What Kinds of Difference Do Superheroes Make?: An Interview of Ramzi Fawaz (Part Two)

What roles do formal aspects of comics play in your analysis? Is your book primarily about ideological change or does it also help us to understand the visual strategies of comics as a medium?

Perhaps one of the greatest pitfalls of comics scholarship has been the tendency to separate formal innovation in the medium from social and cultural context. Some scholars have sought to produce universal theories or concepts for explaining how the formal mechanics of comics function, including the movement and flow of sequential panels, various conceptual uses of “the gutter” (the space between panels), the spatial arrangement of narrative, and so forth. While such efforts are valuable for understanding how the medium works in a broad sense, they cannot explain how particular formal qualities of comics get articulated or linked to distinct ways of knowing, seeing, or understanding the world at particular historical moments (or for specific creative projects).

In other words, it’s one thing to explain how the movement of panels across space conveys the passage of time in a comic strip, but wholly another to show how this movement across space is deployed for a variety of different purposes in different kinds of comics, graphic narratives, or works of art. For example, in action and superhero comics the temporal movements across space might signal speed, intensity, or action, while in a graphic novel about AIDS in the 1980s it might signal the deterioration of the human body under the strain of illness across time.

In my book I stress the fact that comic book creators in the 1960s and after actively articulated the formal qualities of the comics medium to new kinds of values and ideals related to the image of the outcast or mutant superhero: for example, the expanded scale of global and intergalactic adventure these heroes engaged took advantage of the idea central to comics art that anything that can be drawn can be believed. In other words, creators realized that if they presented readers with a massive double-page collage of a distant alien planet, readers would believe it; or if they drew superheroes shrinking to the size of a molecule, that would be believable too.

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The ideal of global and cosmic encounter between mutants, misfits, and freaks across all manner of differences then, was materialized through a formal scaling upward of the visual field of comic book art. Similarly, the space between panels, which commonly denotes movement across time, was used to underscore the mutating and shape shifting qualities of this new generation of superheroes: a hero that appeared as an ordinary human in one panel, might appear on fire in the next, invisible, encased in metal, solid rock, or altogether not there.

Ben Morphs into The Thing

Creators exploited this visual trope by making the transition between different embodied forms appear ever more strange, vivid, or intense in order to underscore a variety of bodily transformations that were indicative of the diversity of modern superheroes. In and of itself, of course, the ability to visually depict change across the space of multiple sequential panels is nothing new as a formal trope in the comics medium; rather what was new in the 1960s was the linking of that formal trope to particular instances of bodily transformation. I try to highlight these moments to show how form was one vehicle through which creators expressed a new set of values and creative or imaginative ideals to their audiences.


What roles did comics fandom play in tapping into what you are calling popular fantasy? Would these texts have been as significant on their own terms without the larger conversations and debates they provoked amongst fans?

The significance and cultural power that superhero comics had in the late 20th century would have been severely limited without the existence of a vibrant fan community. This is not to say that the comics would not have been popular or subsequently worth studying, but that their public, social, and cultural dimensions would have been intensely circumscribed. Simply put, fan communities made a form of mass culture (the mass produced superhero comic book) into a form of American public culture (a shared object of collective concern involving a range of participants).

By responding directly to comic book content, using their collective influence to transform the ideals and creative innovations of comics, and participating in a variety of public dialogues about the meaning, nature, and value of superheroes and their medium of origin, fans made superheroes matter, both figuratively in the sense of their significance or social value, but also literally by encouraging the actual material production of more superhero stories across time.

I see fans as neither simply the catalysts for, nor the pure consumers of, superhero comics, but as central participants in the production and circulation of the imaginative worlds presented in their pages. Whether or not Stan Lee or Jack Kirby intended to make a statement about feminism when they introduced the character Sue Storm as the Invisible Girl in The Fantastic Four, it was readers who brought the character within the orbit of feminist debates, demanding a more significant presence for the character in the series, disagreeing with those who believed women superheroes were weak or useless, and underscoring the values of gender diversity in comics. Fans allow us to move our attention away from questions of authorial intention towards shared practices of meaning making, which I believe is a far more compelling and substantive way to understand what role comics have played in our culture.

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Given the dramatic ideological reworking of the superhero you describe between its origins in the 1930s and 1940s and what it would become in the post-war period, what accounts for the persistence of this genre over time? Why did not the earlier configuration die out as has to a large degree happened to the western or the Musical?

First, I believe superhero stories remain compelling because of the extraordinary range of ways they can be told. The Western and the Musical both had very long lives (and they are certainly not “dead,” though they may have lost their exceptional popularity), but they were often fixed formulas with a limited number of permutations.

Superhero stories are broad because the genre is less defined by a distinct narrative structure than by a figure, a person with unusual or exceptional abilities, who can be placed in an endless set of scenarios. Until or unless we simply cease to have bodies at all, in a rapidly technologically advancing society fantasies of bodily capacity or superhuman ability will continue to be a key site where we imagine, work through, or grapple with both the limits and possibilities of humans’ ability to influence the material world.

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At the same time, the specific popularity of the superhero in media like film and television has a lot to do with special effects technology; the mere fact that we can now visualize some of these formerly drawn fantasies as though they were “real life” on screen is one driving force behind big-budget film adaptations of superhero comic book stories. In the golden age of Hollywood musicals, the technical ability to choreograph and film large numbers of people in synchronized dance was one motivation (among others) for producing these films.

The long gap in superhero filmmaking between the original Superman and Batman movies and the more recent film adaptations of superhero stories that started with the 1999 release of the first X-Men film had much to do with the failure of special effects technology to adequately capture the full extent of different superheroes’ abilities. With recent advances in special effects technology that allow for the visual representation of such abilities, these movies have exploded in popularity.

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At the same time, during an extended period of intense national crisis, it makes sense that a figure that can easily be articulated to physical and military power has taken a hold on the American imagination. Since so many of these movies are quite literally expressions of technological power—the power to represent superhuman power itself—they often jettison the egalitarian political values of their comic book counterparts for epic stories of Manichean conflict between superhuman champions. They are essentially fantasies of technological superiority in a chaotic world.

What Kinds of Difference Do Superheroes Make?: An Interview with Ramzi Fawaz (Part One)

From time to time, I use this blog to showcase new books released as part of the Postmillenial Pop book series which Karen Tongson and I oversee for New York University Press. As always, we are interested in hearing from writers and scholars who are doing projects which fit within the flexible boundaries of this particular series — we are looking for ground-breaking work on all aspects of popular media and culture, work that may explore themes anchored in the past but which always does so with an awareness of contemporary developments, especially those having to do with diversity and inclusion.

Ramzi Fawaz fits our notion of Postmillenial Pop perfectly, and it’s been a pleasure to work with him as he has developed and published his book, The New Mutants: Superheroes and the Radical Imagination. The book has been out for only a short while and it has already generated extraordinary responses. Here are just a few:

“A powerhouse one-of-a-kind book! By charting the radical transformations of the comic book superhero in the post-war period, Fawaz brings to light the extraordinary secret history of American Otherness. Truly fantastic.”

—Junot Díaz, Pulitzer Prize winning author of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

“I have never encountered anyone–not Art Spiegelman, R. Crumb, Douglas Wolk, Stephen Burt, or even Michael Chabon–who has addressed himself to superheroes with Ramzi Fawaz’s generosity of spirit and unsatisfiable critical fervor. In this book, one is caught up in the way in which we and the likes of Superman, the Fantastic Four, the X-Men, and the Silver Surfer share a common terrain of both history and imagination. All sorts of people will bring a long-nurtured, even fetishized familiarity to Fawaz’s pages, and it won’t survive–the most familiar stories are, here, radically, thrillingly new.”

—Greil Marcus, author of Mystery Train: Images of America in Rock ‘n’ Roll Music

Here are just a few of the things I admire about this book: Fawaz knows his stuff — he combines a fan’s attention to the specifics of comics history with a scholar’s bent for theoretical insights especially having to do with race, queerness, global politics, and otherness. He takes his comic-book superheroes on their own terms with the right mix of playfulness and seriousness. He believes the comics of the 1960s and 1970s matter — in part because they offered alternative conceptions of masculinity, Americanness, and sexuality, that did not bubble up into the mainstream very many places in the popular and mass media of the era. They provide us with “memory traces” of a period of profound disruption and transition. He is not afraid to discuss the progressive and even radical potentials he sees within these larger-than-life stories, as well as to explore the ways that these graphic storytellers often compromised in their efforts to tell this stories through a commercial medium. And he sees the fans and the letters they wrote to the publishers as a kind of alternative public sphere, where people are willing to play with the possibilities for difference that these comics open up within their civic imagination.

All of this makes The New Mutants a lively read and perhaps one of the most provocative accounts of popular media I’ve seen in recent years. I strongly recommend this book, which has implications well beyond the emerging field of comics studies, since it represents such a great model for historically grounded ideological analysis of popular culture in all of its many variations.

As I’ve gotten to know the author better through our interactions around the book, I have come to value his passionate insights and challenging perspectives on popular media and the scope of his interests and expertise. What follows is a guide to how and why superhero stories matter and how and why we should integrate them more fully into our teaching and scholarship.

Why study superhero comics and especially why study superhero comics now?

At their core, superhero comic books tell stories about people gifted with extraordinary (and impossible) abilities who must contend with the question of what to do with those abilities: whether to use them to serve their own interests, to benefit others, to hide them altogether, or to forward a particular vision of progress, social change, or collective governance. These stories are fantasies in the sense that they explore bodily capacities—shapeshifting, controlling the weather, rapid healing, intangibility, super strength etc.—that humans do not actually have access to, in order to both take pleasure in the imaginative possibilities of expanded ability (which, let’s face it, is just plain old fun) and to meditate on what kinds of choices people make with the powers at their disposal.

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Superhero comic books then, are a living archive of our collective fantasies about a number of concerns including the nature of power (its pleasures and dangers), the meaning of ethical action and collective good, visual pleasure in witnessing impossible abilities, and the capacity to change the world. In that sense, superhero comics have a lot to tell us about the underlying desires, dreams, and aspirations that have motivated the American imagination in the 20th century; tracing how superheroic fantasy changes over time gives us insight into larger transformations in what it is that Americans fantasize about, how they struggle over competing visions of the use of power and force, and how they use visual media like comics to creatively narrate alternatives to their own conditions of existence.

Take for example the rise of the superhero team in the 1960s compared to the popularity of singular crime-fighting heroes in the 1930s and 1940s. In the 1930s and 1940s, Americans through the Great Depression and a second World War were drawn to fantasy figures like Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, and Captain America who were gifted with exceptionally enhanced strength, speed, agility, and fighting power. These heroes used their abilities against a variety of threats to the American way of life including fascism, poverty, political corruption, and organized crime. At a moment when the twin pillars of Americanism—democracy and capitalism—were in terminal crisis, such visions of individual will power, strength, and invulnerability projected fantasies of control over one’s destiny in a world where individual Americans had lost the sense that their personal choices could make any difference in assuaging large-scale economic and political catastrophe.

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, however, superhero teams—collectives of individual superheroes binding together to use their powers in the interest of global and intergalactic peacekeeping—became extremely popular; unlike the culture of bootstrap individualism celebrated in previous superhero stories, 1960s superhero comics were dominated by narratives of cooperation, shared deliberation about the nature of a common good, and collective action against threats to the survival of a variety of species throughout the cosmos. These comics tell us something about the shifting fantasies of power that Americans held across this period, including the increasing desire for new forms of collective life and innovative ways to imagine cooperative practices of global care and ethical action.

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Neither the individualist superhero nor the superhero team were mere reflections of their times; rather they were extended creative meditations on what it would mean to enact, deploy, and inhabit different modes of power (whether individual will or collective action) at historical moments when those forms of power were in flux or just starting to emerge as genuine political possibilities: we might recall, for example, how in the late 1950s and early 1960s, global peacekeeping organizations like the United Nations and UNESCO, and egalitarian political movements like the Students for a Democratic Society, the Civil Rights Movement, and third world movements were beginning to provide models of what internationally oriented and democratic forms of governance could look like.

While comics reflected these realities, they also told epic tales of superheroic cooperation that unfolded over years of narrative storytelling, thereby producing extended explorations about what possibilities might unfold from the collective actions of formerly independent heroes; these stories necessarily projected a variety of possible outcomes to projects for global peace.

