From Voice to Influence: An Interview with Political Philosopher Danielle Allen (Part Three)

In your introduction, you signaled the ways that a tension between advocacy and deliberation shadowed the development of this book. Can you explain how this tension surfaced within the disciplinary partnerships you describe and in what ways you or others involved in the book resolved this friction?

The disagreement between those who thought that advocacy should be at the core of civic agency and those who thought that deliberation should have that role ran all the way through our several years of working on this project. I don’t think the initial views on this subject were disciplinary so much as connected to whether each scholar’s body of work was more oriented toward study of those in the mainstream or to study of those on the margins.

Over the course of the project, both views came to shift. Most impoartantly, I think, we came to see that the ethical framework that governs civic agency and life in the public sphere is not singular but plural. There is not one, unitary regulative ideal that can help us know how to participate politically; there are several and they are relevant to different situational contexts.

Consequently, our conversation led us, I think, to a place where the successful exercise of civic agency must be understood as also being closely connected to a capacity for judgment about when disinterested deliberation, interested advocacy, or passionate prophesy is the right tool to deploy in the pursuit of a just democracy.

Another disagreement you flag amongst the contributors to this book hinges on the potentials and limits of commercially owned platforms for civic purposes. I know you have been digging deeply into the design of platforms for civic speech. What new insights have you gained through that project?

Working with colleagues, I set off to try to develop design principles for those who wish to build platforms to support civic agency. As we worked, we became convinced by arguments, like Ethan Zuckerman’s in this book, that a lot of good civic and political engagement can and should occur through already existing, often commercial platforms. These are harder for governments to shut down without cost.

So we modified our approach to develop guidelines that might cross contexts and be applicable regardless of whether someone is building a stand-alone platform or trying to use a battery of existing tools, whether those are commercially supplied or the creation of groups like MIT’s Civic Media Lab.

We focus a lot on trying to unify three kinds of thinking: first, about securing one’s identity offline and online (and we mean this in the broadly psychological sense, not in the sense of password security); second, about understanding how to pull the different kinds of levers that are available; and third, about understanding how to develop and deploy ethical orientations that are compatible with the pursuit of healthy egalitarian participatory democracies.

We managed to boil down our core ideas on these three subjects to ten basic principles for civic agency in the digital media landscape. We will be running the guidelines as a post following the completion of this interview.

This book is very much focused on what is changing in the media and political landscape, yet I know you are someone who often goes back to classical texts to understand some of the core principles of democracy. What do you see as the persistent value of such documents, whether the writings of ancient Athens or the Declaration of Independence, for informing how we respond to the challenges of the current moment?

The ancients feel a million miles away from us. For many I think the Declaration of Independence from our own political tradition also feels a million miles away. And yet there are resources in both.

The ancient Athenians were among the first to become self-conscious about the concept of a public sphere. For them, the public sphere was just their city or, in Greek, their polis, and we of course get the word “politics” from this. Although they cared a lot about their formal public spaces–the assembly, the courtroom, the public markets, they did trace the channels of discourse in all their diversity and studied rhetoric intensely.

That study drew out the value of rational dispassionate deiberation but paid as much attention to what I have been calling adversarial and prophetic rhetoric. The ancients had a far more capacious sense of the range of legitimate and necessary political discourse than most of us have today. I think we can learn a lot from that.

As to the Declaration of Independence, I think its most important contribution is its celebration of civic agency, which it both exhibits and provides a profound defense of. Civic agents are as likely to make mistakes as not; the civic action exemplified by the Declaration includes its share of mistakes, most notably in relation to women, slaves, and native Americans. But the Declaration also expresses its own fallibility.

The end of its most important sentence, the second sentence, expresses a theory of revolution and enjoins civic agents, who judge their governments wanting, to try again. They write: “Whenever a government becomes destructive of these ends [of securing our rights], it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it and to etablish new government, laying its foundation on such principle and organizing its power in such form, as to them shall seem *most likely* to effect their safety and happiness.”

From generation to generation, we the people have the job of evaluating our government and, where necessary, altering it in the directions that seem *most likely* to us to effect collective well-being. In other words, the best we can do is to make probablistic judgments about what will be best for all of us. We will fail, and those who come after us will have to try again.

Danielle Allen is UPS Foundation Professor of Social Science at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey. In July 2015 she will move to Harvard to take up the Directorship of the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics and professorships in Harvard’s Department of Government and Graduate School of Education. She is a political theorist who has published broadly in democratic theory, political sociology, and the history of political thought. Widely known for her work on justice and citizenship in both ancient Athens and modern America, Allen is the author of The World of Prometheus: the Politics of Punishing in Democratic Athens (2000), Talking to Strangers: Anxieties of Citizenship since Brown vs. the Board of Education (2004), Why Plato Wrote (2010), and Our Declaration: A Reading of the Declaration of Independence in Defense of Equality (Norton/Liveright Books, June 2014). She is the co-editor of the award- winning Education, Justice, and Democracy (2013, with Rob Reich) and From Voice to Influence: Understanding Citizenship in the Digital Age (2015, with Jennifer Light). She is a Chair of the Mellon Foundation Board, past Chair of the Pulitzer Prize Board, and a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and American Philosophical Society.


From Voice to Influence: An Interview with Political Philosopher Danielle Allen (Part Two)

A key debate in this book centers around the relative values of what Howard Gardner described as “disinterestedness” and what you discuss in terms of “rooted cosmopolitanism.” Both seem to be shifts away from the positionally we have come to associated with identity politics. Yet, arguing on behalf of our own communities has gained new urgency in the wake of Ferguson. So, how might we reconcile that urgent need to protect our own interests with the other kinds of civic virtues that you and your contributors discuss?

Disinterestedness, rooted cosmopolitanism, identity politics, and the urgent need to argue on behalf of our own communities in the wake of Ferguson. How do these things relate to each other? This question leads perfectly into the terrain of the sorts of ethical framworks that need to be developed once one recognizes that not only deliberative but also adversarial and prophetic forms of speech are legitimate in the public sphere and beyond that, not only legitimate but necessary.

What you see in the book in the chapters on disinterestedness by Howard Gardner and on rooted cosmopolitanism by Agnel Parham ad myself is an effort to start the work of figuring out ethical frameworks for “egalitarian participatory democracy.” While most of the contributors to the volume start from a recognition of the improtance of arguing on behalf of one’s own community (because no one else is going to do it!), Howard wanted to push back on us, to make the case that there is something worthwhile and that should be preserved in the disinterested stance, even as we go forward with political paradigms that embrace identity based advocacy (whether adversarial or prophetic).

This was a hard conversation for all of us, as these two postions were both passionately held, and perhaps also disinterestedly, although of course it’s harder to tell on the latter point. I came to agree with Howard but also to think that the important point about disinterestedness is that it is the right regulative ideal for certain roles and for certain times and places.

The ethical questions for me are both how to know what those times and places are and how to know what the ethical parameters are for the legitimate deployment of a disinterested stance. Let me sketch those briefly, and some of the parameters for adversarial and prophetic modes of engagement. This may help you have more of a sense of how the ethics of egalitarian participatory democracy in fact require a pluralistic sense of the array of regulative ideals that should guide the just deployment of civic agency.

Those who adopt a disinterested role in the appropriate contexts also need practices of testing and counteracting self-interest; they need practices for testing claims of universality made about chosen outcomes or direction; and they need to routinely consume high-quality information on wide array of issues, not only those in regard to which they have a direct interest.

For those who will adopt a prophetic or advocacy stance, and seek to achieve equitable forms of efficacy, the developmental burdens of civic agency involve a need to develop clarity about interests and goals, understanding of the “levers of change” in any given society; skill at “frame-shifting,” or changing the terms of the discourse and agenda; and ethical parameters for means/ends reasoning.

For those who dwell primarily in the adversarial domain, the skills of the two other domains are both relevant, and in addition, there is a need to understand the parameters of “fair fighting,” an ethical topic that the literature of sports has probably done the most to develop.

The focus of this book is on the political lives of youth. I know this was a bit of a shift in your own thinking, since your previous work was not especially youth-focused. What did you learn by adopting this frame? What do you think gets missed if we distinguish between youth and other kinds of political agents?

From the point of view of political theory, the focus on youth was incredibly salutary, and not one we come to so easily on our own in my home discipline. The first great benefit of a youth-focus is that it forces once to confront the nature of political experience for those who are not fully enfranchised. Youth can’t yet vote or they can’t yet run for office and so on. And yet many youth are impressively, political, even if they wouldn’t use that word for themselves.

As with Dreamers and transnational activists, youth political experience is hard to see within the framework of traditional public sphere theory. Once one can see youth political agency and engagement, that is, their civic agency, one comes to realize that they are filling an incredibly important discovery function for the polity as a whole. Youth are often pointing to the importance of issues–like incarceration, food politics, sexual assault, and fluid sexualities–that haven’t made it on to the radar for older people and yet are also defining our socio-political landscape.

So the group of authors in my volume mostly turned to the study of youth in a pretty instrumental way, recognizing that the opportunities and challenges presented by digital and social media had made greater inroads into youth culture than for older cohorts. Yet we realized that our substantive gains were substantial and went far beyond an opportunity to refine our understanding of the impact of technology.

Youth just are part of the story of the political life of any given nation, and of the globe. Understanding their civic agency should take place alongside studies of the civic agency of older adults. And the payoff will be a richer understanding of the big socio-poitical problems confronting all of us.

A key concept running through the book is civic agency, which at some places you link to the notion of citizenship. Yet, your book also accounts civic agency on the parts of those who have been denied some or all of the rights associated with citizenship, whether the DREAMers who are fighting to be accepted as citizens or black youth who have often been victims of voter suppression efforts. So, what can we say about the ways civic agency can be exercised by those who lack the full rights of citizenship?

One of the important things that has emerged with the development of new technolgoies and social media is that it is now easier to pull important levers outside of political institutions: through the targeting of decision-makers in civil society and the corporate world; through social movements that can put pressure on political leaders; and though efforts to change culture and social norms.

While political institutions and the legislative agenda are still fundamentally important, the balance of power has shifted some between the political realm and other realms. Big changes can be developed through civil society.

These tools are available to those without formal membership status in a given polity. Those without the status of citizens have a range of vulnerabilities and exposures that others don’t have and they have to make hard choices about how to negotiate them. But their indivdiual vulnerabiltiy can be counterbalanced by impressive forms of collective and social power. Again, Cristina Beltran’s chapter provides a remarkable exploration of that vulnerability as well as of the forms of empowerment used to counterbalance it.

