Welcome Back From Where-Ever Your Summer Journeys Took You

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The above image was shared with me by a reader, Robert Spadoni, who spotted this mural outside Gap, Arizona, while driving with his family across the American west. Robert shared the following story:

We hadn’t seen a business or residence for a couple of hours at least, and hardly any cars. We pulled over to change drivers, and for no reason, just to be goofy, I pulled way in to the edge of this gigantic deserted turnout on the side of the road, right up to this empty structure. I’m a huge fan of the Original Series of Star Trek, and my 12 year old exclaimed, “The Star Trek symbol!” I was getting ready to say something like, “Yeah, It DOES kinda look like that,” when I looked up. Apparently, from my searches, this mural is below the radar even of Google—I didn’t think there was anything left that was.


Robert asked me to share a few thoughts. For me, this is a great example of the ways that each of us construct our own personal mythology from the culture around us, increasingly mixing and matching elements that have very distinctive histories and meanings. I suppose you could call this “postmodern,” since it reflects the breaking down of traditional kinds of fixed social identities and coherent cultural narratives, in favor of a process of continuous self-fashioning and ongoing appropriation and remixing. The result can be surprising juxtapositions of images and meanings. And on one level, what we see here — without knowing anything beyond what Robert shares — can seem idiosyncratic, highly personal, perhaps undecipherable to someone not on the same wave length with the artist. Someone like Frederic Jameson might talk about this in terms of the flattening of affect and the implosion of meaning, but I don’t think either is what is going on here — certainly not for the original artist and not to Robert, his family, or myself. We recognize the icons being deployed here; we understand some possible meanings for them, and if anything, there is too much meaning here for us to put easily into words.

At a most basic level, the image bridges between “Space, the final frontier” and the kinds of frontier imagery we associate with the American west. Yet, what is striking to me is the way that the Star Trek images are mapped not onto the rootless cowboy moving endlessly across the western badlands, but rather onto images associated with native Americans. Just as we’ve seen the emergence of Afro-Futurism which uses the juxtaposition of science fiction imagery with historic experiences of race, we have seen First Nation people all over the planet embrace images from science fiction as a means of inserting themselves into our imaginings of the future, as a way of signaling that their culture may be traditional but that it is not stuck in the past, that they will carry their traditions with them into the future. I have no way of knowing here whether the artist is native American or appropriating native American images for his or her own purposes, opening up some tensions around what we see as appropriate or inappropriate forms of appropriation. Even in an era of remix culture, as we discuss in my Reading in a Participatory Culture book, there are power relations such that the appropriation of minority identities and expressions by dominant groups have different political meanings than the appropriation of majority cultures by minority communities. (We might think about this image in relation to the character of Chakotay in Star Trek: Voyager, a character who was variously read in terms of expanding representations within a multicultural narrative or in terms of the exploitation of stereotypes about tribal communities in ways that did not necessarily speak to how First Nation peoples understand themselves and their own cultural experiences.)

And part of what I find compelling about Robert’s image and story is that we don’t have any answers about who the author is, what motivated them to produce this mural, and in what ways they are seeking to make meaning of the relationship between Star Trek and Native American cultural traditions.

I am sharing this image (and my speculations about it) today as a signal that the blog is back up after my typical summer hiatus. I’ve had a very productive summer, which has included so far, the completion of my next book, By Any Media Necessary: Mapping Youth and Participatory Politics, which we sent off to be peer reviewed a few weeks ago and which we hope will come out in the not-too-distant future. I’ve also made significant progress on several other fronts, including a new essay on the current state of fandom studies, which will be published in the Journal of Fandom Studies; an essay on the history of aesthetic experimentation that has surrounded Daredevil in the Marvel universe; a collaborative essay on the many different political uses that have been made of the Superhero in recent years;  and some early work on a new project — a series of critical essays on 9 different contemporary graphic novelists. So, I may not be coming back from the break rested, but I do come back with a strong sense of accomplishment and a determination to hit the deck running as we move into the new academic year.

We have a great line-up of interviews for the coming term, which I will start sharing in just a few days.

The World is Yours: A Film About Hip Hop and the Internet

Marguerite de Bourgoing was among the first students I got to know when I arrived at USC, and she has been blessed with the entrepreneurial spirit. In 2010, I featured on the blog her grassroots media franchise, LAstereo.tv, which deploys YouTube and social network sites to showcase the Los Angeles hip hop scene.  At the time, I wrote, “de Bourgoing represents the Trojan spirit at its best — a social and cultural entrepreneur who is taking what she’s learned as a media maker and deploying it to serve her larger community.” SInce then, she’s taken this work much further, producing a documentary exploring the roles which new media has played in building and promoting contemporary hip hop culture, and she asked if I’d be willing to share a progress report with my readers, since she’s currently running a Kickstarter campaign to push this project even further. So what follows is her account of what she’s trying to do and why it matters. Full disclosure: I am one of the talking heads included in the film (even though I know less about hip hop than the average bear). She is collaborating on the film with my colleague, Taj Frazier,  from USC’s Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism, a gifted scholar whose work touches on the politics of race, globalization, sports, and popular music.

The World is Yours: A Film About Hip Hop and the Internet
by Marguerite de Bourgoing

The World Is Yours  looks at the web 2.0 revolution by following the rise of hip-hop artists. In these times of disruption, we face both angst and great opportunities–depending on your viewpoint and how you address it. Hip hop has always been ahead of the curve in technology, and its underground culture is bypassing the mainstream again. The words “the world is yours” were first immortalized by Shakespeare: “Why, then, the world’s mine oyster, which I with a sword will open.” Hip hop’s take echoes the engrained DIY ethos that has made it the most influential culture of the last 40 years and taken it from rags to riches.

Thanks to social media, today these words make even more sense: one can now access the world through one’s own perspective and interests and eschew the uniform vision constructed by the media. Spheres of influences are spreading and multiplying. Young hip-hop artists are creating their own movements and communicating directly to their fans without taking the traditional PR route. These young artists have re-appropriated the idea that it is better to make yourself discoverable than to be discovered.

The World is Yours probes the most innovative and enterprising of these artists. It focuses in particular on three different movements that have each been seminal in the recent changes that occurred in hip-hop and what those changes mean for the music industry.

Shooting star Wiz Khalifa went from being dropped by major label Warner Bros to becoming the biggest hip-hop breakthrough artist of 2011 with the massive international hit “Black & Yellow” — all thanks to the support of his fans, the “Taylor Gang.” He shows us why radio isn’t the be all end all for a rising artist, and how it’s essential to build a buzz on your own. Today he is one of America’s biggest stars.

Wiz Khalifa
​Wiz Khalifa Pic: Kasey Stokes/ LA Stereo TV

Lil Bs bizarre creativity set a new precedent in the amount of music released by one artist in a short timespan. A marketing genius who does it all on his own, Lil B has been setting trends in style, fashion, music, and new producers ever since his first viral hit “Vans” in 2007 with Bay Area group The Pack. Since going solo, he has developed a strong cult following around his alter-ego, the BasedGod, which is cultivated through social media twenty-two hours a day. (see clip below)


Lil B Pic: Kasey Stokes/ LA Stereo TV

Finally, media darlings Odd Future took the music industry by storm becoming the first DIY evangelists of this hip-hop generation, doing all production,  graphics and videos by themselves. We focus on their sound mixing engineer/dj/producer/singer Syd the Kyd, the only woman of the collective and one of the group’s pillars, whose homemade studio enabled the artists to created a cohesive sound before catching everyone else’s attention.


​Odd Future Pic: Julian Berman

The Internet is giving birth to a new face of hip-hop, introducing artists who less than five years ago would have never been given a chance of making it as a rap artist. There is more diversity than ever in the new hip-hop landscape. Queens born Albanian chef Action Bronson raps about foodChildish Gambino is stand-up comedian Donald Glover, Iggy Azalea is a white Australian woman, Detroit’s Danny Brown was turned down by 50 Cent for wearing skinny jeans,  and Harlem-born rapper Asap Rocky takes inspiration from Houston. These are just a few examples of new artists who all owe their careers to the internet. New models are being created: Chance the Rapper collaborated with Justin Bieber on the strength of his free album Mac Miller has his own series on MTV, Macklemore was the first independent act in years to have several hit songs on the radio.


​Thank you Based God or #TYBG – an ode to Lil B- is one of the biggest long running internet memes

In the film, we talk with the people who have identified those cultural shifts along the way (like Henry Jenkins!) as well as people who contributed to those changes. We focus on key moments like the closing of hip-hop record store Fat Beats, or the making of multi-million dollar rap lyrics website Rap Genius. We look at how this movement fits in the history of hip-hop and the recording music industry.  From the fans’ perspective on some of their favorite artists, to the camaraderie of The Foreign Exchange, the multimedia vision of a QD3 and the birth of a new music group The Internet composed of Odd Future’s Syd the Kyd and Matt Martians, the film offers offers unique point of views documented over several years.


​The closing of Fat Beats Pic: Kasey Stokes/ LA Stereo TV

The World Is yours is the ultimate guide on how to navigate the digital era today.  One tweet, Vine, and Instagram post at a time, these artists and their communities are redefining the media landscape and pointing to the opportunities brought by these changes. This film is a reminder to think outside the box and cut new paths made possible by technology. The World Is Yours and everything in it if you get up and get it.
To find out how you can help and be in the film, check out our Kickstarter campaign.
The following clip is a excerpt of an abridged version of the film that just aired in France on France O that features artists rapper Lil B. We are working on getting the film out in the US.

Transforming Television: An Interview with Denise Mann (Part Two)

Your dust cover frames the book in terms of the development of the “post-network” television era in relation to “the introduction of broadband into the majority of homes and the proliferation of popular, participatory Web 2.0 companies.” What role has technological change played in shaking up established modes of production and distribution or arrangements of labor?

In the early days of broadband and Web 2.0, the networks tolerated an exceptional degree of collaboration with thought leaders and cutting-edge companies outside of Hollywood proper; these outsiders included executives from Silicon Valley, entrepreneurial writer-producers and digital producers, among others. The result of this momentary largess was a vast array of transmedia storytelling experiments associated with the networks’ most valuable media franchises, including Smallville, Lost, Heroes, Ghost Whisperer, among others.

Furthermore, the networks jumped into the digital distribution waters headfirst by making broadcast content available via Apple iTunes, Hulu, and the CBS Digital Audience initiative, as well as their own network websites. During previous periods of upheaval—economic, cultural, and technological—the Hollywood studios have tolerated the cultural experiments of creative insiders who embraced these new technologies, such as sound, radio, television, cable, and most recently, digital; however, these shifts cannot be reduced to technological developments alone; instead, we’ve seen a history of cultural convergence as Hollywood embraces alternative creative models during periods of social-economic change in the U.S.