We should study superhero comics now because the fantasies they narrated and visualized throughout the 20th century have captured the imagination of almost every major American media outlet. While comic book characters and scenarios have appeared in a variety of American media forms since the 1960s (including the acclaimed Wonder Woman TV show, the Spider-Man and Super Friends Saturday morning cartoon shows, and the original Superman movies), starting in the late 1990s, that media influence has accelerated at an exceptional pace; even as Americans read less and less actual comics, they encounter superhero comic book characters with greater frequency and intensity in big-budget Hollywood films, web comics, video games, animated features, television series, toys and merchandise.

This suggests both the incredible durability of this particular fantasy figure, and its ability to do and mean different things in different media platforms. If for not other reason than its continued visibility and popularity, we should be curious about why this figure holds such a powerful sway over the American cultural imagination, and how its appearances in different formats accomplishes vastly differing kinds of work.


Your primary focus throughout the book is on superhero comics of the 1960s and 1970s. What’s changing about the genre during this period and why?

The 1960s and 1970s represented an extraordinary renaissance in superhero comic book production and creativity. The central creative transformation that helped catapult the superhero comic book to new heights of popularity was the intention reinvention of the superhero from a figure of white masculinity, individualism, and Americanism into a genetic and species outcast.

Fantastic Four Pin-Up for Book Talk

In this period, comic book creators began to introduce a new pantheon of heroic figures who comprised a generations of mutants, freaks, misfits, monsters, aliens, and cosmic beings who questioned all kinds of assumptions about what it meant to be an ordinary human, or to be an “exceptional” heroic being. These characters—like the molecularly transformed members of the Fantastic Four, or the mutant X-Men, heroes gifted with abilities due to a genetic evolution in their DNA—articulated the value of difference itself, rather than simply exceptional humanity. They modeled surprisingly complex strategies for negotiating a world filled with ever more diverse superheroes, human allies, alien species, and cosmic beings.

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In my book, I argue that this creative shift radically altered the fundamental visual and narrative structures of superhero storytelling: this included the visual scaling upward of superhero comics from the local settings of inner city life (where characters like Superman and Batman traditionally fought urban crime) to a vast range of global and intergalactic locales where superheroes met unexpected allies and fellow travelers, encountered conflicts on distant worlds that echoed the internecine struggles of warring humans, and found ways of finding common cause with people unlike them.

In other words, comics in this period became visually more bombastic, colorful, and expansive in their scope, depicting superheroes traveling the world and the far reaches of space, uncharted civilizations, and even the infinitesimal world of molecules and atoms.

Simultaneously, comics in this period became more responsive to a new generation of young readers who were being influenced by the New Left, the counterculture, and the Civil Rights movements. These readers were savvy teenagers and young adults who sought out the pleasures of comic book fantasy both to be entertained and to see their burgeoning political values modeled and explored in their favorite imaginative stories. Through published letters to the editor, fan clubs, and comic book conventions, readers found new ways to communicate their values and aspirations to creators who engaged with, incorporated, and sometimes productively disagreed with readers’ worldviews. Ultimately, this meant that 1960s and 1970s superhero comics were the product of complex negotiations between creators and readers, rather than merely the creative invention of a single author or creative team.


You discuss the political project of postwar superhero comics as a kind of “world-making.” What do you mean by world-making and how does this concept help us to understand the ways that such comic books might contribute to fostering public discussions around core issues of their times?

I use the term “world-making” to describe acts of creative innovation—including the imaginative invention of fictional characters and stories, and the development of new aesthetic techniques—that facilitate the formation of social bonds, networks, or interactions in the everyday world. In this way, I see world-making as the site where creative or imaginative labor comes into contact with the work of forging solidarities, affinities, and connections in the social realm.

I borrow the term from the fields of science fiction studies and queer theory: in science fiction studies, world-making (often used interchangeably with the term world-building) is understood as the creative work that goes into forming a fully functioning, internally coherent fictional world with its own rules, values, logics, and flow. In this understanding, world-making is a kind of loving attention to the richness, detail, and complexity of a social system that one has imagined into being.

In queer theory, a variety of thinkers like José Muñoz, Lauren Berlant, and Michael Warner, have used world-making to describe the creative and gutsy ways that sexual minorities have invented cultural practices—from drag performance, to camp, to underground sex cultures, to artists’ salons—that allow them to find community and belonging within a larger dominant culture that denigrates and despises them. In this sense, world-making is understood as involving strategies of social survival that allow one to flourish among others who similarly do not fit into the prescribed logics of a homophobic, sexist, and racist society.

In The New Mutants, I deploy world-making in such a way as to link these two senses of the term. I seek to gain leverage on the ways that the creative development of fictional fantasy worlds can contribute to the production of everyday intimate bonds that produce spaces of social possibility for marginalized and outcast people.

This understanding of world-making helps us grasp how superhero comic books of the 1960s and after produced expansive creative worlds (or fictional “universes”) populated by misfit and outcast characters who’s exploits galvanized a generation of readers to forge substantive social investments in the content of comics and their collective reading practices. Superhero comics readers in this period had the opportunity to write to creators (and potentially have their letters published in monthly letters columns appearing at the end of individual issues), respond to one another’s published letters, convene in fan clubs, collaboratively produce fan zines discussing their viewpoints and investments in various series and characters, and potentially join the comic book writing and drawing community.

The creative worlds that comic book companies like Marvel and DC produced in the 1960s then, actively helped forge a social network devoted to exploring the cultural and political ramifications of the stories they were telling; readers of these stories often thought of themselves as outsiders or maladjusts to the norms of American society, not only in their sense of being fans of a denigrated popular media like comics, but also for some, in their attachment to the egalitarian and democratic ideals espoused by so many of their favorite comics. World-making accurately describes this phenomenon and allows us to gain a better understanding of the ways that fictional or fantasy storytelling shapes social life.

Ramzi Fawaz is Assistant Professor of English and Affiliate Faculty in the Department of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at UW Madison. His first book, The New Mutants: Superheroes and the Radical Imagination of American Comics won the Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies Fellowship Award for best first book in LGBT Studies.

Civic Paths Hotspot: Remixing the U.S. Presidential Campaign

Donald Trump for President? Don’t make me laugh!

Well, actually, laughter may be one of the most effective forms of political speech in an election cycle with so many over-sized personalities, so many odd twists of fortune, so many outrageous statements from all the parties involved. We are reminded of an earlier political advertisement from the 1972 U.S. Presidential election where laughing away the opposition turned out to be a key gesture.

Over the past term, the Civic Paths research group has been developing a shared framework for thinking about contemporary politics, one which has been inspired by the groundwork we had done for our recently released book, By Any Media Necessary: The New Youth Activism. Here are a few of the defining traits we’ve been talking about together:

  • Activists have always promoted social change by tapping the civic imagination. That is, before you can change the world, you have to imagine what a better world looks like. More and more, young people are using popular culture references as a shared frame of reference for debating the kinds of future they want. This form of the civic imagination tells us what we are fighting for.
  • The civic imagination may also require us to envision dystopian alternatives — worlds gone bad, evil triumphing — so we know what we are fighting against.
  • Activist media is designed to circulate — it is spreadable — through informal social networks both on-line and off, and one of the most effective ways to insure circulation is to make people laugh.
  • These new forms of activism rely on the mechanisms of participatory culture: young people — many of whom would not have been politically active otherwise — are being drawn into engagement via what researchers are calling participatory politics.
  • So, one of the ways to bring these insights together is to be attentive of the ways popular culture and politics are remixed into memes which circulate within and sometimes spread beyond participatory culture communities.

These memes can deploy a range of different media, as we will see — from the tangible to the digital, from images to videos. We are thus seeing a Bernie Sanders-themed musical, modeled upon Hamilton, and Donald Trump as a evil warlord in the world of Game of Thrones, to cite just two examples, of the civic imagination at play.

Sanders ( Bernie Sanders + Hamilton ) from Tabitha Holbert on Vimeo.


We hosted a show and tell session where members of our research group identified examples of grassroots mashups of the political process that were circulating within their own communities. We brought them together for comparison and analysis. And what follows here are short pieces intended to share some of the conversation they engendered. Many of these, as you will see, use parody to express ideas about what is going on out there on the campaign trail and to share what it might mean for the people who will be most impacted by the outcome.

We’ve love to see examples you encounter in your own social networks and especially we would love to see examples of how these same practices may be deployed by conservative groups, given that most of our examples take a more progressive stance. These materials are ephimeral, but significant, in understanding how politics works today. So, we are trying to assemble our own archive for future research and teaching.

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“Participatory Aesthetics” by TJ Billard

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hyperakt (hyperakt.com), Brooklyn, NY

Untitled1Shawn Hazen (hazencreative.com), Chicago, IL

Both of these pictures demonstrate the way appropriating the graphic elements–and in particular typeface–of Obama’s campaign allows citizen content producers to contribute to the campaign’s messaging. The first of these pictures is interesting for two reasons: it uses Gotham (the typeface used by Obama’s campaign) to tie the image into the campaign’s official content, and it uses the famous picture of Barack and Michelle as well; but it also riffs on Shepard Fairey’s HOPE poster, engaging simultaneously with the official campaign content, as well as other citizen-created content. The second image more simply reflects the appropriation of the campaign’s official typeface and color palette, blurring the lines between citizen-originated content and campaign-originated content.

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Mark America Great Again by Yomna Elsayed

We have witnessed some extreme, sometimes “surreal”, political rhetoric this election season. But, many times the response to surreal rhetoric such as that of Trump or Cruz, was equally surreal, even hilarious. After all jokes are a temporary displacement from the control of the conscious to the arbitrariness of the subconscious[1]. Hence it was not surprising to see comedy flourish in atmospheres of fear and racism. Lawrence Levine in his Black culture and black consciousness records how slaves used humor for a variety of purposes from self-control, by releasing a wide range of inhibiting energies and feelings, to subversion and control of the social situation, by using the majority’s stereotypes in their humor “in order to rob them of their power to hurt and humiliate”. Jewish humor was also utilized as a “political weapon and as a provocative form of entertainment during (and in response to) an extreme state of a culture under threat of extermination”[2]. In either case, one can say that humor was a response to a situation that goes beyond human reason, one that deals with primitive human feelings of hate and fear. Humor certainly entertains, but it also works to challenge our perceptions by inviting us to reconsider taken-for-granted assumptions in a different light, bringing about cognitive dissonance to our clearly defined unproblematic understanding of the world. It does so, without necessarily incurring our resistance, but rather clandestinely encouraging us to laugh at ourselves in the company of others. Ultimately, notes Levine, laughter is a social phenomenon.

At a time of conflict, our response to jokes depends not only on how clever they are, but on our relation to their subjects and butts as well. Therefore, the more we identify with a leader the less we are going to enjoy jokes at his or her expense[3]. Hence jokes demarcate by defining those who share the joke as ‘we’, and those who don’t, as the ‘other’. But to muster the will to laugh at someone is to exert power on oneself and others; a power to overcome one’s helplessness in response to what appears to be a ridiculous situation on one hand, and to turn the tables and laugh at those in power (a temporary exchange of places) on the other. In colloquial Egyptian, if someone successfully ridicules someone we’d say, “He has left a mark on them” and that’s precisely what humor does. Humor could be a temporary release of energy, but it is also one that leaves visible marks on what once seemed to be unconquerable.

This election season, Trump has been the subject of many comedy shows from SNL sketches to the daily show’s satirical commentary. His outrageous comments regarding minorities, coupled with his unrestrained trolling, made him an amusing figure to media pundits and comedians alike. Other less professional ones, focused on Trump supporters by attending Trump rallies and recording their reactions to seeing an unlikely face. Though others suggested that this maybe an opportunity to reach out to Trump supporters (who “identified with Trump for a reason”) rather than simply ridicule them. However, of the funny videos circulated around Trump, “Your Drunk Neighbor: Trump” stands out to me.

