Why Do We Need to “Understand” Fans?: A Conversation with Mark Duffett (Part One)

When I visited England two years ago, as part of my grand European tour, I was struck that there was a new generation of British cultural and media scholars, often the offspring of old friends such as Roberta Pearson, Will Brooker, Matt Hills, Nickianne Moody, Mark Jancovich,  Peter Kramer, and others, who were turning their attention to the study of fans and media audiences. Most of them are not yet well known on this side of the Atlantic, but they are posed to leave their marks, and they are voices we are going to be hearing more from in the years to come.

Mark Duffett was one of the many young scholars I met on this trip, and he’s recently published a significant new book, Understanding Fandom, which is intended as a textbook for fan studies classes. I am using it as one of the core texts for my own graduate seminar this term on fandom, participatory culture, and web 2.0. Duffett sets out to provide a critical overview of some of the core texts which have helped to define the study of fandom; as one of the writers he discusses at some length, I felt that he was asking hard questions about how this work has withstood the tests of time and the challenges of next generation scholarship but he approached them with fairness, nuance, and much greater attention to detail than most other writers bring to this subject. I did not always agree with what he had to say about some of the key issues in the field, but I was glad he was pushing the discussion to the next level, and I am eager to see how others in the field react to his formulations.

Beyond summing up what has already been done, though, he points us in some new directions — as Matt Hills suggests in his introduction to the book — and that’s where I’ve chosen to focus my attention in this interview. I learned a lot from reading his account, especially because he is not necessarily beholding to some of the false distinctions which have held our work hostage for so long. He offers a great illustration, for example, of how ideas drawn from the study of music and celebrity fans might be brought into active conversation with works that deal with cult television and transformative works, and I think what he has to say here about the divide between Fan Studies and Fandom Studies (which has often been both gendered and geographically and disciplinarily rooted) may offer some interesting directions forward for the field.

Mark’s publisher has been nice enough to offer us a free preview of the book.

There are sure to be debates sparked around some of the book’s findings, but this is a book that we all need to engage with as we think through the current state and future direction of fan studies. I know we will be hearing more from Mark and from his contemporaries amongst British fan scholars.

You spend a good chunk of time across the book nuancing and negating some of the negative stereotypes about fans that have concerned fan scholars from the beginnings of this field – among them, the idea of fandom as a religion or the fan as stalker. What justifies the continued emphasis on these negative constructions of fandom, given how much progress has been made within academia in constructing alternative understandings of some of these same phenomenon?

The short answer to that is that entry level students (as opposed to fan studies course graduates) still have to unlearn the stereotypes. Understanding Fandom was commissioned as a textbook, but I hope it’s also a critical discussion of the history of the field. I wanted it to be something that I could pass across to a competent student and say, “Here is what I know about the study of media fandom.” In my fandom seminar class every year I used to ask students to do some initial word association on the term “fan” just to see what was already in their heads. The same words and phrases repeatedly came up – things like “geek,” “cult,” “stalking” and “hysteria.”

Unfortunately, society has not fully given up on depressingly familiar ideas that equate fandom with obsession, extremity and emotional excess. In its six year life span, for instance, Chris Croker’s ‘Leave Britney Alone’ video has had 47 million hits on YouTube. Although the contemporary film and television producers tend to court avid fans as a market place, approaches to marginalized fandoms in the tabloid press have not changed a great deal. Even in the Internet era, they still influence popular understanding.

Judging by Facebook hate pages and other indications, modes of stereotyping that have traditionally been articulated against media fandom as a whole are now being used by specific fan cultures to marginalize those in other fandoms. Unfortunately, too, some of the less nuanced discussion of the academic material is also falling into a trap. Introducing the recent Radio 4 documentary Fan Power in November 2013, for instance, one presenter explained:”This program is about fans or fandoms, and whether being a fan is different now from how it used to be, and whether fandoms can be mobilized for political or social change. It’s not so much about Beliebers and Directioners and their crazy rivalries, but about what happens when fandoms turn their attention away from their idol to the real outside world.”

The introduction recalls the history of debate on media fandom by using a set of binaries: old (implicitly naive or consumerist) and new (savvy and activist) fan cultures, ‘crazy’ pop fanaticism and serious, mobilized fandom, distracted idol worship and the “real outside world.” The documentary’s introduction mirrors a tendency in fan studies, I think, to separate ‘worthy’ aspects (film and TV cult fandom, cultural productivity, text-based and literary interests, real world political activism) from unworthy ones: celebrity following, pop music, distraction, obsession, consumption… The logical extension here is that “outside world” politics matters and fandom is interesting only as its tool.

In the book I distinguished media fandom research – in its broadest sense – from fan studies. Research about fandom exists well beyond cultural studies and not all scholars are sympathetic with the Fiskean conception of fandom. Psychologists like Lynn McCutcheon have hypothesized connections between media fandom, “celebrity worship” and intellectual under-achievement. A student wishing to explore “extreme” fandom might come upon some of this less sympathetic material. I wanted to think about its ideological work from a cultural studies perspective.

I often go back to your discussion at the start of Textual Poachers to expose the stereotypes, but I think that addressing the stereotyping of fandom is something that is too important to only do once. We need to keep addressing the stereotypes, because if we don’t, in unexpected ways they will come back to bite us. To those students unfamiliar with 1990s cultural studies scholarship, the relative lack of recent work on fan stereotypes might seem to imply a critical silence. Perhaps we should consider addressing such estimations of fandom as a continual process.

 

You use the phrase, “media fandom,” in the book’s title. For you, this term includes fans of performers and celebrities, as well as fans of fictional texts. Indeed, some of the best contributions here come when you juxtapose work that has been done on what are often seen as radically different kinds of fans and find points of commonality between them. What do you think academics writing about fans of popular music, say, and academics writing about fans of “telefantasy” have to learn from each other? Why do you think these topics have been seen as separate for so long?

I will address your second question first, because it is a little easier to answer…

Perhaps we have also been concerned that different kinds of fan have been associated with each media form. I am reminded here of my colleague Phil Tagg’s claim that colleagues can be charged with ‘driving a disciplinary vehicle without a license’ if they dabble in a different field. Ironically, media studies and cultural studies have long offered a number of bridging concepts – consumption, genre, style, textuality, performance, affect – but these often seemed to contextualize fandom rather than fully explain it.

The separation of topics has partly been a matter of disciplinary specialisation. Television studies was relatively dominant in the cultural studies discussion about fandom. Many scholars in that area saw no need to look outside their own field. Popular music studies, on the other hand, rarely ventured to explore dedicated music audiences at all (specifically as fans), and either tended to focus either on texts (musicology) or sociological contexts (subcultural studies, scenes). It was not until the late 1990s that scholars like Dan Cavicchi started to explore music fandom. Fan studies did not have such a wide interdisciplinary reputation back then.

