Collective Wisdom (Part III): An Interview with the Open Documentary Lab's William Uricchio and Katerina Cizek


You write, “To present co-creation within media as a re-emergent practice without explicitly acknowledging the long-standing co-creative approaches practiced by communities of color, doesn’t simply erase their work, it undermines the very tenets of co-creation.” Explain.

At its core, the idea of co-creation seeks to reconcile systemic power and singular authority. This fundamental principle extends beyond the creative process within media making, compelling all of us to interrogate fundamental ideas of ownership, meaning-making, attribution and—if we optimize the potential of co-creation—realize a more just society.  Context matters, and as we said earlier, we need to be mindful that in co-creating we are part of a long standing human tradition.  However, particularly in the West, co-creation has been occluded by an extractive economic order.  This is embedded in euro-centric legal language and metaphors: consider ‘intellectual property’ in which revenues accrue to the owner, but not necessarily the maker, in the form of ‘royalties’. That extractive economic order was at its most rawest and visible in the experiences of enslaved people, whose lives, labor, and creativity were someone’s property.   

Throughout this, co-creation has thrived at the margins.  But precisely because of this position, dominant cultures have tended to ignore the history of co-creation especially within communities of color.  There are so many unacknowledged keepers of the flame. 

With this larger imperative in mind, we developed a chapter of the report that seeks to provide an introduction of the long-standing co-creative practices within communities of color. The function of this chapter is to begin mapping the history of co-creation within communities of color in the U.S., to explore non-institutional power, innovation, and co-operation amongst media makers of color, and to unpack the un-calculated costs and labor of deep co-creation processes. 

Thomas Allen Harris, filmmaker, and co-author of the chapter states: “This benign neglect, often due to the work’s resistance to certain stereotypical narratives, resulted in its marginalization so that today some can speak about co-creation as something new, without feeling the responsibility to find and cite precedence within media makers of color that have long been ignored by the mainstream. The result is a kind of a painful double negation. So as we revisit or re-package the concept of co-creation, it’s important for us to interrogate our power relationships and our motivations vis-à-vis process, community as well as outcomes.” 

I was struck by how many of the examples illustrating your best practices come from indigeneous media makers around the world. Are some cultures more accepting and accommodating of co-creation than others? What does this suggest about larger social shifts which might be needed for the full potentials of co-creation to emerge in industrialized western cultures? 

We argue that western, eurocentric, and extractive media-making practices have dominated the scholarship, the institutions, and the models of the way we understand media-making.  Identifiable authorship and intellectual property ownership have been joined at the hip since the advent of capitalism and the industrialization of culture.  These notions are not only embedded as norms, but they are systematically enforced through things like education, the promotion and tenure process at universities, the pathway to careers in the arts, and of course the legal system.  Paradoxically, the very conditions that have marginalized Indigenous peoples in this system have also to some extent exempted them from this trap.  

The global Indigenous Renaissance (expressed in film, arts, literature and scholarship) is a guiding inspiration to funding alternative structures and models to singular authorship. It has a rich tradition of co-creation to fall back on, and that legacy is now being recognized and finding support.  In Canada, where I am based, a recent (2015) Truth and Reconciliation Commission into the century-long Indigenous Residential School system has recommended a reframing of the relationships between Indigenous communities and government as “nation to nation.” The 94 recommendations and models to de-colonize institutions, epistemologies, and methods of creating provide important models for fulfilling the potential of co-creation. 

So yes, some cultures -- especially those most marginalized within the current order of things -- offer uninterrupted legacies of  alternatives such as co-creation.  As noted earlier, co-creation has even served as a survival and resistance strategy for many communities.  And our field study makes amply clear that it can provide a robust alternative to exploitative and extractive behaviors, offering the rest of us a survival strategy as well. 

You are right to point to the need for larger social shifts in the Western industrialized world if the real power of co-creation is to be unlocked.  Casting a glance across the planet at the start of the third decade of the 21st Century, amidst the climate crisis, with tensions between globalization and nationalism, between governance and sovereignty, between fascistic authority and radical self determination, and the myriad contestations of identity, suggests that dramatic social shifts are already underway.  It’s a frightening moment, because those shifts are earthquake-like in their power and capable of destroying much of the civilizational infrastructure that sits atop deep fault-lines.  But it’s also an opportune moment if we are alert enough to mitigate disaster, to rethink the way -- to extend the metaphor -- that we build, and distribute resources, and live.  So the changes that are disrupting some of our industries, that have led to anxieties and intolerance in our populations, and indeed, that have degraded the very ecosystem that we all inhabit may well expose the frailties and limits of the Western industrialized world sooner than we think.  The critique of late capitalism is a familiar one.  We hope that the tremors snap us out of the same old extractive and exploitative behaviors, and incentivize us to be more thoughtful about our interdependencies with the greater world.  In this sense, we see co-creation as a methodology that offers hope and meaningful ways to build trust and a common future.


Over the 20th century, the art world has been organized around individual, “personal” expression and community-based projects often get treated as “crafts” rather than “art.” What work needs to take place as collaborative artists seek more recognition for their collective accomplishments? 

Work needs to take place at several levels. We spoke earlier about the debate over process and product, and said that the nature of the process bears heavily on the product, especially now that tools and access are within reach of more people than ever before.  And we noted the growing insistence, especially within community media groups, to make sure that the work gets out.  There are a couple of strategies that might be deployed in tandem.   

We might consider ways of tapping the status quo evident in existing hierarchies of taste, in the traditional mechanisms that give it form (galleries, cinemas, museums, festivals, etc) and offer long-accepted ways to have work valorized.  So let’s press for more inclusivity, but with a twist. 

Hank Willis Thomas suggested in our interview that we need to build a canon for co-creative work. We need to recognize that co-creation can produce high quality art, film, media and journalism. We need to acknowledge and recognize this work, this canon. Then we need to support the funding and evaluating process rather than concentrating merely on product. We need to create pathways for funding development, and relationship building.  If you consider the work of organizations like the Ford Foundation, such work is already afoot.  And Ford’s president, Darren Walker, has been quite explicit about using the ample residues of 20th Century industry to support these new -- and one might even say, post-industrial -- criteria, pathways, and opportunities.  Another encouraging sign in this regard is the growth of art museums that specialize in non-attributed and non-canonical forms, whether ‘outsider’ or Indigenous; and encouraging as well is the growth in existing museums of collections of the same.   

Another strategy involves re-envisioning our place in the world.  We mentioned earlier that history sometimes seems more concerned with retrofitting the present onto the past, than exploring the past for new insights about the present.  Until recently, much the same thing could be said about a discipline like anthropology: it often seemed more concerned with investigating the Other as a way of confirming our own position, than as an opportunity to challenge our assumptions about ourselves.  Fortunately, change has been afoot here as well, and with it, much greater openness to learn from the experiences and lives of those long relegated to the margins.  With this recentering will necessarily come a reappraisal of the norms (like single authorship) that we too often take for granted.  In museums around the world, paintings that were once asserted as acts of individual genius (Rembrandt, Reubens, Caravaggio, take your pick) have slowly become ‘complicated’ by the fact that the master’s hand may only have painted a face or two, while his minions did the rest.  This acknowledgement is important, and although still contained by the old aesthetic regime, it is moving in a direction increasingly compatible with collective work. 

Institutions, schools, foundations, organizations, broadcasters, media production companies, and non-profits all need to invest in development and understand that it pays off in the quality not just of the art, but the larger social implications. We need to give people a chance to become better co-creators, by sharing skills and resources on how to listen, collaborate, and move away from ego-driven methods to collective ones. 

As you note, co-creation can and has been “misused for profit and power.” How can people identify which relationships are exploitative before they decide whether or not to participate? 

We inhabit a moment when some of our fastest-growing media organizations rely on user-generated content (think YouTube or FaceBook).  Like massively multi-player games or social media, without ‘us’ -- our content and our data -- there would be no business.  So it’s not surprising that these organizations and platforms like them invest considerable energy into making their users feel like part of the community.  Yet for all of the emphasis on the social, on collaboration, and even, increasingly, terms like co-creation, the user base is ultimately harvested and rendered into a source of profit for stockholders.  These developments have been muddying the waters, making it difficult to discern exactly what these terms entail. 

So yours is a great question, and fortunately there is a pretty simple answer.  When we see a project that identifies itself as “co-creation”, it’s important to examine who has governance of the project and who benefits from the project. What are the terms of agreement? If these issues are not clear, not transparent, then we need to interrogate and ask deeper questions about why they’re not transparent. The keys to co-creation are the relationships, and the overt discussion, articulation, and identification of  power, ownership, finances, decision-making and creative control in a project. If those discussions are absent, or not available, then it’s probably not co-creation.

You drew some interesting parallels between world-building as a process in science fiction and in documentary. My readers will likely be much more familiar with world-building in science fiction. What are some of the ways that world-building is influencing documentary production?  

As the old certainties of what’s real and what’s not (or in the jargon du jour, what’s ‘fake’) fade into a dim memory, people in the ‘reality business’ have been a lot more attentive to crafting and articulating their vision of the world, not just assuming that it will be accepted.  Journalists and documentary makers have been using a battery of tactics to demarcate their space, including world-building strategies borrowed from fiction.  In fact, historians (also chroniclers of the real) have routinely reveled in world-building, and their endeavors show how crucial such scenography is to the particular historiographic spin that they put on the past. World-building enables their project, supports it, renders it obvious.  So, too, with documentarians.  The days of building an argument on the basis of an assumed understanding of the world are fast fading.  And particularly at a moment of hyper mediatization, creating a fabric of cross references to other media representations and working with the narrative conventions of the moment are essential ways to construct a frame of reference that audiences can comprehend and navigate.   

World-building is relevant in a different way for documentarians working in the immersive space, where entire environments or “worlds” are literally created, whether in the form of VR, games, AR, mixed reality, theatre or other spatial experiences.   And we are slowly figuring out how argument, narrative, and representation operate in these worlds.  In a VR experience, where the user is free to look pretty much anywhere and explore the depicted world, should we fall back on storytelling techniques derived from film, that is, a directed vision? Or are we better off encouraging the user to explore, find the dots, and connect them in their own way, much as they would in the real world?  The answer has important implications for what, precisely, gets communicated.  And this emergent situation resonates with some of the issues we have addressed with co-creation.  Should master storytellers ‘tell’ and audiences ‘listen’? Or should world-builders working in these media collaborate with world-explorers to ‘enable’ various possibilities, paths, and experiences?  

Worlds are colliding, so to speak, as genres intertwine in these new contexts, as they are enabled by new modes of production, and as they are targeted to audiences / collaborators with new frames of reference.


Katerina Cizek is a Canadian documentary director and a pioneer in digital documentaries. From 2008-2015,Cizek directed the National Film Board of Canada's Highrise series on life in residential skyscrapers, including the 2010 world's first 360 degree web documentary Out My Window, winner of the inaugural IDFA DocLab Award for Digital Storytelling at the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam and an International Digital Emmy for best digital program: non-fiction, and the 2011 webdoc One Millionth Tower, which lets users explore a highrise complex in 3D virtual space, as Toronto residents re-imagine their neighborhood. Cizek collaborated with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's OpenDocLab unit to develop the final production in the Highrise project called Universe Within. As part of MIT’s Visiting Artists Program, she worked with scholars and apartment residents to ask how new technological forms are reshaping personal lives in suburban high-rise communities. She is currently heading up a new research and production initiative at MIT Open Documentary Lab.

William Uricchio revisits the histories of old media when they were new; explores interactive and participatory documentary; writes about the past and future of television; thinks a lot about algorithms and archives; and researches cultural identities and the question of "Americanization" in the 20th and 21st centuries. He is Professor of Comparative Media Studies, Principal Investigator of the MIT Open Documentary Lab, and faculty director of the MISTI-Netherlands Program. He is also Professor of Comparative Media History at Utrecht University in the Netherlands and has held visiting professorships at the Freie Universität Berlin, Stockholm University, the Georg-August-Universität Göttingen (Lichtenberg-Kolleg), China University of Science and Technology, and in Denmark where he was DREAM professor. He has been awarded Guggenheim, Humboldt and Fulbright fellowships and the Berlin Prize; and was Holtzbrinck Fellow at the American Academy in Berlin. His publications include Reframing Culture; We Europeans? Media, Representations, Identities; Media Cultures; Many More Lives of the Batman; and hundreds of essays and book chapters, including a visual "white paper" on the documentary impulse ( He is currently completing a book on the deep history and possible futures of documentary; and another on games and playing with history and historiography after post-structuralism.

Collective Wisdom (Part II) An Interview with the Open Documentary Lab's William Uricchio & Katerina Cizek


What do you see as the core ethical commitments that need to shape co-creative media-making? What happens to co-creation when those ethical commitments are not in place

The people that we heard from in the field offered numerous lessons to help ensure that ethical commitments shape creative work and working relationships. They range from deep listening and dialogue, to building specific contracts such as “Community Benefit Agreements,” to focussing on project sustainability, to healing from trauma at individual and community levels rather than just focussing on media as an end-product, to plain old transparency.  In the report, we’ve distilled them down to ten lessons. 

While co-creation has a proven track record of negotiating and helping to suture divides, and while the results generally emerge as greater than the sum of their parts, it’s also important to note that co-creation can also be abused, and certainly, as you pose it, when its ethical commitments are not in place. Participants in the study warned that co-creation could:

●     Threaten editorial integrity and artistic independence.

●     Heighten expectations of trust, commitment, and time on all sides.

●     Marginalize makers and their work by categorizing them into the sub-genre of community media, especially artists of color.

●     Have unintended consequences, especially online and with AI.

●     Exploit labor, steal ideas and profit from them.

●     Be co-opted for the marketing of projects that reproduce power inequities.

These are not insignificant dangers.   Tools, alas, can be used properly or improperly; they can do good or ill; and while the collective nature of co-creation gives it a strong inclination to serve many needs rather than the desires of a few, we nevertheless need to stay alert to the possibilities of exploitation and abuse.

From the start, you make the case that co-creation is not a new idea, that it dates back to pre-historical petroglyphs, so what factors give a discussion of co-creation a new urgency today? What makes this a “new” or “emergent” (or at some points, re-emergent) space, as you also suggest many times here? 

To the extent that Google’s ngram viewer offers an insight into trends, the term ‘co-creation’ has grown exponentially over the past twenty or so years. There’s more than enough hype to go around, but, indeed, the practice is not new. Throughout history, we have evidence of co-creation as the norm.  As we noted earlier, it was the cultural operating system behind the development of our languages, religions, music, stories and more. But like undergrowth in a forest, it was overshadowed by the trees of single-authorship, which prospered in the West during the Enlightenment and emerged as a privileged form with the institutionalization of intellectual property.  Eager to envelop single authorship in precedent, its proponents retrofitted the model onto the co-creative work of the past, casting about for attribution and searching for individuals to credit and in the process overwriting alternative modes of creation.  History sometimes seems more concerned with retrofitting the present onto the past, than exploring the past for new insights about the present.   Nevertheless, co-creation practices, even if described by industrial era cultural arbiters as ‘folkish’ or ‘amateuristic’ or ‘craft’, have continued to offer alternatives to projects sparked by single-authored visions.  One of our goals in this report was to discover and learn from this long-marginalized cultural work. 

Today, we face the perfect storm of a pervasively mediated culture, a new generation of networked technologies, deep fissures in the social order, and an increasingly urgent search for alternatives.  Re-enter co-creation.  Co-creation has been newly enabled by the very same technologies and behaviors that intellectual property holders lament as eroding their business models.  Long present in marginalized communities where it offered a means of survival, it is moving into the mainstream where today it offers the hope that we can work together, build trust, and minimize exploitation.  OK - we have seen some of that potential deflected into the pseudo-social media as a new business model. But conditions are also ripe for more equitable co-creative practices. 

Co-creation is increasingly recognized in such areas as education, healthcare, technology and urban design. And although each of these and other fields have distinct approaches, fundamentally co-creation is an alternative to—and often a contestation of— a singular voice, authority, and/or process. Further, within digital infrastructures, the lines between audiences, subjects, and makers are blurred, and often erased. 

So the new-found relevance of co-creation might be argued technologically, through the pervasive spread of networked media; it might be framed economically and politically, with the weakening of legacy center-to-periphery models and the rise of distributed alternatives; and it might be positioned socially, with the weakening of traditional centers of cultural authority, the amplification of long-suppressed identities and epistemologies, and the ensuing tensions in the social fabric.  There is plenty of evidence in the form of today’s platform industries to suggest that those with an interest in power have found ways to harvest our collective impulses on both technological and political-economic fronts, using them for profits and control.  We need to critique that, and embrace more robust, equitable, and relevant alternatives such as co-creativity.  But our study also revealed significant progress and promise on the social front, as an enabler of trust through creative collaboration, but also as a resource and site of strength particularly for marginalized communities. 

What are the strengths of a co-creative approach for dealing with “the complex problems we face in the 21st century”, such as climate change? 

Well, one thing is for sure: the complex problems we face in the 21st century are too big for the narrow perspective of our top-down, discipline-bound, and often mutually-exclusive legacy systems! Overwhelmingly, co-creative veterans name the climate crisis as a top priority, to be tackled from the ground up. Complex problems need large teams, diverse and wide-ranging perspectives; and solutions are often found in the communities that are impacted most by the problems. Julia Kumari Drapkin of ISeeChange connects dots of data with stories, from the ground up to the sky, using NASA’s satellite images.

She states:

“Climate change is so large and big and coming at us from such large amounts of time and space. We need to be drilling down into the specifics of how a community is experiencing it and what's causing it. It's that tangible community context that allows solutions to happen, that allows the journalism to happen.” 

“The world is so complex now,” said Patricia Zimmermann, adding:

It's so interconnected, the problems of the Anthropocene and global climate disruption, the problems of poverty, the problems of racism, immigration, the problems of nuclear disaster, the problems of underfunding health care around the world, the problems of clean water. The majority of the world does not have clean water. One person cannot make a film about any of that, it's impossible. It's too complicated to do alone. When I look at these individualistic models, I don't see a lot of energy in these projects at all. They feel formulaic to me. 

“Will it really matter what we create, whether it's a project or an initiative, if we don't have clean air to breathe?” asked Opeyemi Olukemi, further stating:

If we don't have water to drink? If we have a series of superbugs that start to kill off entire populations? Not just to create, but to be responsible and have people realize that we are entering new territory and that this is a possible way to help address and stem the damage of what is coming down the pipeline. 

The anthropologist Anna Tsing has developed the concept of collaborative survival. Co-creation can likewise provide a set of methods and techniques to pursue that hope, and to distribute resources and governance more widely.  Precisely through its embrace of multiplicity, its attention to the experiences of people, and its concern all of us rather than special interests, co-creation offers broad-spectrum approaches to complex problems.  

You seem to suggest that with co-creation, the process may be more important than the outcome. In what sense? 

This is a big debate amongst those we interviewed, and our discussions have evolved over time.  Process, of course, can be transformative.  It’s where the dynamics of collaboration and co-creation play out.  It’s the space where people reveal themselves, where relationships can be built, where learning and skills are exchanged, and where trust can grow.  Process is the enactment of the social, the generator of the legitimacy that we spoke of earlier.  And we’ve placed great emphasis on process in the report because, just as we are trying to recover co-creation from the taken-for-grantedness of the single author, so too ‘process’, which we are trying to recover from a culture preoccupied with ‘product’.  And just as this by no means entails a rejection of single authorship and attribution (it’s the dominant, we’re just trying to give some attention to an urgently needed alternative), so too product.   Outcomes obviously matter as well, and not just in the sense of the “product” of the media, but also the “product” of its impact.  Indeed, it’s fair to say that many media makers are frustrated with the weight placed on deliverables over outcomes in conventional funding and evaluative models. Co-creators suggest that when we place more emphasis on process, on the dynamics of conception through execution through impact, we end up making better, more relevant and thoughtful work.  

In the 20th century, some co-creative projects, such as the National Film Board of Canada’s Challenge for Change program, insisted on the primacy of process over product.  An organization famed for its high-quality products, the NFB could occasionally afford to be indulgent about process, and be celebrated for it.  But for many other groups, especially community media organizations, the situation was historically different.  For decades, community-based media work was associated with low-quality aesthetics and unrefined narrative structures.  Makers were confronted with difficult issues of access to expensive equipment, processing, training, and more.  And while the experiences of media-making and the process of working across a community were often transformative, the outcomes tended to stay at a very local level.  In some cases, community media ‘products’ even conjured up derogatory associations.  

That sentiment seems to have changed, and thus the ‘big debate’ that we mentioned.  Now that media tools are more accessible, and high-quality visuals and narratives are more ubiquitous, and now that alternate distribution networks have enabled near-global reach, co-creators have become far more insistent about creating attractive and engrossing products.  They want to be heard and make a difference beyond their communities, in addition to enjoying the transformational benefits of process.  As paige watkins of DNA commented during a group discussion:

If you want the product to actually have impact past the choir, past the people who already understand what we're talking about and are agreeing with our values […] it has to be competitive up against the harmful things that are getting maybe more money or more resources. 

“Projects emerge from the process,” is how Heather Croall, director of the Adelaide Fringe Festival, summed up co-creation in the 21st century. For most co-creative teams, it’s not one or the other.  Product and process are complementary.


Katerina Cizek is a two-time Emmy-winning documentarian working across emergent media platforms. She is the Artistic Director of the Co-Creation Studio at MIT’s Open Documentary Lab. Recently, she wrote (with William Uricchio and 12 co-authors) a ground-breaking field study on co-creative practices in the arts, journalism and documentary, entitled Collective Wisdom. As a documentarian for over a decade at the National Film Board of Canada, she helped redefine the organization as one of the world’s leading digital content hubs, with the Filmmaker-in-Residence and HIGHRISE projects. Both community-based and globally recognized, these two ground-breaking serial and digital projects garnered: a Peabody award, a World Press Photo Prize, 3 Canadian Screen Awards, amongst others. Cizek has forged unconventional, co-creative partnerships with such diverse organizations ranging from an inner-city teaching hospital to Mozilla Foundation, to The New York Times. Her projects are also interventionist, and co-creative: they have significantly contributed to conversations about health-care policy, urban planning as well as the health outcomes and living conditions of the participants themselves. Cizek’s earlier human rights documentary film projects have instigated criminal investigations, changed UN policies, and have screened as evidence at an International Criminal Tribunal. Cizek's films include the Hampton-Prize winner Seeing is Believing: Handicams, Human Rights and the News (2002, co-directed with Peter Wintonick), In Search of the African Queen: A People Smuggling Operation (1999, co-director), and The Dead are Alive: Eyewitness in Rwanda (1995 editor, co-writer, narrator). She is frequently invited to travel internationally to teach, advise and share innovative approaches to the documentary genre, emergent media and journalism.

William Uricchio revisits the histories of old media when they were new; explores interactive and participatory documentary; writes about the past and future of television; thinks a lot about algorithms and archives; and researches cultural identities and the question of "Americanization" in the 20th and 21st centuries. He is Professor of Comparative Media Studies, Principal Investigator of the MIT Open Documentary Lab, and faculty director of the MISTI-Netherlands Program. He is also Professor of Comparative Media History at Utrecht University in the Netherlands and has held visiting professorships at the Freie Universität Berlin, Stockholm University, the Georg-August-Universität Göttingen (Lichtenberg-Kolleg), China University of Science and Technology, and in Denmark where he was DREAM professor. He has been awarded Guggenheim, Humboldt and Fulbright fellowships and the Berlin Prize; and was Holtzbrinck Fellow at the American Academy in Berlin. His publications include Reframing Culture; We Europeans? Media, Representations, Identities; Media Cultures; Many More Lives of the Batman; and hundreds of essays and book chapters, including a visual "white paper" on the documentary impulse ( He is currently completing a book on the deep history and possible futures of documentary; and another on games and playing with history and historiography after post-structuralism.

Collective Wisdom (Part 1): An Interview with the Open Documentary Lab's William Uricchio and Katerina Cizek

Several years ago, I conducted an interview here with William Uricchio, my old MIT colleague, who now oversees the Open Documentary Lab at MIT. The wide-ranging interview was selected for inclusion in my newly released book, Participatory Culture: Interviews, which includes samples from more than 15 years of discussions here about participatory culture, learning, and politics.

When I spoke with William and his colleagues this spring at the Media in Transition conference, they referenced a new white paper, Collective Wisdom: Co-Creating With Communities Across Disciplines and With Algorithms, which the Lab’s website describes as “a first-of-its-kind field study of the media industry that highlights trends, opportunities, and challenges to help advance the understanding and recognition of co-created works and practices—efforts that function outside the limits of singular authorship." We decided we would showcase the launch of this important study with an extended interview on this blog featuring Uricchio and his co-author, the documentary filmmaker Katerina Cizek (Highrise). For those who want to know more about the project, the Open Docs lab shared with me this trailer about their efforts.

The report is being published online via the MIT Press’s new Works in Progress series. They spoke to a massive number of experts — scholars and practitioners who shared with them core insights and best practices that are sure to generation further discussions and inspire future projects.


What do you mean by co-creation and what are some of the forms it is taking at the current moment?

 Co-creation is a complex concept, and we worked hard to pin it down to a precise formulation.  For a documentary maker, it can mean something as simple -- or profound -- as making documentaries with people, rather than for them or about them.  Our report is actually a field study, and in order to move beyond our own experiences, we interviewed some 166 people, discussed our findings with more, and convened in small groups and large.  The more we explored other uses of the concept, the more we discovered. This led us to develop a sharper formulation, which we’ll quote from the report: “Co-creation offers alternatives to a single-author vision, and involves a constellation of media production methods, frameworks, and feedback systems. In co-creation, projects emerge from a process, and evolve from within communities and with people, rather than for or about them. Co-creation spans across and beyond disciplines and organizations, and can also involve non-human or beyond human systems. The concept of co-creation reframes the ethics of who creates, how, and why. Our research shows that co-creation interprets the world, and seeks to change it, through a lens of equity and justice.” 

 As we designed our field study on co-creation particularly with regard to media-making, four main types emerged: within both real-world and online communities, across disciplines, and with humans working with non-human systems. These types of co-creation each have distinct qualities and concerns.


Co-creation within communities is the most commonly identified protocol in the study. While we have separated in-person and online co-creation in order to highlight unique conditions and challenges, most contemporary community projects intertwine both practices. To get a good sense of the report’s scope, it’s worth unpacking each of the categories that we investigated along with the major issues that we considered. 

With face-to-face community based co-creation, central discussions in our interviews revolved around power dynamics and relationships, i.e., who decides the terms of engagement, what media is made and by whom, and why, and who benefits from this type of project. Key concerns included the hidden, unfunded work of co-creation. Artists of color and other historically marginalized groups are often burdened with additional responsibilities not recognized in formal media-making. 

With on-line community co-creation, the blurred boundaries among makers, subjects, and audiences afford new opportunities, but also open up new risks vis-à-vis questions of ownership, governance, and authority. Distinct questions regarding issues of accountability and trust arose with journalism in particular. Additionally, in projects involving emergent media, co-creators often prioritized training, literacy, and community access to expensive and complex technologies, which are considered crucial for inclusion and equity. 

With cross-disciplinary co-creation, teams cross disciplinary lines, institutions, and organizations; and scholars and makers embark on parallel paths of discovery rather than privileging one discipline’s priorities over the other. This often requires comparatively long timelines and shared spaces. Importantly, these projects are frequently partnered with communities outside the academy. Many people interviewed in our report consider that co-creation resides beyond inter-disciplinary space, and prefer the terms trans-disciplinary, or even anti-disciplinary to describe their practices. 

Finally, in a more speculative mode, we interviewed artists, scientists, and provocateurs who are examining the possibilities of co-creation with non-human living systems, artificial intelligence (AI) as well as technological infrastructures. These processes too, de-centralize single authorship, and force us to consider questions about the definition of agency and singularity that ask what co-creating with non-human systems looks like as humans increasingly become entangled within larger systems and infrastructures.

How does the concept of Collective Wisdom relate to other concepts such as collective intelligence and “wisdom of crowds”?

 We share a site of inspiration!  Pierre Levy -- so important to your work in Convergence Culture -- coined the term ‘collective intelligence’ to refer to the shared, group intelligence emerging from the collaboration, collective efforts, and sometimes competition of many individuals, often appearing in consensual decision making. The concept has been applied to bacteria and animals, especially hived insects. Recently, it has been used to characterize crowdsourcing and the potential of computer systems, as explored by MIT’s Center for Collective Intelligence. In our study, we are interested in collective intelligence because it provides us with a system of tools and an established body of thinking. But we’ve chosen to frontload the phrase ‘collective wisdom’ because it goes further, evoking spiritual and philosophical dimensions of course, as well as the very practical questions of how to co-create? why? and why now? 