“Your Drunk Neighbor: Donald Trump” has so far garnered over 1 million views since its release in October 2015. The video appeal lay in its use of incongruity, and surprise to draw laughter from viewers. This was one of the few sketches that removed Trump from the presidential candidate podium to a more familiar setting and character: a drunk neighbor. By juxtaposing Donald Trump speeches with the familiar image or frame of “your drunk neighbor”, it exposes the irrationality and lack of seriousness in choosing Trump as a presidential candidate: much like choosing your drunk neighbor for president. However, this video would not have been as successful if it did not build its humor on grounds of a non-threatening familiar situation1, such as that of drinking beer over your porch’s rocking chair in a warm summer afternoon. Furthermore, a recent survey by the university of Quinnipiac, showed that Trump’s name had a polarizing effect “on Americans attitudes about general statements and policies” advocated by the presidential candidate. With such polarization, humorous videos like “Your Drunk Neighbor”, can take away the edge of political criticism, inviting viewers, supporters or not, to assess their position in a non-threatening light situation of both entertainment and release. For Trump himself, one can say, at the very least, it “leaves a mark”.

[1] Douglas, M. (1968). The social control of cognition: Some factors in joke perception. Man 3(3), 361-376.

[2] Kaplan, L. (2009). In Jenkins, H., McPherson, T., & Shattuc, J. (Eds.), Hop on Pop: The politics and pleasure of popular culture. Duke University Press Books.

[3] Lewis, P. (2006). “Divided We Laugh”. In Cracking up: American humor in a time of conflict. University of Chicago Press, pp 1-20.

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Collection of Election-related folk art for sale on Etsy by Samantha Close

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From left to right:

“Ted Cruz Republican Leading the Fight” from ConservativeArt

“Feel the Laser Bern” from DanSchaubDesigns

“Women for Hillary jewelry” from slrfreespiritjewelry

“Donald Trump doll” from TobeyTimeCrochet

 

The stuff of politics is never supposed to be important.  Signs get taken down, pamphlets get thrown away, and people move on to laws, policies, and budget disputes.  In traditional thinking, this arena of financial appropriations and negotiating which and what laws make it on the books is the important political “stuff,” the way you see what the candidates are really made of.  There is a lot of truth to this.

But, as Stephen Duncombe (2007) points out, this is also a highly intellectualized, rationalized, and cerebral way of understanding politics that misses out on much of what inspires and motivates people to take part.  The craft and folk art objects related to candidates in the 2016 presidential election that are pictured here suggest a different, more affective and emotional relationship to politics that requires an outlet in durable, material stuff that will remain long after the candidates are selected and the election concluded.

The contemporary political climate in the United States, as many of my comrades are pointing out in this discussion, is often highly cynical.  Political talk is heavily inflected by irony, humor, and sarcasm—to the extent that, at first glance, many might wonder if the folk art pictured here isn’t taking the piss rather than being sincere.  It’s an elitist, urban—Duncombe might say traditional leftist—sensibility that sees a hagiographic woodcut or hand-penciled (and sharpie-d) portrait as parody rather than proud declaration of identification and admiration (Sweeney, 1997).

Particularly in communication and cultural studies scholarship, this kind of highly invested affective relationship is more familiar in the realm of fandom—we would have little pause in characterizing a Harry Potter amigurumi doll as made out of love.  It is past time that we take as much care and bring as much nuance to analyzing how identification works on an emotional level in the domain of political communication as we do in the domain of popular communication (for one example of such analysis, see Liana Gamber-Thompson (2016) on Libertarian fandom).

Such a politics is at once more and less empowering for the average citizen and very different from how we were taught that our political system works in sixth-grade civics.  It much more closely resembles the Christian “What Would Jesus Do?” philosophy, oriented towards the impact of identification and belief in daily life rather than in official spheres (Jackson, 2006).  This is in line with the religious overtones and symbolism of much candidate-related folk art.  This election folk art suggests a different interpretation of the ubiquitous question “does my vote matter?”  It matters because it matters to the voter, not necessarily for them.

References
Duncombe, S. (2007). Dream: re-imagining progressive politics in an age of fantasy. New York: New Press ; Distributed by W.W. Norton.
Jackson, G. S. (2006). “What Would Jesus Do?”: Practical Christianity, Social Gospel Realism, and the Homiletic Novel. PMLA, 121(3), 641–661.
Jenkins, H., Shresthova, S., Gamber-Thompson, L., Kligler-Vilenchik, N., & Zimmerman, A. M. (2016). By any media necessary: the new activism of American youth. New York: New York University Press.
Sweeney, G. (1997). The King of White Trash Culture: Elvis Presley and the Aesthetics of Excess. In M. Wray & A. Newitz (Eds.), White trash: race and class in America (pp. 249–266). New York: Routledge.

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It’s Over 1000! by Rogelio Lopez

crbergen

I came across this on my Facebook newsfeed and thought it was funny/interesting. The piece is by artist CR Bergen and was apparently posted to his Tumblr on April 5, 2016. The illustration re-imagines a scene from the Dragon Ball Z animated series, where the characters Vegeta and Nappa sense the protagonist Goku’s increase in power as he becomes enraged. The scene became a widely circulated meme on its own, due to the hilarious voiceover for the phrase “It’s over 9000!” Bergen uses the scene to interpret the unexpected populist rise of Bernie Sanders, comparing him to DBZ protagonist Goku. At the same time, Hillary Clinton is compared to Vegeta, an antagonist of the series. The image clearly provides a comical critique of Clinton and the DNC by associating her to imperialist villains from DBZ, while showing support for Sanders. The “Feel the Bern” pin on Sander’s characters while he is engulfed in blue flame is a nice touch.

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Hashtag #HillarySoQualified  by Limor Shifman

hillarysoqualified

Zach Haller ‏@zachhaller

#HillarySoQualified she can only win by buying votes

The story of this hashtag, which started as a pro-Hillary response to Bernie Sanders’ assertion that Clinton is not “qualified” to be president and was quickly hijacked by Sanders’ supporters, is particularly revealing. What it seems to expose (beyond Clinton’s inferiority in this scene) is that some forms, or templates, of participatory “positive” commentary are almost by default inviting cynical responses. Hashtags which are cynical, or ironic, to begin with are thus more likely to maintain their original agenda (e.g. ##distractinglysexy,  #benCarsonWikipedia).

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Donald Trump and Mean Girls by Chloe Yuqing Jiang

I came across this video shared by a friend on my own Facebook news feed last week.

Being one of the biggest fans of Mean Girls, I found this video extremely interesting and captivating (probably given the fact that I could memorize the whole script by heart). The video “stars” Donald Trump as Cady Heron and incorporates some of the key arguments Donald Trump has been making. It also highlights these arguments which makes it amusing to watch. The video was posted on April 3, 2016 under the account TheCrazyGorilla, a YouTube channel made by two guys who produce funny videos weekly. With 185,456 views on YouTube, I think it is a smart idea to combine politics and entertainment to raise more awareness on election, especially for those who are less tuned in with political issues. This video might inspire more young people to create more relatable content like this and share the message through social media platforms to reach more audiences.

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Bernie of Hillary Meme by Michelle C. Forelle

meme1 meme2 meme3

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This is a meme I’ve been seeing all over my Tumblr dashboard. According to Know Your Meme, the meme originated from a 12-image post simultaneously put up on Tumblr and Reddit on January 28, 2016 by user ObviousPlant, with the caption “Left in the streets of Los Angeles”. It is clearly designed for people to mess with, with big text fields that are very easily Photoshopped. What’s particularly interesting about it is that the blank template could be used by supporters of either candidate – when it’s blank, there is no indication who is favored. Interesting note that I found on the KYM entry for this — there is a Facebook group, now with over 436,000 members, called “Bernie Sanders’ Dank Meme Stash”.

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#Time2Escalate: A movement of movements by Emilia Yang

The Black Lives Matter organization, the anti-deportation campaign Mijente (#Not1More), and the Grassroots Global Justice Alliance (which works on global issues including climate change) promoted a call with a hashtag first popularized by the white-ally network Standing Up for Racial Justice: #Time2Escalate to agitate Drumpf through the GOP’s summer convention and beyond in order for white allies to join and take a stance.

Anti-Trump protesters aren’t trying to change anyone’s mind. Here’s their strategy. (Vox explainers)

The action and the push towards escalation is based on some of these assumptions:

http://us3.campaign-archive1.com/?u=ccd613dafe6681329ae72b256&id=e90f9c901c&e=5649f5c71f

http://mic.com/articles/139615/wisconsin-s-white-people-want-to-stop-donald-trump-too#.9hiDklRz3

Bernie is almost as cute as Mujica <3

http://thingstolovefor.tumblr.com/post/142065321382/every-time-i-see-something-like-this-im-on-the

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Trump’s Bizarre Election by Yining Zhou

makeamericagreat

I found this image on my facebook stream, repost by several friends whose interest lies in the intersection between manga and politics.  Trump was put in a scene from Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure (JJBA) series. In its third series, Stardust Crusaders, JJBA introduced the concept of  supernatural power called “Stands”, which was the semi-physical manifestation of the user’s psychic powers resembles a spiritual familiar standing next to them.

On one hand, the picture offers a critique, pointing out Trump over emphasises “the stance” all the time. On the other hand, it is hilarious smart to juxtapose Trump election with Jojo’s adventure, implying that both of them are kind of radically idealistic and bizarre.

That Was Then, This is Now: Confessions of a Former Teenage Punk

Earlier this term, I featured a number of blog posts written by students in my Public Intellectuals Seminar. The following is another example of the work that emerged from this assignment.

THAT WAS THEN, THIS IS NOW:

CONFESSIONS OF A FORMER TEENAGE PUNK

—Matt Pascarella

 

The Only Lit Parking Lot In Town

I worked nights at the Turkey Hill gas station in Mt. Carmel, Pennsylvania during my last two years of High School.  A typical shift involved stocking and organizing the freezer with ice cream Snicker’s bars, Hot Pockets, and the famed Turkey Hill ice cream.  Then I’d move on to the shelves in the store, restocking bags of potato chips, candy bars and cigarettes. I’d clean as I re-stocked, and then I’d head outside to our massive sign on the corner where I’d change the price of gas with a long pole, which had a suction cup on the end. It was like putting together a puzzle that loomed over you by 20 feet.

 

Then I’d shake out my apron, slick back my hair and take over the register, relieving the shift and taking charge of the store all on my own until about 11pm.  I would do my homework at that register in between selling gas and scratch-off lottery tickets. Everyone always wanted the scratch-offs that were called “Win For Life” but the best I ever saw won was a mere ten bucks.

 

When my school work was done, I’d turn to writing out ideas and sketches for art projects, song lyrics, and poems on the back of old receipt paper. It was usually around that time that I’d get a call from my manager who would tell me that she happened to pass the store on her way home from Bingo or wherever the hell she was, and that she had seen there were kids hanging out in the store’s parking lot once again.  She would say this to me as if the apocalypse was upon us and that the only way to prevent it’s fruition was to rid the parking lot of these savages, ordering me to, “Tell them to leave right now or else I’m calling the police!”

 

They weren’t doing anything crazy — just revving engines, talking to each other, laughing, making plans and making-out.

 

At that point in my life, I was a senior in High School and I had attended about a dozen schools up and down the eastern seaboard.  I knew that kids always create spaces to hang out. But in the Coal Region it was different. My first night in town a horde of kids were chasing a bear through the streets. There just was not much going on, and it turned out that my Turkey Hill’s parking lot was literally the only lot in town that kept its lights on at night. So when my manager would call freaking out, I’d then hang up the phone, walk outside and would tell the kids that if the cops showed up, well, I’d defend them.

 

I must have looked ridiculous standing there with my military buzz cut, holding a broom, wearing a red apron, a white buttoned-down shirt tucked into khaki pants.  Of course, my attempts to defend them never really worked out because most of the time the local cops would descend anyway — all officers on duty at the time, bored and looking for kicks — flying in, sirens wailing, surrounding the parking lot and telling everyone to go the hell home on loudspeakers.  Clearly, they were the ones disturbing the peace so I protested in my own ways, quickly becoming the only employee at the store that charged the cops for coffee when they came in during their shifts.

 

Awakening

In many ways, my true coming of age in terms of becoming intensely critical of media and politics, began to take over much of my life around this time.  It was a time when access to the internet was sparse, and so I’d set off for Bloomsburg, the nearest college town. To do so, I had to risk a drive through the next town over, Centralia — which was abandoned due to a mine fire that ran out of control decades earlier and was still raging on beneath the very road that I had to take. I’d drive the forty minutes each way to Bloomsburg because there was a record shop there that sold Punk Planet magazine and I always had to have its latest issue.

 

I remember the March/April 1999 issue of Punk Planet as clear as yesterday.  The cover story was called ‘the murder of Iraq’ and it detailed the impact of US-driven sanctions in Iraq and an organization that was defying those sanctions in order to provide life-sustaining food and medicine to people who were starving and dying.

