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

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


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


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

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



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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

I have to be honest that the concept of meme is one which sets my teeth on edge. Sam Ford, Joshua Green and I spent a fair chunk of time in our book, Spreadable Media: Creating Meaning and Value in a Networked Culture, seeking to deconstruct the concept of "viral media" which has become such a common metaphor for thinking about how things circulate in digital culture, and along the way, we side-swipe Richard Dawkins' conception of the meme for many of the same reasons. Sorry, Mr. Dawkins, but I don't buy the concept of culture as "self-replicating": such a concepts feels far too deterministic to me, stripping aside the role of agency at a time when the public is exerting much greater control of the content which spreads across the culture than ever before. So, when I first met Limor Shifman at a conference held last summer by the London School of Economics, she knew I would be a hard sell in terms of the ideas being presented in her new MIT Press book, Memes in Digital Culture, but by the time our first conversation was over, she had largely disarmed my objections. She's done her homework, reviewing previous claims which have been made about memes, and reframing the concept to better reflect the practices that have fascinated many of us about how contemporary digital culture operates.

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

A Whale Of A Tale!: Ricardo Pitts-Wiley Brings Mixed Magic to LA

Last February, I announced here the release of Reading in a Participatory Culture, a print book, and Flows of Reading, a d-book extension, both focused around work my teams (first at MIT and then at USC) have done exploring how we might help educators and students learn about literary works through actively remixing them. Our central case study has been the work of playwright-actor-educator Ricardo Pitts-Wiley from the Mixed Magic Theater, who was successful at getting incarcerated youth to read and engage with Herman Melville's Moby-Dick by having them re-imagine and re-write it for the 21st century. You can read more about this project here. And you can check out the Flows of Reading d-book for free here. 
If you live in Los Angeles, you have a chance to learn more about Pitts-Wiley and his work first hand. I've been able to bring Ricardo for a residency at USC this fall, which will start with a public event at the Los Angeles Public Library on September 26. Ricardo is going to be recruiting a mixed race cast of high school and college aged actors from across the Los Angeles area and producing a staged reading of his play, Moby-Dick: Then and Now, which will be performed as part of a USC Visions and Voices event on Oct. 11th. You can get full details of both events below. I hope to see some of you there. We are already hearing from all kinds of artists here in Southern California who have sought creative inspiration from Melville's novel and used it as a springboard for their own work. But you don't have to love the great white whale to benefit from our approach to teaching traditional literary works in a digital culture, and we encourage teachers and educators of all kinds to explore how they might apply our model to thinking about many other cultural texts.
For those who live on the East Coast, our team will also be speaking and doing workshops at the National Writing Project's national conference in Boston on Nov. 21.
Thursday, September 26, 2013 7:15 PM
Mark Taper Auditorium-Central Library
Thu, Sep 26, 7:15 PM [ALOUD]
Remixing Moby Dick: Media Studies Meets the Great White Whale 
Henry Jenkins, Wyn Kelley, and Ricardo Pitts-Wiley

Over a multi-year collaboration, playwright and director Ricardo Pitts-Wiley, Melville scholar Wyn Kelley, and media expert Henry Jenkins have developed a new approach for teaching Moby-Dick in the age of YouTube and hip-hop. They will explore how "learning through remixing" can speak to contemporary youth, why Melville might be understood as the master mash-up artist of the 19th century, and what might have happened if Captain Ahab had been a 21st century gang leader.

* Part of the Library Foundation of Los Angeles and Los Angeles Public Library’s month-long citywide initiative "What Ever Happened to Moby Dick?"


Henry Jenkins is Provost's Professor of Communication, Journalism, and Cinematic Arts at the University of Southern California. He has written and edited more than fifteen books on media and popular culture, including Spreadable Media: Creating Meaning and Value in a Networked Culture with Sam Ford and Joshua Green. His other published works reflect the wide range of his research interests, touching on democracy and new media, the “wow factor” of popular culture, science-fiction fan communities, and the early history of film comedy. His most recent book, Reading in a Participatory Culture: Remixing Moby-Dick for the Literature Classroom was written with Wyn Kelley, Katie Clinton, Jenna McWilliams, Erin Reilly, and Ricardo Pitts-Wiley.

Wyn Kelley teaches in the Literature Section at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and is author of Melville's City: Literary and Urban Form in Nineteenth-Century New York and of Herman Melville: An Introduction. She also co-author Reading in a Participatory Culture: Re-Mixing Moby-Dick in the English Classroom with Henry Jenkins and Ricardo Pitts-Wiley. She is former Associate Editor of the Melville Society journal Leviathan, and editor of the Blackwell Companion to Herman Melville. A founding member of the Melville Society Cultural Project, she has collaborated with the New Bedford Whaling Museum on lecture series, conferences, exhibits, and a scholarly archive. She serves as Associate Director ofMEL (Melville Electronic Library), an NEH-supported interactive digital archive for reading, editing, and visualizing Melville’s texts.

Ricardo Pitts-Wiley is the co-founder of the Mixed Magic Theatre, a non-profit arts organization dedicated to presenting a diversity of cultural and ethnic images and ideas on the stage. While serving as Mixed Magic Theatre’s director, Pitts-Wiley gained national and international acclaim for his page-to-stage adaptation of Moby Dick, titled Moby Dick: Then and Now. This production, which was presented at the Kennedy Center for the Arts in Washington, DC, is the centerpiece of a national teachers study guide and is featured in the book, Reading in A Participatory Culture. In addition to his work as an adapter of classic literature Pitts-Wiley is also the composer of over 150 songs and the author of 12 plays with music including:Waiting for Bessie SmithCelebrations: An African Odyssey, andThe Spirit Warrior’s Dream.

Is This the End of Television As We Know It?

The Future of Television- Annenberg Innovation Lab Summit from Annenberg Innovation Lab on Vimeo.

This video captures a really extraordinary and timely conversation that was recently hosted by the Annenberg Innovation Lab as part of its 2013 research summit. The panel was called "Transmedia and the Future of Television," but it was really much more focused on exploring the future of television -- particularly the future of the "program bundle" at a time of tremendous transition in the ways television operates within our culture. (If you want to know more about the research we are doing on transmedia, check out the "T is For Transmedia" report which the Innovation Lab released a few months ago in cooperation with the Joan Ganz Cooney Center).

I was moderator and the panelists were:

  • Gabriel Kahn, Professor of Professional Practice, Journalism, USC
  • Hardie Tankersley, VP of Platforms and Innovation, Fox Broadcasting
  • Aaron DeBevoise, Executive Vice President, Network Programming, Machinima
  • Howard T. Stein, Strategist for Entertainment, Facebook Inc.

The concept of "bundling" -- that is, the selling of a package of networks to subscribers rather than offering them a la carte -- has been a foundation of the cable television industry over the past several decades: cable companies advertise based on the number of channels they offer, lesser interest networks survive because they are attached to high interest networks, and industry insiders claim that this is an approach that supports diversity. Others argue that bundling is to television which block booking was to the Hollywood studio era and that sooner or later, disagregation, which has hit the music and newspaper industries, will hit television also. Part of the premise of the panel was that events over the past year or so have been transformative in how television content gets funded, produced, and distributed, and how we consume it. Part of the goal of the panel was to get people from journalism, from the television industry, and from some of the emerging digital challengers to talk about these changes and how they feel they will impact the future of the medium.

What follows are some of the key indicators that the nature of television is undergoing some radical shifts as we write (some of them are discussed here, some did not get talked about because of time limits, and some have occurred since the conference, but they all represent good background for watching this session).


  • YouTube announces that 100 media companies and celebrities have signed up to launch their own channels for content distribution and the company has solicited a broader and more diverse group of people to curate their own playlists, directing attention on content which Wired describes as having a “cable feel” but being “way more niche than cable ever could.”

  • Surpassing the speed and scope of the earlier Susan Boyle phenomenon, Kony 2012,  a 30 minute documentary about child soldiers in Africa, reaches more than 77 million views in under four days through grassroots circulation, drawing more eyeballs that week than the highest rated television series on American television and the top grossing Hollywood box office hit that week, combined. Its success has since been followed by the global circulation of Psy’s “Gangem Style,” which has helped to introduce KPop content into the U.S. Market.

  • Hulu is offering an extensive array of international television programs as exclusive online content to their subscribers, suggesting that national borders are increasingly arbitrary in terms of television consumption, even for U.S. consumers.
  • Amazon announces that it is commissioning eleven pilots for production as web-based television series, with the pilots to be available to the public, which will help decide which ones will go into full production.

  • Some media observers note that brands may have gained greater advantage over their spontaneous social media responses during the Super Bowl blackout than they did for their paid advertising during the event. In any case, most of the brands now release their spots to YouTube and other video sharing sites prior to the Super Bowl event itself.

  • According to the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism, “Among adults younger than age 30, as many saw news on a social networking site the previous day (33%) as saw any television news (34%), with just 13% having read a newspaper either in print or digital form.”

  • A federal appeals court in New York upholds a lower court ruling in favor of Aereo, Barry Diller's Internet startup company, which streams content from local stations via the internet without compensating the original rights holders.
  • Cablevision and Verizon have filed legal action challenging the bundling of television networks as an unreasonable constraint on trade and a threat to innovation.
  • Facebook invests heavily in becoming the central vehicle for supporting mobile television around the world.

  • Participant Media announces that their new television network, Pivot, will be available to "cordcutters" through a mobile app, whether or not they subscribe to cable television.
  • Prospect Park has brought former ABC soaps, All My Children and One Life to Live, from cancelation via web distribution.

Taken collectively, these shifts represent a significant tipping point in terms of how television is produced, distributed, and consumed. Does this spell the end of television as we know it? What happens when "television" is less a technology than a set of programming practices? What happens when more people "cut the cord" or when the industry no longer depends on the "bundle"? What happens when the intensity of fan response may become as important as the quantity of viewers in shaping which programs remain in production?

Bastard Culture!: An Interview with Mirko Tobias Schäfer (Part Two)

Your more recent work on Twitter has deployed the concept of a gift economy, building off some of the ideas in our original white paper on Spreadible Media. How are you defining gift economy? Why is this appropriate for talking about digital media? How do contemporary forms of gift economies in the context of capitalism differ from more classical understandings of this context?

It is less the 'economy' in gift economy than the 'gift' that interests us. The gift as a 'public recognition'. And this initial public recognition with the intention of more exchanges in the future, is a key aspect in gift economies as Boris Malinowski has pointed out. Together with my colleagues Johannes Paßmann and Thomas Boeschoten we looked into Twitter data to retrieve patterns of communication (The Gift of the Gab. Retweet Cartels and Gift Economies on Twitter). When investigating two samples, the MP's of Dutch parliament and the German top Twitter accounts, we noticed clusters of users who were retweeting each other frequently, so called retweet-cartells, similar to citation-cartels in academia. We argue that the retweet equals a 'public recognition' and it can serve as an 'opening gift' with the intention to receive retweets in return.

