Cyberpunk: Past and Future Event Videos Now Ready

Several weeks ago, The University of Southern California’s Visions and Voices Project and the Annenberg Innovation Lab’s “Geeks Speak” series jointly hosted a day long event focused around the past and future of the Cyberpunk movement. The event was organized by Howard A. Rodman, Scott Fisher, and myself. Today, I am able to share with you some of the video highlights of this event.

The day opened with my remarks concerning the Cyberpunk moment.

Geek Speaks: Cyberpunk – Past and Future – Introduction & Welcome by Henry Jenkins from USC Annenberg Innovation Lab on Vimeo.

My remarks were followed by a panel discussion featuring two key writers from the Mirrorshades group, Bruce Sterling and Rudy Rucker, along with Survival Research Lab’s Mark Pauline and Roger Triling (who edited the Wild Palms Reader), talking about the roots of cyberpunk and its relations to changing ideas about technology in the 1980s.

Geek Speaks: Cyberpunk – Past and Future: The Origins of Cyberpunk Culture from USC Annenberg Innovation Lab on Vimeo.

Rodman moderated a second panel, featuring the next generation of writers and artists, whose work across a range of different media were informed and inspired by the Cyberpunk intervention: John Jennings from the Black Kirby Project, Jordan Mechner from the Prince of Persia games series, Claire L. Evans from YACHT and Motherboard, Alex Rivera, director of Sleep Dealers, and science fiction writer Nalo Hopkinson (Midnight Robber).

Geek Speaks: Cyberpunk – Past and Future: The Legacy of Cyberpunk Culture from USC Annenberg Innovation Lab on Vimeo.

Later in the day, we presented a sequence of clips from key science fiction film and television series from the early 1980s to the present focused around “technologies of cyberpunk” and especially representations of the merger of man and machine. This sequence was curated by my USC colleague Steve Anderson and is reposted here with his permission. Anderson is also curating a series of clips dealing with virtual reality for our Transforming Hollywood conference this friday.

Technologies of Cyberpunk from MA+P @ USC on Vimeo.

Meanwhile, Geoff Long and Jeff Watson ran a world-building/story-design workshop involving a mix of our invited guests and the general public. This next video is the report-backs as the teams pitch their contemporary cyberpunk stories.

Geek Speaks: Cyberpunk – Past and Future: Presentations from Breakout Sessions from USC Annenberg Innovation Lab on Vimeo.

Finally, the event closed with a memorable rant by “the Chairman,” Bruce Sterling, during which he reflected on some of the stylistic and rhetorical choices made by cyberpunk writers and beyond that, considers how he and the other Cyberpunk writers will or will not be remembered in the 22nd Century. Sterling often delivers closing remarks at the South by Southwest conference each year, always an engaging and memorable experience.

Geek Speaks: Cyberpunk – Past and Future: Closing Rant from USC Annenberg Innovation Lab on Vimeo.

Next time, I will share a text-based version of my opening remarks from the conference.

How the Extended Marvel Universe (and Other Superhero Stories) Can Enable Political Debates

Last weekend, Avengers 2: The Age of Ultron had the second highest grossing opening weekend of any film in Hollywood history (surpassed only by the original Avengers movie). At the same time, Daredevil was reportedly the most successful new Netflix television series yet, beating out much more buzz-worthy programs like House of Cards and Orange is the New Black. And these are simply two of the many different manifestations of superhero stories across media platforms. While comics overall do not sell especially well in today’s market, the superhero titles continue to dominate that market, with 98 of the top-selling titles each month belonging to that genre (The Walking Dead and Saga are consistently the only non-superhero titles to break into this top tier).

The genre’s commercial success has contributed to its high visibility within contemporary popular culture. It’s also clear that we tend to use the superhero genre to talk about a broad range of other issues. Witness the ways that Avengers 2 has become the focal point for debates about gender in American media, especially centering around the figure of the Black Widow, who was slut-shamed by several cast members, critiqued and defended by various feminist critics, and used on Saturday Night Live to parody the industry’s tendency to write women’s experiences primarily through the rom-com genre.

And this is simply the most prominent of a range of other conversations surrounding female fans and the superhero genre or involving the superhero genre to discuss a range of other issues.

A few months back, I partnered with Fusion to create a video which discussed the ways that Superman had emerged as an important icon of the struggle for immigration reform in the United States.

And working with my civic paths research team, we produced a blog post to accompany the video which explored how the iconography of the superhero genre was being used by a range of different activist movements as a tool to foster the civic imagination.