As seen in your book, What Made Pistachio Nuts, the beginning of sound had a damaging effect on Hollywood’s traditional operations, as did the social-economic crisis prompted by the Depression; the studios responded to these combined threats by looking to alternative aesthetic forms, such as Vaudeville, to enhance their own offerings. In other words, Hollywood’s earliest days demonstrated this tendency–the “emergence of convergence”—best seen in the studios efforts to import Vaudeville’s stars by integrating their performance strategies into Hollywood’s traditional narrative system. This history of convergence was also amply on display during the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s, as Hollywood embraced, emulated, or assimilated other cultural outsiders, such as the German Expressionists, the Italian Neo-realists, and the French New Wave.

Furthermore, Hollywood has always demonstrated a willingness to advance the business logic of key cultural-industrial entrepreneurs, such as Walt Disney, George Lucas, and more recently, Apple’s Steve Jobs and Pixar’s John Lasseter, among countless others. The big media corporations’ internalization of these epochal changes tends to take place slowly, in incremental steps, over several decades; however, the studios responded rather quickly to Lucas’ game-changing creation, Star Wars, by making sure their boiler-plate contracts with talent granted the studios 100% ownership of all licensed merchandise.

Most agree that Walt Disney’s introduction of the multi-platform, cross-promotable, media franchise in the 1950s is one of the key drivers of today’s modern media corporation. Disney has continued to inspire imitators, as other studios try to replicate its use of Marvel to generate a “shared universe” of characters across their film, television, theme park, and other formats.

In contrast, the networks appear to be more risk-adverse organizations, unwilling to invest too much of their intellectual or infrastructural capital to overhaul their aging system without concrete evidence that online advertising will soon outpace their analog revenues. Even though the early experiments in transmedia storytelling  proved popular with millennial audiences, the networks disbanded them, preferring to bring these interactive content-promotional campaigns in-house via their newly created social marketing divisions; notably, this retrenchment is also evident in the networks current emphasis on tech-driven “connected audience” strategies over cultural experimentation via creator-driven transmedia storytelling initiatives.

As we think about what I call transmedia, do you see some tensions between the desire for coherence and continuity within an expanded story world and challenges to creative autonomy within a dispersed production sphere strongly governed by licensing agreements? 

Transmedia storytelling was embraced by a variety of independent-minded production personnel who were eager to disrupt the rigid storytelling conventions of most Hollywood big media franchises; furthermore, it was an effort to bypass the usual gatekeepers—agents, managers, attorneys, and the battery of studio executives overseeing development, marketing, business affairs, and consumer products divisions.

As you point out in your Wired TV essay, “The Reign of the Mothership,” the term “transmedia” originated around major media franchises targeting children; Marsha Kinder demonstrated how characters from key franchises, such as Super Mario Brothers and Teenage Mutant Ninga Turtles, became part of a “transmedia supersystem” and revenue generator for the media companies. It wasn’t until later that you used the Matrix example to expand the definition to include the various stakeholders in the creative authorship of the storytelling associated with various platforms linked to a particular media franchise.

Derek Johnson’s essay in Wired TV sheds light on the history of film and television licensing, focusing on the period from the 1950s to the present when studios mimicked the structured business models used by fast-food restaurants and gas stations to organize their management of licensed properties. In particular, Derek Johnson, as well as media scholar M.J. Clarke, Transmedia Television (2012), describe network and studio licensing divisions engagement of  independent vendors—comic book writers, game designers, and novelization authors—in “work-for-hire” agreements that allow these creative personnel to earn revenue and deliver profits to the studios by creating stories for additional platforms linked to media corporation-owned media franchises. In this scenario, licensed vendors are often made to feel like second-class citizens in comparison to the studios’ highly valued above-the-line creative personnel—showrunners, directors, and producers, and so forth.

Notably, the latter are protected by the talent guilds, whereas licensed vendors must cover production costs, insurance, and other major expenditures themselves, placing them in a high-risk, low satisfaction segment of the creative labor force. Johnson explains the paradoxical lengths that NBC-Universal went to in order to limit fan engagement with their Battlestar Galactica Videomaker contest; they forced this unpaid labor force to sign contracts analogous to the onerous “work-for-hire” arrangements with licensed vendors rather than reward this advance guard of fans for their loyalty and commitment to keeping their series active in the Zeitgeist.  Johnson’s case-study underscores the themes running throughout Wired TV—that media corporations have been over-zealous in their management of their IP, preventing them from benefiting fully from the spreadable nature of media in the digital ecosystem.

Denise Mann has been the head of the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television’s Producers Program since 1996 and is an Associate Professor in the Department of Film, Television and Digital Media. In that capacity, she teaches graduate and undergraduate courses on contemporary entertainment industry practices as well as critical studies seminars on film and television history and theory. She is the editor of Wired TV: Laboring Over an Interactive Future (Rutgers University Press, 2014) and the author of Hollywood Independents: The Postwar Talent Takeover (University of Minnesota Press, 2008). Previously, Professor Mann co-edited Private Screenings: Television and the Female Consumer (University of Minnesota Press, 1992).

Transforming Television: An Interview with Denise Mann (Part One)

Ever since I came to Los Angeles five years ago, I have been collaborating with Denise Mann in producing the Transmedia Hollywood, now Transforming Hollywood, conferences — events which bring together industry leaders, creative artists, activists, journalists, and academics to reflect on the trends which are reshaping the entertainment industry. Mann has been the director of the Producers Program at UCLA since 1996 and brings to our collaboration a solid network of industry contacts,a front line perspective on the production process, and above all, a deep grasp of current theoretical and conceptual models within industry studies.

Mann has brought all of these things together with her new book, Wired TV: Laboring Over an Interactive Future, which brings together some of the top thinkers working on production studies, media audiences and fandom studies, transmedia and franchise entertainment, branding and labor practices. Her goal is to understanding the ways that the television industry has — and for her, more importantly, has not — changed in response to the shifting possibilities for audience engagement, alternative systems of distribution, and new creative practices made possible in the new media environment. As this interview suggests, much of her work centers around the ways that the American broadcast and cable industries have resisted change, have stuck to old imperatives and business models, even as they are confronting disruptive and potentially transformative forces in the culture around them. The focus here on creative labor is an important intervention, both in the ways it complicates sometimes reductive models based on free and precarious labor, but also because of the ways that it cautions us about being too optimistic about the creative possibilities of transmedia storytelling.

At the same time, in this interview and in the book, she’s also flagging for us alternative systems of production, financing, distribution, and consumption/reception that have emerged as new players are taking advantage of the opportunities posed by digital media to enter the industry from unexpected directions and demonstrate that things could be different. The past year or so has seen ample examples that such strategies are destabilizing television as we know it, though it is too soon to tell which of these innovations will have a lasting impact. I was struck at this year’s Transforming Hollywood conference by how many of the so-called independent media producers still measured success in terms of getting picked up by a broadcast or cable network and the ways that this desire for mainstream embrace could act as a conservative force on their alternative visions for television content or production practices.

All of this is to say that Wired TV is an important and timely book. So, I was eager to get Denise Mann to share her vision for this project and some core insights that emerged from it with my readers.

Let’s start with the title of the book. First, what do you mean by “Wired TV”? Does this refer to transmedia, multimedia, second screen, cross-platform delivery, twitter flows, or all of the above? Second, what significance do you attach to the concepts of “Labor” or “Laboring” to our understanding of these new forms of television as compared to what is now a more common emphasis on fandom or consumption or reception? And finally, what do you mean by an “interactive future”? What changes do you envision happening from here in terms of how we — producers and consumers — interact with television?

The title of the book, Wired TV, references all of the above—transmedia, multimedia, second screen, cross-platform delivery, twitter flows, and more. The theoretical hunch underlying the collection is that the traditional network television industry’s failure to adapt to the digital economy is a function of its over-reliance on an intractable system of workplace bureaucracies and rigid affiliations.

In Wikinomics (2006), Don Talbott and Anthony Williams argued that corporations must learn to open their doors to the global mind hive as a means to generate innovative solutions to otherwise unanswerable questions. While their conclusion is a bit simplistic overall, the central thesis is nonetheless compelling: visionary experiments, such as Wikipedia and the Human Genome Project, offer undeniable proof of the potential of mass collaborative activities undertaken on a global scale. According to the authors, even staunchly conservative U.S. organizations, such as Proctor and Gamble, IBM, and Lego,  have been able to reboot their waning industries by loosening their grip on proprietary intellectual capital—the intangible knowledge amassed by corporations to generate value.

The networks, I argue, have been notoriously “closed door” about sharing both their financial assets (their IP) and their intellectual capital (as evidenced by their over-reliance on aging, unreliable divisions, such as development, marketing, and licensing). The book’s focus on labor assumes that production studies and audience studies cannot be understood in isolation—that Stuart Hall’s notion of coders and encoders as two sides of the same coin has become even more relevant in the Web 2.0 era.

Key creative personnel associated with specific network series—Smallville, Lost, Heroes, The Ghost Whisperer, etc.—understood their primary obligation  to deliver broad audiences to advertisers; however, they were eager to embrace the creative opportunities of transmedia storytelling, even as they acknowledged its commercial upside—the fact that fans were seeding grassroots social media marketing campaigns. The economic value of these interactive campaigns has not been lost on advertisers, many of which are actively seeking to cut out the Hollywood middlemen by hiring production personnel to create interactive forms of branded entertainment (e.g., Asylum 626, and so forth).

While the creative industries scholarship generally aligns itself with a Marxist critique of the knowing exploitation of unpaid fan labor by industry, this collection offers a more nuanced view, juxtaposing essays that critique the media companies’ calculated misuse of fan labor (Levin Russo, Kozinets) with essays (Johnson, Brooker, Mann) that invoke the social value of these content-promotional hybrids. The paradox exposed across the collection as a whole is that the networks would have benefited in the long term by showing a greater tolerance for these experimental systems of exchange between creators and fans; however, the industry’s refusal to “let go” of their bureaucratic grip on their IP has undermined their ability to engage audiences as they continue to migrate online.

In the title of our recent conference, we talk about “Transforming Hollywood,” which implies that some key things are changing about the nature of this medium. How does Hollywood need to be transformed to make way for the possibilities your book considers?  What changes have already happened? In what ways has Hollywood resisted those changes?

In the latest edition of Transforming Hollywood, you and I focused less on the networks proper and more on the various innovators and thought leaders emerging in competing industries—in particular, the streaming video-on-demand companies or SVODS (Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Studios), as well as progressive and cutting edge cable companies (BET, PIVOT), web-based production companies (Geek and Sundry, Nerdists), and scholars analyzing the consequences of this vast, cultural-industrial revolution. Aymar Jean Christian focused on a different type of revolution taking place among independent web-creators, who see themselves as artists first and foremost (although a number are seeing their work being turned into professional-length series by the cable companies and SVODS).