 

Just eight years prior I had experienced the first Gulf War in my own intense ways as a child who would watch neighbors and loved ones as they were shipped off, fearing that my own mother — a single mom and a Private in the US Army — may be deployed as well.  My brother and I would sit in large gymnasiums and salute the flag before being told that our community was being mobilized for war in order to promote democracy and freedom in Iraq.

 

Reading this report in Punk Planet eight years later as a teenager began to add a whole new complicated and nuanced set of layers about the world I found myself in, and I felt like I was being pushed to a place where I would have to tackle those issues and unpack those layers head-on.

 

Then the ‘Battle in Seattle’ took place.  I poured over all the coverage I could get at the time.  Each day, I’d walk down to the newsstand, which was one of the few businesses left on main street at that time, and I’d pick up every paper that had a story about the protests against the WTO.   I’d speed home to cut the stories out, paste them on the walls in the loft of a garage we had out back — which was falling apart but that I turned into a makeshift studio — and I’d read the coverage over and over again.  I was in awe that so many people, from so many walks of life, showed up to protest together.  I wanted to know what motivated the protesters; would they be successful in getting what they were asking for; what would increase or decrease their odds of success; why did certain coverage paint the protesters in a bad light; and many, many other questions.

 

I began listening to Jello Biafra’s spoken-word albums.  The most influential of which was his three-disc release, ‘Become The Media’ which was released in the Fall of my senior year.  Soon after, I started my descent into a Chomsky rabbit hole by first reading his ‘Profit Over People.’ I then began exploring Zinn’s work and a history of the United States that was left out of my high school history books.  I then moved on to Nichols and McChesney, and began to understand the media’s role in a healthy democracy, and how this was being subverted by corporations who cared more about their bottom lines than providing a public service.

 

As I’d drive down the narrow backroads of Coal Township, PA each day, making my way to my tiny catholic high school, I’d blast Anti-Flag’s album Die for the Government, screaming along with their songs about how the government failed to care for the veterans of the Gulf War who had been exposed to chemical warfare.  I knew the story firsthand, and yet I’d put all of that aside as I would walk into the school, head to my locker, and take off my blue hoodie adorned with band patches and safety pins, before stripping down to a uniform that matched everyone else: a pressed white shirt, tie, and dress pants and shoes.

 

Back then, our group of friends would share stories, create community and collaborate on projects together.  But it was all offline.  We made our own zines, our own posters for our band’s local shows, made t-shirts and other random merchandise to sell at shows, and we’d also play fundraisers to help local kids and to try and save the few local music venues that still existed within a 100-mile radius.

 

We would abuse the photo-copying honor system in the school library and at Staple’s and we’d copy chapters in books that we wanted to pass on to each other.  We’d make mix tapes, and we’d remix cover songs like Eddie Money’s Two Tickets To Paradise, opening it up into our own vernacular — putting out our own spin on stories and media that we encountered and thought worth passing on.  We’d meet friends at a show or at the local Denny’s and sit around talking and drinking coffee until sunrise.  We’d go to our older friend’s apartments and watch films like Empire Records, Clerks, Gia, and Office Space.  We drank Schlitz beer and gut-rotting Gin, ate horrible canned food and ramen, and got tattoos at truck stops.

 

Yet as ‘defiant’ as we thought we all were, most of us shared something that we rarely, if ever talked about: We were poor.  Well, at least most of us were, and so most of us knew that our shot at a future better than where we had come from was incredibly slim at best.  But what was often our saving grace was the simple fact that we had each other.

 

Many of our parents, despite their best intentions, simply did not have the capacity to help us map out our possibilities, much less offer us a helping hand to actualize such possibilities. They were too busy trying to survive and provide for their families on the most basic of levels. They were treading to stay afloat at blue collar jobs day in day out, before coming home at night to screaming kids and stacks of bills. If we were lucky, the best thing any one of us could get would be a teacher who cared and took it upon themselves to make sure our college applications and scholarship essays got done.  But even they seemed to be a rare experience for most of us.

 

By that time, my mom had become one of the top recruiters in the US Army.  A large proportion of my graduating class had already enlisted in the military.  Most of them were skinny, white, 17-year old kids who had never left the state.  Yet they knew and I knew, that the chances of affording college and getting the fuck out of what was one of the most economically depressed regions of the country, came down to two options: Get a scholarship, or join the military.  It was a time of peace and the military was a ticket towards a better life, a better future.

 

My late night study sessions standing at the Turkey Hill counter paid off.  With the help of my art teacher, Gina Rice, I somehow landed a scholarship at a small liberal arts school in New York City. After surviving Y2K and stepping into a new millennium, suddenly my prospects in life appeared much brighter.

 

But as quickly as that brightness emerged, it was dimmed.  Within just four months of graduating, the twin towers were struck down, the Pentagon was hit, and once again, the communities I came from were readying themselves for war.

 

This time it would be a never-ending, globe-spanning war that would not cease for decades. This time I knew even more people being sent to the front lines — some of whom never returned.

 

As the ashes were still falling in Lower Manhattan, my only choice, my only shot at a worthwhile future, was to pack up my car and head to New York.

 

I stopped at the Turkey Hill to fill up my tank, and as I drove through Centralia for the very last time, the world itself was suddenly on fire.

 

What I choose to do with my life

You know you suddenly have acquired privilege the moment you realize your life is yours, and that you can make the decisions that will likely determine your own fate. That is a feat that most people on this planet simply cannot claim, and it is something — particularly as my friend’s were being shipped off to war and I was entering my first college classroom — that was never lost on me.

 

I kept that knowledge close to my heart as I fell into investigative journalism soon after landing in New York City. I was 19 when I started working with Greg Palast, researching and producing his stories for BBC, The Guardian, Harper’s, and many others. We turned those reports into books, and we dreampt up trans-media, on and offline, grassroots campaigns. I led teams that, together, turned those books into NY Times bestsellers. Some of the reports we did even had an impact on changing laws in several countries. Yet one of the coolest experiences out of all that was producing two spoken-word albums with Jello Biafra. Just three years earlier, he had awakened me into politics and media, and here I was suddenly producing work with him. One of the albums we produced together even hit the top of the CMJ charts!

 

From there I helped launch and run Tar, a successful international arts and culture magazine printed on a single-sheet fed press in Italy. The NY Times called it “A thinking man’s magazine,” and TIME elected our second issue as one of the top five magazine covers of the entire year!

 

After that I helped bring Demotix — a citizen journalism photo news wire with tens of thousands of contributors in 180 countries — into the United States. Demotix went on to win a Media Guardian Innovation Award, a Webby award, and was nominated for the Knight-Batten Award for Innovation in Journalism, among many others.

 

I then went on to work with the brilliant team at Art Not War to support and lead teams that produced trans-media promotion campaigns for the launch of successful organizations and impact projects. This included Van Jones’ Rebuild The Dream, the 99% Spring, and award-winning, viral political advertisements for MoveOn.org. I then lead a national citizen journalism watchdog organization called Video the Vote during the 2012 cycle.

 

 

Back to School

Soon after Video the Vote, I sold pretty much everything I own, took out a massive student loan, and got on a flight to London.

 

After landing, I joined a cohort of some of the most incredible people I’ve ever met. They hail from all over the planet, and together we have been studying for a dual degree at LSE and USC Annenberg in Global Media and Communication. I want to finally get my master’s degrees because in the near future I want to teach at community colleges and high schools in under-served communities, while working for individuals, organizations, and companies that are developing tools for citizen engagement and civic participation.

 

While much of my past work has been very focused on developing high-impact, story-based initiatives from the framework of impacting national change, I am currently pursuing work that attempts to understand how social change takes place when positioned from ‘glocal’ perspectives.

 

In other words, I am interested in how civic institutions, organizations, and campaigns attempt to stretch their work beyond traditional borders of nation states by taking on global issues within specific local contexts, as well as how local issues are being addressed by institutions that situate these issues within a global context.

 

This work involves exploring and expanding upon existing empirical research, and experimenting with theoretical models from a host of disciplines including social psychology, sociology, interpersonal and organizational communication, media studies, as well as work in the fields of economics, socio-cultural anthropology and global studies. These models help build a repertoire of practical applications concerning the role that media and communications can play in leading this form of social change.

 

 

Impact Generation

The biggest take-away from that work, in addition to my past experiences is, as follows:

 

I have heard my generation referred to as apathetic, as not giving a shit about the world we live in, as unfit to change the all-out destructive course prior generations have left in their backwash for us to drown in.

 

But I don’t believe any of that.

 

I believe my generation — millennials — are more aware, smarter, and far more meaningfully connected to each other, than any generation prior.

 

In fact, the consciousness which binds us as a generation is to make the world a better place, and we share a fundamental collective desire to accomplish that together.

 

We are far from uninterested, unconcerned or unmoved when it comes to the challenges of our day. We are not apathetic. In fact, we are acutely-aware of the cacophony of problems bequeathed to us.

 

Unlike generations before us, we were born with an average of 232 synthetic chemicals already in our bloodstreams due to our mothers’ involuntary exposure to a toxic world. We grew up with the fear of AIDS, race riots, NAFTA, the WTO, a stolen presidential election, 9-11, brutal wars that have no end in sight, and a savage economic disaster that left millions in our country homeless and unemployed. We grew up with major American industries bleeding out, with rampant corruption, with greed and even the bankruptcy of an entire city — all while watching the planet melt in front of our eyes — oil spill, after oil spill, after oil spill. Super storm, after superstorm. Hurricane after hurricane.

 

We are well aware of what we have inherited and it is offensive to say otherwise. We are sick from the problems and of the problems.

 

It is not that our generation does not care about what is happening to our country and to our world. It’s that the traditional systems for participating have long since imploded. And so we are left starving for logical, accessible, meaningful, and actionable pathways for participating in real solutions.

 

That is why we have been at the forefront of coming up with the alternatives, with working hard to build new ways to make our voices heard, with solving the problems of our day, and with having a lasting impact on the betterment of the world — and we have been doing this work despite the tremendous obstacles that have been thrown in our paths.

 

At the heart of this, is that it is in my generation’s marrow to gather in the only lit parking lots we have in order to share our stories, to collaborate on meaningful projects, and to build communities of action that are already leaving the world in a better place for the generations that will follow. And if those parking lots don’t exist, we will make them ourselves.

 

Coming back to school has not only expanded my critical thinking and my research skills, it has also led me to become friends with incredible people — people who each, in their own ways, have reminded me of how proud I am to be a member of this generation.  As I walk across the stage at graduation one week from now, and begin to look for what’s next in my career, my only hope is that I can continue to play my part in building the tools for people to participate in solving the biggest problems of our day.

Happy Star Wars Day!: Odds and Ends

bunky_04

Bunky Echohawk is a Pawnee artist: his picture, “If Yoda Was an Indian, He’d Be a Chief” represents a Native American repurposing of the iconic figure from the Star Wars saga. I stumbled upon it reading a fascinating article, “Navajos on Mars: Native Sci-Fi Film Futures,” suggested to me by my graduate student Samantha Close. The essay moves from a consideration of the way indigenous cultures around the world have been appropriated for science fiction film and literature, and in return, more recently, how these same groups have sought to tell their own stories within the science fiction genre. There’s a wealth of resources and insights here that I have just begun to dig into, but I wanted to flag this for others who care about science fiction as a genre and about current struggles to bring more diversity and inclusivity to the entertainment industry.

I am opening this post with this image because today is May 4, unofficially known as Star Wars Day. The designation comes from the bad pun, “May the 4th be With You,” but over the past few years, this holiday has taken root amongst fans, and Star Wars day stands not only for the George Lucas franchise but also for a broader appreciation of the popular imagination.

And of course, fans are not the only ones to attach themselves to this emergent national holiday. This morning, John Kassich released a Star Wars themed campaign video, describing himself as the GOP’s “Only Hope.” Of course, Kassich suspended his campaign just a few hours later, leaving all of us utterly without Hope. And Kassich is not the only Star Wars fans among the candidates this season, since Hillary ended her remarks at one of the debates with “may the force be with you” and Ted Cruz’s campaign did its own remix video.