What does the notion of the gift economy help us to see when we look at patterns in how content travels through Twitter?

We explicitly refer to your recent work on spreadable media where you employ the notion of gift economy to explain spreadability. We agree with you that this concept provides more plausible explanations for the distribution of online content than the notion of 'viral distribution'. The retweet, the repin, the favourite are intrinsically related to attention. However, they are 'cheap' gifts as they are abundant. But such a gift can gain more value through the status of the user retweeting a less popular account and hence drawing attention to it. Therefore it is unsurprising that we find politicians mostly retweeting their own party members. Members of the Favstar scene frequently retweet accounts that are equally popular. They form a retweet cartell, very similar to academic citation-cartels. However, when we look at the @replies within our sample of Dutch MP's we can see that they do not limit their communication to their own party members but with colleagues from all parties. Therefore, we conclude that if attention is drawn to messages through retweeting, users become selective in whom to award the 'gift' of a retweet.

I do not know how Paßmann and Boeschoten feel about it, but I would not necessarily stick to the strict economic understanding of the 'gift economy'. I think it will prove even more useful to adapt the term. It is most likely a feature of stimulating communication and connection. With communication, I mean ephemeral communication, not conversations. The 'gift' is important to fuel initial contact making. Features as the retweet, the favourite, the repin, the +1 etc. are the grease of initial social interaction on large platforms. They facilitate low threshold communication; communication is the wrong word, and even contact is not covering it. It is something between a mere ping, recognition and contact. But it is crucial to enable interaction of users and spreadability of content in social media.

Your research is interesting for the ways that it combines large-scale/quantiative “sentiment analysis” tools with more qualitative use of cultural theory. Does this reflect different skill sets within the team of researchers? Are there any insights you’d like to share about mixed methods research growing out of this project?

I'm teaching at a media studies department within the Utrecht University humanities faculty, where usually qualitative research methods are paramount. But researching new media where any user activity produces data that can be analyzed stimulates to employ those data for research. These digital methods -as Richard Rogers has dubbed them- are invaluable expansion of our tool set. In the meantime many applications are available and many more are underway. Commercial platforms provide tools, but also the two main pioneering groups in this area, Manovich's Cultural Analytics  and Roger's Digital Methods Initiative  provide handy tools on their websites. For our Utrecht Data School  we teamed up with Buzzcapture  as a technological partner that supports our research actively with tools for data aggregation and social media data analysis. We conduct research concerning specific questions for our partners from public administrations, NGO's and corporations. However, we take the liberty of asking different questions than the partners posed, or approach things from different angle.

I can see that student teams quickly develop a sort of division of labor, where scraping of data, working in spreadsheets, visualizing data and networks are carried out by different members of a team. We try to prevent this as far as possible, because we want all students to be involved in the entire process of the research project from scraping the data, cleaning up the data and preparing them for analysis and visualization to interpretation and contextualization. However, this is not easy, as there are indeed many specific tasks that require specialized knowledge and skills.

This work is inherently interdisciplinary. Software developers, computer scientists, data scientists, statisticians and also data journalists are great to team up with for different research projects. We frequently invite colleagues from very different areas to participate in the Utrecht Data School, either through directly contributing to a project or to teach students.

To the humanities researcher this development is exciting for two reasons: data analysis and visualization produces new insights in the online phenomena we are investigating. But through conducting these tools and methods we learn also about their role in epistemic processes. Our knowledge society increasingly thrives on computed results and automated information processing. The computer generated infographics appear persuasively convincing. It is therefore important to develop literacy that allows us to use the tools but also to be informed about their limitations and their persuasive effect. In view of your concerns about techno-determinism -which I share- I want to emphasize that we deliberately want them to develop critical understanding for the role of information technology in our epistemic processes.

We also want them to experience how unstable, how experimental and exploratory our research activities are. Although we think the results are often compelling, we want to keep up a healthy skepticism and remain open for doing things differently. We are also aware that we are in a data-rich environment, but that unfortunately research can appear analysis-poor. And I think it is necessary for the emerging 'digital humanities' to make this skepticism an inherent part of their use of information technology.

Mirko Tobias Schäfer is assistant professor of new media and digital culture at the University of Utrecht (Netherlands) and research fellow at Vienna University of Applied Arts. He blogs at www.mtschaefer.net.

Bastard Culture!: An Interview with Mirko Tobias Schäfer (Part One)

It says something about the compartmentalization of academic culture that I only belatedly discovered Mirko Tobias Schäfer's Bastard Culture!: How User Participation Transforms Cultural Production (published by Amsterdam University Press in 2011) -- a work which poses some important critiques of the concept of participatory culture, especially as it relates to recent developments around Web 2.0 and social media. Schäfer, based in the Netherlands, represents an important tradition of critical theory about new media which has emerged most emphatically from Europe and which should be better known among those of us working within the United States. As we discuss here, he is especially interested in the ways that technological designs constrain or limit our participation, rendering it less meaningful, commodifying it, in ways that run directly counter to the explicit rhetoric about expanding participation and empowering users. Read closely, Schäfer's work still embraces the value of democratic participation, yet he wants to hold companies, and scholars, to a high standard in terms of what constitutes meaningful forms of participation, and he is eager to push us beyond the first wave of enthusiastic response to these new affordances in order to look more closely and critically about how they are actually used. As my interview here suggests, there are points of disagreement between us, but there is also much common ground to be explored, and there is an urgent need for researchers from different critical and disciplinary perspectives to be working together to refine our understanding of the current media landscape. I had the pleasure of sitting down with Mirko at the recent Media in Transition conference at MIT and look forward to many future exchanges.

Having last week featured an interview with the editors of The Participatory Culture Handbook, I want to continue this focus on new theories of  participation by sharing this recent exchange I had with Schäfer.  I have come away with an even deeper respect and admiration for Schäfer's nuanced critique of digital participation. The first installments of this interview involve looking backward to his Bastard Culture book, exploring the convergences and divergences in our thinking, and reflecting on how the debates around digital media have shifted since 2011. The closing segment shares more recent work Schäfer and his colleagues at Utrecht University have been doing using "big data" processes (in combination with more qualitative approaches) to better understand the kinds of social relations that are taking shape on Twitter.

The title of your book, “Bastard Culture,” is meant to suggest the ways that the worlds of users and producers, consumers and corporations, are “intertwined” or “blended” in the era of Web 2.0. I suspect we would agree that understanding the relations between these terms remains a central challenge in contemporary cultural theory. The goal is, as you suggest, to “provide an analysis that is not blurred by either utopian or cultural pessimistic assumptions.” Are we any closer to developing such an analysis today than we were when you first published Bastard Culture? If so, which contemporary accounts do you think help us to achieve this more balanced perspective?

It was indeed my goal to point out the general heterogeneity of online culture as well as to deconstruct the overly enthusiastic connotation of participation. Especially in academic discourse the unconditional enthusiasm for the so-called social media has cooled down by now. We can see important contributions criticizing social media platforms for their lack of cultural freedom (e.g. strict content monitoring), breach of privacy and their commercial use of user activities and user data.

I like to distinguish this critique in three general approaches, which separately focus on a) free labour, b) privacy issues and c) the public sphere quality of social media.

Drawing from Marxist theory these authors -among others Trebor Scholz, Mark Andrejewich, Christian Fuchs and partially Geert Lovink- criticize social media platforms for generating an unacknowledged surplus value from user activities and for determining effectively the scope of user activities in order to maximize commercial results. Scholz's programmatic publication The Internet as Playground and as Factory is a strong example of this approach.

The strict regulations imposed by platform providers in combination with excessive data aggregation on users and their online activities sparked criticism concerning the lack of privacy by Michael Zimmer, Christian Fuchs and others. The general threat of surveillance -exerted by state authorities- has been convincingly addressed and criticized by Ronald Deibert, Evgeny Morozov, Wendy Chun, Jonathan Zittrain and others.

The public quality of interaction and communication on social media platforms has been described by Stefan Münker as “emerging digital publics”. Framing social media as a public sphere is not highly developed, but it provides in my opinion the most intriguing approach to understanding social media platforms and their impact on society.

Yes, I think we have made some progress in describing media practices more accurately and to give up on media myths that constituted the legend of new media as emancipating users. And this plays even out in the realm of the more general public. In Germany, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung -a conservative/market-liberal newspaper- calls for a society-wide debate on technology and provides a platform for members of Computer Chaos Club to criticize technocratic policies and short-sighted understanding of technology and media. Evgeny Morozov is also doing an excellent job with his crusade against techno-populism; or think of Jaron Laniers superb critique of imprudent media use and hasty enthusiasm. It is absolutely crucial to have these debates within the popular discourse, as it is the popular discourse that shapes the general understanding of technology. That is why I have tremendous respect for scholars who are able to reach out to general audiences and to translate complex issues in accessible language.

As you note, participation has become an increasingly problematic word that is used by many different people in support of many different and often contradictory claims about the relationship between new media technologies and consumer empowerment. What steps can we make to reclaim participatory culture as a productive category for cultural analysis?

My objective was to deconstruct the ideological connotation as well as the emotional charge of 'participation'. Recently, we can see a similar problem with the metaphor 'social media'. It fuels a misunderstanding of media and media practices and it structurally obscure the agency of technology (the back-end as well as the user interface), power structures and economic factors.

In my opinion, it would be already helpful to pay close attention to the language we use to describe media and media practices. Many scholars can easily identify with emancipation, anti-hegemonic attitude and political activism. However, in our enthusiasm we tend to overestimate certain practices and misrepresent media use. We have therefore to take off our blinkers. I often tell my students, that if you really like your object of research, the chance is high for making mistakes and for neglecting important facts that would distort your picture.

That's funny. I tell my students that when you start from too critical perspective, it will be easy to flatten or simplify the phenomenon you are studying, to not look very deeply for redeeming or contradictory features, and to not take seriously what the activity might mean for those who embrace it.

Of course I agree. Being too critical is just as distorting as being too enthusiastic. What is needed is curious interest and willingness to get to the bottom of things, even if it will change your previous view of them. And research methods provide useful ways to do so.

'Participatory culture' can serve as productive category for cultural analysis if scholars distance themselves from their personal appreciation of media practices that might be close to their hearts but not necessarily representative for online culture. This would help to recognize the heterogeneity of the phenomenon we call participation as well as the ambiguity of technology. Taking technological aspects thoroughly into account, using 'digital methods' and putting case examples into perspective of the broader picture will help to do so.