Today, I want to highlight yet another effort to encourage civic and political reflections around the superhero genre. In this case, I am focusing on a study and reflection guide recently released by the Fandom Forward Project of the Harry Potter Alliance, to encourage conversations about the representation of gender, disability, and political/civic engagement  within the extended Marvel universe. I asked the team that developed this study guide to share with us some of the background on how and why it was developed. Here’s what they shared:

The Fandom Forward Project of the Harry Potter Alliance Chapters Program was created in answer to the many requests from chapters for resources to help them apply the fan activism model to other fandoms their members were excited about. The team started by selecting source materials they thought would have big moments of fandom energy in the upcoming season – movie releases, series premiers or finales, book releases, etc; for this summer,Avengers: Age of Ultron (a part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe) and Paper Towns (the movie adaptation) seemed like the media best suited for our community. Next, a public call for “Fandom Consultants” – experts in the selected fandoms – helped create teams for each fandom, and these teams selected three issues they felt were best represented by the source material.

The Hero Toolkit represents two months of researching sexism, ableism, and political engagement in both our world and the Marvel Cinematic Universe, drawing connections, and brainstorming action items. The goal was to create a document that could be picked up and successfully used by any Marvel fan, whether they have never participated in activism before or they’re a longstanding HPA chapter.

So, below, I am happy to share with you the guide itself, which I hope will find wide use, both as a tool for personal reflection and as a vehicle for various educational and political uses.  The guide was developed by a diverse team of participants identified in its credits, but it was primarily spearheaded by Janae Phillips, the HPA’s Chapters Director, and Auden Granger, a volunteer.

Just found an interesting video made by Rowan Ellis discussing the study kit and exploring some of the questions there around gender.

Advertising Philosopher: An Interview with Faris Yakob (Part Three)

You write a lot about “content” in the book, but I’ve lately been pondering the meaning of the term, content, which according to my dictionary refers to “that which is contained.” Yet, your argument, as well as my own work, suggests that the stuff of media is no longer contained in any meaningful sense of the word. Has the concept of content then outlived its usefulness? Is it forcing us to still hold to old paradigms about how value is created through media?

As an aspirant philosopher, like any undergrad in philosophy 101, we have to spend so much time defining our terms, don’t we? This is only appropriate, because language stresses, fractures, warps and reforms in response to changes in the world around it.

Content is the new solution célèbre in advertising, and most of the time we can’t agree as to what it means. Personally, I feel brand content, as we are using the term, is something created by / for a brand that people choose to consume – as opposed to advertising which we essentially pay people to consume, indirectly.

Is content the content of media? The words are breaking down, or free, from the derivations because digital. Previously media goods were assemblages. A book is a typology of content and expectations and format that delivers it [and an industry that gets one to the other]. So is television. Television is the device, the industry that delivers the content, the content typologies, the cultural associations around it. Then digital unbundled them. So you get linguistic confusion, where you can watch a “television” show online, or what to call shows made by Netflix, which has nothing to do with television, although you can certainly watch it on the screen formerly known as that.

The unbundling also impacts the value creation, or at least monetization. When you control the reception, you can make money through advertising more easily than when you don’t. So new models are growing up around us for content creation and monetization. Content doesn’t seem contained, but even platform agnostic digital content is mediated and consumed through some kind of screen or experience.

Ultimately, brands making things people like is probably a good idea, but fraught with the challenges always faced by media producers. As the screenwriter William Goldman says, no one knows anything about what will work in media. Most films and books and magazines fail to make money. But some become hits.

Let me ask you the provocative question you use to frame one of your chapters — Is all advertising spam? And if so, what should brands be doing differently as a result of this insight?
Essentially, yes. Spam is unsolicited commercial messaging primarily used in reference to emails but by digital extension, advertising can easily fit into the descriptor. So, there are a couple of ways to think about this.

One, we can make it solicited. If, when watching a “television” [see previous answer for the problems with that] program, and we get a choice, to pay to watch ads, then it’s spam no longer because we solicited it. This is really just about reminding consumers that there is value being delivered to them. It’s harder to argue with billboards, unless they contribute to municipal services and improvements. The great adman Howard Gossage went as far as to argue that it was hard to justify their existence at all, which is something the city of Sao Paulo seems to agree with, since they banned all billboards. I think billboards can be some of the most creative spaces, using context, adding value to commutes and so on, but it’s a right to invade the public that we must continually earn.