I have intended this post, however, primarily as a shout out to #TeachMeYouDid, an innovative campaign by the Rebel Alliance, a fan activist group focused on calling out the role of dark money in American politics, to pay tribute to teachers and mentors who have made a difference in their lives. As it happens, this year, May the 4th coincides with National Teacher Appreciation Week, and so an enterprising group of fans have chosen to use the resources of participatory culture to call attention to educators, who like Yoda did for Luke, have taught them to see themselves and the world differently. For more information about the campaign, visit their homepage. Below are some of the videos produced by fans in response to this call.

I am posting this late in the day because I have been, well, busy myself as a teacher as I help my students through the end of the term. But I had promised Andrew Slack from the Rebel Alliance that I would share some of my thoughts about teachers and teaching as a way to help promote this worthy project, so here are a few brief and inadequate thoughts.

As someone who has been working in the space of media literacy for the past decade plus, I often think about the incredible educators I have had a chance to meet. I have enormous respect for the many educators around the country who have chosen to incorporate media literacy activities and resources into their teaching in the absence of institutional support and sometimes in the face of institutional opposition. They have done so because of their own personal commitments to insuring that their students have the capacities for critical thought and social action. They have done so, sometimes, by bonding together within a larger media literacy movement, forging networks with other teachers, seeking out insights through journals and website and podcasts and blogs and webinars, mostly on their own time and at their own expenses.

Let me be clear that when I talk about educators, I do not mean only classroom teachers, but also librarians, community organizers, religious leaders, and others who have brought discussions of media literacy into their domains. I find this commitment inspirational but also frustrating, because there’s no question that many more resources and interventions are needed. Part of the point of bringing media literacy into our schools is to insure equal access to experiences and knowledge which can help us to foster a more participatory culture.

We have been lucky to be partnering with educators from the National Writing Project and the National Association for Media Literacy Educators as we are launching our new book, By Any Media Necessary: The New Youth Activism. You can access the book online for free thanks to the collaboration of New York University Press and the MacArthur Foundation. It is one of the launch titles for a new series focused on Connected Learning.

One key theme we stress in the book is that these new activist groups have been successful in part by bridging between the everyday life concerns of youth and the realm of contemporary politics. Neta Kligler-Vilenchik describes “mechanisms of translation” which enable organizations, such as the Harry Potter Alliance and the Nerdfighters, among many others, to help young people grasp political issues via connections forged with popular media franchises which are already part of their world. We’ve found that these groups are not necessarily attracting the “usual suspects” — that is, white middle class upwardly mobile youth, but are also attracting youth who might not have been inspired to take civic action in any other way. Research has traditionally shown that young people are most apt to become politically engaged if they are raised in families where the parents model participation and have dinner table discussions about current events, where they have access to teachers who bring political figures and practices into their classes, where they participate in after-school groups which have a civic focus, and where they volunteer in their community.

Reflecting on the educators that matter to me, I can see ways that my own civic path was shaped both by traditional and informal means. Lately, I’ve told the story with an emphasis on informal paths into politics. For me, the key text was Star Trek which modeled what a better, more diverse, more inclusive, and more accepting society looked like, and helped to foster my civic imagination. I was watching Star Trek even as I lived in a segregated community, went to segregated schools, and attended a segregated church. And I did so even as I was living in Atlanta which was at the center of the Civil Rights movement. So these things came together to inspire a strong sense of social justice, especially as it related to issues of freedom and equality. My political consciousness came a bit later: I was a child of the Watergate era, becoming obsessed with watching the hearings on television, and plowing through the vast archive of documents being released to the public. I first voted in the 1976 election when I supported Mo Udal as he struggle unsuccessfully for the Democratic nomination.

But, telling the story that way cuts out the strong role which educators played in that process. As I think about my civic education, I think first about Betty Leslein, from whom I took American Government and a range of other social science classes. She was herself actively involved in trying to form a teacher’s union and she later ran for the Georgia General Assembly (allowing me to help her campaign). She knew government leaders at all levels and brought them into her classes. I recall for example meeting Max Clevland, who would later become the head of Veteran’s Affairs during the Carter Administration and who later still became a U.S. Senator: at the time, he was a representative in the state government, as I recall. Leslein gave extra credit for attending governmental hearings, and this got me to watch city council meetings and the like. She supported her students even when it put her at some risk: I worked with student leaders from a range of high schools to pull together what we called the Students Rights Organization, and she let us use her house to host our first meeting. Unfortunately, news of the meeting leaked to the Principals and the school board, and as a result, we all got called on the carpet, including our teacher. But she had taught me the importance of standing up for your beliefs, taking risks in the name of your core rights, and getting involved in the political process. These lessons have stuck with me for more than 40 years. I was lucky some years back to sit down with Ms. Leslein, then retired, and share with her my own experiences, including testifying before the U.S. Commerce Committee after the Columbine shootings, and it was wonderful to see the pride in her eyes about how I had continued to build on the skills and knowledge she had taught me.

But, I also had the other advantages that the research on civic engagement flags. I had parents who were very active in their communities, and especially in their church community. I was very active in a range of school activities, including student government, the school newspaper, and the debate team. There, I recall with fondness Donald Meeks, who was the adult leader of the debate team (we never won a debate but we had a grand time together) and Marjorie Throckmorton, who was the faculty advisor to the student newspaper (and what a plague I was on her, given my tendency to always push the limits of what we could publish and sometimes cross the line.) I also benefited from participation in the Boy Scouts of America, where we were blessed with great adult leaders, and where I had my first experiences teaching, including teaching merit badges around theater and photography, early steps into the world of media studies.

By the time I was an undergraduate, then, I was well on my way to being an active and engaged citizen. My mother even allowed me to claim to be sick for a day when I went to a Democratic party gathering where all of the core candidates for the 1976 nomination were speaking. As an undergraduate, I once again had great teachers, though, including George Grief, a nervous retired city editor, who sharpened my writing and thinking skills through putting me through my paces in my first reporting classes. But above all, my life was influenced by William Thomas, then a leading expert on the U.S. Supreme Court. Thomas was also someone who brought the world into his classroom and sent his students out into the world: I remember most vividly a course I took on Criminal Justice, which had us riding in patrol cars with cops, watching trials in courtrooms, interviewing prosecutors and defenders, and otherwise trying to make sense of the various ways that discretion entered the legal system. He was the advisor for my undergraduate thesis, which dealt with film and politics in the 1930s.

But one day, he pulled me aside and said that he had noticed that while Political Science was my major, my real passion was the work I was doing on the Entertainment Section of the campus newspaper, and that I should consider going to graduate school in film studies. There were two things in that sentence that changed my life — the first was the idea of going to graduate school. I was among the first in my family to go to college and none of us had gone to graduate school so the idea had never crossed my mind. I COULD GO TO GRADUATE SCHOOL! And second, I had no idea you could go into graduate school in film studies. This sent me racing to the library, looking up programs, and putting together the pieces which would shape the rest of my working life. So, Thomas has always been a model for me of a committed teacher and mentor, someone who notices the abilities and interests of students, someone who helps them find a path that makes sense for them, even if it not necessarily the path you have followed yourself. Thomas, after all, was a political science professor and I was a major in his department, so going to graduate school in film meant changing fields. I have thought about Thomas a lot as we’ve been putting together this new book, which is very much about what we look at politics through the lens of media and cultural studies. Sometimes paths diverge and converge in unexpected way.

It’s been a long time since I’ve heard from any of these teachers. I am not sure which of them are still with us. I’d like very much to hear from them if this post reaches their eyes. But regardless, I want to use this post to say thanks to them and the many other educators who have made a huge difference in my life.

May the Fourth Be With You.

Multichannel Networks and the New Media Ecology: An Interview with Stuart Cunningham and David Craig (Part Three)

The Amazing Race this season has featured a range of social entertainment personalities as their contestants, and many of them seem to be recognized as they travel around the world in ways that previous contestants on the show have not. Does this suggest something about the transnational nature of the media ecology you are describing? Is this another example where U.S. produced content dominates global markets or are we seeing talent emerge in other national contexts which circulates as broadly?

There is indeed a strongly transnational dynamic in new media ecology. Take a couple of examples: Turkey takes a particularly strong interventionary stance with regard to the potential disruption to the political, religious and social order posed by the digital platforms, including YouTube, and has regularly blocked them. The national carrier, Turkish Airlines, however, uses YouTube content creators and multichannel networks in developing a clone of the Amazing Race format ‑ youth-oriented, social media-based engagement strategies ‑ in its attempt to build brand recognition in the ultra-competitive international airline market. Musicians like Elissa from Lebanon or Iranian-Saudi Arabian acapella artist Alaa Wardi or comedians Bader Sadeh, aka the “Saudi King of Comedy”, have harnessed SME platforms to launch global careers and secure cross-cultural and diasporic Middle Eastern audiences less inhibited by local online platform or content censorship. An Australian multichannel network primes aspiring online musicians in their attempts to break into booming Asian pop scenes. India has experienced breakneck growth of amateur content creation, while China is creating a parallel universe of social media entertainment unbeholden to Western platforms and capital.

It is notable that 80% of YouTube traffic comes from outside the US, and 60% of creators’ views come from outside their home country.

Media globalisation has been an enduring topic in film and media studies. It is possible to posit a qualitatively new wave of media globalisation based on the global availability and uptake of YouTube which is relatively frictionless compared to national broadcasting and systems of film and DVD release and licensing by “windowed” territory. And compared to film and television, there is very little imposed content regulation (apart from substantial self-regulation) on the major platforms such as Google/YouTube and Facebook ‑ some of the world’s largest information and communication companies ‑ as their use as content distributors proliferates globally. But it is media globalisation with the difference.

For streaming services such as Netflix, aggressive global expansion (having reached 130 countries to 2015) requires it to negotiate with pre-existing rights holders in each new territory and often requires it to close down informal means of accessing its popular content such as VPN workarounds in such territories. While, longer term, the streaming giants may well drive territorial licensing to the wall, SME content is largely “born global”. This is because this massively growing content industry, in stark contrast to content industries in general and Hollywood and broadcast television in particular, is not primarily based on IP control. YouTube elected to avoid the messy and legally cumbersome traditional media model of owned or shared IP. YouTube also avoided paying fees for content as well as offering backend residual or profit participation. Rather, YouTube entered into ‘partnership agreements’ with their content creators based on a split of advertising revenue from first dollar. In the eight years since the partner plan launched, YouTube has secured over 1 million YouTube partners worldwide.

YouTube talks of being primarily a facilitator of creator and content in the many international markets in which it operates. The key difference between traditional media operating multi-nationally and YouTube is that the former produces, owns or licences content for distribution, exhibition or sale in multiple territories, while the latter seeks to avoid the conflation of YouTubers as the IP creators with YouTube as “platform” and “middleman” operating to facilitate linking of brands and advertisers with YouTube creators and MCNs.

There are significant reasons for YouTube not taking an IP ownership position, which have to do with its continued status as a platform or online service provider rather than a content company. The US Digital Millennium Copyright Act 1998, in addition to criminalising circumvention measures and heightening the penalties for copyright infringement on the Internet, created ‘safe harbour’ provisions for online service providers (OSPs, including ISPs) against copyright infringement liability, provided they responsively block access to alleged infringing material on receipt of infringement claims from a rights holder.

Sceptics would argue that while anyone can post content on YouTube and the other video sharing sites, only a small handful gain the top level of visibility. So, what kind of filtering mechanisms are at play here? Does this suggest the persistence of old-school commercial criteria in shaping who reaches the top? Can we make a case that the production and circulation of niche content plays a different or more significant role here than in other media systems? Should our focus be on the true mass successes, applying Broadcast standards, or should we consider the amplified voice available to creators who reach smaller audiences that are still significantly greater than they would have been able to reach in the past?

 

While most critical scholars will assert the top-down, determining hand of corporate capitalism, we think the situation is a little more nuanced than that. Digital platforms provide the fundamental communicative affordance and certainly (attempt to) profit from the communicative activity that takes place on the platform, but they do not determine what content works, what ‘trends’, what ‘goes viral’. The great part of the platforms’ agency in respect of content is responsive/reactive, not determinative. The greatest busyness on the part of the platforms is the massive undercurrent of work responding to takedown notices, maintaining the precarious viability of what is managed as civic/civil discourse. It is estimated that Google deals with more than 60 million takedown requests a month! Meanwhile, of course, the AdSense algorithm takes care of the basic revenue streams that continue to pour into Google’s coffers. As Temple University communication professor Hector Postigo says, YouTube is in the happy position of betting on all the numbers at the roulette table.