The forms of participation which interest me the most are explicit participation -- that is, places where people are making conscious decisions to create media or otherwise communicate with each other about issues of mutual concern. Can you explain what you mean by implicit participation and how it relates to the claims being made by Web 2.0 companies to support participation? In what sense is it meaningful to describe “implicit participation” as participation? What are we participating within?

With implicit participation I describe how platform providers have integrated user activities into easy to use interface design and eventually implemented into business models. Implicit participation describes how user activities are channeled through the platform provider's design decisions. This ranges from interface elements as the like-button, the incentive of views on Flickr or YouTube to strategies where user unknowingly participate in additional functions of the feature they are using on a platform. The reCAPTCHA is an example of implicit participation where information provided by users for accessing a web feature is re-used in a completely different context. Many so-called gamification practices are examples of implicit participation.

I would argue that the popular 'social media' platforms thrive on implicit participation. It reduces consequently their dependence on intrinsic motivation, which is so crucial in explicit participation. Explicit participation becomes merely optional. The key is to lower the threshold and encourage the generic production of content, through creating data by simply using the platform's features or by spreading or multiplying content through the easy-to-use features of reproduction: retweet, repin, share etc. or to interact through ephemeral features as the like button. We will see many more and far better forms of implicit participation integrated into web platforms in future.

A key difference between our perspectives is that you place a much greater focus on the ways that technologies enable or constrain participation, where-as I primarily discuss the social and cultural motives which shape how people use technologies. Let’s assume we both believe that both technology and culture have played a role in defining the present moment as one where issues of participation are increasingly central to our understanding of the world. I would argue that there is a difference in understanding technology in terms of affordances and in terms of determinents, given the degree to which technologies are, as you note, subject to various forms of appropriation and redefinition once they have been designed and given that digital media can be re-coded and reprogrammed, even at the grassroots level, by those committed to alternative visions of social change. I worry, though, that ascribing too much power to technology results in models of technological determinism, which make certain outcomes seem inevitable. There has been such a strong tendency in this direction over the past several decades, whether critics worrying that Google has made us stupid, or advocates talking about the democratizing effects of the internet. Thoughts?

I am also worried about a simplified view of 'technological effects'. Especially in the popular discourse. there is a plethora of short sighted publications on the potential benefits or downsides of technological development. However, I would not argue that those perspectives inquire the technology but abuse it as a black box that facilitates whatever effect they wish to see unfold. In opposite to scholars, those writers are in the business of selling books, not in the business of conducting research.

I do not think that I am supporting a techno-determinist perspective by investigating technological qualities and by paying attention to the way design affects user activities. The popular 'social media' applications teach us, that we have so far underestimated the role of interface design, back-end politics and API regulation in the cultural production and social interaction playing out on these platforms. I can't possibly neglect that power also comes in shape of technology or as Andrew Feenberg put it: “technology is the key to cultural power”. I am not focused on technology as determining on its own account, but on its agency in close interrelation with designers, users, ownership structures, and media discourses, and others actors.

While my primary emphasis in talking about participatory culture might be described as symbolic appropriation (i.e. the manipulation of narratives, characters, symbols, icons, or brands), the central focus of your analysis is on “hacking” the material dimensions of technology, including, for example, game modifications or free software efforts. We might extend this focus to include a broader array of other material practices -- including Makers and Crafters -- who are central to current discussions of digital culture. What do you see as the consequences of this shift in focus in terms of our understanding of how participation works or what a more participatory culture looks like?

What I really liked about Textual Poachers was that you compellingly showed how open media texts are, not only to interpretation as Fiske had pointed out, but directly to 'material' appropriation and how it contributed to an entire field of cultural production. The world wide web then made the textual poachers explicitly visible, for marketeers and the general public. The second aspect I find important, and unfortunately this aspect is frequently overlooked, is that you outlined the history and the predecessors of today's read-write culture. With the maker culture similar debates concerning 'poaching' will unfold. We will see a new debate on copyrights and corporations will go out of their way to protect their designs from being 'printed'. There will be attempts by providers of 3D printers to control the device and its use. I would assume that the dynamics which I have dubbed confrontation, implementation and integration will play out in relation to the makers culture as well. The recent debates on MakerBot's decision to deviate from the open-source model indicate an attempt of implementation.

As you note, the initial wave of excitement about participatory culture has been met with strong critiques focused on issues of free labor and data mining as forms of exploiting the popular desire for more meaningful participation. Can you describe some of the ways that users have sought to assert their own claims on the technology in the face of their ownership and exploitation by the creative industries?

It's remarkable that dissent with a corporate platform plays out in quite traditional forms of protest and petition. On Facebook users 'like' petitions that represent their claim for better privacy regulations, or they formulate a Social Media Bill of Rights, call for a QuitFacebookDay etc.

There are other examples such as the Social Media Suicide Machine which allows users to delete their profiles. Then there are alternatives to the commercial web platforms and services. Diaspora was heralded as the Facebook killer and is now depict as a barrel burst. The UnlikeUs conference has been established as a platform for critics of 'social media monopolies' to connect and to discuss alternatives. But we can also see that civil right groups and privacy advocates lobby on behalf of users. However, I am afraid that the majority of the users can't be bothered with these issues.

You conclude the book with this important statement: “We must not sit on our hands while cultural resources are exploited and chances for enhancing education and civil liberties are at stake.” This seems like a powerful statement of what’s at stake in debates about participatory culture. So, what forms of action do you think we can or should take as scholars and as public intellectuals to respond to this situation?

The easy to use interfaces of the social web stimulated a new large group of users to use the world wide web. It also put the web again on the agenda of policy makers to regulate, to control and to monitor user activities. Designed as advertiser-friendly platforms, social media inherently provide the possibility for user assessment and control through API's which are already routinely used by law enforcement. We can also see how the powerful companies as among others Apple, Facebook, Google and Amazon affect cultural freedom on the web. Facebook's prudery appears (especially to us Europeans) as astonishingly weird and hostile to culture and freedom of expression. However, since social media platforms have emerged as an expanded public sphere, the censorship of items that might distort the rosy world-view of advertisers and the naivete of uninformed users is appalling. I would not mind if those platforms were a shopping mall somewhere in the margins of the world wide web, but they increasingly become a center part of the web and therefore an important role in our public sphere.

Unsurprisingly, Facebook is the poster boy for policy makers when thinking about eGovernance or other fancily dubbed forms of harmless civic participation. Facebook promises a dangerously safe way of dealing with citizens as their implicit participation features render participation into an easy-to-handle commodity that provides participation as a mere lip-service. Something, that even in democratic societies is still very appealing to policy makers.

What we need, is a society-wide debate on technology and its role in society. We need to discuss to what extent we accept platforms to distort the view upon reality by creating an controversy-free and advertiser-friendly filter bubble.

Mirko Tobias Schäfer is assistant professor of new media and digital culture at the University of Utrecht (Netherlands) and research fellow at Vienna University of Applied Arts. He blogs at www.mtschaefer.net.

Videos for Transmedia Hollywood 4: Spreading Change

On behalf of the conference organizers, I am proud to be able to share with you today the videos of our April 12 Transmedia Hollywood 4 conference. As many regular readers know, this event is run jointly by myself, representing USC's Cinema School, and Denise Mann, representing our counterparts at UCLA and it is funded by a grant from the Andrew J. Kuehn Jr. Foundation. This year's focus was on models of social change, and we were excited to see a conversation emerge across the four panels, starting with panel 1's focus on the community outreach efforts of major brands and studios, panel 2's focus on smaller scale transmedia projects and entertainment education, panel 3's attention to grassroots activist efforts, and panel 4's consideration of young entrepreneurs and philanthropists. Each of the panels is interesting in its own right, but those who attended the event agreed that there was something magical about how the parts came together as a whole this year. I want to specially think David McKenna who worked around the clock to get these videos up and out to the world in record time. Enjoy. Panel 1 Revolutionary Advertising: Cultivating Cultural Movements In the web 2.0 era, as more and more millennials acquire the tools of participatory culture and new media literacy, some of this cohort are redirecting their one-time leisure-based activities into acts of community-based, grassroots social activism. Recognizing the power of the crowd to create a tipping point in brand affiliation, big media marketers, Silicon Valley start-ups, and members of the Madison Avenue advertising community, are jumping on board these crowdsourcing activities to support their respective industries. In other words, many of the social goals of grassroots revolutionaries are being realigned to serve the commercial goals of brand marketers. In the best-case scenarios, the interests of the community and the interests of the market economy align in some mercurial fashion to serve both constituencies. However, in the worst case scenario, the community-based activism fueling social movements is being redirected to support potato chips, tennis shoes, or sugary-soda drinks. Brand marketers are intrigued with the power and sway of social media, inaugurating any number of trailblazing forms of interactive advertising and branded entertainment to replace stodgy, lifeless, 30 second ads. These cutting edge madmen are learning how to reinvent entertainment for the participatory generation by marrying brands to pre-existing social movements to create often impressive, well-funded brand movements like Nike Livestrong, or Pepsi Refresh. Are big media marketers subsuming the radical intent of certain community-based organizations who are challenging the status quo by redirecting them into unintentional alliance with big business or are they infusing these cash-strapped organizations with much needed funds and marketing outreach? Today’s panel of experts will debate these and other issues associated with the future of participatory play as a form of social activism.Todd CunninghamFormerly, Senior Vice-President of Strategic Insights and Research at MTV Networks.

Denise Mann (Moderator)

Co-Director, Transmedia, Hollywood / Associate Professor, Head of Producers Program, UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television

Rob Schuham CEO, Action Marketing

Michael Serazio Author, Your Ad Here: The Cool Sell of Guerrilla Marketing

Alden E. Stoner VP, Social Action Film Campaigns, Participant Media

Rachel Tipograph Director, Global Digital and Social Media at Gap Inc.

Transmedia, Hollywood 4: Spreading Change. Panel 1 - Revolutionary Advertising: Creating Cultural Movements from UCLA Film & TV on Vimeo.

Panel 2 Transmedia For a Change

Hollywood’s version of transmedia has been preoccupied with inspiring fan engagement, often linked to the promotional strategies for the release of big budget media. But, as transmedia has spread to parts of the world which have been dominated by public service media, there has been an increased amount of experimentation in ways that transmedia tactics can be deployed to encourage civic engagement and social awareness. These transmedia projects can be understood as part of a larger move to shift from understanding public media as serving publics towards a more active mission in gathering and mobilizing publics. These projects may also be understood as an extension of the entertainment education paradigm into the transmedia realm, where the goal shifts from informing to public towards getting people participating in efforts to make change in their own communities. In some cases, these producers are creating transmedia as part of larger documentary projects, but in others, transmedia is making links between fictional content and its real world implications.

