In Search of Indian Comics (Part Two): The Politics of Indian Comics

Today, I continue to narrate some of my adventures in search of a better understanding of comics and graphic novels in Contemporary India. Last time, we considered the ways that contemporary artists are building upon India’s folk art and mythological traditions. I ended with some reference to the importance of Amar Chitra Katha, a publisher that for some decades produced comics teaching Indian boys and girls about their legends and history. These comics helped to establish the public’s expectations about what a graphic novel from India might be like. I also discussed Bhimayana: Expereicnes of Untouchability, which depicts incidents in the life of Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, a civil rights leader who spoke on behalf of the Dalit people: this book taps the folk art traditions of the Gond people, as well as seeking to tell aspects of Ambedkar’s life that are traditionally left out of the history books about the founding of the Indian nation, where Ambedkar is mostly known as the author of the country’s constitution.

Aparajita Ninan, part of the group of graphic artists who joined me in Dehli’s Crafts Museum, worked on Bhimayana. She’s best known for her work on A Gardner in the Wasteland: Jotiba Phule’s Fight for Liberty, written by Srividya Natarajan (one of Bhimayana‘s two co-authors) and also published by Navayana Press. Phule was another important critic of the caste system in India who wrote a key book — Slavery (Gulamgiri) in 1873 — who challenged Brahmanism and critiques the enslavement of the “lower” castes, a work inspired by and dedicated to the Abolitionist movement in the United States. Many of Phule’s ideas remain controversial to the present day, including his sharp critiques of the ways that the Hindu tradition was structured to insure that the Brahmin caste continued to dominate over everyone else. Ninan’s art  is rendered in an inky black and white style that has the brute force of agit-prop. She draws imagery and symbols from around the world in part to link Phule’s arguments back to their historical roots, including his intense engagement with American abolitionism  and the French revolution. Here, for example, is a two page spread which links Phule to a range of other freedom fighters and Civil Rights leaders from around the world and across history, all of whom marched, the books argues, behind the cause of Liberty, Fraternity and Equality.


Another spread compares the brutal techniques deployed to keep the castes in place with the role that lynching in the deep American south.


And this page sums up the contrasting perspective that Phule brought to Hinduism.



Keep in mind that the current government actively promotes Hindu nationalism and conservative ideology and takes a dim view of those who critique or challenge those traditions.



Vishwajyoti Ghosh, another member of our little gathering, is the author and illustrator for Delhi Calm, a graphic novel about a group of rock musicians touring the countryside, and what happens when Indira Gandhi declares a national State of Emergency and imposes martial law on India.  Or perhaps not. The book works hard to establish a state of plausible deniability: “Nothing like this ever happened. If it did, it doesn’t matter any more, for it was of no interest or relevance even while it was happening. Any resemblance to persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental. This is a work of fiction. Self-Censored.”    The female dictator is described throughout only as Little Moon; her supporters are often depicted wearing happy masks, implying that a forced smile is really the only safe way to respond to the political turmoil that surrounds them.



Signs of propaganda, police violence, and political imprisonment run across the book, often in the background of panels. Paranoia infuses every social interaction in a world where the rights of citizens have been suspended and no one knows what is going to happen next. As an American reader, trying to process it with the help of Wikipedia entries,  I did not get all of the layers of allegory and allusion  here, but the work was nevertheless compelling.



Ghosh also curated an important anthology of “graphic narratives”, This Side That Side?: Restorying Partition, convening a diverse range of South Asian artists, writers, illustrators, filmmakers, and other storytellers, to reflect on the political forces that separated off India and Pakistan. Ghosh writes in the book’s introduction:

“Restorying Partition can never be easy. If one wants to avoid the usual revival of Mass Memory, one has to look beyond those maps lodged in our nervous systems that make nervous headlines on our televisions. To listen to the subsequent generations and the grandchildren and how they have negotiated maps that never got drawn. This Side, That Side is a tiny drop in the river of stories that must be told before the markers run dry.”


The range of perspectives and techniques included makes its own political statement. Nina Sabnani, an animator, tells the story (“Know Directions Home?”) of her family’s displacement using stitch work, a technique she also deploys with great effect in her animated film, Tanko Bole Chhe (The Stitches Speak).

Malini Gupta and Dyuti Mittal contributed “The Taboo,” adopting  a visual style that engulfs the page in intertwined art rather than break it down into panels.

This side that side. Restorying Partition, An anthopology of graphic narratives. Curated by Vishwajyoti Ghosh. Photo: Darshan Chakma

This side that side. Restorying Partition, An anthopology of graphic narratives. Curated by Vishwajyoti Ghosh. Photo: Darshan Chakma

“I Too Have Seen Lahore!”, a collaboration between Salman Rashid (in Lahore) and Mohit Suneja (in Delhi), conveys some of the horrors and brutality of this historical upheaval.



The following comes from my travel diary:

After our lunch with the comics artist at the Crafts Museum, my host Parmesh Shahani takes us to Hauz Khas Village (which locals tend to call HKV or simply the Village). It is hard to describe the vibe of this place. On the outskirts there are dozens of little food stalls and carts, each selling street food, and a constant zip of the motorcycles and autorickshaws, which we have seen everywhere on this trip. As we pass through the gates, and past a local deer park, we enter an environment which represents a series of temporal and cultural layers. The original layer are ruins, going back to the 11th century (or there-abouts) of what was once a great Islamic university and a cluster of palaces. Much remains left behind – buildings with huge domes, crumbling columns, decaying steps, which stretch out for as far as the eye can see. Amidst them, people are sitting and having the street food, playing games with balls and rackets, posing for selfies, and otherwise getting on with the business of life.


On top of this was built an urban village – traditional houses and shops which could have been built at any point in the 20th century. We later learn that this area was a kind of criminal underworld in the early 20th century – a tribe of bandits were located here and the city constructed walls to keep them away from the rest of the population, assuming anyone who ventured into this space knew what they were getting themselves into. This is what gives the area its thuggish charm. And now, the area is undergoing a process we might describe as gentrification: it got discovered by hipster youth and has been transformed into their playground. So, they have built, without building permits in most cases (Parmesh says), cute little clothing stores, poster shops, record stores, bakeries, coffee shops, and night clubs, on top of the structure of the older village, often in a very ramshackled or haphazard fashion.


It’s dusk and music is already blarring out of speakers all around us. We pass young people with eccentric hairstyles and cool clothes, doing some early evening shopping, and looking forward to an evening of clubbing. We see more white youth than we’ve seen elsewhere – and almost all of them are wearing traditional Indian clothing – while the Indian youth are almost all wearing western garb. (I wonder if either notices that their cultural fantasies are not exactly aligned here.)

The whole effect is something from a cyberpunk novel – Neo-Delhi rather than Neo-Tokyo, with a healthy amount of the kipple and chaos of something like Blade Runner. Parmesh shares with us a few of his favorite shops including a really cool poster shop which has all kinds of brightly colored vintage paper products: I want, but there’s not enough time to look and process. As we are leaving, though, the manager gives us a business card and says you can order online and he will ship to the U.S. Big smiles.




And here, as elsewhere across India, there is spectacular street art, itself suggesting the graphic storytelling potential of this amazing country.


Next Time: Where, oh where, can you find comics in India?

The Conversation Never Ends: Participatory Culture in a Networked Era

Over the next few installments, I am going to celebrate the publication of a new book — Participatory Culture in a Networked Era — which I developed over the past few years in conversation with danah boyd and Mimi Ito, both names that should be familiar to regular readers of this blog. For those of you who don’t know, Mimi Ito is Professor in Residence and MacArthur Foundation chair in Digital Media and Learning, University of California, Irvine and danah boyd is a Principal Researcher at Microsoft Research, the Founder of Data & Society, and a Visiting Professor at New York University. All three of us have been part of the MacArthur Foundation’s Digital Media and Learning initiative over the past decade.

The key word here is conversation. Literally, we started our book with the three of us sitting down in Mimi’s living room and having a several days long conversation about the intersections between our work, reflecting on the past several decades of digital and social change, considering what we know now that we couldn’t have known a decade ago and how this might force us to rethink some earlier claims about participatory culture, connected learning, Web 2.0, the new activism, fandom, and a wealth of other topics we hold near and dear. As we did so, we solicited questions through various social media, and we made sure to address as many of them as we could. And then, we worked through the transcripts, again and again, clarifying our concepts, refining our arguments, shuffling the pieces to insure greater clarity and accessibility. And the result is a book, which is being released this month by Polity Press.

danah and Mimi were ideal thinking and writing partners for this ride. It wasn’t easy since we are probably three of the busiest people we know and so coordinating time to make this work was challenging, and there were many points along the way when we almost pulled the plug. I am so glad we didn’t because I am very proud of what we produced in the end.

Here’s what danah had to say about the process of writing the book on her blog:

I couldn’t think of anything more awesome than spending time with two of my mentors and teasing out the various strands of our interconnected research. I knew that there were places where we were aligned and places where we disagreed or, at least, where our emphases provided different perspectives. We’d all been running so fast in our own lives that we hadn’t had time to get to that level of nuance and this crazy project would be the perfect opportunity to do precisely that…Truth be told, I never wanted it to end. Throughout our conversations, I kept flashing back to my years at MIT when Henry opened my eyes to fan culture and a way of understanding media that seeped deep inside my soul. I kept remembering my trips to LA where I’d crash in Mimi’s guest room, talking research late into the night and being woken in the early hours by a bouncy child who never understood why I didn’t want to wake up at 6AM. But above everything else, the sheer delight of brainjamming with two people whose ideas and souls I knew so well was ecstasy.