At its core, the idea of co-creation seeks to reconcile systemic power and singular authority. OK -- it’s pretty far reaching.  This fundamental principle extends beyond media making and compels us to interrogate ideas of ownership, meaning-making, attribution and—if we optimize the potential of co-creation—to do something more: to realize a more just society. And that’s where collectivity and wisdom enter the picture. 

For us, media co-creation is defined by methodologies that offer alternatives to the singular-authored vision, and that seek collaborative routes to discovery.  ‘Collaborative’ and ‘collective’ imply a shared vision and implementation process, rather than simply ceding to the views of the most empowered person in the room.  And for that reason, co-creation offers greater odds of achieving a balanced vision, and even justice.  Our study focuses on things like process, rather than simply privileging product; on changing the world, not simply observing it; and on decolonizing the all-too-familiar top down systems of production.  This shift from ‘business as usual’ emerges directly from the collectivity at the heart of co-creation; and work in this vein is already evidence of the method’s ability to change the world, not just interpret it.   Many of our interviews and case studies on the topic of co-creation revealed the elegance of collective wisdom, that is, a shared and decentralized understanding that, when intentionally channeled, can lead to transformative shifts in people, and with them, culture.#

You suggest many times here a need to “shed old legacy models that have become irrelevant.” Which “legacy models” should we “shed” and in what senses have they lost their relevancy and legitimacy? 

We heard over and over again in our interviews that many of the existing systems for media education, media development, funding, production and distribution are outdated. We heard that these programs reflect the way that media was created or believed to be created in the 20th century, when siloed, center-to-periphery media industries predominated.  People specifically noted the persistence of these models at film schools, journalism programs, museums, technology and science streams at universities, media institutions such as broadcasters, and funding and distribution agencies.  The loss in relevance of this model, and the organizations that continue to hold fast to it, is not news.  Ironically, it is evident even to the industry, as traditional notions of and business models for journalism erode, as new technologies and use patterns pressure ‘content industries’, and as those industries that have figured out how to scratch the itch of collaboration (albeit in a self-serving manner) rise to prominence.  The loss of relevance seems widely acknowledged, even if it is not always acted upon.  But the loss of legitimacy is another story.  Legitimacy serves as the last refuge of imperiled legacy systems, their raison d’etre even when the bottom begins to fall out.  And fortunately for them, the emerging order has yet to sort out its ethical priorities and frames of reference, so the legitimacy of legacy still hangs in the room.   

As legacy media organizations try to figure out what to do in an ecosystem dominated by upstarts like Alphabet and FaceBook, they’re simultaneously scrambling to make sense of, contain, and make use of networked digital culture. The problem is that they attend a little too much to the siren call of SEO, ROI, and whatever’s cooking on the algorithmic front, and underestimate the social dynamics of the changes we are experiencing.  And the social is ultimately the source of legitimacy.   

So at this juncture, legacy organizations are doing their best to grapple with changing conditions, but neither they (who direct their content to the social world) nor the digital upstarts (who make their profits by harvesting the social world) have empowered people (who constitute the social world!).  And that’s where we see the added value of co-creation: its power emerges from its social character, and its fundamental sociality highlights the current crisis in legitimacy.  We’ve argued that co-creation has a long history. It’s intrinsic to the development of our languages, belief systems, and great narratives.  Its current resurgence owes much to the affordances of digital networks as well as the disruption of the status quo.  But at heart, it remains profoundly social.  And its legitimacy ensues from the social dynamics of creativity, from the methods by which vision and power are structured.   

In the report, we’ve taken care to state that our embrace of co-creation does not constitute an attack on authorship (although some of those we interviewed do), or in the context of this question, legacy organizations and their legitimacy.  They occupy an important place in our social encounters with the world, and have values such as attribution that are increasingly important as noise fills the system.   But we are saying that the potentials of co-creation have been for too long occluded by economic and legal systems that privilege concentrations of power.  And especially now that we are seeing an undermining of legacy systems by the distributed logics of social data harvesters, now that things are in flux and uncertain and polarized, we are saying that deeply collaborative modes like co-creation are more important than ever. 


Katerina Cizek is a two-time Emmy-winning documentarian working across emergent media platforms. She is the Artistic Director of the Co-Creation Studio at MIT’s Open Documentary Lab. Recently, she wrote (with William Uricchio and 12 co-authors) a ground-breaking field study on co-creative practices in the arts, journalism and documentary, entitled Collective Wisdom. As a documentarian for over a decade at the National Film Board of Canada, she helped redefine the organization as one of the world’s leading digital content hubs, with the Filmmaker-in-Residence and HIGHRISE projects. Both community-based and globally recognized, these two ground-breaking serial and digital projects garnered: a Peabody award, a World Press Photo Prize, 3 Canadian Screen Awards, amongst others. Cizek has forged unconventional, co-creative partnerships with such diverse organizations ranging from an inner-city teaching hospital to Mozilla Foundation, to The New York Times. Her projects are also interventionist, and co-creative: they have significantly contributed to conversations about health-care policy, urban planning as well as the health outcomes and living conditions of the participants themselves. Cizek’s earlier human rights documentary film projects have instigated criminal investigations, changed UN policies, and have screened as evidence at an International Criminal Tribunal. Cizek's films include the Hampton-Prize winner Seeing is Believing: Handicams, Human Rights and the News (2002, co-directed with Peter Wintonick), In Search of the African Queen: A People Smuggling Operation (1999, co-director), and The Dead are Alive: Eyewitness in Rwanda (1995 editor, co-writer, narrator). She is frequently invited to travel internationally to teach, advise and share innovative approaches to the documentary genre, emergent media and journalism.

William Uricchio revisits the histories of old media when they were new; explores interactive and participatory documentary; writes about the past and future of television; thinks a lot about algorithms and archives; and researches cultural identities and the question of "Americanization" in the 20th and 21st centuries. He is Professor of Comparative Media Studies, Principal Investigator of the MIT Open Documentary Lab, and faculty director of the MISTI-Netherlands Program. He is also Professor of Comparative Media History at Utrecht University in the Netherlands and has held visiting professorships at the Freie Universität Berlin, Stockholm University, the Georg-August-Universität Göttingen (Lichtenberg-Kolleg), China University of Science and Technology, and in Denmark where he was DREAM professor. He has been awarded Guggenheim, Humboldt and Fulbright fellowships and the Berlin Prize; and was Holtzbrinck Fellow at the American Academy in Berlin. His publications include Reframing Culture; We Europeans? Media, Representations, Identities; Media Cultures; Many More Lives of the Batman; and hundreds of essays and book chapters, including a visual "white paper" on the documentary impulse ( He is currently completing a book on the deep history and possible futures of documentary; and another on games and playing with history and historiography after post-structuralism.

Fan Materiality and Affect: Interview with Nicolle Lamerichs (Part 4)



Going back to our discussion earlier of the affective turn in fandom studies, you place a strong focus in the book on the “affective process” of cosplay. For you, this process includes the factors that shape the selection of a character and the ways this choice brings to the surface issues surrounding the body, the social community, and in particular, notions of gender and sexuality. You describe the spaces surrounding cosplay as “restructured around pride and generosity as well as shame and jealousy.” How would you describe the ways that these spaces have evolved to help participants work through some of the affects they are experiencing? 


This is a very relevant question and yes, intervention is sometimes needed. Conventions had to do active work the past years to protect cosplayers and create an inclusive environment. After several incidents, like the “cosplay is not harassment” incidents, conventions started to put up posters with instructions on how to treat cosplayers. Different conventions that I volunteered for myself, such as YaYCon, strengthened their code of conduct and policies. Some conventions have introduced listeners by now to help fans feel protected and safe when incidents emerge. 

The community was also self-regulating to some degree the past years. We held different panels discussed inclusivity and cosplay in Europe. I even sat in with some, for instance a panel on cosplay and age at Animecon moderated by my fellow-cosplay researcher Karen Heinrich. In open conversations and panels, people addressed problematic aspects of fandom.  

Fan conventions can still be problematic spaces, though. That’s why conventions and fans need to make a fist and strive for inclusivity together.    


Does cosplay necessarily involve identification with the character being constructed? What are some of the other ways that fans might relate to these characters? 


Cosplayers relate to the characters in numerous ways, as my informants showed me. Some choose a character design, rather than a character, because they are looking for a creative challenge. Others cosplay in a group, and choose the character that most befits them or is not taken. Again others make a choice in terms of identity – age, body type. Though you can play with age and size in cosplay, as many do, some want their cosplays to be aligned with their appearance.  

Cosplay is a very versatile hobby, and it’s amazing to see that fans really explore different characters as they continue to cosplay. Some professionalize and engage in competitions, and they also have a very different approach to their cosplay choice. They look for something that can tell a story, be an interesting performance or skit, and the costume should also impress. People often don’t see the share amounts of creativity goes into a cosplay. That is one of the parts that I find most attractive about it, really. There is such a strong creative drive in this community.    


Cosplay is a rich example of transcultural exchange within an increasingly globalized fan culture. What has changed within cosplay as these practices move back and forth between Japan and the United States? 


I can’t speak for the United States at all, but here are some small insights. Some changes that I observed in Europe the past years is that there is a strong global cosplay community emerging around many different international competitions, such as World Cosplay Summit in Nagoya. There is a tendency to standardize skits more in local competitions, to prime them for bigger, international events. Whether I’m in The Netherlands, Belgium or Germany, I see similar cosplay skits in terms of content and pacing. That used to be very different.  

Furthermore, the fan economy of cosplay is booming. Cosplay and other fan practices are increasingly an economy in their own right. Fan fashion is sold on Etsy, eBay and elsewhere. Some of it is fan-driven, other objects are official cosplays sold by companies. Many online shops have emerged in Europe that sell to cosplayers specifically with specific fabrics and crafting supplies.  

Actual fashion is becoming a lot like cosplay, with high-level brands launching collections inspired by popular culture. This fashion sometimes caters to a very privileged audience and may exclude the fans, which I write about in the edited collection Sartorial Fandom which will come out next year. I look forward to that book a lot since it will offer different perspectives on costumes, accessories and fashion, and their significance in fandom.  



Throughout the book, you offer accounts of different fan conventions you have attended -- each of which represents a somewhat different set of practices, a range of fan identities and materials. What continuities do you see across these fan gatherings, despite the differences you identify? What do these case studies help us to understand about the local particulars of fandom? 


I have learned much about these cultures, but what continues to surprise me most is that all over the world - ranging from the United States to Japan, Germany and the Netherlands - fans find a common ground and expression. Although fan practices emerge in particular local contexts, fans around the world share these creative and social practices. At fan gatherings across the world I see a love for characters, stories and play. But they also mean business, even if the events are fan-driven.  

While these communities are meaningful for many fans, we always need to ask: ‘For which fans?’ I just came back from Worldcon, where Archive of Our Own won a Hugo. The ceremony ended with a “loser party” for those that didn’t get a Hugo, and because the party was full, several authors (including non-binary ones and authors of color) could not attend their own party.  

These communities are not perfect and they draw a specific group that can afford to meet up offline. When I was in Atlanta for DiGRA and Dragon Con, I had a really good chat with the waiter at my hotel. He had spotted my membership, and was a huge geek who had lived in Atlanta all of his life. He was excited to share his favorite films, shows and comics with me. But he also admitted that he had never been to Dragon Con. He simply could not afford it. Hierarchy and privilege are very real in these spaces.  


You begin the book by saying that you are refusing to create “essentialized” fan identities around issues of race and ethnicity. But this perspective flies in the face of contemporary trends to focus more attention on the ways race and racism shapes the social dynamics of fandom. Can these two approaches be reconciled?


That’s a very difficult question I’ve been grappling with it a lot this year, believe me. I absolutely think we can find a common ground, for instance through interdisciplinary work and an intersectional approach. I am a social constructivist, and that is also where the argument that you refer to came through, and what’s explained in that section. Again, essentialism is about reduction but I am in favor of looking at all the axes of someone’s identity, including race, gender, sexuality and age. I like to look at each person in an audience as an individual. I want to give a voice to them. This is a big drive in my work.

You are right that we should emphasize race more. Fandom studies is increasingly critiqued for its cultural assumptions, and rightly so. Many fandom studies present an imaginary fan, and hardly spell out what cultures these fans come from. What is presented as a kind of global fan is actually a Caucasian, native English-speaker, most likely from North-America. These assumptions are painful to watch for many fan scholars who come from different countries and traditions, who do spell out that they study Japanese, Indian or Polish fans. Being specific helps, and that has always been my credo. But that perhaps also has to do with the nature of my fieldwork, across many different countries and language traditions. But I think that for everyone in our field needs to spell out which fans they are actually studying.  

You recently had a blog entry by Rukmini Pande that touched upon these issues too. We had a Twitter incident earlier this year, for which I apologized, and I could not stress this more: I wholeheartedly agree with her and I am so sorry that I did not show more empathy. The incident still bothers me, especially since I’m a queer European woman who is so invested in making this field better. And I do believe we can do better in terms of cultural research. Much better. The way forward requires solid research, but also empathy and kindness within our community.  

We need to be kind to each other as we work through a difficult time, globally. No country or region is the same. Because we all struggle with local problems and contexts too, we don’t always zoom out. As I’m writing this blog, the humanities are slowly being defunded in The Netherlands, and every day I worry whether we’ll even media or cultural studies bachelors in the next few years. In such a context, it’s easy to become blind to systemic problems in our field. I have been in survival mode the past few years, and it’s hard to see a future in academia some days.

The way forward requires solid research, but also empathy and kindness within our community. You never know what other people are really going through behind the screen. That’s why we need to be kind.

black supes.jpg

Dr. Nicolle Lamerichs is senior lecturer and team lead at Creative Business at HU University of Applied Sciences, Utrecht. She holds a PhD in media studies from Maastricht University (2014). In her book Productive Fandom (2018), she explores intermediality, affect, costuming and creativity in fan cultures. Her research focuses on participatory culture and new media, specifically the nexus between popular culture, storytelling and play.

Fan Materiality and Affect: Interview with Nicolle Lamerichs (Part 3)



Your book can also be understood as part of a new emphasis on materiality within fandom studies. You write, “Stuff – bodies, fabrics, plastic – allows us to tell stories.” What general claims might we make about the ways that fans make meaning and form affective relations with “stuff”? Are there specific sites which become more central to the field as we begin to take materiality seriously as part of our approach. 


Very good question! Stuff, whether it’s merchandise or fabric, has meaning. This can show in multiple things – our relationships with our collections, our fashion and fan apparel, our archives. There’s a certain performativity to stuff – we want these archives and collections to be seen by others. They are closely connected to our fan identity and how we perform that in front of others.  

Stuff is also related to creative practices and media. When a cosplayer chooses a certain fabric to represent a game character, that is an aesthetic choice. Something may seem a “thing” but it is also used as a medium by fans to express themselves. Furthermore, merchandise and stuff embodies the characters that we love. Again, it’s all about affective reception really, it  allows us to form loving relationships with the characters that mean something to us.  

Also, objects can tell stories long after a text is finished. They allow a story to linger or continue in some form. In this sense William’s “post-object fandom” comes to mind. The official object might have ended, but other objects and material will continue to remediate it long after. I personally have a large collection of things related to Saturday morning cartoons, and they bring back that feeling of safety, family and homeliness that I often miss in my life today.   

As for where material culture is best studied, I think some sites do stand out. Theme parks, film sets, signings and fan conventions are highly suitable for a material analysis focusing on different things, from costumes to merchandise. Spaces of commerce are a valuable site too. Again, fandom is increasingly a market place, a space of business. To speak of it only as a gift economy neglects the many corporate practices that influence fandom today. Businesses, stores, and platforms sell fandom as a material culture quite heavily. It’s important to dive deep into what those Funko pops, Red Bubble T-shirts and idol photographs in Japan actually mean to people, what they represent. Objects can be keepsakes and toys, but also tell a wider personal or fannish story.   

Materiality, by the way, is by no means exclusively offline. Even written texts and fan fiction have materiality, which is related to the platforms that they are posted on.  It’s important to realize that even digital content has materiality, from pixels and bites to the algorithms that increasingly shape and filter fandom. You could even create an object-oriented ontology based entirely in virtual worlds, like Ian Bogost did. Objects are increasingly virtual, and the materiality of a like-button or an Instagram picture can also be analyzed.  


Your book often blurs the boundaries between fans and gamers, boundaries that I have seen heavily enforced by gamers and game scholars. What do we gain by looking at fandom as a “ludic identity”? What happens to foundational ideas in games studies, such as the magic circle, if we incorporate fan practices into our understanding of role-playing games? 


Yes, the first feedback I ever got at a games conference was that I could not call Firefly role-players “fans”. They were “players”. Scholars indeed police the boundaries of fields that in my experience could learn from each other and are adjacent to each other. Speaking from this specific case-study, not all Firefly role-players I investigated were fans, but the concept of “fan” allowed me to unpack their affective, social and creative relations to the story world. Calling them a player or a gamer seemed far too general for me, since they were working in an existing story world and remixing it heavily. In other words, their live-action role-play was analyzed a fan practice in my work and this interpretation led to new insights. I used “fan” as a concept to better understand what they do.  

Ludic identity can be applied to many phenomena we see today – eSports, cosplay, live-streaming play. To some extent, fandom can even be read as a space that always requires play to come up with new versions of beloved texts and characters. Some forms of ludic identity today are highly complex ones. I would argue that we see different participatory cultures emerge that bridge fan/gamer identities, for instance, the audience of a Dungeons & Dragons live-stream on Twitch. They are an audience, some might be fans, some role-play in other groups themselves. Or consider fans of The Adventure Zone, a Dungeons & Dragons podcast with a massive following. Some listeners have started role-playing because they enjoyed the show so much, others got inspired to create a podcast themselves. Can we have a ludic identity without being a participant of the play, while being outside of the magic circle?  

Game theory can learn a lot from fan studies and vice versa. The magic circle and ideas of transformative play map on to fandom, to some extent at least. A cosplay is a form of dress-up and pretend play that could be framed as part of the magic circle. But as you know, I am also very critical of magic circle as a concept. Within game studies, the concept of the magic circle has been heavily critiqued, and rightly so. Games and play are not separate from the everyday but are deeply embedded in other social contexts. The magic circle? There is no such thing, and if there is, it’s very porous. In reality, games affect everyday life and what happens in games can have lasting effects. Gaming can create loving communities, just like fandom, but marginalization is a fact. Speaking for myself, I haven’t outed myself as a woman in online games for ages, because some of these spaces are brutally toxic.  

Game studies, similar to fan studies, made the objects that it studied look beautiful for a long time. It didn’t want to discuss games as addictive or toxic spaces, partly to justify the existence of the field. Through incidents like Gamergate and recent shootings in the USA, for instance, we have realized that we have come to terms with the fact that pop-culture can also mobilize people for the worst. This is something we need to study, and I think fan/game studies can draw a lot from each other when studying participatory cultures as they are, both the good and bad.   


You stress “cosplay is less about developing or performing a character and more about constituting a visual resemblance with it.” What are the implications of stressing the visual in discussing cosplay as oppose to reading it through a performance studies lens? 


Both go hand in hand in my work, but the attention to visual and material culture brings attention to the craft. It moves attention from the performance and scene to the fabrics, the creative process, the visual aspects of the hobby and the places.

This is needed, because cosplay is not just a performance. It has performative elements, certainly at the end, but it’s also a complex affective trajectory. For most of my informants, the enjoyment was in creating the outfit and living up to the moment of wearing the costume. The craft mattered as much as the performance at the end. Only using performance as a word neglects that cosplayer is highly creative – s/he often also recreates the outfit and models in it. This is a very personal fan creation.

Performativity is a part of that, but the process involves so much more than that. That’s why I call it an “affective process” – it constantly develops and it consists of different stages. From the costume creation to the performance in a masquerade to a photo shoot, we can ask about different affects: What’s the affective relationship with characters, the convention space, with parts of the outfit, and even with our sewing machine?  

Cosplay is a network of different actors, and the individual performance is part of that. The recent book on cosplay by David Hancock and Garry Crawford dives deep into it as an art form and as design. That resonates with me as well. Cosplay is art, visual culture, storytelling, play and performance condensed in one hobby.


Dr. Nicolle Lamerichs is senior lecturer and team lead at Creative Business at HU University of Applied Sciences, Utrecht. She holds a PhD in media studies from Maastricht University (2014). In her book Productive Fandom (2018), she explores intermediality, affect, costuming and creativity in fan cultures. Her research focuses on participatory culture and new media, specifically the nexus between popular culture, storytelling and play.

Fan Materiality and Affect: Interview with Nicolle Lamerichs (Part 2)

cos 3.jpg


You draw heavily here on ideas from reception theory to explain the repertoires which fandom bring to bear on their favorite texts. Reception studies and fandom studies have existed in parallel for many decades now. What do they have to teach each other?


Indeed, reception theory resonated with me early on in my academic career, and I’m specifically interested in reader-response theory. When I was an undergraduate studying cultural studies and literature, the emphasis was always on texts and formal criticism. Somehow we felt that as academics, we had the best reading of texts. Since I had been active in fandom for a long time, that always seemed strange to me.

When my supervisor borrowed a copy of Wolfgang Iser’s Der Akt des Lesens, I was sold. During my various trips to the library, I dove deep into the reception theories of Jonathan Cullen to Monika Fludernik amongst others. Reception theory foregrounds the actual reading practice and how personal consuming media really is. It is always connected to our competences, repertoires and imagination. This theory helps understand how media fans situate their readings and interpret narrative blanks. It enables us to pay attention to each individual person. What I find so valuable about this theory is that it allows us to get specific. There is not one ideal reader or fan in these theories. Rather, each reader or consumer is considered unique in this theory.  

What follows is that each interpretation is personal and different and shaped by our history, identity and worldview. This resonates with me. I don’t think there is one formal close-reading possible of any text. Fans see very different things in texts. When I went to the Lion King with friends, some of us were impressed and nostalgic, while others were disgusted by the style, aesthetics and Disney’s business model of constantly remixing their own products. We see different things in texts that are shaped by our culture, political views, and personal taste. That’s also where a fandom can clash heavily, which we have seen in the reception of films like Star Wars: The Last Jedi.  

cos 2.jpg

Being on one level with the fans and readers is what I find highly attractive about  many reader-response theories. Like other audiences, I rely on my competences. I do not have a position of privilege or a “preferred” reading to offer. I just provide a context. That is not to say that I do not offer close-readings in my work, but I offer them in a humble way, and often by relating a text to other texts, and its culture of production.  


Your book can be understood as part of a larger process of fan scholars shifting focus onto the affective dimensions of fan experiences and identities. As a first generation fandom scholar, I often found it difficult to talk about the emotional dimensions of fandom for two reasons: 1) a lack of theoretical resources for discussing affect more generally and 2) an anxiety that a focus on affect would keep alive the image of the fan as irrational in their response to media texts. What has shifted in terms of these two issues which makes an affective turn in fandom studies more possible and desirable? 


Those are good points. As for the first, there is such a wealth of affective theory that discusses affect in general terms. You could draw from the philosophical tradition - Descartes, Deleuze and Guattari, Massumi. These are solid readings, but their understanding of affect is very ontological. More practical is feminist work of Sara Ahmed and Lauren Berlant, for instance. Phenomenology could be another entry point, especially if you are interested in the role of the body, with leading thinkers like Sobchack. Finally there is social-constructivist work on affect which is very concrete, and shows how affect is constructed through certain activities. Thinkers like Hennion and Gomart truly inspire in this sense.  

By now there is more work on affect emerging in our field and adjacent fields (e.g. queer studies). Some fan scholars might also find their way to affect via fan studies itself, for instance through Grossberg’s work. However, I would always recommend looking beyond fan studies and engaging with different studies on affect from different fields.   

As for your second point, this anxiety around stigmatizing fans is still there in many fields. I worked at some departments where my concern with affect and emotional reception was mocked. Depending on what university you work at, you will still see an interest that gravitates towards formal readings and “proper” criticism. Affective reading has been seen as a fallacy in literary studies for a long time. The ideal reader maintains his distance and thereby his critical disposition. Fans themselves however show that affective reading does not exclude criticism. They discuss and evaluate texts, remix, socialize, and immerse themselves in the text deeply. All these practices go hand in hand for them, why should we be any different as academics?  

That being said, these ideas of “emotional fans” are sticky ones, also in fandom. Male fans are quite prone to casting themselves in the role of a critic. For instance, when I asked a few male fans about shipping during an interview, I was mocked: ‘Shipping is such a stupid word, and we don’t care about romance.’ For a deeper reading on how affective and transformative fan practices are policed, I recommend Suzanne Scott’s Fake Geek Girls. Fans are not stigmatized, emotions are, women are. It’s up to us to feed back into academic and popular discourses and provide a full picture. But just dodging emotions, including the negative and toxic emotions that many fans shape their identity around, is not the way.  

Fandom is big and mainstream by now. It is at the forefront of culture, politics and digital communication. Simply making fans look great, distant, and “rational” is not the solution. Neither should we keep augmenting their creativity and activism. We need to tell it as is. Fandom is not beautiful. Fandom involves a lot of disaffect, hate and marginalization. Let’s focus on the lived experience of fans, rather than staying so concerned with justifying our field.  


A focus on affect, for example, justifies your emphasis on the centrality of characters to fan engagement with specific texts. You write, “television characters can be understood as embodied vessels of thes desires. The reception of fans and producers shows a love for reintroducing characters and deepening them. That is not surprising. Real emotions, after all, are not triggered by events, but by the characters who endure them, the memorable individuals like Sherlock Holmes whom we learn to know and

love time and time again.” Do characters need to be psychological rounded or realist in order to generate these forms of affective commitments? Or can a character function simply as a trigger for emotional responses? Why does fan fiction tend to push towards an understanding of the hidden motives and psychology of fictional characters as compared with their construction in the source material? 


hannibal cos.jpg

I love that you bring up characters! Indeed, characters are key. Fans identify with them, speculate about them, embody them. Today’s characters are fascinating to study. They come in many forms and media, and are often deeply embedded in different transmedia contexts. In a way these characters are highly “networked”, which I discuss often with my colleague Lukas Wilde from Tubingen University. When different transmedia products seemingly contradict the characters and their development, clashes happen. Think of the debates around how Luke Skywalker was portrayed in The Last Jedi.  

I don’t think a character needs to be particularly round to generate affect. The flat characters that we often see in manga and anime fandom (many of which are mascots or tropes) are just as beloved by fans as characters like Hannibal Lecter. Some characters are definitely triggers. Cute characters like Hello Kitty or Mickey Mouse might be good examples. Their cuteness generates ideas about youth and childhood, but can even a bit eerie.  

Characters feel real to fans. In other words, they have “emotional realism”, which Ien Ang has also written about. Even if a plot line is outrageous, we want characters to make choices that make sense to us. Characters have a sense of realness or “experientality”, to use Monika Fludernik’s concept. They are not actually real, but as readers we like to  think about them as if they are real. In fandom, this reality and reasoning of the characters matters. When they behave out of character, or when there is dissonance, fans either distance themselves from the work or psychologize the characters very deeply. 

Characters are central to fandom and affective reception. I’d love to bring more character studies to our field, to be honest!


Dr. Nicolle Lamerichs is senior lecturer and team lead at Creative Business at HU University of Applied Sciences, Utrecht. She holds a PhD in media studies from Maastricht University (2014). In her book Productive Fandom (2018), she explores intermediality, affect, costuming and creativity in fan cultures. Her research focuses on participatory culture and new media, specifically the nexus between popular culture, storytelling and play.


Fan Materiality and Affect: Interview with Nicolle Lamerichs (Part 1)

Productive Fandom.jpg

Having shared the syllabus for my Fandom Studies PhD seminar last week, and stressed there the importance of work that moves race to the center of our understanding of the field, I wanted to use this week to stress some other important developments in the field of fandom studies. Nicole Lamerichs’s new book, Productive Fandom: Intermediality and Affective Reception in Fan Cultures, embodies at least four key trends that seem important to me, each of which will get discussed over the next four installments,

First, she represents the greater emphasis on the national specificity of fandom. Too often, early work — my own included — reads Anglo-American fan culture as “universal” or at least was not especially interested in its cultural specificity. Lamerichs, however, introduces a specifically European (and more particularly Low Country) vantage point within fandom studies, More than that, her interest in games and anime fandom encourages her to think about transcultural exchanges. A strength of her book are a series of ethnographic observations of different fan conventions and the cultural contexts within which they operate.

This focus on local particulars grows out of a second trend she represents — a shift back towards the physical world after several decades of emphasis placed on on-ine fandom. Of course, more and more, we recognize the complex integration that occurs across our physical and virtual lives, but she’s pushing us to reconnect with what we are missing about the material aspects of fandom.