Panelists Henry Jenkins (Moderator) Co-Director, Transmedia, Hollywood / Provost Professor of Communication, Journalism, and Cinematic Arts, USC Annenberg School for Communication

Katerina Cizek Filmmaker-in-Residence, National Film Board, Canada

Katie Elmore Mota Producer, CEO of PRAJNA Productions

Sam Haren Creative Director, Sandpit

Mahyad Tousi Founder, BoomGen Studios

Transmedia, Hollywood 4: Spreading Change. Panel 2 - Transmedia for a Change from UCLA Film & TV on Vimeo.

Panel 3: Through Any Media Necessary: Activism in a DIY Culture A recent survey released by the MacArthur Foundation found that a growing number of young people are embracing practices the researchers identified as “participatory politics”: “interactive, peer-based acts through which individuals and groups seek to exert both voice and influence on issues of public concern.” These forms of politics emerge from an increasingly DIY media culture, linked in important ways to the practices of Makers, Hackers, Remix Artists and Fan Activists. This panel will bring together some key “change agents,” people who are helping to shape the production and flow of political media, or who are seeking to better understand the nature of political participation in an era of networked publics. Increasingly, these new forms of activism are both transmedia (in that they construct messages through any and all available media) and spreadable (in that they encourage participation on the level of circulation even if they do not always invite the public to help create media content).


Megan M. Boler Professor and Associate Chair, Department of Humanities, Social Sciences, and Social Justice Education OISE/University of Toronto

Marya Bangee Community Organizing Residency (COR) Fellow, OneLA, Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF)

Erick Huerta Immigrant’s rights activist

Jonathan MacIntosh Pop Culture Hacker and Transformative Storyteller

Sangita Shreshtova (Moderator) Research Director of Media Activism & Participatory Politics (MAPP) project, USC Annenberg School of Communications and Journalism

Elisabeth Soep Research Director and Senior Producer at Youth Radio-Youth Media International

Transmedia, Hollywood 4: Spreading Change. Panel 3 - By Any Media Necessary: Activism in a DIY Culture from UCLA Film & TV on Vimeo.

Panel 4 The e-Entrepreneur as the New Philanthropist Nonprofit organizations are increasingly thinking like entrepreneurial start-ups and vice-versa, as young people are starting organizations which embrace the notion of the “consumer-citizen,” modeling ways that social-change efforts can be embedded within the everyday lifestyles of their supporters. While the boomers treated the cultural movements of the late sixties as a cause, today’s e-citizens are treating their social activism as a brand. They are selling social responsibility as if it were a commodity or product, using the same strategies that traditional business men and women used to sell products.

Sarah Banet-Weiser Professor, USC Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism and Department of American Studies and Ethnicity

Sean D. Carasso Founder, Falling Whistles

Yael Cohen Founder/CEO, Fuck Cancer

Ann Pendleton-Jullian (Moderator) Professor, Knowlton School of Architecture, The Ohio State University, and Distinguished Visting Professor, Georgetown University

Milana Rabkin Digital Media Agent

Transmedia, Hollywood 4: Spreading Change. Panel 4, The e-Entrepreneur as the New Philanthropist from UCLA Film & TV on Vimeo.

Seeing Red: How and Why "Red Equals Equality" Spread

This past week's debate in the Supreme Court over marriage equality inspired users of social networking sites to engage in a kind of symbolic politics -- swapping out their profile pictures for some variant on the theme, Red Equals Equality. Some of these could be as basic as turning their own pictures pink or using a red equals sign, but this "meme" became attached to a wide array of pop culture icons, such as Charlie Brown, Yoda, the Super Mario Brothers, the Bronies, George Takai, and of course, Burt and Ernie. In return, this phenomenon quickly developed a familiar backlash -- the dismissal that such activity can have any meaningful political effect at all.


Over at the blog for MIT's Center for Civic Media, this issue inspired a really provocative discussion between Molly Sauter, Matt Stempeck,and others, which took up some key concepts from Ethan Zuckerman's much acclaimed opening remarks at the MacArthur Foundation's Digital Media and Learning Conference:

Matt: Going pink may actually be tied to a theory of change, in that it changes norms and clearly establishes which side you are on in a cultural debate. Many of these oft-criticized ‘voice’ efforts are directed not at those with the power to change things directly, but at those who follow us on social networks and thereby know us. No one taking these actions is expecting a direct response from the Supreme Court.

Yet this action, taken by many, can matter. We know that support for gay marriage is linked with how likely it is we know someone who is openly gay. And we know that people care deeply about societal norms. Ever-increasing support for gay equality, generated at the interpersonal level, is only strengthened by a mass outpouring of support on social networks. People may be smarter than slackademic critiques allow.

Matt & Nathan: In the case of gay equality, the focus of change is also social itself. By going pink, people are standing up as allies and creating the perception of a safe space within their own friendship communities online-- spaces where gay people may face stigmas and bullying. That's another reason going pink may be meaningful: it was, for many people, a more difficult social decision than going green. Going green may have produced some indirect changes, in terms of raising awareness, or signaling a broader US audience for news from Iran than was previously assumed, or establishing affinity for the Iranian people at greater levels than we previously broadcast to our friends. But going pink was still, in many individuals' social networks, an act requiring some degree of bravery, because it's a more controversial topic, closer to home, and likely to alienate at least one social contact.

For those who missed Ethan's talk, check out the embed below.

One of the more thoughtful responses I read to the Red Equals Equality campaign came from Elisabeth Shabi -- an undergraduate student at Georgia's Reinhardt College. Shabi is a student of my old friend, Pam Wilson, who has been teaching Spreadable Media: Creating Meaning and Value in a Networked Culture. Wilson shared the post via Facebook, appropriately enough, and I was impressed enough by what she had to say that I asked her if I could repost her comments here. At a time when more and more young people are getting their news, not from traditional journalism, but from items passed them by their friends on social media, this is a beautiful account of how "seeing red" might inspire young people to seek out additional information about issues. Thanks Pam and Elisabeth!



Spreadable Media...At It's Best

by Elisabeth Shabi, Reinhardt College

Fifty years ago, 20 years ago even, our grandparents and parents woke up and read the paper or turned on the television for a morning news show to get a glimpse on the current state of social affairs. Mygeneration wakes up and checks Facebook. And as social media and spreadable media would have it, Facebook has become a decent glimpse of the most updated happenings in the social/political sphere.


This morning as my newsfeed loaded, I began to see red. Profile pictures, cover photos, likes, links, posts, etc. all gone red for marriage equality. I never once turned on the news or read a paper, but I knew exactly why this day was so important by reading the dozens of posts on my newsfeed. Today, March 26, 2013, Proposition 8 went to the Supreme Court for debate.

As of about 10:30pm, 21 of the first 100 posts on my Facebook feed had to do with the marriage equality events of the day. I counted profile picture changes, likes, links and blatant status references to the marriage equality debate.

For statistics purposes, it should be noted:

  • One post of the 21 was a joke post merely playing off the concept of the changed profile photos.
  • One post of the 21 was irrelevant but showed a comment from another person (not my “friend”) that had changed his/her profile pictured to the red equal sign.
  • If a person changed their profile picture and then later posted material irrelevant to the debate, this was not counted as part of my 21 posts.
  • In addition to this support on my newsfeed, 10 out of my 262 friends had the red equal sign as their profile picture and 16 out of 50 posts on the instant newsfeed pertained to the marriage equality debate.

This article by The Shorthorn paper of University of Texas Arlington campus gives a summary on the technicalities of today’s debate and also discusses the social media campaign created to support marriage equality.

Human Rights Campaign, a group that supports equality for gay, lesbian and transgender rights began a recent Facebook and Twitter campaign. The campaign’s page changed the colors of their traditional blue and yellow equal sign logo and began telling people to wear red to gain supporters online as the Supreme Court begins hearings for the next two days about gay marriage rights.”



An interesting side conversation of the above mentioned article brings up the topic of newsfeed content. One student interviewed for the article mentioned that he didn’t know what the red/pink equal sign being used for profile pictures meant until he researched it. I also saw a post appear on my personal newsfeed with a legitimate inquiry as to the meaning of the equal sign – and that was a 11 o’clock the night of the first day of debates.

This immediately made me think about how people personalize their Facebook newsfeed. I asked myself how I knew what the equal sign meant. My answer? The first post I read this morning – and one of the first I saw with the equal sign – was a news article posted by a friend discussing the Supreme Court’s upcoming challenge. Several posts later, a blog link appeared from my favorite magazine discussing a local author’s view on the topic. Granted several of the profile picture changes did not provide an explanation, but several others were accompanied by a supportive or explanatory status. These posts, coupled with several news articles, images, memes, and pages that were posted and shared just on my morning newsfeed gave me no doubt as to the day’s significance.

What does this mean for these people who had no idea of the campaign’s significance? Of the day’s historical events? Of course it could simply be that they are less frequent users of Facebook; however, I am more inclined to question the contents of their newsfeed. If one chooses not to be associated with people who are more inclined to share and post on these important social and political topics, or if you – for whatever reason – don’t tend to “like” the Facebook pages of agencies or news providers that will generally post or comment on these events, then your newsfeed may just contain friend-to-friend activity.

I hesitate to critique this “state of newsfeed” because after all the platform is social media and at its most basic Facebook is intended for “friend” and social interaction. For people such as myself however, since I am completely and disturbingly aware of my lack of daily news intake, I make it a point to diversify my Facebook newsfeed to the point where I can get at least a glimpse of important social and political events – especially when they are as popular as the marriage equality debate.


Returning to Henry Jenkins’s concept of Spreadable Media, it is worthy to note that we live in a culture where one of our main platforms of communication – the Internet – is a willing and receptive host for the spread of news and information. Social media, including Facebook, Twitter, etc. make it easy to share, link and connect content. Within 24 hours of a significant event, memes are created and news reports are published.

What effect does this spreadability have on campaigns, movements, and social change? For this current issue, it seems to have quite a weighty affect. The exposure alone is significant for the campaign and its supporters as relevant and influential content is reworked, manipulated, shared, linked and absorbed by social media audiences and co-creators. This goes beyond the platform of social media, in fact, as news sites and shows begin mentioning it simply for the wave created on the internet.