Danielle Allen is UPS Foundation Professor of Social Science at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey. In July 2015 she will move to Harvard to take up the Directorship of the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics and professorships in Harvard’s Department of Government and Graduate School of Education. She is a political theorist who has published broadly in democratic theory, political sociology, and the history of political thought. Widely known for her work on justice and citizenship in both ancient Athens and modern America, Allen is the author of The World of Prometheus: the Politics of Punishing in Democratic Athens (2000), Talking to Strangers: Anxieties of Citizenship since Brown vs. the Board of Education (2004), Why Plato Wrote (2010), and Our Declaration: A Reading of the Declaration of Independence in Defense of Equality (Norton/Liveright Books, June 2014). She is the co-editor of the award- winning Education, Justice, and Democracy (2013, with Rob Reich) and From Voice to Influence: Understanding Citizenship in the Digital Age (2015, with Jennifer Light). She is a Chair of the Mellon Foundation Board, past Chair of the Pulitzer Prize Board, and a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and American Philosophical Society.

From Voice to Influence: An Interview with Political Philosopher Danielle Allen (Part One)

Not long ago, I was asked to blurb an exciting new book, From Voice to Influence: Citizenship in a Digital Age (Edited by Danielle Allen and Jennifer S. Light). Here’s what I had to say:

“From #blacklivesmatter to the DREAMer movement, from Occupy Wall Street to the Arab Spring, recent social movements have raised questions about how networked participation and civic expression are shaping what counts as politics in the 21st century. From Voice to Influence assembles a multidisciplinary mix of key thinkers to ask hard questions about the shifting nature of the public sphere, the values of deliberation and expression, the continued importance of disinterestedness and cosmopolitanism, the nature of civic agency, and the impact of new technologies of media production and circulation. Each contribution here is original, provocative, thoughtful, and grounded, and each helps us to understand more fully what it means to come of age as a civic agent in today’s media landscape.”

The book is another outgrowth from the work of the Youth and Participatory Politics Network, a multidisciplinary rout of scholars, helmed by Joe Kahne from Mills College, and funded by the MacArthur Foundation, which is seeking to better understand the political lives of contemporary American young people.  I have gotten to know this book’s co-editor, Danielle Allen, through her involvement in this research collaboration, which has also informed the development of my team’s forthcoming By Any Media Necessary book.

Allen is a political philosopher who moves fluidly from attending to insights from Classical Philosophy and the work of America’s founding fathers (she just published a short but wonderful book looking at the continuing impact of the Declaration of Independence ) to responses to contemporary civil rights movements. She recently published a smart op-ed piece for the Washington Post, which dealt with the protests in Baltimore and another with fellow YPP network member Cathy Cohen on “the new civil rights movement”. She is perhaps best known for her book, Talking to Strangers: Anxieties of Citizenship Since Brown v. Board of Education, which offers some reflections on the nature of “political friendship” across racial lines and gives us some core insights about what it might mean to be an effective and ethical ally in today’s struggles over racial justice. As a political philosopher, she is surprisingly and consistently attentive to media or channels of communication, from the role of news photography in the civil rights movement (Talking to Strangers) to the role of text (Why Plato Wrote) and print (Our Declaration), so there’s much here that people in my home field should be engaging with.

All of this is to say that Allen is wickedly smart, a generous collaborator, someone whose insights I have come to trust on a great many of the most pressing issues of our time. You will get a taste of her thinking in her responses to the interview questions below.

Let’s start with the book’s title, “From Voice to Influence.” How are you and your contributors defining the core terms, “voice” and “influence” here? To what degree has the rise of networked communication shifted expectations about the relationship between the two? What are some of the core challenges that we need to confront before the expressive capacities of everyday citizens is effectively translated into greater influence over public affairs?

Voice was the easy concept for us. It captures any human effort at self-expression. In that regard, it’s metaphorical. Sometimes people express their voice by doing things like die-in’s in city streets. One can be completely quiet, marching in a silent protest, and still be expressing voice. Human beings are remarkably inventive as communicators, and we really intend the concept of voice to capture the role range of human communication.

While there is probably an infinity of different types of human communication, any speech act is connected in some fashion to a speaker. The relationship between a speech act and the authentic, autonomous self of the speaker is extremely complex. Not every speech act is as directly expressive of something authentic. Nonetheless, we’re throwing the whole kit and caboodle in under the concept of “voice” and then trying to see how to sort out the different types of voice.

Influence was the hard concept. The rise of digital media and social media have brought an explosion of “voice” in the public sphere–communications from ordinary people about whatever it is they feel like communicating about that are easily accessible to all of us. There has been a lazy assumption in a lot of commentary about the impact of new media on politics that more voice in itself changes political life and is a good thing.

We thought that assessing that view required more clarity about when expressions of voice are “influential” and when they are not, that is, more clarity about when they make a difference beyond the existential experience of the speaker. This required us to think about the relationship between communicative actions on the part of a speaker and the different levers that can be pulled to change socio-political institutions or broadly impactful socio-political forms.

We came to distinguish between forms of influence that operate mainly on specific communities of discourse (a neighborhood, a social media network, etc.) and those forms of influence that operate on the level of a whole polity. To achieve an understanding of influence, we had to look at how speech acts can pull levers within political institutions, in relationship to the many organizations of civil society and the corporate world, through the work of social movements, and by effecting cultural change. The chapter by Archon Fung and Jennifer Shkabatur toes a terrific job of anatomizing how particular speech acts come to be influential in one, or several, of those domains.

The rise of networked communications has, indeed, as you say, shifted expectations about the relationship between voice and influence, but we think those shifts in expectation are themselves likely to be subject to evolution. In the early stages of the digital media transformation, voice was pretty loosely assumed to translate straightforwardly into influence.

This idea was captured by the notion that gatekeepers were being overthrown everywhere. The thought was that without gatekeepers controlling what got into the media or on the legislative agenda, anyone could immediately have a direct impact on our collective life.

But this soon gave way to greater realism. The dramatic increase in the volume of participation in digital and social media means that many voices are just drowned out. As Ethan Zuckerman points out in his chapter, there is a finite quantity of human attention, so securing attention share becomes a challenge. And influence requires attention share.

In this context, of course, the opportunity is ripe for a re-emergence of gate-keepers who gain their authority by helping people know where to focus their attention in a very chaotic media landscape. Take Facebook and its rules for participation as an example of a new gatekeeper. Jennifer Light does a great job of showing how, historically, historical revolutions in communciations technology that are experienced initially as liberatory have a way of being coopted by traditional power holders.

We think there’s a lot of room in media studies for developing a more refined understanding of the relationship between voice and influence, by studying why one speech act joins the discursive flows that move the waterwheels of socio-political change and why other speech acts don’t. And we think scholars ought to be paying attention to where gatekeepers are re-emerging, both in order to understand that re-emergence and to seek paths along which we can preserve the liberatory force of that initial moment of transformation.


You describe the book as “making technology the backdrop rather than the subject of analysis,” This is an important distinction. What becomes the foreground, then, of your analysis of contemporary political participation?

The foreground of our analysis of contemporary political participation is what we call civic agency. Civic agency consists of the effort to deploy voice for the sake of influence. Between voice and influence there exist a whole host of activities: from organizing to civic engagement, from symbolic protest to running for political office, and so on.

In earlier work, some of the contributors in this volume were in the habit of talking using the concept of “citizenship” to capture this idea. Citizenship is, of course, an old concept from the Latin word for city and for members of a city. While in contemporary politics we have come to focus on the concept of “citizenship” as a legal category of membership, in an older tradition of political thought that membership category was closely connected to an idea that the best way for each person to protect his or her own safety and well being was to exercise political power. There is a sense of responsibility and duty connected to the concept of citizenship, but also an element of empowerment.

As we’ve been working on this project, though, we’ve come to see the importance of separating the concept of legal membership in a given political unit from the more fundamental idea of the capacity of human beings to contribute to shaping the world in which they live with others. We settled on using the phrase, “civic agency,” to designate this capacity.

We consider it fundamental for thinking about politics in a world where there are no longer any territorial zones outside of nation states, yet it is still possible for some people to be “stateless,” to have no formal membership in any state, despite habitating on one or another actual piece of ground. Cristina Beltran’s chapter on Dreamactivism is really important on focusing on the civic agency of undocumented youth.

Equally important is the fact that political problems and the effects of political action do not track the geographical boundaries of states but frequently exceeed them; consequently, transnational activism is of great importance in our contemporary world. My chapter with Angel Parham takes up some of the issues that emerge in that context.

The concept of “civic agency” permits us to do a better job of tracking the efforts of people–from across the full diversity of possible formal statuses–to help steer the world in which we live. Technology is the backdrop to this story of civic agency because, as I have suggested above, civic agency starts with voice or communication. The exercise of civic agency traces the arc from voice to influence, through a variety of mediating practices. Anything that changes the fundamental methods of and opportunities for communication will have an impact on civic agency. We start and finish with civic agency in order to re-situate thought about media technology within the context of at least one of the “human things” that it has emerged to enable.


Your book proposes a reconceptualization of the public sphere, from one focused on physical geography to one focused around patterns of circulation. What do you see as the benefits of this reworking of the classic public sphere model?

Ultimately, it is impossible to separate flows from space. Flow, after all, is about the temporalities of movements through spaces. Yet I think the question of which metaphorical lens one uses as one’s starting point for thinking about public spheres has a meaningful impact on what one is able to see.

Spatial models of the public sphere, as in Habermas’ early work, tend to end up focusing on a bunch of formal political spaces–assemblies, legislative halls, courtrooms–or on architecturally salient adjacent spaces, for instance coffee houses, that are in some sense directly connected to those spaces of forrmal political institutions because the same group of peoplel functions in both.

The trouble with this is that the architecture of our public spaces has exclusions built into it, which are then carried over into the analysis. Habermas has, of course, been routinely criticized for prioritizing the communicative experiences in the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries of white bourgeois men.

If one seeks instead to figure out who is talking to who, when, and how–in other words simply to find flows–one finds spaces that weren’t previously visible–for instance, the black churches of the Civil Rights movement–but one also finds networks of communication that never become grounded in a single space–for instance, the flows of discourse linking Beltran’s Dreamers again or the flows linking the hip hop community. Tommie Shelby’s chapter on hip hop as dissent is just fantastic.

In other words, I think the “flow” metaphor just helps one see a lot more politically meaningful discourse than one would otherwise spot. And then by bringing a broader field of discourse into consideration for public sphere theory, the flow metaphor forces us to re-consider just how different types of discourse do or do not support legitimate public action.

The Habermasian picture ends up focusing excessively on deliberative modes of speech or rhetoric. The broader picture requires us to see the value in prophetic speech (think MLK, Jr. or Occupy Wall Street or Black Lives Matter) and also in adversarial forms of discourse (think of the strategies used by the Industrial Areas Foundation organizers to hold public officials to account; on this subject, Jeff Stout’s book, Blessed Are the Organized, is excellent). Recognizing that prophetic and adversarial forms of speech are necessary and legitimate modes of public sphere discourse introduces a further challenge: one needs to develop ethical frameworks for their use. And this work, too, takes us beyond the ethics of deliberative democracy. In place of that, the shift to flows supports work toward developing ethical frameworks for “egalitarian particpatory democracy.’