And I see this focus on materiality as leading to a third concern with bodily performance. She is part of a growing emphasis in the field on cosplay, fan fashion, and the use of textiles as a means of expressing fan identities. Some of this has to do with bringing performance studies more decisively into conversation with fandom studies and some of it has to do with connecting fan studies with interests in fashion and craft

Finally, her work points to a larger and overdue engagement with affect studies within our field. In my own early work, I pushed back against the emotional dimensions of fandom in favor of what Matt Hills called the cognitive dimensions, though I still contend that the study of meaning is linked to the idea of meaningfulness which for fans has to do with affect as well as cognition. But we lacked the rich vocabulary for thinking about affect that has emerged across disciplines in recent years. I am excited to see some of that language begin to find its ways into fandom research.

Lamerichs is not alone in any of these interests, but her work makes serious contributions on each of these levels. And I am using this interview to focus attention on these significant developments.


I want to start with a series of questions that pull to the surface some of your core methodological and theoretical choices here. In both your introduction and conclusion, you stress your focus on materially grounded -- rather than digital -- forms of fan experience. What do you feel has been lost as fandom studies, from your perspective, has placed too much emphasis on online identities and experiences?


That is an important question and at the heart of my work. By emphasizing the online spaces of fandom, often exclusively, we have painted a narrow picture of what contemporary fandom is about. In my experience, media fandom is highly affective and moves betwixt and between different online and offline spaces. Such heterogeneous groups that are best studied by a mixed method approach. Depending on what aspect of fandom we study, our methodology includes offline spaces.  

In our field, there has been a heavy focus on specific practices, such as digital fan fiction, but fandom has a lot to offer. Doing research in offline spaces allows us to examine the communities and identities of fans, their art, embodiment and feelings. Material culture is an entry point to study these different creative practices, hierarchies and stories in the flesh. All kinds of creative practices can be influenced by our fan identity, from crafting, knitting and eating to fashion.  

Materiality allows us to focus on objects, and through those objects, on identities. For instance, I interviewed cosplayers in costume at fan conventions. They showed me parts of their outfits and explained how they created them, and what they meant to them. But I could also focus on what the convention means to them as a place. Physical spaces such as a convention are places of imagination -  they bring together locations, stories and people. Scholarship on media tourism also emphasizes this, by paying attention to spaces like theme parks or film sets. Space can be sold and marketed to fans.  

That brings me to the point that material culture is not neutral, but deeply related to consumer culture as well. We live in an increasingly complex fan economy that has been unpacked by Benjamin Woo and Lincoln Geraghty, for instance, who did work around shops and collector practices. Fandom is not just a gift economy, but a neoliberal market. In this sense, the offline does not exist in a vacuum but constantly intersects with business, media and platforms. The global gig economy of Amazon and Uber is a great example. It goes beyond the digital and shapes the way we organize our cities and infrastructure. Such a rapidly changing datafied society requires constant interdisciplinary work and reflection.  



You describe yourself as coming from a European perspective. What are some of the ways that this vantage point informs your choices and conclusions here? For example, you did a case study of Dutch fans of Sherlock.  Many of the fans you discuss seem to possess strong cross-cultural competencies, which are consistent with claims about how the internet has led to new forms of pop cosmopolitanisms. In what ways did local knowledge come into play here? Would some of these findings have been different in, say, a country like Turkey which has a more influential local media industry and greater forces seeking to isolate local fans from transnational and transcultural currents? 


I am happy that you bring up culture, and cross/trans-cultural competences. Cultural dynamics is one of my favorite topics. I am happy that it is increasingly getting attention in fan studies. The work of Lori Morimoto and Bertha Chin stands out in this regard, for instance.  

You refer to the Sherlock case-study, which was a reception study of the text, based on a focus group and interviews. Questions about the text itself, the context and characters were key here. What I found was that fans mobilize their Dutch competences and repertoires when interpreting BBC Sherlock. Their interpretation of the canon and corpus cuts across cultures, but also heavily draws from their local culture as well. Sherlock is compared to different Dutch detective shows and genres, to other European detective shows such as Tatort, to tease out what makes it essentially English and foreign.  

Countries have unique fan practices, interpretations, and ways of communicating in fandom. If we’d launch a similar study in Turkey, we’d find different forms of communication, creativity and  activism, shaped by, for instance, its political landscape and media landscape. Sometimes there are legal and social restrictions as well. Think about Russia, where some of the fan fiction scene takes place underground, as our colleague Natalia Samutina once pointed out to me.   

Fandom is far from global, even though some concepts travel and spread widely. We need to be specific about cultural practices, including politics. Participatory culture can be a force for change, as you showed us, but can also lead to toxic messages spreading fast. As fan studies scholars, I feel we need to share our insights especially in these difficult times. 



You describe your approach as grounded in “geek feminism” in contrast to the aca-fan perspective. What are some of the defining traits of “geek feminism” and how do they manifest themselves in your work? 


The viewpoint of “geek feminism” promotes critical online and offline activity that supports women and brings about change. The term was coined by Mary Bucholtz to outline a theoretical and socially engaged stance informed by the legacy of feminism while retaining geek identity. She defined it as a “social practice”, continuously influenced by different social spheres. I felt that “geek” fitted me and the people that I study. The cosplayers in my book, for instance, were not always hardcore fans of one particular genre, but rather interested in Japanese pop-culture as a whole. Geek connotes enthusiasts and hobbyists, and even suggests a particular life-style that swirls around internet or gaming capital.  

Geek feminism requires a specific research stance as well – for me, it’s about seeing research as a constant dialogue, and being inclusive and specific in your studies. It also points to the affective relationships between me and my informants. I see my research as a dialogue to bring European voices to this field. This stance is innately tied up with my identity as a woman and “geek girl”, a type of fan that is often discredited in the industry and by male gate-keepers. Suzanne Scott’s Fake Geek Girls discusses the identity of the geek girl in a very clear and accessible way, I really recommend her work in this sense. The identity of the female geek is re-invented through these commercial paradigms. She is often overlooked or excluded as a creative fan that operates outside of the media industry. 

Working as a geek feminist also means that I give back to fandom in different ways. I chaired the LGBTQ+ convention YaYCon in The Netherlands for the past ten years, and took care of critical panels and content as well. Each year we do critical and informative panels on what it means to be asexual, trans or a fan of color in fandom. I was also part of an expertise team for an inclusive exhibition on cosplay (Character Building) in Rotterdam last year at MAMA. We arranged this exhibition as live creative space where non-white, non-binary and queer cosplayers made their costumes. Inclusivity and love are key values of MAMA. That’s the kind of work I do on the side and I believe it matters.  

In other words, being a geek feminist mean that  you are committed to making change in a constructive and positive way.   


Dr. Nicolle Lamerichs is senior lecturer and team lead at Creative Business at HU University of Applied Sciences, Utrecht. She holds a PhD in media studies from Maastricht University (2014). In her book Productive Fandom (2018), she explores intermediality, affect, costuming and creativity in fan cultures. Her research focuses on participatory culture and new media, specifically the nexus between popular culture, storytelling and play.


Harry Potter Fandom in an Illiberal Democracy

I am always on the look out for research which can shed light on the diverse forms participatory culture takes around in the world and in particular, the impact participatory culture has on the political realm (what my collaborators and I like to discuss as The Civic Imagination.) I was, thus, pleased to receive email this summer from a scholar in Hungary — Tibor Desswffy — who is doing research on the ways Harry Potter is being deployed in political struggles within his country, which he describes as “an illiberal democracy.” I have circled around the example of Harry Potter both in my own scholarly writing and on this blog, including a report on the forms Harry Potter fandom was taking in Russia and an interview with Andrew Slack, who was then a leader in the Harry Potter Alliance. When I read the draft of his scholarly essay, I asked if he could write a shorter summing up of the key findings to share here with the readers of my blog.

Harry Potter Fandom in an Illiberal Democracy

Tibor Dessewffy

Life in an illiberal democracy, anything but boring. Recently, for example, I run into a plea from Márton Békés, "Gramsci is ours - read it, interpret it, use it!" Békés is not a marginalized left-wing thinker - just the contrary. He is the Director of Research at the House of Terror, a Disneyland kind of history museum, which aim to display the crimes of the twentieth century.

The House of Terror is a central institution for the construction of Orban's cultural hegemony. Its visit is strongly recommended to schools by the government and when May 2018 Steve Bannon flew into Budapest to give an invitation-only lecture, a visit to the Terror House was squeezed into his busy schedule. But the Museum  also represents significant disproportionality: while the Hungarian collaboration with the Nazis, that leads to the deportation and mass-murdering of 600 000 Hungarian Jew occupies two rooms, the crimes of the communist era are portrayed in 22.

Thus Békés, who holds several other positions besides being an instrumental part of the House of Terror, is an important right-wing ideologue whose fascination with Gramsci draws attention to a strange feature one can observe throughout Europe: while the left is almost completely devoid of striving to create hegemony, the virulent right-wing demagogic populism is building consciously and successfully in this area.

This is surprising when one considers the fact that, in the diverse world of popular culture there is a marked presence of highly successful texts that could help to strengthen a liberal progressive worldview. For the sake of simplicity, here I will focus on just one element of this, often elaborated in the literature, the Harry Potter universe. The reason for this choice is that the Potterverse's popularity, value, and political activism are well documented in the academia. (following the inequalities in the scientific world, these are primarily demonstrated in the Anglo-Saxon context)

In contrast, in Orban’s Hungary, there is almost no social activism. This is partly because the regime, is very conscious of preventing the emergence of such movements, and although not with Putin’s or Erdogan’s brutality crashing them down. But in the all-encompassing apathy, two further questions arise and our research focuses on answering these.

 1. How popular is Potterverse in Hungary? After all, although it would contradict to our intuition, in principle, these messages may resonate less in Hungarian society.

 2. If the answer to the previous question is that Harry Potter, is indeed, popular in Hungary then maybe the values, ambitions, and activities of the fandom differ from international experience, like for instance, in the often discussed case of the Harry Potter Alliance.

Therefore, we need to examine the activity repertoire and preferences of the Hungarian Harry Potter fandom. Here we embarked on an innovative methodological development: we tried to reconstruct these preferences from public pages in the social media. (Although, I find the potentials of this method very exciting for cultural research, I won't discuss that here.)

1 Looking at the popularity of the Harry Potter universe, we find that Harry Potter is not just popular, but in fact, its public reception is overwhelming.

A glance at the Hungarian fan fiction site, Merengő, underscores this. Merengő was established in 2004 and fifteen years later it has 17. 341 fanfictions by 4,462 authors. The single biggest category books, with 7486 fanfictions, where fans wrote further chapters and books related to their beloved bestsellers. What we find here are the conservative authors who best embody the values of the governing party that seeks to establish a cultural hegemony are hardly exist at all. On the contrary, the list of books that top the rankings of novels that have inspired the most efforts to weave the storyline of the original further looks as follows: Game of Thrones 63; Twilight 370; and Harry Potter 6,923 pieces of original fanfictions!

This stunning level of activity can be explained in part by the fact that Harry Potter is not the only popular among active and creative fans in Hungary - the series has a vast social base. According to a survey of reading habits, JK Rowling is the most popular author among Hungarian teenagers today who tends to cite Harry Potter as their favorite book. That is why it is no exaggeration to claim is not a single novel or work of fiction that is capable of generating a reading fever on par with that unleashed by Harry Potter, which has emerged as a shared experience of an entire generation. ”[1]

Actually, Hungarian government policy evokes an awareness of Harry Potter's popularity and has reacted to it: The State Secretariat for Education, Rose Hoffmann, justifies the introduction of a new uniform and centrally mandated elementary school curriculum by arguing that "significant changes can be expected, "Harry Potter is slowly taking the place of János vitéz [one of the classic pieces of Hungarian literature]."[2]

2 Thus, we can assert that even under the conditions of illiberal democracy, the popularity of Harry Potter is undiminished.

 It is important to stress that in the prevailing Hungarian situation the values exuded by the Harry Potter universe can be of substantial interest. What we seek to explore is how the Harry Potter series, which openly espouses the values of tolerance, acceptance, and social openness, can be so successful in a social context where right-wing political attitudes, national pride and anti-migration views continue to be typical of young peoples – who are at the same time also broadly characterized by political apathy and a basic commitment to democracy.

Therefore, we investigate how this value disposition correlates with other political/public affairs affinities. We researched interests, affinities, and actives patterns as they can be reconstructed from public Facebook activities. A huge advantage of this method as compared to the standard survey methodologies is that through its use of digital footprints it provides the analysis with data taken from actual online behavior.

 In the forthcoming paper, we present the preferences and attitudes of the 14,200 anonymized Facebook users from 35 Harry Potter relevant platforms, who were included in the sample we generated for our social media analysis.


One observation about the users with an affinity for Harry Potter is that they exhibit a high level of non-party related political activity, as 85% of them were active in our on some Facebook page, group, or event involving a public affairs issue. This ratio was very high compared to the average Hungarian Facebook users (the overrepresentation score, compare to the average Facebook users, was 26). Half of the users with Harry Potter affinity (50%) were active on the platforms of political parties, which is also higher than the Hungarian average (the overrepresentation score was 15) 

We also examined how active Harry Potter fans were on the pages of civic organizations, social movements, as well as charity and welfare organizations. The analysis reveals that based on their Facebook footprints, 40% of Harry Potter fans are active on charity-related Facebook pages, which is also rather high compared to the often-mentioned general apathy of Hungarian society. (the overrepresentation score was a 4). We also observed that 35% of them are interested in civic organizations, NGOs, or some type of social movement (the overrepresentation score for this segment was a 7).

The analysis of media consumption revealed that the major left-wing/liberal news sites and left-wing political blogs. We observed higher than average levels of activity on the Facebook pages of these media outlets. However, blogs and newspapers heavily influenced by the Orbán government did not score well; the overlap between the target group’s online activity and these sites is 1%. The media consumption patterns of the Harry Potter group demonstrate openness to left-wing/ liberal media and a lack of interest in pro-government news outlets.

Concerning political parties, we can assert is that the group of persons with Harry Potter affinity exhibited manifold and often opposing party preferences. When looking at their activities on the platforms of the various political parties in Hungary, Harry Potter fans were most active on the pages of the Hungarian Two-tailed Dog Party (26%), an anti-establishment satirical party that is extraordinarily popular in the online space and on social media pages. Their most prominent slogan is “Free beer and eternal life for everybody.” It followed by the radical right-wing Jobbik Movement for a Better Hungary  (9%) and Momentum (5%). Even though in polls with a 36% level of support among the youngest cohort of voters, Orbán’s Fidesz enjoys the highest level of support, which makes it all the more striking that we did not see any activities on the part of Harry Potter fans on Fidesz-related platforms.

The Momentum Movement is a small centrist-liberal party that was founded in March 2017, and thus we only had one year’s worth of data on Momentum-related activity in the data collection period (as opposed to the four years of data collection on the other parties).

Summarizing the above, it appears that Harry Potter fans evince not only a high level of interest in public affairs and politics but are also sensitive when it comes to social and welfare-related issues.

These findings are supported by the results of European Value Study. Trust in and the social acceptance of political institutions is at a low point in Western societies and in Hungary even more so, especially among the younger generations.

The basic question we explored in our research was whether being a fan of Harry Potter is correlated with a more open attitude towards public affairs and reflects more active social/political attitudes. Based on the empirical examples examined here, it can be asserted that this relationship unequivocally exists. And even if we can't prove it right now, one of the most important questions in Hungary today is whether these existing values will be able to turn into significant political activism.

The esteemed reader may recall that Momentum, a generational party founded in 2017 that explicitly seeks to attract and represent youths, has generated sufficient online reaction to be measurable in our research despite the lack of a long history. Still, the party failed to reach the parliamentary threshold of 5% in the national election of April 2018. After that failure, they adopted a new strategy, which was leaked to the press. The first point of this new strategy was the “Construction of social ties - creating a Dumbledore Army.”[3] In the European election of May 2019, Momentum achieved a stunning breakthrough when it won 10% of the votes, receiving a spectacular 17% in the Hungarian capital, Budapest.

Tibor Dessewffy, Mikes Mezei:   Fandom and Politics in an illiberal democracy    (forthcoming: Transformative Works and Cultures special issue on Fandom and Politics March 2020 )

Tibor Dessewffy, Mikes Mezei: Fandom and Politics in an illiberal democracy (forthcoming: Transformative Works and Cultures special issue on Fandom and Politics March 2020 )

We do not suggest that this particular success owed to their references to Harry Potter, but what we can nevertheless say with certainty is that under the illiberal Orbán regime it was the newcomer party that actively used the Harry Potter mythology to mobilize the Harry Potter generation which generated perhaps the most spectacular unexpected electoral result. As the party chairman, András Fekete-Győr confirmed, “the Harry Potter universe is relevant both as an inspiration within the organization and to successfully reach out to the new generation”.[4] It remains to be seen how far the utilization of Harry Potter narratives will take Momentum in stimulating political activism, and how much impact they will have on Hungary by so doing. But it could be useful as a building block in a Gramscian hegemony and awakening dormant values in society.





 [4] Personal correspondence with the author



Back to School Special: Transmedia Entertainment


Last time, I shared the revised syllabus for my PhD Seminar on Fandom, Participatory Culture and Web 2.0. Today, I want to share my up-dated syllabus on Transmedia Entertainment. Here, the changes are less dramatic; there has been an explosion of new writing about transmedia among academics and I have incorporated state of the art research into the course readings. But there is nothing as dramatic as a paradigm shift on the level of the debates around race and nationality in fandom we discussed last time.

The core framework has changed very little since the last time I taught the class three years ago, even if the selection of cases and readings has shifted some. I take advantage of our Los Angeles location to bring an interesting mix of speakers to the class, people who are out there doing ground-breaking work and can introduce a grounded perspective to my students. Most of the students who take this class are from the Cinema School, many of them want to break into the mainstream entertainment industry, and the course has developed a reputation as one which helps them to understanding the big picture of how Hollywood is functioning right now.

That said, it is far from clear how much longer the transmedia term will operate in its current form. Academic institutions have embraced it even as it has more and more fallen from use in the entertainment industry. As one of my guest speakers said in our first class session, “there is no transmedia industry; there is only the entertainment industry.” Transmedia perspectives are everywhere and nowhere when we look at what’s happening at, say, Disney+ and the D23 conference a few weeks ago. At the same time, I am starting to see faculty teaching Trans Media classes, which focus on programs like Pose or Orange is the New Black or any number of independent films which take up transgender perspectives. So it isn’t just that the term has lost its meaning in the industry but it is also developing competing meanings within the academy. Something is going to have to give. But for now, here’s what I am teaching this term.

CTCS 482: Transmedia Entertainment

Fall 2017

Tuesdays 2:00-5:50pm

SCA 316

4 units 

Contact Information:

Henry Jenkins

Office: ASC 101C

TA: Jesse Tollison

 Please send all inquiries regarding office hour appointments to Jocelyn Kelvin and questions regarding the course to Professor Jenkins or Jesse Tollison.


We now live in a moment where every story, image, brand, and relationship plays itself out across the maximum number of media platforms, shaped top down by decisions made in corporate boardrooms and bottom up by decisions made in teenagers’ bedrooms. The concentrated ownership of media conglomerates increases the desirability of properties that can exploit “synergies” among different parts of the medium system and “maximize touchpoints” with different niches of audiences. The result has been a push toward franchise-building in general and transmedia entertainment in particular. 

A transmedia story represents the integration of entertainment experiences across a range of media platforms. Franchises, such as The Walking Dead, Game of Thrones, The Marvel Cinematic Universe, Harry Potter or Riverdale move fluidly across media platforms (television, film, comics, games, the web, even alternate or virtual reality) picking up new audiences as they go and allowing the most dedicated fans to drill deeper. The fans, in turn, may translate their interests in the franchise into concordances and Wikipedia entries, fan fiction, vids, fan films, cosplay, game mods, and a range of other participatory practices that further extend the story world in new directions. Both the commercial and grassroots expansion of narrative universes contribute to a new mode of storytelling, one which is based on an encyclopedic expanse of information which gets put together differently by each individual, as well as processed collectively by social networks and online knowledge communities. 

Each class session will introduce a concept central to our understanding of transmedia entertainment that we will explore through a combination of lectures, screenings, and conversations with industry insiders who are applying these concepts through their own creative practices. 

In order to fully understand how transmedia entertainment works, students will be expected to immerse themselves in at least one major media franchise for the duration of the term. You should experience as many different instantiations (official and unofficial) of this franchise as you can and try to get an understanding of what each part contributes to the series as a whole. 


§  Andrea Phillips, A Creator’s Guide to Transmedia Storytelling (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2012)

§  Matthew Freeman and Renira Rampazzo Gambarato (eds.) The Routledge Companion to Transmedia Studies (London: Routledge, 2019) (This book is expensive so recommend renting a digital copy at

§  Ann M. Pendelton-Jullian and John Seely Brown, World Building

§  For the color version: $23.00 -

§  For the black and white version: $7.00 - 

All additional readings will be provided through the Blackboard site for the class. 


For the first assignment, you are asked to write a 5-7 page autobiographical essay describing your relationship to a media franchise that you have found to be personally meaningful. You should use this essay to identify the cultural attractors that drew you to this franchise, to discuss which variants of the franchise you experienced, and to describe any cultural activators that encouraged you to more actively contribute to the fan community surrounding this franchise. Be as specific as possible in discussing moments in the transmedia story that were especially important in shaping your engagement with the property. Make explicit reference to ideas about transmedia and engagement from the readings. This assignment is partially about getting to know you as a transmedia participant and partially about getting you to experiment with the critical vocabulary we’ve introduced so far for talking about transmedia experiences. (Due September 10) (10 Percent) 


Write a 5-7-page essay examining one commercially produced story (comic, website, game, mobisode, amusement park attraction, etc.) that acts as an extension of a “core” text (for instance, a television series, film, etc.). You should try to address such issues as its relationship to the story world, its strategies for expanding the narrative, its deployment of the distinctive properties of its platform, its targeted audience, and its cultural attractors/activators. The paper will be evaluated on its demonstrated grasp of core concepts from the class, its original research, and its analysis of how the artifact relates to specific trends impacting the entertainment industry. Where possible, link your analysis to the course materials, including readings, lecture notes, and speaker comments. (30 Percent, October 29) 


Students will be organized into teams, which—for the purpose of this exercise—will function as transmedia companies. You should select a media property (a film, television series, comic book, novel, etc.) that you feel has the potential to become a successful transmedia franchise. In most cases, you will be looking for a property that has not yet added media extensions, though you could also look at a property that you feel has been mishandled in the past. You should have identified and agreed on a property no later than Sept. 12th.  [j2] Each week, a designated member from each team should email a brief summary of your progress to Professor Jenkins and Jesse Tollison. Ideally the report will reflect your thinking around that week’s focus. 

By the end of the term, your team will be “pitching” this property. The pitch should include a briefing book that describes:

1.      the defining properties of the media property

2.      a description of the intended audience(s) and what we know of its potential interests

3.      a discussion of the specific plans for each media platform you are going to deploy

4.      an overall description for how you will seek to integrate the different media platforms to create a coherent world

5.      parallel examples of other properties which have deployed the strategies being described 

For a potential model for what such a book might look like, see the transmedia bible template from Screen Australia, available here: 

Include only those segments of their bible template that make sense for your particular property and approach. You can also get insights on what a bible format might look like from the Andrea Phillips book. 

The pitch itself will be a group presentation, followed by questions from our panel of judges (who will be drawn from across the entertainment industry). The length and format of the presentation will be announced as the term progresses to reflect the number of students actually involved in the process and thus the number of participating teams. The presentation should give us a “taste” of what the property is like, as well as lay out some of the key elements that are identified in the briefing book. Each team will need to determine what the most salient features to cover in their pitches are, as well as what information they want to hold in reserve to address the judge’s questions. Each team member will be expected to develop expertise around a specific media platform, as well as to contribute to the overall strategies for spreading the property across media systems. 

The group will select its own team leader, who will be responsible for contact with the instructor/TA and who will coordinate the presentation. The team leader will be asked to provide feedback on what each team member contributed to the effort, while team members will be asked to provide an evaluation of how the team leader performed. Team members will check in on Week Six, Week Ten and Week Thirteen to review their progress on the assignment.  

Students will pitch their ideas to the panel of judges on December 3. They should expect to receive feedback from the instructor over the following few days, and then turn in the final version of their written documentation on the exam date scheduled for the class. (40 percent) 


For each class session, students will be asked to contribute a substantive question or comment via the class forum on Blackboard. Comments should reflect an understanding of the readings for that day, as well as an attempt to formulate an issue that we can explore with visiting speakers. Students will also be evaluated based on regular attendance and class participation. (20 Percent) 


Tuesday, August 27

Transmedia Storytelling 101 

§  Henry Jenkins, “Searching for the Origami Unicorn: The Matrix and Transmedia Storytelling,” in Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide (New York: New York University Press, 2006), pp. 93-130.

§  Henry Jenkins, “Transmedia Storytelling 202: Further Reflections,” Confessions of an Aca-Fan, August 1, 2011,

§  Elizabeth Evans, “Transmedia Texts: Defining Transmedia Storytelling,” in Transmedia Television: Audiences, New Media, and Daily Life (London: Routledge, 2011), pp. 19-39

§  Andrea Phillips, “What’s Happened to Transmedia?” Immerse

§  Henry Jenkins, “Transmedia What?” Immerse

§  Christy Dena, “Transmedia Performing Badly,” Immerse

§  Caitlin Burn, “Transmedia: Art Forms Created in Real Time,” Immerse 

Guest Speaker: Mike Monello is a true pioneer when it comes to immersive storytelling and innovative marketing. In the late 1990s, Monello and his partners at Haxan Films created The Blair Witch Project, a story told across the burgeoning internet, a sci-fi channel pseudo-documentary, books, comics, games, and a feature film, which became a pop-culture touchstone and inspired legions of “found-footage” movies in its wake. It forever changed how fans engage with story and how marketers approach the internet. Inspired by the possibilities for engaging connected fan cultures and communities online, Monello co-founded Campfire in 2006. There, he leads an agency that has developed and created groundbreaking participatory stories and experiences for HBO, Amazon, Netflix, Cinemax, Discovery, National Geographic, Harley- Davidson, Infiniti, and more. Campfire won Small Agency Campaign of the Year via AdAge in 2013 and Small Agency of the Year via Online Marketing Media and Advertising Awards in 2012, and has been awarded top honors at the Emmys, Cannes Lions Festival, Clios, One Show, and MIXX. Monello serves on the Peabody Awards Board of Jurors, and regularly speaks at high-profile events such as Cannes, Advertising Week, SXSW, and more.


Tuesday,  September 3

A Brief History of Transmedia 

§  Matthew Freeman, “A World of Disney: Building a Transmedia Storyworld for Mickey and His Friends,” in Marta Boni (ed.) Worldbuilding: Transmedia, Fans, Industries (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2017)

§  Justin Wyatt, “Critical Redefinition: The Concept of High Concept,” in High Concept: Movies and Marketing in Hollywood (Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 1994), pp. 1-22.

§  Jonathan Gray, “Learning to Use the Force: Star Wars Toys and Their Films,” in Show Sold Separately: Promos, Spoilers, and Other Media Paratexts (New York: NYU Press, 2010), pp. 177-187.

 Team Focus: Identifying Your Property 

Guest Speaker: Mark Bartscher is Senior Manager, Games & Interactive, Disney DTCI, Product & Design. He is a digital strategist and executive producer with over 15 years experience developing innovative kids content and products for new media. Working at the cross-section of technology, kids, and storytelling, his passion is to create new ways for kids to engage with the characters and stories they love. His specialties are digital strategy, product development, business development, interactive television, and game design.   


Tuesday, September 10

Producing Transmedia

§  Derek Johnson, “Battleworlds: The Management of Multiplicity in Media Industries,” in Marta Boni (ed.) Worldbuilding: Transmedia, Fans, Industries (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2017).

§  Brian Clark, “Transmedia Business Models,” Confessions of an Aca-Fan, November 7, 2011,,

§  Andrea Phillips, “How to Fund Production Costs,” “And Maybe Make Some Profit, Too,” in A Creator’s Guide to Transmedia Storytelling (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2012), pp. 223-239.

§  Jeff Gomez, “Transmedia Developer: Success at Multiplatform Narrative Requires a Journey to the Heart of the Story”  and Peter von Stackelberg, “Transmedia Franchising: Driving Factors, Storyworld Development and Creative Process” in Routledge Companion  

Team Goal: Finalize property selection 

Guest Speaker: Maureen McHugh’s most recent collection of short stories, After the Apocalypse, was one of Publishers Weekly’s Ten Best Books of 2011.  She has been working in interactive storytelling since 2003 when she was a writer and managing editor for the ARG ilovebees.  She worked on several major interactive projects including Year Zero for Nine Inch Nails.  She’s written interactive narrative for second screen and VR.  She teaches screenwriting and interactive writing at USC.   