This MSNBC article as well as this article from the Wall Street Journal give details of the campaign’s effect on Twitter and Facebook. The WSJ article notes that “Two posts on the organization’s main Facebook page encouraging people to change their avatar were shared over 70,000 times.” Even President Obama tweeted his stance on marriage equality:



Another wonderful aspect of our spreadable media culture is the ease of access to direct information. The Human Rights Campaign blog provides an accessible link to the PDF transcript of the Court’s proceedings as well as a link for access to audio recordings. People have taken direct quotes from the Judges and created images, memes, etc. with the information. This article on Upworthy.com is a perfect example as it provides the following image as well as the actual audio clip of the exchange.



Not only is this content appealing to the eager eye and news absorber, but it provides truth and promotes an atmosphere of digital democracy. The internet is simply swarming with coverage. DigitalTrends.com calls the emergence of the symbolic red and pink equal sign the “Birth of the Marriage Equality Meme.”  Articles such as this one from ThinkProgress.org show signs from the protestors and supports outside the Supreme Court.

The internet is alive with the exchange of news articles, photographs, blogs, images, etc. that hold opinions, commentary, facts, beliefs, updates, reports – everything you could ever desire. One thing is for sure: we have not seen the last of the now-famous, “viral,” and highly spreadable marriage equality meme.

Is this not spreadable media at its finest?

Videos, Videos, Videos....

Today, I wanted to share with you some videos from recent events where I have participated as a speaker or moderator. A few weeks ago, I took the stage at the Tim O'Reilly Tools for Change conference in New York City with two amazing thinkers and good friends -- Cory Doctorow, science fiction and Young Adult writer and digital advocate and Brian David Johnson, the man behind the recent book, Vintage Tomorrows: A Historian and a Futurist Travel Through Steampunk into the Future of Technology (for which I wrote an introduction).  Inspired by the Three Tenors, we jokingly billed ourselvesas the Three Geeks. In the conference context, the exchange -- which spanned across everything from digital publishing to science fiction -- was frustratingly short. We were just getting started, really, when the timer went off. We are hopeful we can bring a much longer conversation to some other venue before much longer.  But, in the meantime, we hope you will enjoy this video of the exchange.

Also, this past month, I was moderator for a Google Hangout discussion of Interacting with Transmedia, part of the InterActs series sponsored by . The featured panelists were:

Marc Smolowitz, Director, Producer, Executive Producer, Documentary Filmmaker

Luisa Dantas, Director/Producer/Editor, Land of Opportunity

Jo Ellen Kaiser, Executive Director, The Media Consortium

Ingrid Kopp, Director of Digital Initiatives at Tribeca Film Institute

Danielle Riendeau, Blogger for KillScreen, Instructor of Interactive Storytelling at Northeastern University, Communications Officer for ACLU-NorCal

InterActs is a conversation series created in partnership between NAMAC and the Daily Dot. Over the next several months, these two teams will host a series of online conversations on creative expression in digital environments. Unlike many programs on transmedia that focus on Hollywood producers and franchises, this event was centered on what people have called the East Coast School of Transmedia, where there is often a strong emphasis on independent and public media production, and here, on transmedia for social change. If you enjoy this video, we hope you will consider joining us for this year's Transmedia Hollywood event, coming up on April 12 at UCLA, where the focus will be on different models for promoting social change in a world of spreadablity and transmedia production.

This past weekend, Sam Ford, Joshua Green, and I took our Spreadable Media book to South by Southwest, where we gave a talk to a packed auditorium, but also did a range of interviews. Here are a few of the ones that have already appeared on line. We note in the introduction that Spreadable Media tries to address a range of different audiences, and these interviews give some suggestion of how these various groups are taking up our ideas.


Here, you can see the three authors, seated rather uncomfortably on a coach, talking to a reporter from Gen/Connect about the role of the audience in creating value in a networked culture

Here are Sam and I sitting on another coach, this time in a house set up for librarians to gather and talk about the future of media. This time, the focus is on the implications of our work for education with a strong focus on media literacy, old and new.

Part One 

Part Two

Part Three

Part Four

Part Five

Part Six

Here, Sam and I participated in a podcast interview, speaking about the book's implications for journalists and activists.


And here is me on a random street corner speaking to the folks from Leo Burnett: this time with a primary focus on what Spreadable Media means for brands and advertising.

#SXLB: Henry Jenkins, Author & Professor, USC, Pt. 1: Grassroots from Leo Burnett Worldwide on Vimeo.

We are on the road a lot these days, in various combinations, talking about the book and its implications for various audiences. I expect to share more videos before much longer.

As the Scarecrow says in The Wizard of Oz, That's me ... all over!

Spreadable Media and the Global South: Punathambekar, Shahani, Zuckerman

As of today, all of the essays we commissioned for our book, Spreadable Media: Creating Meaning and Value in a Networked Culture, are alive on the book's website extension and we are hearing that people who advance ordered the book via Amazon are receiving their copies.  There is also NOW a Kindle addition available. I have an ambitious series of talks planned for the coming semester, including appearances at Tools for Change (New York City, where I will be on a panel with Brian David Johnson and Cory Doctorow, Feb. 14), The Society for Cinema and Media Studies (Chicago, March 7 with other contributors from the book) , South by Southwest (Austin, TX, March 8 with Sam Ford and Joshua Green), Digital Media and Learning Conference (Chicago, March 16), Transmedia Hollywood (Los Angeles, April 12), and most likely Media in Transition (MIT, May 3 ). So, be on the look out for Henry Sightings in your area. :-)


Meanwhile, I did an in-depth interview about the book with Frank Rose, author of The Art of Immersion. I had run an interview with Frank about his book through this blog a while back and he's been nice enough to return the favor.  Part one is up already and part two goes up on Tuesday and will be linked here once it does.


Today's selection furthers the project begun last time of expanding our discussion of spreadability to deal with transnational media flows and in this case, with what does and does not flow between the Global South and the Global North -- two dealing with India and one with Africa.


“Desi,” which means “from the homeland,” is a term that refers to people within the South Asian diaspora. It also signals the emergence of a dynamic and transcultural South Asian youth culture, speaking to a shift in the place of South Asians in U.S. public culture. No longer imagined simply as atomized immigrants nostalgic for a home elsewhere, South Asians in the U.S. are increasingly viewed as “public consumers and producers of distinctive, widely circulating cultural and linguistic forms” (Shankar 2008, 4).

This sociocultural and political shift has shaped, and been shaped by, the constructions of Desis as a sought-after marketing demographic, with the result that a growing number of media corporations have targeted Desi audiences over the past four or five years. These corporate media initiatives are all the more striking, given that the production and circulation of Desi media has been primarily shaped, since the early 1970s, by the efforts of enterprising individuals and families. Furthermore, we can draw an arc from the late 1970s to the current moment—from VHS tapes that circulated via Indian grocery stores to remix music events (DJ Rekha’s Basement Bhangra in New York City, for example), one-hour shows featuring Bollywood song sequences broadcast on public-access stations, performances on college campuses, and, now, vast pirate networks that make Desi media content available to audiences across the globe—to show that the notion of spreadability has always been a defining feature of Desi media culture.

How do media corporations understand and become a part of such a mediascape? Focusing on two recent media initiatives—MTV Desi, a television channel that sought to target South Asian American youth but only lasted about twenty-two months; and Saavn, a New York–based digital media company that has emerged as one of the most prominent distributors of Bollywood programming outside India—this brief study shows that responding to and participating in the cultures of media circulation that were already in place is crucial for media companies interested in diasporic audiences.



The fundamental question of development economics, my late mentor Dick Sabot taught me, is simple to formulate and hard to answer: “Why are some people wealthy and some people poor?” Why is the Democratic Republic of Congo, blessed with valuable minerals and timber, desperately poor, while resource-constrained Singapore is well off? (Birdsall, Ross, and Sabot 1995). In Guns, Germs, and Steel (1997), geographer Jared Diamond suggests that the natural environment is destiny: people who had access to easily domesticated crops and animals were able to generate food surpluses and build complex cultures, while those less fortunate had to focus more on survival than on constructing complex societies. Looking toward the more recent past, statistician Hans Rosling (2009) sees reason to blame slow development on colonialism, observing that many postcolonial societies are only now showing improvements in life expectancy seen in colonial powers in the early twentieth century. Economist Paul Collier, in The Bottom Billion (2007), places the blame on bad governance, arguing that governments which find it more profitable to rob their coffers than to build infrastructure are doomed to underdevelopment.

We might think of these as helpful, but incomplete, answers to the question of uneven development. There’s another set of unhelpful answers that center around the idea that certain peoples are inherently, biologically smarter than others. This idea gained traction in the middle of the nineteenth century as racial anthropology or “scientific racism.” More recently, a variation on the idea has emerged in the pseudoscientific study of associations between IQ scores and race in books such as The Bell Curve by Richard J. Herrnstein and Charles Murray (1994). Critiques of Herrnstein and Murray’s association between IQ and race point out that massive differences in educational opportunities available to rich and poor people might explain these different test scores (Jacoby and Glauberman 1995). The time I’ve spent traveling in the developing world suggests that it’s dangerous to discount the significance of opportunity. In societies where daily survival is a struggle, it can be very difficult to tell who’s a genius.

My work over the past two decades in sub-Saharan Africa has convinced me that intelligence, creativity, and humor are evenly distributed throughout the world. People’s ability to express their intelligence, creativity, and humor are heavily dependent on local circumstances, and the odds that we will even encounter these traits across barriers of language, nation, and culture are profoundly constrained by infrastructure, geography, and interest.



When I consider India, the main question that comes to my mind about spreadability is what is being spread and what is not. But which India are we talking about? There are many. A popular practice is to differentiate between “India” and “Bharat,” the Hindi name for India. You could say that India is rich, while Bharat is poor; India is English speaking, while Bharat speaks in regional languages; and India is urban, while Bharat is rural. All of these would be partially true oversimplifications. (There are rich farmers and landlords in rural Bharat, just as there are poor slum dwellers in urban India, and so on.) I think of the divide as all of these but, most of all, as one between those who have for decades been able to avail of opportunities for growth and those who are now catching up.

“India” is on par with anywhere else in the world in terms of sophisticated technological practices. The mainstream media is becoming fairly savvy in seeding spreadable content. Indian telecommunications provider Bharti Airtel ran a contest in August and September 2010 inviting Indians to upload their own new “crazy” cricket fandom videos to an Airtel YouTube channel, with the makers of the most popular videos winning a trip to watch the Airtel Champions League Twenty20 Cricket competition in South Africa. Airtel’s channel became one of the top sponsored channels on YouTube from India in terms of subscribers as well as views.