I didn’t want it to end, either, danah. There were times when our exchanges felt like a tag team with each of us adding to what the person before had said as we made common cause against shared frustrations in the discourse about, say, “digital natives.” There were times when our interactions were like Truth and Dare as we ended up pushing each other to spill the beans and address core criticisms of our work. And there are a few places where some fundamental disagreements surfaced — such as an exchange about Mimi’s term, Connected Learning, and my term, Participatory Learning — which people might not have recognized from the outside. I think this book poses more questions than we can address, but it is intended as a conversation starter, so literally, the conversation doesn’t have to end but may spark many subsequent exchanges with many more people. So, as they used to say on Saturday Night Live, “talk amongst yourselves.”

So far, the book has been enthusiastically received by Howard Rhinegold, who had most flattering things to say about the project:

My single strongest recommendation to you: if you want the best and latest evidence-based, authoritative, nuanced, critical knowledge about how digital media and networks are transforming not just learning but commercial media, citizen participation in democracy, and the everyday practices of young people, my advice is to obtain a copy of the new book, “Participatory Culture in A Networked Era,” by Henry Jenkins, Mizuko Ito, and danah boyd. This book is the opposite of so much sound-bite generalization about “digital natives” and “Twitter revolutions.” Jenkins, Ito, and boyd seek to unpack the nuances behind the generalizations of digital media enthusiasts and critics alike, rather than to reduce them to easily digested phrases. And, they articulate their knowledge clearly. They not only know this subject matter as well as anyone on the planet, they know how to talk about it.

Here are a few more reactions to the book (these blurbs solicited by Polity, our publisher):

“Jenkins, Ito and boyd offer us all a wonderful gift in the form of this book — it’s as though one gets a chance to listen in on a great dinner party conversation between three brilliant scholars, reflecting on more than twenty years of trenchant scholarship on culture, play, identity, and the emergence of the digital world.”
John Palfrey, Phillips Academy

“These authors practise what they preach! To unlock the promise of participatory culture, Jenkins, Ito and boyd invite us to join their intellectual conversation as they puzzle over the dilemmas, insights and challenges of living in a networked era. This is an exciting way to engage with a fast-developing field of research, knowledge and experience.”
Sonia Livingstone, London School of Economics

“The idea of scholarship as dialogue is one that lies buried deep within the humanities. In the pages of this engaging and accessible book, Jenkins, Ito and boyd have brought the ethos of dialogue very much to the surface. Their conversation is an entirely apt technique for reflecting on what is by now a sustained history of collaboration on questions of informal learning, participation and power in the evolving digital media environment.”
Jean Burgess, Queensland University of Technology

In the spirit of keeping the conversation going, danah, Mimi and I had a new exchange via e-mail this past week, tackling a few recent concerns around participatory culture, as a way of sharing a taste of the book.

Henry: Last week, Common Sense Media announced a new report, based on a survey with 2600 tweens and teens, that they say depicts the current state of media usage in the United States. Among their findings are several which are likely troubling to one or another of us:

“Low-income kids lack access. Children growing up in lower-income homes are far less likely to have access to computers, tablets, and smartphones than their wealthier peers, but when they do have access, they are more likely to spend more time on their devices….

Social media use is big, but maybe not very enjoyable. Social media is an integral part of most teens’ lives (45% use “every day”), but only 36% of teens say they enjoy using social media “a lot” compared to 73% who enjoy listening to music “a lot,” and 45% watching TV.

Everyone can be a maker, but not many are. The vast majority of children’s engagement with media consists of consuming media, with only a small portion devoted to creating content.”

So, first, are these findings consistent with other current research you’ve seen? If so, should we be concerned about these findings? How do they fit within our own accounts of the ways media is impacting how youth learn and live today? And if these are indeed problems, what do we see as effective steps forward from these situations?

danah: Let me begin by tackling the middle finding on social media. When I interviewed teens, they repeatedly told me that they’d *much* rather get together face-to-face but then went on to cite all of the reasons that they couldn’t get together in person. It was deeply frustrating to them. They saw socializing through social media as less ideal than hanging out with their peers in person, but didn’t feel as though they had a choice. But that’s the comparison for them – social media vs. face-to-face. Music and TV are a totally different category and should not be compared to social media. Music and TV can be used socially (and you’ll often find teens listening to music or watching YouTube videos when then get together in person). They can also be used passively, to veg out at the end of a long day. As Henry often argues, there are active ways of consuming media, but the reality that I see on the ground is that there are many times when teens simply want to be passive consumers of media that makes them feel good. Then again, same is true for adults.

Mimi: I’ll jump in on the first finding and like danah also try to add some perspective on this that nuances the broad quantitative findings. Our team has also found important gaps in access and participation, but the differences are quite nuanced and aren’t about a straightforward “digital divide.” Access to computers, tablets, smartphones, and Internet connectivity don’t always go hand in hand, though privileged kids might have access to all of the above. One example is that we found that for low income teens in LA, they may have access to an Internet connected computer or laptop through shared device at home or at a library, but they but lack smartphone-based Internet access. What this means that they are not able to use mobile app based social media like Instagram and Snapchat. Many of the teens said they “don’t use social media” because they are not part of today’s dominant social media platforms. They use text messaging, and may dip into Facebook, because it is more accessible through shared devices like computers and laptops, but they are non-participants in the mobile social media space. And because these patterns tend to track along peer groups in schools, when they attended majority low income high schools, even the kids who did have smartphones were not heavy social media users because their peers were not part of the ecosystem.

Henry: I will tackle the final finding here. All of us have been excited at one time or another by the recognition that an expanding number of American youth have access to the means to produce media and we’ve contributed to projects designed to encourage young makers and hackers to find their voice and develop skills at producing new content. But, we need to recognize that participation in the new media environment can take many different forms and that measuring media making by itself creates a very high bar for mapping the public’s changing communication capacities. Making media may be a special event for many youth — part of a school project, for example — but contributing to the media environment in other ways may occur much more commonly. So, for example, we need to recognize that much more casual acts, such as forwarding or retweeting or otherwise spreading a piece of media content or signing an online petition may, in fact, have an impact on larger societal debates; often local acts of contributing to social media don’t count as “making” media, but do impact the local community where a discussion is taking place, representing forms of participation that would have been hard to achieve in another historical era. In many ways, forms of media participation have become so mundane and everyday that they do not “count” and are often taken for granted. Yet, when this broader range of activities are taken into consideration, it is clear that more young people are “participating” in the media environment than ever before and even if we narrow our focus to things like political and civic participation, there are signs of steady increases, and not just restricted to the “usual suspects” of white suburban middle class kids.

danah: One thing that bothers me about how we talk about media is that we tend to lump it all together. We treat TV as equivalent to video games, social media as equivalent to music. All because it involves electronics at some level. At best, we talk about passive versus active engagement but as y’all know, that’s fraught. I’m curious how y’all would break out different types of media so that people don’t always compare apples to oranges.

Henry: I would start by identifying specific functions and the choices people make about what media tools and platforms are the most appropriate ways of achieving them. So, in The Breakup 2.0, Ilana Gershon asks young people how they would “break up” with a romantic partner, and she gets a wealth of different stories that show choices people are making about when and where certain forms of media are appropriate and useful. Chris Evans, as part of the Youth and Participatory Politics Network research, has asked young people what strategies they would follow to address particular community problems. There, she can chart their movement across a range of different tools and platform, though she notes that many young people do not immediately think of digital media in this way, even though they use it often for other everyday functions. So, I would love to see research that asks about a) a broader range of forms and genres of participation and b) the range of tools and platforms used to achieve everyday social functions.

Mimi: I agree that it is very challenging to make general statements across media types and genres of participation in an era when the defining trend is towards niches and personalization of media environments. We talk about the various gaps and diverse genres of participation at some length in our book. I feel like in different ways, we have each taken on the challenge of adding some texture to blanket proclamations about “kids these days.”

Tap, Click, Read: An Interview with Lisa Guernsey and Michael Levine (Part Three)

What do you see as some of the benefits or pitfalls of “interactive hotspots” in today’s e-books? You discuss the difference between forms of interactivity which are there as independent sources of pleasure or as means of allowing the reader to feel some sense of control over the reading process versus those which are “on the plot” and reinforce key learnings.

As I was reading this section, I found myself thinking back to some of the very earliest Sesame Street segments, where they would do a countdown, ending up with a man carrying an armload of pies, who would trip and fall. How might we understand the pleasures and pedagogies of a moment like this in relation to today’s interactive books?

The research on ‘hotspots’ that we get into in Tap, Click, Read–including popular print ‘distractors’ in pop-up books– shows that emerging readers do not in fact benefit in developing key skills such as complex vocabulary development, comprehension and fluency. You can see the tradeoffs that often occur in a print vs. a highly (enhanced) interactive book experience in this experiment the Cooney Center carried out. That said, the interactivity associated with hotspots, as well as the comedy and musical interludes introduced by Sesame Street 2 generations ago are certainly a boon to engagement and extended learning when well deployed by knowledgeable adults. Our work with your group at USC illustrates the key prospects for moving beyond the more traditional framing of the advantages of print vs digital by creating a deeper understanding of the potential power of transmedia.