Tuesday, September 17

Media Mix

§  Otsuka Eiji, “World and Variation: The Reproduction and Consumption of Narrative,” in Mechademia 5, 2010, pp. 99-116.

§  Ian Condry, “Characters and Worlds as Creative Platforms,” in The Soul of Anime: Collaborative Creativity and Japan’s Media Success Story (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2013).

§  Mizuko Ito, “Gender Dynamics of the Japanese Media Mix,” in Yasmin B. Kafai, Carrie Heeter, Jill Denner, and Jennifer Y. Sun (eds.), Beyond Barbie and Mortal Kombat: New Perspectives on Gender and Gaming (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2008), pp. 97-110.

§  Mia Consalvo, “Convergence and Globalization in the Japanese Videogame Industry,” in Cinema Journal, Spring 2009, pp.135-141. 

Team Goal: Discuss business model 

Guest Speakers: Professor Cristina Mejia Visperas examines the intersections of race, state violence, and the life sciences, and whose work is deeply engaged in Visual Culture Studies, Science and Technology Studies, African American Studies, and Disability Studies. She is currently writing a book manuscript on the visual culture of postwar medical science research conducted in prisons.

Prof. Visperas holds a Ph.D. in Communication, Science Studies, from the University of California, San Diego, where she previously taught courses on communication, race, and science and technology, and during which time she was also managing editor of the open-access journal, Catalyst: Feminism, Theory, Technoscience (2014-2016). Prior to becoming a communication scholar, Prof. Visperas had been a laboratory researcher in both academic and industry settings, where the focus of her work had ranged from stems cells and parasitic plants to burn injuries and the biochemistry of membranes. 

Hye Jin Lee is a clinical assistant professor at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. Lee is also the founder and former editor of Books Aren’t Dead, which is a podcast series for Fembot ( that reviews and discusses recent publications by feminist scholars in the field of media, communication, science and technology. Lee holds a Ph.D. in Mass Communication from University of Iowa. At University of Iowa, Lee served as the managing editor of Journal of Communication Inquiry (jci), a peer-reviewed academic journal that focuses on interdisciplinary scholarship in the field of communication and cultural studies. Lee’s primary research focuses on cultural meanings of popular culture and the power struggles (as well as collaborations) between the industry and the fans in the creation of those cultural meanings. Lee’s current research include K-pop industry and global fandom, transformation of cultural meaning, status and content of popular culture when it crosses borders, convergence of social media and television and the gendering of technology.


Tuesday, September 24

Transmedia Logics: Learning, Activism, and Play 

§  Meryl Alper and Becky Herr-Stephenson, “T is for Transmedia,” Joan Ganz Cooney Center and Annenberg Innovation Lab white paper.

§  Henry Jenkins, “Transmedia Logics and Locations,” in Benjamin W. L. Derhy Kurtz and Melanie Bourdaa (eds.) The Rise of Transtexts: Challenges and Opportunities (New York: Routledge, 2016), pp.220-240.

§  Henry Jenkins, Sangita Shresthova, Liana Gamber-Thompson, and Neta Kligler-Vilenchik, "Superpowers to the People!: How Young Activists Are Tapping the Civic Imagination," in Eric Gordon and Paul Mihailidis (eds.) Civic Media: Technology/Design/Practice (Cambridge: MIT Press), pp. 295-320.

§  Donna Hancock, “Transmedia for Social Change: Evolving Approaches to Activism and Representation” and Dan Hassler-Forest, “Transmedia Politics: Star Wars and the Ideological Battlegrounds of Popular Franchises” in Routledge Companion.

Team Goal: Discuss civic imagination goals for project.

Guest Speaker: Dan Goldman is a writer, artist and activist working in graphic novels, animated TV, video games and digital media. Creator of works like critically-acclaimed works like RED LIGHT PROPERTIES, SHOOTING WAR and PRIYA’S SHAKTI, he designs works of mindful entertainment. His next graphic novel CHASING ECHOES--which follows the children and grandchildren of Holocaust survivors across rural Poland in search of confiscated family land--will be released in November 2019. He lives in Los Angeles where he runs the Kinjin Story Lab with his partner Liliam. 


Tuesday, October 1 (Henry – Out of Country, class taught by Jesse Tollison)

Transmedia Aesthetics

§  Victor Kaptelinin, “Affordances,” The Encyclopedia of Human Computer Interaction,

§  Dena, Christy. “Beyond Multimedia, Narrative and Game: The Contributions of Multimodality and Polymorphic Fictions.” New Perspectives on Narrative and Multimodality. Ruth Page (ed.). London: Routledge, 2009. 181-201.

§  Gunther Kress

o   “What is a Mode?”

o   “What is multimodality?”

o   “How do people choose between modes?”

 Team Goals: Dig deeper into media mix of property


Tuesday, October 8

Transmedia Engagement 

§  Christy Dena, “Emerging Participatory Culture Practices: Player-Created Tiers in Alternate Reality Games,” Convergence, February 2008, pp. 41-58.

§  Ivan Askwith, “Five Logics of Engagement,” Television 2.0: Reconceptualizing TV as an Engagement Medium, Master’s thesis, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2007, pp. 51-150.

§  Andrea Phillips, “The Four Creative Purposes for Transmedia Storytelling,” “Interactivity Creates Deeper Engagement,” “Uses and Misuses for User-Generated Content,” “Challenging the Audience to Act,” and “Make Your Audience a Character, Too,” in A Creator’s Guide to Transmedia Storytelling (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2012), pp.  41-54, 110-126,  137-148, 149-182.

§  Paul Booth, “Transmedia Fandom and Participation: The Nuances and Contours of Fannish Participation” in Routledge Companion.  

Team Goal: Strategies for audience engagement

Ivan Askwith is a cultural strategist and producer, specializing in experience design for digital platforms and fan communities. He has been named one of Fast Company’s “100 Most Creative People in Business” for “knowing how to get fans more of what they want," and described by Wired as “the secret weapon” behind entertainment's biggest crowdfunding successes, where he has raised over $20,000,000 through record-breaking crowdfunding campaigns for Veronica MarsReading RainbowSuper Troopers 2Mystery Science Theater 3000 and The Aquabats

Askwith is also an Executive Producer for Amazon's upcoming animated transmedia series Do, Re & Mi (2020), which aims to help pre-school listeners develop a lifelong passion for music. Previously, Askwith spent several years leading the Digital Media division of Lucasfilm, and several more leading the Strategy group at Big Spaceship, an award-winning digital agency. He was also a founding member of MIT's Convergence Culture Consortium (C3), where he worked with Professor. Henry Jenkins to develop a new model for understanding fan behaviors and motives when engaging with popular culture. 

Rebekah McKendry is a professor at the University of Southern California in the Cinematic Arts Department. She is also an award-winning filmmaker with a strong focus in the horror and science fiction genres. She has a doctorate focused in Media Studies focused on the Horror Genre from Virginia Commonwealth University, a MA in Film Studies focused in Cult Media from City University of New York, and a second MA from Virginia Tech in Arts Education. Rebekah previously has worked as the Editor-in-chief at Blumhouse Productions and as the Director of Marketing for Fangoria Entertainment. She is also a co-host of Blumhouse’s Shock Waves Podcast and founder of the Stephanie Rothman Fellowship for Female Film Students. 


Tuesday,  October 15

World Building Part 1

 §  Henry Jenkins, “The Pleasure of Pirates and What It Tells Us about World Building in Branded Entertainment”, Confessions of an Aca-Fan, June 13, 2007

§  John Seeley Brown and Ann Pendleton-Jullian, World-Building 

Team Goal: World Building Workshop 

Professor Ann Pendleton-Jullian is an architect, writer, and educator whose work explores the interchange between culture, environment, and technology.

From a first short career in astrophysics, Professor Pendleton-Jullian has come to see the world through a lens of complexity framed by principles from ecology theory. This, in tandem with a belief that design has the power to take on the complex challenges associated with an emergent highly networked global culture has led her to work on architecture projects that range in scale and scope from things to systems of action - from a house for the astronomer Carl Sagan, to a seven village ecosystem for craft-based tourism in Guizhou province, China - and in domains outside of architecture including patient centered health, new innovation models for K-12 and higher ed, and human and economic development in marginalized populations.

Prior to the Knowlton School she was a tenured professor at MIT for fourteen years. She is also a core member of a cross-disciplinary network of global leaders established by the Secretary of Defense to examine questions of emerging interest.

As a writer, she has most recently finished a manuscript Design Unbound, with co-author John Seely Brown, that presents a new tool set for designing within complex systems and on complex problems endemic to the 21st century. Worldbuilding is one of the most powerful tools within that tool set and has been used in various diverse real world settings, as she will discuss.


Tuesday October 22

World Building Part 2

§  Geoffrey Long, “Creating Worlds into Which to Play: Using Transmedia Aesthetics to Grow Stories into Storyworlds,” in Benjamin W.L. Derhy Kurtz and Mélanie Bourdaa (Eds.) Rise of the Transtexts: Challenges and Opportunities (New York: Routledge, 2016),  pp.139-152.

§  Henry Jenkins, “‘All Over the Map’: Building (and Rebuilding) Oz,” Film and Media Studies: Scientific Journal of Sapientia University, 9, 2014, 7-29.

§  Henry Jenkins, “Matter, Dark Matter, Doesn’t Matter’: An Interview with Lost in Oz’s  Bureau of Magic

§  Mark J. P. Wolf, “Transmedia World-Building: History, Conception, and Construction” in Routledge Companion.

 Team Goal: Focus on World-Building 

Guest Speaker: Danny Bilson is a writer, producer, director and game designer. He is currently Chair of the Interactive Media and Games Division of the School of  Cinematic Arts and Director of USC Games.  In Television, Bilson created and Executive Produced The Flash, The Human Target, The Sentinel and Viper.  He wrote Disney’s The Rocketeer as well as the upcoming Spike Lee Joint Da 5 Bloods, to be released in 2020.  As a senior executive in the game industry Bilson shepherded the Harry Potter, James Bond and Medal of Honor Franchises for Electronic Arts, as well as Saint’s Row, Space Marine, and Red Faction at THQ. He was also a producer on the original “The Sims”, helping to launch that multi-billion dollar franchise. Danny also contributed designs, concepts, and helped prototype Disney’s Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge. Danny Bilson  has experience developing properties in film, video games, television, theme parks and comic books.


Tuesday, October 29

Immersion and Extractability 

§  Henry Jenkins, “He-Man and Masters of Transmedia,” Confessions of an Aca-Fan, May 21, 2010,

§  Henry Jenkins, “Harry Potter: The Exhibition, or What Location Entertainment Adds to a Transmedia Franchise,” Confessions of an Aca-Fan, December 14 2009.

§  Mark J. P. Wolf, “Immersion, Absorption and Saturation,” in Building Imaginary Worlds: The Theory and History of Subcreation (New York: Routledge, 2012), pp.48-51.

§  Andrea Phillips, “Bringing Your Story Into the Real World,” in A Creator’s Guide to Transmedia Storytelling (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2012), pp. 209-222.

§  Matthew Freeman, “Transmedia Attractions: The Case of Warner Bros. Studio Tour -- The Making of Harry Potter” and Anne Kerchy, “Transmedia Commodification: Disneyfication, Magical Objects and Beauty and the Beast,” in Routledge Companion 

Team Goal: Merch strategies

Guest Speaker: Ivan Lopez is the General Manager of Accelerators for Techstars across the Americas West region. He has over 25 years of global executive leadership experience in business development, marketing and technology. Ivan led teams in mobile technology, fiber optics, cloud services, e-commerce, video streaming, IP licensing, gaming, SaaS, procurement, media and entertainment in North and South America, Europe and Asia Pacific. Prior to joining Techstars Ivan built the strategic partners business for Merch by Amazon creating the largest merchandise print on demand business worldwide working with over 400 major brand partners ranging from YouTube celebrities to The Walt Disney Company In this role he also launched "Merch Collab" which established a global marketplace for fan art with brand creative approval and monetization for both fan designer and brand, a first in the industry. Equally, he advises international talent and celebrities on brand creation across multiple categories that are aligned with their values and personal mission. Ivan holds a degree in Telecommunications Engineering and has completed the Harvard Law School Program on Negotiation (PON) executive training.


Tuesday,  November 5

Seriality and Complexity 

§  Jason Mittell, “Transmedia Storytelling,” Complex Television

§  Mark J. P. Wolf, “More Than a Story: Narrative Threads and Narrative Fabric,” in Building Imaginary Worlds: The Theory and History of Subcreation (London: Routledge, 2013) pp. 198-225.

§  Andrea Phillips, “Conveying Action Across Multiple Media,” in A Creator’s Guide to Transmedia Storytelling (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2012), pp.  93-102.

§  Frank Kelleter, “Five Ways of Looking at Popular Seriality,” in Media of Serial Narrative (Ohio State University Press, 2017), pp.7-36. 

Team Goal: Segmentation and Story Flow  

Though best known as one of the Emmy Award-Winning Producer/Writers of Lost, and for creating the “The Middleman” graphic novels and television series, Javier “Javi” Grillo-Marxuach is a prolific creator of television, film, comics, essays, and trans-media content. Between 2019 and 2020, Javi will have written and produced shows as varied as The Jim Henson Company’s production of The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance, and Cowboy Bebop - both for Netflix - as well as the CBS summer series Blood and Treasure, while developing his original pilot Skyborn with Bad Wolf and The Jim Henson Company for UCP. Javi is also co-host and co-creator (with fellow writer/producer/Puerto Rican, Jose Molina) of the Children of Tendu podcast, an educational series which aims to teach newcomers how to navigate the entertainment industry with decency and integrity. Javier Grillo-Marxuach was born in San Juan, Puerto Rico, Spanish is his native language, and his name is pronounced "HA-VEE-AIR GREE-JOE MARKS-WATCH". 


Tuesday,  November 12

Continuity and Multiplicity 

§  William Uricchio and Roberta E. Pearson, “I’m Not Fooled by That Cheap Disguise,” in Roberta E. Pearson and William Uricchio (eds.), The Many Lives of the Batman: Critical Approaches to A Superhero and His Media (New York: Routledge, 1991), pp. 182-213.

§  Sam Ford and Henry Jenkins, “Managing Multiplicity in Superhero Comics,” in Pat Harrigan and Noah Wardrip-Fruin (eds.), Third Person: Authoring and Exploring Vast Narratives (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2009), pp. 303-313.

§  Shawna Kidman, “Five Lessons For New Media From the History of Comics Culture,” in International Journal of Learning and Media 3.4 (2012): 41-54.

§  William Proctor, “Transmedia Comics: Seriality, Sequentiality, and the Shifting Economics of Franchise Licensing” in Routledge Companion 

Team Goal: Focus on time table 


Tuesday, November 19

Subjectivity And Performance 

§  Andrea Phillips, “Online, Everything is Characterization,” in A Creator’s Guide to Transmedia Storytelling (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2012), pp. 83-92.

§  Sam Ford, “WWE’s Storyworld and the Immersive Potentials of Transmedia Storytelling,” in Benjamin W.L. Derhy Kurtz and Mélanie Bourdaa (Eds.) Rise of the Transtexts: Challenges and Opportunities (New York: Routledge, 2016),  pp.169-186.

§  Roberta Pearson, “Transmedia Characters: Additionality and Cohesion in Transfictional Heroes” in Routledge Companion

§  Matthew Weise and Henry Jenkins, “Short Controlled Bursts: Affect and Aliens,” in Cinema Journal, Spring 2009, pp.111-116. 


Tuesday, November 26 - Teams work on Final Presentations


Tuesday, December 3 (LAST DAY OF CLASS) - Final Presentations

Back to School Special: Fandom, Participatory Culture and Web 2.0


As classes start back at the USC campus, I am teaching two of my trademarked courses this term — my PhD seminar in fandom studies and an advanced undergraduate/graduate class on transmedia entertainment. Both are classes that need to be significantly up-dated each time I teach them, so while I have shared syllabi for these classes here in the past, I decided it was worth it to post them again.

Today, I want to focus on the changes I have made in the fandom studies class. As I suggested in introducing Squee from the Margins author Ruckmini Pande last Spring, the field is undergoing some dramatic changes right now as a generation of fan scholars of color are actively seeking to “decolonize” this area of study, pushing a field that has been focused heavily on issues of gender and sexuality to incorporate intersectional perspectives on race and nationality, and in the process of recentering our objects of study, challenging much of the foundational thinking.

As someone often cited as a founding figure or senior statesman in fandom studies, I find myself in a curious position as I bring this new work into the classroom of contributing to a process that is decolonizing some of my own life’s work. I welcome this process, which has been a long-timing coming and which I have long advocated for.

I have kept some classic pieces but for the most part I am teaching new works this semester, much of it from scholars who are at the early stages of their careers. The warhorses are taught in relations to critiques which challenge some of their underlying models and assumptions so that my class will be “teaching the crisis”, working through with my students what this new scholarship means for future developments in fandom studies. Issues surrounding racial and ethnic identity are woven across most of the topics rather than having a special day dedicated to fans of color.

And while I was rethinking race, I introduce the notion of transnational fandom fairly early in the semester so that we place the need to specify which fans in which contexts as a key framing question from the start. In doing so, I am trying to create a space where my students — who are increasingly transnational in their backgrounds — can share their own experiences as fans in Asia, Latin America, the Middle East, Europe, and other parts of the world.

I know I am going to learn a lot from this process, using my students as thinking partners as I work through the implications of this new work. I hope other senior scholars in the field will be doing similar things as they bring this important new work into their classes.

COMM 577 Special Topics: Fandom, Participatory Culture and Web 2.0

Spring 2017

12-2:50pm Mondays

ASC 328

Prof. Henry Jenkins

Please email jkelvin@usc.edufor office hours. 

Sites like YouTube, Flickr, Twitter, and Wikipedia have made visible a set of cultural practices and logics that had been taking root within fandom over the past hundred-plus years, expanding their cultural influence by broadening and diversifying participation. In many ways, these practices have been encoded into the business models shaping so-called Web 2.0 companies, which have in turn made them far more mainstream, have increased their visibility, and have incorporated them into commercial production and marketing practices. The result has been a blurring between the grassroots practices I call participatory culture and the commercial practices being called Web 2.0. 

Fans have become some of the sharpest critics of Web 2.0, asking a series of important questions about how these companies operate, how they generate value for their participants, and what expectations participants should have around the content they provide and the social networks they entrust to these companies. Given this trajectory, a familiarity with fandom may provide an important key for understanding many new forms of cultural production and participation and, more generally, the logic through which social networks operate. 

So, to define our three terms (at least provisionally): fandom refers to the social structures and cultural practices created by the most passionately engaged consumers of mass media properties; participatory culture refers more broadly to any kind of cultural production which starts at the grassroots level and which is open to broad participation; and Web 2.0 is a business model that sustains many web-based projects that rely on principles such as user creation and moderation, social networking, and "crowdsourcing."

That said, the debates about Web 2.0 are only the most recent set of issues in cultural and media studies which have been shaped by the emergence of a field of research focused on fans and fandom. Fan studies:

  • emerged from the Birmingham School's investigations of subcultures and resistance

  • became quickly entwined with debates in Third Wave Feminism and queer studies

  • has been a key space for understanding how taste and cultural discrimination operate

  • has increasingly been a site of investigation for researchers trying to understand informal learning or emergent conceptions of the citizen/consumer

  • has shaped legal discussions around appropriation, transformative work, and remix culture

  • has become increasingly central to discussions of racial representation, diversity, and inclusion within the entertainment industry

  • has become a useful window for understanding how globalization is reshaping our everyday lives.

This course will be structured around an investigation of the contribution of fan studies to cultural theory, framing each class session around a key debate and mixing writing explicitly about fans with other work asking questions about cultural change and the politics of everyday life. This term, I have chosen to revise my syllabus to reflect ongoing debates in the field – in particular, a new effort to “de-colonize fandom studies,” to recenter the field around questions of race and nationality as well as its historic focus on gender and sexuality. Together, we will work through the ways that this new work requires us to question and revise earlier formulations of the field. 


  • Students will be expected to post regular weekly comments reacting to the readings on the Blackboard site for the class. (20 percent)

  • Students will write a short five-page auto-ethnography describing their own history as a fan of popular entertainment. They will explore whether or not they think of themselves as a fan, what kinds of fan practices they engage with, how they define themselves a fan, how they became invested in the media franchises that have been part of theirlife, and how their feelings about being a fan might have adjusted over time. (10 percent)(DueSept. 9)

  • Students will develop an annotated bibliography exploring one of the theoretical debates that have been central to the field of fan studies. These might include those which we've identified for the class, or they might include other topics more relevant to the student's own research. What are the key contributions of fan studies literature to this larger field of inquiry? What models from these theoretical traditions have informed work in fan studies? (30 Percent) (Due Oct. 28)

  • Students will write a 15-20 page essay on a topic of their own choosing (in consultation with the instructor) which they feel grows out of the subjects and issues we've been exploring throughout the class. The paper will ideally build on the annotated bibliography created for the earlier assignment. Students will do a a short 10 minute presentation of their findings during the final week of class. (40 percent) (Due  TBA)

Readings: There are NO assigned books. All readings are available on course blackboard site.

WEEK ONE: August 26

Defining Terms

§ Jonathan Gray, Cornel Sandvoss, and C. Lee Harrington, "Why Study Fans?" in Jonathan Gray, Cornel Sandvoss, and C. Lee Harrington,Fandom: Identities and Communities in a Mediated World(New York: New York UP, 2007)  

If you have not previously read any of the following, take a look: 

§  Angela McRobbie, “Settling Accounts with Subcultures: A Feminist Account”

§  Stuart Hall, “Encoding/Decoding” in Simon During (Ed.) The Cultural Studies Reader(London: Routledge, 2007)

§ Raymond Williams, “Culture Is Ordinary” (1958) 

§  Janice Radway, “The Readers and Their Romances,” Reading the Romance: Women, Patriarchy and Popular Literature(Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1984)  

September 2: NO CLASS - LABOR DAY

WEEK TWO: September 9

Fan Studies and Cultural Resistance 

§ John Fiske, "The Cultural Economy of Fandom," in Lisa A. Lewis (ed.) The Adoring Audience: Fan Culture and Popular Media(New York: Routledge, 1992) 

§ Camille Bacon-Smith, "Identity and Risk," Enterprising Women: Television Fandom and the Creation of Popular Myth(Philadelphia: University of  Pennsylvania Press, 1992) 

§ Constance Penley, "Feminism, Psychoanalysis, and the Study of Popular Culture" in Lawrence Grosberg, Cary Nelson, and Paula A. Treichler (eds.), Cultural Studies(Durham: Duke University Press, 1991) 

§ Henry Jenkins, "Star TrekRerun, Reread, Rewritten,” Fans, Bloggers and Gamers(New York: New York University Press, 2006) 

§  Rebecca Wanzo, “African American acafandom and other strangers: New genealogies of fan studies,” Transformative Works and Culture, 2015,

§ (Rec.) Stephen Duncombe, “Resistance” in Laurie Ouellette and Jonathan Gray (eds.) Keywords For Media Studies(New York: New York University Press, 2017)

§ (Rec.)  Henry Jenkins, “Negotiating Fandom: The Politics of Race-Bending” in Melissa A. Click and Suzanne Scott (eds.) The Routledge Companion of Fandom Studies(London: Routledge, 2017).

 Auto-Ethnography Assignment Due 

WEEK THREE: September 16

From Engagement to Participation   

§ Mark Duffet, “How Do People Become Fans?” Understanding Fandom: An Introduction to the Study of Media Fan Cultures(London: Bloomsbury, 2013)

§ Rhiannon Bury, “Fans, Fan Studies and the Participatory Continuum” in Melissa A. Click and Suzanne Scott (eds.) The Routledge Companion of Fandom Studies(London: Routledge, 2017)

§ Henry Jenkins, Sam Ford and Joshua Green, “The Value of Media Engagement,” Spreadable Media: Creating Value and Meaning in a Networked Culture(New York: New York University Press, 2013), 113-150.

§ danah boyd, Henry Jenkins, and Mimi Ito, “Defining Participatory Culture,” Participatory Culture in a Networked Era(London: Polity, 2014), 1-31. 

WEEK FOUR: September 23

Tracing the History of Participatory Culture 

§  Robert Darnton, "Readers Respond to Rousseau: The Fabrication of Romantic Sensibility," The Great Cat Massacre And Other Episodes in French Cultural History (New York: Basic, 2009) 

§ Daniel Cavicchi, Foundational Discourses of Fandom” in Paul Booth (ed.) A Companion of Media Fandom and Fan Studies(New York: Wiley Blackwell, 2017).

§ Alexandra Edwards, “Literature Fandom and Literary Fans” in Paul Booth (ed.) A Companion of Media Fandom and Fan Studies(New York: Wiley Blackwell, 2017).

§ Andre M. Carrington, “Josh Brandon’s Blues: Inventing the Black Fan,” Speculative Blackness: The Future of Race in Science Fiction (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. 2016). 

§ Helen Merrick, “FLAWOL: The Making of Fannish Feminisms,” The Secret Feminist Cabal: A Cultural History of Science Fiction Feminisms (New York: Aqueduct, 2019). 


Fan Activism 

§ Neta Kligler Vilenchik, “’Decreasing World Suck’: Harnessing Popular Culture for Fan Activism,” in Henry Jenkins et al., By Any Media Necessary: The New Youth Activism (New York: New York University Press, 2016).

§ Henry Jenkins, Sangita Shresthova, Liana Gamber-Thompson and Neta Kligler Vilenchik, “Superpowers to the People: How Young Activists are Tapping the Civic Imagination,” in Eric Gordon and Paul Mihailidis (eds.) Civic Media: Technology, Design, Practice(Cambridge: MIT Press, 2016).

§ Ashley Hink, “The Nerdfighter’s YouTube Project for Awesome,”  Politics for the Love of Fandom: Fan-Based Citizenship in the Digital World (New Orleans: Louisiana University Press, 2019).

§  Lori Kido Lopez,  "Fan Activists and the Politics of Race in The Last Airbender."International Journal of Cultural Studies 15 (5): 431–45.

WEEK SIX: October 7

The Contested Social Dynamics of Fandom 

§ Bertha Chin, “It’s About Who You Know’: Social Capital, Hierarchies and Fandom” in Paul Booth (ed.) A Companion of Media Fandom and Fan Studies(New York: Wiley Blackwell, 2017).

§  Dayna Chapman, “Black Twitter and the Politics of Viewing Scandal” in Jonathan Gray, Cornell Sandvoss, and C. Lee Harrington (eds.) Fandom: Identities and Communities in A Mediated World (New York: New York University Press, 2017).

§  Sarah Florini, “Enclaving and cultural resonance in Black "Game of Thrones" fandom” In "Fans of Color, Fandoms of Color," edited by Abigail De Kosnik and andré carrington, special issue, Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 29.

§  Benjamin Woo, “The Invisible Bag of Holding: Whiteness and Media Fandom” Melissa A. Click and Suzanne Scott (eds.) The Routledge Companion of Fandom Studies(London: Routledge, 2017).

§  Stanfill, Mel. 2011. "Doing Fandom, (Mis)doing Whiteness: Heteronormativity, Racialization, and the Discursive Construction of Fandom." In "Race and Ethnicity in Fandom," edited by Robin Anne Reid and Sarah Gatson, special issue, Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 8.

§  Suzanne Scott, “Interrogating the Fake Geek Fan Girl: The Spreadable Misogyny of Contemporary Fan Culture,” Fake Geek Girls: Fandom, Gender and the Contemporary Culture Industry  (New York: New York University Press, 2019).

WEEK SEVEN: October 14

Transcultural Fandom 

§  Bertha Chin and Lori Hitchcock Morimoto, “Towards a Theory of Transcultural Fandom,” Participations, May 2013,

§ Miranda Ruth Larsen, “Fandom and Otaku” in Paul Booth (ed.) A Companion of Media Fandom and Fan Studies(New York: Wiley Blackwell, 2017).

§ Bertha Chin, Aswin Punathembekar, Sangita Shresthova, ‘Advancing Transcultural Fandom: A Conversation” in Melissa A. Click and Suzanne Scott (eds.) The Routledge Companion of Fandom Studies(London: Routledge, 2017).

§ Rukmini Pande, “Can’t Stop the Signal: Online Media Fandom as Postcolonial Cyberspace,” Squee From the Margins: Fandom and Race(Iowa City” University of Iowa Press, 2019).