Today, it can seem as though almost every actor in Bollywood tweets incessantly, from superstars Amitabh Bachchan, Shah Rukh Khan, and Salman Khan to newly famous directors such as Punit Malhotra and actresses such as Sonakshi Sinha. Bachchan was perhaps the earliest leader of the blogging trend among Bollywood stars. Each of his daily posts on his personal blog receives several hundred comments on average. Bachchan also has several hundred thousand Twitter fans, and his tweets and blog posts are amplified by the mainstream press that tracks him, as well as by his legion of fans, some of whom—for instance, Rahul Upadhyay—translate each blog post within a few hours into Hindi to further spread his message to non-English-reading Internet audiences. Bachchan also innovatively maintained a voice blog (that claimed to be the first of its kind in the world) called BachchanBol (Bachchan Says), where fans could dial into a number for 6 rupees per minute on their mobile phones and listen “in the most intimate and personal way about what he is doing, his thoughts and feelings, his experiences throughout his life—anytime and anywhere—at the push of a button” (OneIndia Explore n.d.).


  This is the last of the essays we commissioned for the book, but we hope that the conversation doesn't end here. We are going to be actively inviting others to share their responses to the book's framework both through the book's homepage and through this blog. If you have some thoughts you'd like to share, we'd love to hear from you. You can reach me at hjenkins@usc.edu, or simply send along your comments attached to this blog. And as always, please help us spread these essays.

Spreading Independent and Transnational Content

As we count down to the wide spread release of our new book, Spreadable Media: Creating Value and Meaning in a Networked Culture, which I co-authored with Sam Ford and Joshua Green, we are rolling out this week five more essays -- in this case, dealing with core issues from the book's chapters on independent media and transnational media flows. One final crop of essays from the project will go on-line next week. By now, some of you may well be receiving copies of the book advanced ordered through Amazon or New York University Press. We'd love to know what you think. I was lucky enough to be able to share some thoughts about this project this past week with faculty and students at Concordia University. This post is available in Czech language (provided by Alex and Nora Pozner from bizow reviews team).


The Long Tail of Digital Games

In the raging debate over the legitimacy and consequences of the “Long Tail” theory (Anderson 2006), few markets have received more attention than those dedicated to digitally distributed video games. Proponents of the Long Tail have argued that digital distribution will finally turn the historically hit-driven game industry on its head—that future revenues will be driven by consumer activity distributed across a huge catalog of video games developed, in large part, by independent game developers as opposed to titanic publishers; that it will prove consistently more profitable to focus on niche audiences in this new world of digital game distribution, rather than to focus on the development of broadly appealing hits; and (for those of us interested in the spreadability model) that a new generation of empowered consumers will actively seek and promote the highest-quality content, driving revenues to the most deserving game developers and leading to a healthier and more vibrant video game ecosystem overall.

There can be no doubt that encouraging signs of this development have begun to crop up everywhere. Many now-prominent independent game developers, such as The Behemoth and 2D Boy, have leveraged console-based digital distribution platforms such as Xbox LIVE, Wiiware, and the Playstation Network (PSN) to reach markets that were previously only accessible via the long arm of a traditional publisher. These developers have not only created award-winning games that have generated significant amounts of profit. They have, in many cases, retained the rights to their intellectual property (IP) and operated with near-total independence, an unthinkable situation for small console game developers only a few years ago. And, while digital distribution on the console typically generates the most buzz, independent developers have made equally great strides on mobile devices, the web, and the PC thanks to a wide variety of channels (stores such as iTunes, Android Market, and Steam; portals such as Kongregate.com; and more generalized distribution through social network sites such as Facebook, to name just a few). Savvy observers have noted that in mobile ecosystems in particular, independent developers have consistently had greater success than traditional publishers in cracking into the “top 10.”


(Sp)reading Digital Comics

Comic books—especially single issues, or “floppies”—have always been spreadable. As kids in the 1980s, my friends and I would head into our local comic shop, each emerge with an armful of floppies, then spend the afternoon first reading through our own haul and then each other’s. Usually, at least one of my friends’ floppies would be from some larger multipart story arc, and, if it was any good, I’d either go digging through my friend’s collection or thumbing through the store’s back issues to find out what was going on. Sharing, recommendation, drillability, and vast narrative complexity were all part of our everyday lives long before we could even drive.

Webcomics have emerged as an alternative form of publishing that makes such practices even easier. Many webcomics use RSS feeds to deliver new installments via email or RSS reader applications, and many webcomics offer forums where fans can chat and bicker and share their favorite comics with one another, much as my friends and I did in person so many years ago. Now, I can recommend comics to friends around the world either by emailing them a link to a webcomic’s site (and thus the latest comic) or a “permalink” to the archived page or, more commonly now, by texting, IMing, or Facebook messaging them such a link. Many webcomics, such as Emily Horne and Joey Comeau’s A Softer World, include built-in widgets for fans to recommend them on online services such as Digg, Facebook, Reddit, StumbleUpon, Del.icio.us, Technorati, and Twitter. Scott Kurtz’s PVP includes widgets to share each strip on twenty different services.

Unlike traditional print comics, for which most writers and artists labor under “work for hire” contracts for large publishers such as Marvel and DC, webcomics are typically owned and operated by their creators and rely on revenues generated by advertising, fan subscriptions/memberships, or sales of ancillary merchandise. As a result, for creators, getting individuals to purchase a single instance of their work (such as a traditional print floppy) is less important than establishing an ongoing relationship, aggregating a large recurring audience over time. The simplicity of the URL system supports this—when recommending a comic to a friend, I could copy and paste an image of the comic itself into an email, stripping out the context, ads, and links to the related merchandise, but why bother when sharing a link is so easy?



The Use Value of Authors

A key dilemma for both media consumers and producers in today’s media environment is discoverability: with so much media spreading, and even more desperately wanting to be spread, how do we choose what to consume? Consequently, consumers need highly effective filters to direct them to the media they are most likely to enjoy and away from that which they are unlikely to enjoy; producers, meanwhile, need to develop techniques to ensure that their content enjoys safe passage through such filters and finds the audiences most likely to enjoy their work. Herein lies the importance of, and the use for, authors.

As compared to creative figures—producers, writers, artists, designers, and a wealth of other terms in common parlance to describe those who make media—an “author” is someone to whom we attribute a heightened level of authority and autonomy over the item of media in question. Most consumers operate on the assumption that a vast amount of media isn’t worth personally consuming, either because it is corporate hackery written by committee just to make a fast buck, because it is amateurish and incompetent, or simply because it doesn’t appeal to any of their interests. An author, though, is a totem of sorts that signifies a certain level of skill and singularity of vision. To talk of authors for professionally produced content is to assert creativity and self-expression in what can too often be characterized as a faceless, paint-by-numbers industry, while to talk of authors for amateur-produced content is to attribute artistry in what can too often be characterized as a world full of everyone’s uploaded cat videos. Discussing authors can be a way to validate the product of said authors, and hence to allow ourselves to discuss art, meaning, and depth in some popular media without attributing artistry or depth to all popular media.

At the same time, precisely who the author is can be hotly contested and variable, as the content industries may pose one author, while fans may look to others, sometimes working to uncover who the “real” author is. For instance, while The Simpsons is often popularly spoken of as Matt Groening’s, many fans have nominated other individuals in the show’s production as the true source(s) of the show’s perceived brilliance, and hence as its author(s). The fact that people would bother to argue over who the author is should signify how much the title of author matters, and it offers an initial sign of the importance of authors. MORE


The Swedish Model

Sweden is a small country, yet it has one of the world’s biggest and best-selling music scenes. You might think ABBA, and you wouldn’t be wrong, but they’re just the best-known starting point of a very long tail, with thousands of bands spanning every genre and degree of success. Sweden is also home to The Pirate Bay, the world’s top torrenting site, which ABBA songwriter Björn Ulvaeus has decried as made by and for those who are lazy and stingy and don’t understand that, if creators can’t anticipate payment, they will never release music (“ABBA Star” 2009). Since the advent of recording in the early twentieth century, recorded music has been the central economic good of the music business. Hence, it is no wonder that the mainstream industry has been so vociferous in its efforts to demonize and sue uploaders and to support national policies that limit the ability of listeners to spread music.

Further down the tail, though, Sweden is home to many artists and labels trying to forge a new way through this thicket, one that rejects the notions that certain payment is a precondition for artistic expression or that file sharing detracts from the economics of their business. The attitudes and actions of The Swedish Model, a consortium of seven independent labels committed to a more optimistic dialogue on music’s future, and other Swedish labels and musicians put spreadability at the center of their hopes for the future of the music business. The tiny label Songs I Wish I Had Written, headed by Martin Thörnkvist, who also heads The Swedish Model, shared an office with a Pirate Bay cofounder, and Thörnkvist uploads his label’s catalog in the highest quality to Pirate Bay. Labrador, another Swedish independent label, gives away annual samplers through Pirate Bay and posts all its singles for free download on its website.

These entrepreneurs have taken to heart that if their music doesn’t spread, it may as well be dead. The logic goes like this: We are small and have minimal budgets. There are few mainstream venues that will promote our music, so few people will have the opportunity to hear it through mass media. The more people who hear it, the larger the audience will become. Even if most of that audience does not pay for CDs or mp3s, the slice that does will be bigger than the entire audience would otherwise have been. And the slice that doesn’t pay to buy music may well pay for other things. As Thörnkvist put it when addressing the music industry audience at MIDEMNet, “I’d rather have one million listeners and one hundred buyers than one hundred listeners and one hundred buyers” (2009).



Transnational Audiences and East Asian Television

Consider a clip from the Japanese variety show Arashi no Shukudai-kun that recently made its way onto YouTube in early 2009: a small group of Japanese pop singers are challenged to eat a “surprisingly large” hamburger named after a city in the Ibaraki prefecture and are joking about how “Super American” the situation is. They suggest that the burger inspires them to don overalls and grow “amazing” chest hair, while Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.” blares in the background. The clip was then subtitled in English by two fans based in Australia and circulated based on its appeal to English-speaking audiences of the “J-pop” performers in the video as an embodied spectacle of Japanese popular culture. Various versions of the clip were distributed online through fan communities on LiveJournal, a Russian-owned social blogging platform with offices headquartered in San Francisco, and other forums, and fans shared the links through their blogs, Facebook, Twitter, Delicious, and other social media channels. In the process, the Arashi no Shukudai-kun clip was recontextualized, reformatted, resubtitled, and diverted to new (and sometimes unexpected) audiences at every step along the way. Far from exceptional, there are countless clips like this one on YouTube: in the global spreadable media environment, its crisscrossing path back and forth across multiple national, linguistic, and cultural boundaries is becoming perfectly common.