The way that fan studies focused on its object has gradually extended its reputation beyond television studies. In light of this there has been more ‘cross town traffic’: pop studies writers like myself picking up or working within the fan studies paradigm, and fan studies scholars – like Matt Hills and Cornel Sandvoss – refusing to draw narrow lines around the type of media fandom that they will investigate. I don’t actually think that the latest generation of researchers is as aware of those older distinctions, because fan studies has now begun to form its own vibrant and rapidly expanding research field.

To address the question of what researchers of different fan objects have to learn from each other…

Telefantasy research developed fan studies as a means to pay attention to fan activity, in the transformative works sense, and could therefore disrupt notions of “the pop fan” as one atom of a seduced mass. The problem for popular music research before the Internet was that in the public sphere fans were most visible in spaces associated with consumption and the mass audience: record shops, live concerts. Rock fans were respected, but the idea of pop traditionally linked music fandom to a feminized mainstream. Attention to your work has encouraged music researchers to think carefully about ethical dimensions when studying fandom and has offered us a framework within which to examine fan practices.

There is a textual focus in much of the television studies work. So I hope what some of the research on popular music fandom can offer telefantasy scholars in return is a focus on certain kinds of fandom as cultural fields organized around celebrity and affect. Popular music research always had to contend, in some ways, I think, with a disappearing object: relatively ephemeral, immaterial nature of emotionally engaging music. That was true at the level of the text itself – music’s meanings not being quite amenable to the usual modes of linguistic or representational analysis.

Yes, some music fans have textual objects (the song, the album, the genre), but there are many others who have become fascinated with a particular individual or group (the star, the band); in some senses the distinction itself is debatable because musical texts and their makers have inevitably become confused, raising questions of authorship and authenticity.

Celebrity-following is not unique to popular music, but rather popular music has often become associated with celebrity-following in the public sphere. Consequently, things that have sometimes been marginalized in the discussion of textual fandom, are right on the surface in popular music and require attention.

Take Lynn Zubernis and Katherine Larsen’s (2012) recent book on Supernatural fandom, for example. Precisely because they are exploring the interests of sections of the Supernatural fan community, Zubernis and Larsen focus as much or more on the consequences of female fans’ lustful identifications with the show’s lead actors as they do on show itself.

Their work reminds me of Susan Fast’s (2001) discussion of the way in which female fans perceived the lead singer of Led Zeppelin as an erotic object, or more recent work on boy band audiences. The commodification of romantic allure and sex appeal is a common theme across very different media forms. An interchange between different fields of fan research might help us better understand similar places that, in many ways, form common empirical ground.

In a wider sense, I think that we may be able to productively destabilize assumptions that come from our respective ‘home’ disciplines. This friendly destabilization could take the form of recognizing commonalities in fandom itself as a shared object. On one level, diverse fandoms operate within common social contexts and are have sometimes been marginalized in similar ways. Very different fandoms have been associated with, for example, the public performance of emotion and conviction.

On another level, different fandoms share common discourses and practices. Fans of very different objects can behave in surprisingly similar ways. Traditionally the similarities included things like collecting, canonization, displaying commitment and creating fanzines.

The realm of digital media offered a new context of convergence within which previously unrelated fandoms have shared common platforms and approaches: forums, fanfic writing, spoiling, video uploading, mash-ups, activism, nostalgia / archiving / heritage. Perhaps we should not be thinking in terms of media forms (say, TV serial or pop fandom) but in terms of different clusters of cultural capital: people liking similar cultural fields like, say, horror cinema and heavy metal.

Matt Hill’s notion of ‘inter-fandom’ is interesting in that respect. His concept is not about one kind of fandom, or even recognizing something common to different types, but instead about asking how – as media fans – we move between associated cultural fields to our efforts to display particular forms of cultural capital.

 Mark Duffett is a Senior Lecturer in media and cultural studies at the University of Chester with research interests spanning fandom and popular music culture. As well as publishing Understanding Fandom (Bloomsbury, 2013), he guest edited a recent special edition of the journal Popular Music and Society, and also edited a Routledge book called Popular Music Fandom(2013) which featured chapters by Cornel Sandvoss, Joli Jensen and Matt Hills. In 2010 he organized an International Symposium on music fandom at Chester and was keynote speaker in 2012 at the MARS music conference in Finland. He is currently writing a book on Elvis Presley for the Equinox Press series, Icons of Popular Music, and co-organizing an April 2014 international conference on rock music and love in Montpellier.

Deciphering Black Masculinity: An Interview with Mark Anthony Neal (Part Three)

You describe Stringer Bell in The Wire as the “thinking man’s gangster,” seeing him as a powerful illustration of the “cosmopolitan” qualities you ascribe to this acclaimed series. What is it that The Wire was able to achieve in terms of breaking with black masculinity? Some have similarly celebrated Orange is the New Black as a series which offers a broader range of alternative constructions of femininity (including black and Latino characters) than we typically see on television. Would you agree with that assessment? Why or why not?

Think that for David Simon and Ed Burns, these men were real to them—composites of folk they had interacted with in some way.  In that way, their experiences covering Black Baltimore in the 1980s made them aware of the diversity of Black men that existed.  Give HBO some credit for allowing them to fully explore that diversity throughout the five-year run of the series.  Beside opening up for  range of expressions of Black masculinity and Black femininity, The Wire and Orange is a the New Black has also cultivated a space for the performance of “Female Masculinity,” to draw on Jack Halberstam’s work.  It is in those moments that one can see the fluidity of Black identity, in ways, rarely, if ever, explored in mainstream entertainment.

Idris Elba has continued to gather public interest as he was widely promoted as a potential for casting as the new Doctor on Doctor Who (amid debates about whether or not the Doctor could be black). How have these more recent developments altered or confirmed your analysis of the performer in the book?  How might we imagine a black Doctor introducing themes of Afro-Futurism into this long-standing British series?

This is clearly the moment of the Black-Brit-Afropolitan actor.  If the question is,  is there an Afro-futurism for male Afropolitans actors, well yes, particularly if your name is Idris Elba or Chiwetel Ejiofor.  Not sure that a more “traditional” African-American or Afro-Caribbean actor, save Don Cheadle, would have those same opportunities.  Elba is really having the career that Calvin Lockhart and Delroy Lindo should have had.  Find it interesting that Ejiofor and Elba have been able to traffic in both more global and traditional African-American roles. I don’t think that is simply about their skill-set.

 

Entertainment Weekly had speculated that we might have had as many as four black actors in contention for the Best Actor Oscar this year — Idris Elba for Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, Forrest Whitaker for Lee Daniel’s The Butler, Michael B. Jordan for Fruitville Station, and Chiwetel Ejiofor for Twelve Years a Slave. How might we fit these black performers (and the characters they portray) in the trajectory of acclaimed black performances you traced between Sidney Poitier and Denzel Washington? (This question was framed before the Oscar nominations came out)

I am happy for Ejiofor’s nomination—expected Elba to earn a nomination, especially after Mandela’s death.  Most disappointed that Michael B. Jordan didn’t get a nod, though I suspect that had much to do with his youth and the stark, un-sensational reality of Oscar Grant III life and death.  Washington had to break through the archetype that Poitier represented throughout his career.  I think this current generation, though Whitaker is a little older, has benefitted from Washington’s willingness to break ranks with roles in films like Training Day (most famously), but also He Got Game and American Gangster.