§  Mizuko Ito, “Contributors Versus Leechers: Fansubbing Ethics and a Hybrid Public Space,” in Mizuko Ito, Daisuke Okabe and Izumi Tsuji (eds.) Fandom Unbound: Otaku Culture in a Connected World(New Haven: Yale University Press, 2012)  

WEEK EIGHT: October 21
Performing Fan Identities

§ Ellen Kirkpatrick, "On [Dis]play: Outlier Resistance and the Matter of Racebending Superhero Cosplay." In "Fans of Color, Fandoms of Color," edited by Abigail De Kosnik and andré carrington, special issue, Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 29.

§ Samantha Close, “Fannish masculinities in transition in anime music video fandom,” Transformative Works and Cultures, 2016

§ Rebecca Williams, “Fan Tourism and Pilgrimage” in Melissa A. Click and Suzanne Scott (eds.) The Routledge Companion of Fandom Studies(London: Routledge, 2017).

§ Nicole Lamerichs,”Fan Fashion: Re-Enacting Hunger Games Through Clothing and Design,” in Paul Booth (ed.) A Companion of Media Fandom and Fan Studies(New York: Wiley Blackwell, 2017).

§ Richard Dyer, “Judy Garland and Gay Men,” Heavenly Bodies: Film Stars and Society(London: McMillian, 1986)

WEEK NINE: October 28

Fan Production: Fan Fiction

§  Ebony Elizabeth Thomas, Amy Stornaiuolo,“Race, Storying and Restorying: What We Can Learn From Black Fans?”In "Fans of Color, Fandoms of Color," edited by Abigail De Kosnik and andré carrington, special issue, Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 29.

§  Julie Levin Russo, “The Queer Politics of Femslash” in Melissa A. Click and Suzanne Scott (eds.) The Routledge Companion of Fandom Studies(London: Routledge, 2017).

§  Francesca Coppa “Five Things Fan Fiction Is and One Thing It Isn’t,” The Fan Fiction Reader: Folk Tales for the Digital Age(Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press. 2017.)

§ Rukmini Pande and Swati Moitra, “‘Yes, the Evil Queen Is Latina!’: Racial Dynamics of Online Femslash Fandoms,” ed. Julie Levin Russo and Eve Ng, Transformative Works and Cultures24 (2017).

§  Francesca Coppa and Rebecca Tushnett, “Transformative” in Keywords in Remix Studies (London: Routledge, 2018).

 WEEK TEN: November 4

Fan Production:Vidding and Fan Art 

§ Tisha Turk and Joshua Johnson. 2012. "Toward an Ecology of Vidding." In "Fan/Remix Video," edited by Francesca Coppa and Julie Levin Russo, special issue, Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 9.

§ Katherine Freund, “Becoming a Part of the Storytelling: Fan Vidding Practices and Histories” in Paul Booth (ed.) A Companion of Media Fandom and Fan Studies(New York: Wiley Blackwell, 2017).

§ Jessica Seymour, “Racebending and Prosumer Fan Art Practices in Harry Potter Fandom” in Paul Booth (ed.) A Companion of Media Fandom and Fan Studies(New York: Wiley Blackwell, 2017).

§ Francesca Coppa, Alex Lothian, Tisha Turk, “Vidding and Identity: A Conversation” in Melissa A. Click and Suzanne Scott (eds.) The Routledge Companion of Fandom Studies(London: Routledge, 2017).

§ Abigail De Kosnik, “Queer and Feminist Archival Cultures: The Politics of Preserving Fan Works,” Rogue Archives: Digital Cultural Memory and Media Fandom(Cambridge: MIT Press, 2016).

WEEK ELEVEN: November 11

Fandom and Authorship 

§  Suzanne Scott, “Who’s Steering the Mothership?: The Role of the Fanboy Auteur in Transmedia Storytelling,” and Henry Jenkins, “The Guiding Spirit and the Powers That Be: A Response to Suzanne Scott,” in Aaron Delwiche and Jennifer Jacobs Henderson (eds.) The Participatory Cultures Handbook(New York: Routledge, 2012) 

§  Henry Jenkins, “Out of the Closet and Into the Universe’: Queers and Star Trek,” Fans, Bloggers, and Gamers(New York: New York University Press, 2006).

§  James Rendell. 2019. "Black (Anti)fandom's Intersectional Politicization of The Walking Dead as a Transmedia Franchise." In "Fans of Color, Fandoms of Color," edited by Abigail De Kosnik and andré carrington, special issue, Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 29.

§  Henry Jenkins,“Noncompliants, Brimpers and She-Romps: Bitch Planet, Sex Criminals, and Their Publics”in Frederick Luis Aldama (ed.) The Oxford Companion of Comic Book Studies(London: Oxford University Press, 2019).

§ (Rec) Michel Foucault, “What Is an Author?” 

WEEK TWELVE: November 18

Fan Labor, Moral Economy, and the Gift Economy 

§ Henry Jenkins, Sam Ford and Joshua Green, “What Went Wrong with Web 2.0,” Spreadable Media: Creating Value and Meaning in a Networked Culture(New York: New York University Press, 2013) 

§ Mark Andrejevic, "Exploiting YouTube: Contradictions of User-Generated Labor," in Pelle Snickars and Patrick Vonderau (eds.), The YouTube Reader(Stockholm: National Library of Sweden, 2009

§ Tisha Turk, “Fan Work: Labor, Worth, and Participation in Fandom’s Gift Economy,” Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 15.

§ John Campbell, “Whistle While You Work: Alienation, Exploitation, and the Immaterial Labor of Disney Fans,” (Work in Progress) 

§ Mel Stanfill, “Fandom And/As Labor” Exploiting Fandom: How the Media Industry Seeks to Manipulate Fans(Iowa City: University of Iowa Press. 2019). 

WEEK THIRTEEN: November 25

Material Fandom 

§ John Bloom, "Cardboard Patriarchy: Adult Baseball Card Collecting and the Nostalgia for a Presexual Past," in Henry Jenkins, Tara McPherson and Jane Shattuc (eds.) Hop on Pop: The Politics and Pleasures of Popular Culture(Durham, NC: Duke UP, 2002) 

§ Brigid Cherry,“Fandom, Textiles, Gender,”Cult Media, Fandom, and Textiles (London: Bloomsbury,2018).

§  Bob Rehak, “Materializing monsters: Aurora models, garage kits and the object practices of horror fandom,” Journal of Fandom Studies1(1), November 2012

§  Benjamin Woo,“A pragmatics of things: Materiality and constraint in fan practices,” Transformative Works and Cultures, 2014,


Fan Expertise, Taste and Mastery 

§ Jonathan Gray, “How Do I Dislike Thee? Let Me Count the Ways,” and Melissa A. Click, “Haters Gonna Hate”­ in Melissa A. Click (ed.) Anti-fandom: Dislike and Hate in the Digital Age(New York: New York University Press, 2019).

§ Alan McKee, "Which is the Best Doctor WhoStory? A Case Study in Value Judgment Outside the Academies,"Intensities1, 2001 

§ Henry Jenkins, “Spoiling Survivor,” Convergence Culture: Where Old and New  Media Collide (New York: New York University Press, 2006) 

§  Nancy Baym "Participatory Boundaries" Playing to the Crowd: Musicians, Audiences, and the Intimate Work of Connection(New York: New York University Press, 2018)

§ Cornel Sandvoss, "The Inner Fan: Fandom and Psychoanalysis" in Fans: The Mirror of Consumption(Cambridge: Polity, 2005)

Student Presentations 

Final Essay Due (TBA)

No Permission Necessary: Bringing Young Activists to the Connected Learning Summit

“No Permission Necessary”: Bringing Young Activists to the Connected Learning Summit


Stepping in front of over 800,000 people gathered at the March for Our Lives in Washington D.C. (and many more watching via live-stream and on cable news networks), Emma González stood fearlessly through a six-minute and 20 second moment of silence as she asked her audience to reflect on the short time span it took for her classmates to die at the hands of a school shooter. Latinx, female, bisexual, with a shaved head, Emma González has become an icon of youth empowerment.  Her green bomber jacket, covered in patches, buttons, and pins, reflected an anarchist visual vernacular: a revolutionary Cuban flag, the Apollo 11 mission insignia, the words “We Call BS” and “Not too shabby,” and colorful ribbons tied to unique causes including a rainbow LGBTQ pride flag).

Emma González

Emma González

Some of these patches no doubt had personal associations, some subcultural, but the assemblage suggests the diversity of identities and affiliations to which contemporary youth seek to lay claim. Her jacket helps us to trace the roots of this movement through other recent examples of networked activism—Occupy Wall Street, #BlackLivesMatter, the Dreamers, the LGBTQ movement, and many others. These patches position González and her peers as intersectional figures bridging different populations, forging a new coalition for social change. Her symbolic choices demonstrate an awareness of the multiple media contexts in which her message will spread.

The jacket, especially the Cuban flag patch, became a focal point for right-wing television and radio pundits. Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) described González as wearing a “communist flag” and suggested that “your ancestors fled the island when the dictatorship turned Cuba into a prison camp, after removing all weapons from its citizens.  Others suggested that the Cuban flag be understood “not as a symbol of political orientation.… but rather as a sign of national belonging, independent of ideological belief.”

As politicians and political commentary tried to nail down the meaning of this one patch among the many on the jacket, her young supporters began to construct their own jackets, embracing the attire as a symbol of youth empowerment to be worn at rallies across the country. The shared fashion statement expresses solidarity even if the selection of patches allows each participant to express unique aspects of their identity. While many discussions of networked activism start and stop with the digital, González’s jacket helped her to embody the change she wants to inspire. During her extended moment of silence, the television cameras fixated on her jacket, signaling who she is and what she cares about. 

This young activist’s resourcefulness and commitment contrasts sharply with wide-spread critiques (especially in the popular press) of American youth as disconnected from politics or as engaging in forms of online expression that can be easily dismissed as “clicktivism” or “slacktivism.” As one critic explains, “The end result is the degradation of activism into a series of petition drives that capitalise on current events. Political engagement becomes a matter of clicking a few links. In promoting the illusion that surfing the web can change the world, clicktivism is to activism as McDonald’s is to a slow-cooked meal. It may look like food, but the life-giving nutrients are long gone.” The clicktivist critique often describes online campaigns as involving limited risk or exertion and having superficial impact on institutional politics. Typically, such critiques isolate what takes place online from its larger context within a social movement, so that much of what we will discuss in this essay would not surface in such accounts.

Drawing on field research conducted by USC Annenberg School PhD candidate Rogelio Alejandro Lopez, we co-authored an article for The Brown Journal of World Affairs, discussing the #NeverAgain movement as an example of “Participatory Politics” at work. Youth today often express their civic agency through alternative forms of political participation where culture, media practice, and social networks coalesce. According to Joe Kahne, Cathy Cohen and Danielle Allen,  working with the MacArthur Foundation-funded Youth and Participatory Politics Network (YPP), participatory politics are “interactive, peer-based acts through which youth exert both voice and influence on issues of public concern.” YPP researchers found that young people who engaged in participatory politics were almost twice as likely to vote as those who did not. Young people have been the focus of voter suppression efforts; candidates often talk past young people, not only ignoring their issues, but also using insider language which can be hard for many voters (young and old) to parse (e.g., six-point plans involving multiple governmental agencies)  Despite all of this, by almost any measure youth involvement in participatory politics has dramatically increased over the past decades. Contrary to those who dismiss slacktivism, these practices often involved deeper commitments of time, energy, social capital, and knowledge than those of institutional politics. Social media may enable quick, superficial mobilizationsintended as a rapid responses to an immediate concern, but networked political practices also allow participants to stay linked, develop strong social ties, and generate shared perspectives, all of which can result in young people protesting, registering to vote, or lobbying political leaders.

never again.jpg

In their 2018 book, #NeverAgain: A New Generation Draws The Line, David and Lauren Hogg suggest the merging of these old and new pathways to youth engagement: We are growing up in a time when technology gives us the confidence to assume that we can do things and figure out the world in ways that it hasn’t been figured out before. No permission necessary. Stoneman Douglas is a big piece, too, because teachers there put such a huge emphasis on studying real problems in the world today, so we already knew a lot about politics and social issues and just presumed that we could do something about them.

Some of the Parkland students acquired skills through high school debate, student government, newspaper, drama clubs, A/V groups, and through their civics and public speaking classes. These new activists are also fans, gamers, and bloggers. All these experiences inspired their participation and built capacity, but the shootings were their catalyst. As David Hogg wrote, “Before February 14, we thought we had plenty of time. We wanted to do something that would make the world a better place…But first we had to finish high school...When it happened to us, we woke up….We had to make the world a better place now. It was literally a matter of life and death.”  

Six weeks later, the teens had helped to organize a massive march on Washington, a march which would attract national media coverage. Since this monumental day of action, #NeverAgain has sustained their momentum toward gun legislation reform, and their efforts are yielding real results. Since the Parkland shooting, more than  26 states have passed 55 gun laws. Parkland has become emblematic for the new youth activists, in part because this movement has been so successful, at forging intersectional networks with leaders from other social movements, such as Black Lives Matter or those involved in the Standing Rock uprisings, showing the often unacknowledged connections amongst diverse communities involved in struggles around gun violence in America. Working together across divides which hobbled previous generations of activist, these young people seek to change the world by “any media necessary.”


At this year’s Connected Learning Summit to be held on October 2-5 at the University of California-Irvine, I will be sitting down with two young activists to discuss the factors which have enabled them to have an out-sized impact upon contemporary social policy debates.   

Jessica Riestra attends the University of Sacramento. She worked with the California Democratic Party as a field organizer, serves as the Co-Director for March for Our Lives California, and acts as the Vice President of External Affairs for a new group called GenUp. Moreover,  Riestra has also been an organizer for MoveOn while being the Volunteer Coordinator for the Western Service Workers Association of Sacramento.  

Justin Scott Jr. also known as STR33T. is a student, activist, and “constant learner” who shares that ‘Throughout the past three years I have worked diligently alongside grass roots organizations such as Students Deserve, United Black Student Unions of California, and Black Lives Matter, to combat the massive inequity within education. I use the arts via poetry, music, visual arts, and more as a mode to effectuate social and political change.”

Speaking with them via Skype in preparation for the event, I was left with a sense of awe about how much these young activists  have dedicated themselves to making a difference on issues that matter to them and their communities. In our book, By Any Media Necessary: The New Youth Activist, we described the experience of pulling together a similar mix of young change-makers for an event at MIT and having each of them step away from the label of activist, feeling that it did not describe their understanding of their methods for changing the world. Today, Jackson Bird, one of the student leaders who participated in this event, has emerged as a key figure in the fight for the rights of Trans youth, writing an upcoming book, Sorted: Growing Up, Coming Out, and Finding My Place.  


Speaking with Riestra and Scott, it was clear that they had no trouble conceptualizing themselves as activists. The times that have changed. In the age of Trump, many of the issues that impact young people’s lives have come to a head, requiring them to speak out often for their own survival. 

Preparing this blog post, I asked each of them to share some thoughts about what the term, activism, means to them and what set them on their current paths as people who dedicate seemingly every waking moment to their causes. 

Jessica Riestra shared:

Activism means giving back to the community that has provided to you. It means never forgetting about your origins but fighting for your people. It is a continuation of a civil rights fight that has been fought by multiple generations to improve for the next one. I come from a background where I have been belittled because of my race and my language. Although, born in the United States, I grew up with Spanish being the dominant language in my life. Throughout my life I have had to surpass multiple challenges and struggles in order to succeed in life. People have been vocal on their desire to see me fail, which has empowered me to become a voice for my community.  

The biggest wakeup call was during Trump's campaign trail that landed him in Orange County. During that rally, I was called more names then I can ever imagine. I was called an alien, dirty, immigrant, ext.. I had people telling me to go back to my country and was harassed by 10 men who were trying to take advantage of me. It has and will always be one of the most difficult moments of my life. However, my political participation means me being a voice for many of my family members. Most of my family members are still undocumented and risk the chance of deportation. My participation means me empowering my family to fight for their individual rights as citizens of this country. It means an overcoming of an era where I felt I would not become anyone simply because I had so many people wishing me to fail. In general it means me continuing the fight of the generations before me and hoping to make changes for the generations after me.

 Justin Scott Jr. told me: 

Activism is more than protesting, voting, marching, and Instagram posts. Activism is advocating for underrepresented and oppressed communities in all aspects of life. Activism is being a community builder and future sculptor. Activism is analyzing the oppressive systems that halt the growth of underrepresented communities, then having the courage, will, and faith to use direct actions and indirect actions that would destroy those systems that exploit the vulnerable. Activism is all about working out of ones love for people and community in order to change the world around us.  

As they prepared to speak to a room full of educators, activists, artists, and community leaders, the issue of mentorship was one we all knew we would need to speak to. Our audience will want to know what they can do to support young people who are putting so much effort into social justice struggles inside school and beyond. I asked the two youth to share what forms of mentorship they had received along the way. 

Justin Scott Jr. recalled: 

I've been blessed to have numerous elders that have nurtured me and assisted in my journey to becoming a critically conscious individual. From some of them, I learned the importance of seeking knowledge because the current public school system does not truly educated Black youth, so we must find other methods to develop our consciousness. This critical education can come from the arts, literature, history, and mostly interacting with the community that you are surrounded in. My elders have also taught me that this work comes with a lot of pain, anger, and anxiety at times, but the only true emotion that can solve the problems at hand is love. The community's pain and suffering can only be healed through love, so the community activists and advocates must move with love in every aspect of life. Us, the activists, must be the light in the community when all that everyone else sees is the dark; we must bring our people the love resources and happiness that they deserve.  

Lastly, my elders have taught me that activism starts first and foremost, with the youth. The youth are the most fertile soil to plant the seeds of love, community, and critical thinking. If Black youth got the opportunity to experience true love, support, and happiness, we would be unstoppable and I am living proof of that statement. 

Jessica Riestra shared: 

One of my mentors was named Asia. She taught me that it is important to take care of myself while it is significant to love myself. In this type of realm, mental health often becomes our worse rival. We have doubts about ourselves and our fight. We often sacrifice so much for others, that we forget to take care of ourselves. In the end, we fail to realize our own importance. It is through the constant reminders, love, and trust that I learned this lesson. Now I use this to help my members understand their contributions and knowing that before the organization, comes the person. 

We plan to talk more about the ways schools do or do not support students who are involved in social change movements, the ways that students and teachers are making common cause to transform these institutions, when we take the stage together at the Connected Learning Summit. This is an event you will not want to miss.











My Newest Book: Participatory Culture—Interviews


As we are about to start my blog back up for the fall term, I wanted to take a moment to announce the release of my newest book — Participatory Culture: Interviews — from Polity Press. This book is intended as a companion volume to Participatory Culture in a Networked Era, a book long conversation between danah boyd, Mimi Ito, and myself. Here, I am expanding the conversation by curating a selection of some of the most engaging and thought provoking interviews which I have run on this blog since it launch in 2006.

The book is organized around the core concepts of Participatory Culture, Participatory Learning, and Participatory Politics, which more or less traces the trajectory of my own research initiatives across this period. I have held in reserve some other core topics concerning fandom, games, and transmedia, which have also been central to the conversations here, in case this volume takes off and I am able to edit a second selection of interviews.

You, my regular followers, will have read these interviews first, but we went back to the interview subjects and asked them to reflect on the ways their thinking has shifted since the interview was originally done. Some of these were more than a decade ago, some only a year or two back, but given the way political shifts across the planet have changed the way we think about the democratic and participatory potentials of new media, everyone had interesting things to discuss. We live in dark times, no doubt, but is there anything worth holding onto from more optimistic accounts of how we are living, learning, and politicking within a networked culture? I like to think so.

Below is the official description of the book. I hope some of you will check it out.

Since 2006, Henry Jenkins's Confessions of an Aca-Fan blog has hosted interviews in which academics, activists, and artists have shared their views on the changing media landscape. For the first time, Jenkins – often called “the Marshall McLuhan for the twenty-first century” – compiles some of these interviews to highlight his recurring interests in popular culture and social change. 

Structured around three core concepts – culture, learning, politics – and designed as a companion to Participatory Culture in a Networked Era, this book broadens the conversation to incorporate diverse thinkers such as David Gauntlett, Ethan Zuckerman, Sonia Livingstone, S. Craig Watkins, James Paul Gee, Antero Garcia, Stephen Duncombe, Cathy J. Cohen, Lina Srivastava, Jonathan McIntosh, and William Uricchio. With an introduction from Jenkins and reflections from each interviewee, this volume speaks to a sense of crisis as contemporary culture has failed to fully achieve the democratic potentials once anticipated as a consequence of the participatory turn.

This book is ideal for students and scholars of digital media, popular culture, education, and politics, as well as general readers with an interest in the topic.

“Henry Jenkins collects here, for a dark political time, some engaging conversations with leading scholars around one core issue: the transformative social potential of culture when it operates in a participatory mode. The result is open, richly contextual, and genuinely exhilarating.” Nick Couldry, London School of Economics and Political Science

Participatory Culture contains a multiplicity of voices that each uniquely expresses support for democracy, empowerment, respect, and empathy. With this book, Henry Jenkins has generously created a transdisciplinary meeting place, which will offer novel ideas to each reader.” Nico Carpentier, Charles University in Prague

Squee from the Margins: Interview with Rukmini Pande (Part III)


Many fans may argue that they are being respectful in not constructing minority-centered narratives because these are not “their stories to tell,” because of the dangers of appropriation or stereotyping. How do we create a learning space within fandom where such representations can be critiqued and debated without shutting down willingness to participate and contribute? 

I think there is a significant difference in terms of context between the conversations that occur in the publishing industry around appropriation and the ownership of particular stories/experiences and the unwillingness of fans to engage with already existing characters of color within popular cultural texts.  

In professional circles, non-white authors face significant barriers in accessing publishing opportunities that come much easier to white authors due to institutional racism. This is why there has been a concerted effort in genres such as romance novels and Young Adult literature, amongst others, to help spread awareness of more diverse voices in a white dominated field.   

However, within fandom, the conversation has always been more about creating communal modes of enjoying characters and texts. It is true that certain experiences are specific to cultures that may be unfamiliar to white audiences but to posit that the majority of narratives and tropes that make up fanfiction are somehow inaccessible to characters of color is once again ascribing a universalism only to whiteness.   

With regard to concerns about stereotyping, I would point out that fans routinely engage with (white) queer cultures of which they have no direct experience. The resulting fanwork regularly sparks in-fandom discussions about whether these are also problematic depictions of (white) queer lives. These discussions often become heated but I do not think fandom is going to stop writing those stories any time soon. Again, to posit that writing well rounded characters of color is an especially fraught process is to continue to validate the idea that whiteness is normative.  

The concept of cultural appropriation seems especially charged in writing about fandom since fandom studies has also celebrated the ways fans appropriate and rework materials drawn from mass culture. How might we work through these conflicting ideas about appropriation as we begin to incorporate race more fully into our analysis?

I don’t have specific thoughts on this but would point to Ebony Elizabeth’s excellent upcoming book The Dark Fantastic which considers this is more detail.  

Editor’s Note: Check out the podcast interview we did with Ebony Elizabeth Thomas about this project.

A push for greater awareness of racial exclusions and inclusions seems to be simultaneously playing out in fandom and fandom studies, helping us to map some of the potential fault lines (and continuities) in the aca-fan identity. What similarities and differences do you see in the ways the two communities have responded to the critiques you and others are posing at the current moment? 

I think that fandom and fan studies have had a similar range of responses to critique which is a mix of genuine engagement, defensiveness, and outright hostility. As I’ve mainly been discussing fandom so far I’ll address fan studies here.  

I will be honest that it remains a difficult area to discuss because I’ve received support for my work from my peers as an individual and I am always going to be grateful for that. However, I’ve also been confronted with the field’s whiteness in a very direct and aggressive fashion. This occurred in Feburary 2019, in response to my tweeting what was, in my opinion, a rather self-evident fact – that Fan Studies as a discipline is dominated by whiteness. I was extremely surprised by the pushback I received, the wider implications of which have been discussed in detail by Samira Nadkarni here.  

I think it is also really important to reflect on what this level of defensiveness means when talking about issues such as decolonization. After all, if we are still at the point where non-white scholars are asked to explain extremely basic concepts such as institutional racism and structural whiteness then it is a very damning indictment of our bibliographies, methodologies, peer review processes and publishing.  

I am often told that white scholars are afraid of speaking about race. In response I would say that firstly, this fear puts the entire burden of doing the work of decolonization on non-white scholars who, it must be pointed out, also face considerable anxiety and an equal possibility of messing up when approaching the topic. Secondly, this fear is damaging the field because it results in work that is fundamentally incomplete and also participates in further entrenching whiteness-as-default.  

As this debate around your book have unfolded, there has been some tendency of academics to acknowledge that systemic and structural racism impacts academic research as a whole but to push back on the idea that fandom studies might be particularly problematic in this regard. This no doubt reflects the perception within fandom, and fandom studies, that this is a more progressive, inclusive, and transgressive space than most traditional disciplinary spaces. Yet, your argument is that we can only really maintain that sense of ourselves by bracketing race from our conversation. And throughout the book, you offer a range of examples where the exclusion of race from our consideration erases, silences, or marginalizes. How do you respond to the “not only fandom studies” argument? 

I think that’s a rather blinkered argument to make because isn’t the whole point of an academic field to be self-critical so that it can move forward to produce better, more accurate, and more incisive knowledge? If we allow such defensiveness to shut down not just critique, but the possibility of enriching our research through rigorous and inclusive methodologies, theoretical frameworks, and publishing practices, then we will certainly fail in accurately portraying the complexity of fan communities today.


Dr Rukmini Pande is currently an Assistant Professor in English Literature at O.P Jindal Global University, India. She completed her PhD at the University of Western Australia. She is currently part of the editorial board of the Journal of Fandom Studies and has been published in multiple edited collections including the Wiley Companion to Media Fandom and Fan Studies and The Routledge Handbook of Popular Culture Tourism. She has also been published in peer reviewed journals such as Transformative Works and Cultures and The Journal for Feminist Studies. Her monograph, Squee From The Margins: Race in Fandom, was published in 2018 by the University of Iowa Press. She is also working on an edited collection on race/racism in fandom in order to bring together cutting edge scholarship from upcoming scholars in the field.

Squee From the Margins: Interview with Rukmini Pande (Part II)


I suspect some fans are going to be more willing to accept the idea of more diverse participants in fandom spaces than are going to be willing to take on an obligation to personally expand the representations of race within fandom. Can we separate out inclusion from diversity in regard to representation within a participatory culture? Why or why not?

 I think the first thing to question here is the framing the concept of engaging with characters of color as “taking on an obligation.” Why should it be so?  

The assumption that characters of color do not offer the same possibilities of pleasure and exploration of fandom tropes and archetypes is in itself racist. Indeed, while characters of color that offer rich potential for fannish squee have always existed, as the roles offered to non-white actors within popular cultural texts have expanded this disjuncture has become even more clear. There are plenty of similarities between Bucky Barnes from the MCU movies and Finn from Star Wars in terms of their character arcs but only the former has become the locus of fan attention.  

To link this to my earlier responses, there is a clear connection between the attitude that assumes that characters of color are somehow inherently unsuitable for fannish modes of pleasure and the labelling of vocal fans of color as fandom killjoys. The foreclosure of the possibility of learning to find joy in characters of color (as I did in my experiences with Star Trek) and only framing this process in punitive language – policing, obligation, scoring social justice points, etc – is in itself a product of the logic of white supremacy.  

Also I think it is important to underline that fans of color have always been in these spaces and have contributed materially to their evolution through the production of fanwork, supporting projects like the AO3, and building community infrastructure. So, even though this labor has been invisibilized, I don’t think they need (or desire) the acceptance of white fans to validate their continuing participation.   

One of the more chilling observations running across your book is the idea that as Hollywood has developed marginally more inclusive representations, fan fiction writing communities have tended to lag behind rather than keep pace, still focusing on white characters even when they are peripheral to the original narratives rather than helping to further develop minority characters and re-center stories around them.  In what ways does the fan fiction community seem to reproduce the exclusions and silences of the entertainment industry more generally?  What obligations do individual fans bear in dealing with this situation? And what strategies have emerged in response to this process of marginalization? 

To pick up from my response to the last question, I think that framing these interactions in exclusively punitive terms is limiting. After all, there is a long and celebrated tradition of analyzing fandom as a learning resource. People have incessantly documented their experiences of this – from figuring out how to code, to deconstructing internalized attitudes towards sexism, homophobia, and slutshaming, to kink exploration, to researching what kind of lubricant would be available to the Victorians. However, when it comes to unlearning internalized racism – to which fans of color are equally susceptible – why is the possibility of fandom leading to that completely negated? Why do white fans need to see this engagement as an obligation or as policing? It is because there is a deep and immediate defensiveness sparked by the idea that whiteness is a racialized identity with specific effects.  