Danielle Allen is UPS Foundation Professor of Social Science at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey. In July 2015 she will move to Harvard to take up the Directorship of the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics and professorships in Harvard’s Department of Government and Graduate School of Education. She is a political theorist who has published broadly in democratic theory, political sociology, and the history of political thought. Widely known for her work on justice and citizenship in both ancient Athens and modern America, Allen is the author of The World of Prometheus: the Politics of Punishing in Democratic Athens (2000), Talking to Strangers: Anxieties of Citizenship since Brown vs. the Board of Education (2004), Why Plato Wrote (2010), and Our Declaration: A Reading of the Declaration of Independence in Defense of Equality (Norton/Liveright Books, June 2014). She is the co-editor of the award- winning Education, Justice, and Democracy (2013, with Rob Reich) and From Voice to Influence: Understanding Citizenship in the Digital Age (2015, with Jennifer Light). She is a Chair of the Mellon Foundation Board, past Chair of the Pulitzer Prize Board, and a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and American Philosophical Society.

On Transmedia and Transformative Media Organizing: An Interview with MIT’s Sasha Costanza-Chock (Part Three)

What parallels do you see between the immigrant rights movement activities you discuss here and the way that transmedia organizing is being deployed right now in the growing struggle against racialized police violence in the United States? Are there lessons which these movements might draw from each other?

Absolutely. In fact, these movements are deeply intertwined, even as it remains important to recognize the specificity of anti-Black police violence. #BlackLivesMatter calls on all of us to do the work of centering anti-Black violence.

And yet the immigrant rights movement, especially as it has developed during the last decade, is no longer (if it ever was) primarily a movement about assimilation to the American Dream. We’re talking in the context of a ballooning detention and deportation system that, under Obama alone, has rounded up and deported over two million people. TWO MILLION PEOPLE. The deportation system includes detention facilities (prisons) that are built and managed by the same private, for-profit corporations that build and manage prisons and jails across the country (see Detention Watch Network for the latest research on this system). In California, Ruthie Gilmore has written about the rise of the “Golden Gulag” and a carceral state that uses prisons as a mechanism of racial control. Michelle Alexander has written about the “New Jim Crow,” and the post- civil rights movement drug war policies that have been used to systematically disenfranchise millions of African-Americans through deeply racist policies, policing, unequal sentencing, and so on.

So the policing, detention, deportation, and disproportionate murder of primarily but by no means exclusively Brown people, enacted through immigration policy, DHS, ICE, and the detention/deportation system, is deeply linked to the policing, detention, warehousing, and murder of disproportionately, but by no means exclusively, Black people through
the so-called drug war. Some activists call this the “Crimmigration” system. Harsha Walia puts it in transnational context and calls it “Border Imperialism,” and notes that it’s the continuation of centuries of settler colonialism.

The increased militancy of the immigrant rights movement combined with the uprisings of #BlackLivesMatter have brought us to an important critical moment of rupture in the glossy facade of multicultural, neoliberal, info capitalism.

This rupture is filled with the brilliant symbols, bodies, ideas, stories, demands, and dreams of people who have been long excluded, invisibilized, and oppressed. People of Color, Black people specifically, Queer and Trans* women of color, UndocuQueer people, are using media both new and old to create community, gain visibility, speak truth to power, and to articulate new identities and new intersectional social movements.

It’s a moment of incredible pain and rage, but also a moment of great hope and possibility.

To be realistic, it’s still possible that the primary outcome of the energy generated by #BlackLivesMatter will be more money for police forces to purchase new equipment (body cameras), which is not going to do much to truly advance racial justice and the structural dismantling of white supremacy in the United States. There’s a question here: are we
going to be able to use this moment to come to terms with just how deep anti-Blackness runs as a foundational force in our society?

The immigrant rights movement has been internally split between those who advocate for an assimilationist narrative that involves primarily articulating demands for inclusion in (white, straight, capitalist, patriarchal, militarist) United States society, and those who are bringing an intersectional analysis to their organizing processes, strategies, goals, narratives, and demands. The second approach has been gaining ground, as the first failed to win anything.

Education Not Deportation (END) campaigns, for example, directly link the immigrant rights movement to the broader movement against the growing prison system, and do so in ways that are fueled by direct action, have concrete impacts on real people’s lives, and are also highly mediated events that bridge social media, live streaming, and often receive print and broadcast coverage in both Spanish and English language mass media.

It would be interesting to see something similar to END emerge from the prison abolition movement – highly publicized direct actions, made visible through both social and mass media, focused on liberating specific incarcerated individuals. But the thing is that certain voices  within the immigrant rights movement are always saying ‘we’re not
criminals. We just want to assimilate. Stop treating us like terrorists and criminals.’ While it’s possible to deeply disagree with the framing but still admit that it has the potential to win gains for large segments of non-Black immigrant communities, this is pretty much a losing strategy for Black people, since for hundreds of years the mass
media system has been training us all to see all Black people as criminals.

But respectability politics will probably always continue.

You note that half of the royalties from the book’s sales go to the Mobile Voices Project. Can you tell us more about this project and the ways that it helps to address some of the issues your book has identified?

VozMob is an incredible experience in popular education, participatory research and design, and community organizing, centered around amplifying the voices of immigrant workers in Los Angeles by appropriating mobile phones for popular communication. It began around 2007, and the project is still going strong in 2015. I urge readers to visit the project site, where there are now thousands of posts from day laborers, household workers, students, and other folks from the community around the Institute of Popular Education of Southern California (IDEPSCA). You can also read more about the participatory research and design process that produced the project in the book chapter that was coauthored by the project participants, including community members, organizers, university based researchers, and designers. The chapter is titled “Mobile Voices,” (coauthored with 12 members of the VozMob project), it can be found in Minna Aslama and Phil Napoli (eds.), Communications Research in Action: Scholar-Activist Collaborations for a Democratic Public Sphere. Bronx, NY: Fordham University Press, 2010. (A preprint version is here).

The VozMob Drupal Distribution is the free/libre open source software that powers, and its features have been developed through participatory design. This same code now powers the hosted mobile platform called . So far, it has been localized, including all interactive voice menu elements, in English, Brazilian
Portuguese, and Spanish. It’s been used by migrant workers in Mexico to report recruitment fraud , by Afro-Brazilian teens from a fishing village in Salvador, Brazil to report environmental damage from a chemical spill, in Hong Kong by participants in the Umbrella Movement to record songs and poems from the streets, among many other projects. It
has been used in Los Angeles, Boston, New York City, Detroit, and locations across the United States. It powers the Tribeca award-winning participatory documentary project Sandy Storyline, which documents people’s experiences surviving Hurricane Sandy and the subsequent recovery efforts.

The VozMob code has been useful to such a wide range of groups because it was developed hand in hand with a user community whose experience of communication technology is similar to that of the majority of human beings (cheap cell phones, poor, sporadic internet access), but whose needs, ideas, and stories are rarely considered by a system of
technology design that is centered on what’s profitable. That system is run by mostly white (and Asian) middle class cishet men in the 1/3rd world who have been socialized into a startup culture that sadly reproduces some of the worst of heteropatriarchy, capitalism, and white supremacy. I’m not saying developers are bad guys, I’m saying the
structure of technology development militates towards making potentially profitable apps for a small, relatively homogenous sliver of the global population. VozMob is an important counterexample. VozMob is looking for
a new round of financial support and volunteers, get in touch with them on twitter at @vozmob!

My next book, which I’m in the process of writing now, is going to be focused on exactly these questions of design and social justice. Who gets to design technologies? Who are they designed for? Who benefits the most from the design process as it’s currently structured? What do already existing alternative models of technology design look like, and
how can we scale them, how can we make radically inclusive design the norm? We’ve been exploring these questions in courses like the Civic Media Co-Design Studio at MIT, event spaces like the Future Design Lab at the Allied Media Conference , and in community-led projects at Research Action Design. This work feels incredibly urgent to me right now, and I hope that folks who are interested in these questions will get in touch! hmu: @schock.

Thank you so much Henry!

Sasha Costanza-Chock is Associate Professor of Civic Media at MIT. He’s a scholar, activist, and media-maker who works on co-design and media justice. Sasha is Co-Principal Investigator at the MIT Center for Civic Media , creator of the MIT Codesign Studio and a Faculty Associate at the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard Law School. His book Out of the Shadows, Into the Streets: Transmedia Organizing and the Immigrant Rights Movement was published by the MIT Press, 2014. Sasha is a board member of Allied Media Projects, a Detroit-based nonprofit that cultivates media strategies for a more just, creative, and collaborative world. He’s also a worker/owner at Research Action Design, a worker-owned cooperative that uses community-led research, transformative media organizing, technology development, and collaborative design to build the power of grassroots social movements.


On Transmedia and Transformative Media Organizing: An Interview with MIT’s Sasha Costanza-Chock (Part Two)

You structure the book around the concept of “transmedia organizing.” How are you defining this term? How does it relate to the forms of transmedia storytelling, entertainment, and branding that have surfaced in recent years?

To be honest, over the past year the framing I use has shifted from “transmedia organizing” to “transformative media organizing,” largely because of my involvement in the research, skill-share, and design
process of the Transformative Media Organizing project. Our definition of transformative media organizing is as follows:

“Transformative media organizing is a liberatory approach to integrating media, communications, and cultural work into movement building. It lies at the place where media justice and transformative organizing overlap. Transformative media organizers begin with an intersectional analysis of linked systems of race, class, gender, sexuality, ability, and other axes of identity. We seek to do media work that develops the critical consciousness and leadership of those who take part in the media-making process; create media in ways that are deeply accountable to the movement base; invite our communities to participate in media production; create media strategically across platforms, and root our work in community action.”

More about this model can be found here  and a summary of our findings about how LGBTQ and Two-Spirit organizations in the US are using media in their organizing work is here.