Throughout the book, there is some question of the concept of “screen time” which runs through much policy discourse on children and media. Yet, as you note, we use screens for so many different kinds of activities; there are so many different ways of engaging with screens; and we use screens in relation to many off-screen practices that lumping everything together into the category of screen time is more apt to be confusing than helpful. Meryl Alper in a recent MIT Press publication also considers what the anxiety about screen time means for families with disabilities where children rely on adaptive and assistive technologies that use screens for even the most basic daily tasks. So, surely there’s a need to shift the focus from how should we limit the amount of time children spend with screens towards what uses of screens are beneficial to children and how do we achieve a better balance in the range of different media practices they deploy. If so, are there some common sense answers to those basic questions we could provide parents?

We agree! It is time to strike the all encompassing term screen time from our vernacular–it just isn’t a helpful construct at all. The field of early learning is beginning to come around with recent guidance for educators and parents being much more nuanced and helpful. The National Association for the Education of Young Children and the Fred Rogers Center crafted a technology position statement in 2013 that stresses the importance of early educators using technology in developmentally appropriate ways.

And two recent statements–one from Zero to Three and the other from the American Academy of Pediatrics give much more direct and helpful guidance to parents, focusing more on the content, context and needs of the developing child. In fact in its recent statement The AAP hit the nail on the head when it wrote: “In a world where “screen time” is becoming simply “time,” our policies must evolve or become obsolete.” We need to address how learning can and should be happening in every place children congregate, regardless of the device.

Many of my readers are librarians, so I would be remiss if I did not ask you what roles librarians and libraries could and should play in the new literacy context you are advocating. Many school districts are cutting back on library staff, arguing that they are less important in an age when young people can find more and more information online. What arguments might librarians make to the contrary as they struggle to save their jobs?

We argue that librarians will become more necessary, not less, in the digital age. But as most know well, their jobs will need to adapt and we hope grow even more important. We came across several successful initiatives in public libraries that involved working with parents and educators inside and outside the physical library. The librarians had transformed themselves from being focused almost entirely on print books to being able to vet and critique digital media too, including e-books, apps, and videos.

In addition—and this is crucial—they were more than just curators. They were what we describe as “media mentors,” providing guidance to parents and teachers through workshops and one-on-one relationships with parents and teachers on how to use digital media in interactive storytimes and other moments of joint engagement with children.
This summer, the Association of Library Services to Children (an arm of the American Library Association) released a white paper on media mentorship that described how librarians for children and youth were uniquely positioned to take on this role. “A commitment to media mentorship in every library,” the paper’s authors wrote, “is a firm commitment to the full spectrum of being a supporter and champion of literacy.”

This kind of mentorship is a must for children from low-income families whose parents may be least likely to have the resources, time, or preparation necessary to learn how to use digital tools well and model that use for their children. The more that librarians can provide support and guidance to parents and teachers around the use of literacy tools and media, the more essential those librarians will be.

Lisa Guernsey is director of the Early Education Initiative and the Learning Technologies Project in the Education Policy Program at New America. She leads teams of writers and analysts to tell stories, examine policies and generate ideas for new approaches to help disadvantaged students succeed. Prior to her work at New America, Lisa worked as a staff writer at The New York Times and The Chronicle of Higher Education. She has also contributed to several national publications, including The Atlantic, The Washington Post, Newsweek, Time, Slate, and USA TODAY, and she is the author of Screen Time: How Electronic Media – From Baby Videos to Educational Software – Affects Your Young Child (Basic Books, 2012). She won a 2012 gold Eddie magazine award for a School Library Journal article on e-books and has served on several national advisory committees on early education, including the Institute of Medicine’s Committee on the Science of Children Birth To Age 8.

Michael H. Levine, PhD, is the founding executive director of the Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop. The Center conducts research, builds multi-sector alliances, and catalyzes industry and policy reforms needed to advance high quality media experiences for vulnerable children. Levine serves on the senior team at Sesame Workshop where he focuses on educational initiatives and philanthropic partnerships for the global nonprofit. Prior to joining the Center, Levine was Vice President for Asia Society, managing interactive media and educational initiatives to promote knowledge and understanding of other world regions and cultures. Michael previously oversaw Carnegie Corporation of New York’s groundbreaking work in early childhood development and educational media, and was a senior advisor to the New York City Schools Chancellor, where he directed dropout prevention and afterschool programs.

Tap, Click, Read: An Interview with Lisa Guernsey and Michael Levine (Part Two)

Frequently, media and reading are pit against each other in what amounts to a zero-sum game. Time spent doing one comes at the expense of the other. Yet, you are suggesting that these do not have to be seen as opposing forces. How might they best work together?

You are right–the debate between technophiles and technophobes is driving us down the wrong road. In our book we talk about the need to find a ‘third way,’ that is using media and technology in the service of early literacy development. We call this concept readia. Let us explain.

In developing the thesis for our book, we had an abiding worry that our thinking about early literacy was locked in a time warp. While the science behind early reading development has never been stronger, our capacity to make progress has been constrained, we fear, by a large elephant in the room—the ubiquitous force represented by multiple forms of media in almost every young child’s life. We wondered: might that force be tapped in a more balanced and purposeful way? But we also knew that without pushing for better quality, and more access to diverse learning environments for low-income families, we might be deepening, not closing existing divides.

Just last week, early literacy activists may have gotten an unexpected ally in crafting a modern response: the American Academy of Pediatrics announced changes to its recommendations on “screen time.” For years the Academy has been telling parents to refrain from or sharply limit use of screen media. The new guidance takes a more realistic approach, acknowledging that even young children are using tablets and other technology every day, and that parents and teachers should use new tools more intentionally and collaboratively.

This is a moment perhaps where the important connections between media and reading can be brought to light among educators,’ parents, and in the public’s imagination. If guidance from professionals is more nuanced and evidence-based, we think it’s possible to escape the polarized debates between technology as harmful (it’s nothing more than distractor or electronic babysitter!) and technology as savior (apps will somehow fix everything). Our book documents research and innovations on the ground that are pointing to a third way. In short, let’s maintain a human-centric approach to early literacy by empowering and mentoring parents and educators to see their role as primary. But let’s also see technology as a powerful complement.

Our key takeaway: today’s toddlers — the class of 2030 — will still need to be able to read in the traditional sense. But they will also need a new blend of skills– to speak, listen, write, be able to discern an author’s motivation, and to look for evidence in books to inform their opinions. The new blend is something we refer to as “readia” — media in service of reading, and reading conducted via media of all kinds.

I have heard many parents and even some educators argue that we should keep digital and other media out of schools, that children get too much exposure to this beyond the school day, and that school time should be a time of quiet contemplation such as that traditionally associated with book culture. How would you respond to that argument?

First of all we do not advocate that very young children are left in front of a screen or that ambient use –”always on” media–is effective to promote the rich literacy skills that a developing child needs to get ready for a life of learning.

But keeping digital media out of school is a mistake. The argument works if you are a tech entrepreneur or highly skilled in scaffolding media and tech usage at home because you have the time to do so as a parent. But for a child who is growing up with limited means and parents who might be working 2 or 3 jobs, we need to create normative use of technology beginning in the preschool years. There is no reason at all that children cannot have both quiet and reflective time and be adept in the use of the modern technologies that can be a great ally in personalizing and globalizing their learning possibilities!

We should not be surprised that the Joan Ganz Cooney Center is deeply invested in understanding how children learn to read in a digital age given how much Sesame Street contributed to fostering a deeper understanding of how children might learn to read during the television era. So, what lessons from Sesame Street carry over into this new context and in what ways might we need to rethink that model for the age of networked, mobile, and interactive media?

The book explores the rich history of educational media, and imagines a new, more highly networked and mobile form of public media as a national asset that could be better positioned to connect home and school The origins of Sesame Street and other public media pioneers are the basis–in many respects– to understanding the impact of new technologies on young children. The book offers an analysis of the role that ‘joint media engagement’ (where adults and children learn from media together), might play if we were to intentionally design in-school and out-of-school literacy programs for such interchange.

Let us illustrate. Many of our peers (and we are of slightly different generations!) would sit together watching Sesame Street or Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood as “co-viewers” when their kids were preschoolers. The music or sketch comedy or wholesome life lessons appealed to parents who saw the benefits of engaging their children to “learn beyond the tube.” Research in the 70’s and 80’s showed that parents would often use the teachable moments and displayable skills they were co-viewing to later ask kids to point out the letters on a Stop sign or say numbers like ‘The Count would.”

Today’s kids and parents are still co-viewing, but our research indicates that there is less ‘intentional viewing’ of educational media: parents and kids are more likely to be watching telenovelas or American Idol together. But the ubiquity and mobility of interactive digital media make it possible to expand the reach of ‘learning together’ moments in a new way. For example, rather than constructing the “family hour of coviewing” that often took place in the 60’s and 70’s, today’s parents who understand the benefits of blending literacy and media experiences will spend ten-fifteen minutes in shorter bursts of activity scaffolding and guiding their kids learning in different settings–in the car or on a bus, at the grocery store, after a park or museum visit, to make a new discovery!