 

You end the book with a discussion of Barack Obama and Reverend Wright, suggesting the ways that the candidate has had to negotiate around assumptions about black masculinity identity. To what degree do you think Obama has been willing to explore the boundaries between Harvard and the Hood as he has responded to the politics around the Treyvon Martin Case?

Barack Obama is more of an enigma to me now, than he was at anytime during the 2008 campaign, when he was largely illegible to so many of us.  It’s not simply about how he has chosen to govern—from the Center, in reaction to the Right, largely dismissing legitimate critiques from his base of the Left—but his real silence on the ‘Hood, except as a lecturer of family values.  His calculated initial comments about Martin’s shooting—after checking for the winds of popular opinion—is the most obvious example.  I never forgot that the President took more than a week to comment on Michael Jackson’s death.  I always understood that the value of a Black President in the contemporary US was largely symbolic—albeit a powerful symbol—but what value is a Black President if he can’t even acknowledge the artistic legacy of a figure like Amiri Baraka.

 

Mark Anthony Neal is Professor of African and African American Studies at Duke University. He is the author of several books, including New Black Man and Looking for Leroy.  He is the host of the weekly webcast Left of Black.

Deciphering Black Masculinities: An Interview with Mark Anthony Neal (Part Two)

You argue that Avery Brooks, as a performer, was, despite often being cast in stereotypical roles, able to “draw on the full range of black expressive culture, often in opposition to the intent of the show’s writers and producers.” This claim has strong implications at a time when black men exert much greater influence on our culture as performers than they do as “writers and producers.” Can you say more about the forms of agency that surface in this analysis?

 As I mention in the book, Brooks was granted agency around the character, because the writers and producers really didn’t have a sense of who and what the character (created by the late Robert Parker) was.  I think what Brooks’ did with the character spoke a great deal about both his classical training and his investment in Black arts—he was of a generation that was a direct product of the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s, he was deeply involved in the National Black Theater Festival, for example.  I think that in the last generation, Black performers have had more access to mainstream success and thus have had less need for the kinds of Black organizations that Brooks’ generation cultivated.  Whereas Brooks may have always been clear that his work was in conversation with a Robeson, Belafonte, or a Diana Sands and Rosalind Cash—to name just a few—contemporary artists don’t have the same relationship with previous generations of Black performers—and thus I think it limits their ability to really drawn fully and freely from “the culture” (whatever that means).  The irony is that in the era of Youtube, they actually have much more access to those earlier performers, than any other generation.  One of the things I appreciate about Beyonce’s art is that she has spent serious time in the “archive,” if you will, though she’s often criticized for not being original.  I see it as a real tribute to those folk, some of them obscure,  that come before her.

You express throughout the book some deep ambivalence towards hip hop culture which you describe in your introduction as “a cottage industry of problematic images of black masculinity” but refuse to dismiss altogether as a vehicle for exploring alternative forms of black masculinity. When and how have performers or audiences been able to escape or at least challenge the more problematic aspects of hip hop culture? What contemporary performers do you think offer the best source for alternative articulations of black masculinity?

There’s an “inside baseball” aspect to this re: “corporate sponsored” entertainment geared to American youth, and what some would deem more “authentic” (however problematic that term is) rap music and Hip-Hop culture. I will only say that the latter is far less accessible to young people and the former is far more visible. From a pedagogical standpoint, I find all of it of value, provided we can equip audiences—young folk in particular—with a critical framing that allows them to contextualize what they are consuming.  Looking for Leroy is largely about providing some of that framing and hopefully encouraging even more framing from others.  Of contemporary artists, I find the work of a Jasiri X compelling, because of his ability to humanize some of the political realities of Black life globally, but even he is challenged to not simply be seen as the “protest” rapper.  I think in a purely artistic sense, beyond his place in celebrity culture, Kanye West is pushing past some boundaries particularly in indexing trauma, mental health struggles, vulnerability and loss within Black male life.  Indeed, his willingness to find raw sonic material from beyond the typical pop music archive, speaks to his searching to find sonic examples that best represents his emotions.

You draw in the book on Manthia Diawara’s notion of “homeboy cosmopolitanism”, a phrase which seems intentionally oxymoronic, given the rootedness in a particular location or community implied by “homeboy” and what you describe as the “desires for physical, social, and economic mobility” implied by the concept of cosmopolitanism. How can we resolve these contradictions? What forms of culture best express this concept?

 Part of the genius of Hip-Hop culture is that when many of these artists began to travel globally, they brought the ‘hoods they grew up in and the “hood” that they are all perceived to be from, with them.  I don’t think any of them saw this as a contradiction, in part because many of their ‘hoods, were always/already cosmopolitan, if we consider immigration patterns from the Caribbean, West Africa and migration from the American south as challenging the concept of a monolithic “blackness” or Hip-hop, for that matter.

Mark Anthony Neal is Professor of African and African American Studies at Duke University. He is the author of several books, including New Black Man and Looking for Leroy.  He is the host of the weekly webcast Left of Black. 

Deciphering Black Masculinities: An Interview with Mark Anthony Neal (Part One)

This is another in a series of interviews with the authors of books published as part of the Post-Millenial Pop book series which I edit with Karen Tongson for New York University Press.

Mark Anthony Neal’s weekly webcast, Left of Black, produced by Duke University’s John Hope Franklin Center of International and Interdisciplinary Studies,  is a powerful example of the roles academics can play as public intellectuals, brokering important conversations  the culture needs to be having, highlighting key scholarly and cultural works that deserve greater attention than they are apt to receive from mainstream media, and asking the most urgent questions his regular fans want answered about race as embodied by both lived experience and contemporary popular culture. Among topics recently addressed on the series include the thirty year history of the Urban Bush Women dance troupe, the story behind “We Shall Overcome” and other anthems of the civil rights era, the role of black barbers and barbershops in constructing the black public sphere, and parenting in a “post-racial” America.

Neal brings his diverse knowledge and interests to bear on various performances of black masculinity in his newest book, Looking for Leroy. Here, he argues that many constructions of black male identity in American culture are far too “legible”, reproducing the same lethal stereotypes where black male bodies are rendered as criminal, needing to be subjected to police authority and containment. Yet, he’s interested in the ways that some performers construct personas which are less legible, which challenge our expectations and force us to think differently about identity politics. The book ranges from Jay-Z and R. Kelly to Barack Obama, with stops along the way to talk about The Wire, Star Trek, Fame, and the Oscars. The writing throughout is direct, engaging, witty, and broadly accessible, which helps to explain why his work is attracting readers and listeners far beyond the university book store circuit. At the same time, he is the master of close reading, offering interpretations that are nuanced in their attention to detail and yet encompassing in their ability to link the specifics of individual performances into larger career trajectories and into their political contexts.