While the networks initially perceived YouTube’s user-generated mash-ups and illegal downloads as a flagrant violation of their IP rights, with time, the media companies embraced YouTube’s amateur aesthetic and its one billion a month user-base as a viable means of expanding their promotional reach and a way to redirect viewers back to their broadcast series.

Notably, the cable networks have been more expansive in their use of a second layer of innovative outsider—namely the transmedia producers, such as Starlight Runner Entertainment, and digital marketers, such as Campfire—who share expertise in crafting story-driven promotions. The cable networks have been more tolerant of these affiliations in large part because of their more targeted approach to audience and the positive impact of these campaigns on their subscriber base. In contrast, the networks are still reliant on delivering broad audiences to advertisers and affiliates. As a result of these age-old affiliations, the networks’ infrastructural rigidity has made them less agile in terms of accommodating the new, algorithm-curated, video-on-demand capabilities of their latest competitors: the video streaming-on-demand companies.

The growing number of programmers in the digital space has been a boon for talent, prompting the current expansion or “renaissance” in the television space—many seeing this growth as an outgrowth of the decline of independent filmmaking in the theatrical space. As Fox and other networks struggle to dismantle the highly dysfunctional and wasteful pilot system, they have been outpaced by the rapid growth of cable networks and SVODs. The latter have demonstrated a willingness to commit to full series without forcing creators to go through the typical gauntlet of development notes and arduous pilot production schedules; instead, more and more creators are able to secure deals based solely on promising pilot scripts, graphic novels, international formats, web-series, and other less expensive alternatives. In one telling instance, fans were able to exert their considerable influence on the marketplace by using Kickstarter to fund the adaptation of a favorite TV series, Veronica Mars, into a feature film. BET has benefited from its core audiences’ fascination with Twitter to expand its reach to a wider audience.

Broadcasters have watched in dismay as Netflix enlisted high-priced Hollywood creators to create House of Cards without regard to production costs as a way to strengthen their core revenue source–subscribers. At the other end of the budgetary spectrum, the multi-channel networks or MCNs (e.g., Maker Studios, Machinima, and Fullscreen) have aggregated thousands of YouTube creators in order to amass tens of thousands of online users.

In my panel, I focused on this relatively new trend—the formation of a new business model around the proliferation of YouTube content creators. Most MCNs pursued this new business model shortly after YouTube started investing $100 million to augment the production budgets of a hundred or so YouTube talent partners. To serve this growing group of YouTubers with significant user counts, the MCNs inserted themselves as business allies, taking a percentage of the advertising dollars offered by YouTube and up to 50% of the IP, in exchange for providing amateur creators with these added services.

The results have been controversial, as thousands of YouTube creators have signed contracts with most earning little or no profits for their considerable efforts; in contrast, the small handful of creators, who have been able to secure a living despite YouTube’s restrictive terms, are resentful of the MCNs for profiting from their creative labor.  The MCNs—considered by many critics to be a blatant power-grab by a handful of business-savvy digital industry leaders—has raised the ire of the once democratic YouTube community by exploiting a wide swath of user-generated content creators to increase leverage with online advertisers.  At the same time, the MCNs have commanded the attention of several Hollywood media companies, which recognize their inability to access YouTube’s growing audience of online users. Notably, Disney recently acquired Maker Studios for $500 million, while Warner Bros. continues to kick the tires at Machinima.

Denise Mann has been the head of the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television’s Producers Program since 1996 and is an Associate Professor in the Department of Film, Television and Digital Media. In that capacity, she teaches graduate and undergraduate courses on contemporary entertainment industry practices as well as critical studies seminars on film and television history and theory. She is the editor of Wired TV: Laboring Over an Interactive Future (Rutgers University Press, 2014) and the author of Hollywood Independents: The Postwar Talent Takeover (University of Minnesota Press, 2008). Previously, Professor Mann co-edited Private Screenings: Television and the Female Consumer (University of Minnesota Press, 1992).

Critical Making, Social Media, and DIY Citizenship: An Interview with Matt Ratto and Megan Boler (Part Two)

And finally, the last part of your title, “Social Media,” implies some model of how media change — and the availability of new technological resources — may be shaping what counts as citizenship and political discourse right now. So, what assumptions does your book make about the relationship between new media technologies and political empowerment?


MR: We think the book actually calls up both the possibilities and the problems with social media as a site for political action. The ‘problems’ of course include private ownership of platforms, popularity echo-chamber (filter bubble), lack of public accountability – any of these factors can change at any moment, of course. But in terms of possibilities, one examines increased freedom for connectivity, ‘routing around’ traditional media outlets and systems–all of which poses some challenge to government control and censorship and makes for complex terrain. Readers will find in the collection examples of both good and ill without being either socially or technologically determinist.


While we were motivated to organize the conference and edit this book based on our significantly optimistic or politically hopeful trajectories, promises, and accomplishments already achieved through creative social media uses, the chapters aptly capture what can rightly be termed “pessimism of the intellect and optimism of the will.” Readers will note Ron Deibert’s Foreword, marked by his serious warnings about the end of the free and open internet as we know it.  Further, essays such as Jenson’s on the limits of creative production in school contexts, essays on surveillance practices as outlined by McPhail et al, and Bissonette’s critique of TV news formats such as iReport represent, on this continuum, the more pessimistic view.


Some of the examples discussed throughout the work probably would be most often described as “citizen journalism.”  What roles do you see citizens playing in shaping the informational resources available to their communities? 


MB: Part IV of our book, “DIY Media: Redistributing Authority and Sources in News Media” includes a diverse array of perspectives on the roles citizens play in shaping and distributing information in new media landscapes.  Having been researching for over ten years the motivations and practices of those who produce what I term “digital dissent” or alternative media for the web 2.0 environment, it is clear that people are hungry for trusted sources, for interlocutors who can help “filter” or “make sense of” information produced by traditional authorities. People’s hunger for trusted sources runs parallel to the increased capacities and possibilities to produce alternative interpretations given the new media landscapes and modes of access to expression and dissemination.


Citizens, people, users of the world wide web, increasingly make it part of their daily lives and work to create, shape and share information with their communities.  It is now widely recognized that news is consumed predominantly via mediated platforms like FB where “friends” have pre-selected, in a sense vetted and culled, news or information believed worthy of recommending and spreading.  Given the information saturation and inundation of the information economy, understandably people require signposts and directions for making choices regarding sources.


Frustrations with traditional news media coverage after September 11, 2001 catalyzed everyday citizens to become media makers and producers of digital dissent.  I term ‘digital dissent producers’ those who elected to produce blogs, videos, or engage in public expression specifically to contest corporate-owned media and its often predictable agenda-setting, point of view, choice of content, and use of sources. The shifting understandings of truth or what we have come to identify as “sense making” is especially apparent in the challenges to the authority of traditional news sources and the rise in citizen journalism that has corresponded with crises of public faith in traditional news authorities. The crises of faith with respect to news institutions is closely related to the quite real crises and public skepticism towards electoral political sphere and traditional social and state institutions ranging from news to schools, government to democracy.


Regarding alternative media, Chris Atton emphasizes the importance of alternative media reflecting the  “practices of decentralized, directly-democratic, self-managed, and reflexive ‘networks in the everyday’.” The Chapters included in this section outline diverse kinds of alternative news-making or interventions , ranging from the production of feminist ‘zines (which pre-date so-called Web 2.0 capacities; Reitsamer and Zobl), to DIY experimentation with technologies and “vox pop” rituals aptly illustrating critical making (McVeigh-Schultz).  With a bit less optimism, other chapters analyse the blurry lines between amateur/professional “alternative” interventions such as the controversy sparked by KONY 2012 Campaign (Meikle), the ongoing agenda-setting influence of powerful media institutions (Ananny) and in his chapter on CNN’s iReport, Bissonette argues that “Citizen journalism remains tilted towards commercial gain, not democratic discourse.”

We are witnessing a seachange in how information is currated through what might be called a ‘remix’ traditional/institutional sources and filters, intermixed with personal/networked sources and filters. The effect is a (still inudating) number of differing entry points, pathways of information, be those a combination of platforms (from Reddit to Facebook to Twitter) that facilitate information, crowd-sourced or other “trusted filter”significantly determining directions and pathways. And of course, all of his moves alongside the invisible politics of ranking performed by the algorithms of Google, for example.

Indeed, the whistleblowing events brought about by Assange, Manning, and Snowden are not only related to the technological crises surrounding surveillance and privacy, but truth and propaganda and their function within the information economy.  And it’s crucial to point out that in both instances, Assange and Snowden partnered with and used traditional, established news organizations (the Guardian and the New York Times).



For the past decade, it’s been a cliché that young people learn more about contemporary social concerns through entertainment sources, including “fake news” programs, than through traditional journalism. Megan, you’ve done extensive research into this space. So, what is your current sense of the ways people use the Daily Show and other such programs in relation to more traditional forms of journalism? What do you see as the strengths and limits of the kind of civic knowledge that emerges from these sources?


MB: The October, 2010 Rally for Sanity and/or Fear organized by Stewart and Colbert  in Washington D.C. drew nearly half a million people from all across North America, (“Woodstock with the Clothes on”, as one attendee described it to us), demonstrating that those long accused of being slacktivists and couch potatoes are in essence a standing reserve of political and cultural criticality.  Following years of questionable scholarship asserting such claims as the “cynicism effect”–that viewing The Daily Show may result in decreased civic engagement such as electoral voting–this monumental rally demonstrated indubitably that viewers of so-called “fake news” are at the ready to be mobilized and called into action.


A recent and ongoing sign of the power of satire as a news format are the increasing number of popular “fake news” shows found even in some of the most repressive governmental regimes, such as Egyptian political satirist Bassem Youssef’s show Al Bernameg, now in Season 3 following the events of 2011.


There can be little doubt that satirists, bloggers, citizen journalists, and independent video producers around the world are taking action daily and dissenting from mainstream media agendas.  What matters is that dissenting voices are being aired through increasingly broad and multiformat channels. Corporate-owned news and papers of record are being forced to watch their step by the 24/7 surveillance of a vibrant public demanding accountability. 

