and ideas through presentations or posters, but to share them in spreadable (a concept you’ve really helped elaborate, Henry) ways so that they are paid attention to and have a chance of influencing others.

A key theme in the book is what participatory politics can mean for those who have traditionally been excluded or marginalized from the political process. Doing so often requires meaningful scaffolding to help young people develop their civic voice and political agency. What approaches — in or outside the classroom — have you identified that seem successful in increasing political participation?

BK: On one hand, young people who experience exclusion or marginalization from politics respond to all sorts of opportunities, which can range from very conventional leadership program such as Jr. ROTC to less common spaces that privilege their voice and perspective, such as student voice initiatives and community-based youth organizing. In a book that is coming out in June I write about a distinction between procedural and issue-based opportunities for civic voice and political agency [Youth Activism in an Era of Education Inequality, NYU Press]. Whereas procedural justifies itself because it creates spaces for “voice” and “deliberation”, issue-based approaches galvanize people around a specific problem that affects their well-being, such as immigration policy or the school-to-jail track.

Both are necessary, but the two appeal to different sets of experiences for young people. The former can be more unpredictable and appeal to youth whose primary grievance is age-based discrimination. The latter, while also undetermined, have a more explicit political agenda and appeal to youth whose primary grievance is tied to their experience as student of color or undocumented, for example.

Throughout the book, you draw on examples from established educational organizations, including Facing History and Ourselves, Global Kids, and Youth Radio. To what degree are you taking the “new” models of civic education you discuss from their established practices? To what degree are they rethinking their approaches in response to the new research that has been developed in recent years?

What I like about the chapters in this volume is that this truly isn’t an either or question, but that the practices are emerging in conversation. The programs we profile are both informed by and are informing research. For example, the Global Kids program grew out of Global Kids staff participation in a working group that I hosted on Service and Activism in the Digital Age where we brought together researchers and practitioners to identify some core principles of practice for civic education. Global Kids already brought a great deal of expertise for online leadership to the table and then built a new program that drew on some of the insights they gained from discussion with civic education and engagement researchers and developed the Race to the White House program.

Similarly Youth Radio and Facing History and Ourselves maintain close partnerships with the research community. These partnerships support an evolution of civic education that builds on what we have learned about effective civic education and adapts to meet the needs of the current society, rather than simply introducing “new” models to replace the “old.”

Ben Kirshner is an Associate Professor in the School of Education at CU Boulder and Faculty Director for CU Engage: Center for Community-Based Learning and Research. Through his work with CU Engage Ben seeks to develop and sustain university-community partnerships that leverage the resources of the university to address persistent public challenges. Ben’s research examines youth organizing, participatory action research, and new forms of digital media as contexts for learning, development, and social change. He is a Network Advisor for the MacArthur Foundation’s Connected Learning Research Network.

Ellen Middaugh is an Assistant Professor of Child and Adolescent Development at San Jose State University and Senior Researcher with the Mills College Civic Engagement Research Group. Her research focuses on how new media is changing the social context of adolescent development and the implications for educational practice. Current projects include studies of youth experiences with online conflict and of emerging classroom practices to support information literacy for civic underestanding and engagement.