Stuart, you’ve spent much of your career focused on questions of media policy, and I know some critics have argued that the media policy tradition has lost its way, shifting from a focus on public service media, towards one more centered around issues of entrepreneurship. What would you say to such critics in terms of the agenda and policy implications of this current research?

Contemporary policy questions, including media policy, can be very much preoccupied with issues of entrepreneurship. Perhaps not so strongly in the US, but in many countries media policy concerns itself with the sustainability of start-up careers and small and medium businesses as well as curbing or harnessing the power of the big conglomerates. If there isn’t vibrant local content production capability to command space in the media diet, what’s the point of curbing or harnessing Big Media power?

Traditions of independent public service media, which of course are much more central in the media ecologies of Western Europe, Canada, Japan and Australia than in the US, are engaged these days in the facilitation of regional and local capability. In Australia, for example, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) engages with media entrepreneurs, including YouTube content creators, by providing off Broadway opportunities through iView, its hugely successful catch-up service.

David, you’ve come to this project with a background working in the American entertainment industry. How have your own experiences as a media-maker impacted your agenda and perspective on this project?

This project has exposed, affirmed, and challenged my deep-seated subjectivities. As a former producer and programming executive, I am hyper-attenuated to certain topics and perspectives. Not surprisingly, I can’t seem to stop discussing the agency and precarity of creative management and labor.

Plus as an LGBT producer, activist, and scholar, I may be more attentive to their presence although this functions counter-intuitively. I can sometimes be even more cynical about the progressive value of these LGBT creators, their commercial and representational practices, and potential media effects.

In addition, I am fluent in “Hollywoodlish”. This argot allows me to better understand and critique some of these industrial practices as well as filter out some of the Caldwellian industry “spin”. That said, when it comes to “techlish”, I am often lost in translation.

Alternatively, I fall into old patterns of privileging business logics over critical, cultural, and media effects. Fortunately, I have Stuart there as a mitigating influence, forcing me exert some distance from the economics of this industry to more critically account for how power is operating both positively and negatively in this space.

None of us can project the future, but does your research provide any insights on where all of this might be going? What are the long-term implications of the trends you are identifying and documenting here?

The new digital platforms are competing as much against each other as they are posing challenges to established screen media industries. There are clear dividing lines between platforms (Netflix, Amazon) committed to professional content and competing directly against cable and broadcast and those which, though iterating content strategies and monetising through advertising, remain firmly on the social media side of social media entertainment (Facebook, Vine, Snapchat, Instagram). YouTube sits somewhere in the middle. More intense competition with diverging business models amongst these platforms may see a destructive fragmentation of the new screen ecology.

There is an emerging sense that we might be coming to the end of the first phase of the development of social media entertainment. In the eighteen months since Disney acquired Maker, the acquisition of or investment in these SME intermediaries has declined. There is emerging evidence that the rate of venture capital investment is slowing, indicating that the entrepreneurial ‘buzz’ around the multichannel networks has dissipated. The platforms’ revenue model has been based around programmatic advertising and this has significant limits, although we have seen evidence of platforms moving to capture a higher order value by building brand relationships, squeezing the MCNs in the process. Subscription is being trialled (Red) and this has seen YouTube flex its muscles in a way that should really worry anyone who sees cultural potential in social media entertainment.

There are historical precedents and some impetus for the assimilation over time of this new screen ecology into mainstream protocol and practice, but there is more evidence to suggest it may grow in parallel with, and as a continuing challenge to, the more traditional, established modes of professional screen industrial practice. Rather, with proliferation of new screen platforms capable of luring away traditional media advertising, there is less incentive for the new screen players to transition to the mainstream. Having carved out their own media brands, through unique audience-centric practices and content innovation, the social media creator might survive as a wizard of a parallel screen ecology. Then we’d no longer be in Hollywood, Dorothy.

Stuart Cunningham is Distinguished Professor of Media and Communications, Queensland University of Technology. His most recent books are Digital Disruption: Cinema Moves Online (edited with Dina Iordanova, 2012), Key Concepts in Creative Industries (with John Hartley, Jason Potts, Terry Flew, John Banks and Michael Keane, 2013), Hidden Innovation: Policy, Industry and the Creative Sector (2014), Screen Distribution and the New King Kongs of the Online World (with Jon Silver, 2013), The Media and Communications in Australia(edited with Sue Turnbull) and Media Economics (with Terry Flew and Adam Swift, 2015).
 
 
David Craig, Ph.D. is a Clinical Assistant Professor at USC Annenberg’s School for Communication and Journalism, where he teaches multiple courses regarding media and entertainment industries, management, culture, and practice.  He is also veteran film, television, web, publishing, and stage producer and former television programming executive at A&E and Lifetime.  He has produced more than thirty projects that have garnered over 70 Emmy, Peabody, Golden Globe, GLAAD, and other awards and nominations including two personal Emmy nominations.  In addition, he is an LGBT media producer, activist, and scholar and has his doctorate from UCLA and masters from NYU.

Multichannel Networks and the New Media Ecology: An Interview with Stuart Cunningham and David Craig (Part Two)

Many of these new players have historically existed in a “pre-revenue” space — that is, they have gained higher evaluations than their return on investment might suggest. But, this is starting to change. How will profitability impact the kinds of social and cultural functions these players perform in this new media ecology?

The profitability of platforms is very uneven. It’s much too early to say which of the current slew of social media platforms will survive and thrive, and under what conditions. Twitter for example is very problematic as an economic proposition. It has huge social media affordance, but if it was to falter – as a lot of business media is reporting over 2015-6 – whole swathes of industrious academics in our field would be looking for new angles! Facebook is humongous and threatens to create a proprietary wall around the web for developing countries particularly in Africa, dressed up of course as civic noblesse oblige. YouTube is in a different position. Hammocked by Google’s VERY deep pockets, it was purchased for $1.65 billion back in 2006 and some now estimate it to be worth $70 billion but it has only started to break even very recently. It has been given all the time in the (online) world to get its (business) act together.

But for cultural studies scholars, the point is not really about profitability –it’s about commerciality as such. Most scholars, so far, have treated the kinds of social and cultural functions YouTube performs in the new media ecology as having been compromised by its rapid commercialisation. Jose Van Dijck, for example, says a ‘far cry from its original design, YouTube is no longer an alternative to television, but a full-fledged player in the media entertainment industry’.

Our point is to absolutely acknowledge the deep social and cultural role and impact of YouTube. Vanderbilt University law professor Stephen Hetcher says of its ability to avoid Napsterization: ‘the world has never before seen the likes of YouTube in terms of availability of non-infringing content’. This has allowed it to roll out a virtually global space for vernacular video content whose success culturally as well is commercially has seen most of the contending digital platforms needing to develop video players.

Our second point would be that there is still massive non-commercial civic space available on YouTube. But its commercialisation strategies of professionalizing amateurs have now reached a level that demands critical analytical attention without such strategies being normatively framed against the brief period of pure YouTube amateurism.

 

We’ve seen many generations of struggles for independent artists to gain greater access to the viewing public. How might these new media producers fit within that history? But, the genres or kinds of entertainment they produce are radically different — more commercial in a sense — than what constituted independent media-making in the past. So, how do you respond to critics who would argue that these independent producers are selling out and going mainstream?

Rather than artists or producers, most of our interview subjects referred to themselves as “content creators”, although some used the term “community builders”. In stark contrast to media artists in the past, these platforms offered these creators unlimited access. No gatekeepers or scarcity. The only limitations were, as mentioned before, the iterative tech and social platform that are harnessed and converted into commercial affordances by these creators.

However, before they were creators, and like most artists and producers, they were fans, users, and viewers. And, in addition to watching content, they were also engaging with creators and their fans who shared their interests. Over time, these users became creators, operating as hobbyists initially until they discovered how to monetize their content and their community. In an effort to distinguish these phenomena from traditional entertainment, we have coined the term “communitainment”. This term accounts for their use of social media platforms, uniquely content innovation, as well as the “communion” between creators and their fan communities.

Within communitainment, creators have engage in unique and iterative content innovation that is sometimes starkly different from the high production value and sophisticated narratives of traditional media. Hank Green, one of the most prominent creator-entrepreneurs in this ecology, described how “YouTube has helped people create at least three massive genres of cheap-to-produce, high-quality content that viewers really, really love. Video game “Let’s Plays”, style tutorials, and direct-to-camera monologues (which we in the biz call “Vlogs”).”   Our own genre analysis offers slight variation and, as with most genre formulations, is libel for taxonomic tyranny and rightfully subject to heightened scrutiny and debate.

Game play has emerged as one of the most popular forms of content on YouTube. PewDiePie has converted his comedic game play commentary into over 43 million subscribers and 11.5 billion video views. Although he appears often singularly on screen, PewDiePie employs over thirty people plus a raft of managers, publicists, and advertising experts who run his global media brand across multiple platforms. Although our analysis would suggest much higher sums, PDP has also been rumoured to have earned over $14 million in revenue from his game play in 2015.

Despite some backlash from his fans, for which PDP has even issued forth a kind of video apologia, his media empire continues to grow. This has been a pattern we’ve found with other creators and communities who understand that this space requires funding. That said, creators have developed a fascinating self-regulatory system for maintaining authenticity with their fans while also generating revenue. Creators are very cautious to avoid brand deals with products and services that are misaligned with their own content and representation. As one manager mentioned, “a 19-year-old would be happy to take a one million dollar check from an advertiser unless it’s the last check she ever gets.”

By the way, PDP is just the tip of the game play universe. In 2011, Twitch combined game play on YouTube with the affordances of live broadcasting and was acquired by Amazon for $1 billion. The platform has 100 million monthly users and 12,000 partners generating revenue off of their game play. China features an even more competitive game play industry, including multiple platforms like Panda TV and DuoyuTV that routinely pilfer each others best players.

As Green affirms, style tutorials feature prominently on YouTube and Michele Phan operates as perhaps the best example of how to combine content innovation with strategic commercial entrepreneurism and grow a media brand. Her aspirational makeup tutorials have secured over 8 million subscribers and over 1 billion views. Phan is not converting her fans into subscribers for her mail order makeup business, Ipsy. Phan is also converting her best fans and subscribers into lifestyle vloggers who appear on her YouTube network called Icon. As a result of this virtually seamless ecology both on and offline, the 26-year-old Phan is now valued at over $500 million.

We prefer the term DIY to refer to not only style tutorials but multiple “how-to” subgenres, including the mysterious world of unboxing. Unboxing features built in narrativity as creators open a box in order to assemble and operate its content. Most notably, we have encountered numerous channels dedicated to children’s toys that have garnered startling view counts. One video featuring the Play Doh Ice Cream Cupcakes Playset has been seen over 740 million times.   This content can not help but generate critical anxieties, if not instigate a kind of moral panic, over what these hyper-commercialized appeals may be doing to young viewers.

Vlogging operates as both format and genre, operating more like commodified speech than entertainment IP. As a format, vlogging is a production format featuring direct address as seen in documentaries and reality programs, and now featured regularly in scripted television, like Modern Family and The Office. As a genre, vlogging can feature multiple topics. Hank and John Green are the “vlogbrothers” and have cultivated a community called “nerdfighters”. Their content, which we have identified as a subgenre of “popular information”, feature educational topics as diverse as the U.S. healthcare system to Syrian refugees to why people love giraffes.

In contrast, vloggers like Tyler Oakley feature less overtly educational fare, often based on their own larger-than-life style. Oakley’s most viewed videos cover topics include how to get the best booty, tips for the first kiss, or 100 things he did last year. In his recent feature documentary, Snervous, Oakley acknowledges he doesn’t “make skits or films”. Rather he is “just a personality” – albeit a personality that attracts over 8 million subscribers on YouTube alone, numerous television appearances, bestselling books, and sold out global fan events.

These new media producers are, as a whole, more diverse, culturally, ethnically, racially, and otherwise, than the mainstream media industry. What factors has contributed to the success of minority producers working in this space?

Let’s compare the Academy Awards to the Streamy (online video) awards. 2015’s nominees including an astonishing diversity of race, gender, and national identities, including Palestinian-Americans (Fousey), Germans (Flula), Canadian-Indians (IISuperwomanII), African-Americans (King Bach), and more. While #Oscarssowhite, the Streamyssodiverse. Minority producers have not only harnessed these platforms because of their affordances of unparalleled access coupled with content abundance. They may even be privileged in this space because of their ability to appeal to minorities that have been underrepresented in traditional film and television. This includes Asian-Americans and LGBT content creators who over-index in this space.