More broadly, ad blocking options, and the advertising industry’s tendency to double up on exposure and frequency whenever possible have created a situation where people want to skip through or avoid advertising if it’s easy and they remember to do it. The value exchange of content /media /advertising has broken down for many users. So, ultimately, if advertising is to exist in a perfectly controlled digital world, where I have software protecting me, filtering my content choices, making recommendations, and so on, then we need to consider how advertising pays the attention debt it owes to people by adding value.

No doubt we’ll see your house robot come subsidized if you accept add offers being displayed on its screens, as the Amazon Kindle does now.

You argue forcefully across the book that advertising can be a force for good. What do you mean by that? Why do you think advertising is viewed so negatively now and what would need to change for advertising to become a force for good?

Who wants to be a force for evil? I grew up listening to Bill Hicks, who had some quite polarized views of marketing and advertising people. I think he spoke at one of extreme, but advertising is often conflated with “capitalism” perhaps because it’s the most obvious face of it. It grew from propaganda, with all the attendant associations. The attention arms race and increased consumer consumption of media makes advertising seem utterly, annoyingly, ubiquitous.

But advertising is just a tool, the lubricant of the modern day hyper-capitalist machine. The banking sector might be considered a rapacious set of money wrenches to said machine but let’s not get into comparison “at least we aren’t as bad as” arguments. Rather let’s think on what advertising is: a tool, a lever, an attempt to manage mass behavior through perception and creativity. As David Ogilvy once said: Advertising is only evil when it advertises evil things.

I think people feel somewhat bombarded by modern brands and modern branding. In the book I speak about the attention debt that brands create by invaded people’s consciousness unbidden, To rebalance the debt, to create value in consumption, is part of what will help.

I also think advertising – as the more emotionally comfortable of the professional and business advisory services, have a role in helping companies act less like psychopaths. Since the Friedman revolution in corporate strategy – where shareholder value is the only god – companies abandoned their social roles and responsibiliies. A function of this is that they seem manipulative, glib, unwilling to take on social responsibility, unwilling to accept fault, and only willing to engage with people to get what they want. These are hallmarks of psychopathic behavior. And it creeps people out once they realize they are being manipulated. So advertising agencies have a role to help make corporate “people” better rounded citizens – better citizen brands are starting to make waves and money.

You draw a distinction in the book between copying and stealing. You write, “Stealing multiplies meaning, copying does not.” Can you explain the distinction? How might we apply this to the unauthorized production of content around brands by consumers or for that matter, ad-busters?

This is the heart of Genius Steals, the term I took from the quotation supposedly attributed to Picasso: talent imitates, genius steals, that also became the name of our company.

Copying attempts to disguise its derivation, or at least it does now.

Previously all art work was copied, endlessly, iterated, by apprentices learning crafts. Then the Romantics decided creation was a magical act, akin to giving birth, or creating the universe, making man at once woman and god. I find this idea of originality nonsensical.

So when someone sets out to copy an idea it’s plagiarizing, taking something you found and passing it off as your own.

Stealing is copying where you acknowledge and revel in the debt to others. All art is a comment on that which came before. Quotations and remixes don’t hide their sources. Indeed, Modernist poetry and hip hop or pop music built from samples instead challenge the consumer to look back to the sources if they don’t know them.

So stealing multiplies meaning in various ways. It connects things together, like wormholes in culture, pulling separates spaces together. It reaches out to other pieces of culture and deploys them. It builds on things, and invites you to build on them further.

We are working with a start-up called Seenapse that’s turning these ideas about ideas into an inspiration engine. A “Seenapse” is a non-obvious connection created by a human – you can search through these or create your own as you look to extend out into other areas for inspiration.

Warhol, perhaps, mostly famously appropriated everyday symbols of commerce – brands – to create art. There is a great letter from the Campbell’s Soup Co to the artist from 1964 saying they admired his work and would love to send him some soup. That’s the approach I favor. If someone is passing off your trademark to make money by pretending to be you, then fine, cease and desist them. If they are exploring ideas using some of yours, good luck to them, they are multiplying the meanings of your brand in culture.

Faris Yakob is co-founder of Genius Steals, an itinerant strategy and innovation consultancy he started with his wife, Rosie. He is the author of Paid Attention, which come out in April 2015, and a contributing author of Digital State [2013] and What is a Brand? [2015], all published by Kogan Page. He was named one of ten modern day Mad Men by Fast Company but hopes he is less morally bankrupt than the television show characters. Despite living on the road, you can reliably find him on Twitter (@Faris) and on his blog: For more information on Genius Steals head to

Advertising Philosopher: An Interview with Faris Yakob (Part Two)

Later, you make the bold assertion that “all marketing research is wrong.” What do you see as the limits of marketing research and what do you envision as alternative ways of understanding consumer behavior?