Neal is one of the busiest people in the field of cultural studies today, so I am grateful that he could spare some time to address my questions.

Let’s talk about your title, “Looking for Leroy.” Can you share with us what it was about the figure of Leroy in Fame which inspired this particular path through black masculinities? In what sense are characters like Leroy “illegible” figures  when compared to more stereotypical representations of black masculinity?

 

My connection to Gene Anthony Ray’s character “Leroy” from the movie and series Fame was personal.  The series debuted just as I was developing a sense of who I was as a young man (I had just turned 16 at the time) and as the primary Black male character on the show I had a natural affinity for him.  Yet it was clear, at least to me, that the character or perhaps Ray were gay—this in an era when there were only a handful of gay characters on network television.  As a 16-Black kid from the Bronx, who was regularly “queered” because of my choice of clothing and the way I spoke—which was read amongst some of my Black male peers as both too soft and also too White (this was the era of the Preppie)—something about Leroy always resonated to me.  It was fitting that he would be one of the primary inspirations for the book and my own grappling with illegibility.

 

Given the harsh realities confronting many black men in this country, why should we be concerned with popular representations of black masculinities? In other words, what relationship are you positing between the constraints experienced by black men and the cultural construction of black masculinity?

As someone whose academic training is in Cultural Studies, I’m always concerned about whether my work addresses (in any way) the real crises being faced by young Black men in particularly.  Whether we’re looking at sports, the criminal justice system or even national politics, it’s clear that so many perceptions of Black masculinity are framed by media depictions of Black men and boys.  Hoping my work is but one intervention, poised to acknowledge the range of Black masculinities and also deconstructing (on some level) the most visible images of Black masculinity.  I think there is real connection between the limited view of Black masculinity available in US media and the limitations placed on Black men and boys in their everyday lives.

 

What motivated the choice of these particular case studies? What do these performers and characters, individually and collectively, help us to see about popular representations of black masculinity?

Virtually all the choices I make in the book with regard to case studies, represent figures that I had some personal affinity to. In the case of “Leroy” or Avery Brooks, they really were figures that impacted how I viewed Black masculinity as a younger man.  It was that affinity to Brooks’ “Hawk” that made Idris Elba’s “Stringer Bell” legible to me.  In the case of Luther Vandross and Jay Z, as a fan who had consumed so much of their art, they allowed the opportunity to do the kind of close readings that I wanted to do.  And admittedly, there are any number of other figures I wanted to bring into the mix—Kanye West, Erik LaSalle’s character on ER (though that will show up in a later project), Rob Brown 16-year-old character in Finding Forrester, and a whole host of “Queer” Soul and Gospel (which will also show up in another project)—but I’d still be working on the book, LOL.  What I hope I have presented is just an opening, for more work to be done, in terms of thinking about the publicness of Black masculinity.  In that regard looking forward to new books from Jeffrey McCune and C. Riley Snorton.

 

 Mark Anthony Neal is Professor of African and African American Studies at Duke University. He is the author of five books, What the Music Said: Black Popular Music and Black Public Culture (1998), Soul Babies: Black Popular Culture and the Post-Soul Aesthetic (2002), Songs in the Keys of Black Life: A Rhythm and Blues Nation (2003), New Black Man: Rethinking Black Masculinity (2005) and most recently, Looking for Leroy: Illegible Black Masculinities (2013).  He is the host of the weekly webcast Left of Black.

A Meme Is a Terrible Thing to Waste: An Interview with Limor Shifman (Part Three)

Discussion of the internet is often polarized between those who stress the personalized or individualistic nature of net culture and those who see the network as a form of collective behavior. How might the idea of the meme clarify this discussion?

 

I think that the idea of internet memes is so powerful precisely because it bridges these two perceptions. While internet memes are all about individuals creating content, they are also all about individuals creating content with awareness of each other. Memes not only involve pervasive mimicry, they are also based on intense collaborative work and complex multi-participant choreographies. Moreover, studies conducted by Ryan Milner, Assaf Nissenbaum and Kate Miltner show that memes function as a type of cultural capital: knowledge about memes and the “right” ways to use them have become a marker of membership in some communities. In these contexts the duality of being both an individual and a part of a community is flagged on a daily basis: community members are expected to be original, but not too original, when creating memes.

 

Throughout, you place a strong emphasis on the visual nature of the meme as a mode of communication. What do you see as the implications of this shift towards the visual in contemporary net culture?

The implications of the visual turn are pervasive, going way beyond my somewhat narrow emphasis on memes. Within the scope of the book I discuss this issue mainly in the political context. I claim that visual display allows greater integration between politics and pop culture, as it becomes extremely easy to Photoshop the US president’s head on the body of a Jedi knight, for instance. A second implication of the visual nature of internet memes relates to their polysemic potential, that is, their tendency to be open to multiple readings. Whereas in verbal jokes the target of mockery and the scorn expressed towards it are often clear, the openness of visual images and the lack of a clear narrative may invoke contrasting interpretations.  A third implication relates to memes’ global spread: Images may potentially cross international borders much more easily than words. However, such international flows still depend on local norms and conversions:  In some cases, images need to be replaced or localized to make sense in new territories. For example, in the book I describe the migration of the American “Successful Black Guy” meme to Israel, which resulted in a local take titled  “Akivathe Humanist Ultra-Orthodox“.  I am currently exploring some other implications of this, focusing on photo-based memes. It seems that meme creators subvert some of the fundamental roles traditionally associated with photography, such as the notion of photographs as “windows to reality”. But I’ve just started thinking about these issues so I hope to have more to say in a couple of months…

 

 

Let’s talk a bit about what gets excluded in a meme culture. Are there some groups or individuals who are excluded — either implicitly or explicitly — from meme culture? Is it easier to use memes to support dominant frames of reference rather than to challenge existing structures of belief?

This is a crucial issue which I address only briefly in the book. It would certainly appear that many groups and individuals are excluded from meme culture.  Ryan Milner’s current work on memes traces some of the racist and misogynist modes of discourse emerging in 4chan and reddit—prominent meme hubs that seem to be governed by white, privileged men.  He shows that both gender and race representations in these websites are dominated by familiar hegemonic stereotypes. The framing of these stereotypes as ironic lulz is used in many cases to whitewash exclusion. At the very same time, Milner notes that at least in relation to gender, misogynistic framings are often resisted and attacked by many participants.  It is extremely important to continue thinking about these issues and broaden our scope of investigation beyond the major meme hubs. Phenomena such as “Shit X says”, which generated heated debates about sensitive issues, may constitute interesting cases for further research.

My main assertion in the book is that we should take memes seriously. And doing that also means – to a large extent – critically examining the power dynamics that constitute memes and that are constituted by them.