Lisa Guernsey is director of the Early Education Initiative and the Learning Technologies Project in the Education Policy Program at New America. She leads teams of writers and analysts to tell stories, examine policies and generate ideas for new approaches to help disadvantaged students succeed. Prior to her work at New America, Lisa worked as a staff writer at The New York Times and The Chronicle of Higher Education. She has also contributed to several national publications, including The Atlantic, The Washington Post, Newsweek, Time, Slate, and USA TODAY, and she is the author of Screen Time: How Electronic Media – From Baby Videos to Educational Software – Affects Your Young Child (Basic Books, 2012). She won a 2012 gold Eddie magazine award for a School Library Journal article on e-books and has served on several national advisory committees on early education, including the Institute of Medicine’s Committee on the Science of Children Birth To Age 8.

Michael H. Levine, PhD, is the founding executive director of the Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop. The Center conducts research, builds multi-sector alliances, and catalyzes industry and policy reforms needed to advance high quality media experiences for vulnerable children. Levine serves on the senior team at Sesame Workshop where he focuses on educational initiatives and philanthropic partnerships for the global nonprofit. Prior to joining the Center, Levine was Vice President for Asia Society, managing interactive media and educational initiatives to promote knowledge and understanding of other world regions and cultures. Michael previously oversaw Carnegie Corporation of New York’s groundbreaking work in early childhood development and educational media, and was a senior advisor to the New York City Schools Chancellor, where he directed dropout prevention and afterschool programs.


Tap, Click, Read: An Interview with Lisa Guernsey and Michael Levine (Part One)

Too often, computers are pitted against books in the mythology of contemporary education reform. Computers are often understood as fundamentally transforming and disruptive technologies irreversible in their effects — for some, those effects are liberating — the magic box. For others, these devices are threatening — the reason why Johnny (or Mary) can’t read, the reason why we can’t have meaningful conversations with our kids. So, how do we move beyond these polarizing frames?

Tap, Click, Read: Growing Readers in a World of Screens offers us one compelling model for what a middle-ground response to these issues might look like. It’s authors Lisa Guernsey from New America and Michael H. Levine from the Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop, are trusted voices on issues of children and media; they’ve done serious research and they’ve written about it in a public-facing way. They are very good at translating academic findings into something that can be processed by educators and parents who are concerned about the young people in their lives. They avoid alarmist or celebratory framings and get down to what’s working, and what isn’t, about the contemporary media environment. As this interview makes clear, we can no longer make simple decisions about how much screen time is okay for children when so many vital processes of the culture are now taking place within digitized environments. We can not lock down classrooms as computer-free zones in a world where many young people still lack access to both technological infrastructure and mentorship outside of school. We can’t easily separate out what it means to read printed texts from what it means to engage with digital media at a time when more and more of us are reading books on our Kindles and other tablets.

Tap, Click, Read makes valuable contributions to our understanding of what constitutes literacy in the 21st century, contributions directed at parents, teachers, policy makers, technology designers, and fellow researchers. If you fall into any of these categories, you probably need to engage with their arguments.

I am very happy to be able to offer some glimpses into their thinking through this three-part interview. And they were nice enough to provide a range of links to other cutting edge research in this space. So, don’t be afraid to follow one of those links, as long as you come back and finish reading the interview. :-)

If you want to learn more about this project, you should definitely visit their rich web site which also helps connect interesting parties to an array of different resources they can use to apply these insights or take action in support of educational reforms. So, in this case, read, then tap and click.

You begin the book with a very noble statement: “We cannot allow technology to exacerbate social inequality instead of opening more opportunities for everyone to succeed.” So, break this down for us. What do you see as the heart of the problem? Is the concern with access to technology per se or something more than that, whether understood in terms of literacies or mentorship or opportunity? And what might be some positive steps we can take — as parents, as educators, as a society — to address those concerns?

Great question! There has been a good deal of discussion about a “digital divide,” in education and youth development circles. Because the focus is often on hardware and software, we believe that this focus largely misses the mark. While equitable access to technology is still a worry, especially in the lowest income households, access to quality professional development, programs that train “media mentors” or provide opportunities for adults and children to engage jointly in media production is in our view a more important priority.

Recent work by scholars such as Susan Neuman and Vikki Katz on the phenomenon you first coined as a “participation gap,” are showing that children in their pre-school and primary years need engaged adults–parents, relatives and educators to provide normative experiences in the mastery of digital content and tools. In our book, especially in the concluding chapter, we lay out a series of action steps that parents, educators and communities can take to help prevent new divides. Among the most important ones are to invest more in community assets where technology can be more seamlessly connected to children’s natural passions such as libraries and afterschool centers. We also need a massive effort to prepare teachers of young children with the latest techniques to embed in their practice and centrally to invest much more heavily in high quality early learning and parent education programs.

Let’s start with a deceptively simple question: What do you mean by reading? What is it that we want young people to be able to do that they are not able to do under our current configuration of schooling?

Not simple at all!

Reading and more generally, “literacy” as a construct is getting more expansive with every passing year. Someone who is not steeped in early literacy research might think that literacy means reading print. But even the traditional definition of literacy has always meant more than that: It means reading, writing, listening, and speaking.

Children need help in becoming skillful at all four of those skills and they can use media tools of all kinds to do so. And in addition, as children grow up in a world of information overload and constant messaging, they will also need to learn media literacy and critical literacy. Those two concepts are still relatively new in elementary education, but if you think about it, those ideas go hand in hand with teaching a child about what it means to be a writer or media creator and why it is important to look closely and ask questions about what a writer is trying to say.

A number of groups have done important work defining what a new set of 21st Century literacies and skills should look like for children and youth (The National Council of Teachers of English,The National Association of Media Literacy Educators, Asia Society and the Partnership for 21st Century Skills are among the best known groups). A common thread across the groups is that learning and knowledge development is now highly networked, socially constructed, and globally applied.

Educators of young students have always understood the need to consider the ‘whole child’s’ growth and development: a challenge moving forward is to prepare teachers to teach critical thinking and inquiry skills using new and old forms of media. Kindergarten teachers doing real-alouds commonly ask students “What do you think happens next?” But they do not always ask the corollary question that builds students’ media literacy skills: “How do you know? Where in the story do you see signs or evidence of what you suggest?

Often critiques of the impact of media on learning and reading make a series of normative assumptions, frequently grounded in norms of middle class, white, suburban family life. But you cite recent research which factors a more diverse range of families into the equation. What does this research change in our understanding? How might schools shift from seeing bilingual families, for example, in terms of the cultural assets they provide children rather than what are often perceived as “literacy deficits”?

This is a fundamental question that every educator and advocate for a more diverse and sensitive educational system must urgently ask. Both the Cooney Center through its Aprendiendo Juntos Council and New America through its Dual Language Learners Work Group have new research initiatives underway to delve into the deep cultural assets that reside within language learning communities and especially in the diverse families who have recently immigrated to the US.

In Tap, Click, Read we explore the overlooked assets that reside in both the language and culture of low-income Hispanic-Latino families as seen through the lens of contemporary research on the uses of digital media for learning purposes. We include findings from a national survey conducted by the Joan Ganz Cooney Center and Stanford University on how Hispanic-Latino families define educational media use in the home, as well as an analysis of research by our team and scholars at Rutgers University on the role that national policies on low cost broadband access are playing in getting modern technology to low-income homes. Our book includes recommendations based on this research on ways to improve parent engagement programs, school-home links, media design, and new public-private partnerships to more effectively meet the needs of ELL’s.

And one of our key messages is that Spanish-speaking families have real strengths and assets to share with their children: By having conversations with them in Spanish about the world around them, they are building a base of knowledge and literacy that will make it easier for their children to learn English as well. This is the case, of course, not only for Spanish-speaking families but also for any family that speaks a non-English language at home. We should be helping families enable their children to become truly bilingual, not just in speaking but also in reading and writing.

Lisa Guernsey is director of the Early Education Initiative and the Learning Technologies Project in the Education Policy Program at New America. She leads teams of writers and analysts to tell stories, examine policies and generate ideas for new approaches to help disadvantaged students succeed. Prior to her work at New America, Lisa worked as a staff writer at The New York Times and The Chronicle of Higher Education. She has also contributed to several national publications, including The Atlantic, The Washington Post, Newsweek, Time, Slate, and USA TODAY, and she is the author of Screen Time: How Electronic Media – From Baby Videos to Educational Software – Affects Your Young Child (Basic Books, 2012). She won a 2012 gold Eddie magazine award for a School Library Journal article on e-books and has served on several national advisory committees on early education, including the Institute of Medicine’s Committee on the Science of Children Birth To Age 8.

Michael H. Levine, PhD, is the founding executive director of the Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop. The Center conducts research, builds multi-sector alliances, and catalyzes industry and policy reforms needed to advance high quality media experiences for vulnerable children. Levine serves on the senior team at Sesame Workshop where he focuses on educational initiatives and philanthropic partnerships for the global nonprofit. Prior to joining the Center, Levine was Vice President for Asia Society, managing interactive media and educational initiatives to promote knowledge and understanding of other world regions and cultures. Michael previously oversaw Carnegie Corporation of New York’s groundbreaking work in early childhood development and educational media, and was a senior advisor to the New York City Schools Chancellor, where he directed dropout prevention and afterschool programs.