To address the second part of the question, fans of color are definitely in a continual state of overt or covert negotiation with the whiteness of fandom spaces and texts and have evolved strategies to deal with it – self segregation, fanwork fests, etc. However, it is also limiting to frame their fannish activities only through this lens. It is after all, not their responsibility, nor is it within their power, to fix the problem. For instance, sometimes an angry post about how the pairing of Steve Rogers/Darcy Williams (who have never met in the MCU canon) continues to have more fanfiction than the pairing of Steve Rogers/Sam Wilson (who are well established companions) is just that – an angry post that is meant to vent frustration without offering a solution.  

You argue that these silences or exclusions are not simply “glitches” in a system that otherwise works to embrace a range of identities and experiences. Rather, you see these “glitches” as part of how “fannish algorithms” operate. Explain. 

In my framing, fandom algorithms are structures that are seen to order the workings of media fandom, both in terms of communitarian etiquettes and technical strategies that involve fannish digital infrastructure like archiving fanworks and organisational strategies such as tagging. These algorithms are basically “strategies of squee.” They are seen to operate independently and without bias towards any particular individual fan or character.  

So when racism is seen to interrupt their workings, it is seen in the form of a “glitch,” an interruption of a system that otherwise works smoothly towards promoting such common fannish experiences such as the formation of safe spaces, the exchange squee, the pushback against a restrictive canon and the lessening of friction between opposed groups.  

Another effect of this formulation is to see the roots of these glitches, when they occur, as part of a larger systemic malfunction that fandom participants cannot influence. This allows for troubling patterns of behaviour to be deflected outwards onto flawed popular cultural texts or onto individuals who act in bad faith against fandom etiquettes, allowing the core liberal nature of media fandom spaces to operate without questioning. 

As an example, fandom algorithms can be axiomatic such as “Ship and Let Ship” which is seen as a basic common sense approach to fandom spaces where different individuals have different needs from a text. Theoretically, the operation of this algorithm would result in a harmonious fan space but the “glitch” would occur when fans of Finn from Star Wars would point out the anti-blackness that is influencing his sidelining in fanworks.  

The larger effect of this algorithm then is to encourage fans to ignore patterns of erasure over time, such as the inevitable elevation of white characters in text after text.


Dr Rukmini Pande is currently an Assistant Professor in English Literature at O.P Jindal Global University, India. She completed her PhD at the University of Western Australia. She is currently part of the editorial board of the Journal of Fandom Studies and has been published in multiple edited collections including the Wiley Companion to Media Fandom and Fan Studies and The Routledge Handbook of Popular Culture Tourism. She has also been published in peer reviewed journals such as Transformative Works and Cultures and The Journal for Feminist Studies. Her monograph, Squee From The Margins: Race in Fandom, was published in 2018 by the University of Iowa Press. She is also working on an edited collection on race/racism in fandom in order to bring together cutting edge scholarship from upcoming scholars in the field.

Squee from the Margins: Interview with Rukmini Pande (Part I)


Few books have had the impact on the field of fandom studies that Rukmini Pande’s Squee From the Margins: Fandom and Race has had since it’s publication. I have been listening to Pande’s powerful and poignant critiques of our field take shape through multiple appearances on the Fansplaining podcast. The conversation about race and fandom has been long overdue. That moment of reckoning seems to be here, signaled not only by the publication of this important book, but also through important scholarly work by Rebecca Wanzo, André Carrington, Mel Stanfill and many others. Witness the recent issue of Transformative Works and Culture on “fans of color, fandoms of color” which was edited by Abigail De Kosnik and André Carrington. For those who want to de-colonize their reading and teaching, Pande has published a valuable bibliography.

These writers — many of them new, junior, and vulnerable — are rightly questioning some of Fandom Studies’s founding assumptions. It is not just that discussions of race (and fans of color) have largely been excluded from our previous work but that this absence has structured the field, determining what we see and what we don’t see, what we say and don’t say, throughout all aspects of our work.

As a founding figure in the field, I am trying to take ownership of some of my own past failures to fully address this issue. I have found myself rethinking some of my own work and shifting the ways I write about fandom to reflect what I have learned through these critiques, though I still have much to learn. I am also rethinking the syllabus for my fandom studies seminar which I will be teaching again this fall. I have come to recognize that the freedom to avoid writing and speaking about race is the worst form of white privilege inside the academy, and we — white scholars — cannot let ourselves off the hook here. Reading and assigning the works of scholars of color is not enough if it means we continue to ignore race and racism in our own scholarship.

This process of bringing issues of race and racism — and the perspectives of fans and scholars of color — into the center of our field and rethinking earlier work is painful, messy, and occurring in public. Pande has shown great courage in responding to the inevitable push-back her interventions are receiving, even as the field as a whole has embraced her important contributions to our scholarship.

As I thought about how to frame this interview, I wanted to give Pande a chance to respond to some of the pushback I have heard, both online and in private, from fans and aca-fans alike. As a consequence, with her agreement, I am playing devil’s advocate here, more than I might ordinarily do, as I bring some of these assumptions to the surface so they can be addressed. How we work through these debates will test the ethical core of our community, constituting a teachable moment as we learn from each other, listen to each other, and forgive each other. We need to confront certain issues directly, acknowledge histories of exclusion, marginalization, and dismissal, yet we also need to allow room for people to confront past mistakes and move beyond them. Above all, though, those of us who enjoy certain kinds of privilege need to err on the side of ethical listening.

From the book’s opening pages, you draw inspiration from Sara Ahmed’s concept of the feminist killjoy, asking “What does it mean to be a fandom killjoy with regard to being the subject of and reacting to racism in fandom spaces?” To this, I might add the question – what do you see as the dangers and potentials of taking on such a role at the current moment in the evolution of fandom studies? Is this a role which it is possible for fans of color (a problematic term for all of the reasons you note) to escape in regard to the racial dynamics you have identified in fandom spaces by remaining silent and complicit with a space which is safe for some but not for all, by “passing” within a space imagined to be post-racial? 

I think the position of the fandom killjoy is something that is ascribed to or imposed upon fans who point out the operations about race/racism in fandom spaces rather than a role that they seek out.  

It is important to make that distinction because fans who do talk about these issues are often branded as activists who are motivated by a desire to score social justice points rather than by a genuine fannish investment in a character or text. This othering also often comes with a hypervisibility that inhibits further fandom participation as their energy is expected to then go towards ‘fixing’ the problem they have identified. To quote Sara Ahmed (again!), she notes in Complaint as Diversity Work that, “A complaint teaches about institutional direction because a complaint is often treated as misdirection by the institution. Another way of saying this: to locate a problem is to become the location of a problem. Diversity work: becoming the location of a problem.”  

I think the question of escapism is a really interesting one for fans of color and one that I took up specifically in my research for Squee From The Margins. I wanted to hear about what kinds of escapism were available to fans of color in white-focused fandoms, especially in light of repeated claims by white fans that they come to fandom spaces to enjoy themselves and escape from having to consider “serious” issues (like racism) that they encounter in their daily lives.  

I found that while it is certainly possible for fans of color to “pass” within online fan spaces, their modes of escapism are mostly contingent – I can enjoy a source or fan text until it gets racist. Other fans articulated the importance of finding networks of fellow non-white fans so that they could curate their experiences to be safer. In all cases, fandom certainly isn’t a space where these fans can escape from race/racism even if it is not something that is engaged with publicly or vocally.   

Of course non-white fans have been building alternative fan spaces for a long time. Scholars like Kirsten Warner, Rebecca Wanzo and Andre Carrington have talked particularly about how Black fans in the USA have carved out space for themselves in this way. However, within anglophone media fandom this has been less successful and has been limited to events like one-off fanwork creation fests. There is certainly a level of self-segregation being practiced – non-white fans finding each other in white spaces, gravitating towards texts with better representation, etc – but fandom spaces today are simultaneously too scattered and too connected for this to be a large scale strategy. And of course, not all non-white fans like the same texts or want the same thing out of fanworks, so to treat them as a homogenous mass is also not productive. 

Across the book, you acknowledge what fandom offered you as a young woman growing up in small town India and the sense of frustration you felt in realizing that you were “passing” in a context where participants were always already assumed to be white. And you describe your growing awareness that you were not unique in having these experiences. Can you share some of the moments where you felt you were pushing against the limits of fandom in regard to race?  

The process of realising how deeply whiteness was structured into media fandom spaces was a gradual process for me. Initially, I was extremely resistant to the idea that my participation in fandom spaces could be racist. I think the first time I was confronted with evidence of this was in Star Trek (2009) fandom. As someone who’d been a Kirk/Spock shipper from the original series it was deeply enjoyable to see the explosion of fanwork around the pairing once again. I even nodded along with the dominant argument that the character of Nyota Uhura (Zoe Saldana) had been somehow lessened because of her canonical romance with Spock (Zachary Quinto).  

When some Black fans very rightly pointed out how problematic this argument was, and further that Kirk/Spock fans were either ignoring Uhura entirely or writing her character in extremely racist ways within their own fanwork, I was extremely discomfited and resistant. This was partly because as someone who had grown up in India with plenty of “people like me” on movie screens, I was unfamiliar with the racial dynamics of US-centric filmic representation. But it was also very much because I was, for the first time, being made to see how my modes of fandom were deeply implicated in whiteness even as they functioned to give me pleasure and the chance to explore (white) queerness.  

This experience was extremely foundational because once I was made aware of the racialization of my choices it gave me the chance to work through my own defensiveness. I realized that fandom had always encouraged me to be self-reflexive about my attraction to certain character archetypes and shipping dynamics in terms of gender and sexuality but had worked to elide their whiteness. This in turn helped me to value characters of color who also offered me the exact same modes of pleasure but which fandom had deemed to be uninteresting. This was a huge turning point for me, not because I was being policed into appropriate modes of fandom, but because I was able to actually expand notions of my own fannish pleasure. 

I don’t mean to imply that this was a smooth or easy process but it definitely showed me how fandom truisms (or algorithms as I term them in Squee From The Margins) like “Ship and Let Ship” while overtly functioning to maintain fandom harmony, also work towards making whiteness invisible. 

Your title, “Squee from the Margins,” evokes a fannish term that is bound up with notions of pleasure and affect. Fandom studies has long questioned the social construction of taste, whereas desire, fantasy, pleasure, and affect are seen as authentic or natural more often than not. Some would argue that the heart desires what the heart desires, so how can we push for broader representational practices in fandom without seeming to perform the kinds of policing of pleasure and fantasy which has been explicitly rejected within fandom communities in relation to gender and sexuality?  

The fact that fan studies has long questioned the social construction of taste and yet has left the deep racialization of fandom’s taste uninterrogated is, in my opinion, quite damning. As I have discussed earlier, the characterization of fans who critique the whiteness of fan spaces as ‘policing activists’ rather than people invested in communal pleasure is fundamental to how white supremacy maintains itself. This is also related to the reasoning that structures the positions that you mention where gender and sexuality are somehow magically de-racialized.  

I think the most blatant problem with the position of “The heart wants what it wants” is the accompanying unwillingness to name that “something” as whiteness because that would imply that fandom spaces are not neutral. White fans have, as decades of evidence proves, consistently chosen white characters to devote their fandom energies towards. Fannish pleasure and fantasy therefore are already fundamentally implicated in questions of race. It is simply a matter of acknowledging that fact. But, as is evident, naming whiteness triggers a deep defensiveness that manifests itself in trying to prove that those that point out the problem are the real location of disruption.   

You trace a “jigsaw puzzle of fandom histories” which led to the current moment. In particular, you focus on Race Fail 09 as a key event which helped develop a greater focus on the implicit and sometimes explicit racialized assumptions shaping fandom. Can you trace for us some of the paths which led from this incident to the growing attention to race and fandom? 

2019 marks 10 years since RaceFail ’09 and I think its legacy is an accurate reflection of the role of race in within fandom and fan studies. Firstly, it lead to a greater degree of openness in talking about the issues of race in SFF, both within fandom and in professional spaces. Secondly, it gave the chance for fans of color across media fandom to form points of connection and solidarity within these spaces at a time when that aspect of personal identity was less visible. These connections in turn amplified their critiques. I don’t think it is a coincidence that the debates in the Star Trek (2009) fandom that I discussed earlier were also happening at around the same time.

But equally, the trajectory of the debates around RaceFail ‘09 show that the presence of race/ism in fandom is noted only in times of crisis, located in the actions of individuals, and eventually excised from collective memory. When talking about fandom history, the number of scholars (and fans) who note StrikeThrough (which happened in 2007 and saw a mass purge of explicit sexual content on Livejournal) as foundational to the construction of contemporary fan spaces such as AO3 but completely ignore RaceFail (which happened only two years later) is remarkable. This forgetting is also seen in the lack of any reflection on the incident within the discipline of fan studies. For instance, during the roundtable on Race and Fan Studies at this year’s PCA/ACA conference, hardly anyone in the room could recall any scholars of color who were involved in the documentation and discussion of RaceFail. This is of course deeply troubling and points to the ways in which the discipline continues to actively enable its own structural whiteness.


Dr Rukmini Pande is currently an Assistant Professor in English Literature at O.P Jindal Global University, India. She completed her PhD at the University of Western Australia. She is currently part of the editorial board of the Journal of Fandom Studies and has been published in multiple edited collections including the Wiley Companion to Media Fandom and Fan Studies and The Routledge Handbook of Popular Culture Tourism. She has also been published in peer reviewed journals such as Transformative Works and Cultures and The Journal for Feminist Studies. Her monograph, Squee From The Margins: Race in Fandom, was published in 2018 by the University of Iowa Press. She is also working on an edited collection on race/racism in fandom in order to bring together cutting edge scholarship from upcoming scholars in the field.


Participatory Politics in an Age of Crisis: Henry Jenkins & Nico Carpentier (Part V)


Yes, Yes, and Yes!!! I really find this approach very generative. So far, in mapping the ethics of participation, we have, at this moment of crisis, focused on anti-democratic and even fascistic players, seeking to recognize ideals and norms through their violation. But I wonder if we might reverse the lens for a moment and try to define what participatory leadership looks like. I know from our earlier conversation this was a key theme for you and it is something I am thinking about more and more. This brings me back to the figure of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and the ways that she is disrupting conventional political rhetoric in order to create conditions that encourage participation by youth, women, and people of color within the political process. Here's a recent video she released about the Green New Deal, which seems particularly rich in terms of the ways it constructs, top-down though it may be, a model of what a more democratic/participatory society might look like.

First, I would note that her work is consistently pedagogical. She understands that if those who have been excluded from the political process (either formally through voter repression or informally through the ways established politicians talk) need a certain background to be brought into the conversation. We saw in the work I did for By Any Media Necessary that many young people felt the language of American politics was broken, both by partisanship and policy wonk rhetoric, both of which turned away first time voters. Here, she explains this potential set of policies in clear, vivid, and concrete terms. In this case, she's using animation and storytelling to illustrate both how we got to the current state and what a future alternative might look like.

Second, and tied to the first, she constructs an aspirational future -- not just telling us what the problem is but daring us to imagine, together, what alternatives might look like. And there are various explicit appeals here to participate, to get involved. She constructs herself as a model of a young person who has been able to become part of the most diverse group of congresspeople "so far" and she offers a model of a young Latinx girl who will grow up and replace her someday. She maps the transition between participatory or expressive politics (outside the formal system through protest) and institutional politics -- the ability to actively contribute to the decision-making process. Many young people say that they are never invited to participate in the decision-making process, never encouraged to vote, to petition, to protest, etc. and research shows that such direct appeals often make a difference.

Of course, the appeal is most effective when given by someone who plays a direct role in the young person's life. And that's why it matters that AOC's content is so damn spreadable, that she is actively encouraging people to circulate it through our everyday social networks, and thus her political speech goes where the people are rather than pulling them into uncomfortable, unfamiliar, spaces of formal politics.

I really value the ways that she embraces the civic imagination, that she dares to propose approaches that would be outside what the political establishment deems possible, given current constraints. She's pushing past what Stephen Duncombe calls "the tyranny of the possible." But at the same time, she does not mean for us to take this vision, literally, as the only possible way forward or the only way to achieve her goals. In the end, we do not have a utopia (problems persist) nor do we have a blueprint which is closed off from popular interventions. We have a provocation which encourages a continuing process of asking questions, proposing alternatives, and working to achieve them on the local, national, and global level.


Finally, if you look closely, you will see that she did the video in collaboration with Naomi Klein, best known for her book, No Logos, but more to the point, the author of a new work, No is Not Enough. This book makes the case that resistance is not enough to change what's wrong with global democracy, that we need to be willing to put effort into describing what alternatives look like, regardless of whether we yet have the means to achieve them. She describes work taking place in the environmental justice movement in Canada, which involves bringing diverse stakeholders together, to talk through problems and develop plans for alternative futures. The fact that these are considered alternatives (not THE answer) creates a space for people to participate in the process and contribute their own ideas.

There must be young leaders like AOC (or elders like Naomi Klein) all over the world who are working not just to resist authoritarian impulses in their cultures but to articulate and actively perform what an alternative might look like. Are there examples you might point to in Cyprus or the various European countries where you have been doing your work?

Our own Civic Imagination workshops are on a modest level trying to do something similar. We go into communities across America and elsewhere in the world to create temporary spaces where people can imagine the future together. Through our participatory process, we surface points of agreement as well as points of disagreement, helping communities to identify shared values and visions, as well as to recognize and pay respect to those things which differentiate their experiences and perspectives. Surprising things emerge -- a discussion of religious freedom in Beirut, a discussion of the need for national health care in Kentucky -- which do not fit our assumptions or mental categories of how such groups constitute themselves. We certainly hear some conservative perspectives, but we are also seeing people agree on things that set them apart from the institutional political leadership. It is through such a process that people may become awakened to and inculcated into the kinds of ethics of participation we have been discussing.


What does participatory leadership look like? How does it help to create conditions and provide resources that support the kinds of expansion of opportunities to participate you described in your last post? Too often, we talk about flat organizations and leaderless movements, terms which undervalue the importance that good leaders can bring to democratic processes. I am struck by the difference in the ways AOC represents herself and the ways that Trump does. Consider a news story today about the ways some servicemen wore badges on their sleeve which signaled their allegiance to Trump rather than to the American Constitution, badges which look pretty damn much like the kinds of iconography that surrounds other fascistic states. No wonder AOC has received such attacks from the alt-right -- she embodies the exact opposite of their vision for the future of American society.


Yes, I agree that leadership matters, and significantly matters, in the debates about participation, and in the debates about the protection of democracy. Where I would like to start is that participatory processes are affected by how leadership, expertise and ownership are defined and performed. Authoritarian forms of leadership disable participation, as they are contradictory. Authoritarianism is grounded in the centralization of power, while participation is based on its decentralization. The same point applies to expertise and ownership, that, depending how they are defined and performed in a particular context (and not only politics), can increase or decrease participatory intensities. Actually, there is quite a lot of mid-20th century literature in the field of leadership studies (e.g., Lewin and Adorno) that tries to think through these issues, for instance, by distinguishing between democratic and authoritarian leadership. That kind of literature can be re-interpreted and extended, to capture how participation and leadership interact, in constructive and destructive ways.

One of the additions that I would like to make is that we are up against a deeply rooted desire for these stronger forms of leadership. Different authors, e.g. Gramsci and Reich, have tried to provide answers to the question why people chose for authoritarian regimes. Without delving too deep into these discussions, I would argue that the fantasy of the ultimate charismatic leader, that manages to fulfill all contradictory demands of the people, and cares for the people as a father/mother figure, is a strong force, that we should take into account. I would also argue that this fantasy links to another fantasy, namely the fantasy of homogeneity, where there is no conflict, no dissensus, and no disagreement. Authoritarian leaders tap into these fantasies, offering to fulfill all these wishes and demands, and offering a construction of the people as the One. However tempting it is to believe that we can safely rest in the caring arms of the Leader, these fantasies are bound to be frustrated, through the heterogeneity of the social, the irreconcilability of demands, and thus the unavoidable presence of conflict.

But, as I argued earlier in our discussion, we are living in the era of the both, and I would argue that there is also another fantasy circulating, which is the fantasy of equality and horizontality. It is the fantasy of the absence of hierarchy. We find this fantasy in many different variations, some of which I would consider benevolent, while others can be deeply troubling. I would argue that when the two fantasies, the fantasies of horizontality and homogeneity, become integrated, the outcome can be deeply troubling. This is actually where populism (or what some would qualify as regressive or reactionary populism, see Mouffe's and Fraser's work) is situated, because of its anti-establishment discourse, that unifies (homogenizes) the people in its wish to remove the establishment that is considered to have betrayed it. In a next move, populism then brings in the (contradictory) logic of verticality, as it presents a new elite to the people (replacing the old established elite) that "truly" represents the people.

I think it is also possible to translate the fantasy of horizontality (and what I would prefer to label equivalence) into social practice without triggering the fantasy of homogeneity, but instead by respecting radical diversity. That is (I think and hope) where my position is situated. And (after this long detour): This is the playing field where I situate participatory leadership, or, as I prefer (to better connect to the existing reflections) democratic leadership. I do not want to articulate horizontality and homogeneity, which also means that I do not believe that we should eliminate leaders (or experts, and even (sic) owners), simply because we are all the same and we should not have leaders at all. I think this would imply the denial of human diversity, ignoring the idea that people have developed different skills throughout their life trajectories, for instance at the level of understanding, argumentation, communication and organization (which are qualities that define leadership).

Instead, we need to respect and cherish these qualities, which brings me to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who seems to have accumulated a number of these qualities, although it might be a bit early days to evaluate this. But more in general, democratic leadership is built on the articulation of horizontality, equivalence and diversity, which recognizes the particularity of individual leadership skills, but which also prevents that these differences (or particularities) harm or destroy the logic of equivalence. Or, in other words, democratic leaders are aggregators, translators and protectors of diversity, that use empathy to connect to the plurality of demands, defend the participatory ethics and avoid the creation of the incontestable 'One Narrative'. To refer to an ancient idea, democratic leaders have to have a little memento mori voice in their heads, which is a permanent reminder that they are mortal, and not divine.

I know that this is a lot to ask from individual leaders, but I think that this re-articulation of leadership is very necessary to protect contemporary democratic cultures (and, by the way, our environment as well, but that is for another discussion). At the same time, we should not blindly trust the authority of leaders, even if, at first, these leaders seem to fulfill all criteria of democratic leadership. We should keep in mind that time plays a role, and that the maintenance of democratic leadership poses a serious challenge, as leaders are exposed to the seductive capacities of power. That is, of course, the main reason why rotation remains a crucial democratic principle. But I would argue that also collective leadership structures, with leadership teams (without having a primus inter pares) instead of individual leaders, should be considered and implemented more.

And even when these more protective scenarios, driven by a structural distrust in the necessarily benevolent authority of leaders, are implemented, I would still argue that we simultaneously need mechanisms that undermine this authority of leaders. Historically, the jester has shown to be a crucial figure, that could speak truth to power. The carnavelesque is a more structural form of this kind of disruptive practice, which has the capacity to undermine authority, even if it is only for a limited period in time. A more contemporary version is political satire, which again has the capacity to desacralize leadership. Of course, political satire has gained a strong position in the US media sphere, but maybe the not-so-exclusive focus on one particular leader (which we now often find in these late-night talk shows) would be more beneficial, however tempting it is to focus on the current US president. And I would like to add that we need a better comprehension of the current transgressions and the enjoyment they create, but we also need to develop counter-transgressions, that strengthen the democratic tissue, instead of weakening it.

The shift towards a different (democratic) leadership model is part of a broader change towards a more progressive politics. There is, of course, paradoxically, the need for democratic leaders to develop an ideological project that elaborates these more progressive politics, including the identity of democratic leaders. In order to move outside this paradox, we need to broaden the notion of democratic leadership, not restricting it to institutionalized politics, but incorporating and connecting democratic leaders from all social fields. That returns us to Gramsci's concept of hegemony, or the creation of a dominant ideological project through a series of political alliances. This does not imply that all progressive forces need to agree on all issues, or that they need to become assimilated into one impossible meta-project. Instead, we need these forces to generate, in a non-defensive way, what Laclau and Mouffe call a chain of equivalence, with the many different progressive groups collaborating in the development of a new progressive ideology for the 21st century, without denying their internal differences.

But we also need a second, much broader, political alliance, with all democratic political forces, conservative and progressive, to protect the idea of democracy itself. I would argue that this is even more urgent, as anti-democratic forces are gaining strength in the West, and there is a strong need to re-hegemonize democracy. This does not mean that this broad alliance, a democratic front, needs to agree on particular ideological projects. They do not even have to agree on what kind of democracy is preferred. The plan to establish more intense forms of democracy, including participatory democracy, in a variety of fields (including media and communication), does not need to disappear from the progressive agenda. But there is a need for a new democratic social contract, that pledges to actively defend the idea of democracy itself. Now is about the time, I would say.


Henry Jenkins is the Provost's Professor of Communication, Journalism, Cinematic Arts, and Education at the University of Southern California. He is the author or editor of twenty books on various aspects of media and popular culture. He is perhaps best known for Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Culture and Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide. He is celebrating the paperback publication of By Any Media Necessary: The New Youth Activism, of which he is co-author. His forthcoming books include Popular Culture and the Civic Imagination: Case Studies in Creative Social Change (which he co-edited with Sangita Shresthova and Gabriel Peters-Lazaro), Participatory Culture: Interviews, and Comics and Stuff

Nico Carpentier is Docent at Charles University in Prague; he also holds part-time positions at Uppsala University and the Vrije Universiteit Brussel (VUB - Free University of Brussels). Moreover, he is a Research Fellow at the Cyprus University of Technology and Loughborough University. Earlier, he was ECREA Treasurer (2005-2012) and Vice-President (2008-2012), and IAMCR Treasurer (2012-2016). Currently, he is Chair of the Participatory Communication Research Section at IAMCR. His latest books are The Discursive-Material Knot: Cyprus in Conflict and Community Media Participation (2017, Peter Lang, New York); Cyprus and its Conflicts. Representations, Materialities, and Cultures (2018, co-edited), Critical Perspectives on Media, Power and Change (2018, co-edited), Respublika! Experiments in the Performance of Participation and Democracy (2019, edited), and Communication and Discourse Theory (2019, co-edited).

Participatory Politics in an Age of Crisis: Henry Jenkins & Nico Carpentier (Part IV)


Your question here about whether a Lynch Mob would be participatory is a compelling one. Frankly, I am still trying to work through your question to my own satisfaction. Your position gives you a more stable vantage point from which to address this. But if you accept, as I do, that the goal should not to automatically assume that all participation is going to be progressive, if you accept that there is a continuum of different degrees of participation, and if you assume there is a blurry boundary between interaction/expression and participation, then you are left in an uncomfortable position right now.

You are correct that any formal or mechanical notion of participation poses some problems as we deal with right wing populist movements around the world. For example, there is strong evidence that the alt-right is using debates among fans of Star Wars, and other recent franchises (Ghostbusters, say) which have sought to move in more inclusive directions, to identify and recruit angry white male fans into their cause. And my friend, Tara McPherson, is researching Neoconfederate and white supremicist groups and finding that they are similar recruiting from gaming platforms. Fandom and gaming are both spaces I have read as central to what I describe as a more participatory culture. In some ways, these groups, whatever their politics, are helping young people bridge from the expressions associated with participatory culture and involvement in some political process. So, what allows us to discount them as participatory? I know, not your problem to address.

Or consider another example. I am really interested in a media event that occured in Forsyth County, Georgia, which was a so-called “sundown town” -- no Blacks lived there and they were not safe if they remained in the county after dark. (A white supremicist lynch mob had cleared out all of the black residents in the 1920s and as of the 1980s, none had moved back). Civil Rights protestors were directing national attention towards this segregated city and early in her career, Oprah chose to make this issue a focus of her program. She made a controversial decision to only allow people who lived in Forsyth County into the studio audience, much to the outrage of the Civil Rights leaders and protestors who had come in from elsewhere. When the episode aired, we got the spectacle of Oprah as the only black person on the set, dramaticizing more powerfully than anything else could the exclusion of blacks from the county. Inside the studio, the locals engaged in heated debates around the issue of being a white only community.  

Most showed some form of racism but within the terms of the conversation, there were real notable disagreements and these dissenting views were tolerated within the norms of the community. This group would ultimately make the decisions which impacted this policy. (Today, by the way, Forsyth County is a multiracial/multicultural community with demographics that look very much like all of the other counties in this part of Georgia.) Is this process participatory? It cuts to your question of who gets to participate, I think, since by one definition, the members of the community were allowed to participate where-as by another definition, there are visible acts of exclusion going on here. I often use this example to think through the issues we are both raising here.  