But to answer your original question, my thoughts about the definition,history, and relationship of transmedia organizing to transmedia storytelling are best expressed in the following excerpt from the book (pages 47-50):

The term “transmedia organizing” is a mash-up of the concept of transmedia storytelling, as elaborated by media studies scholars, and ideas from social movement studies. In the early 1990s the scholar Marsha Kinder developed the idea of transmedia intertextuality to refer to the flow of branded and gendered commodities across television,
films, and toys. Kinder was interested in stories and brands that unfolded across platforms, and took care to analyze them in the context of broader systemic transformation of the media industries. She focused especially on the deregulation of children’s television during the Reagan years. Throughout the 1970s, Action for Children’s Television, a grassroots nonprofit organization with 20,000 members, organized for higher-quality children’s TV and against advertising within children’s programming, with some success. However, by the early 1980s both the Federal Communications Commission and the National Association of Broadcasters were pushing aggressively to abandon limits on advertising to children and product-based programming. It was during this shift that Kinder conducted a series of media ethnographies with children. She was interested in better understanding young people’s relationships to franchises such as Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, which children experienced across platforms as a comic magazine, an animated TV series, a line of toys, a video game, and so on. She found that cross-platform stories and branded commodities not only increased both toy and ad sales but also produced highly gendered consumer subjectivity in children.

In 2003, Henry Jenkins [that’s you! :) ] reworked the concept for an era of horizontally integrated transnational media conglomerates, and defined transmedia storytelling as follows:

“Transmedia storytelling represents a process where integral elements of a fiction get dispersed systematically across multiple delivery channels for the purpose of creating a unified and coordinated entertainment experience. Ideally, each medium makes its own unique contribution to the unfolding of the story.”

He went on to articulate the key points of transmedia storytelling in the context of a converged media system. Chief among them are the following: transmedia storytelling is the ideal form for media conglomerates to circulate their franchises across platforms; transmedia storytelling involves “world building” rather than closed plots and individual characters; it involves multiple entry points for varied audience segments; it requires co-creation and collaboration by different divisions of a company; it provides roles for readers to take on in their daily lives; it is open to participation by fans; and it is “ the ideal aesthetic form for an era of collective intelligence.”

In the decade since Jenkins’s 2003 explanation of these key elements, the media industries have increasingly adopted transmedia storytelling as a core strategy. The term transmedia is now regularly used to describe the work of professional producers who create cross-platform stories with participatory media components. Individuals, consultancies, and firms, initially small boutique shops but increasingly also units within larger media companies, have positioned themselves as transmedia producers. In 2010 the Producers Guild of America announced the inclusion of “transmedia producer” in the Guild’s Producers Code of Credits for the first time. More recently, institutions such as the Sundance Institute and the Tribeca Film Festival have begun to recognize, fund, curate, and promote transmedia projects.

In 2009 the media strategist Lina Srivastava proposed that activists and media artists might apply the ideas of transmedia storytelling to social change, through what she termed transmedia activism:

“There is a real and distinct opportunity for activists to influence action and raise cause awareness by distributing content through a multi platform approach, particularly in which people participate in media creation.” (see Lina’s blog).

Several firms now explicitly describe themselves as working on transmedia activism. In 2008 the Mexican film star Gael Garcia Bernal and the director Marc Silver (with Srivastava as a strategy consultant) launched the transmedia activism production company Resist Network.

New examples of transmedia storytelling for social change emerge on a regular basis. Many of these projects are honest attempts to translate the lessons of transmedia storytelling from entertainment and advertising into strategies that could be used for activism and advocacy. Others seem more ambiguous, as transmedia producers who primarily work with corporate clients identify opportunities to win contracts with social issue filmmakers, nonprofit organizations, and NGOs. In any case, by 2013 there were several high-profile, professionally produced transmedia campaigns focused specifically on immigrant rights. Jose Antonio Vargas’s project Define American, Laurene Powell Jobs – backed (and Davis Guggenheim – produced) film The Dream is Now, and the Silicon Valley campaign (spearheaded by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg) are probably the three best known, and I return to them in chapter 7.

I am excited by the growing interest in transmedia storytelling for social change among media professionals. However, in this book the term transmedia organizing does not center on the emerging professionalization of transmedia strategy, whether for entertainment, advertising, or activism. Instead of carefully managed media initiatives, I primarily emphasize organic, bottom-up processes. More broadly, I suggest that social movements have always engaged in transmedia organizing, and the process has become more visible as key aspects of movement media-making come online. This is not to suggest that nothing new is taking place. However, I believe that the recent emphasis on technological transformation is misplaced, to the degree that it blinds us to a comprehensive analysis of social movement media practices. In addition, while movements do already engage in transmedia organizing, they can be more effective if they are intentional about this approach. To that end, I suggest the following definition:

“Transmedia organizing includes the creation of a narrative of social transformation across multiple media platforms, involving the movement’s base in participatory media making, and linking attention directly to concrete opportunities for action. Effective transmedia organizing is also accountable to the needs of the movement’s base.”

I contend that transmedia organizing involves the construction of social movement identity, beyond individual campaign messaging; it requires co-creation and collaboration across multiple social movement groups; it provides roles and actions for movement participants to take on in their daily life; it is open to participation by the social base of the movement; and it is the key strategic media form for social movements in the current media ecology. While the end goal of corporate transmedia storytelling is to generate profits, the end goal of transmedia organizing is to strengthen social movement identity, win political and economic victories, and transform the consciousness of broader publics. Effective transmedia organizing also includes accountability mechanisms so that the narrative and the actions it promotes remain grounded in the experience and needs of the social movement’s base.

The full chapter, and book, can be downloaded for free.

Sasha Costanza-Chock is Associate Professor of Civic Media at MIT. He’s a scholar, activist, and media-maker who works on co-design and media justice. Sasha is Co-Principal Investigator at the MIT Center for Civic Media , creator of the MIT Codesign Studio and a Faculty Associate at the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard Law School. His book Out of the Shadows, Into the Streets: Transmedia Organizing and the Immigrant Rights Movement was published by the MIT Press, 2014. Sasha is a board member of Allied Media Projects, a Detroit-based nonprofit that cultivates media strategies for a more just, creative, and collaborative world. He’s also a worker/owner at Research Action Design, a worker-owned cooperative that uses community-led research, transformative media organizing, technology development, and collaborative design to build the power of grassroots social movements.

On Transmedia and Transformative Politics: An Interview with MIT’s Sasha Costanza-Chock (Part One)

I have had a chance to get to know Sasha Costanza-Chock through the years — first as a PhD candidate at USC Annenberg, finishing up his degree as I was arriving here, and now, more recently, as a faculty member at the MIT Comparative Media Studies Program, where he has been active in the Center for Civic Media. I have developed enormous respect for Costanza-Chock’s skills as a scholar and commitment as an activist. He is someone whose work contributes much to our understanding of emerging forms of political activism, which he has variously characterized as  Transmedia or Transformative Mobilization.

His earliest work centered around the immigrant rights movement in Los Angles and has culminated in Out of the Shadows, Into the Streets: Transmedia Organizing and the Immigrant Rights Movement,  published earlier this year by MIT Press. More recently, he has expanded his focus to deal with the Occupy movement and even more recently, to do work on GLBT activism.

Costanza-Chock’s work is deeply grounded in the life of the communities he is researching — we might think of his approach as being as much about collaboration, researching with, as it is investigating, researching about, and in this interview, he has much to say about the ethical principles he thinks should govern academic researchers doing work on and with oppressed peoples. I was lucky enough to have been able to read his original dissertation and we drew extensively on his work for the section on activism in Spreadable Media and it has been an important influence on our thinking as we developed By Any Media Necessary, my team’s forthcoming book on contemporary youth and the civic imagination.

I was delighted, then, when he agreed to do this interview, and even more pleased when I read his substantive, thoughtful, and challenging responses to my questions. You are in for a treat.

You describe this project as emerging from a process of participatory research. In this case, what shape did this participatory research take? How would you characterize your relationship to the movements you discuss here?

Thank you so much for inviting me to your blog! I really appreciate the opportunity. I should start by making clear that while I’m informed by Participatory Action Research (PAR) as a research stance, Out of the Shadows, Into the Streets! isn’t itself a participatory research project. I say that because the research agenda and questions that the book addresses are mine, as are the instruments, the analytical process, the conclusions and recommendations. The questions I explore in the book, about the relationship between social movements and the rapidly changing media ecology, are not questions that first and foremost came from the immigrant rights movement groups I worked with and researched.

In PAR, joint inquiry centers the research agenda of the community. The community partner defines the area of investigation, and, if there is an outside researcher at all, they work together to develop the research questions, choose methods, develop instruments, collect observations, and analyze the findings together, in order to inform the next stage of action. This is the iterative cycle of reflection and action, built around situated and contingent knowledge, that Dewey talked about as joint inquiry, and that Freire described in terms of praxis.

That said, during the time I worked on the book (2006-2014), I did take part in a number of participatory research and participatory design processes with immigrant rights organizations. For example, while I was a doctoral student at USC Anneberg I had the good fortune to take Sandra Ball-Rokeach’s course on engaged scholarship (Comm 653, Research,
Practice, and Social Change), a course that she co-teaches with Barbara Osborn from the Liberty Hill Foundation. That course provided a crucial space for me to learn about the underpinnings, history, theory, and challenges of engaged research, while working closely with the Garment Worker Center to co-develop the Radio Tijera project.

Radio Tijera was an audio production workshop, pirate radio station, and CD series that mixed popular music with personal stories, history, and know your rights PSAs. It was produced by garment workers from the Garment Worker Center in LA’s Fashion District, with support from simmi gandi, Amanda Garces, and myself. Audio pieces from Radio Tijeras are still available online.

It was participatory design that felt really grounded in the needs of the community and the organization: hundreds of the CDs we produced were handed out and passed from person to person in the garment sweatshops in downtown LA, where many people listen to music all day, in part because in some shops they are told by the boss that they’re not
allowed to talk to one another. The CDs (we called them Discos Volantes, a Spanish language double pun on ‘Discs,’ ‘Flyers,’ as in an event flyer, and ‘Flying Saucers’) were used as an organizing tool to bring a number of new workers into the orbit of GWC, where they got involved in struggles for higher wages, safer working conditions, and human dignity in the garment industry. Steve Anderson from the Institute for Multimedia Literacy and the Cinema school also guided an independent study with me that gave me space to do community based multimedia work.

And while at Annenberg I had the chance to work with the Mobile Voices project, with all of the folks from the Institute of Popular Education of Southern California (IDEPSCA) and the team from USC, led by Francois Bar, which used participatory research and design to build the award-winning VozMob project . All of this work, and other participatory research, design, and media-making projects that I describe in more detail in the book, informed my understanding of the immigrant rights movement, grounded my research in real world experience as an active ally, and helped me build trust and credibility with many of the immigrant rights activists I later interviewed.

But I’m emphasizing that the book itself is not PAR, because it seems like a lot of researchers from the academy pay lip service to participatory research (and participatory design). Many are honestly excited by the idea, and that’s an important shift that should be supported. Unfortunately, there’s also sometimes a tendency to run a workshop or two with a community based partner and start calling the process participatory.