A Visit with Feminist Filmmaker Paromita Vohra

Today, I continue to share excerpts from my diaries during my travels across India. Consider each of these entries an impression – one slice through the complexity of contemporary Indian culture. My focus is often on the new — on popular culture and media change — but it is hard to separate out the new from older cultural traditions. I am no expert on India but I am trying to share here my evolving understanding of what I learned as I was guided through this rich and diverse country by my former student, Parmesh Shahani, director of the Godrej India Culture Lab in Mumbai. Today’s entry describes a visit to the home of an amazing activist and filmmaker whose work deserves to be much better known here, since it speaks to so many issues we discuss with our students. I know that I often struggle to find non-American examples to help students think about how some of these concerns play out in other contexts, and the videos embedded here are potentially great starting points for such discussions. I know I will be sharing some of them with my students once I get back into the classroom next year.

The big event of the day was a visit in the home of Paromita Vohra, who is a major cultural player here – a documentary filmmaker, an actress, a feminist and queer icon, a columnist for a major newspaper, a reality television producer, a comic book writer, and as it turned out, the perfect person to give me a master class on Indian popular culture and politics. We spent the afternoon around her computer, pulling up and discussing clips from her various documentaries, as well as my sharing some videos from the database of activist youth media we’ve been assembling around the By Any Media Necessary book. Paro, as she is called informally, is brilliant, thoughtful, warm and gracious, and down to earth in equal measures. You can get a sense of her from this video interview on gender politics I found online.

She also has a campy sense of humor and has performed a recurring cult role as Aunty 303 for a promotional campaign used by one of the television networks here.

We struck it off from the start and found many common interests.

For example, she was very interested in my early work on vaudeville and film comedy, and shared some reflections on popular theater traditions in India – specifically Parsi theater which she described as offering a series of “numbers” or specialties, a strong sense of improvisation and topicality, and a mixing of broad melodrama and even broader comedy. She traced how this eclectic mix of performance specialities fed into the evolution of the Bollywood (and other popular film genres in India) creating the unique mix of genre elements that we know today. But she also expressed concern that the popular Indian cinema was under much stronger pressure to adopt the linear three act structure used by Hollywood and she saw this change as having very negative effects on the culture here.

She blamed it in part on the Indian film industries response to globalization and the new generation’s sense of shame over some of the kitsch aspects of the Bollywood movie; she sees these films trying to break into film festivals or multiplexes with mixed responses and she sees increased co-productions with Hollywood partners dictating a closer adherence to Hollywood storytelling models. She also though saw these shifts as reflecting the pressure from the Hindu Nationalists currently in power towards what she sees as a monoculture – one true way to be Indian – as opposed to the contradictory, even incoherent, sprawl associated with the popular film traditions here.

Later, she talked a bit about bahurupia, a kind of clown, which traveled around the country, impersonating particular types, and seeing if they can fool the locals into believing that they are who they claim to be. I tried comparing it with Borat, which they felt was an interesting analogy, but they also pointed towards the Yes Men as another western counter-part to this kind of performance. This video is in Hindu, but it provides some pretty compelling images of a range of different local clowns at work.

She talked a bit about how all of these traditions had informed her own style and techniques as a documentary filmmaker: she likes to mix and match genres throughout her work, resulting in a more fragmented, nonlinear, and multivocal style of storytelling. She mixes a range of fictional and even musical segments into her documentaries, often drawing on popular culture genres to help frame things. For example, Unlimited Girls uses a fictional chatroom as a kind of greek chorus to explore a young woman’s struggles as she tries to engage with the contemporary feminist movement, but it also represents patriarchal responses to feminism through mock commercials (including one featuring a Vampire in a Superhero cape, who appears magically when teen girls start thinking about feminism to put them back into their place).

Where’s Sandra? explores a particular cultural type here – middle class, westernized, Christian, suburban girls (“Sandra from Bandra”) by combining interviews with Indian women named Sandra with clips from vintage movies where this type appears and more ironic musical numbers (including a spoof of “Look at Me – I’m Sandra Dee” from Grease).

In our correspondence, Ritesh Mehta, another of my former students from India, mentioned that he felt Persis Khambatta, an actress known to Americans for her performance in Star Trek: The Motion[less] Picture, was something close to a “Sandra” type in Indian films, despite her Parsi background. I was bemused since her introduction to America really played up her exotic, “alien” qualities rather than seeing her as someone who was highly westernized in her mother country.

Another of her films – Cosmopolis — deals with food politics in India, but is framed in terms of the mythological tradition as a battle between two Godesses – one who embodied “plenty” and food, the other “wealth” and “luxury.”

The film’s central topic concerns efforts by vegetarians to ban meat eaters from specific housing complexes or even from whole neighborhoods, much as we have child-free, pet-free, or smoke-free spaces in the United States. They argue that they hate the second hand smell of meat and that meat eaters bring their own shops into communities which are doing things the vegetarians find distasteful. She gave me DVDS of some of her longer films, including Q2P (the title took me a while to work out but when I did, it was brilliant) which deals with gender inequality in terms of access to public toilets in India.

Partners in Crime deals with copyright, piracy, and capitalism in the local film industry.

Morality TV and the Loving Jihad deals with the ways news focuses on moral rather than political issues in depicting cities and the ways street mobs end up acting out against people identified for their moral lapses.

We also spoke about her recent experience producing a nonfiction series (some would say reality series) for Indian television, Connected. Connected was inspired by an Israeli series of the same name and format. Basically, they identified a group of “average” Indian women of different generations and backgrounds and gave them a camera with which to document their lives over a year as they lived out some kind of transition – including getting jobs, moving, falling in love, getting divorced, and so forth. Then her team edited the footage to construct narratives. She described the process of watching all of these incredibly intimate videos each day and often trying to anticipate what would happen next for each of these women. She talked about the very different ways they approached the filming but also the way they became more and more saavy about what her team needed in terms of coverage in order to construct the program. This material has not been translated from Hindi yet so we could only really absorb the visual style and some moments she translated on the fly, but it seemed to be really interesting material I hope to learn more about down the line.

She is currently working on a range of projects, one exploring sex and sexuality in the lives of young women, and another dealing with “excessive” fans of older Indian film songs. As you can imagine, the fan culture theme led to some great comparisons between us, as she talked about these older fans who still perform the vintage songs for each other, collect all kinds of artifacts and older films, and are convinced that no good film numbers have been created since the 1950s. We shared some of our own experiences as being amongst the youngest people to go to Cine-Con each year and what we’ve learned about the older generation of film fans and collectors in the United States.

As the hours ticked by, we were joined for dinner by Anusha Yadav and Parmesh. Anusha has been master-minding what sounds like a great project – the Indian Memory Project – which has crowdsourced old photographs and the stories that go with them from hundreds of Indians, as a way of preserving and examining culture memory. She is also working on a project which will collect “love letters” across generations and across media – from handwritten notes to text messages.

This turned out to be a long, sprawling, evening marked by lively conversation and great food, and gave me yet another glimpse into the social life of artists and intellectuals in Mumbai.  Our session went from 4 in the afternoon until well after 11 pm, and we dropped off quickly once we got back to the room and are waking up slowly this morning.

As an added treat, and as another illustration of a camp aesthetic at work in contemporary Indian popular culture, I wanted to share this spoof of a classic Bollywood number, “Dreamum Wakeupum ” from the recent film, Aiyyaa. The clip was shared with me by the film’s director, Sachin Kundalkar, who I met at several of the Godrej India Culture Lab events. Listen carefully to the words, which are often nonsense — English phrases made to sound Hindi — as a play on the country’s language politics. As for what the dance number does to gender and sexual politics, well… In any case, this segment was too great not to pass along but I didn’t know where else to put it except at the end of this segment, given the focus on comedy and cultural politics.

Behind the Scenes at Indian Idol Junior



I have been running a series of blog posts sharing some of the experiences I had during a five week tour of India this summer, thanks to the hospitality of Parmesh Shahani and the good folks at Godrej India Culture Lab.  Since I have much to share, I have been breaking up this travel narrative with other segments, but I wanted to pick up again today with a segment describing what we saw when we were able to attend a taping of Indian Idol Junior. The following is adopted from my travel diary.

Today’s main event was a trip to Studio City, which was nearby, for a taping of Indian Idol Junior. We drove down meandering roads through Studio City, where there are a number of smaller studios, some of whom seemed to be shooting things on their front lawns, all involved in film and television production. My favorite because of the cultural incongruity was Swastick Studios, which used the local variant on the Swastika as its brand logo. (It is a traditional good luck sign in Hindu and other local religions, which the Indians have refused to cede to its 20th century associations.)

We pass through multiple levels of security and some degree of confusion before we find our way to the studio where they are shooting Indian Idol. We are the guests of the program’s creative director, who is a family friend of the woman who runs the media program at Sophia. We are immediately ushered upon arrival onto the sound stage and given a seat of honor.



The studio space is surprisingly small, even compared to its American counterparts.  Cynthia and I have never gone to an American Idol taping but we have been to a Survivor finale and to a taping of So You Think You Can Dance. A key difference is that both are taped lived before a very active studio audience.

Here, they are taping two episodes back to back on a Sunday which will air across the coming week: a result show is taped in the morning and aired last night; we are there for the taping of the performance competition (the top ten) which will air the following Saturday night.  Parmesh says this is required to accommodate the judges, one of whom Sonakshi Sinha is a Bollywood glamour queen, second or third generation superstar. So, we are directly in front of the performance space and we have a good view of the area where the contestants sit when they are waiting to go on, of the judge’s table, and an area where the parents of the contestants sit. And above us, there is a small ring of enthusiastic fans who cheer wildly during each segment. We seem to be sitting in an area for friends and family of the producers.