All of this raises interesting points regarding the ways in which “fake news” can be conflated with entertainment, and then — as noted in your question — is turned into a cliche, about young people as disengaged — of course there are distinctions to be made between different forms of popular cultural entertainment and how they do or don’t cultivate a critical sensibility towards political institutions and practices.  The comedians may claim to be only interested in the laugh. But those who watch, think critically, and take numerous forms of action do come away each night with renewed political convictions–not least of which is to question a news media that too often fails in its responsibility to speak truth to power


Megan Boler
 is Professor of media and education at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, University of Toronto. Her books include Feeling Power: Emotions and Education (Routledge 1999); Democratic Dialogue in Education (Peter Lang 2004); Digital Media and Democracy: Tactics in Hard Times (MIT Press, 2008); and DIY Citizenship: Critical Making and Social Media (eds. Ratto and Boler, MIT Press, 2014). Funded by Canadian Social Science and Humanities Research Council for the last ten years, her previous research “Rethinking Media Democracy and Citizenship” examined the motivations of producers of web-based challenges to traditional news.  Her current funded research “Social Media in the Hands of Young Citizens” is a mixed-methods study of women participants’ experience in the Occupy Wall Street movement, including interviews with women in seven North American cities. Her web-based productions include the official study guide to the documentary The Corporation (dirs. Achbar and Abbott 2003), and the multimedia website Critical Media Literacy in Times of War. More at: www.meganboler.net

Matt Ratto is an Assistant Professor in the Faculty of Information at the University of Toronto and directs the Semaphore Research cluster on Inclusive Design, Mobile and Pervasive Computing and, as part of Semaphore, the Critical Making lab. His work explores the intersections between digital technologies and the human life world, with a particular focus on new developments that trouble the divide between online and offline modes of production. He coined the term ‘critical making” in 2007 to describe work that combines humanities insights and engineering practices, and has published extensively on this concept. A current project involves the development of a cost-effective software and hardware toolchain for the scanning, design, and 3D printing of lower-limb prostheses for use in the developing world.

Stories That Matter: An Insider’s Perspective on the Peabody Awards

Over the weekend, I went to New York to attend the Peabody Awards Ceremony. The Peabody Awards have been given each year since 1941 in recognition of outstanding work in audiovisual media. Initially, it was an award, granted by an independent group housed at the University of Georgia Journalism School, which recognized outstanding accomplishment in radio (created in part because the Pulitzers refused to recognize Broadcast journalism), but through the years, the Peabody has expanded to include broadcast and cable television and more recently still, audiovisual content distributed on the web.

The Peabody Awards distinguish themselves from, say, the Emmy Awards or the Golden Globes in multiple ways. There are no fixed categories; the Peabody jury can award as few or as many programs as they wish in any given year. Consequently, you do not see the tendency for one dramatic series and one sitcom to take over the Emmy for year after year without giving a chance to a broader range of programs. Beyond that, the Peabody Awards have historically been much more reception to the pop culture end of the spectrum than the other awards which tend to be decisively middle brow in their tastes. The Peabody Committee, for example, gave an award to Star Trek: The Next Generation at a time when it was not being shown respect from the other award-granting bodies. And at the same time, the Peabody has been more open to cutting edge arts and cultural programs, which might have seemed too out there for the more conservative Emmy awards.  Public media – both PBS and NPR – have historically fared much better with the Peabody Awards than with the other more commercially focused awards events, yet they exist alongside some of the most popular entertainment series.  You can see the full list of this year’s winners here.

A little less than a year ago, I was invited to become one of the 15  jury members who determine the recipients of the Peabody Awards. Just being asked to serve in this way was an enormous honor and I have relished, so far, the experience of participating in the deliberation process.  Each year, the Peabody Committee receives well over 1000 submissions, mostly from the United States, but increasingly from countries around the world (More than 40 countries submitted programs for consideration this year). There are committees at the University of Georgia, consisting of faculty and students, who review all of those submissions and make recommendations to the jury, which we weigh in our discussions. But the committee also breaks down the contributions amongst us, insuring that each entry is seen by 2-3 committee members on the first round.

For about a month and a half earlier this year, the reviewing process took over my life. Altogether, the jury meets for 12 plus days, across three sessions, held in Los Angeles, Washington DC, and Athens, Georgia, as we talk through the submissions together, debating the merits of each entry, and gradually winnowing down the list. The committee is an amazing mix of veterans from the broadcast and cable world, academic media scholars, television critics, and folks from the public relations and advertising world, all of whom care passionately and think deeply about the medium. In between each marathon meeting, we watched hundreds of hours of television. By the time you get to Athens, we all ended up pulling several all-nighters as we all tried to catch up with the finalists that we had not been able to see yet.

Now, to be clear, I watch more television than most other academics I know, but the scope of the entries is so broad that we are all pushed beyond our comfort zones as we deal with material we would not ordinarily watch.  For me, the real stretch came in learning how to assess the quality of documentaries, news, and radio entries where-as I felt much more comfortable dealing with new media, entertainment, and children’s programming.  In the end, any program receiving the Peabody has to be unanimously approved by the committee, which involves a fair amount of soul searching and a certain amount of horse trading, but ultimately, what emerges is the best of the best.

You don’t go through this intense process without coming away with enormous respect for the current state of the medium. There is so much astonishingly good television out there. The more television I watched, the more I wanted to watch. I came off my first year on the committee with a long list of shows I wanted to spend more time with and now I am finding myself searching even more actively for new shows we will want to consider next year.

This year, the Peabody Awards recognized 46 programs, the largest crop in the award’s history. Yet, in chatting with my fellow Jury members over the weekend, all of us had regrets about shows that did not make the final list, but few if any about the series which did. It’s easy to get pumped up as a fan about the relatively small number of shows we set our Tivos for, shows which meet our own tastes and interests, and I am certainly hearing plenty of people saying we are in a golden era of television. But, reviewing programs for the Peabody Awards, forces you to pay attention to the things which were on someone else’s Tivo last year, programs that aren’t aimed at you, programs which you would never watch, programs you’ve never heard of, and you discover more and more hidden treasures than you might ever imagine.

Jeffrey Jones, the director of the Peabody Awards, wrote an op-ed piece in Variety over the weekend which helps to place the unprecedented number of winners into some perspective, pointing to the dramatic expansions we’ve seen in what counts as television in recent years: the growth of new digital distribution outlets such as Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu, which are producing original programs and also giving us access to more and more programs from other countries around the world; the explosion of web-based television producers who are independent of studios,networks, or major platforms and may be distributing their work via Youtube (from whom the televisual equivalents of Mean Streets or Easy Rider are starting to emerge); the expansion of cable networks that have moved in recent years from producing reality programs towards scripted dramas and comedies. For example, Al Jazeera America, just completing its first year of operations, took away two awards this year, and there were many others that made it into the finalist or semi-finalist stages, suggesting an important new player in the realm of television news, one which is not afraid to provide minority or critical perspectives on powerful institutions, telling stories that were not being covered on the major cable and broadcast networks.

Or consider the various ways that this year’s winners intersect digital media (an area close to my own heart). Orange is the New Black and House of Cards are television series which were never aired on television, distributed via Netflix. Scandal is a series which has developed an extraordinarily active following via social media, which has helped to build its ratings and has provide a space for important conversations around race, gender, and politics. A Chef’s Life was one of several series we recognized this year which was funded through Kickstarter. The Race Card is a NPR series which relies heavily on crowdsourcing stories from the general public via the web. Hollow and A Short History of the Highrise are interactive documentaries which uniquely deploy the affordances of the web to create rich multimedia experiences. A Needed Response was a student video circulated via YouTube. And amongst the local news stories, many of them had used the web to provide richer, more interactive maps which allowed the public to “follow the money” influencing local and state politics.  All of these examples point to the ways that the media landscape is changing as it intersects with digital media.

As a cultural studies person, we are taught to be skeptical of established notions of cultural hierarchies which tend to reflect particular class, gender, racial, and generational biases. So, a big question for me when I entered the committee was what constituted “quality” or “excellence” as the board recognized it. The fact that this group has recognized outstanding cult media properties, from Star Trek in the 1960s to Doctor Who last year, went a long way to calming my suspicion of a high culture bias: as did the knowledge that in recent years, Awards have gone to series like Friday Night Lights, Justify, Girls, and Louie C.K., suggesting that they understood a range of different ways that popular culture might contribute to larger conversations.

One official criteria for the awards is “excellence on its own terms,” which may mean whatever the individual members want it to me, but it invites us to try to articulate criteria for how a series which does not necessarily match the traits we associate with “quality television” (the novelistic, the psychologically rounded, the realist) might never-the-less deserve recognition for its achievement of very different kinds of aesthetic goals.   And some of the group’s most intense and yet generative debates stem from the effort to articulate what standards should apply to programs which are more melodramatic in tone and structure, or how to deal with programs which may be cartoonish and larger than life, but which achieve real distinction in their categories.

There has justly been a resistance to granting awards based on pure popularity, yet there also needs to be away of recognizing work which has a strong public impact or which serves the needs of segments of the television audience which has been under-recognized elsewhere. Indeed, the case can be made that diversity is itself increasingly a marker of quality on television: the awards this year recognized entertainment programs such as Scandal, Key &Peele, Orange is the New Black, or The Bridge, or documentary programs, such as How to Survive a Plague,  Latino Americans, The African-Americans: Many Rivers to Cross, or The Race Card, which dealt with the shifting demographics and racial politics of America today.

The new catch phrase of the Peabody Awards is “Stories that Matter,” and there’s a healthy debate surrounding “matter to who” and “matter in what way,” which are the questions we should be asking if the award should be seen as reflective about how we might define excellence or quality in the absence of inherited categories and fixed hierarchies. A sentimental favorite for me was the recognition which the group bestowed on A Needed Response, a  single-shot 26 second video, produced by two University of Oregon students, and released via YouTube, to increase awareness of the growing number of cases of sexual violence on American college campuses. The committee saw something there which both seemed emblematic of the emergence of new forms of campus activism which takes advantage of expanded access to the means of cultural production and circulation and seemed distinctive and generative in the ways it reframed the debates around sexual violence through its intervention.

At the same time, the awards are torn between a focus on the global and on the local/regional. On the one hand, the awards went to a record number of programs produced outside the United States, including Denmark (Borgen), France (The Returned), Pakistan (Burka Avenger), the United Kingdom (Broadchurch), Canada (Orphan Black), amongst others.  And on the other hand, there was real respect paid to the continued importance of local news coverage, which becomes all the more important as many local stations are abandoning their commitment to investigative journalism and no one is holding local and state officials accountable for the performance of their duties. We might think about these two competing tugs when we look at two food-related programs which earned recognition this year – on the one hand Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown, features the famous chief as he travels around the world sharing with us what he learns about local cuisines and practices, and on the other hand, A Chef’s Life is the story of a farm-to-fork eatery in North Carolina, as the chef introduces us to the folks who grow her ingredients and the local traditions which shape southern cooking.