In the worst cases, this can actually end up masking an extractive process, where knowledge, ideas, design possibilities, and so on are generated by community members, whose ‘participation’ is limited to particular stages of the process (for example, brainstorming or taking part in a design charette). Participation in this mode produces ‘raw materials’ that are taken away by outside researchers and designers to be reworked and synthesized in ways that generate benefits (publications, products, attribution for concepts, and so on) that accrue primarily to the research or design professionals. The extractive process is usually not intentional (although occasionally it is, that’s another conversation), but it does do damage, not least in terms of the time and energy it takes up from people with scarce resources.

Happily, that’s the worst case :) There is also a growing community of people who are working to advance strong, grounded, meaningful approaches to participatory research in a wide range of fields. For example, the UCLA Labor Center  does an incredible job at this, as does the Public Science Project at CUNY. There are vibrant spaces outside of the academy, such as the Research Justice track at the Allied Media Conference, that are hubs for community based researchers. My partner Chris Schweidler has been working with this network for years, and is now developing and sharing concrete tools for participatory research through the worker-owned cooperative Research Action Design (RAD), of which I’m proud to be a founding member and worker/owner.

You suggest you want to move us beyond current debates about social movements and social media. What do you think partisans in those debates get wrong and what does your book offer as an alternative?

If I had to boil it down I’d say there are at least three places where most of the current debates go wrong. The ‘offline/online’ distinction, the ‘clicktivism’ conversation, and the technocentrism of most analysis of social movements and ICTs. There’s also the failure to focus on the transformative power of media making in a social movement context, where one of the most important outcomes is that people, through making media, become personally, deeply transformed in the process.

As for the first point, the ‘online/offline’ debate seems to be finally (if slowly) dying. As the net becomes fully integrated into everyday life, and as internet enabled mobile devices become more widespread, it’s become increasingly clear that people who participate in social movements do so both ‘offline’ and ‘online,’ and don’t tend to think about their own participation in these terms at all. If you care about something, and take part in a social movement, you aren’t sitting there as you share something on social media ‘Oh, now I’m an online activist!’ When you go to a ‘face to face’ rally or protest action, you’re not thinking ‘I’m taking part in offline social movement activity!’ You’re probably taking pictures at the ‘offline’ action and sharing them via social media, or sending SMS to friends about it. Since I’m a fan of grounded theory that draws from, reflects, and is useful to the ways people think about their own activity, I’ve never thought the online/offline debates were very interesting.

More recently, analyses of survey data are increasingly supportive of the idea that the distinction doesn’t hold much water. Most (but not all!) people who are politically active are active both ‘online’ and ‘off,’ (whatever ‘offline’ means for most people today). I’m not articulating this well; I’d recommend Paulo Gerbaudo’s excellent book Tweets and the Streets for a more lucid breakdown of the point.

For a counterargument, check out Oser, Hooghe, and Marien, 2013, who review the 2008 Pew data that was analyzed by Schlozman et al in 2010; they use latent class factor analysis of 5 offline and 5 online measures of political participation, and find that there are clusters of people who are politically active both online and offline, a cluster of people who are politically active just offline (they don’t have much internet access), and a (majority) cluster of people who aren’t politically active at all (online or offline). They do identify a small cluster who are more politically active according to online measures than offline measures, and they take that finding to imply that there is indeed a useful distinction between online and offline activists.

However, I read their findings to primarily indicate that most people are politically active or they’re not, both online and off, unless they don’t have much internet access. Hirzalla and Zoonen find that for young people, distinguishing between online/offline may not make much sense (Hirzalla, F and Van Zoonen, EA (2011). “Beyond the Online/Offline Divide: How Youth’s Online and Offline Civic Activities Converge”, Social Science Computer Review, online first December 4, Social Science Computer Review, 29(4), pp.481-498.)

Gibson and Cantijoch (2013) draw similar conclusions from a factor analysis of a 2010 UK survey with 18 questions about online and offline political participation (Rachel Gibson and Marta Cantijoch. “Conceptualizing and measuring participation in the age of the internet: Is online political engagement really different to offline?” Journal of Politics 75, no. 3(2013) : 707-716. eScholarID:178410 | DOI:10.1017/S0022381613000431).  Here I’m summarizing a longer discussion of this literature in soon-to-be-published work by Benjamin Bowyer and Joseph Kahn.

For the second point, I also think we can move beyond the so-called ‘clicktivism’ or ‘slacktivism’ question, most famously raised by Malcolm Gladwell, of whether the internet weakens social movements because it allows people to think they have done something meaningful with a mouse click. This mistaken debate is easily sidestepped by talking to a few real world organizers and activists, who learned quickly and early on about the ladder of engagement, where your job is to connect with people who take a small action (say, clicking ‘share’), find the subset of those people who are willing to take a slightly larger action, then identify the subset of those people who might be interested in
themselves becoming organizers, and so on. The more sophisticated version of this argument is about whether people are now abandoning social movement organizations and political parties, which had staying power, in favor of networked activism, which can move quickly but is often a ‘flash in the pan.’

That’s interesting. If it’s true that people are abandoning deeper engagement in political, civic, and social movement activity, and focusing primarily on networked forms of participation, then for the most part, institutional actors just need to learn how to weather the storm – not a good outcome for democracy. On the other hand, how do we reconcile the argument that people no longer want to participate in ‘real world’ organizations, with the continued mushrooming of those organizations? Just look at figures for the long term growth in the number and size of 501(c)3s over time, for example (there are around 250,000 in the US, according to the Urban Institute.

It’s also arguable that we’re entering a ‘golden age’ of movement activity, where people participate in networked activism, get politicized quickly, and later join the ever more diverse array of movement organizations, where they connect and stay for the long haul of institutional change.

How about the question about whether ICTs make social movements ‘more participatory?’ To me, in this frame technology adoption is conflated with forms of democratic participation. In other words, an alternate hypothesis might run as follows: there are strong or weak, top down or bottom up, institutional or participatory, forms of democracy. Any particular institution, organization, or network may be evaluated along these lines, independently of the communication technologies that are popular (widespread) at a given moment. It still seems to me to be an
understudied question: what, if any, is the relationship between the dominant forms of technology and the strength or weakness of participation in democratic institutions?

For one thing, some indicators of democratic participation (voting rates, for example) imply that widespread adoption of the internet produce a steady decline in democratic participation, although I believe that’s correlation, not causation. In fact the height of democratic participation may have been during the age when newspapers and radio (top down, broadcast, one way, for the most part, although not entirely) were dominant!

For another, we now know that networked ICTs are quite excellent tools for top down communicative processes, like political parties, corporations, or military organizations. For example, the Obama campaign’s masterful use of the net and social media incorporated participatory elements, but was ultimately a top down show that was shut down as soon as he won the election.

More broadly, I just don’t know why there is so much writing that is platform-centric. This goes as follows: pick a platform, then study whether activists are using it for something. Then, when you find that they are, write about how the affordances of the platform are so enabling for a new generation of activists. Really?

To me, it makes so much more sense to start with social movements. Start with the activists. Pick a movement, connect with it, engage with it, and then ask questions about how the activists, organizers, and everyday people in that movement are using media and ICTs. What do people do with these tools? They use them to create and circulate narratives, ideas, proposals, and demands, to invite and incite, to get people out in the streets and onto the net, to build the power of their movement.

Real world social movements aren’t platform specific. They aren’t making a ‘Twitter Revolution.’ They’re using any media necessary. They’re engaged in transmedia organizing.

Sasha Costanza-Chock is Associate Professor of Civic Media at MIT. He’s a scholar, activist, and media-maker who works on co-design and media justice. Sasha is Co-Principal Investigator at the MIT Center for Civic Media, creator of the MIT Codesign Studio, and a Faculty Associate at the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard Law School. His book Out of the Shadows, Into the Streets: Transmedia Organizing and the Immigrant Rights Movement was published by the MIT Press, 2014. Sasha is a board member of Allied Media Projects, a Detroit-based nonprofit that cultivates media strategies for a more just, creative, and collaborative world. He’s also a worker/owner at Research Action Design, a worker-owned cooperative that uses community-led research, transformative media organizing, technology development, and collaborative design to build the power of grassroots social movements.

Connected Learning through Minecraft: An Interview with the Three Co-Founders of Connected Camps (Part Two)


I’ve definitely seen a lot of interest in Minecraft in education, but is there any evidence for its value as an educational environment?

Mimi: We are still in the early days of educators experimenting with Minecraft, so you aren’t going to see the kind of robust outcomes-centered work that are characteristic of more established subjects and methods. On top of this, the open-ended and malleable nature of Minecraft as an educational tool and environment works against standardized, content-centered programs that are easier to test and measure.

Educators have used Minecraft in such a wide variety of ways, ranging from teaching specific social science or math topics, to coding, to offering it as an open ended sandbox for play and problem solving. In fact, there is considerable debate within the educator community about the best uses of Minecraft. These debates mirror the longstanding schisms between content and skills centered approaches and more progressive, learner centered approaches in education. So the differences run much deeper than Minecraft itself.

What this means is that we can look to the existing evidence base for learning outcomes, even though the research on Minecraft specifically is still limited. As you probably gleaned, our Minecraft program sits in the social constructivist and learner-centered camp, and is grounded in the model of connected learning that has been developed over the past decade by a network of researchers, designers, and educators, many of whom have been associated with the MacArthur foundation funded Digital Media and Learning Initiative.

My earlier work as part of the Digital Youth Study and the current work of the Connected Learning Research Network, which I chair, has amassed a large body of evidence that has guided our approach. Henry, your work on participatory culture and new media literacy is also a cornerstone of this work.

In a nutshell, the research points to the profound impact of learning that is centered on collaborative creation, and is connected to young people’s genuine interests. When we give kids the opportunity to develop friendships and connect with experts while building and problem solving together, we have found time and time again that the experience is transformative. Not only do they retain specific content and skills better, but they also acquire higher-order skills like problem solving, teamwork, and literacy.

They also develop meaningful and lasting relationships that help them find their place in the world, and can be tied to concrete opportunities. For example, kids who were part of last summer’s servers have formed lasting friendships and stay in touch. And even though our summer camp hasn’t even started yet, we’ve already found job opportunities for some of our counselors.

These are just small examples of the much broader evidence base for how these kind of connected learning programs make a difference in kids’ lives. For anybody interested in learning more, the case studies of learning in youth affinity networks from our research network, or the resources at the Connected Learning Alliance provide a wealth of additional reading material!


All of your work in education so far has been in the research and non-profit sector. Why did you decide to cross over to the for profit sector? Have you gotten any criticism about running an educational program as a for-profit tech startup?

Katie: I was drawn to this project because of the unique model it afforded: a social venture (Connected Camps is a California-based benefit corporation) partnering with a non-profit, founded by people with deep experience in research and mission-driven startups. Any one of those sectors has inherent limitations but in combination there is a real possibility for innovation not only in content or product, but in sustainability models and the reach and impact the work can have.