 Limor Shifman is a Senior Lectureer at the Department of Communication and Journalism, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.  She is the author of Memes in Digital Culture (MIT Press, 2013) and Televised Humor and Social Cleavages in Israel (Magness Press, 2008 [in Hebrew]). Her work focuses on the intertwining of three fields: communication technologies, popular culture and the social construction of humor. Shifman’s journal articles explore phenomena such as internet-based humor about gender, politics and ethnicity; jokes and user-generated globalization; and memetic YouTube videos.

 

A Meme Is a Terrible Thing to Waste: An Interview with Limor Shifman (Part Two)

What motivates people to participate in a memetic culture, either in terms of generating new meme content or simply passing along content that has been framed in terms of a meme?

With regards to generating new content, I believe that three main types of motivation are at play—economic, social and cultural. The economic logic behind meme creation relates to the attention economy governing contemporary societies. In short, it claims that the most valuable resource in the information era is not information but the attention people pay to it. Creating memes seems to work well in this kind of economy: an emulation of a famous video may get attention because it will appear in YouTube’s suggestions bar or pop up as a highly relevant search result when one is looking for the original video. The second, social logic of meme creation can be related to what Barry Wellman and others describe as “networked individualism.” On the one hand, by uploading a self-made video or a Photoshopped image people are able to express their individuality: they signify that they are digitally literate, unique, and creative. On the other hand, the text that they upload often relates to a common, widely shared memetic video, image, or formula. Through this referencing, people simultaneously construct their individuality and their affiliation with a larger community. Finally, the cultural logic of meme creation suggests that it actually represents the continuation of norms that are rooted in the history of pop culture genres and fan cultures, as you discuss extensively in “Textual Poachers” and subsequent works.

I think that the second logic – the social one – is also extremely important when passing along content that has been framed as a “meme”. Spreading a meme signifies that someone is “in the know”, thus reflecting positively upon her personality and (often) perceived sense of humor. 

While there is a tendency to think of the content of memes as trivial or playful, there have also been some powerful examples where memes were used in the service of political speech — Pepperspray Cop and Binders of Women come to mind as examples from your book. Often, the same meme may blur the lines between entertainment and critical commentary.  In my essay, “Photoshop for Democracy,” I argued that such remixes might function as the people’s editorial cartoons, offering vivid and memorable representations of complex issues which broaden the language through which we discuss politics. Is this a legitimate description of what you’ve observed in terms of looking at memes as a form of political participation? Are there risks involved in the simplification of ideas required to produce an effective meme?

Your argument about remixes as the people’s editorial cartoons is absolutely pertinent to the ways memes function as forms of political participation. The main new element that has been added in recent years, with the labeling of many of these Photoshopped images as “memes”, relates to our previous discussion about meme genres. The tendency to create memes in particular formats turns memes into powerful bridges between the personal and the political: people express their personal opinions while consciously joining larger pleas or patterns. A striking example of this quality is the “We are the 99 Percent” meme. Born out of the Occupy Wall Street movement, it featured an individual holding a handwritten text depicting his or her gloomy story, leading to the shared motto, “I am the 99 percent.” This combination of repetition and variation conveyed the message that people’s miseries are not just personal problems: they stem from systemic economic and political illnesses.

As to your second question about risks—I believe that simplification is indeed a problem, yet what worries me more is the depoliticization of many memes, which come into the world as pointed political commentaries yet at some point turn into fluffy balls of amusement. For instance, alongside the political versions of the Pepper Spray Cop meme (featuring, for instance, officer Pike pepper-spraying iconic American symbols such as George Washington crossing the Delaware or the Constitution itself), other versions presented him spraying figures who are perceived as annoying, such as Keyboard Cat or Rebecca Black. In such instances, the original meaning of the meme as critical of Pike would appear to be reversed.

You make a distinction between virals and memes in the book. Explain. Why do you think these terms are so often conflated in popular discourse on the internet?

 The main feature that separates memes from virals, in my view, relates to variability:

while the viral mostly comprises a single cultural unit that propagates in many copies,  an internet meme is always a collection of texts. Therefore, a video such as “Leave Britney Alone” can be depicted as a viral video that spawned user-generated engagement and thus became part of an internet meme. Even so, this example shows that the border between memes and virals is fuzzy: Indeed, many memes started out as viral photos or videos.  This fuzziness is perhaps the reason for the constant conflation between the terms and the tendency among many people to use them interchangeably.  But I still think that even if the borderline is murky this differentiation is important: the simple act of “forwarding” or “sharing” is not the same as more creative modes of engagement with content. Moreover, the motivations associated with these two forms are not the same: the factors that lead us to share content are not the same as those that lead us to recreate or remix it.  In the book I chart some of these motivational differences, but I believe that much more work should be invested in this direction.

Limor Shifman is a Senior Lectureer at the Department of Communication and Journalism, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.  She is the author of Memes in Digital Culture (MIT Press, 2013) and Televised Humor and Social Cleavages in Israel (Magness Press, 2008 [in Hebrew]). Her work focuses on the intertwining of three fields: communication technologies, popular culture and the social construction of humor. Shifman’s journal articles explore phenomena such as internet-based humor about gender, politics and ethnicity; jokes and user-generated globalization; and memetic YouTube videos.

 

A Meme is a Terrible Thing to Waste: An Interview with Limor Shifman (Part One)

I have to be honest that the concept of meme is one which sets my teeth on edge. Sam Ford, Joshua Green and I spent a fair chunk of time in our book, Spreadable Media: Creating Meaning and Value in a Networked Culture, seeking to deconstruct the concept of “viral media” which has become such a common metaphor for thinking about how things circulate in digital culture, and along the way, we side-swipe Richard Dawkins’ conception of the meme for many of the same reasons. Sorry, Mr. Dawkins, but I don’t buy the concept of culture as “self-replicating”: such a concepts feels far too deterministic to me, stripping aside the role of agency at a time when the public is exerting much greater control of the content which spreads across the culture than ever before.

So, when I first met Limor Shifman at a conference held last summer by the London School of Economics, she knew I would be a hard sell in terms of the ideas being presented in her new MIT Press book, Memes in Digital Culture, but by the time our first conversation was over, she had largely disarmed my objections. She’s done her homework, reviewing previous claims which have been made about memes, and reframing the concept to better reflect the practices that have fascinated many of us about how contemporary digital culture operates.

Her approach is direct, deceptively simple, but surprisingly subtle and nuanced: she recognizes that people are making active and critical choices about what content to pass along to others in their networks, but she also recognizes that they are making tactical decisions about how to design content in order to increase the likelyhood it will circulate beyond their immediate circles. She represents the new generation of digital scholars, who came of age with the net, and have largely absorbed (and thought through) some of the core assumptions shaping its many subcultural communities and their practices.