Lots of tools or processes in any industry arise based on specific times and ideas and needs —and then get slowly codified into best practices that everyone uses, to the point that no one interrogates them enough. The idea behind market research is important, but often the tools and methodologies used are problematic. For example, any self reported data derived from asking people questions gets filtered through our explanatory fictions, our sense that we are and must rational agents.

But this isn’t the case – and we have tons of scientific studies that back up this thinking: that we tell ourselves stories, even when they aren’t true. Indeed, the research methodologies themselves are subject to this meta-cognitive error – we think we think rationally, so it makes rational sense to ask people why they do what they do and what they will do in the future. But asking people what they will do in future is like asking someone if they are going to go to the gym – their stated responses may not correspond well with their future actions.

I experienced this personally many times. Research comes back with insights into human behavior that feel like common sense. And yet people act in ways that don’t.

This disconnect kept bugging me. I worked on various government social behavior change campaigns and they are notoriously ineffective. Explain to people in a rational way that certain behaviors are obviously bad for them and they will agree and do them anyway. People don’t act rationally or in their own best interests, long term, most of the time.

The emergence of behavioral economics as a new lens helped frame this discussion. Dan Kaheman’s book Thinking Fast & Slow aggressively challenges ideas of rational persuasion as a key driver of behavior change. Yet that model is implicit on most advertising, built on a promise, a “proposition”, and a compellingly articulated set of benefits and differences.

Not to say this this new model has everything right or is the only way to think, but it should certainly be considered and give us pause.

Market researchers have of course always known all of this and skilled researchers use all kinds of methods to work around these issues. From abstraction and projection all the way to looking at actual behavior in the world with actual losses. There are pioneers like BrainJuicer working on new ways of understanding research in group dynamics with decision markets and so on. Large retailers often will trail products or innovations in actual markets, which is far more predictive.

BUT. We still see research being done, often very fast, to support existing ideas, or kill them, which is inherently predictive, despite the success rate of market research AS PREDICTION being laughable low.

You have a very interesting section in the book about the emergence of street artist Banksy. What can advertisers learn from the Banksy phenomenon?

Banksy is an attention hacker like no one else in this generation, a modern day Warhol. All of his work is designed to invite debate, to get into the news, to hack culture. Every stunt, every collection, is differently delivered, wrapped in mystery, laughing at and with society, advertising and the art world.

His concerns almost always reflect concerns of the time, he has clear values and well established viewpoints, he appropriates culture as much as creating it, leveraging old schemas to explain new ideas.

He utilizes technology but never fetishes it.

He manages the almost impossible balancing act of being one of the world’s most commercially successful artists but without any hint of corporate acquiescence or sense that money is a motivator. He easily traverses media, from art, to film, through PR, events, carefully curated digital spaces, protecting his brand by being utterly distinguishable in whatever he does.

It’s hard to imagine a better role model for a marketer, but that of course doesn’t mean it’s easy to steal his genius.

I was surprised that you had relatively little to say about transmedia branding in this book, given how central the concept has been to our conversations through the years. To what degree do you think this concept is still relevant to the ways brands are operating in an era of social media?

This was a conscious choice on my part, for a couple of reasons. Firstly, my IPA thesis focused on transmedia branding was being published in a new book called What is a 21st Century Brand, the same day that Paid Attention was coming out. Secondly, I had become too associated in the industry with your idea. So for practical purposes I chose to not focus on transmedia ideas in this book.

Transmedia thinking has flared up a few times in advertising since we started discussing it on 2007. It sometimes gets sidelined into a simplicity versus complexity discussion. Advertising agencies found that they are built on reduction, or distillation, on shorter utterances. Their creative muscle memory is not in long form cross-platform ideas. So the great case studies of transmedia branding tended to pull from existing worlds, especially games or films. Transmedia branding got conflated with ARG type executions.

That said, I think this is conflation. Transmedia principles, whilst derived from narrative, don’t require it slavishly. At the same time, advertising people increasingly use “storytelling” as a descriptor of what they do, but clearly this is a different sense of the word than traditional narrative. Advertising is a different domain with different requirements. So, the idea that all channels are different, that they function differently and are consumed different, that they interact with each, that people are participatory, all remain vital for today’s brand practitioners.