Tara: My background is in building software platforms so my immediate thought is scale. When you run a locally based, mission focused nonprofit like the LA Makerspace, there are limitations. Working in the digital space, you don’t have those barriers and running as a for profit with a social mission offers Connected Camps the ability to raise the capital that we need to scale globally but keep us grounded in our mission to provide kids with the resources and support they need to learn and level up through their interests.

There are a lot of examples of organizations that start a non profit arm so they can focus on a mission that isn’t profit driven. As a benefit corp we are starting at ground zero with this approach and we have received a lot of positive feedback from startups that are also socially driven and interested in the same model. I think that we are going to see more and more benefit corporations starting up, especially by socially focused Generation Z who go out of their way to purchase products and services from businesses that they know are helping to create a better world.

Mimi: Even in the few months since we’ve launched the new company, I’ve learned so much about what an entrepreneurial and startup mindset can bring to the table. As Tara mentions, locating the work in a for-profit has enabled us to tap different kinds of funding sources and vehicles.

Unlike a grant or a contract, an investment isn’t oriented to a pre-defined product or outcome, but is a bet on the success and sustainability of a team and company. It gives us more flexibility to iterate, test, and pivot when needed.There is a not-insignificant contingent of the tech sector who embraces progressive goals and and would like to improve education, but who are skeptical that traditional non-profit organizations and vehicles can achieve these aims. I see an opportunity for socially minded edtech ventures to tap into both the culture and capital of the tech sector.

A tech startup is relentless about focus on providing value to people and offering what can spread and eventually be sustainable. I’ve found it interesting how important the research and evidence-based orientation is, and that part feels both familiar and different. Connected Camps is  evidence-driven in that it is grounded in decades of primary research and more recent design research. But what’s different from my work in the academy is that it is also evidence and market accountable. We can’t afford to develop offerings that people aren’t going to take up, and the marketplace provides immediate feedback if something isn’t understandable or valuable to the people we are seeking to serve.

The relentless focus on traction and sustainability can of course have its downside too, which is why Connected Camps is a b-corp and why Summer of Minecraft is a co-venture with a nonprofit. We are lucky to have tech investors and advisors who are committed to the social mission as well as the sustainability of the company.

I’m sure as our work gets more visibility, and hopefully more traction, we will need to navigate thorny tensions between the culture and values of the various communities we are bridging through this work. For example, we are working with public libraries and schools to provide opportunities for free for kids who don’t have the resources to play Minecraft from home, while also serving families through our paid subscriptions who have abundant tech resource and are used to paying much more for summer camps. This is about the tensions between nonprofit and for profit educational programs, as well as tensions between the commerce and the more community and volunteer-based orientations in participatory culture and gaming. For example, we have already gotten some pushback from people in the Minecraft world about charging for access to our servers.

The bottom line is that I feel every child deserves to have connected learning experiences, and online programs like ours provide a unique opportunity to spread these opportunities at a low cost to families in all walks of life. I feel we should use all of the resources, communities, and tools at our disposal to accomplish this, and that includes networked participatory culture, the traditional non-profit sector, corporations, as well as the tech startup scene. This latest venture is consistent with my prior work in being an effort to achieve the longstanding goals of progressive education with the tools of our times.

Mimi Ito, Ph.D., is Professor in Residence and MacArthur Foundation Chair in Digital Media and Learning at UC Irvine. She also serves as Research Director of the Digital Media and Learning Research Hub and as Chair of the Connected Learning Research Network.

Katie Salen Tekinbaş is a Professor in the College of Computing and Digital Media at DePaul University. She co-founded Institute of Play. She also led the team that founded Quest to Learn and helped found CICS ChicagoQuest.

Tara Brown is a technologist and entrepreneur. She co-founded LA Makerspace. She is the Technology Director at the Digital Media and Learning Research Hub. She has contributed as an Artist-in-Residence at MuseumsQuartier in Vienna and a Hacker-in-Residence at Sparkfun Electronics.


Connected Learning through Minecraft: An Interview with the Three Co-Founders of Connected Camps (Part One)

A few weeks ago, I featured a thoughtful post on Minecraft and its relationship to “transmedia learning,” written by Barry Joseph, the Associate Director of Digital Learning at The American Museum of Natural History. Joseph’s analysis generated enormous interest from my readers, and for good reason, since there has been growing educational activity around Minecraft over the past few years and we are reaching the point where we can speak with some confidence about the payoffs in terms of fostering a learning culture. Over the next few posts, I want to drill deeper into some of that research and share more about the ways Minecraft has become a key site for thinking about connected learning.

Mimi Ito, Katie Salen Tekinbaş and Tara Brown are long time fellow travelers games and learning field and the movement for connected learning. This spring, they launched a new benefit corporation, Connected Camps, dedicated to building social and connected online learning environments for kids. Their startup’s first project, which is being produced in collaboration with Katie’s nonprofit, Institute of Play, is an online Minecraft summer camp. (For those interested, I have just finished a book length conversation with Mimi Ito and danah boyd, Participatory Culture in a Networked Era: A Conversation on Youth, Learning, Commerce, and Politics, due out from Polity later this year.)

I’ve asked them to share some of the background and thinking behind this new venture, and what prompted them to launch a tech startup.



You don’t often see a tech startup being launched by three women. How did that come about?

Tara: Connected Camps is the evolution of years of collective work around supporting kids in learning through their passionate interests. I founded the community focused nonprofit, LA Makerspace, where interest-driven learning and mentoring are key to its success. A few years ago I learned about Mimi’s research on connected learning and how effective a model it is for kids to learn and it was very validating to find out that learning outside the classroom is just as important as inside the classroom. We decided to work on an online mentor matching project together based on StarCraft at UC Irvine Digital Media Learning Research Hub and that’s when I met Katie and all the amazing work that she does with kids and gaming. I think individually we each saw how interest in games based learning was growing and that there was a real opportunity to bring our expertise to an area that has a lot of passion behind it but was still a very open field for innovation and entrepreneurism.

In terms of us being women, that’s just an awesome benefit, it wasn’t forced. If you pay attention to startup news there are a lot of stories written about female founders and how they are still a minority and don’t get the support that they need from the startup community. What’s fortunate for the three of us is that we are already part of the communities that we are serving because of our individual expertise in the education and technology spaces and together we are a trifecta of tech, research and practice that you rarely see in any tech startup let alone an education focused tech startup.

Katie: The three of us have collaborated off and on over the years both through my work at Institute of Play and as a design researcher and professor focused on the space of games and learning. Mimi and I had worked on several connected learning case studies focused on LittleBigPlanet and Starcraft; I connected with Tara years ago around a project with a big fashion company that was looking to develop an online design curriculum and mentorship program. When interests are aligned and there is a shared goal around doing innovative work to support kids in developing their passions and interests around design and technology, collaboration in a natural outgrowth. Plus Mimi and Tara are two of the smartest, coolest, hardest-working people I know–who wouldn’t want to work with them! The fact that we’re all women in tech may seem unusual to some, but to us it is just normal. It is the work we love to do.

When Mimi and Tara started talking about scaling the Minecraft camp pilots they had been running, we started talking about how Institute of Play might become a core partner in the venture. There was a need for curriculum design and mentor training support for the camp, and the Institute was interested in expanding the work it had been doing with young people around Minecraft, design and coding. Once we looked into how the two organizations could collaborate, it just seemed to make a lot of sense.

Mimi: Tara and Katie have both had experience in the startup space since they’ve been part of starting new nonprofits and companies. This is my first startup, and I’m learning a ton from my two co-founders. The three of us all embrace a spirit of entrepreneurism that is characteristic of the startup and commercial sector, as well as an appreciation for the social and educational agendas that are most often associated with the public and nonprofit sector. This new startup is an effort to build something that leverages the strength of both of these orientations.

Katie and I are both non-traditional academics in that we’ve tied our work to collaborations with a wide range of commercial and nonprofit partners outside of the academy. So this project felt just right for us. I have a very clear memory of sitting down at a family dinner with Tara many years ago when she was considering leaving the tech world to get a doctorate so that she could pursue more of her interests in the research and social good side of things. I somehow managed to convince her to collaborate on some early design research that could serve education while also growing organically out of her strengths as a tech entrepreneur. And that was the start of this adventure.

Why did you choose to focus on Minecraft?

Katie: Minecraft was one of the first games the middle school students we were working with at Quest to Learn demanded be part of their curriculum. It started informally as a club—we helped the school set up a server and two Institute of Play game designers (Claudio Midolo and Brendon Trombley), who were embedded in the school as part of our work with teachers there, supported the kids who joined. Soon teachers in the school started stopping by the club, as the kids were talking non-stop about all the amazing things they were doing in the game.

Activities like building structures that required players to understand geometric concepts and physics; building interactive objects with switches and triggers that sounded a lot like computer programming. And then there were the stories of how the kids were collaborating and having to deal with interpersonal conflicts that came up as they were learning how to negotiate sharing a common space and resources on the multiplayer server. The teachers were intrigued—the student accounts sounded a lot like super engaged, good learning.

From there things grew. Some of the teachers started using Minecraft in their classrooms and soon the game was being used across a number of grades in the school. This story is not unique–many schools and educators from around the country have been using Minecraft with their students. When thinking about a core platform for Connected Camps, the fact that there was already buy-in from both kids and educators really helped. We know kids love the game. The fact that many educators do too, expanded the radius of possibility of what could be done with the camp and the impact it could have.

Tara: It’s hard to ignore the phenomenon of Minecraft. You have to be hiding under a rock to not notice almost every 10 year old in America talking about it. Even kids who don’t play Minecraft watch players on YouTube.

Last summer, my team at the Connected Learning Alliance ran an online camp pilot under Pursuitery. Our experiment was simple – we wanted to test whether kids would participate in a purely online summer camp. The camps included Scratch, a visual programming language out of MIT, Phonar Nation, a photography course developed by Jonathan Worth, Mozilla Webmaker, a platform to learn how to design webpages and remix media and Minecraft. We had different levels of engagement in each camp but the one camp that stood out the most in terms of engagement was Minecraft.

Minecraft had a lot of the tools we needed to communicate with the kids already built into the community and the game including the chat feature and It’s a game that appeals to a broad category of interests and skill levels — you can build, craft, program, socialize, learn survival skills and more. The parents of the campers were involved and assisted in resolving conflicts. Some of the kids from that pilot are still playing with each other today — they hail from Japan, Switzerland, Canada, the US and more. It’s really exciting to see how their friendship has developed and how they have created their own in-game challenges over this past year.

Mimi: The popularity of Minecraft represents an unprecedented opportunity for those of us who value interest-driven and production-centered learning. It’s the first time we have the most popular game of our time be centered on construction and design.