Not only is the transnational movement of media becoming increasingly pervasive; it has also become significantly more—and more visibly—multinodal. Thus, we must go beyond the use of Bruce Springsteen in the background of a Japanese variety show as part of a parody and indigenization of Western cultural materials to consider its subsequent movement as it is taken up, translated, and circulated by grassroots intermediaries, passing through divergent and overlapping circuits, often outside the purview of established media industries and markets. In short, we must look beyond sites of production and consumption to consider the practices of transmission and the routes of circulation—the means and manner by which people spread media to one another—which are increasingly shaping the flow of transnational content.





Spreadable Media Spreads New Joy For 2013

So, we are now roaring into 2013 with the next installment of essays associated with the launch of Spreadable Media: Creating Meaning and Value in a Networked Culture, which I co-authored with Sam Ford and Joshua Green. The book is due out from New York University later this month. Each week, we are releasing a series of commissioned essays associated with the book, written by various friends, colleagues, former students, most of whom have at one time or another been affiliated with the Futures of Entertainment Consortium. The Consortium, among other things, runs two conferences per year -- one on the East Coast (Futures of Entertainment, hosted by MIT) and one on the west coast (Transmedia Hollywood, which is jointly hosted by UCLA and USC). These essays are tightly integrated into the book's argument, but they are also intended to stand alone as spreadable content, and we hope that you will feel free to pass them along through your various social networks.

I have been writing about the core concept of Spreadable Media via this blog for several years now, and it has already inspired rich discussion. I thought I would share with you an outstanding video, which uses Spreadable Media concepts, to explain the Caine's Arcade phenomenon. If you do not know the original Caine's Arcade video, check it out below.

Now, here's the video explaining what happened produced by Stephanie Linka, a student in a class taught last Spring at George Washington University, by USC Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism alum Nikki Usher.

How Caine Won the Internet from Stephanie Linka on Vimeo.

And now onto our regularly scheduled series of essays. Today's crop are focused around forms of participation within a networked culture.

The Moral Economy of Soap Opera Fandom C. Lee Harrington

Soaps accompanied my real life as a stay at home mother, chronicled my years as a working adult, kept me company when I was alone, gave me something to bond with my mother, sisters, daughters, and daughter-in-laws over.

—52-year-old soap opera viewer who has been watching General Hospital for 46 years, One Life to Live for 41 years, and All My Children for 39 years; quoted in Harrington and Bielby 2010

I have long been fascinated with daytime soap operas, both as a source of pleasure in my own life and as the central anchor of my research on media industries, texts, and audiences. Soaps are distinct from other media forms due to their longevity in the U.S. television landscape (the average age of soaps airing in 2011 was 40 years), the daily installments of “primary” text (260 new episodes per year, per soap), their celebration and magnification of emotional expression, and the possibility of lifelong relationships forming between loyal viewers, soap characters, and the communities in which those characters live and work (see the epigraph). No other form of media fiction offers comparable dailiness, intimacy, and familiarity over the long haul.

Soaps’ longevity poses challenges to researchers, who struggle with the sheer volume of textual material produced, as well as to the soap industry, which struggles with staying true to shows’ long narrative histories and developing characters in “real time” while aligning those narratives with contemporary tastes of both newbies and lifers. Balancing these potentially competing demands generates a particular moral economy within soap opera fandom. The research on soap fans that Denise Bielby and I conducted in the early 1990s (Harrington and Bielby 1995) captured the beginning of fandom’s migration to the Internet, with viewers experimenting with electronic bulletin board discussions as a supplement to their investment in other aspects of “public” fandom (attending industry-sponsored fan events, buying fan magazines, joining fan clubs, etc.). In our book, we made a distinction between legal ownership over soap narratives and what we called “moral” ownership over them—fans’ sense that soap opera communities and characters are “theirs,” rather than belonging to the writers, actors, directors, or producers.

This sense of ownership is rooted in at least three factors. First, “soaps’ very success at creating and sustaining a seamless fictional world [. . .] creates a space for viewers to assert their claims when they perceive continuity is broken” (Bielby, Harrington, and Bielby 1999, 36). Second, viewers regularly outlast soaps’ revolving writing and production teams. Many long-term fans have been invested in their show(s) longer than the people creating them (as, often, have several of the actors playing the characters, leading to interesting ownership struggles within the industry [Harrington and Brothers 2010]), and they often do know their show’s history better. (The same point can be made of long-term sports fans or movie-franchise fans, contexts in which transgenerational fandoms outlast coaches, players, actors, directors, etc.) Third, soap production schedules allow the industry to respond relatively quickly to fan complaints and concerns, giving fans a sense that their opinions can make a real difference. MORE

How Spreadability Changes How We Think about Advertising Ilya Vedrashko

You can’t spell “spreadability” without “ad.”

The vision of unpaid people cheerfully passing around ads they love has been a guiding light for marketers for more than a decade now. And what’s not to like? An ad that gets passed along receives extra attention. The Good Housekeeping stamp of consumers’ approval that such transmission suggests is assumed to add trustworthiness to the message. An ad that “goes viral” scores extra eyeballs.

But while the demand and the budgets for “viral” have been growing, it’s been surprisingly difficult to find a permanent box for spreadable media on the modern agency’s org chart. While many different disciplines—creative, media, public relations, social—are claiming ownership, a systemic problem has prevented spreadability from gaining a true acceptance.

Ad agencies, like factories of the industrial era, are a particular arrangement of means of production, highly specialized labor force and scarce resources optimized around efficient mass manufacturing of a particular type of output. For agencies, this output consists of ad units placed in print, television, online, radio, outdoor, theaters, events, and so on. An average agency produces and places thousands of such units on behalf of its clients each year.

These ads—paid announcements that appear in media—come in a finite variety of formats and sizes, and their production is scalable to the point where much of it can be, and has been, automated and outsourced. Ads are designed to elicit responses along the vector “see, like, remember, buy.” The agencies are structured around maximizing the number of these responses. Media departments craft media plans that try to ensure the highest number of the right people see the ad at the lowest cost. Creative departments are judged by the number of people who like and remember the ad. Ultimately, the agency’s output is evaluated against the number of people who buy the advertised product. The more people see, like, remember, and buy, the more successful the agency is in the long run. MORE

Soulja Boy and Dance Crazes Kevin Driscoll

During the summer of 2007, U.S. pop media seemed saturated with talk show hosts and pro athletes dancing along to “Crank Dat (Soulja Boy).” By the time an official music video was shot in late July, the dance craze was already approaching an apex, with new videos appearing daily on MySpace and YouTube. Close inspection of the phenomenon reveals a diverse array of overlapping audiences exploiting “Crank Dat” as a producerly framework for the expression of personal, social, and political messages. Steeped in southern hip-hop’s independent tradition, teenage rapper Soulja Boy Tell ’Em championed the songs, dances, and videos produced by these audiences in pursuit of his own commercial success. “Crank Dat,” for all its confusion, contradiction, and welcoming incompleteness, is a valuable demonstration of spreadability in practice.

In the dominant narrative of the 1990s, hip-hop was driven to pop dominance by a rivalry between Los Angeles and New York City. Excluded from mainstream media channels, artists living in the southern U.S. were forced to develop an alternative hip-hop industry supported primarily by locally grown “indie” record labels with connections to regional radio personalities, nightclub DJs, and mom-and-pop record-shop owners (Grem 2006). This independence enabled the southern artists to develop innovative sounds and styles quite distinct from their coastal peers. In 2003, with CD sales flagging, major record labels turned to these indies in search of new talent to revitalize the industry. Among the many southern styles attracting attention, snap music deviated the most from the conventional hip-hop template. Snap’s minimal drum programming and repetitive lyrics destabilized unquestioned hip-hop norms such as the value of complex wordplay and the use of funk and soul samples. MORE

Television’s Invitation to Participate Sharon Marie Ross

In Beyond the Box: TV and the Internet (Ross 2008), I argued that television shows starting in the late 1990s increasingly seemed to be “inviting” television viewers to become actively engaged with the TV text, often through the Internet. I saw three forms of invitation emerging: overt invitations, where a TV show obviously invites a viewer to become involved (e.g., American Idol’s calls to phone in a vote); organic invitations, where a TV show assumes that viewers are already actively engaged and incorporates evidence of this within the narrative of the show—or, in some cases, television network (e.g., Degrassi: The Next Generation’s attention to the role of new communications media in teens’ lives, and The N network’s use during Degrassi episodes of interstitials that feature teen viewers texting and IM chatting via The N’s website); and obscured invitations, where a TV show’s narrative complexity demands viewer unraveling that drives fans to online applications (e.g., Lost’s dense referencing of philosophers and artists as clues to the “hidden” meaning of the island and its inhabitants).

In discussions with Henry Jenkins since, I have suggested that organic invitations are likely to become the dominant form of TV invitations to participation. Today’s texting, IMing, web-surfing teens will become tomorrow’s multimedia-tasking adults, who will likely only be followed by a new wave of teen TV watchers who will be engaging in yet-to-be-imagined forms of new media communication.

Such developments are reverberating throughout all of media, from increasing demands on print journalism to be more present online to the use of branding in the spread of media franchises across TV, film, and music in such a way that demands more widespread knowledge of marketing from all media professionals. And such changes tend to spread throughout the TV landscape—even CSI has popular online applications, after all. MORE

What Old Media Can Teach New Media Amanda D. Lotz

While it may be the case that you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, the question remains whether that old dog can teach a new dog anything useful from its existing repertoire. Or, in terms of spreadable media, can the “old”—or, as I prefer, “established”—processes of media industries for creating entertainment content teach those who are endeavoring on the creation of spreadable media anything of value? In the overinflated rhetoric of new media, media revolutions, and change, too often we lose track of basics and fail to consider that most of what seems new and different isn’t really, either. In this essay, I identify some of the established characteristics of entertainment-based media industries that remain relevant in an era of spreadable media and explore how some of the strategies these industries have developed to deal with their particularities do or do not apply to the spreadable media context.

A key starting point for understanding entertainment-based media industries is acknowledging that they are different from most other business sectors—often in particularly frustrating ways for their practitioners. This “difference” of media industries means that the rules and practices that hold for and prove productive to commercialization practices elsewhere simply don’t work, or at least don’t work as effectively, for these media companies. One of these key differences is captured in the maxim “nobody knows,” also expressed sometimes as the acknowledgment that such media industries are “risky businesses.” This sense that nobody knows results from the fickleness of audiences when it comes to creative and entertainment goods. Conventional focus-group testing or the combination of known “successful” features tend not to be particularly predictive of success in the design of a new media good. In other words, you can’t test or engineer your way to a hit with any certainty.