A part of me remains skeptical that given its historic roots, the term, meme, can be redefined as fully as Shifman wants to do — or more accurately, as she claims has happened organically as 4 Chan and other net communities have applied it to their own cultural productions. Yet,  I found much of what she wrote in her book convincing and think that this project adds much needed clarity to the conversations around memes, viral media, spreadable media, call it what you wish. If nothing else, her book provides an essential introduction to the ways genres operate in a more participatory culture.

I welcomed the chance to talk through some of these issues with her as part of this interview for my blog.

Let’s start with something basic. :-) How are you defining meme within the context of this book? How does your use of the term differ from the original conception of meme proposed by Richard Dawkins and his followers?

Basic question, complex answer… There is clearly a gap between the meme concept as it was defined by Richard Dawkins back in the 1970s and the term meme as it is used in the context of digital culture.  My aim in this book is not to redefine the meme concept in its general sense, but to suggest a definition for the emergent phenomenon of internet memes. In other words, I limit myself to discussing memes in the digital world. I suggest defining an internet meme as (a) a group of digital items sharing common characteristics of content, form, and/or stance; (b) that were created with awareness of each other; and (c) were circulated, imitated, and transformed via the internet by multiple users. So, for instance, I would treat the numerous versions of “Harlem Shake” as manifestations of one, particularly successful, internet meme. It is important to note that this definition does not equate internet memes with jokes – While many memes are indeed humorous, some of them (such as the “It Gets Better” campaign) are deadly serious.

This definition departs from Dawkins’ conception in at least one fundamental way: Instead of depicting the meme as a single cultural unit that has propagated well, I treat memes as groups of content units. My shift from a singular to a plural account of memes derives from the new ways in which they are experienced in the digital age. If in the past individuals were exposed to one meme version at a given time (for instance, heard one version of a joke in a party), nowadays it takes only a couple of mouse clicks to see hundreds of versions of any meme imaginable  (try, “Heads in Freezers”, for instance J ). Thus, memes are now present in the public sphere not as sporadic entities but as enormous groups of texts and images.

 

If you are going to change Dawkins’ original formulation so dramatically, what is the continued use value of the concept?

The first answer to this question is that the term meme is a great meme. While widely disputed in academia, the concept has been enthusiastically picked up by internet users. It is flagged on a daily basis by numerous people, who describe what they do on the internet as creating, spreading or sharing “memes”.

But there is also a deeper rationale for using this term. I think that internet users are on to something. There is a fundamental compatibility between the term “meme”, as Dawkins formulated it, and the way contemporary participatory culture works. I describe this compatibility as incorporating three dimensions.

First, memes can be described as cultural information that passes along from person to person, yet gradually scales into a shared social phenomenon. This attribute is highly congruent with the workings of contemporary participatory culture. Platforms such as YouTube, Twitter or Facebook are based on content that is spread by individuals through their social networks and may scale up to mass levels within hours.  Moreover – the basic act of “sharing” information (or spreading memes) has become – as Nicholas John suggests in recent articles – a fundamental part of what participants experience as the digital sphere.

Second, memes reproduce by various means of repackaging or imitation: people become aware of memes, process them, and then “repackage” them in order to pass them along to others. While repackaging is not absolutely necessary on the internet (people can spread content as is), a quick look around reveals that people do choose to create their own versions of internet memes, and in startling volumes. People repackage either through mimicry (the recreation of a specific text by other people), or remix (technology-based manipulations of content, such as Photoshopping).

Finally, memes diffuse through competition and selection.  While processes of cultural selection are ancient, digital media allow us to trace the spread and evolution of memes in unprecedented ways. Moreover, meta-information about processes of competition and selection (for instance “like” or “view count” numbers)  is increasingly becoming a visible and influential part of the process itself: People take it into consideration before they decide to remake a video or Photoshop a political photo. In short, while the meme concept is far from perfect, it encapsulates some fundamental aspects of digital culture, and as such, I find it of great value.

In Spreadable Media, we make an argument against viral media — and by extension, some hard versions of meme theory — for their reliance on ideas of “self-replicating culture” which strip aside the collective and individual agency involved in generating and circulating memes. What roles does cultural agency play in your analysis of memes?

I could not agree more with the assertion underpinning your question. In my opinion, the problem is not with the meme concept itself, but with some of the ways in which it has been used, and especially those that undermine the role of agency in the process of memetic diffusion. In this regard, the argument that I develop in book largely follows the criticism that you raise in Spreadable Media. I call for researchers to jettison some of the excess baggage that the term has accumulated throughout the years, and to look at memes as cultural building blocks that are articulated and diffused by active human agents. This does not mean that people do not live in social and cultural worlds that constraint them – of course they do. Yet what drives processes of cultural diffusion is not the “mysterious” power of memes but the webs of meanings and structures people build around them. 

 

Part of what I really value in your account is your stress on remixing and intertextuality within meme culture. As with all remixed culture, there’s a tendency for some to dismiss the lack of originality and “creativity” involved, yet you see these cultural practices as generative. Why is it significant that these shared genres or reference points keep recurring across a range of different communities and networks?

I’m glad that you raise this issue as I find it fundamental to the way that memes work. While people are completely free to create almost any form of content, in practice most of them choose to work within the borders of existing meme genres. This ostensive rigidity may in fact have an important social function: following shared pathways for meme production is vital for creating a sense of communality in a fragmented world. Moreover, these emergent recurring patterns – or “meme genres” – often reflect contemporary social and cultural logics in unexpected and interesting ways. Let’s take, for instance, the “Stock Character Macros” genre: a set of memes featuring images of characters that represent stereotypical behaviors accompanied by funny captions.  This list of characters includes, for example, “Scumbag Steve” (who always acts in unethical, irresponsible, and anti-social ways) and his antithesis, “Good Guy Greg” (who always tries to help, even if it brings him harm); “Success Kid” (a baby with a with a self-satisfied grin, accompanied by a caption that describes a situation that has worked out better than expected); and “Successful Black Man” (who comically subverts racist assumptions about him by acting like a member of the middle class bourgeoisie). While each of these memes may be of interest in its own right, it is their combination —or the emergent map of stock characters that represent exaggerated forms of behavior—that may tell us something interesting about contemporary digital culture.

Limor Shifman is a Senior Lectureer at the Department of Communication and Journalism, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.  She is the author of Memes in Digital Culture (MIT Press, 2013) and Televised Humor and Social Cleavages in Israel (Magness Press, 2008 [in Hebrew]). Her work focuses on the intertwining of three fields: communication technologies, popular culture and the social construction of humor. Shifman’s journal articles explore phenomena such as internet-based humor about gender, politics and ethnicity; jokes and user-generated globalization; and memetic YouTube videos.