My dissertation work back in the late nineties at Stanford was a cultural history of “edutainment” software that emerged in the eighties. Most titles tracked along established genres and market segments, either focused on education and school subjects, or on entertainment which was mostly about exploration and fun. I was most intrigued, however by titles in what I called the “construction” category.

The Sims games were the commercially successful titles in this category, though there were other interesting titles out of Lucas Learning and the MIT Media Lab. What’s different about Minecraft today is it is the first time this kind of construction title has been a truly dominant player in the commercial marketplace. It’s also important that it has been embraced by teachers, parents, as well as kids. For the first time, I feel there is a massively scaled platform that we can build learning experiences around that truly spans the genres of entertainment and education.



The popularity of Minecraft means a lot of educators and summer camps have embraced it. What makes your effort different?

Tara: Our philosophy around how we approach learning involves kids feeling empowered to take the lead, but in order for that to happen we have found that you need a framework and a starting point so that there is some structure in ultimately what can look like chaos from the outside.

Challenges are a great way to spark the ignition and get the campers working towards a goal. Ours are open ended enough that we don’t constrain where their interests take them. For example, our first challenge is to build a base camp. It may sound simple, but in Minecraft everyone likes to have a place that is uniquely theirs and represents their in-game identity so this is where creativity and spatial skills are used. It’s also a great way to start learning digital citizenship and social skills – such as asking for help when you need it and not to encroach on other’s creations without permission – aka griefing!

We spend a lot of time thinking about how to moderate appropriately. There’s a balance between making sure everyone is having a fantastic time and interacting positively and allowing that learning to occur naturally in the community. We have opted to moderate through a combination of server plugins to mitigate griefing and other negative behavior and real camp counselors to provide positive examples.

Katie: To me, the biggest value add of Summer of Minecraft is the access the campers have to the cohort of high school mods and college counselors that staff our multiplayer servers. We recruited the mods and counselors based on their passion for the game, their expertise with it, and their interest and ability to support young people in leveling up in building, designing and coding. It is a unique model.

The counselor program provides volunteer opportunities for high school students, who receive service learning credit, and gives college students a paid opportunity to share their expertise with others in an environment they are crazy about. More importantly, the program gives the campers a set of role models to look to and learn from over the summer.

We know how powerful camp can be for kids when they “find their people”, making connections with both peers and mentors who share their passion and interests. And the presence of the mods and counselors ensures that the servers are moderated and safe, and that kids will always have someone to connect with when they are in need of support or a little inspiration.

Mimi Ito, Ph.D., is Professor in Residence and MacArthur Foundation Chair in Digital Media and Learning at UC Irvine. She also serves as Research Director of the Digital Media and Learning Research Hub and as Chair of the Connected Learning Research Network.

Katie Salen Tekinbaş is a Professor in the College of Computing and Digital Media at DePaul University. She co-founded Institute of Play. She also led the team that founded Quest to Learn and helped found CICS ChicagoQuest.

Tara Brown is a technologist and entrepreneur. She co-founded LA Makerspace. She is the Technology Director at the Digital Media and Learning Research Hub. She has contributed as an Artist-in-Residence at MuseumsQuartier in Vienna and a Hacker-in-Residence at Sparkfun Electronics.

Videos from Transforming Hollywood 6: Alternative Realities, Worldbuilding, and Immersive Entertainment

Transforming Hollywood, previously called Transmedia Hollywood, is a conference which I organized each year in collaboration with UCLA’s Denise Mann. Our goal is to bring together academics, activists, artists, and industry leaders to reflect on some of the core trends impacting the entertainment industry today. This year, our focus was on Alternative Realities, World Building and Immersive Entertainment.

We were very proud of the results — a day long discussion that included demos and reflections on cutting edge technologies and considerations of how these tools are being used by not only mainstream commercial media makers (from the design of the forthcoming Avatar theme park attraction at Disney to the promotional work being done for Game of Thrones),  but also by alternative media-makers who want to call attention to cutting edge social issues or experiment with new artistic experiences. We also featured reflections on the historical evolution of immersive media practices, from the 19th century panorama or the dawn of world-building in the arts, through post-war experimentations in the “Democratic Surround.”  We wanted to cut through the hype about virtual reality and dig deep into how these technologies might allow us to see the world more clearly, and we wanted to spend the day thinking about the core desire for escapism and the counter-forces against it, as they play themselves out here in Hollywood. We got great responses from all of the participants and attendees about the ways the themes of this year’s event jelled into something really special.

Today, thanks to the rapid work of David McKenna, we are able to share with you the videos of the conference.  Help us spread the word.

TH6 Introduction & Panel 1- Prototype the Planet: How and Why Expansive and Immersive Worlds Are Taking Over Our Imagination from UCLA Film & TV on Vimeo.

Prototype the Planet: How and Why Expansive and Immersive Worlds Are Taking Over Our Collective Imagination Moderated by Henry Jenkins, USC

From roots in aesthetic philosophy (Nelson Goodman) and science fiction/fantasy writing (J.R.R. Tolkien), the concept of world-building has become a core concept across many design fields in the 21st century an aesthetic response to the complexities of a multidisciplinary and networked society, a means of creating content that serves the demands of transmedia entertainment. Both the brainstorming process of world-building and the worlds that emerge from that process have become sources of entertainment and education in their own right. In this opening panel, we are bringing together some key thinkers who will share with us their thoughts about:
Why world-building has gained such interest at the current moment?
What are some of the ways that world-building is being deployed for entertainment and education purposes at the moment?
What processes best support the design and development of multimedia worlds?
What they see as some of the most powerful examples of media worlds today?
What’s new about today’s fascination with world-building and how it relates to older models of speculative fiction?
And what connections do they see between world-building and the emergence of immersive and expansive media environments?
Michael Saler, author of As If: Modern Enchantment and the Literary Prehistory of Virtual Reality, professor at UC-Davis
Brenda Romero, UC Santa Cruz MS Games & Playable Media, Program Director
Ann Pendleton-Jullian, architect, professor, Ohio State University/Georgetown University
Alex Rivera, director, Sleep Dealers

TH6 Panel 2 – Brand New Vistas: VR & AR Create New Frontiers in Art and Promotion from UCLA Film & TV on Vimeo.

Brand New Vistas: VR & AR Create New Frontiers in Art and Promotion Moderated by Denise Mann, UCLA

Imagine stepping into a rickety elevator, feeling a bracing, cold wind against your neck as you are whisked 700 feet straight up a steep incline. You walk along the edge, glancing down at the abyss below, only to realize that flaming arrows are whizzing past your face. Welcome to Game of Thrones’ “Ascend the Wall” Oculus Rift experience, created by Relevant, Framestore, and the HBO marketers. A new generation of cutting edge digital artists—Felix & Paul Studios, Kite & Lightning—and innovative marketing firms—Havas and Relevant—are eager to use VR and AR to immerse participants in vivid, arresting, and sometimes nausea-inducing experiential universes. But who is going to pay for these experiments? Notably, advertisers are stepping up in record numbers, eager to give consumers an exciting new way to engage with their often mundane consumer products or services. High-end automobile manufacturers, such as Mercedes Benz, Jaguar, and BMW, invite consumers to test-drive the latest in luxury design using VR gear from the comfort of their home or office. Not sure if you want to go to Melbourne? Why not use social media to order up a virtual tourist guide and enjoy the sights and sounds of Queen Victoria Market, the Art Centre, or a sunny beach? As one pundit writes, “The promise of virtual reality has always been enormous. Put on these goggles, go nowhere, and be transported anywhere. It’s the same escapism peddled by drugs, alcohol, sex, and art — throw off the shackles of the mundane through a metaphysical transportation to an altered state.” But what if the tech, content, and brand industries see these smart technologies, sophisticated algorithms, and immersive fun as yet another means to track consumer preferences from the cradle to the grave?

Ian Cleary, VP of Ideation and Innovation, Relevant
Ikrima Elhassan, Co-founder, Kite & Lightning
Erkki Huhtamo, Professor, UCLA; Media Archaelogist, Historian and Exhibition Curator
Jez Jowett, Global Head of Creative Technology, Havas Media Group
Kamal Sinclair, Co-Director, New Frontier (Lab Programs), Sundance Institute

TH6 Panel 3 – Hip Deep in Knowledge: Virtual Museums, Immersive Journalism, and Scientific Vistas from UCLA Film & TV on Vimeo.

Hip Deep in Knowledge: Virtual Museums, Immersive Journalism, and Scientific Vistas Moderated by Robert Hernandez, USC

Our capacity to imagine — and create — alternative worlds, often in highly immersive detail, is now being harnessed as a means of storytelling and conveying knowledge across a range of different institutions and practices. Journalists can create experiences for their readers that they could not — or perhaps would not want to — experience directly. Museums have been testing new media tools and platforms as they seek to share curated experiences with their patrons. Scientists are using wide-screen projection, among other tech, to take students into the outer limits of space, educators are using simulations to help students think about real world systems, and activists are using augmented reality approaches to get people to see their communities from different perspectives. Panelists will share cutting edge research and experimentation in immersive journalism and virtual learning, inviting us to imagine new potential uses of these technologies to expand how we understand the world around us.
Nonny De La Pena, Immersive Journalist
Scott Fisher, Associate Dean of research, Professor &Founding Chair, Interactive Media Division, Director Mobile and Environmental Media Lab, USC Cinema School
Alison Griffiths, Professor, Baruch College, author of Shivers Down your Spine: Cinema, Museums, and the Immersive View
Kate McCullum, Vice President of Creative Projects, Vortex Immersive Media
BC “Heavy” Biermann, re+public labs

TH6 Panel 4 – There’s Art all Around Us: The Aesthetics of Immersive Experiences from UCLA Film & TV on Vimeo.

There’s Art all Around Us: The Aesthetics of Immersive Experiences

Moderated by Jeff Burke, UCLA

Exploring immersion via the new technologies of an era has long been a part of the avant-garde in theater, film, architecture, and other art forms. The panelists will share their ideas about what contemporary innovations by artists and technologists operating at the boundaries of commercial entertainment may herald for the future of immersive storytelling.Key questions for the participants include:

What are new ways to create (fictional) overlays on everyday life (e.g., Project Tango, Hololens).
What do these changes mean for world-building based storytelling?
What will be the ongoing evolution of the film and television screen as each moves towards a mobile, context-sensitive, and personalized media surface?
What will these new screens, contexts, and surfaces mean for storytellers?
What are the implications of having the authorship of story and code increasingly paired in the creation of immersive experiences?
And, finally, what next directions for immersion are suggested by direct interfaces between technology and the human body?