Before the production starts, we are able to watch the contestants mill about, getting last minute advice or touch ups from their parents. One of the contestants, who we will call Red Dress, was working the crowd and we posed for a selfie with her. She’s also playing up to the judges, bringing around a local sweet from her region and passing it out to the judges and the announcers, even the production grips, on the pretext that it is her birthday. As we observe her throughout the performance, it is clear that she is the one to beat in the competition – she’s got incredible vocal skills – but she also knows it, and she’s a bit of a prima donna, who tends to boss the other children around. She’s apparently been adopted by a number of Bollywood stars who tweet out their support around each episode.

The children are dressed in a wide array of clothes, some very westernized, some traditional, all brightly colored to pop on the camera. The songs they sing are Bollywood standards, and unless I am fooled by the less familiar patterns of these songs, they are much more challenging and vocally complex than the songs typically sung on American Idol. And we are dealing with contestants who range in age between 9 and 14-15. The stress on these contestants must be intense (We saw the tail end of last night’s result show when we got back to our quarters, and the contestant voted off weeped with enormous intensity.)

The conventions of the show are universal, so even without knowing a word of Hindi, we can follow more or less what goes on. But because this is taped, not live, there’s a lot of set up and primping between numbers. It’s also got a different rhythm with much more time devoted to the male and female hosts. The male host with fluffed up hair is the Indian equivalent of a baggy pants comic who performs broadly; his female counterpart – in a lime colored pants suit and high heels – also plays broadly but is a more reactive character. They do a lot of prop humor setting up each segment.

Then, the singer’s perform, always in one take, and near the end, the cameraman do a sweeping pan around them, pushing the camera almost into their face, and then, the judges judge.


The judges are speaking Hinglish – a mix of English and Hindi. Parmesh says that these elite Indians are used to speaking in English and their Hindi is not especially strong. In between takes, the judges are always on their cell phones, texting, but they are also getting made-up by their personal staff and they are brought food. We watch one of the judges plow through a meal of chicken and salad in about two minutes between takes, as if this was the only food he was going to get. We were amused that the judges have cups displaying their sponsor, Horlicks, a hot milk-based drink, in front of them, but we saw a staffer pour Coke Zero into each cup between takes.

Then, the contestant offers their pitch to the public – which moves between Hindi and whatever local language they speak. Indian Idol taps intense regional pride and rivalries, often with massive rallies and voting drives in local areas to insure that support gets directed towards contestants who are the source of enormous pride for parts of the country that are rarely represented on television.

There’s often also a segment involving one of the parents, full of stories of sacrifice and determination. The parents mostly come from working class backgrounds, often from rural areas, and so they may speak only their local languages, but they are coached to be able to speak in Hindi or English for the national television audience.

Finally, there may be some sketch involving the contestants and the judges which are designed to further define their characters. So, one of the contestants came out in a traditional tunic-based outfit, which the announcer rips away to reveal rocker clothes underneath, for what turned out to be a show-stopping, defining performance (perhaps the best of the night coming from a young man who had been in the bottom three in last week’s results). Another young boy pulls a lizard (or what we hope was a toy lizard) out of his pocket and sticks it into the hand of the female host who shrieks on cue and drops it on the ground. There’s a dance-off between the Bollywood Glamour Queen and the Female Announcer, both in high heels. A village boy shares that he misses playing marbles with his friends, so they bring out a blanket and marvels, and the male announcers and judges play marbles with him. I am not sure what use is going to be made of this material, since everything is running so much longer than an American show would, and Indian Television is if anything heavier on commercials than American broadcast television is. Taping this episode took a full four hours.

We all have our favorites. Despite her bossiness, I can’t help but root for Red Dress, just because she really has amazing vocal chops, and for the boy who transformed into a rocker, for much the same. But there is the “Drama Mama,” the youngest contestant, who dances – not especially well, but its more movement than most of the others; there’s a boy who wears a turban and traditional clothes; and a range of others. Right now, it’s 3 boys and 7 girls, so we are betting one of the girls goes home this week. She seemed flatter than the others; looked really dejected afterwards, and while the judges were kind, they were much less effusive than they had been with the other contestants. Our sense was she knew it was her turn to go, but we will have to wait till next Sunday to see the results.

We did watch the episode when it aired the following weekend. It was fascinating to see what made it onto the air. Having gotten rid of liveness, the program also got rid of any pretense of “real time.” The footage is tightly, almost abruptly, edited, with only the highlights of the responses aired. This helps to explain why they shot so much more than was aired. In the studio, everything seemed to be much slower than on the American version. On the air, much faster. It has that feel of cutting from highlight to highlight. Aesthetically, it is a very different experience of the program.


Most of the sketches I described ended up on the cutting room floor. They did use the segment of the village boy’s marbles game – which Parmesh did not think they would use because the judges were so bad at marbles, but this becomes the focus of the editing. They did not use what we saw as a more successful segment where the boy sticks a lizard in the hand of the female announcer. I wondered if some of those segments were shot for distribution online.

The soundtrack has also been juiced up – comic noises to prop up the mugging of the announcer, audience noises to amp up the responses of the somewhat meager studio audience, and especially a better sound mix for the performances than we heard in the studio. It’s hard to tell if they worked from the raw tracks or rerecorded the songs, which, of course, has serious implications for a singing competition.

They also had altered the sequence of the performances dramatically with the boy who rips off his traditional clothes and becomes a rocker as the starting point for the program and one of the first performances we saw ending up the broadcast. We’ve always suspected that American Idol structures their live shows based on who did the best job in rehearsal, but here, the actual editing of the content reflects this assumption as well.

If you’d like to read more about Indian Idol, check out this great essay by another of my former MIT students, Aswin Punathambekar, which deals with the local campaigns to support contestants as a kind of civic activity.

Engaging with Transmedia Branding: An Interview with USC’s Burghardt Tenderich (Part Three)

What do you see as some of the ethical concerns that transmedia branding practice pose for industry leaders? Are there times when transmedia’s blurring of the boundaries between fact and fiction, for example, can be misleading or may cross established policies regulating trade practices?

Like any other forms of marketing or branding, transmedia storytelling raises ethical considerations, some of which are not all that different from those that apply to any marketing discipline. Edward Bernays, considered by many to be the ‘father of public relations,’ was led the charge in applying the principles of political propaganda to marketing communications.

During the boom years following World War II, supply for many products and services suddenly exceeded demand, so Bernays and his contemporaries on Madison Avenue, on behalf of their industrial clients, built PR campaigns with the sole purpose of creating demand for things people had previously no idea they wanted. This was the birth of consumerism – based on the assumption, held by Bernays and others, that the masses are stupid and easily manipulated. I’m afraid we see a lot of this approach still today in the worlds of marketing, advertising and public relations.

More specifically to the ethics of transmedia is whether fictional storylines can be mistaken for reality in campaigns where the lines are blurred. Due to the prevalence of sarcasm, parody and humor in storytelling, the ethical standard is not as much determined by the literal truth of campaign content, but whether or not it is—or has the potential to be—deceiving. The notion of deceit is central to the discussion of transmedia branding because of one of the discipline’s key characteristics: many transmedia branding campaigns purposefully mix fiction with reality and playfully expose participants to a constant back and forth between the two.

The question is whether ethical boundaries are surpassed when brands use fictional content mixed in with actual events. For example, the campaign Art of the Heist stages a fake break-in into the Audi car dealership where actors shatter the store front window to steal an Audi A3. This is the kick-off to an online and offline transmedia campaign to solicit attention to the A3’s launch. The day after the theft, at the New York auto show, instead of seeing America’s first A3, attendees saw signs reporting the missing car. What if this campaign scared people in the real world? While we assume that most people can distinguish between fiction and reality here, some may not be able to.

Another form of ethical transgression is appealing to emotions in order to divert attention from distorted facts. This was masterfully done in Chipotle’ Scarecrow video, one of the most impressive examples of world building. The animated video shows a scarecrow who witnesses the unappetizing side of industrial food production and decides to ‘go back to the start’ by farming and selling organic vegetarian produce, including the red chili pepper from the Chipotle logo. The problem is that Chipotle’s food is not vegetarian and, at the time of the video release, mostly not organic. This triggered internet video publishers Funny or Die to extend the storyline with a brand jam: they recorded a video using the original footage and soundtrack, but imposed subtitles and changed the lyrics to expose Chipotle’s ethical transgressions.

You point to growth hacking as representing one future direction for communication strategy. How are you defining this concept and what are some examples of the ways this has worked to increase the visibility of brand messages?

Growth hacking represents principles and techniques designed for rapid adoption of a brand. Communication strategy is part of this, but growth hacking is a broader concept that includes product design and refinement as well as programming. It’s frequently used to promote web sites and consumer technologies, but its potential use is much broader. The basic idea is that a product or service is defined jointly with its intended users, mainly by soliciting feedback, analysis of user data and constant A/B testing. The communication strategies focus on spreadable or even viral components.

To illustrate, the original growth hack was Hotmail’s decision to print underneath each email the tagline “Get your free email at Hotmail.” At a time when free email accounts were unheard-of, this led to truly viral adoption of the new tool. Dropbox used a similar growth hack by setting up a member referral system for free cloud storage.