This weekend, we paid respect to the recipients of the award in a ceremony held in the grand ballroom of the Waldorf Astoria Hotel and hosted by This American Life’s Ira Glass. It took quite a while for Ira to introduce and bestow awards on the 46 recipients, but each of these sets of producers had won their moment in the spotlight and each had a moment to showcase their work and share their thoughts with the audience.

I have to confess I was star struck for most of the event, as we saw distinguished journalists (Tom Brokow receiving a life-time achievement award, Charlie Rose getting recognized for his interview with Syria’s Bashar Al-Assad), important producers (Ken Burns), top performers (from Bryan Cranston for Breaking Bad to Joel Grey representing a PBS documentary on the Jewish legacy on Broadway), global pop stars (Aaron Haroon, representing Burka Avenger), each pass across the stage. There were so many moving moments: from four of the Central Park Five standing on stage  and getting an ovation before an Manhattan audience , to Henry “Skip” Gates describing the way Bill Cosby’s Black History: Lost, Stolen or Strayed helped to inspire his own entry into the field of African-American studies to a young black student who figured strongly in 180 Days: A Year Inside an American High School describe how he was able to graduate in the face of adversity and get accepted into college, to the purple haired University of Oregon student who gave a powerful speech about the “rape culture” on the country’s college campus.

These are what Noel Holston calls “Peabody moments,” moments when we see just how much these stories really do matter to the people involved, and where those of us who helped to select the winners feel that all of those weeks of hard work really do matter to those who received these awards.

I am already bringing my experiences working with the Peabody Awards into my classroom, using them as an opportunity to encourage students to reflect more deeply on the criteria (implicit or explicit) through which we judge television and the blind-spots in our own viewing habits. I’d love to encourage readers of this blog to share with me shows you think I should be watching more closely as I prepare for my second year on the board.


A Race So Different: A Conversation Between Joshua Chambers-Letson and Karen Tongson (Part Two)

We’ve just learned that Joshua Chambers-Letson’s A Race So Different: Performance and Law in Asia America has just been been awarded the 2014 ATHE (Association of Theater in Higher Education) Outstanding Book Award! Karen and I are so proud to be working with such outstanding scholars for our Postmillenial Pop book series at New York University Press.

KT: Your chapter, “The Nail That Stands Out: The Political Performativity of the Moriyuki Shimada Scrapbook” offers some very personal, very moving first-person accounts of your own childhood experiences with your mother as a “mixed” racialized subject, and about your own struggles with legibility coming to the fore as you confront the parable of “the nail that stands out.” Could you explain a little more to our general readership about your own relationship to performing one’s own story in work that is explicitly about racialization? How is the personal, biographical, or anecdotal a part of your methodology? And how might it stand in concert or at odds with the logics of narration in legal discourse as well as performance studies?

JC-L: I feel deeply ambivalent about the place of the personal/anecdotal in this book. The “I” in this book—with the exception of that one passage in chapter four and the dedication to my grandmother—remains at a critical distance throughout A Race So Different. I’m Japanese, Black, and white, and in some ways my relationship to the question of racial justice is shaped by this accident of autobiography, as Gayatri Spivak might call it. How could it not be?

Being a person of color can give one a particular perspective on the experiences of racialization and racism. These experience and perspectives are often ignored or debased by a dominant culture that still refuses to accept that racism continues to play a critical role in shaping of US American life. As critical race theorists like Mari Matsuda have taught us, personal narrative can be an important and useful way of disrupting the legal discourses of the dominant culture. But it also has its dangers.

Rey Chow has done perhaps more work than anyone to show us how the seeming liberation promised by the minoritarian scholar’s personal reflexivity and self-referentiality can become a cage that traps this scholar within identitarian coordinates. So while one must sometimes respond to the dominant culture’s elision and erasure of minoritarian lives by articulating and telling the stories of our lives as they are lived, I also believe that we must be strategic in how we do so. And, perhaps more importantly, we shouldn’t give everything away: I want to protect certain secret forms of survival and intimacies that structure minoritarian lives from a culture that so often takes such knowledge, appropriates it, distorts it, or guts it of its operative and insurgent potential.

If there’s anything I might say about my turn to the anecdotal that isn’t ambivalent, it’s this: the story I tell in chapter four is about something that my mother, Shadi, taught me as a kid in order to help me survive the racist and homophobic environment of Colorado, where I was raised. And I wanted to honor my mother, who is as much a theorist of race, sex, class, and gender, and a practitioner of minoritarian survival, as any of the famous philosophers, scholars, and artists that I engage with in the book.

KT: Finally, what are some of the broader stakes for you of doing a book like A Race So Different and situating it in a series about popular phenomena using contemporary methods in a contemporary moment? Who are some of the broader audiences you hope to reach, and what would you like some of your project’s “takeaways” to be? To what extent is this first project the foundation for some of your new work on Marxist theory and minoritarian performance?

JC-T: It was important to me to show how cultural forms (including, especially, the popular) should not be divided away from legal or political forms. This is because, as I argue throughout the book, they are inextricable from each other. When I disaggregate the parts of a system (e.g., separating the law and aesthetics from each other), I lose a more comprehensive vision of that system and become less capable of taking the system apart in order to build something better.

In this way, the mode of ideology critique that undergirds this book is largely inspired by Marxist theory. For me, Marxist theory is both an interrogation of system, capital, and labor as it is a philosophy of emancipation. It felt like a logical extension to explore more fully the relationship between Marxist theory and minoritarian performance in the next project. The law, too, will be present in that project because law plays a key role in the reproduction of the conditions of production.

As to the question of audience: On a deeply personal level, José Muñoz was and always will be the primary audience of this book. It began as a dissertation under his care and he read it and supported it, challenged it, and thought through it with me at every stage. The fact of this book is now difficult because it is part of a conversation with and inspired by him that is left incomplete by his death.

But, obviously, one doesn’t write a book for only one person. So perhaps it would make the most sense to say that it was written for the subjects of the brown commons. It was written for all of us who are struggling to make this world better because we cannot abide the insufficiencies of the here and now. And it was written for those of us who still believe that aesthetics will play an important role in this coming transformation of our conditions of existence, as they always played a role in revolution and transformation throughout all history.

KT: Thanks so much for taking the time to speak with us, and, of course, for sharing your project through our book series. And I, personally, find your closing words about the brown commons and José—a dear friend and mentor to me as well—an especially apt, and moving way to frame our conversation, and our own scholarly intertwinement.

Joshua Chambers-Letson is an assistant professor in the Department of Performance Studies at Northwestern University. His first book A Race So Different: Law and Performance in Asian America was published by NYU Press in December of 2013. He is currently working on a second book project, The Coming Communism: Marxist Theory and Minoritarian Performance, which theorizes minoritarian performance practices (by artists including Félix González-Torres, Yoko Ono, Michi Barall, William Pope.L, Tehching Tshieh, and the Knife) as rehearsing and anticipating concrete forms of actually existing Marxist sociality.

Karen Tongson is Associate Professor of English and Gender Studies at the University of Southern California, and the author of Relocations: Queer Suburban Imaginaries (NYU Press, 2011). Her work has appeared in numerous venues in print and online, including Social Text, GLQ, Nineteenth-Century Literature, and Novel: A Forum on Fiction. She is currently, with Henry Jenkins, series editor for Postmillennial Pop at NYU Press, and recently completed a multi-year term as co-editor-in-chief of the Journal of Popular Music Studies. Her current book project, Empty Orchestra: Karaoke. Critical. Apparatus. critiques prevailing paradigms of imitation in contemporary aesthetics and critical theory, while offering a genealogy of karaoke technologies, techniques, and desires.

Digital Cosmpolitans: An Interview with Ethan Zuckerman (Part One)

Ethan Zuckerman is one of the big thinkers, and doers who consistently inspires me. His Wikipedia entry identifies him as “an American media scholar, blogger, and internet activist.” All of this is true, but that’s just part of the picture. He’s also someone who consults regularly with major foundations, think tanks, NGOs, and policy-makers, as they try to understand the potentials, and risks, of networked computing. As the founder of GeekCorps and Global Voices, he’s put his geeky skills to work to try to change the problems which worry him the most about our contemporary culture. He’s someone who has a formed a network of other bloggers and digital activists around the world, and someone who travels often to parts of the planet that most of us could not point out on a map, in order to better understand the political, cultural, and technological conditions on the ground there. He’s become one of our best thinkers about “digital age civics” and through his work as the Director of the MIT Center for Civic Media, he’s leading a team of graduate students as they seek to design tools which might empower activists and community leaders to be more effective at fostering social change. He does this while remaining mild-mannered, easy-going, modest, and open-minded, a model for what an engaged public intellectual might look like in the 21st century. I am lucky to be able to call him a friend.
Last year, he published an important and timely book, Rewired: Digital Cosmopolitanism in the Age of Connection, which should be required reading for all Americans. Zuckerman is asking us to think more deeply about how we learn about the world and whether our access to the WORLD Wide Web has done much to change the parochialism within our culture. Here, he draws on the full range of his experiences to bring us face to face with the blind spots in our information consumption, with the challenges in overcoming isolationist and xenophobic tendencies in our society, but also to propose alternative strategies by which some people are becoming “bridge builders” who embrace diversity and insure that we have greater access to alternative  perspectives. Zuckerman understands the complexities and contradictions of our current moment, adopting a position that is sometimes optimistic, somethings skeptical, but always feels  is in the service of building a better society.
In the interview that follows, Zuckerman spells out some of the core concepts from Rewired, including some consideration of what the book might have to say to fans, journalists, educators, and other citizens.
Much of the media discussion around the Arab Spring movements has centered on the fantasy of more person-to-person communications across borders via social media rather than through the more formal relations between nations or the mediated communications of traditional journalism. Why has this fantasy of a “Twitter Revolution” proven so compelling to people when their everyday practices often involve relatively limited communications outside of their immediate circles of friends and families?
Like many compelling fantasies, the Twitter Revolution myth has some roots in fact. Tunisia’s revolution had a strong media component. Protests in Sidi Bouzid would likely have been invisible to the rest of Tunisia and the rest of the world had they not been documented on Facebook, edited and contextualized by Nawaat.org and amplified by Al Jazeera. And there are deep ties between activists in Tunisia and in Egypt that helped spread ideology and tactics of those revolutions via social media. But any account of the Arab Spring that doesn’t focus on existing labor movements, soccer fanclubs, neighborhood organizations and other forms of offline social organizing misses the point.
I think Twitter revolutions are such a compelling idea because they allow us to inscribe ourselves on global events. If digital media is the key actor in a political event, and we’re participating by amplifying tweets online, we are part of the revolution, an exciting and compelling prospect. And there are times when this, too, is true – if an event is visible locally and invisible globally, and we take responsibility for translating and amplifying it, leading to global coverage, we might, in fact, share some credit for changing circumstances on the ground.
But this ability to be a participant in a minor way in a global event tends to blind us to our more ordinary use of these media. Very few of us are Andy Carvin, using our online presence to curate digital media and connect our readers to global events. Our use of these tools tends to be about connecting with friends and interests that are far closer to home. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that – it’s fine for social media to be a tool that connects us locally if we have other media that informs and connects us globally. What strikes me as dangerous is the illusion of connection, the compelling idea that we are encountering global perspectives via digital media when we’re mostly reinforcing local ones.
You write, “[New Media] tools help us to discover what we want to know, but they’re not very powerful in helping us discover what we might need to know.” This seems to be a central theme of the book, that we have opened up new channels of communication which might allow us to connect with others around the world, but that our use of those tools has been limited by a lack of motivation or understanding. We seek out information only about those topics we already care about, and a large part of the world falls outside of that zone of interests. What are some of the signs that our interest in the world is more limited than our technological reach at the present time?
 I think the main reminder is sense of surprise that pervades much of modern life. The Arab Spring was a surprise, but only up to a point. For those few watching Tunisian social media, it became clear pretty quickly that something deeply unusual and transformative was taking place. At Global Voices, we were able to see the protests unfolding weeks before they received attention in mainstream American media. There’s a strong tendency in our contemporary media environment to pay attention to stories only when they’ve reached a crisis point – we’re always arriving in the fourth act, and we never stay through the denoument. It’s possible to imagine a form of media that’s scanning the horizons and giving us a better sense of what’s coming, not what’s already arrived.
I think a second reminder is our ability to turn on global networks at moments of crisis. The global response to SARS was quite amazing – within a week of identifying a new syndrome, the WHO had global videoconferences that allowed frontline medical personnel to identify symptoms and jointly diagnose new cases. Once those networks were set up, the spread of the disease slowed dramatically. When we need international connection, we’re capable of bringing it about very quickly.
One of the reasons the book has been challenging to describe is that this question you’re asking -what are we missing when we’re so tightly attached to local media – is a really hard one to answer. I tend to understand it in personal terms. I follow African media, particularly west African media, quite closely, due to my long personal ties to the region, and as a result, I see stories well in advance of their visibility in broader media. And while that sounds self-congratulatory, patting myself on the back for my global vision, the actual experience is more anxiety-producing, because it’s a perpetual reminder of how much there is to know and discover. The little I know about Nigerian politics that most Americans don’t is a perpetual reminder of how much else is going on in the world, and how little we encounter until it manifests as a crisis or emergency.
What roles does the news media play in shaping what we care about and conversely, to what degree does our lack of concern or interest impact what the news media is prepared to cover?