You sum up a section on engagement with this statement: “Some brands will benefit from developing engaging communication, some from adhering to a low involvement strategy.” What do you see as the benefits of each and how might brands determine in which category they fall?

This is the big question, or at least one of them. It constitutes one of the core strategic communication questions. And, of course, communications can be engaging without precipitating specific engagements from its audience or community. The most appropriate way is to triangulate between user behaviors of the most valuanble audience, the nature of the product and brand, the practicalities of deploying complex ongoing engeagement campaigns versus more traditonal ad campaigns.

To begin with, it got simply bifurcated along “consumer interest” and frequency lines. That is to say, more expensive products have longer buy cycles, people tend to do more research, so ARGs, for example, for cars tend to make more sense, financially and otherwise, that the same level of depth for bubble gum.

But. All companies, I believe, need to prioritize being responsive to their customers wherever the want to communicate, especially in social media. [Apple famously doesn’t use social media for customer support. They do however have stores, free Genius Bars, and Tim Cook has taken on the Jobsian habit of occasionally responding to unsolicited customer emails.]

I believe in the mere exposure effect, I believe low attention processing can be demonstrated to exist and have impact. HOWEVER, the environment is SO cluttered now it’s both difficult and expensive. Billboards are a powerful medium, but when the whole world resembles Times Square, we should perhaps look for other strategies.

Faris Yakob is co-founder of Genius Steals, an itinerant strategy and innovation consultancy he started with his wife, Rosie. He is the author of Paid Attention, which come out in April 2015, and a contributing author of Digital State [2013] and What is a Brand? [2015], all published by Kogan Page. He was named one of ten modern day Mad Men by Fast Company but hopes he is less morally bankrupt than the television show characters. Despite living on the road, you can reliably find him on Twitter (@Faris) and on his blog: For more information on Genius Steals head to

Advertising Philosopher: An Interview with Faris Yakob (Part One)

When I first published my book, Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide, in 2006,  two of the first people to respond publicly to the book — Faris Yakob (then with the London-based Naked Communications group) and Grant McCracken (ethnographer, media consultant, cultural analyst) — came from the world of branding and advertising. I wrote about their perspectives on transmedia branding here at the time (see also Part Two) and I’ve continued to maintain an ongoing correspondence with both of them through the years. They have both had a huge impact on how I think about the world of contemporary advertising practice.

For those of you who know advertising in terms of Mad Men (or before that, Hidden Persuaders), you may be surprised to discover that the advertising industry has produced its own theorists or as Yakob prefers, philosophers, who are helping to think through the ways branding operates in a changing media landscape.  My experience with these thinly ad-men shaped my controversial choice to publish Spreadable Media, which is probably being taught today more often in branding and business courses than in media and communication classes. And I now find myself teaching occasional courses through the Strategic Communication Program at Annenberg and drawing insights from Yakob, McCracken, Robert Kozinets, Budd Caddell, Sam Ford, and many others.

These advertising and public relations gurus are asking hard questions about the future of media, about the value of historic branding practices, about the emancipation of the spectator and the emergence of participatory culture, and much more. And they are writing about such questions for a general readership and thus may have a greater impact on how the public understands these media changes than anything academics are producing.nGranted, they often start from a different vantage point, embedded as it were in the corporate world, but they have also often been ready to question their own values and interrogate their goals in a way that has been fascinating to watch.

When I learned that Yakob has a new book coming out this spring —Paid Attention: Innovative Advertising for a Digital World, I asked if he’d be willing to share some of his thoughts via an interview for my blog.  Some of what he shares here may rattle some of your preconceptions; some of it will give you insights into the philosophy behind contemporary branding practices; all of it is thoughtful and engaging. So, this…

You note early in the book that you have been characterized as an “advertising philosopher.” What does that phrase mean to you? What do you see as the value of theory — or philosophy — in the advertising world? 

Advertising is an amateur “profession” – there are no required qualifications to enter the industry, you learn on the job. One of the ramifications of that is that you see a remarkable amount of money spent on what are essentially hunches and bodies of folklore. This is also one of the reasons there are so many vigorous debates in advertising – some of which revolve around seemingly fundamental concepts. So, I’ve always looked to build on a body of theory, academic or otherwise, to provide a foundation for praxis. The role of the “planner” in advertising traditionally includes the responsibility to “make the work, work”. Without understanding how things work, how can we possibly aim to do them well, or make them better?