Asian-Americans feature prominently in the first wave of commercial content creators on YouTube, e.g., comedians (Fung Brothers and Ryan Higa), musicians (Sam Tsui and David Choi), beauty vloggers like Michele Phan, and traditional scripted creators (Freddie Wong and Wong Fu Productions). Curiously, we discovered that most of the creators ventured online, not due to the lack of opportunities in Hollywood, but because their parents prohibited them from pursuing media and entertainment careers. This phenomenon was as much the consequence of subcultural inhibitions as any perceived or latent racism within the entertainment industry.

Similarly, LGBT content creators are prolific, leading Vanity Fair to claim that, “everyone will come out on YouTube eventually.” Some creators like Tyler Oakley and Davey Wavey arrived online and out. Others like Hannah Hart came out shortly after starting their channel. For transgender people the coming out process can be quite different. Over the past eight years, Gigi Gorgeous allowed her fans to witness her transformation from cisgendered male to transfemale, which well pre-dates the trans moment in traditional media with Caitlyn Jenner and Transparent.

Other creators have come out of the closet mid-career, including top content creators like Ingrid Nilsen, Joey Graceffa, Troye Sivan, and Connor Franta. On the one hand, their declarations affirm the discourses of authenticity that distinguish their content. As a result, their courage is rewarded with millions of views although we found numerous instances where they turned off advertising on their coming out videos, even those reaching over 20 million views. Alternatively, these creators placed their self-owned-and-operated business in peril. When Ingrid Nilsen came out, she jeopardized her multi-year relationship with Covergirl as a “glambassador”. As she declared in our interview, she did not want to represent a brand that wouldn’t accept who she is.

What are the civic or political implications of these new channels and systems of circulation? Are we seeing signs that these new creators are speaking for and to their communities in new ways? Are now issues and new models of mobilization emerging here?

A number of prominent media and communication scholars like Mary Gray and Katherine Sender have described the proliferation of online networked LGBT communities. They have accounted for the unique forms of Guffman-esque impression management conducted by gay youth online. Some have even levelled critiques about the homonormativity within this space.

Our research continues this scholarship to account as well for their commodification of identity, perhaps best exemplified by Joey Graceffa. After six years of hiding his sexuality, Graceffa came out in unique fashion, by writing, producing, and starring in his own musical fantasy video where he saves and kisses his Prince Charming (his boyfriend, Daniel, in real life). After the music video ends, Graceffa delivers his pitch to camera, expressing his firm desire that his fans appreciate his work and that his coming out might just make a difference in someone else’s life. And, by the way, the video is “just a glimpse of what you will discover” if you buy his memoir to be published the next day. In the meantime, purchase the song to download on iTunes.

The coming out of entrepreneurial LGBT content creators may represent the new “gay for pay”. And yet, does this commercialization mitigate their cultural value or meaning for their tens of millions of fans, old and new, gay or straight?  In nearly every instance, our research has discovered that LGBT creators who come out of the closet have subsequently engaged in various forms of LGBT activism and media interventionism, whether raising money for LGBT causes, or speaking out on behalf of pro-LGBT policies or advocating for pro-LGBT products and services.

For decades, theorists have described the “symbolic violence” (Bourdieu) and “annihilation” (Gerbner and Gross) committed by the dearth of diverse media representation. In this industry, we may be witnessing the inverse, a symbolic proliferation of authenticated, marginalized identities and performance, albeit for commercial gain. While reinforcing anxieties about media capital and effects, these phenomena also offer the potential for progressive cultural change, not to mention the prospect of dozens of student theses and dissertations.

Stuart Cunningham is Distinguished Professor of Media and Communications, Queensland University of Technology. His most recent books are Digital Disruption: Cinema Moves Online (edited with Dina Iordanova, 2012), Key Concepts in Creative Industries (with John Hartley, Jason Potts, Terry Flew, John Banks and Michael Keane, 2013), Hidden Innovation: Policy, Industry and the Creative Sector (2014), Screen Distribution and the New King Kongs of the Online World (with Jon Silver, 2013), The Media and Communications in Australia(edited with Sue Turnbull) and Media Economics (with Terry Flew and Adam Swift, 2015).
 
 
David Craig, Ph.D. is a Clinical Assistant Professor at USC Annenberg’s School for Communication and Journalism, where he teaches multiple courses regarding media and entertainment industries, management, culture, and practice.  He is also veteran film, television, web, publishing, and stage producer and former television programming executive at A&E and Lifetime.  He has produced more than thirty projects that have garnered over 70 Emmy, Peabody, Golden Globe, GLAAD, and other awards and nominations including two personal Emmy nominations.  In addition, he is an LGBT media producer, activist, and scholar and has his doctorate from UCLA and masters from NYU.


 

Multichannel Networks and the New Screen Ecology: An Interview with Stuart Cunningham and David Craig (Part One)

Stuart Cunningham is an Aussie; David Craig hails from the American south. Stuart has been a leading figure in the realm of cultural studies, pushing all of us towards a greater engagement with media policy issues. Craig has been an activist and an industry insider, someone who, as he notes, speaks “Hollywoodish.”

Together, they have set out on the ultimate “odd couple” academic buddy adventure — trying to map an emerging media ecology which is being shaped by new producers and entrepreneurs trying to circulate their content through multichannel networks. They have begun an ambitious project interviewing producers, platform managers, and fans, from around the world, as we understand how the word of DIY video opened up by YouTube more than a decade ago has evolved into a space for professional and semi-professional media production and distribution.

There’s much we do not yet understand about this screen ecology which is evolving hour by hour, but the first step in making sense of the changes which are occurring is to develop a systematic model of the genres being deployed, who is creating this media, what their motives are, what the economic arrangements look like, and what the impact of these evolving cultural practices have been.

There’s been a lot of talk through the years about the value of bringing together political economy work on the creative industries with more cultural studies work on the cultural and political implications of new producers and audiences. Cunningham and Craig are doing that work as we speak.

Often here, I share insights once books have been published, but they wanted to share some of their preliminary findings here in hopes of sparking conversations with others researching and thinking about this space. They are just starting to publish articles based on their initial field work, and you can find an early example here. Over the next three installments, the two authors share with us some key insights and address some fundamental questions about what’s happening with these new formats, new producers, and new audiences.

You’ve described this project as an attempt to map an emerging “screen ecology.” What do you mean by a “screen ecology,” and what are the methods you are using to identify its parameters?

The idea of an ecological approach really refers to the interdependencies amongst the elements in the ‘gene pool’ of the new screen ecology. It means we have been able to develop an account of why, for example, the multichannel networks are as precarious as the creator careers that they are trying to facilitate. This means that we have been able to complement what is the important focus by scholars such as Vicki Mayer on precarious labour below the line, and demonstrate that management in such a volatile environment can be as precarious.

These intermediaries are being squeezed from above and from below. ‘Above’ – more powerful than – them in the ecology is Google/YouTube, which, having invited in, nurtured and licensed MCNs, is now encroaching on their basic business model by developing its own branded content R&D through direct engagement with top brands in its in-house agency The Zoo. ‘Below’ them, successful, MCN-mentored, YouTubers are poached by mainstream talent agencies, move to the numerous other platforms on offer, and/or negotiate much better terms of trade for themselves. To remain viable, MCNs need to innovate even more rapidly than YouTube and the other digital platforms, and certainly faster than established media.

Another example of the ecological approach has allowed us to refine our account of the political economy of the capitalist hegemons at the top of the food chain. Rather than seeing the IT industry/Silicon Valley/NoCal taking on mass media entertainment/SoCal in a battle that only one can win, it is more ecological to look at their evolving interdependency and the way each is forcing change in the other, with potential benefits for the ordinary citizen-consumer.

Ultimately, our notion of ‘ecology’ derives from evolutionary principles that seek to explain the interdependent dynamics of the economic and social worlds we live in. Evolutionary economics –Stuart has written about the implications of this heterodox tradition for media studies in the recent book with Terry Flew and Adam Swift, Media Economics ‑ has taught us that these systems are never in balance or in equilibrium, as the dominant economic neo-classical models seek to model. There is always turbulence, always change, and new green shoots are always emerging from the creative destruction of the old.

 

Your focus in this project are the emerging digital distributors of video content, such as YouTube and Netflix. In what ways do these companies differ from the “media incumbents” they are challenging? What changes do these companies represent for the way media is produced, distributed, and consumed? 

Everyone has heard the old truism ‘content is king’ – this is what comforts Hollywood executives in their darker moments. But the political economy truism is that, if content is king, then distribution is King Kong. Distribution has always been where the money is made in the screen industries. And the two big gorillas in our current distribution mist are Netflix and YouTube. Together, they constitute more than 50% of prime time US online viewing.

Netflix and YouTube are alike in a number of ways. Both are world-spanning platforms. YouTube’s platform is uploaded to and streamed around the world, with the particular exclusion of China – which is platform autarkic, North Korea and at any one time a number of countries in the Middle East and northern Africa. Netflix has expanded to 130 countries after coming to dominate the North American mainstream streaming space.

But there are big differences. Netflix is largely a mainstream video store, just online. Is populated by professionally-generated content (PGC). Yes, it has state-of-the-art recommendation algorithms driving consumer navigation and a great deal of resultant consumer satisfaction. But it is old wine in new bottles. And in most regions outside North America, its back catalogue is dusty and drab. Nevertheless, it has huge brand recognition and attracts a lot of entertainment media attention.

Not so mainstream, and less noticed by main media and people of a certain demographic, YouTube’s social media entertainment, we would argue, is a much more radical, longer term challenge to main media than Netflix. Every YouTube creator, whether they’re earning big bucks or not, started as an amateur, a hobbyist, operate, create content, and represent alternative and participatory value to their audiences. And now these are multiplatform creators, using numerous social media platforms to incubate and monetize their unique form of content as well as engage with, aggregate, and harness global fan communities.

These platforms raise questions about the relationship between commercial and amateur production. Many of the top stars on YouTube, say, have positioned themselves as much closer to the audience than to the commercial entertainment sector. Is this simply a posture or is there something different about these new producers from the kinds of media producers that have shaped previous generation’s entertainment? And in particular, is there something significantly different about the ways they connect with their viewers?

Within this ecology, platforms feature constantly differentiating and iterating content, curation and comment features that inform circulation. However, rather than platform determinism, users have the agency to harness these features and create their own technological and social affordances. Baym (2015) describes this as the social shaping of technology. As informed by our research, these creators have also converted these features into commercial affordances, although not without precarity and frustration.

As Halverson (2013) noted, “curation is the new creation” as platforms have sought out new forms of artificial scarcity to compensate for almost unlimited content abundance. Content players like YouTube and Netflix offer user interfaces (UIs) and content management systems (CMs) that feature a mix of programming categories informed by recommendation algorithms. These programming categories resemble what one might see in a video store, e.g., documentaries, drama, and comedies, TV shows, and talk shows. Beneath these taxonomies, however, are complex, non-transparent, and iterating algorithms based on user interaction, including views, subscription, likes, and shares. In contrast, social network platforms like Facebook avoid categorization and simply feature feeds, yet again, constantly iterating and generating indiscernible algorithms designed to avoid hacking by advertisers and creators. While these curatorial features may promote content the users want to see, their primary function is to better target, aggregate, and engage users for the benefit of platforms and advertisers.

For creators, these iterative shifts in platform features can prove disruptive. An overnight shift in algorithms can result in the loss of audience and missing revenue. Most recently, Instagram announced it will switch from a chronological to algorithmic feed. This has led creators to besiege their followers, pleading with them to turn on “push notifications” to notify fans when content has been posted, effectively working around the algorithm. Other creators are petitioning Instagram to stay chronological, while others are threatening to leave altogether.

Notwithstanding all this platform precarity, creators have proven strategic in understanding and converting these features into commercial affordances as well as adapting to these changes. Based on our research, creators have found ways mitigate this platform precarity through a sophisticated, if laborious, practice of circulating customized content across multiple channels and/or platforms. Some creators feature multiple YouTube channels while others have launched channels on an ever-increasing array of proliferating platforms, e.g., Vine, Instagram, Periscope, Snapchat, and Victorious.

Social media play a crucial role in making the content produced and distributed by these platforms accessible to their desired markets. To quote someone or other, “If it doesn’t spread, it’s dead.” So, what can you tell us about the ways content is curated and circulated through these social media channels?