Your focus on participatory ethics gives us one path forward, and that’s why it interests me so much. If we develop an ethical definition of participation, then the fact that those who were excluded from membership within this community -- by force in some cases — were not allowed to participate surely limits the quality of participation, even if by a mechanical definition, the event follows participatory procedures and is in fact broadly inclusive within a narrower definition of what constitutes the community. This is why the other distinctions we are both proposing may be helpful.  From my opening post, we have: 

Participation in what?

Participation for whom and with whom?  

Participation towards what ends?

Participation under what terms?  

Participation to what degree? 

From your recent post, we have: 

What makes participation possible?

What is the level of participation?

And what does participation then do?  

There is a certain amount of overlap here, as well as a few nuanced differences. For example, “participation towards what ends?” describes motives while “What does participation then do?” focuses on results. “What is the level of participation?” and “participation to what degree?” are pretty interchangeable, unless I miss a more nuanced distinction. I love the “what makes participation possible?” question since it points to the issue of causation or at least the conditionality of participation, a question I had not included in my list. But it seems possible that the two lists could be merged, which would give us some ways to define different kinds of participation with a high degree of precision, even if I hold onto some messiness for descriptive rather than prescriptive purposes.  

Your question of “What makes participation possible?” suggests ways expression/interaction may enable deeper forms of participation (or may keep participation alive as an ideal even during times of repression). Here, I am thinking about the work of Yomna Elsayed who participated in one of the conversations in the series and also contributed to an earlier exchange about popular religion. She’s interested in mapping the democratic potentials within Egyptian popular/participatory culture following the collapse of the Arab Spring uprisings there. She sees critical voices emerging through anti-fandom, popular music, internet humor, and memes, which may not be overtly political, but do allow young people to form alliances and express oppositional perspectives on the values underlying the current power structure in their country. Within cultural studies, these practices has all the markings of cultural resistance but it has not yet coalesced into a formal political movement and would not meet your definition of participation in that they do not get to collectively participate in decision-making. Yet, if a new resistance movement emerged there, it might build on the foundation that such cultural expressions provide, just as earlier cultural practices (more-so than Twitter or Facebook as specific platforms) helped to foster the preconditions for the Arab Spring. For me, expressions are one of the cultural factors that shape the civic imagination and make participation on a more political level possible. 

Now, can we do similar work in terms of identifying some of the ethical norms essential to create what you describe here as a democratic culture? I’ve focused on not working to exclude others from meaningful participation. A second norm which might seem definitional of a democratic culture is a willingness to accept the outcome of democratically arrived decisions, something we are not seeing much of in America today, where Trump has sought to actively negate every law or policy that Obama passed and refused to enforce or promote those which remain on the books. And we might point to an obligation to defend rather than delegitimize democratic institutions and practices. What else would you add to the mix?


Let me start with the dilemma that your last reply starts with, and that we have been talking about for a while: The limits of participation. It is a very simple question that has been the starting point of my theoretical work: When does participation stop being participation? As you know, I find it hard to accept that every human action is labelled participation. Once that assumption is accepted, then the unavoidable question becomes: Which human interactions are outside participation?

One of the dilemmas that comes out of this simple question is the democratic limit of participation. My argument is that participation is a concept that loses its meaning if it is pushed outside democratic culture. Of course, there are many grey zones, and there, the discussion is famously complicated, but that should not spoil the fun right now. There is one important addition, and that is that we need to distinguish between progressive politics and democracy. It is implicitly present in your last reply, but I want to emphasize this distinction, because I think it is important. As you write, there is now ample evidence that participatory logics can be activated by a wide variety of political ideologies, and that is not the exclusive territory of progressive politics. This, of course, is combined with the realization that civil society is not necessarily progressive, and not even necessarily democratic. Some have proposed the term 'uncivil society' for this, but this idea segregates civil from uncivil society, which is sort of missing the entire point. Even then, it was about time that we got all this documented and made explicit.

But all this to say that I do not want to locate the cut-off point, the point that decides about the limit of participation, with progressive politics, thus excluding democratic-conservative politics from participation. I do think that it is perfectly feasible, and actually for me almost too obvious to mention, that we can combine conservatism and participation. I see democracy as a site of permanent struggle between a wide range of democratic ideologies, and participation has to be part of this, otherwise we would theoretically create one gigantic (progressive) echo chamber. I think that this cut-off point lies elsewhere, for instance when social interactions becomes antagonistic, and an enemy is created, even if the "us" is characterized by the most intense decentralization of power. These scenarios also include symbolic violence, in its many variations, which places, for instance, racism outside democratic culture, exactly because of its violent nature.

Of course, this is my stepping stone to the ethical discussion, but let me wait, and bring out one more complexity, that is also part of our limits-of-participation discussions. Again, this is one of the more troubling sides of defining participation. My argument would be that participation only occurs when (members of) a dis-privileged group becomes privileged through the participatory process. This question was one I was working on with a couple of great teams of Uppsala University students, who, in a wide range of case studies, always got confronted with these dilemmas. They looked at restaurants, churches, and so many other places, and the question that kept on coming back was: Who is part of a dis-privileged group, and who thus gets empowered through the participatory process? In an article with Derya Yüksek, about participatory contact zones and conflict transformation in Cyprus, we analyzed the role of youngsters in a Cypriot bi-communal education-related project, called the Cyprus Friendship Program (CFP). Here, and especially in the theoretical part, we really spelled out that discussions about youth participation need to be grounded in the idea that youngsters have a weaker power position in society, for instance, through the logic of adultism, and thus can become empowered through participatory processes. We can also turn the argument around, as I would never label the decision-making processes of elites participatory, especially when they find themselves in more or less the same power positions. I often use the example of a meeting of media company executives, which I do not consider a participatory process. But, if a union representative would be invited to that very same meeting, it would actually become participatory process (at least in my eyes).

And that brings me to our questions and lists. I think it is fairly easy to integrate both lists, and I agree with how you are approaching this integration (including your emphasis on messiness). But the previous paragraphs also bring me to suggest one more question: Who becomes empowered through the participatory process? Or, in a slightly more complicated language: Which members of a dis-privileged group find their power position strengthened through the participatory process? And if I may go back to my 12-step model for participatory analysis from 2016, I would also suggest these questions: In which context is the participatory process situated? And, maybe more importantly, what are the differences in the sub-processes that together make up a participatory process? The latter is important, I think, because one thing that I have seen in different research projects, is that participatory intensities can be quite high in one room, and much lower in another room, even if it is all about the same house.

These are, of course, analytical questions, but they are important, because there is a need for more reflection about participatory analysis. Still, now that we are talking about questions, I have two more (related) questions, that have been fascinating me: Why does participation matter? And what drives people to keep on engaging in these participatory processes, especially given the power mechanisms, that do not welcome maximalist participation? My curiosity resulted in the decision to edit a special issue for the Portuguese journal Comunicação e Sociedade ("Communication and Society"), together with two Portuguese colleagues (Ana Duarte Melo and Fábio Ribeiro). Related to the Participatory Communication Research (PCR) Section of the International Association for Media and Communication Research (IAMCR), this special issue had as remit to at least offer a few clarifying thoughts on why participation matters. The special issue is expected to come out in 2020, so we'll have to wait for a bit, and there is still a lot of work to be done, in order to figure things out.

And all this finally brings me to the ethical discussion. As I wrote a bit earlier, my starting point is that the ethical is constructed through the struggle between different normative frameworks (that is where Ernesto Laclau's influence on my work kicks in). At this stage, the ethics of selfishness and selectivity seems to be winning, but that is not a reason not to try to champion an alternative normative framework. My first proposal would be that participation is ethical in itself. This might sound obvious, but I think this has not been elaborated sufficiently. Actually, the ethical is problematically absent in contemporary Western political discourse as a whole. That is one more reason why we should explain that the redistribution of power is deeply ethical. Dis-privilege, in all its variations, ranging from the economic exclusion of poverty, over exclusions from public spaces to the exclusions from governing, is simply an unethical phenomenon, because it violates and damages the principle of universal equality.

My second proposal would be to argue that particular characteristics, can, firstly, intensify participation, and can, secondly, prevent that participatory procedures (or what you call the mechanics of participation) become disconnected from the ethical. The ensemble of these characteristics is what I would call participatory ethics. One place to start, slightly unusual for me, I must confess, would be the (normative dimension of the) ideal speech situation (ISS), as developed by Habermas. It is based on (1) the right to gain access, (2) the right to question, (3) the right to propose, and (4) the right not to be coerced. Of course, the critiques on the ISS are/were considerable, but I still very much like the ethical and rights-based dimension of the ISS, as a tool to develop a participatory ethics. But using my own conceptual language, I would also have to say that these norms behind the ISS are mostly related to access and interaction ethics (with the exception of the fourth one, which refers to autonomy).

So there is a need to add more characteristics. I would like to propose three other sets of characteristics, even if these are only snippets of ideas. The second cluster is the acceptance of the hegemony of democracy. Of course, the exact realization of democracy is object of legitimate socio-political conflict, and there should be a radical embrace of diversity, but there is also a need for the acceptance of the idea of democracy to become integrated in this normative framework of participation. A second cluster is related to the respect for democratic procedure and institutions. These are the issues you refer to, ranging from the acceptance of micro-level decisions to the acceptance of democratic institutions. But, and the "but" is important, this respect should not be blind. In this discussion, I believe that there is a lot to learn from the model of delegative democracy, which has the built-in principle to revoke the mandate of representatives, if they stop functioning properly. I think this is an idea that we can use at micro and macro/institutional levels. And finally, there is a need for an ethics of care, which I would translate in a collective care and responsibility for the participatory process itself, and in, secondly, the care of all participants for all participants.


Henry Jenkins is the Provost's Professor of Communication, Journalism, Cinematic Arts, and Education at the University of Southern California. He is the author or editor of twenty books on various aspects of media and popular culture. He is perhaps best known for Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Culture and Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide. He is celebrating the paperback publication of By Any Media Necessary: The New Youth Activism, of which he is co-author. His forthcoming books include Popular Culture and the Civic Imagination: Case Studies in Creative Social Change (which he co-edited with Sangita Shresthova and Gabriel Peters-Lazaro), Participatory Culture: Interviews, and Comics and Stuff

Nico Carpentier is Docent at Charles University in Prague; he also holds part-time positions at Uppsala University and the Vrije Universiteit Brussel (VUB - Free University of Brussels). Moreover, he is a Research Fellow at the Cyprus University of Technology and Loughborough University. Earlier, he was ECREA Treasurer (2005-2012) and Vice-President (2008-2012), and IAMCR Treasurer (2012-2016). Currently, he is Chair of the Participatory Communication Research Section at IAMCR. His latest books are The Discursive-Material Knot: Cyprus in Conflict and Community Media Participation (2017, Peter Lang, New York); Cyprus and its Conflicts. Representations, Materialities, and Cultures (2018, co-edited), Critical Perspectives on Media, Power and Change (2018, co-edited), Respublika! Experiments in the Performance of Participation and Democracy (2019, edited), and Communication and Discourse Theory (2019, co-edited).



Participatory Politics in an Age of Crisis: Henry Jenkins & Nico Carpentier (Part III)


Let me thank you again for your role in shepherding me through the process of receiving my honorary doctorate -- a process literally straight out of Ingmar Bergman’s Wild Strawberries. I should note that I still wear the gold ring given to me in a ritual which “marries” me to my discipline. My wife of 35 plus years has been surprisingly understanding about this arrangement. She said that she has suspected such a relationship for years and is just glad to get it out in the open.

Seriously, as always, I found your remarks provocative and generative. You are right that the series has largely taken the idea of an “era of crisis” at face value. Certainly, as an American, raised with notions of “exceptionalism,” I was thinking about our own crisis in democracy, a term which I do not take as overstated. I certainly have seen many presidents in my lifetime whose positions and policies I found objectionable, but this is the first president who I felt was systematically undercutting the norms and institutions upon which the prospects of democracy in America depend. I came of age politically with Nixon and Watergate, but whatever threat Nixon posed, I always had a sense that the system of checks and balances was working to right things again, including with some degree of bipartisan cooperation. Republicans were willing to call out Nixon but have been much slower to call out Trump. We are seeing institutional politics fail to hold Trump accountable and we are seeing participatory politics struggling from within with the influence of the alt-right.


That said, I share your sense that the crisis we are discussing is a global phenomenon with the rise of authoritarian or authoritarian-leaning leaders in countries around the world. While there is definitely a U.S. bias in the mix of participants in these exchanges, I am also proud that we saw insights here from scholars situated in or at least focused on Latin America, Eastern and Western Europe, Asia, and the Middle East, offering us models of how cultural and political resistance is playing out around the world. And you’ve added several other important examples to the mix with your wide-reaching opening statement.

As always, we arrive at similar points with somewhat different terminology. You want to distinguish between interactions and participations, and we’ve discussed these terminologies before in our earlier exchange. For me, interaction is too close to interactivity, and in my work, I try to draw a distinction between interactive technologies and participatory cultures. I might be prepared to use the term, expressions, for some of what you mean by interactions, but there’s some loss here, since many talk about self-expression and I still want to keep our focus on the social exchange of meaning and the formulation of public opinion, even where expression may be closer to what we mean than participation, especially in the context where both neoliberal discourse and progressive critique of neorealism keeps wanting to pull us back towards individualism and privatization. To me, a central element of participation is that we participate in something larger than ourselves, however we want to imagine what it is we are participating within. At the current moment, participation pulls us towards the idea of networks, communities, collectives, in ways which we can not stress enough. At heart, a discussion about participation is a discussion of the potentials for collective intelligence and collective action. 

Surely part of the issue here is the relationship between expressions/interactions and political participation. This is in part why I started my opening salvo with my reference to Huszar’s distinction between talk-democracy and do-democracy (although I also want to stress that do-democracy depends heavily on the formation of public opinion and above all, the emergence of what you describe in your post as participatory ethics). If cultural and educational interventions, as you suggest later in your post, are important tactics for keeping alive the prospect of democratic participation, then we must have a model which takes us from the exchange of meaning to the formulation of public opinion to the capacity to act on those shared opinions in ways that influence core decision-making processes. Part of what keeps my hope alive even in an era of global crisis is that I am seeing examples where this circuit is being completed.  For example, a group of high school students, impacted by a school shooting, are able to work together to spread the word via networked technologies, form alliances with other young people of diverse backgrounds across the country, mobilize through public rallies, expand their access to mass media, and lobby effectively in order to get more than 200 state and local gun control laws passed in under a year’s time.


This brings us to the paradox you discussed here: “the increasing levels of participation and the decreasing levels of control over the levers of societal power.” At the local level, the #NeverAgain movement has been highly successful, but at the national level, the stranglehold that the National Rifle Society has over Federal gun policy does not seem to be weakened by this movement, even as the organization is ripe with internal conflicts and in the midst of a financial crisis. Here, we see an enormous gap between public opinion which overwhelmingly supports gun control and national policy which resists even the more common sensical efforts to regulate who has access to military grade weapons. 

The concept of the civic as I described it in my opening post depends on shared meanings, norms, identities, and visions and these exchanges are most apt to emerge through what you are describing as interactions on a more casual, informal, and frankly, more local level. These exchanges occur within communities as they start to work together to address common concerns, and to me, this requires identifying and sustaining a sense of civic connections with each other.  In Huszar’s sense, this is “do-democracy,” as democratic values and ethics are embedded the practices of everyday life. Often, at the most local level, when the problems are how we are going to fix potholes or deal with schools that are failing our students, successful working through problems together provides the foundation for mutual trust.  

From my American perspective, it is important to note that these shared civic imaginations have historically often depended on exclusions and marginalizations, a false consensus can arise when the most diverse segments of the population are not invited to the table or worse, held down by the majority of the population. And so, a key question for us right now is how we may build a culture which is both more diverse and more participatory/democratic at the same time. In fact, the right-wing leaders in our country have won power by playing up distrust amongst different segments of the American public and damaging the credibility of institutions, such as the free press or educational institutions,  which have the potential to work towards shared understandings.  

What’s disappointing to me is the ways that the mechanisms which I have long looked towards for the kinds of expressions that might push us towards a more participatory culture are themselves being used to damage the prospect of a more diverse and more democratic culture. This is what I was trying to get at with my talk of “bad participation,” though I take your pushback against this term in the spirit with which you intended it.  

I am trying to come up with a term which acknowledges that expanding the scope of participation will not necessarily result in progressive outcomes. This does not make participation “bad” per se; it does mean that building a more participatory infrastructure will simply create a new space for struggle where different groups fight over resources and opportunities. But that struggle is more apt to achieve satisfactory outcomes  if we are able to establish a shared set of civic commitments, a trust in the infrastructure and institutions required for democratic governance, and the participatory ethics we both are advocating for. For example, a more democratic culture is apt to emerge if there is a shared commitment to the idea that my participation does not emerge at the cost of excluding other groups the right to participate.  These are to me issues which may be addressed best through cultural and educational tactics, rather than confronted head on the level of institutional or participatory politics. 

I would love to know more about where you see a participatory ethics coming from and perhaps what some of its core principles might be.  


That is a very rich reply, Henry. There is a lot to be said about what you wrote. I'll skip the Uppsala confirmation of your marriage-with-academia vows, although it is tempting to go into this. After all, there is a lot to be said about our complex relationship to academia, but that will have to wait.

I want to start with the focus on the USA, which can be found in a lot of the contributions of the Participatory Politics in an Age of Crisis series. First of all, you are completely right, there is no exclusive focus on the USA in the series. For instance, I very much appreciated the conversation between Arely Zimmerman and Andres Lombana about Colombia. And there is another argument: A call for balance should never be interpreted as a call to cease analyzing the USA. There is obviously a lot to learn from the USA, and some of the analyses are simply brilliant in their depth and insightfulness. But at the same time, we should, in particular when discussing the topics that are now on our agenda, be careful not to create nation-based myopias.

I am deeply concerned by the disruptions of democratic culture that we have been seeing, for years now, in the USA, and the disturbing lack of willingness to defend democracy, with so many people, despite the resistance of so many others. But I would like to argue that this problem, the crisis of democracy, is not restricted to the USA, and that this broad analytical span is important. I'm writing these lines right after the EU parliamentary elections, which took place from 23 to 26 May 2018 (Disclaimer: my opening statement was written before the results came out), and the bad taste in my mouth has not disappeared (yet?). In North Belgium, we had the resurrection of the extreme right-wing party Flemish Interest ("Vlaams Belang"), with close to 20% of the votes in the north of the country, making it the second largest party in Belgium. In France, the former Front National, now called National Rally ("Rassemblement National"), received 23% of the votes, more than any other political party in France. And then there is Italy, with the Northern League ("Lega Nord") receiving 34% of the votes, more than 10% more than the Italian social-democrats, who came in second. Even if the story is more complicated in many other countries (for instance, in Greece, “Laïkós Sýndesmos - Chrysí Avgí”, or "Popular Association  Golden Dawn" lost a significant number of votes, probably to another nationalist party, focusing on the (North) Macedonia issue), what we can see is the institutionalization of racism and nationalism in the West. Even if these parties come to power in only a limited number of cases, in some cases they do, but what is more important is that these parties now have strengthened their capacity to disseminate hatred, de-humanizing forms of othering and toxic leadership models, and are contributing to their normalization (which is even worse). What we also should not forget is that these parties gain strength from each other, also across the Atlantic, and actively reinforce their networks at a more global level.


But these problems are even more global, I would argue. We cannot ignore the impact of the Arab spring (and what became of it), the civil war in Syria, the Iraqi wars, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (and a series of other conflicts all over the world) on the Western crisis of democracy. The harm these conflicts did to the populations in these regions is already horrific enough, but these conflicts have also played a role in the destabilization of Western democracies, not necessarily only by the flows of refugees they caused, but also the inability of the West to care and to display hospitality. I think that my argument here, after what almost looks like a long detour, is that we cannot think about resolutions for the Westerns crisis of democracy without incorporating global justice and peace in these reflections.

The defense of democracy, against the onslaught of antagonism, is thus quite a challenge, to use an understatement. The defense of participation is an important part of this, although it is not the only part. Still, what we now need to be careful with, as defenders of the democratic revolution, is the calls to roll-back participation, because they lead to participation becoming perceived as dangerous. There is a bit of irony here, because, at first, participation was celebrated as a way forward in this process of democratization, while I would argue that we mostly got "stuck" into minimalist forms of participation, and structural power imbalances remained unchallenged. And then these minimalist forms of participation are considered dangerous, consciously or unconsciously, supporting the evolution towards more centralized and elite-based societies.

I would add that all this was not helped by the very broad approaches towards participation, where all of a sudden everything became participation. My impression is that whatever (inter)action/expression could be found, it got labelled participation. There is really a need to be much more specific. That's where your question kicks in: In what do we participate? This is, for me, something crucial: Participation is always participation in something. But, predictably, I would add a few other questions (and this comes from the 12-step model of participatory analysis), namely, which actors are involved in the participatory process, what decisions are being made, and how do the disempowered actors gain a stronger power position through this process.

But I would argue that there is also another set of questions, that is equally important. They are three: What makes participation possible? What is the level of participation? And what does participation then do? Or, in slightly different terms: What are the conditions of possibility of participation? What are the participatory intensities of a participatory process? And what are the outcomes of a participatory process? It feels a bit like systems theory, but I think that these three questions are relevant here, because they allow to discriminate between the participatory process and its outcomes. For me, process and outcomes are substantially different, and should be analyzed differently. I do not like to qualify a participatory process as good or bad, but I certainly like to acknowledge that the outcomes of a participatory process can be deeply problematic. Behind this is the idea that the notion of participation is so deeply linked (at least in how I think about participation) with democratic culture that it ceases to exist when we disconnect it from democracy.

In these kinds of discussions, I like radical thought experiments, as they tend to clarify conceptual meaning. And I like to take one sentence from your reply, because it is, I think, an absolutely vital statement: "my participation does not emerge at the cost of excluding other groups the right to participate". But I want to push the argument further with an example (or two). What about the pogrom? Is that a participatory event? What about the lynch mob? Is that participatory? If we look at these horrific social practices, we have to acknowledge that, at the level of collective decision-making, there is actually power-sharing by ordinary people, "taking justice in their own hands". A group of Nazi skinheads that uses an online platform, to collectively plan and implement a murder on a refugee, has the formal (or procedural) characteristics of participation, but I would be very uncomfortable to label it participation. My discomfort is caused by transgression of democratic culture in these examples, which for me, makes it hard to still use the concept of participation.

The alternative way of theorizing this is by including all social practices that redistribute power, even if they are antagonistic, murderous, anti-democratic, and call all of them participation. And then, there is of course the need to distinguish between good and bad participation. But as my previous paragraph indicates, I am not comfortable with the line of argument. I'm curious here, where you stand? How do you deal with these dilemmas, with the issues whether the transgressions or perversions of participation are still participation, or whether they are something else? And what are they then?

And that brings me to the question about participatory ethics, but let me be short here, because that might be something for our next iteration. Still, let me give some basic ideas, which I'll develop further, later on. My starting point on ethics is that the ethical is, like, for instance, freedom, an empty signifier (in the way that Ernesto Laclau uses this concept). This means that the ethical is an absolutely central category in our worlds, but struggled over by diverse normative frameworks, that all want to give it (=the ethical) their own meaning. I think that this is important, as, for instance, in the West, there is an ongoing struggle over the ethical, where different groups argue for an ethics of selfishness. To give you one illustration, the extreme-right in North Belgium uses "Own people first" ("Eigen volk eerst", or, a variation, "Our folks first" ("Eerst onze mensen")) as their key slogan, and I cannot find a better illustration for this ethics of selfishness.

Vlaams Belang "Our folks first" slogan 2019 - Belgium

Vlaams Belang "Our folks first" slogan 2019 - Belgium

This theoretical position has implications for our discussion on participatory ethics, I would say. We need to engage in this struggle over the empty signifier of the ethical, by developing and strengthening a counter-discourse, a different normative framework, that does, in my opinion, two things. First, participation itself needs to be defined as ethical. And second, social interactions and participations need to be embedded in a democratic culture, driven by, among other models, an ethics of care.


Henry Jenkins is the Provost's Professor of Communication, Journalism, Cinematic Arts, and Education at the University of Southern California. He is the author or editor of twenty books on various aspects of media and popular culture. He is perhaps best known for Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Culture and Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide. He is celebrating the paperback publication of By Any Media Necessary: The New Youth Activism, of which he is co-author. His forthcoming books include Popular Culture and the Civic Imagination: Case Studies in Creative Social Change (which he co-edited with Sangita Shresthova and Gabriel Peters-Lazaro), Participatory Culture: Interviews, and Comics and Stuff

Nico Carpentier is Docent at Charles University in Prague; he also holds part-time positions at Uppsala University and the Vrije Universiteit Brussel (VUB - Free University of Brussels). Moreover, he is a Research Fellow at the Cyprus University of Technology and Loughborough University. Earlier, he was ECREA Treasurer (2005-2012) and Vice-President (2008-2012), and IAMCR Treasurer (2012-2016). Currently, he is Chair of the Participatory Communication Research Section at IAMCR. His latest books are The Discursive-Material Knot: Cyprus in Conflict and Community Media Participation (2017, Peter Lang, New York); Cyprus and its Conflicts. Representations, Materialities, and Cultures (2018, co-edited), Critical Perspectives on Media, Power and Change (2018, co-edited), Respublika! Experiments in the Performance of Participation and Democracy (2019, edited), and Communication and Discourse Theory (2019, co-edited).

Participatory Politics in an Age of Crisis: Henry Jenkins & Nico Carpentier (Part II)


It feels like forever since the last discussion on politics and participation, that Henry and I had. I think this has a number of reasons. First, that discussion was published six years ago, as an article in the journal Convergence, which actually is quite some time ago. The plan for this article started even earlier, after a symposium organized by the Institute of Communication Studies and Journalism, at Charles University in Prague, which took place on 18 June 2012. Many things have happened since. One thing I cannot let go unmentioned is that I somehow dragged Henry to the Swedish city of Uppsala, to have him crowned (to specific: with laurels). The pictures of the Uppsala University pomp and circumstance have been rescued from oblivion and are well-worth of any reader’s attention. There is another reason why this last discussion feels so long ago, and that is because I have been totally immersed in my recent move to another city, and to a new full-time position, at the Institute of Communication Studies and Journalism of Charles University (the very same, indeed). So, Henry, when you asked me what I was thinking about these days, the first answer that came to mind was “unpacking boxes”. Luckily, I never lost my good spirits (or my sanity) and none of the 139 boxes were lost, even though some attempted to escape nevertheless.

But there is yet another reason why this discussion from 2012/2013 seems so long ago, and that is because times have changed rapidly. Times always change, of course, but my sense is that we have entered into an era that is qualifiable different from the state of affairs only a decade ago. Something happened in the way we think, and it gives cause to deep concerns. I believe that this ideological shift is captured well by the last part of the title of this conversation series (“Participatory Politics in an Age of Crisis”), which has not been addressed enough in these conversations: Crisis. Even if we might agree that the idea of crisis has reached the West, we should first avoid the all-too-common Western arrogance, and acknowledge that other parts in the world have been in deep crisis. Some managed to handle these crises well, but others remain in crisis, and have been for too long. And maybe the West has its own crises, and failed to see and acknowledge them. Some of my recent work, together with Vaia Doudaki, is on the construction of homeless identities. It shows the impact of the (poverty) crisis that has been with us, in the West, for a very long time. And second, if we want to use the signifier crisis, we might want to specify what this crisis is about, in order to avoid that every little change becomes labeled a crisis. In French, you have this wonderful word, the crisette, to indicate these minor crises that are not really crises. I would argue that keeping a long-term, historical perspective is a very necessary safeguard against overly agitated analyses that label every set-back as a crisis. 

But still, I do think that the use of the signifier ‘crisis’ in the title is appropriate. And I would argue that it is the idea of democracy itself that is in crisis. The crisis of representative democracy has been going on for a while, as Tormey (2015: 149) documents in The End of Representative Politics. It consists out of this idea: 

“The democracy of the representatives has come to be regarded by many as not only a rather pale imitation of the real thing, but a mechanism for preventing ordinary citizens exercising greater control over their own lives.” 

Now, we have reached a point where the crisis of representative democracy has evolved into something bigger, and much more troubling and threatening, and that is the crisis of democracy itself. The many contributors to “Participatory Politics in an Age of Crisis” might not have discussed the notion of crisis that explicitly, but as they are often writing about the USA, there are ample references to the democratic threats posed by the current US regime and the alt-right movement. But I would hate to get stuck into discussing one particular country, and believe that this democratic crisis is pervasive in the West, albeit in always different forms. Using a European perspective, for now, I would like to argue that after the Yugoslav wars (in particular the 1991-1995 phase) there was a strong desire to strengthen European democracy, human rights and peace. This has slowly changed, with the so-called refugee crisis—which I prefer to call a hospitality crisis—as a pivotal dislocation, ‘assisted’ by a series of successful terrorist attacks throughout Europe. This, in combination with a wide variety of other processes and events (think of Russia’s strong-handed return to the international stage, for instance, resulting in the annexation of part of the Ukraine, making it rather easy for the West to invoke an enemy image, even when this is still too easy), has produced strong voices that wish to move outside democracy, and that advocate the establishment of more authoritarian, nationalist and exclusionary regimes. What is even worse, these voices do more than speak: for instance, the Greek Racist Violence Recording Network reported in its annual report, “117 incidents of racist violence, with more than 130 victims” in 2018 in Greece. 