Digital Cosmopolitans: An Interview with Ethan Zuckerman (Part Three)

You talk a bit in the book about some of themes we tackled in Spreadable Media – the degree to which more and more media comes to us because it is passed along by our friends rather than through mainstream distribution. How does this impact the challenges we face in developing a more “cosmopolitan” perspective on the world? What do you see as some of the limitations of “social discovery”?
I see social discovery as a third paradigm in how we find information online. In the early commercial internet, we saw a lot of curators from an earlier generation of media taking their place in the digital world. These curators are very helpful in guiding us to unexpected discovery, pointing us to media we might not have otherwise found, but they have been challenged and unseated by an internet-age suspicion of “gatekeepers”, who silence some voices and amplify others.
For much of the development of the consumer internet, search has been a dominant paradigm. In search, we look for precisely what we want, and we often find it. It’s a very rewarding experience, but it’s one with some complicated implications. It’s possible to surround ourselves with information that confirms our existing biases and prejudices, and to filter out voices that might challenge our preconceptions. And search demands that we know what we’re looking for, which is problematic, because we don’t always know what we want or what we need.
Social discovery has emerged in part as a way of reintroducing serendipity into online discovery. It gives us signals about what our friends are interested in that we’ve not yet discovered, which allows us the experience of novelty and discovery. But what we’re discovering is what our friends knew, which means our horizons are limited to those of our friends. If we’re blessed with a broad and knowledgeable set of friends, this can be a very profound discovery mechanism. But for many of us, our friends have similar backgrounds and similar perspectives, and discovering the world through their shared media may reinforce our existing worldviews, not only telling us what we want and expect to hear, but persuading us that our perspectives are universal ones, because our friends share that perspective.
I think that spreadable media escapes some of these limitations in that fandoms often bring together people from very different backgrounds around a shared media experience. Sharing a fondness for sumo gives me a point of encounter with people in Japan, Mongolia, Bulgaria and Brazil (four countries well represented in sumo at present) and the possibility to discover new perspectives through the encounter. But it’s possible to imagine other experiences of sharing an interest that leads you back to people you already encounter in your daily existence – I’m not sure my experience as a Red Sox fan broadens my social or global perspectives very much.
You draw heavily across the book on your experiences with Global Voices. What has this project taught you about the kinds of human resources, processes, and technologies needed to facilitate meaningful exchanges across national borders?
Global Voices has taught me two major lessons: the importance of face to face relationships, and the idea that cross-cultural communication is a skill. Global Voices is celebrated as a virtual community that somehow manages to bring 1400 people in 100 countries together to work on a common project. While that’s true, the secret of the community is that we invest heavily in face to face contact. The project started at a meeting at Harvard, and most of our important decisions have been made when many of us are able to be together in the same space. It’s ironic that a project about connection through digital media is so physically mediated, but I think that just reinforces how significant in person encounter remains in a digital age. I think a lesson learned from our experience is that it can be very valuable to combine short burst of face to face encounter with use of digital media to prepare for and deepen relationships. We’re big fans of introducing people online, bringing them together in person for a few days, then asking them to work together virtually for years at a time.
Most of the people involved with Global Voices are bridge figures, brokering ideas and information between two or more cultures. I’m increasingly persuaded that this sort of bridging is a skillset that can be developed and cultivated. People in our community who are committed to some other form of cultural bridging aside from blogging or writing – living and working outside their home culture, working across different socioeconomic groups – tend to be our strongest and most productive community members. And people who work with us through the years, particularly people who work in different positions within the organization, develop a very strong suite of tools that allow them to mitigate conflicts and build new connections.
As for the technological piece: we’re almost luddites at Global Voices. We used IRC for many years for internal conversations, and mailing lists. We’re reluctant to embrace technologies until they are very widely usable. But we’re starting to make some shifts. GV Faces is my favorite new project – it’s a panel discussion on an issue in the news, held via Google Hangouts and recorded for broadcast on YouTube. When we started Global Voices, it was hard to imagine that we’d see technology advance to the point where we could do a global video talking heads show, but that’s where we are, and I’m loving the outcome.
You also draw on your experiences as a fan of certain forms of global pop music. To what degree might music circulate across borders that it is harder for news to cross? Does this movement pose a risk that the music will be exoticized, decontextualized, and misunderstood or does it potentially spark interests and connections that can lead to thicker forms of communication down the line? Might the same thing be said for other kinds of cultural products — Japanese Anime or Bollywood films, for example?
Music is the easiest route into a new culture for me – I’ve listened to and collected global pop music since my teens, and my first trip in any new city is to the record store. There are many countries where I know nothing about the politics but something about the music. For me, knowing something about a country’s music opens me to learning something about the news or the politics – when I follow the rebellion and civil war in Mali, I’m thinking of the wealth of amazing songwriters in Bamako, and about the guitar playing of Tinariwen and other Tuareg musicians.
There’s no doubt that music can be a space for appropriation without exploration. I examine Diplo’s use of Brazilian dance music in Rewire and conclude that he’s skating right up to the line, if not crossing it, in his work with MIA. But I also consider how a blatant, naked appropriation – Deep Forest’s use of “Rorogwela”, a Solomon Islands lullaby, which they repackage as “pygmy music” from the Congo – leads internet artist Matt Harding to seek out the creator’s family in the Solomon Islands and make a deep and significant personal tie. Harding found a piece of music he loved, learned the complicated story behind it and it ultimately led him to make personal connections behind the music.
I think cultural media like music, movies and food are often a shortcut around the caring problem. I may know little about the Uighur and their ongoing struggles with the Chinese government, but I know – and dig – the music of Zulpitar Zaitov, and so I’m inclined to pay more attention to Uighur news than I otherwise would. I see no reason why this couldn’t work around anime or Bollywood, and suspect it probably does.

 

You are now heading up the MIT Center for Civic Media. How might the projects you are developing there help to further address the challenges you’ve identified throughout your book?
I talk in Rewire about a set of tools that can help us monitor our individual use of media and decide whether or not we are getting the diverse picture of the world we need. We’re building some of those tools at Center for Civic Media, using the Media Cloud software that I’ve been working on for years with colleagues at Harvard’s Berkman Center. Tools like Catherine d’Iganzio’s Mapping the Globe are designed to help us visualize the concentrations and biases of media coverage. Nathan Matias and Sarah Szalavits have built a tool called Follow Bias that helps show how many women, men and brands you’re following on Twitter and, perhaps, make a decision to change your behavior and follow more (or fewer) women. We’re also building tools that look at how ideas and culture spread globally, as with a tool like What We Watch, which maps global audiences for YouTube videos. Finally, we’re starting to build tools that help you add serendipity to your media diet. Catherine is working on a Masters thesis called Terra Incognita, which helps you monitor where in the world you pay attention to and discover sources from parts of the world which are unknown to you.

Ethan Zuckerman is director of the Center for Civic Media at MIT, and a principal research scientist at MIT’s Media Lab.  He is the author of “Rewire: Digital Cosmopolitans in the Age of Connection”, published by W.W. Norton in June 2013. With Rebecca MacKinnon, Ethan co-founded international blogging community Global Voices. Global Voices showcases news and opinions from citizen media in over 150 nations and thirty languages. Ethan’s research focuses on issues of internet freedom, civic engagement through digital tools and international connections through media. He blogs athttp://ethanzuckerman.com/blog and lives in the Berkshire Mountains of western Massachusetts.