So an advertising philosopher – self aggrandizing appropriation of an intended insult though it is – looks to build a body of knowledge about how things have worked that we can learn from, together.

On the job training can be excellent for learning how to make advertising, but isn’t very good for learning why, or indeed when, to.

Perhaps we can open this up broader — many of my readers would be interested to know what you see as the potential value of humanistic education for those entering your industry? Grant McCracken has gone so far as to argue that companies should hire a Chief Cultural Officer who helps them to understand how their brands and products relate to the process of cultural change. How would you respond to that idea?

In the UK, advertising was one of the natural homes of those with humanities degrees, alongside journalism, publishing and so on. Advertising obviously deals in relevant concepts, from basic literacy, through semiotics, cultural studies, art, art history, sociology. I like Grant’s book, and a ‘companion’ text by Holt and Cameron called Cultural Strategy. Cultural understanding is a key part of what makes work relevant for a certain time and place. So I see great value in it.

In fact, this is one of the big differences in academia in the UK and USA. Educations in the UK, at least in my experience and I think until today, are aggressively NOT vocational. There is a classist taint to this – the old, red brick [IVY] universities wouldn’t dream of offering vocational courses. This means that big companies have structured robust training programs because an Oxford or Cambridge graduate will definitely not have had any business instruction.

In the USA, there is more of a focus on vocationally learning, even more so now due to the cost of university which makes it sadly a business decisions about lifetime earning impact. And there are post graduate advertising schools, which don’t really exist in the UK as such, to prepare graduates for the jobs.

No doubt some combination of both academic and business acumen is helpful, so I’m a big fan of humanities degrees, perhaps more so because it’s a time to think, not just to sharpen a resume.

Let’s start with some basic vocabulary here. You offer your own definition of brands in the book: “A brand is a collective perception in the minds of consumers.” Can you break that down for us a bit more? What relationship are you positing here between brands and meaning-making? What stress are you placing here on the role of the consumer in creating or identifying the meaning of a brand? Why is this meaning described here as collective rather than personal or idiosyncratic?

The language we use defines, delineates, codifies captures. The brand idea is a newish one, and you see it sort of evolve along literary criticism lines, from utterance through symbolism to reader response. The big shift in mindset from the 1990s onwards was the acceptance of the role of the audience, the customer, the user, in creating meaning [something that art and literature worlds had considered for a long time.]

So the idea of a brand as distinguishing mark evolved to the engram model – the idea that a brand was a network of associations in the mind of a customer or prospect that gave a product or business some kind of “position” – cognitively, and in the marketplace. This is the idea at the heart of brands – based on the key insight that led to evolution of the strategy discipline: humans naturally anthropomorphize everything, including products they buy. The role of advertising then was understood to be building specific personality associations in and around products and experiences in a more structured way.

My small build was part of an argument designed to connect this conception of brand that marketing people were using to the financial equivalent that CEOs and CFOs look to – that of goodwill that generates financial returns, price premiums and so on.

A brand cannot be exclusively inside a consumer’s mind – it is inherently socially constructed, otherwise it doesn’t have meanings that can be leveraged commercially. A personal meaning only works in relation to cultural meaning, or set of meanings, so meaning itself is also somehow emergent.

Faris Yakob is co-founder of Genius Steals, an itinerant strategy and innovation consultancy he started with his wife, Rosie. He is the author of Paid Attention, which come out in April 2015, and a contributing author of Digital State [2013] and What is a Brand? [2015], all published by Kogan Page. He was named one of ten modern day Mad Men by Fast Company but hopes he is less morally bankrupt than the television show characters. Despite living on the road, you can reliably find him on Twitter (@Faris) and on his blog: For more information on Genius Steals head to

Minecraft and the Future of Transmedia Learning

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


Minecraft and the Future of Transmedia Learning

by Barry Joseph




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

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

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

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

What then will I say?

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

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

entertainment media experience.”

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

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

Open-ended games like Minecraft.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is the future of transmedia learning.


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

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

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

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

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

Banner image credit: Barry Joseph

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


East Los High Pays Tribute to Convergence Culture

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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


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



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

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



Jessica McLean and Sophia Maalsen


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

The Origins of Destroy the Joint

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

 media-20141019 folder

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

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

First Destroy the Joint Actions

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

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

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

Digital Activism in DTJ: Connections to Global Campaigns 

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

Revitalizing Feminism?

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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


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

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

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

Annenberg Agenda_4.indd

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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


Alhambra Police Weibo page

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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