Content circulation represents more than sharing and reposting. Rather, the content must be customized to the nature of the content players, whether short-form looping video on Vine or a live broadcast channel on Periscope or a filtered photograph on Instagram. Only a few platforms offer partnerships; however, creators may be posting content to engage in influencer marketing, which has been richly funded by brand deals and guaranteed across multiple platforms.

But not all content makes money. Some content is designed to add value. Creators use multiple platforms not simply to spread content but to engage in community building. Our interviews affirm that this practice is high-touch with limited scalability. Creators spend upwards of 50% of their time on multiple platforms for the sole purpose of engaging with fans and building their community. Like their fans, they comment, like, share, retweet, and subscribe.

In addition, most creators manage this work themselves, in part to maintain discourses of authenticity with their community that few can emulate. However, in our interview, we learned that the SMOSH duo initially refused to work on Facebook, forcing their managers at Defy Media to pose as one of the creators and respond to the Smosh fans.

Comedians Rhett and Link hired their own social media manager, because “there is no way we can personally manage it”, although they pointed out that “Jenn” is well known to their fans.

 

Stuart Cunningham is Distinguished Professor of Media and Communications, Queensland University of Technology. His most recent books are Digital Disruption: Cinema Moves Online (edited with Dina Iordanova, 2012), Key Concepts in Creative Industries (with John Hartley, Jason Potts, Terry Flew, John Banks and Michael Keane, 2013), Hidden Innovation: Policy, Industry and the Creative Sector (2014), Screen Distribution and the New King Kongs of the Online World (with Jon Silver, 2013), The Media and Communications in Australia(edited with Sue Turnbull) and Media Economics (with Terry Flew and Adam Swift, 2015).
 
David Craig, Ph.D. is a Clinical Assistant Professor at USC Annenberg’s School for Communication and Journalism, where he teaches multiple courses regarding media and entertainment industries, management, culture, and practice.  He is also veteran film, television, web, publishing, and stage producer and former television programming executive at A&E and Lifetime.  He has produced more than thirty projects that have garnered over 70 Emmy, Peabody, Golden Globe, GLAAD, and other awards and nominations including two personal Emmy nominations.  In addition, he is an LGBT media producer, activist, and scholar and has his doctorate from UCLA and masters from NYU.

The Ancient Art of Falling Down: Vaudeville Cinema Between Hollywood and China

Last fall, I ran a three part interview here with Christopher Rea, an associate professor of Asian studies and director of the Centre for Chinese Research at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver. (See Part One, Part Two, Part Three). Rea is the author of a recent book, The Age of Irreverence: A New History of Laughter in China (California, 2015), which explores the emergence of new forms of popular humor in China in the early 20th century.

Rea had contacted me because he had drawn some inspiration for this project from one of my early books, What Made Pistachio Nuts?: Early Sound Comedy and the Vaudeville Aesthetic. I had traced the emergence of new styles of comic performance from the variety stage to Hollywood over the first three decades of the 20th century. This was work I had done almost 30 years ago, so while I was intrigued to learn more about what scholars were saying on this topic today, it was ancient memory for me.

When Rea was invited to come to USC, he asked me to come out and play. Together, we put together a cross-cultural conversation about slapstick comedy, which was hosted by the fine folks at the USC Department of East Asian Languages and Cultures. Rea shared with me some of the clips he wanted to discuss from Chinese slapstick cinema, and I pulled together some clips for American silent and early sound comedy that explored some of the same themes and motifs. We pooled slides into one massive power point presentation, but otherwise, what emerged was unscripted and unrehearsed.

We met for the first time in person just moments before we went onto stage together. But what emerged was pretty amazing, if I do say so myself. There are clearly unexplored connections between comedy in China and the United States during this period. Seeing clips side by side evokes all kinds of memories and associations, and a great discussion emerged around those connections. The result has left me wanting to dig back into my roots in comedy studies and explore this territory once again.

We are sharing the video of that session here for your amusement (some pretty funny material) and your reflection (We would love to hear from others who have researched slapstick comedy in either country and might have insights to share about the topics we discussed.)

By Any Media Necessary (Part Six): To Trump Trump’s Wall (and Hate)

This is the sixth and final entry in a series of posts showcasing the archive and resources we have assembled around our book project, By Any Media Necessary: The New Youth Activism, which is being released by the New York University Press. This book was funded by the MacArthur Foundation’s Youth and Participatory Politics Network and written by Henry Jenkins, Sangita Shresthova, Liana Gamber-Thompson, Neta Kligler-Vilenchik, and Arely Zimmerman.

To Trump Trump’s Wall (and Hate)

by Emilia Yang

Donald Trump, real estate magnate and reality television star (against all odds and many people’s disbelief) is still running and leading in the primary elections of the Republican Party. During his campaign Trump has made various statements regarding illegal immigration using derogatory and generalizing terms to refer to the Latino population and even proposing to ban people from “Muslim countries” from entering the country. At the same time, various white supremacists and neo-Nazis organizations have shown support for Trump. Sadly, Trump’s hateful rhetoric not only has had a political effect on his fellow candidates’ positions about immigration, but it has also materialized through violence toward various racial groups, growing exponentially since I first started researching this topic in September 2015 [1].


His proposal for “stopping” illegal immigration is to build a giant wall that would be called “The Great Wall Of Trump”[2]. It is evident that Trump and his supporters do not understand nor care about the humanitarian catastrophe that this would represent. Immigration and security experts warn that historically, US government border enforcement strategies have resulted in a massive increase in border crosser deaths [3]. As Gloria Anzaldúa writes in Borderlands, “The U.S.-Mexican border es una herida abierta [is an open wound] where the Third World grates against the First and bleeds” (1987).

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Source: Ian Cleary, “The great wall of Trump”, August 26th, 2015

In a parallel context, students at USC and many other Universities across the Nation are struggling to call attention and overcome structural racism. Even though Trump’s hate speech does not directly link to the discrimination lived by the students on campus, it is disproportionately present in the media discourse that we are exposed to. The recognition of these issues provides a context for discussions about the realities of ethnic minorities such as the Latino community.

In response, I created a media art project borrowing ideas from participatory co-creative media, agonistic design and installation and participatory art, which I called To Trump Trump’s Wall. The main objective of the project was to test different participatory frameworks (a workshop and an art installation) where a political issue is discussed, imagined, and represented in situ. A secondary objective was to find the difference in results between these two frameworks, and the third objective was to inspire fellow students, activists and academics to work with media making methodologies as communication alternatives that challenge both their perceptions of difference and their political engagement.

The first iteration of this project was in the 2015 West Coast Organizing Conference hosted by the Student Coalition Against Labor Exploitation (SCALE) in what I will call the workshop framework. At this conference, student leaders from across the West Coast reunited to teach, support, learn from and inspire each other in their fights for justice. This inspirational weekend featured panels, caucuses, and workshops including To Trump’s Trump wall workshop, as discussion spaces for transgender, women, queer, people of color, working class, and people with disabilities. The second iteration of this project was presented in in the lobby of the SCI Interactive Media Building in the School of Cinematic Arts at the “Against Method” Exhibition that presented five ongoing PhD. student projects in what I will call the installation framework.

During the organizing conference I was given a time frame of one hour to enable a discussion about undocumented issues with 20 participants. I was inspired by Think Critically – Act Creatively: Harnessing The Power Of Fiction For Social Good workshop [4] created by my colleagues Gabriel Peters-Lazaro and Sangita Shresthova, along with Karl Bauman, Ilse Escobar and Susu Attar in collaboration with community partners, artists, and activists and presented in the website By Any Media Necessary. This website provides resources that enhance and illustrate the forthcoming book By Any Media Necessary: Mapping Youth and Participatory Politics authored by Henry Jenkins and the Media, Activism & Participatory Politics (MAPP) group.

In this world building workshop model, facilitators use prompt cards and ask participants to produce a one-word response to their prompt. Then they ask participants to imagine a future world set in a specific year (i.e. 2044) where fantastical things are possible and to come up with a narrative of what happens in this world, relating it to one of the themes fleshed out in the brainstorm. At the end, participants have to come up with a way to perform the story back to the whole group. Similarly, in Trump Trump’s wall workshop, I asked participants to discuss issues of immigration prompted with cards, reflecting on the immigrant experience, and then craft a message that they would like to inscribe in Trump’s wall if it was built and they had it up front. These are some examples of the cards given to the participants:

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The participants of the workshop engaged in very interesting discussions in groups. Their message was first drafted, both in words and visually on a storyboard, and then created and projected in the form of stop-motions animations. This mechanic enabled participants to learn how to animate figures and understand the logic of stop-motion animations while doing them.

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The installation piece enabled an interactive experience of facing the wall, listening to a soundscape of the US/Mexico border. As in the workshop, participants where asked to create a character with a message that would face the wall with the materials and objects available.

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The results are a large amount of media creations that will have a longer life than both frameworks. The animations created by the participants were politically charged, thoughtful, with calls for action. Participants stated that this was an innovative way of discussing any subject and they were interested in doing similar activities in their organizations and sharing their creations online.

Despite being different frameworks of engagement, both enabled multiple discussions with diverse voices of students and faculty. These conversations generated media creations that address a relevant political theme with a playful approach. Overall, I believe that the collaborative and public creation of media activates new spaces for political debate and possibilities of expression within the participants, tapping into practices associated with participatory culture.

My proposal for critical participatory making is to recognize us in others and harness the power of imagination to think otherwise. I propose participation as the place where real, inclusive and contested communication can take place, without erasing difference. I hope for participants not only to empathize with a real situation like the immigrant experience, but also to imagine an alternative positioning where they feel that they can confront this reality creatively. In this sense, I align with Henry Jenkins’ call to stimulate the civic imagination. For him, change emerges from the possibility of imagining a different world, infusing this imagination with a sense that change is possible, and understanding ourselves as agents capable of helping to drive that change. Thus the duality between “this is our reality” and “how we would like it” are displayed not as two isolated and abstract events, but as a contested open space in the present that we can transform through the encounter between reality and desire.

 

In the case of Trump’s hate, racial discrimination and active calls for the enactment of violence, I believe we are entering into a completely different reality than the one I foresaw when developing the project, and we have to address this with multiple practices of civic imagination. The animal we are facing has mutated drastically. Lives are at risk and we have an ethical and moral responsibility to Trump Trump’s wall and hate by any media necessary.

Citations:

[1] Gabe Ortiz, “TIMELINE: Trump’s Racial Demagoguery Is Having Dangerous, Real-Life Consequences”, America’s Voice, September 16, 2015, http://americasvoice.org/blog/a-timeline-trumps-racial-demagoguery-is-having-dangerous-real-life-consquences/

Dara Lind, “What the hell is going on with violence at Trump rallies, explained”, March 14, 2016.

http://www.vox.com/2016/3/14/11219256/trump-violent

[2] “Trump on border: We’ll call it the great wall of Trump”, August 20, 2015, Real Clear Politics, http://www.realclearpolitics.com/video/2015/08/20/trump_on_border_well_call_it_the_great_wall_of_trump.html

[3] Clare Floran, “Trump’s Immigration Wall May Have Lethal Consequences”, August 25, 205, National Journal, http://www.govexec.com/management/2015/08/trumps-immigration-wall-may-have-lethal-consequences/119371/

[4] Workshops: “Think Critically – Act Creatively: Harnessing The Power Of Fiction For Social Good workshop” http://byanymedia.org/works/mapp/activity-1?path=activities

References

Anzaldúa, G. (1987). Borderlands: la frontera. San Francisco, CA: Aunt Luke Book Company

Emilia Yang is an activist, artist, and militant researcher. Yang is currently a Ph.D. student in Media Arts + Practice in the School of Cinematic Arts at the University of Southern California. Her work has been interconnected with digital communications, performance, and public art. Her research focuses on participatory culture and its relationship to media, arts, and design. She is interested in transmedia storytelling framed through the question of how it can foster social change and civic engagement. Her art practice utilizes site-specific interactive installations, interactive documentaries, performance, and urban interventions, all of which explore social justice issues in participatory ways. Emilia completed an M.A in Communications at Penn State University. Her Master’s project researched the first social media protest to make it to the streets in her home country Nicaragua. She developed a participatory transmedia storytelling hub in a site called ocupainss.org with the objective to present the maximum number of stories and violations of human rights around this protest.