Digital Cosmopolitans: An Interview with Ethan Zuckerman (Part Two)

The word, cosmopolitanism, is often used and often misunderstood. What does the term mean to you? What do you see as the core values or virtues of adopting a more cosmopolitan perspective?
I debated whether or not to use the world “cosmopolitanism” in the book, as it evokes a sense of globe-hopping placelessness that’s not what I wanted to evoke. But I ended up using it because I found Kwame Appiah’s thinking about cosmopolitanism so helpful.
Appiah, a Ghanaian-American philosopher, suggests that cosmopolitans recognize that there is more than one acceptable way to live in the world, and that we may have obligations to people who live in very different ways than we do. This, he argues, is one of the possible responses to a world where we find ourselves interacting with people from very different backgrounds. Cosmopolitanism doesn’t demand that we accept all ways of living in the world as equally admirable – he works hard to draw a line between cosmopolitanism and moral relativism – but does demand that we steer away from a fundamentalist or nationalist response that sees our way as the only way and those who believe something different as inferior or unworthy of our consideration or aid.
I’m struck by how personal a response Appiah’s cosmopolitanism is. He navigates two very different cultures in his life – his academic life in Princeton and his family in Ghana – and aspects of that life, notably his homosexuality, can be very controversial in one environment and uncontroversial in another. The solution he proposes, it struck me, is one of the more thoughtful approaches to life in a world where we continually encounter other ways of thinking and living. A cosmopolitan approach offers us the encouragement to discover other ways of solving a problem while accepting the idea that we may choose to continue living in ways we have in the past. What we are not free to do is to dismiss other ways of living out of hand, or to fall back on a narrow, tribal definition of obligation. It strikes me as a responsible reaction to a world that is connected in ways large and small, in ways we rarely see or understand.
 You discuss across the book the symptoms of an “incomplete globalization.” Is it incomplete in the sense that it is broken or incomplete in the sense that it is still in process? 
One of the criticisms I’ve received about the book is that it’s insufficiently critical of contemporary global capitalism. One reason critics have brought up that objection is that I’m enthusiastically pro-globalization, though not in the ways most people use that term. I’ve been involved with global economic development for the past two decades, and it has persuaded me that what developing economies need is more globalization, not less. Nations that have the hardest time educating their populations and giving them economic opportunities tend to be those most detached from global trade and migration flows. This doesn’t mean that I support exploitative globalization, and I think that a great deal of what happens at the WTO and other international trade fora is rigged against developing nations. But the enemy isn’t globalization – it’s bad, unfair globalization.
I use “incomplete globalization” as a way of describing a tension between three types of movement. Atoms are quite free to move across global borders – we’ve built trade systems that allow low-cost sourcing of raw materials and manufactured goods from across continents and oceans. While trade in atoms isn’t barrier free, it’s far less restrained than the flow of people, which has been dramatically restrained in the 20th century, to the great detriment of many in the developing world. I am deeply influenced by Lant Prichett’s arguments which make the case that increased migration would be the single biggest step taken towards economic development in poor nations. My contribution to the debate is to note that globalization of bits often lags behind globalization of atoms, closely following the globalization of people. I am concerned that a world where we globalize atoms and not bits is a dangerous world – we are dependent on other parts of the world without understanding local circumstances. So I would argue for a more complete globalization of atoms, bits and people, in ways that are careful, fair and focused on human development. So “incomplete globalization” is both broken in some ways, and incomplete, though my focus is one the ways it is incomplete and imbalanced between globalization of atoms, people and bits.
 
You make a productive distinction in the book between Xenophiles and bridge figures. What are the differences between the two? What kinds of functions do they each serve in connecting people together across national differences? How do they both fit within a larger vision of a more cosmopolitan culture?
For me, bridge figures are the cultural brokers and translators who work to make cultures understandable to each other. Bridge figures have deep attachments to two or more cultures – they’ve usually lived and worked in different parts of the world, and they’ve chosen to champion those cultures, identifying the good parts in one and introducing them to the other.
If you’re going to have an advocate for a culture, they need someone to advocate to. Xenophiles are people who seek inspiration and new ideas in different cultures. They don’t have the background in the different cultures to build new bridges, but they can cross the ones that bridge figures build.
For the project of increasing global understanding and connection, both types of figures are critical. I probably emphasize the function of the bridge figure more thoroughly in Rewire because it’s hard for me to imagine much global connection without bridging. But xenophiles – particularly xenophiles who wear their interests and passions on their sleeves, like Anthony Bourdain and his relentless search for interesting global food – are enormously important in promoting the possibility and importance of international connection. Not everyone can be a bridge figure, I argue – it’s an accident of circumstances as well as a choice of perspective and temperment – but xenophilia is a choice and one I hope more people will make.
 What steps might educators take to foster a greater interest and engagement with the kinds of global communication flows that you value? Is it simply a matter of encouraging Americans to learn foreign language or beefing up geography teaching, or does it require rethinking the curriculum at a deeper level?

Languages, geography, history and travel are all powerful tools to encourage engagement, but I think we need a more fundamental change in educational systems. We need much greater awareness of interconnection so that the importance of understanding the wider world is far more apparent. We’re lousy about teaching students the complex systems that hold the world together – trade, financial flows, shipping, migration – so it’s not a surprise that complex stories that require us to understand interconnection are hard to develop audiences for.

Near the end of the book, you discuss “cognitive diversity” and its value in contemporary organizations. How do you define this concept? In what sense is it different from “Identity diversity”? What steps can organizations take to foster and sustain greater “cognitive diversity” in their operations?
Cognitive diversity and identity diversity have some common ground, but do not fully overlap. Cognitive diversity recognizes different ways of thinking about problems and tends to track to differences in cultural upbringing and education. Two people who have different ethnic and religious backgrounds might think very similarly if they were raised in the same geographic community and attended the same set of schools and trained in the same ways.
Near the end of Rewire, I argue that teams benefit from cognitive diversity and may need to look for it both through identity diversity and above and beyond identity diversity. This likely requires changing how we recruit talent, looking at broader pools of individuals with different paths towards qualification. It also means making a commitment towards building teams to encourage diversity and accepting some conflict over more comfortable, homophilous teams, possibly trading some degree of comfort and harmony for creative tension.
Ethan Zuckerman is director of the Center for Civic Media at MIT, and a principal research scientist at MIT’s Media Lab.  He is the author of “Rewire: Digital Cosmopolitans in the Age of Connection”, published by W.W. Norton in June 2013. With Rebecca MacKinnon, Ethan co-founded international blogging community Global Voices. Global Voices showcases news and opinions from citizen media in over 150 nations and thirty languages. Ethan’s research focuses on issues of internet freedom, civic engagement through digital tools and international connections through media. He blogs athttp://ethanzuckerman.com/blog and lives in the Berkshire Mountains of western Massachusetts.

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

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

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

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