I think this relationship between caring and coverage matters much more than it did a generation ago. Newspapers include stories on a wide range of topics, local, national and international. Until recently, our sense for what readers wanted to hear about came from newsstand sales and letters to the editor, very inexact tools for understanding which stories were being read and which were being ignored. Now we have incredibly granular information, that shows interest on a story by story level, including readership and time spent per reader per article. Publishers are acutely aware of these statistics, and more editors and writers are becoming aware of these figures. It becomes harder and harder for authors to report on stories that don’t already have an audience, as there’s a very strong temptation to write what people want to hear, as they will reward you with their attention.

This becomes a circular equation, because people need help developing an interest in new topics. A fascinating story isn’t immediately apparent or comprehensible to an audience. Take the mortgage crisis a few years back – most coverage focused on the moment to moment details, featuring stories that were comprehensible to financial professionals and few others. This American Life made a major investment – an hour-long story called The Giant Pool of Money – that helped audiences understand the crisis and become better consumers of future stories on the crisis. If we wanted people to pay attention to protests in Sudan (people beyond those of us who are already watching those protests), we’d need to invest time, energy and reader attention in explaining the context and importance… and we’d be gambling that we were able to create an audience for that story in the future. 
The net result of this cycle, I fear, is that we get an enormous amount of information on stories we “know” are important – the minutia of US federal elections and the machinations of Congress  - and very little information on parts of the world we know little about, care little about, and care little about because we hear little about.
I’ve often thought that there might be a need to shift from a focus on international news (news about things happening elsewhere on the planet) to global news (news that shows the connections between distant events and people in our own communities.) Would such an approach help resolve the gaps you are describing here? Why or why not?
I think we’d gain a great deal from journalism that helped contextualize global events in local terms. The best newspapers and broadcasters have historically tried to do this – one of the losses we experience  when local newspapers cut international bureaus is the connection between global stories and local communities. 
We need something broader, I suspect, as not every event in Myanmar has an immediate local connection. Sometimes we need heroes and heroines – think of Malala in Pakistan and the ways in which her story has been a window into gender and educational issues in that part of the world. While we can go too far and turn a story about issues into a story about a single person, we often benefit from stories that let us feel like we know and care about an individual in another country or culture.
I think we also need to learn how to tell stories that look at local facets of global issues. A story like climate change is critically important, but extremely difficult to report. We might benefit from an approach to reporting that showed us the implications for different people in different communities, interweaving personal stories with the science and politics of the issues.
Ethan Zuckerman is director of the Center for Civic Media at MIT, and a principal research scientist at MIT’s Media Lab.  He is the author of “Rewire: Digital Cosmopolitans in the Age of Connection”, published by W.W. Norton in June 2013. With Rebecca MacKinnon, Ethan co-founded international blogging community Global Voices. Global Voices showcases news and opinions from citizen media in over 150 nations and thirty languages. Ethan’s research focuses on issues of internet freedom, civic engagement through digital tools and international connections through media. He blogs athttp://ethanzuckerman.com/blog and lives in the Berkshire Mountains of western Massachusetts.

What World Wrestling Entertainment Can Teach Us About the Future of Television (Part Two)

The following exchange is between my son, Henry Jenkins IV, who is a Creative Development Coordinator at the Alchemists, a transmedia company, and Sam Ford, who is  Director of Audience Engagement at Pepercom Communications, a strategic communications firm. They are both life-long wrestling fans and regular contributors to this blog. They are sharing their thoughts here about some significant new developments in the world of “sports entertainment,” which constitute another of those factors this past year, which are transforming television as we know it. Tom Phillips,  Senior Research Associate contributing to research at University of East Anglia and University of Edinburgh, has written a thoughtful response to this blog post, which can be read here

Henry:  As a writer of transmedia I want to think about the biggest, most creative ways you could use the WWE Network. But realistically there are a host of factors that limit what a producer is going to want to do. Budget is one of those factors. You can’t spend the money that the WWE Network will make when so far it hasn’t made a cent. It won’t start selling subscriptions until late next month. Man hours are also an issue. They’e already producing six hours of TV every week, and it’s going to be a massive undertaking just to get the infrastructure working and the archive available online. But here’s another recent story that would play on my mind if I were them.

The WWE has a reality show, Total Divas, on the E! Network. The writers weren’t finding enough time to flesh out the female wrestlers’ characters on their main shows, so they created Total Divas as a way to build relationship-driven, soap operatic stories around those characters. On the surface it was a brilliant move. Two of the main characters of Total Divas, identical twin wrestlers Brie and Nikki Bella, had come across poorly for years, but became genuinely likable stars on Total Divas. Just one or two episodes completely changed the way I felt about those characters. The show did good ratings. Online fans seemed to like it. So the WWE took the obvious next step: They pushed The Bella Twins to the forefront on their wrestling shows. They got crickets. Nobody cared.  It baffled me for a second, but then I think everyone realized what the problem was. Most of their fans still weren’t watching Total Divas.Only a subset of the WWE’s global following had been necessary to make Total Divas a success, and the people who were interested in watching the women’s wrestlers plan their weddings weren’t necessarily the ones going to the fights. The show was on a different network, at a different time. The people who hadn’t seen the Bellas in a likable light yet hadn’t changed their opinion. They booed the Bellas. So in a way, the show had only accomplished half its goal. It had given the divas more time to develop their characters, but hadn’t noticeably effected their popularity at the live events.

Total Divas was originally conceived of as a WWE Network program, and you can see the logic. The WWE has about 80 wrestlers on their active roster. They’ve got 24 hours of programming to fill. Better start utilizing everyone. They’re using the Network as a chance to showcase NXT – the minor leagues of pro wrestling. Commercials and online videos have explicitly reminded fans that the top stars they love began their careers in NXT, and told them to watch the next stars’ rise to glory from the very beginning. Another move that echoes real sports, where fans are often excited about their team’s young prospects. One could imagine a reality show that focused on following tag teams. Do they get along off stage? Do they have fights right before they have to team up on camera? Or do they love each other and have lots of fun together that we never get to see? With the WWE already airing six hours of programming on cable, and now posting thousands of hours on their archive, can they count on a significant percentage of their audience seeing any one show? And if not, then is producing more programming necessarily going to deepen the audiences’ understanding of the master narrative in any consistent, meaningful way? Can the narrative ever become so big it’s unwieldy? I don’t think the WWE has an answer for that yet, and until they do creating a lot of new programming risks spinning their wheels.

Sam Ford: Agreed, Henry, that the WWE has to be awfully careful about crafting its programming in a way that allows for various depths of viewing. They will have this always-on network of programming. They will continue to have their “big” monthly shows. They will continue to have their website that they update 24/7. And they will have their programming on other networks that will continue. No one fan can possibly watch everything they put out there…but that has always been the case with WWE. I can’t imagine there is already any one fan who has seen every tweet every wrestler has put out, every archived show available in their online and video-on-demand “WWE Classics” programming, watched every hour of first-run television they’ve created, and so on.

Instead, what WWE needs to create is a storyline that makes sense for fans who, say, only will watch Monday Night RAW and the PPVs and intermittently drop in on everything else.  But it needs to create almost two tracks of experiences with everything else:

  • deeper continuity and new meaning that can be gleaned from fans who want to view additional original programming that gives more depth to certain characters, or provides historical context to something currently happening on screen, etc.
  • supplemental experiences or pleasures, for fans who like WWE and don’t want to extend the narrative further but rather the experience of watching WWE. In this case, it might be more “features-like” programming that have no bearing at all on storyline, or it might be interactive programming of some sort, etc. In Spreadable Media, drawing on Alex Leavitt’s work, we look at how Glee does this to a degree—embracing and drawing on participatory programming (fans doing covers of songs from Glee, for instance) or inviting fans into the experience more deeply in a way that extends the feel of the story world rather than anything about the progression of the narrative in the story world.