But the technical co-founders of Dropbox also demonstrated their impressive PR instincts by using communication growth hacks. For example, in order to recruit highly technical beta users, company founder Drew Houston posted a short video on Digg. The video was laced with hidden messages and jokes that only experienced software developers would understand. Called “Easter eggs” in developer lingo, these messages included references to Chocolate Rain, the movie Office Space and keys for decrypting Blu-ray disks. This nod to its technical audience helped the video rise to the top of Digg. This particular strategy – described in the Harvard Business School case on Dropbox – points to one of the key differences between mainstream PR and growth hacking: it’s about reaching the right people, not the maximum number of people.



Growth hacks can also be based on simple creative ideas, such as Apple’s decision to ship iPods and later iPhones with white headphones, so people in the street would know the person who just walked by wasn’t just listening to music on any mp3 player or smartphone, but indeed an Apple product. Apple also strategically featured the white headphones prominently in all its ads and commercials

And, of course, people created funny parodies, like the one below with the Spong Bob silhouette, when the iPhone 5 was launched.


Interestingly, while I was sitting at a window on the second floor of a café just outside an outdoor mall on Black Friday recently, I couldn’t help noticing that almost every other female shopper was recognizably carrying either a Lululemon or Victoria’s Secret bag. From my perspective, they were swarming constantly in every direction of the shopping area, serving the unintended function of brand ambassador.

Also, this summer we took a family trip to Berlin. The streets right around the Brandenburg Gate were packed with taxis that all prominently displayed the same ad, for Uber (!)



Berlin has banned Uber, which makes this form counter-cultural (commercial) activism even more noteworthy.

In summary, growth hacking comes in many flavors that pertain the central goal of creating engagement with a brand.

Burghardt Tenderich is a Professor at the University of Southern California Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism in Los Angeles, CA, where he teaches and researches about strategic communication, transmedia branding, emerging media technologies and media entrepreneurship. He is the author of Transmedia Branding (2015) USC Annenberg Press, together with Jerried Williams. Burghardt is Associate Director of the Annenberg School’s Strategic Communication and Public Relations Center, and co-author of the Generally Accepted Practices for Public Relations (GAP VII).

Burghardt has over 20 extensive experience in communication and marketing in the information technology and internet industries and he holds an M.A. and a Ph.D. in Economic Geography from the University of Bonn, Germany.


Engaging with Transmedia Branding: An Interview with USC’s Burghardt Tenderich (Part Two)

Early on, Grant McCracken used the example of Mr. Clean to illustrate what might happen as existing brand icons are given greater backstory. But, even in the entertainment industry, there’s been some debate lately about whether Hollywood is providing too much backstory now and whether backstory can bring negative consequences in terms of narrowing rather than intensifying audience engagement. What insights might you share about how much backstory might be needed to build audience interest in a brand narrative and when the backstory is doing damage to the core goal of the advertisement, which is to sell product?

I’m all for open-ended stories and for improvisation. In fact, two of the aforementioned campaigns, Old Spice Guy and the Most Interesting Man in the World, started off as a video and an advertising campaign, respectively, and over time, due to audience engagement, carried on and eventually morphed into transmedia campaigns. In a way, the less scripted and the less background provided, the more opportunity there is to take a campaign into previously unimagined territory.

There’s been much debate about the nature and value of brand communities. Does every brand need a community of brand advocates? Are some brands more likely to generate such communities than others?

In an ideal world, every brand would have its devoted brand communities — iconic groups like those who followed Harley Davidson or Apple in the 1990s, when the latter was an underdog seemingly losing to Microsoft. In reality, this is not possible, simply because many products or services don’t lend themselves to strong brand communities. Think for example about personal hygiene or cleaning products: who wants to strongly identify with a panty liner or a spray disinfectant? Hence, these brands are best served by what I call ad-hoc communities that rally around a specific campaign, either because of its relevance or entertainment value.

One example of that in the personal hygiene space is the iconic campaign – not product – around Unilever’s True Beauty for the Dove brand of soaps.


The campaign showed regular women – as opposed to models – posing in underwear. This was almost cause-driven, empowering women to celebrate the reality of the female body over Madison Avenue’s stylized ideal. The campaign was widely discussed offline and online and rallied people to consider real-life beauty, and accept the reality of our bodies with a sense of confidence rather than anxiety. The ad-hoc communities emerging from this discussion are not likely to have any staying power once the campaign is no longer on people’s minds, but they’ve served a powerful commercial purpose while they were in existence.

True brand communities, one could argue, germinate organically as people become fans of a product, service or cause, and proactively seek out peers and information related to the brand. Ad-hoc communities, in contrast, seem to be primarily facilitated if not created by strategic communicators. This requires the ability to read and understand the culture of the people engaging in ad-hoc brand communities.

Your book notes several points where major brand campaigns have been targeted for parody or culture jamming tactics. What advice would you give to a brand manager if they were confronted by grassroots appropriation and remixing of their content? Are there examples where brands have responded well and turned these threats around?

Now that people have the ability to talk back so easily and effectively, marketers are beginning to realize that they’ve completely lost control over key elements of their brand. People may choose to make fun of brand messages, images, logos or other elements, and may even choose to defame them. This makes traditional brand managers and advertisers very nervous and frustrated, but it’s actually easier for their public relations counterparts to deal with. PR has always been about negotiating relationships and optimizing activities to achieve intended outcomes, with full knowledge that they had little control over what journalists would actually write, or which customers, partners, competitors they might cite.

So control is gone. Forever. Brand communicators are forced to adapt to the new environment. For many, the default reaction to unwanted brand engagement has been calling the attorneys, who would issue a cease-and-desist letter. This raises a practical question: in a somewhat anonymous internet landscape, to whom do you send the letter? What if hundreds of people have participated in a brand jam – do they all get a letter? And the bigger issue is: what if legal actions backfire by creating a prolonged negative news cycle in the media and on the social web?


If brands become the target of a culture jam, as when Greenpeace attacked BP with a competition to redesign the BP logo in 2010, they need to first ask the question: can the attack on your brand be ignored, as the issue may simply fade away in a short period of time? This would be the easiest solution, but raises the second question: even if you can afford to ignore the attack, is it ethical to do so, or do you have a moral obligation to fix the underlying issues? This, of course, requires brands to identify the core of the problem. And once the core problem has been defined, can it be remedied? To stay with the BP example, if a brand was instrumental in creating a massive and prolonged oil spill, the underlying issue obviously can’t easily be remedied, and the brand has to deal the consequences.

On the other hand, a great example of a company that turned a brand jam into an opportunity was Domino’s Pizza. A few years back, videos appeared on the social web showing company employees purposely contaminating ingredients that they were placing in the pizzas. The spread of these videos led to an onslaught of negative comments about not only this particular disgusting incident, but the quality of Domino’s pizza overall.

Domino’s “The Pizza Turnaround” Documentary from Andrew Lincoln on Vimeo.

In a case like this, most brands would have responded defensively or would have tried to divert the public’s attention. Domino’s actually did the exact opposite: they launched and chronicled an investigation into the perceived quality of their food, and the results were shocking. Many people apparently strongly disliked their pizza and even referred to the crust as tasting like cardboard. Remarkably, Domino’s embraced this feedback, reinvented their pizza for improved quality and taste, and then told the story of the entire journey across a variety of media channels, including TV advertising and social platforms. They launched the website where they posted the “Pizza Turnaround” documentary.

Burghardt Tenderich is a Professor at the University of Southern California Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism in Los Angeles, CA, where he teaches and researches about strategic communication, transmedia branding, emerging media technologies and media entrepreneurship. He is the author of Transmedia Branding (2015) USC Annenberg Press, together with Jerried Williams. Burghardt is Associate Director of the Annenberg School’s Strategic Communication and Public Relations Center, and co-author of the Generally Accepted Practices for Public Relations (GAP VII).

Burghardt has over 20 extensive experience in communication and marketing in the information technology and internet industries and he holds an M.A. and a Ph.D. in Economic Geography from the University of Bonn, Germany.

Engaging with Transmedia Branding: An Interview with USC’s Burghardt Tenderich (Part One)

Over the past few years, I’ve been helping to develop an innovative course for the Strategic Communication Program in Annenberg dealing with contemporary trends in branding culture, with a strong emphasis on transmedia, spreadable media, and crowdsourcing. I’ve now taught this class twice with Burghardt Tenderich and he has in turn co-taught the class with Darren Brabham. Each time, we’ve brought in some of the top “thought leaders” in advertising and public relations to share their perspectives on the changing media landscape.

Tenderich, “B.T.,” as we call him, is an industry veteran who brings enormous insight into the teaching of the class, and he has also really dug deep into what it might mean to apply the insights from transmedia entertainment to think about how contemporary brand strategies seek to foster engagement with consumers across media platforms. B.T. recently wrote and published a new book, Transmedia Branding: Engage Your Audience, with Jerried Williams, who was one of the star students in the class the first time we taught it. This book, released in digital format from the Annenberg Press, offers a great option for those of you who teach strategic communications and an essential read for anyone who wants to understand contemporary branding practice. It’s chock-a-block with great examples of recent campaigns which adopted new approaches to reaching consumers, grabbing their interest, and building their loyalty. It is theoretically sophisticated, but also concrete, and applied, a rare combination of virtues.

In this three part interview, B.T. reflects about the changing nature of strategic communications, the value of transmedia branding, and the ethics of blurring between fiction and reality while making claims about real world products and services. Enjoy.