Ana Serrano, Chief Digital Officer, Canadian Film Centre.
Sara Thacher, Creative Lead, Walt Disney Imagineering Research and Development; previously experience designer for The Jejune Institute
Barry Threw, Director of Software, Obscura Digital
Fred Turner, Associate Professor of Communication, Stanford University

TH6 – A Conversation with Jon Landau from UCLA Film & TV on Vimeo.

A Conversation with Jon Landau

At the close of Transforming Hollywood 6, UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television lecturer Tom Nunan, an executive producer of the Academy Award-winning film, Crash, will speak with Academy Award-winning producer Jon Landau. They will cover subjects ranging from virtual production and intellectual property expansion strategies to Landau’s groundbreaking work with filmmaker James Cameron and how it has influenced other technological advances in VR.

Immersive Hollywood from MA+P @ USC on Vimeo.

Last but certainly not least, here’s a great montage of Hollywood’s representations of immersive entertainment, curated by USC’s own Steve Anderson. If you saw, and liked, the segment on man/machine interfaces he created for our Cyberpunk conference, then you know this video is not to be missed.


I Am Majid: A Case Study of the Iranian Green Movement


I Am Majid: A Case Study of the Iranian Green Movement

Amin Ansari


The Greens’ Art project is a repository of user-generated content produced and circulated during the pre- and post-election crisis period in Iran (2009-2011). The materials produced within the context of protests, being simple appropriated artworks or blog posts, initiated innumerable human networks in a politically suppressed situation, in both online and offline spaces. The Calendar section of this website enables visitors to find works associated with significant events of the Green Movement. Some of these gained global attention and some of them just circulated domestically. One of the most important cases in this project is the campaign “I AM Majid” which was born and drastically expanded in online sphere.

Born in 1986, Majid Tavakoli began his political activities as a university student. What brings his name to the realm of political activism in Iran is mostly his rich contribution to the Student Movement of Iran over an eight year period. His active engagement and uncompromising commitment during this period, although endangering his life, made him the symbol and “the honor of the Student Movement” (CHRR 2012). He was first arrested in 2006 and “spent 15 months in jail … on charges of insulting religion and the country’s leadership in student publications” (BBC 2009). Then, what brought him to news headlines again was his speech (Clip.1) at Amirkabir University of Technology on the first Student Day after the controversial Presidential Election of 2009.

Clip 1. Majid Tavakoli’s speech in the Student Day (2009).

After this impressive and provocative speech he was arrested by the security forces and brutally beaten by them in front of eyewitnesses (ICFHRII 2010). It is worth mentioning that more than 200 protesters were arrested on the Student Day protests across the country. The admin of the blog ‘Homylafayette Iran News in English’ provides a great list of videos of this day’s protests recorded by citizens in different cities of Iran. Later, after an unjust trial, Tavakoli “was convicted of several offenses, including participating in an illegal gathering, propaganda against the system and insulting officials” and consequently sentenced to more than eight years in prison (AI n.d.). Also, it was reported that he was kept in solidarity confinement for about five months in 2010 (ICFHRII 2010).

Screen Shot 2015-05-04 at 1.55.11 PMFigure 1. An appropriation of one of Majid’s photos, a collage of hundreds of pieces of papers. (RFERL 2013)

Like other critical moments of the Green Movement, user-generated content (Fig.1) related to Tavakoli -produced by artists and online activists – were disseminated through the internet. Angry posts against the government conquered social media channels such as Facebook and Twitter. People wanted him and other arrested protesters freed. Paintings and posters, illustrations and video clips all were utilized by activists to make people aware of Tavakoli’s story and to show protesters’ solidarity with him to the government. In the following poster (Fig.2) for example is written: “We will never forget you … We are speaking in the heart of oppression. We shout out, strengthened by our beliefs. We stand alongside each other … Majid Tavakoli, the dignity of the student movement” (Homylafayette 2010). As can be seen the colors green and black, which refer to sorrow and sadness in Iranian culture, and barbed wire (a signifier of prison) are mixed with his picture to deliver the message behind it.

Untitled Figure 2. We will never forget you, an illustration for Majid Tavakoli.

What distinguishes Majid from other political prisoners, however, is what happened to him after his arrest. On 8th of December, one day after the Student Day protests, the pro-government news agencies, Fars News and Raja News, published some photos (Fig.3) of Majid with these headlines: “The Images of the Main Leader of Rioters of Amirkabir University in Women’s Clothing” and “The Images of Amirkabir University’s Hero in Women’s Clothing Are Released” (FarsNews 2009; RajaNews 2009). They claimed that he was escaping after his speech trying to evade security forces by dressing like this. As was vastly said it somehow displayed the government’s “vindictiveness and contempt for women” (Tait 2009):

He had makeup … was dressed like veiled women, putting on manto, muqni’ah and chador. Although, he had a purse with him to guarantee his escape, he was unsuccessful and arrested by security forces. (FarsNews 2009)

Screen Shot 2015-05-04 at 1.55.44 PMFigure 3. These photos from Raja News show Majid in Islamic chador and headscarf.

People’s posts and comments show that most of them believed that Majid was forced to wear that clothing and found the government’s act unacceptable and disgusting. Even on Raja news’ website one can find the following comments under Majid’s photos:

– It’s clear that he is forced to sit in front of the camera. When do you want to stop fooling us?

– I did not have any doubt in his courage. Your disgusting behaviour just added more value to him… (RajaNews 2009)

What the authorities did with Tavakoli was soon answered by artists and activists. The number of posts related to him rose markedly. Inside and outside Iran people were trying to show their solidarity with him. Different pages in social media have supported him until now (such as Facebook pages ‘Majid Tavakoli’, ‘Free Majid Tavakoli’ and ‘Free Majid Tavakkoli Immediately’).

Amongst various campaigns that supported Tavakoli in this period, “I Am Majid” is the most significant one. This campaign is also known as “We Are All Majid” or “Veiled Men”. I found two figurers as the initiators of this campaign during my investigations: Arash Ashourinia, a professional photographer in Tehran and Masih Alinejad, a prominent exiled journalist. Ashourinia asked his male Facebook friends to send him their veiled picture (Fig.4). In his post (dated back to December 9, 2009) he reminds the readers the way the government treated Majid and says: “they wanted to put pressure on the Student Movement and the green Iranians. In the same time they are discriminating our women. To prove our solidarity with Majid Tavakoli, and to say ‘NO’ to compulsory hijab … to prove that we are together send your photos to the following address.” He provided his readers with this email,, which in ‘rousari’ means headscarf. In the same day (9 Dec), Masih Alinejad posted a similar invitation on his personal website. In this post she criticizes the government’s act against Tavakoli and says: “imagine if a part of our male protesters … wear headscarf. What would the government’s news agencies do if they see a huge population is laughing at their act?”

Untitled 2Figure 4. A visual instruction for people to take their photos. (Ashourinia 2009)

The reaction of people to these calls was unexpected. Iranian men across the world published their pictures depicting themselves with scarf, chador or muqni’ah. Just a few days after the Student Day images and videos of veiled men conquered social media atmosphere. On December 12, Ashourinia published his designed posters (Fig.5) on Facebook which in hundreds of the received images were used. On the Persian version is written: “Majid Tavakoli Was Multiplied, Not Humiliated.”

Screen Shot 2015-05-04 at 1.56.09 PM Figure 5. More than 300 Majids, a poster by Arash Ashourinia.

People’s reactions to the “I Am Majid” campaign were not limited to photos. As usual, various sorts of artworks were produced and circulated by people. There is a page on the Greens’ Art website dedicated to ‘Veiled Men’ that demonstrates some of the produced works including performances (e.g. I Am Majid performed in Stockholm), video clips (e.g. We Are All Majid) and graphic designs (Fig.6).

Screen Shot 2015-05-04 at 1.56.22 PMFigure 6. Some of the artworks related to “I Am Majid” campaign.

The following video (Clip.2) was uploaded on December 9, 2009, two days after Tavakoli’s arrest. By combining photos, graphics, background music and a verbal presentation the creator(s) of this work tried to deliver the real story of Tavakoli’s arrest to its viewers while the government’s media were trying to sell their manipulated story. This clip is subtitled into English to be consumable for non-Iranians.

Clip 2. How Majid Tavakoli Arrested? by Iran’s Freedom of Expression community.

Non-Iranian supporters of the Green Movement also joined the campaign and showed their solidarity with Tavakoli (Clip.3).

Clip 3. Non-Iranian supporters of Majid Tavakoli show their solidarity.

The huge contribution of people to the Veiled Men campaign and the volume of generated content by activists and ordinary people made the major media, including the non-Iranian ones to pick up the stories related to the campaign. The Guardian (Golsorkhi 2009), the Huffington Post (Novin 2010), BBC (BBC 2009) and Amnesty International (AI n.d.) are among the media and international institutions that covered Majid’s story. These reports guaranteed that what happened to Majid was not only heard about inside Iran.

Calling it ‘I Am Majid’, ‘We Are all Majid’ or ‘Veiled Men’, this campaign was totally constructed and progressed by first, the Iranian users of digital media and then their international allies. We witnessed a range of user-generated content produced in this campaign. Among them, I can mention blog posts, social media posts, artworks, and etc. People inside and outside Iran made meaningful conversations around Tavakoli’s case through the interrupted, censored and highly controlled internet in Iran. These conversations along with the circulated materials established an alternative and distributed medium for protesters and those who wanted to be in touch with the ongoing realities at the time.


AI, Student Activist Jailed for Speaking Out. Amnesty International. Available at: [Accessed September 9, 2014].

BBC, 2009. Iranian Men Don Hijabs in Protest at Student’s Arrest. BBC. Available at: [Accessed September 9, 2014].

CHRR, 2012. Mother of Majid Tavakoli: For 3 years I have waited in hopes of seeing my Majid. Committee of Human Rights Reporters. Available at: [Accessed September 9, 2014].

FarsNews, 2009. The Images of the Main Leader of Rioters of Amir Kabir University in Women’s Clothing. Fars News. Available at: [Accessed September 11, 2014].

Golsorkhi, M., 2009. Iranian Men in Hijab. The Guardian. Available at: [Accessed September 11, 2014].

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Amin Ansari holds a bachelor’s degree in Software Engineering and a Master of Dramatic Literature. Following his interest in multidisciplinary fields of study, he is doing his PhD at the Screen and Media department at Flinders University, with a particular focus on the engagement of art and digital media with activism and politics. He is the founder and curator of Greens’ Art website, the most comprehensive online archive and exhibition of artworks related to the Green Movement of Iran. Also, as a published author, he has been writing stories and plays for the past 13 years. He has published five books in Iran, Germany and the UK including three novels (Waltzing with Dark Waters, Hunt, and I [Is] Sad in His Absence) and two novellas (They Know Nothing of Heaven and Seven Years of Solitude) – all in Persian.