It’s important to keep in mind that WWE is contemplating the launch of this new network alongside another significant change. The company has set the contracts for its various first-run programming so that it all runs out at the same time: their weekly 3-hour Monday Night RAW on USA Network; their show Main Event on ION; their show Friday Night Smackdown on SyFy; and their show on E!, Total Divas. In addition, they had let the contract run out on their children’s show, Saturday Morning Slam, on CW Network. Their plan is to go to a family of networks and sell all of that programming in as a package deal, to try and command the sorts of prices that sports leagues do for packaged programming with a media conglomerate.

It remains to be seen if that approach will help them negotiate a better deal, but WWE would be in an interesting position if they have a really deep partnership with one centralized distribution company for its weekly first-run programming and then its own WWE Network for its monthly big shows and all its supplementary content. Should WWE get that sort of arrangement in place and have success using the launch of its network in the build-up to Wrestlemania this year as a way to get subscribers (who will sign up for an initial six-month subscription), it might allow them to think about the sorts of questions you pose here—how they craft a narrative that one can follow across watching only its most central of texts but find ways to provide depth and value across various experiences.

There’s another challenge we have to think about here, though. WWE fans both love and are often frustrated by the company’s creative direction. Of course, you can never satisfy all fans, and WWE certainly has very different fan bases to satisfy. But one frustration across the board by WWE fans who have moved from a casual to a more in-depth relationship with the brand is that there is often a lack of attention paid to detail and continuity with the company’s storytelling, as the ability WWE has—through its live programming—to overhaul and shift its creative direction quickly can be a double-edged sword….leading to shows getting rewritten often and a lot of second-guessing of creative directions.

For WWE to take full advantage of garnering the sort of in-depth loyalty from its fans to make the network idea work in the long term, it has to create a product that the fans feel confident in investing in. I would guess WWE’s hope is both to draw a greater number of its casual fans into a deeper relationship with the company and also to draw lapsed fans back in, in part by creating deeper connections between WWE’s current content and its content from yesteryear. That all makes sense, but fans have to develop a level of trust with the organization to deepen or renew that commitment. Many more casual fans may have not gotten more deeply involved with the WWE because of frustration with that lack of continuity, and many lapsed fans may be wary of re-committing due to those continuity concerns.

In short, WWE has a lot of business and creative potential with this network and its related packaging of all its cable network TV programming. But the quality of it will also come through the details, so they are better served to do all they can to deliver a great narrative experience for their primary narrative, and finding connective tissue between that primary story and all this supplementary material…than they are to develop too many supplementary shows, a la Total Diva, in the formative months of the network and dilute their focus.

From a storytelling standpoint, I’d love for WWE to use their network to:

  • help further build the story of their big events. More traditional “sports analysis” sorts of shows might help better tell the story of the history of certain rivalries, etc., that are leading to a match at an upcoming big event than can be accomplished on the live nature of a MondayNight RAW or a Friday Night Smackdown. History pieces about the ways two rivals have crossed paths in the past, featuring original studio interviews with them, etc., is something WWE could benefit from more of.
  • connect current WWE programming to events from the past. If one of the commentators makes reference to a wrestler from yesteryear or a match from the past during a show, WWE Network could feature those matches in its on-demand programming later in the week for fans who wanted to see more. For shows like Smackdown that aren’t aired live, they could even provide pop-ups during the programming to drive people to the WWE Network to check out what was just referenced.
  • provide more interest in what happens at WWE Live Events. One of the challenges WWE has is that its live arena shows that aren’t televised have little meaning around them. But the WWE Network might allow them to have something happen (an interview; a skirmish; etc.) at one of those live shows that has some impact on what happens on next week’s Monday Night RAW. The WWE Network might be the place where that can play out and that story could be told. These could be developments that don’t have deep narrative importance, in that you won’t be lost if you don’t watch it. But, for those who are more deeply immersed in the WWE narrative universe, it might provide greater interest in connecting the story.

Henry: I totally agree. My sense is that the larger the canvas, the more the WWE needs to discipline their story from the top down. Conventionally in the industry they would plan narrative arcs in advance, draw a flow chart of some sort showing how each storyline will play out across all of the different media channels, and find a fresh and interesting part of the story for each one to tell. WWE RAW and Smackdown would drive the narrative week-to-week. They would function like the weekly episodes of any other dramatic serial, furthering the storylines and ending with cliffhangers. Much as series like The Walking Dead and Doctor Who seasons are sometimes split into two half-season arcs, the WWE season would be split into 12 monthly mini arcs. The pay-per-views would be 12 mid-season finales. Can’t-miss special episodes. You’d have to watch them to see the storylines resolved.

With the WWE Network’s current price point they should be affordable and available to working families and young individuals. Even kids should be able to afford it with their allowance. That’s important from the perspective of serving the public, but it’s also important from the perspective of retaining viewers. Everyone will have more reason to emotionally invest in RAW and Smackdown if they know they’ll be able to see the payoff. WWE.com would do for pro wrestling what ESPN.comdoes for traditional sports. It would post small news bulletins as often as possible, and provide expert analysis and commentary on everything that’s going on.

That sounds like a complete circuit right there, but it’s not. I actually think WWE Network and social media have the coolest roles to play, and they really go hand-in-hand. That’s where everything takes on a third dimension – depth. At its worst, pro wrestling has cardboard cutout characters. At its best, it has real human beings that you can follow over their entire careers. At it’s worst, it has paint-by-numbers stories. At its best, it’s one epic story that has spanned over 50 years continuously.

WWE Network lets you watch a documentary like CM Punk: Best in the World and find out his whole life story. Twitter lets you continue following the story through Punk’s day-to-day experiences in real time. WWE Network should let you see Punk’s greatest matches. Twitter should let you know how he did tonight in Poughkeepsie. Although there was recently a History of WWE: 50 Years of Sports Entertainment DVD set, it’s the WWE Network that’s the living history.If they can manage to keep all the balls bouncing, the WWE can also use the network to go two important steps further.

`1) The WWE needs to use their original programming like Total Divas and NXT to target certain demographics, but they can’t count on them to change the overall audiences’ perception of a character. For example, my guess would be that Bella Twins have more Twitter followers and better merchandise sales than ever, particularly among women, because fans who have seen Total Divas are identifying more personally with those characters. Even though the Bellas aren’t getting huge crowd reactions at live shows, they’ve got more devoted fans now, and that’s good enough. If the global mainstream audience starts cheering for them too because they’ve heard the Bellas are cool, that’s the icing on the cake.

2) Original dramatic series that star the wrestlers could also give audiences a new way to enjoy the WWE’s talent. The company has been trying to make movies for years, and they haven’t been box office leaders. I think TV is a better medium because it demands a somewhat smaller audience, and asks them to come back week after week. That’s what WWE fans are good at.

The WWE already has more or less the infrastructure I just described. They should keep sharpening their process. What’s holding them back right now are the stories. Under the hood the infrastructure could be as fine-tuned as an Aston Martin. The graphics and set design can be as beautiful as that car’s body too. But if the stories suck, the car is going to be running on fumes.

Last week the WWE brought back Batista. I dislike him, but RAW got the highest ratings in 10 months. I’m not excited for it, but that tells me they should be pushing him. By the same token, Daniel Bryan is getting the loudest crowd reactions of anyone on the roster, including John Cena. If he main evented Wrestlemania the WWE wouldn’t have to fight an uphill battle by going against the fans’ wishes. They’d be driving downhill, with the full momentum of the crowd propelling them.

On a more general level, though, if the WWE wants to be respected in the same way as other mainstream shows, their stories need to be as intricate and well-structured as those shows.  Because they’re trying to do so much more than those shows it’s going to be really, really hard for them to pay the same attention to the craft of each script. There are a lot of people working on all of the WWE divisions who need to be on the same page, and a lot of important production people who are understandably going to want a say. I don’t envy the McMahons in having to organize that labor. But the fact remains that if the scripts aren’t well-written, the entire operation is going to be spinning its wheels.I think there is fan energy behind this Sunday’s Royal Rumble, but the storylines are frankly terrible. Batista is the only person who’s been written in such a way they could credibly win the Rumble match. John Cena and Randy Orton have just had a TLC Match, so putting them in a standard match without a brilliant new wrinkle in the story is anticlimactic. Brock Lesnar had a five star match against CM Punk at SummerSlam in which he was victorious, and fans wanted a rematch, but instead they’re getting Lesnar/Big Show. It just isn’t a good story. The WWE Network is a powerful tool. Everyone is excited about it. It can transform the landscape. But if the stories don’t get better, it’s not going to achieve the effect it could.

Sam: I think you’re right, Henry, that—in the end—it all comes down to story quality. The WWE, when it’s at its best, tells compelling stories that gets its fan base talking, that gets people excited, and that builds a narrative over time. Sometimes, that means doing a “variation on a theme” of a classic pro wrestling storyline: the slow build toward getting the title, while overcoming all the odds; the breakup of longtime partners, which leads to a heated grudge match; the brutal attack and injury, which leads to the triumphant return of a hero after the performer gets a much-needed vacation to rest his body.

One of the problems, though, is that the WWE has struck on a model these past several years where it is driven by a few major stories, with most of the other people being “programmed” into a series of matches with the same opponent but without much story driving it. Compare this to other periods in WWE’s history, for instance in the late 1990s, where it seemed there was significant thought being put into the stories of people, even at a mid-card level. If WWE wants to see fans engage more deeply, there has to be more story to find there. It’s true that people may decide to buy a PPV only on the merits of its top couple of matches, but to sustain long-term fan interest and to take advantage of this subscription model, I think those fans are going to hope to find depth in what they get in return.

Since WWE doesn’t have to worry so much about trying to get people to buy each show as one-off, I hope that frees up their creative resources to focus on finding stories and putting thought into people throughout the roster. That doesn’t mean everyone has to get pushed equally; but it does means that fans of the Bella Twins or fans of Kofi Kingston can watch that character’s journey and part of the story in particular and find deep narrative pleasure in that.

Here’s where WWE can learn a lot from the soap opera world where soaps, when they are at their best, have characters that cycle from front-burner to back-burner status in the story over time, but who always play a crucial role and aren’t just on the screen as filler between two important TV segments.

I often argue that WWE is a property that serial narrative storytellers or people who champion “transmedia storytelling” should be taking a close look at because of the depth of its storytelling potential. But I must admit that prompt is hobbled by the lack of quality in WWE’s storytelling. The WWE waffles between taking its own stories seriously, on the one hand, while drawing great attention to its artifice, on the other. The creative team often sours on an idea part of the way through and drops it, in ways that trains fans to be hesitant to invest that deeply and to believe that tracking the nuances of a story will actually have any sort of payoff.