The term “transmedia” has been applied for most of its history to storytelling and entertainment media. What changes when we apply the term to talking about advertising?

If used in an advertising or public relations context, the term transmedia takes on a commercial meaning. The story is no longer at the center, but rather becomes more of a means to an end, where the end is – in most cases – primarily of commercial nature: to sell more of whatever you’re marketing.

But I don’t think that presents a problem as long as the brand storytelling is done authentically and the commercial nature is not disguised. This also doesn’t make the story any less important. For any campaign to catch on and be effective, the story needs to be relevant and well-told.

What are some of the factors that you see disrupting the field of strategic communications right now? In what ways are branding and public relations, for example, increasingly intertwined? What factors are reshaping how consumers relate to brands? And how are these changes, collectively, resulting in a new understanding of the communication environment? In short, if transmedia is the answer, what is the question?

The question is: how can you reach and engage with audiences in a communication environment that is saturated with media of all thinkable forms, and where people have the easy option to tune out of commercial messages? This is directly related to the two-pronged paradigm shift that journalism, advertising and strategic communication have been experiencing in the recent years: the rise of social media combined with the proliferation of cheap and easy-to-use multimedia production tools on the one hand, and the decline of mainstream editorial media on the other.

To start with the latter, while there has never been more editorial media in the history of journalism than we have now, collectively editorial media have lost influence, and they have yet to determine a new revenue model that will enable them to stay in business in the long run. Until recently, the barriers of entry were extremely high, as companies had to invest in expensive broadcast equipment or printing presses, distribution and personnel costs. In the past, due to these high barriers to market entry, once you were established, you had very little competition to face and were able to pretty much dictate pricing for advertising. And because people had so little choice for media consumption, your editorial content would certainly reach vast audiences.

Then came Google, Craigslist, Twitter and Facebook. Due to their superior online advertising model, they took away massive advertising revenue from mainstream media. At the same time, blogs and emerging news sites created a so-called long-tail of various niche media, giving people unlimited options for consuming and sharing content. These two trends together have disrupted the 20th Century business model for journalism, and with it the 20th Century approach to advertising and public relations.

Risen from theses ashes is what many now call the PESO model for PR, marketing and branding, which is based on the assumption of strategic equivalency between Paid, Earned, Shared and Owned media. ‘Paid’ is the new term for advertising, product placement, sponsoring, etc., while ‘Earned’ refers to a new and expanded notion of media relations, the traditional stronghold of public relations. But ‘Earned’ is not limited to pitching the New York Times or the Huffington Post. It includes being interviewed on Henry Jenkins’ blog (thank you for that!) or being mentioned in a post by any member of the LinkedIn community. So ‘Earned’ media itself has become much more granular and requires a better understanding of authors and audiences, and therefore requires more research than reading up on 10 established beat reporters, like back in the day.

‘Owned’ media refers to channels where the brand has editorial control. This includes news releases, corporate blogs and web sites, but also the emerging practice of brand journalism where corporations themselves produce journalistic content to reach audiences. ‘Shared’ describes media that can be paid, earned or owned, and practically speaking refers mainly to social media. For example, on networks like YouTube, Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn, you can run ads or sponsored content (Paid), pitch media producers to be included in their stories (Earned), and publish your own content (Owned).

So, we’re operating in a completely changed media ecosystem, and it is noteworthy how many strategic communicators and advertisers have not yet evolved and still conduct their work in a 20th Century media framework; they still bombard people with mostly unwanted ‘messages’ across all channels in integrated marketing campaigns that become increasingly less effective. This is where new approaches, such as Transmedia Branding, come in.

What lessons has the advertising industry taken from the entertainment industry in terms of the ways brands might foster greater engagement with their audiences?

It’s all about storytelling. Just a few short years ago, strategic communication was all about ‘the message.’ How do I make people remember ‘the message’? How do I make the media repeat ‘the message’? But as the visionary book Cluetrain Manifesto told us even a few years before the rise of social media, “there is no market for your message,” and instead “markets are conversations.” The human brain is wired to retain information better if it’s packaged as a story, rather than a peremptory ‘message.’

This is intuitive when we think about how humans evolved culturally. We’ve created and shared stories for as long as we’ve been communicating with each other as human beings; storytelling is central to the human race. And if done well, and/or with emotional appeal, this leads to conversations as people share stories, and frequently change or add to them. This is where engagement begins.

The other lesson marketers have learned from entertainment is that compelling stories are more likely to foster intense and enduring engagement. That’s why in transmedia storytelling we see so many cases of entertaining and humorous storytelling. For example, if you think about Dos Equis’ Most Interesting Man in the World campaign, it’s a highly amusing storyline that draws people in by encouraging them to participate interactive games and bounty hunts, and many become motivated to create related parodies or memes.


You draw a potentially generative distinction in the book between brands connecting themselves to existing stories and storyworlds and brands constructing stories and worlds to serve their own particular needs. Can you discuss a few examples of what these two strategies mean in practice?


In the context of transmedia branding, some marketers choose to develop their brand’s own story elements, while others decide to join existing narratives.

In terms of the first option, every brand has a story, even if a marketing team has never thought about it. A good example of a brand with a rich story is Levi Strauss. The company’s co-founders were Jewish immigrants from Germany who arrived in San Francisco just in time for the Gold Rush. Unlike most people, Levi and Strauss made a fortune not by digging for gold, but by selling work trousers, denim Jeans, to the onslaught of prospectors.

Incidentally, both of what we think of as very American words – denim jeans – are actually derived from French words: the misspelling of ‘de Nimes’ as in ‘from the city of Nimes’ and ‘Gênes’, the French spelling of the Italian city of Genoa. The background is that Southern French cowboys of Carmargue, a region close to the cities of Nimes, wore work pants that were precursors to what we now know as denim jeans, which were shipped to the United States from the port of Genoa. So, the emerging storyline is that of European immigrants bringing trousers worn by French cowboys to the United States and selling them to the pioneers of the West.



The company Levi Strauss never actually packaged this backstory in succinct ads, but did allude to this history in a campaign several years ago, which included one spot featuring an image of a little girl running around outside in jeans with the caption, ‘This country wasn’t built by men in suits.’ This ad captures the core concepts of the American experience, such as freedom, opportunity and wide-open land.


Another example of a company building out its own storyline is the iconic ‘The Man Your Man Could Smell Like’ by Old Spice. The brand team realized and owned up to the fact that the Old Spice brand had become dated and stodgy. What’s so remarkable about this example is that they chose to tackle the stodgy image head-on, with taglines such as ‘If your grandfather hadn’t worn Old Spice, you wouldn’t be here,’ and by incorporating the original imagery—the old-fashioned nautical theme—into their transmedia campaign. This created the basis for the tongue-in-cheek persona of the ‘Old Spice Guy.’


What’s interesting is that you don’t need to be a billion-dollar brand to build a story that people will care about. One of my favorite recent examples is MegaBots, a tiny pre-funding start-up in the San Francisco Bay Area which, as of this writing, is working on its first round investment, a $750,000 Kickstarter campaign.

For a total budget of $175 plus a friend with a camera, they created a story that has been viewed on YouTube over five million times, and picked up extensively on both social media and mainstream media. Here’s why: their story is super cool! Basically, three twenty-something robot enthusiasts got together and built a 15-foot, 6-ton giant robot equipped with paint guns, as a prototype for their ultimate vision: to create an international professional sports league for gigantic fighting robots.



As it happens, there’s only one other mega robot currently on this planet, Kuratas, built by the young Japanese robotics company Suidobashi Heavy Industry. The MegaBots guys reached out to their counterparts with an opportunity too good to resist: they would create a video challenge that would stir up interest on a global scale.

So with some pre-warning, MegaBots shot a video of two of its three co-founders wrapped in American flags, using patriotic language, music and imagery, to challenge Kuratas to the ultimate win-or-die robot fight. A few days later Suidobashi posted its video response, in Japanese with American subtitles, flashing Japanese patriotic images and showing CEO Kogoro Kurata dissing MegaBots for the ‘ugly’ design of its robot, and then accepting the challenge.

A few weeks ago MegaBots followed up with another patriotic video to launch their Kickstarter campaign. This is the gambit to a great transmedia campaign ready to unfold.


For an example of a brand joining an existing story, we can look to New Zealand Air and their production an the air safety announcement video titled“An Unexpected Briefing,” all done in the style of the Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit movies.

The crew and passengers all appear dressed in-character of the film creatures. The video was posted to coincide with the premier of The Hobbit I, and at the same time, Air New Zealand painted all its planes in major airports with imagery form the Lord of the Rings franchise.

Note the trade-off between these two strategies: building a campaign with your own story is generally less expensive, but you don’t benefit from the exposure of an existing franchise. If a brand joins a big story, the investment is much greater, but visibility is almost guaranteed.

Burghardt Tenderich is a Professor at the University of Southern California Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism in Los Angeles, CA, where he teaches and researches about strategic communication, transmedia branding, emerging media technologies and media entrepreneurship. He is the author of Transmedia Branding (2015) USC Annenberg Press, together with Jerried Williams.
Burghardt is Associate Director of the Annenberg School’s Strategic Communication and Public Relations Center, and co-author of the Generally Accepted Practices for Public Relations (GAP VII).

Burghardt has over 20 extensive experience in communication and marketing in the information technology and internet industries and he holds an M.A. and a Ph.D. in Economic Geography from the University of Bonn, Germany.