But let us not forget that there are several ‘older’ conflicts that feed into this assemblage of violence. One European example I am familiar with is Cyprus (see The Discursive-Material Knot: Cyprus in Conflict and Community Media Participation and Cyprus and its Conflicts: Representations, Materialities, and Cultures). Without going too much into detail, Cyprus is still a divided island, after decades of violent conflict, with the independence war against the British colonizer (1955-59), which also included violence between Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots, with the intra-communal violence of the 1960s after independence, with the 1974 coup, instigated by Greece, followed by a Turkish military invasion and the segregation of the island’s population, with mass displacement as a consequence. Currently, the Republic of Cyprus, which is the legally recognized state power in Cyprus and a member-state of the European Union, finds itself in an uneasy state of de facto power-sharing with the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, which is only recognized by Turkey. Despite an almost endless series of peace negotiations, the deadlock continues, with the island split in two parts, by an UN-controlled militarized/demilitarized buffer zone. Even if this conflict is a low-intensity conflict, and its details are not very well known, it remains a highly disruptive force on the island and in Europe, with the tensions with Turkey rising again because of the disputes over the Aphrodite gas field off the southern coast of Cyprus. 

These conflicts, and the threats to democracy they pose, coincide with the grown levels of participation in a variety of societal fields. Allow me to recycle here two paragraphs from an earlier publication, the foreword of Networks, Movements and Technopolitics in Latin America, where I argued that we are living in the era of the both, a contemporary political configuration which is characterized by the increasing levels of participation and the decreasing levels of control over the levers of societal power. Often, this paradox is mediated and “solved” through a defense (or a critique) of either utopian or dystopian perspectives, where this dys/utopianism is sometimes related to communication technologies, or in other cases to citizen or civil society powers, or to state or company powers. I believe we need to treat this paradox much more as a paradox, as a seemingly contradictory statement. We need to take both components of the paradox serious, acknowledge that there is a history of coexistence combined with a present-day intensification of power imbalances, and scrutinize how they dynamically and contingently relate to each other. In other words, we need to gain a better understanding of how we now live in the era of the both.  

If we apply a Longue Durée approach (Braudel, 1969) to the establishment and growth of democracy, we can hardly deny that we have come a long way. Of course, the history of our diverse democratization processes is characterized by continuities and discontinuities, dead-ends, contradictions, and horrible regressions. But what Mouffe (2000: 1–2) called the “democratic revolution” “led to the disappearance of a power that was embodied in the person of the prince and tied to a transcendental authority. A new kind of institution of the social was hereby inaugurated in which power became ‘an empty place’.” Even if we zoom in on the twentieth and twenty-first century, it is hard not to see the differences with the past. It is equally hard to ignore that the history of more than 200 years of democratic revolution has brought us more participation, in a variety of ways and levels. 

And this finally brings me to participation. I would see participation, defined as the redistribution of power (see my Beyond the Ladder of Participation article for more), as the exact location of that democratic revolution, where participatory intensities increased within the institutional political system (the deepening of participation in politics) and where they increased in many other social realms (the broadening of participation, moving outside politics). I would argue that this process has been one of the most significant processes in the past centuries, and key to our societal happiness and well-being. I tend to see this, as you mention in your opening statement, as an unfinished project, with ample opportunities to further decentralize power relations, which serves our deeply rooted desire for power. Not in the negative Nietzschean way, but as a deeply rooted desire to be empowered, to gain control over our everyday lives, and to be protected from the power abuse that absolute power brings about. (We should keep John Emerich Edward Dalberg’s words in mind: “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men, even when they exercise influence and not authority.”) I also see maximalist participation as an unfinishable project, as a utopia that can never be achieved, as new power imbalances will arise and disrupt the power equilibrium of maximalist participation. Participation is object of a permanent political struggle, and as I think that it is unlikely for elitist forces to disappear, the radical realization of maximalist participation is inherently unstable. But thirdly, I think that participation could also be finished. It could come to an end. Democracy, as a political and social practice, is not a given, but could cease to exist. It is always under threat, and its disappearance might also imply the end of participatory practices. This is why participation and democracy need to be actively protected, and not just silently appreciated and considered to be a given. 

To give one example from the city I have just moved to: Have a look at the struggles of the Plastic People of the Universe, the alternative rock band that was active during the times of communist Czechoslovakia, and see what damage the oppressive state machinery did to it. We can celebrate their courage, and rightfully so, and we can acknowledge how important their prosecution was to rally the dissident movement into action (producing Charta 77). But maybe we could prevent landing into this kind of un-participatory mess again, avoiding a political system that necessitates this kind of resistance in the first place. Or, to give another example, with which I open my Media and Participation book and that has always deeply touched me: During the Nazi occupation of Bohemia and Moravia, the garrison town of Theresienstadt (or Terezín in Czech) had been transformed into a concentration camp that became “home” to more than 50,000 Jewish people, awaiting their deportation to the Auschwitz extermination camp. A group of young boys, housed in Barracks L417 (or Home One) started, in secret, to produce a newspaper, Vedem (“We lead”). The remarkable collection of essays, reviews, stories, drawings and poetry, written by the 13-, 14- and 15-year-old boys in Home One, were preserved and are now in the collections of the Memorial of Terezín. Only 15, out of the 100 or so occupants of Home One, survived the war. Vedem’s editor-in-chief, Petr Ginz, was murdered in Auschwitz in 1944. One can only admire that their resilience in the face of this extreme violence, but at the same time we should hope that their resistance will never be necessary again, and their tragic destiny can be avoided for the generations to come.  

The current political reconfiguration is also an explicit attack on the more intense forms of participation. Populist projects are built, I would argue, on the core idea that the old establishment is betraying the people, and needs to be replaced by a new elite, that truly represents the people. The latter is an ideological construction that is impossible to realize, given the heterogeneity of the social and the diversity of the people. This is the Lie of populism. That, in itself, is already problematic enough, but many (although not all) populist projects articulate the elite as an authoritarian elite, advocating leadership models that are non-democratic. Participatory politics has no place in these models, as the authoritarian elite sees itself as the ultimate representative of the people, where the latter no longer has to speak for itself. We might want to keep in mind that democracy is the (always different) balance of the people’s exercise of power (participation) and the delegation of power (representation); Authoritarianism is the radicalization of the delegation of power, and the elimination of participation. 

But there are more threats to participation, as participation is becoming more and more problematized. I tend to see participation not as a problem, but as a solution, even though there are particular pre-conditions that have to be met (see below) for participation to be able to play this role. There is an ongoing tendency to problematize participation, focusing on (the) dark (side) of participation, or on bad participation. This might be one of the things to discuss further, but I am not too convinced that the best thing to do is to create dichotomies between good and bad participation (there is a long tradition of doing this in participatory theory, which I think is problematic), or to label destructive interactions “participatory”, while I would argue that these are interactions, not participations (even if the latter is not very grammatically correct, I must confess). My starting point would be the broader question: “Can democracy be bad?” I definitely agree that democracy can be weak, an argument nicely made by Barber (1984) in his Strong Democracy. Participatory Politics for a New Age, and many others. But can it really be bad? And that brings me to the question whether participation can be bad? Or is it more a matter of participation being weak or strong, or, in my terms, minimalist or maximalist? Of course, the preference for minimalist or maximalist participation is an ideological-normative matter, just as the preference for weak or strong democracy is one. But that’s not the question. Are we not defending the hegemony of democracy, and thus the hegemony of participation as a democratic principle, which also implies that we do not wish to contest the principles of democracy and participation, even though their exact realizations and materializations are still object of democratic struggle? I could undust the distinction I make between interaction and participation, where I would argue that interaction is the establishment of socio-communicative relationships, and participation is the equalization of power relations in formal or informal decision-making moments. This matters at the normative level too, because I would argue that interactions can be “bad”, or ethically problematic. Murder is a form of social interaction, and deeply problematic. But this is where the difference between interaction and participation plays out (and the usefulness of this distinction becomes apparent), because I would argue that participation, or the decentralization of power relations, cannot be “bad”. 

I need to further problematize the previous statement, because there are preconditions attached to this position. This line of reasoning only works when a substantive definition of participation is used, and not a procedural definition. In democratic theory, this distinction is crucial. Procedural democracy restricts democracy to the “rule-centered and outcome-centered conceptions of democracy” (Shapiro, 1996: 123). In procedural democracy, an outcome is “[…] acceptable as long as the relevant procedure generates it,” while in the case of substantive democracy, a “[…] [re]distributive outcome or state of affairs (equality, lack of certain types or degrees of inequality, or some other) […]” (Shapiro, 1996: 123) is defined, which is then used to evaluate the results of the decision rules. My argument would be that this distinction also applies directly to participation, where substantive participation then refers to how the outcomes of the participatory process relate to power imbalances beyond the participatory process, and other societal groups. Or, in other terms, for participation to be participation, it needs to be embedded into a participatory-democratic ethics. Of course, this necessary articulation of participation might not be taken for granted in social practice, but I would still like to argue that conceptually, for participation to be participation, it needs to be embedded into a democratic ethics. I do not have this conceptual requirement for the much broader concept of interaction, but I would see this requirement as a necessary component of participation. Yet, again there is a need to defend and strengthen participatory ethics, as part of the project of defending democracy in itself. And that is supported by (the need for) an ethics of interaction, which together come close that what you have labeled civic imagination. 

This brings me to the questions of strategy. I have, quite carefully, looked at the many contributions to the “Participatory Politics in an Age of Crisis” conversation series, because they offer a variety of strategies to strengthen democracy, and protect it. Without aiming to be exhaustive, because the conversations were very rich, there are a few examples that I want to mention. First, we, as teachers have a role to play. Gabriel Peters-Lazaro mentions in his conversation with Winifred R. Poster, the New Media for Social Change course he has been teaching with Sangita Shresthova, which I think is a crucial model for strengthening participation and democracy through the educational system. In the conversation between Kevin Driscoll and Pablo Martínez-Zárate, the latter also argues for a radical pedagogy, which I would like to support.  

But, when he writes about his work with “documentary and experimental art”, Pablo’s comments open up a second field that can contribute to the defense of democracy, which is the arts. The arts, with its reflective and critical components, has the capacity to strengthen democracy. Sometimes it is a matter of holding up a mirror, and showing, for instance, the horrible cost of exclusion and inequality. One example comes to mind, and that is Barca Nostra (“Our ship”), which is also a reference to “Mare Nostrum”, a Roman name for the Mediterranean Sea), created by the Swiss-Icelandic artist Christoph Büchel for the Venice Biennale. The art work consists out of the wreckage of the fishing boat that sank on 18 April 2015, close to the Libyan coast, after a collision with a ship that tried to rescue the fishing boat’s passengers. Around 800 people, trapped inside the fishing boat, drowned.  

In other cases, art can not only thematize democracy and its values, but it can actively intervene in the organization of (maximalist) participatory practices. One example here is the Respublika! exhibition Participation Matters, which I curated. Its catalogue, entitled Respublika! Experiments in the Performance of Participation and Democracy gives an overview of the fascinating variety of art projects, that reflected about participation and democracy, organized participation and democracy, or did both, as a modest attempt to contribute to the strengthening of Cypriot democracy. 

And, of course, as the conversations in the “Participatory Politics in an Age of Crisis” series show in great detail, popular culture also the capacity to strengthen democracy and participation (even if there are no guarantees). Without wanting to go into great depth in the analyses of this field—the many authors in the conversation series do this with much more knowledge and eloquence—there is one example I like to add, also because it reiterates the argument in the Rox Samer and Raffi Sarkissian conversation that humor and parody matters, and it brings in counter-culture. For instance, as the example of the 2019 Eurovision Song Festival in Tel Aviv (Israel) shows, parody can be used when dealing with militarist and oppressive states. The Icelandic group Hatari, who performed the song Hatrið mun sigra (“Hate will prevail”) at the Festival, not only held up Palestinian flags at the very last stage of the broadcast, but also turned their entire presence (and not just their 3-minute performance) at the Festival into a situationist intervention, which was, I must confess, most entertaining to watch. The confrontation of their counter-cultural codes (combining EBM and BDSM—Electronic Body Music and Bondage/Discipline/Dominance/Submission/Sadism/Masochism) with a cultural event that is very much organized through/for dominant mainstream culture, produced an absurd deconstruction of Israel’s deployment of the Festival to strengthen its international legitimacy and to further render its militarist and oppressive characteristics further invisible, but also of the Festival’s deep capitalist structure.

Finally, in this last paragraph I want to return to what the intellectual field can do, and to Kevin Driscoll’s wise words, in the conversation with Pablo Martínez-Zárate, when the former wrote: “to thrive in the long term, we need a shared vision of the future marked by accountability and justice.” I would argue (and I have argued, in an article entitled A Call to Arms) that is a strong need to develop a new imaginary that is democratic, participatory, just, and peaceful, and that intellectuals have a crucial responsibility in this endeavor. Possibly, we cannot do this on an individual basis, and this needs to be a collective and modular project, but there is a strong need for a long-term approach, which is global and transgenerational, and which can act as a counter-weight for the permanent attacks on the heart of democracy. We have work to do.


Barber, Benjamin (1984) Strong Democracy. Participatory Politics for a New Age. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Braudel, Fernand. (1969). Écrits sur l’Histoire. Paris: Flammarion.

Carpentier, Nico (2014) A call to arms. An essay on the role of the intellectual and the need for producing new imaginaries, Javnost – The Public, 21(3): 77-92.

Carpentier, Nico (2018) Foreword - The Era of the Both, in Francisco Sierra Caballero and Tommaso Gravante (eds.) Networks, Movements and Technopolitics in Latin America. Critical Analysis and Current Challenges, New York: Palgrave Macmillan, pp. v-xii.

Jenkins, Henry, Carpentier, Nico (2013) Theorizing participatory intensities: A conversation about participation and politics, Convergence, 19(3): 265-286.

Mouffe, Chantal. (2000). The Democratic Paradox. London: Verso.

Shapiro, Ian (1996) Democracy’s Place. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Tormey, Simon (2015) The End of Representative Politics. Cambridge: Polity.


Nico Carpentier is Docent at Charles University in Prague; he also holds  part-time positions at Uppsala University and the Vrije Universiteit Brussel (VUB - Free University of Brussels). Moreover, he is a Research Fellow at the Cyprus University of Technology and Loughborough University. Earlier, he was ECREA Treasurer (2005-2012) and Vice-President (2008-2012), and IAMCR Treasurer (2012-2016). Currently, he is Chair of the Participatory Communication Research Section at IAMCR. His latest books are The Discursive-Material Knot: Cyprus in Conflict and Community Media Participation (2017, Peter Lang, New York); Cyprus and its Conflicts. Representations, Materialities, and Cultures 
(2018, co-edited), Critical Perspectives on Media, Power and Change (2018, co-edited), Respublika! Experiments in the Performance of Participation and Democracy (2019, edited), and Communication and Discourse Theory (2019, co-edited).



Participatory Politics in an Age of Crisis: Henry Jenkins & Nico Carpentier (Part I)



We launched this conversation about “Participatory Politics in an Age of Crisis”,  in part, as a way of celebrating our own decade long conversations around these issues within the Civic Paths research group and the Youth and Participatory Politics Network. In particular, I wanted to direct attention to the paperback publication of our book, By Any Media Necessary: The New Youth Activism. But, clearly, the topic struck a responsive chord, allowing us to bring together participants who wanted to share their own insights about the ways debates on participatory politics are playing out in many different national contexts and across multiple disciplines. And the series has brought forward a range of literature that might speak to these issues.

In my opening remarks for what is the closing exchange in this series, I want to share some of my own current thinking about the issues the political moment in the United States raises for our understanding of the potentials of participatory politics. I am delighted to have as my conversant, Nico Carpentier, with whom I had another generative exchange some years ago.  

This fall, when I was at the U.S. Library of Congress, I stumbled onto a largely forgotten book, George Huszar’s Practical Implications of Democracy (1945). Today, our popular memories see the 1940s as a golden age for civic engagement in America. The Second World War brought the United States together around a common cause -- to overcome fascism, to make the world safe for democracy -- and returning home, the “Greatest Generation” sought to build a stronger, more affluent, more forward-thinking country. These were the “good old days” in many of today’s narratives of civic decline. But, writing in the post-war period,  political scientist George B. Huszar, worried that the nation might soon experience the kind of “disintegration” of democratic culture which enabled the rise of dictators in Europe and Japan. And this was because democracy had become a thing of words rather than actions. Huszar writes, “Democracy is something you do; not something you talk about. It is more than a form of government, or an attitude or opinion. It is participation.”  (xiii)

Huszar made a core distinction between “talk-democracy” and “do-democracy,” arguing that democracy should be embedded into the practices of everyday life. Talk-Democracy, he suggests, is often top-down, as people consent to being governed by people who are all too ready to tell us what to do.  But, “Do-Democracy” emerges from “creative participation by intelligent human beings in the ongoing process of society.” He concluded “The problem of democracy is not merely how to obtain consent, but also, how to create opportunities for participation and a determination to participate.” (13) His goal was to create “warm, personal, satisfying human relationships that develop when men join together in groups” that are empowered to take meaningful action on decisions that directly impact their lives (17).

Looking backwards, scholars of civic engagement, such as Robert Putnam (2000), point to the bowling leagues, garden clubs, Parent-Teacher Associations, and other civic organizations as helping to foster a sense of neighborliness and meaningful participation during this post-war era which they argue has been lost in more recent years. Huszar  embraces similar groups, particularly those like the PTA which work together to solve shared problems: “The problem-centered-group is democratic in structure; it leads to the preservation of the integrity of the individual, nourishes his productive powers, and encourages participation. This structure is flexible, informal, stimulating and creative, with participant leadership. In contrast, the authoritarian social structure is rigid, formal, regimented, hierarchical, noncreative, and frustrating to the individual, with ‘leadership’ from the top down.” (26) Though largely forgotten today, Huszar’s concepts of “talk-democracy” and “do-democracy” have enormous relevance for our own time, where many are similarly worried about the disintegration of core democratic institutions and practices, the breakdown of civic ties within local communities, and a decline in our sense that there is any common ground to be identified amidst the sharp ideological divides between the country’s two competing political parties.  

To be clear, Huszar’s “problem-centered groups” can only move forward with a great deal of talking, exchanging ideas, identifying shared values, swapping stories, forging shared vocabularies, proposing solutions, and debating the merits of different plans.  But, he sees such talk as emerging among equals who understand themselves as empowered to participate, who are encouraged to contribute, and who have some expectation that their ideas will be respected by the others in their community.  In a community with strong civic engagement, these problem-centered discussions may spill over into their everyday interactions -- at the barbers, at the hairdressing salon, at the grocery store, at the bowling alley, in the taxi cab, at the coffee shop and tavern (to cite classic examples of civic spaces). Through such exchanges, we accumulate social capital and learn to respect each other as vital members of a shared community. Contemporary  political theorist Peter Dahlgren (2009) makes a similar point: “The looseness, open-endedness of everyday talk, its creativity, its potential for empathy and affective elements, are indispensable resources and preconditions for the vitality of democratic politics.” (90)  

His idea that civic dialogues paves the way for democratic politics is only partially true. Core distinctions between civics and politics often get elided. The civic represents the shared beliefs and values, the underlying trust, which makes collective action possible, while the political encapsulates struggles over power within the decision-making process. In a well functioning civic culture, people may disagree, fight hard for what they believe in, and then accept each other back as neighbors, because there is a core democratic infrastructure which allows us to resolve conflicts and agree to disagree so that we may continue to live side by side within a particular community. Sociologist Nina Eliasoph (1998) describes the ways we increasingly avoid politics as a topic in our everyday conversations with people we care about, fearing that political disagreements have become too divisive and that the heated disagreements may fray social ties in the absence of shared civic commitments. Because we lack such mutual understandings, the community fails to come back together again, wounds do not heal, in the wake of elections and other political events. Rather than developing the basis for a shared understandings, we end up locked in a permanent culture war. Here, the political destroys the exchanges which enable the civic to persist and it is in that sense that talk-democracy may ultimately result in a loss of civic agency. Right now, around the world, democracy needs our help. 

I never bought the idea that shifts in the technological infrastructure would, in and of themselves, lead in some inevitable way to a more democratic culture. For me, it has always been about how we use these communication capacities to enhance our civic and political lives. Technology offers us a set of resources and a new opportunity to renew struggles over who can speak, who can be heard, and what voices have impact on our everyday decision-making processes. Every day, I see new reasons for optimism about the potentials of participatory politics -- the ways the Parkland kids have had at shifting the ground around the gun control debate, a topic I recently wrote about with my PhD student Rogelio Lopez for The Brown Journal of World Affairs) or  the ways that Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC) has revitalized our political rhetoric (about which I will say more later) and everyday, I see more reasons to be worried about the state of the civic culture in my country -- as the practices or rhetoric of participatory politics are being deployed in destructive, anti-social, reactionary and even fascistic manners. I have never claimed that participation would always yield progressive results but my own optimism is more and more challenged by the prospect that we have expanded opportunities for grassroots participation without expanding or at least preserving civic norms and ethics. I had always assumed there would be a transitional period as access to the means of media production and circulation expanded and people figured out how to use those opportunities towards their own ends. I had supposed that a set of shared norms and ethical commitments would emerge as various subcommunities and subcultures experimented with alternative means of resolving conflicts and working towards shared goals. I had hoped that the expansion of voices would be included into a more diverse public sphere. So, how do we strengthen our shared understanding of the civic? 

My own current research initiatives have centered around the concept of the civic imagination, looking at the ways shared cultural resources and the intersubjective sharing of our aspirations, values, hopes, and dreams, may contribute to the creation and sustaining of shared civic norms. By civic imagination, I mean the stories we tell ourselves about our past, present, and future, as we seek to address some core functions of a democratic culture. We need to use our shared imaginations in order to: 

●     Describe what a better world might look like and thus define our goals for social change 

●     Recognize ourselves as civic agents capable of helping to change the world 

●     Identifying how we relate to a community of others who share common needs and interests and feeling solidarity with those whose experiences and perspectives differ from our own 

●     Developing models of social change that can shape our plans of action 

●     Sustaining (in the case of the most marginalized or oppressed groups) a struggle for respect, dignitiy, freedom, equality, before we have experienced them directly. 

My research team has generated two upcoming books which encourage deeper reflection around the concept of the civic imagination: Popular Culture and the Civic Imagination: Case Studies of Creative Social Change and Practicing Futures: A Civic Imagination Action Handbook. Our interest in the Civic Imagination started with By Any Media Necessary when we described the frustration expressed by many young activists who felt that the vernacular of American politics was failing their generation, not offering access to first time voters who were not already inside the political process, devolving into off-putting displays of partisanship at the expense of the shared public good, and dampening and dulling the civic imagination. We found that many of these young activists were drawn to cultural and educational mechanisms for social change and that many of them sought new vernaculars of political speech which drew upon popular culture. 

If AOC did not exist, we would probably have to invent her, since she so fully embodies the new kinds of political leadership required to speak to this new generation of citizens and activists. She has directly addressed the concept of the civic imagination in a recent tweet:

 As I travel across America, I often hear youth excitement about AOC. She seems to be offering new genres and vernaculars of political speech and new models of civic participation.

Consider, for example, this video where AOC joins up with Elizabeth Warren to discuss the ending of Game of Thrones and in the process, to call attention to the ways popular media narratives might provide an opening for discussions of popular feminism and misogyny. Political leaders of previous generation often only discuss popular culture within a cultural war frame  which sees cult media content as causing social problems rather than as offering a space where people can reflect on gender or racial equality. Here, AOC and Warren position themselves as fellow fans of a cult media franchise, seeing themselves as within and not outside or above popular culture, and this helps foster shared identities with their young supporters. Here, AOC is also lending her credibility to another female politician, who has sometimes  been perceived as a bit cold and policy wonky.

AOC frequently draws on the vernacular of popular culture to frame her policies, for example, borrowing metaphors from game shows in order to stage a public hearing concerned with campaign finance reform.

We might understand the underlying logic of the Green New Deal, of which AOC has been a major advocate, as similar to that of speculative fiction: much as Stephen Duncombe has described earlier utopian writing as providing a provocation for critical reflection, the Green New Deal is an aspirational framework meant to start discussion around how we take more decisive action in order to address climate exchange. The particulars of the framework are less important, the details have not yet been fully hammered out, but the mere existence of a document which dares to dream differently, which asks us to imagine what another path forward might look like, pulls us away from complacency and towards efforts to address these long-standing and deepening problems in our environment.

Almost every day, AOC generates a new video  which she hopes will become compelling content for her supporters to actively circulate through their social media networks. Here we see a segment of a congressional hearing where she seeks to educate the public about the differences between nonracism and antiracism and the consequences of white privilege.

Here, she creates her own dance video to thumb her nose at her conservative critics.

These acts of circulation strengthen and expand her network of support, and they encourage her followers to continuously monitor political developments and take rapid low-demand, high-impact action to address urgent problems.  Often, when I write about participatory politics, I am considering grassroots, bottom-up, models, yet AOC offers us an example of what participatory leadership looks like, how political figures can use their exposure and their power to foster a more participatory model of political life. No wonder she speaks so powerfully to younger Americans of diverse backgrounds. She seems to embody so much of what we learned in researching By Any Media Necessary.

All of this leads me to a question that has been hovering around the edges of our two month long collective conversation -- Is there such a thing as “bad participation? Nico Carpentier’s model offers one answer, as I understand it: he sets a high bar for what counts as participation, which remains an ideal rather than a fully achieved reality. Participation requires an equal distribution of decision-making power amongst all participants. My own work seeks to describe opportunities for participation across different institutions, communities, practices, infrastructures, as we transition towards, struggle for, negotiate around the hopes for a more participatory culture. Participation in Nico’s sense is something we imperfectly achieve at best. Mine speaks of varying degrees of participation. Indeed, I recently suggested an approach that asks of any given instance the following: 

Participation in what? How do the participants understand their own participation -- as part of a public, a market, an audience, a fandom, etc.? To what degree do they identify as part of a community or network which is larger than the individual? This focus on collective life sets a theory of participatory culture at odds with many critical accounts of neoliberalism which emphasize more individualized and privatized conceptions of public life. 

Participation for whom and with whom?   Who is included and who is excluded? What mechanisms of exclusion and marginalization persist despite the increased opportunities for participation? 

Participation towards what ends? What are our participatory activities trying to build? What do we hope to achieve in working together? 

Participation under what terms?  What constraints are imposed by the technological, economic, political, and legal  systems within which we operate? 

Participation to what degree? --  What are the limits on the power that comes from a more participatory culture? 

How we address these questions helps us to map the continuum of different degrees and kinds of participation. And it invites us to consider how these different forms of participation impact each other. Participation for some groups may come at the expense of others. Participation may even have as its goals banding together to restrict or disrupt the participation of others. Here, we might think about the kinds of troll groups that Whitney Phillips has documented or the ways that Russian hackers have sought to build on cultural divides in American culture or for that matter, the way some alt-right groups have hoped to insure the festering of these cultural divides in order to identify and recruit disaffected/angry white guys to rally behind their cause. 

Building on this framework, a simple response would be to say that bad participation comes at the expense of others, that bad participation seeks to deny others dignity and the right to have a meaningful voice in the decisions that impact their lives. Bad participation seeks to shut down participation rather than to advance it. Such a definition starts from a free speech imperative -- the best way to deal with bad speech is through more speech. It does not address the desire for safe spaces, necessarily, where it may be important to expel or punish some agents in order to create a zone where others feel free to speak and maintain hope that their contributions will be appropriately valued. Are there circumstances where excluding some bad actors from participation is the best or only way to insure more equitable participation for everyone else? 

Nico, what are you thinking about these days?


Henry Jenkins is the Provost's Professor of Communication, Journalism, Cinematic Arts, and Education at the University of Southern California. He is the author or editor of twenty books on various aspects of media and popular culture. He is perhaps best known for Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Culture and Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide. He is celebrating the paperback publication of By Any Media Necessary: The New Youth Activism, of which he is co-author. His forthcoming books include Popular Culture and the Civic Imagination: Case Studies in Creative Social Change (which he co-edited with Sangita Shresthova and Gabriel Peters-Lazaro), Participatory Culture: Interviews, and Comics and Stuff