In short, WWE has a narrative world that could be the stuff of truly great storytelling that would put any entertainment franchise in awe. But it has to put a deep commitment to quality storytelling at the forefront to take full advantage of that opportunity. I’d love to see WWE ranking as a serious contender for creative awards and to see the TV critics and others start paying attention to what WWE is doing. The WWE has barely scratched the surface of the depth of the immersive stories they could tell. And the way they can draw the audience into that story, and take advantage of being a story told in real time and in the real world…just as they have even more they can do with the depth of live fan engagement on social media. See my Fast Company piece about how WWE has used listening via social media to correct storyline continuity errors within the course of a single episode. I’d love to see even more of this from them.

From my perspective, WWE in 2014 sets in front of a boundless storytelling potential. I don’t know if “the world is watching,” to steal a former WWE marketing phrase, but I know the wrestling fan base is. And I think anyone interested in entertainment and storytelling should be as well.

Sam Ford has been a fan of professional wrestling since his youth. His fan activities has ranged from fantasy wrestling leagues to putting on costume wrestling shows with his high school friends to even, for a time, being a licensed professional wrestling manager in the state of Kentucky and playing the role of owner of the local “Universal Championship Wrestling.” He has taught courses on pro wrestling in U.S. culture at MIT and at Western Kentucky University and has written about wrestling in publications like Fast Company, CommPRO.biz, Cinema Journal Teaching DossierIn Media Res, and in an essay in the 2012 book Bodies of Discourse. His undergraduate honors thesis at Western Kentucky University was entitled “Grappling with Scholarship on Pro Wrestling: Comparative Media Studies Inside the Ring.” Sam is Director of Audience Engagement at Peppercomm, an affiliate with MIT’s Comparative Media Studies/Writing and the Popular Culture Studies Program at Western Kentucky University, and co-author, with Henry Jenkins and Joshua Green, of the 2013 book Spreadable Media: Creating Value and Meaning in a Networked Culture.

Henry Jenkins IV is a devoted fan, and critic, of professional wrestling. The son of Professor Henry Jenkins, he dressed up as The Undertaker for Halloween as a child; wrote scripts as an apprentice promoter with the Carolina Wrestling Federation after college; and will attend his eighth Wrestlemania in New Orleans this April. He previously wrote memoir accounts – first of being a child fan in the 80s in the article “Growing Up and Growing More Mature” for Nicholas Sammond’s collection Steel Chair to the Head: The Pleasure and Pain of Professional Wrestling and then of a recent trip to Wrestlemania with his dad in “Same Old Shit!”: Fan Resistance at Wrestlemania 29. He is a transmedia producer and write for The Alchemists whose credits include The CW drama Cult and the Hulu original series East Los High. He has also written numerous unproduced television pilot scripts which lay the groundwork for transmedia franchises. Last year he performed a five month study on The 20 Greatest Franchises of All Time and summarized his findings in a proprietary white paper for The Alchemists. He ranked the WWE near the top.

“Engage!”: Reflections on My Public Intellectuals Class


The cartoon above was created for the USC Annenberg Agenda, the newly revamped newsletter for the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. Jeremy Rosenberg, the school’s Assistant Dean for Public Affairs and Special Events, commissioned Chandler Wood, an LA-based comics artist, to sit in on several sessions of my Public Intellectuals: Theory and Practice class and capture something of the spirit of our ongoing conversations. Wood was the author of Another LA Story, a comic which ran in the LAWeekly from 2005 to 2011. A storyboard artist and designer of many a commercial and the occasional film (most recently 47 Ronin), he is nearing completion of his first graphic novel, Tonight There’s Gonna Be a Jailbreak, co-authored with Darren Le Gallo. I thought he did a brilliant job in conveying something of the core of the class and capturing some aspects of my personality and persona. This is the first of what the school hopes will be an ongoing series of cartoons focused around some of the innovative teaching within the school.

If you’ve followed this blog, you already know about this class. You can find the syllabus here. And you may well have seen the series of blog posts my PhD students generated as part of the class activities (running between October 8 and October 28.

As I look back at my experiences teaching the class last term, I consider it one of my peak intellectual experiences in a classroom. This was an extraordinary group of students, who came from diverse backgrounds in Communication and Cinema Studies, and many of them came to the class with some practical experience at translating their ideas into language which might effectively reach some public beyond the academy. Some already had blogs, some had been journalists, some were already appearing on television interview programs, and some have worked on student radio. But, all of them grew enormously over the course of the semester as a result of paying close attention to issues of writing and self-presentation and especially in being reflective about their own goals and about what their desired public might expect from them. Some were studying and theorizing communication practices that they had not yet applied to their own work, and sometimes, they were struck by the contradictions between what they knew conceptually and what their reflexes were as a scholar in training. By the end, all of them seemed to have grown enormously — it is too easy to say they found their own voice, since most of them had a powerful voice before, but they learned to use their voice more effectively in the service of their personal and professional agendas.

I was struck by the urgency of the students’ desires to talk through these issues of “professional development” which extended beyond recommendations that grew out of the “publish or perish” tradition. They knew a fair amount about what was involved in submitting conference papers and journal articles, but most of them hoped that there could be more to their professional lives than these scholarly pursuits. Many of them had strong political motives for wanting to speak out to a large public about their research — students working on how to create environmental awareness or shape educational policy or challenge efforts to regulate the content of video games or challenge various forms of privilege and overturn negative stereotypes. Some of them, perhaps most, had creative urges which were not going to be satisfied by producing sometimes deadening academic prose. Some of them wanted to forge strong alliances with nonprofit organizations, governmental agencies, political parties, labor unions, or media production companies, which would allow them to not only study the current media environment, but also to help transform and reshape it. Many of them were struggling with deep ambivalences about whether they wanted to pursue a career in academic life or whether they wanted to make a difference in some other sector. But, they had found it hard to talk about these conflicting goals and ambitions in their other subjects, had found that universities often treat PhD candidates who don’t want to became academics as failures, rather than exploring ways that scholarly skills and knowledge might become resources for a range of other activities.

I was also struck by how enthusiastic so many of our guest speakers were. I drew extensively on other faculty and researchers in the Annenberg School and elsewhere at USC who had a public-facing dimension to their work. They saw what we were doing in the class as important and they were eager to contribute. They found the class a chance to reflect deeply on their own professional practices. And they spoke frankly about the rewards and risks in pursuing these kinds of opportunities. One thing my students said again and again in their closing reflections on the class was that this approach showed them so many different (sometimes contradictory) models of how they might do work that mattered to a larger public.

An ongoing debate in the class had to do with the kinds of relationship which might exist between Communication scholars and industry, from some who held industry at arm’s length, to others who had found jobs which allowed them to move fluidly between the two. We talked about the ways that scholarship might make a difference in shaping media companies, and we talked about some of the painful compromises and dead-ends other researchers had encountered trying to do these kinds of interventions.

Speakers were frank about failures in a way which doesn’t happen very often in the classroom or in our writing, and we heard a lot about what we can learn from our own and others’ mistakes as we are taking meaningful risks in the pursuit of our work. I had colleagues who worried that I was trying to turn all graduate students into public intellectuals, but I think that the class gave students many chances to reflect on what choices are right for them and what is gained and lost by thinking outloud in public. We considered definitions of the public intellectual which involved speaking truth to power, but we concluded that in order to do this, one has to actually speak to power, and that often involves moving out of our comfort zones and dealing with people we don’t know very well or trust very much.

A key theme running through the class was the power of storytelling. Students heard from several different journalists about how they might translate their ideas for a larger audience, and again and again, it came down to telling compelling stories, often drawn from personal experiences. In doing so, we found ourselves pushing back against a generation of scholars who had been taught to distrust narrative as brushing over contradictions and not challenging established wisdom or reinforcing racist stereotypes and patriarchal pleasures. The challenge, then, was how to hold onto the underlying values which drove those critiques, while finding ways to expand the conversations those critiques grew out of. It is no longer enough to “problematize” existing frameworks unless doing so can also provide tools that can be appreciated and deployed by those who are on the front lines of these struggles.

We talked a lot about the ways that it is much easier, less risky, for some people to tell their stories than others, and this led to some frank discussions about how race, gender, and sexuality are experienced within — and beyond — academic cultures and I came to admire the good humor and civility with which everyone involved was able to share their experiences and perspectives around these often “touchy” issues. We benefited enormously from having a mix of international students in the group, who again and again forced us to acknowledge that our understanding of what constitutes an intellectual, what constitutes a public, and what we see as a desirable relationship between the two is deeply grounded in cultural traditions and political structures which differ from one national context to the next.

A key strength of the approach we took was this constant movement between theory and practice: practice understood both in terms of the front-line perspectives of our many guest speakers and in terms of the applied assignments which had students doing blog posts, op-eds, print and radio interviews, and digital humanities projects, all growing out of their own research.

A key challenge I’ve struggled with has been at what stage in a student’s career such training would be most valuable. On the one hand, those students who took this class in their first term in graduate school felt that it provided them with a strong overview of the full range of opportunities and practices they might want to explore in their career. People talked about  the class as “pulling away the curtain” and helping them to see the actual work that went into becoming a scholar. On the other, some of these incoming students did not yet have a fully developed sense of themselves as a scholar; they did not have perhaps enough research of their own yet to draw upon as they started to do these more public-facing projects.

Some of the students said that others in their cohort not in the class had joked about this being a course in how to become an academic “rock star.” But, I think by the end of the term, we were all clear that this kind of public facing work occurs at every level of visibility and access. It can involve sharing what you know at a PTA or school board meeting. It can involve work within a hyperlocal community or through an online forum. These many different scales and localities of communication reflect the affordances of a more networked culture, and they force us to move from a world where public intellectuals are superstar scholars, a select few, to one where these activities are a normal part of how many if not most scholars go about their work.

There’s no question given the success I experienced in this class, and given how meaningful both my students and I found this process, that this subject will become a standard part of my teaching rotation here at USC. I am also hoping that I may inspire more faculties around the world to try teaching a similar kind of class to their students. Annenberg’s Dean, Ernie Wilson, has sparked debate recently about what is required to teach communication scholars how to communicate effectively what our field is about. I suspect that such classes might force all of us — faculty and students — to grapple with the complexities of that issue. My class worked in part because I have such a great group of colleagues here (and at other institutions who joined the class by Skype) who are applying some concept of the public intellectual in their own work. I am lucky to be at an institution which is creative and generous with each other about what constitutes scholarship and which is more open than many schools about the ways new digital platforms and practices might be expanding the arena of public discourse. Annenberg supports experimentation and innovation in ways that more conservative institutions might not.

But, I believe that teachers at many schools could look around them and find rich and compelling examples in their own backyard of scholars who are doing different kinds of work in part as a response to the expanded range of communication options we confront at the current moment. Each such course would be different, because it needs to be grounded in your own institutional context, but I hope that others will see the value in incorporating this kind of teaching into their school’s curriculum. And if you do so, please share some of your experiences with me and my readers.