Considering the spreadable media successes of the past few years, I suspect the “nobody knows” maxim is likely to be true of the circulation of spreadable media to the same degree it is for the distribution of established entertainment media. Try as we might to identify common features or characteristics, we fool ourselves if we think we can anticipate a formula for producing creative content likely to catch the cultural fancy of any particular audience at any given moment. But all is not lost; these media companies have developed a number of strategies designed to counter some of the uncertainty of their established platforms, and some of these strategies might prove productive for making spreadable media as well. MORE

For those of you who were at the Modern Language Association conference this past weekend, you might have had a chance to buy an advanced copy of the book. If you did, we'd love to hear what you think, so feel free to drop a note here or even better on the Spreadable Media website.

More Spreadable Media: Rethinking Transmedia Engagement

Let it spread, let it spread, let it spread. By now, you know: Spreadable Media: Creating Value and Meaning in a Networked Culture is a new book, being released by New York University Press at the end of January 2013, written by myself, Sam Ford, and Joshua Green. Around the book will live thirty or so online essays written by colleagues, former students, and others who have been associated with the Futures of Entertainment Consortium through the years, which both engage with the content of the book, and are, in turn, taken up as part of the book's core argument.  We are hoping you will do your part to help spread these essays throughout your own social networks, and let the conversation start before the book even gets released to the world.

Today's crop, the last before the new year, offers new perspectives on transmedia entertainment and more generally, on the issue of audience engagement, both central themes in the book, as those of you who regularly read this blog might imagine. For more information, check out the book's home page.

Forensic Fandom and the Drillable Text


While the rise of spreadable media is a major trend of the contemporary era, another development within media seems to pull in an opposite direction: narrative complexity of media storytelling, especially on television. Since the late 1990s, dozens of television series have broadened the possibilities available to small-screen storytellers to embrace increased seriality, hyperconscious narrative techniques such as voice-over narration and playful chronology, and deliberate ambiguity and confusion. These trends, which I’ve explored at length elsewhere (Mittell 2006), are tied into transformations within the television industry and technologies of distribution that have enabled programs to be viewed more consistently by smaller audiences and to still be considered successful.

Such long-form complex narratives as Lost, The Wire, 24, and The Sopranos seem to run counter to many of the practices and examples of spreadable media found elsewhere in this book. These shows are not the ephemeral “video of attractions” common to YouTube that are shared and commented on during downtime at work. They are the DVD box sets to be shelved next to literary and cinematic collections, long-term commitments to be savored and dissected in both online and offline fora. They spread less through exponential linking and emailing for quick hits than via proselytizing by die-hard fans eager to hook friends into their shared narrative obsessions. Even when they are enabled by the spreadable technologies of online distribution, both licit and illicit, the consumption patterns of complex serials are typically more focused on engaging with the core narrative text than the proliferating paratexts and fan creativity that typify spreadable media.

Perhaps we need a different metaphor to describe viewer engagement with narrative complexity. We might think of such programs as drillable rather than spreadable. They encourage a mode of forensic fandom that invites viewers to dig deeper, probing beneath the surface to understand the complexity of a story and its telling (Mittell 2009a). Such programs create magnets for engagement, drawing viewers into story worlds and urging them to drill down to discover more. READ MORE


A History of Transmedia Entertainment

As embraced by industry professionals and media consumers alike, transmedia storytelling promises to bring greater institutional coordination, added narrative integrality, and deeper engagement to the various pieces of contemporary media franchises. Comic books, video games, and other markets once considered ancillary now play increasingly significant and recentered roles in the production and consumption of everyday film and television properties such as Heroes, Transformers, and the reenvisioned Star Trek in ways that only very few innovators (such as George Lucas and his carefully elaborated and expanded Star Wars empire) had previously conceived in the twentieth century. Yet, while contemporary convergence culture has set the stage for a greater embrace of transmedia entertainment, the processes by which stories have been spread across institutions, production cultures, and audiences from different media have a much longer history. Although we might recognize transmedia storytelling as something newly emergent, we also cannot deny its relationship to long-established models of media franchising whereby the creative and economic resources owned by monolithic corporate entities were nevertheless widely used and shared across production communities and industry sectors. The franchise models that multiplied one Law & Order into several sister series and turned X-Men comic books into action figures worked by spreading resources among a network of stakeholders brought into social relations by virtue of their parallel (though often imperfectly aligned) interests. Thus, neither transmedia entertainment nor convergence point to the end of industrial models of cultural production in favor of some new social media; instead, the transmedia storytelling of convergence offers an opportunity to see how spreadable media extend, reorient, and reimagine existing historical trajectories in the industrial production and consumption of culture.

Understanding transmedia in terms of cultural exchange across and transformation through different media experiences means recognizing traditional processes of adaptation and translation of content as a foundation for the social exchange of spreadable media today. READ MORE.



Performing with Glee

Some producers developing cross-platform media franchises are experimenting with distribution models that engage consumers on a quotidian level, capitalizing on personal audience networks and not-quite-official distribution routes to help content spread. For FOX’s television franchise Glee, the network integrates traditional, legal distribution practices with experimental tactics that engage loyal fans, in addition to harnessing unofficial distribution channels that fall into legal gray areas.

The production team has embraced the show’s fans—known as gleeks, a fusion of “Glee” and “geek”—fashioning a popular (brand) identity and catering specifically to them. In addition to conventional broadcast, Hulu and FOX.com allow viewers to catch previous episodes, and FOX offers additional content such as cast interviews and behind-the-scenes clips. Glee’s thematic fusion of high school comedy and Broadway musical provide opportunities for musical guests from both Broadway (such as Kristin Chenoweth) and the popular music circuit (such as Britney Spears and Josh Grobin), bringing new viewers into the Glee fan club while keeping current fans engaged.

To retain fan interest after season one ended, FOX partnered with CoincidentTV to create the “Glee Superfan Player.” The online platform integrates social network sites such as Facebook and Twitter with other fan-enticing elements—such as links to buy music on iTunes and to create “photobooth” pictures with the cast—in a unified space that plays episodes while viewers multitask. While the player only provides access to material on Hulu and FOX.com, rendering the experimental platform useless once episodes eventually expire, it at least represents an attempt to create a consolidated cross-platform fan experience. Other recent experiments include a MySpace karaoke contest, in which fans record themselves singing hits from Glee, and live concert tours that sold out in four American cities—so successful that the cast plans to tour the UK in mid-2011. READ MORE

Valuing Fans

Why work toward a model for valuing fans?

The U.S. media industry has run into some significant economic problems in recent years. Study after study suggests that Americans are watching more television and consuming more movies, music, and information than ever before, but, at the same time, it is neither as captive nor as concentrated as before. New ways to discover emerging artists and projects, as well as increasing choice in media platforms and content, are challenging how ad-supported media is bought and sold and rendering direct funding for some media content much harder to come by.

It was this situation that gave rise to the popularity of “engagement” a few years ago, a tactic to sell advertisers audiences whose enthusiasm is believed to translate to more awareness of and receptivity to product placement and commercials. How much more “engaged” and receptive this new audience is than the older, bigger one was considered crucial in setting a price for the advertising that supports media production. Conspicuously absent from these discussions was the role that fan communities (groups whose various interests in a media property may range widely) play in contributing economic value beyond paying attention to commercials. READ MORE


The Online Prime Time of Workspace Media

Ask a producer of digital content about website usage patterns, as I have, and they will tell you how important the audience accessing their content from work is to daily website traffic. According to NBC’s vice president of digital content and development, Carole Angelo, NBC.com designs its daily production schedule to service its workweek “lunch hour” audience. Fox Sports Digital (2009) also adopts this production strategy, as it summed up in its 2009 slogan “lunchtime is the new prime time.” Reporting on this trend, the New York Times observed that American cubicle dwellers were increasingly choosing to spend their break time watching online videos, playing Flash games, and engaging in social network sites instead of heading to the water cooler (Stelter 2008). The entertainment industries are creating digital content for the work space because they see this audience as a dependable online consumer demographic.

Programming for the workspace media audience is crucial to entertainment industry efforts in the online space. It allows producers to adapt familiar television programming strategies for the Internet. In television, producers have long programmed according to “day parts”—segments of the broadcast day designed for particular audiences and viewing contexts. Nick Browne has argued that the scheduling of day parts enabled television companies to reflect and reinforce a “socially mediated order of the workday and workweek” to “mediate between the worlds of work and entertainment” (1994, 71). Each day part carries with it certain assumptions about the needs and desires of audience segments, as well as expectations of modern labor. The scheduling of a workday day part demonstrates the influence that technology has had on the blending of work and entertainment. READ MORE

Spreadable Media Goes Retro: Pass It Along!

We continue this week with the process of rolling out the essays commissioned to accompany Spreadable Media: Creating Meaning and Value in a Networked Culture,   the book I wrote with Sam Ford and Joshua Green and which is being released to the world at the end of January, 2013. You can start to get a sense of the shape of the book's argument by reading these essays, week by week, as they get unleashed upon the world. This week, for example, we are sharing essays which are designed to accompany the book's second chapter -- Reappraising the Residual -- which explores competing regimes of value, competing processes of appraisal, and especially the ways that old media content might regain value from the ways it moves within and across social networks online.

For those who would like a bit more of a road map of Spreadable Media, below is the breakdown of the chapters:

Introduction: Why Media Spreads                                                                                                               

Chapter One: Where Web 2.0 Went Wrong

Chapter Two: Reappraising the Residual

Chapter Three: The Value of Media Engagement

Chapter Four: What Constitutes Meaningful Participation?

Chapter Five: Designing for Spreadability

Chapter Six: Courting Supporters for Independent Media

Chapter Seven: Thinking Transnationally



To learn more about the book, check out our main website. You can go there to read the whole essays (or follow the links below).

We strongly encourage you to spread these essays through your own social networks, repost them on your blogs -- all we ask is that you acknowledge the authors and the fact that they are associated with our book.   Thanks to all of you who have recirculate previous essays we've released.


Today’s big brands are all rooted in the past. Tide, Coca-Cola, BMW, and even Apple are all connected to bygone decades. When these brands extend and use their existing brand name to introduce a new product or service, the past meanings and images that it invokes become an important element to be managed, understood, wielded, and shaped by managers. This short essay discusses and analyzes a form of brand extension strategy that has gained prominence, in which tired or even abandoned brands have been reanimated and successfully relaunched. Management will deliberately reach into the past and consciously seek to gain new value from old brands and the meaningful relationships they convey. Stephen Brown (2001) terms this a “retro revolution” in which the revival of old brands and their images have become an increasingly attractive option for marketing managers. Over the past decade, I have been involved either independently or with coauthors in a growing body of research that looks at how the past is consumed, valued, revalued, and managed, beginning with a study of the values and images of the Wal-Mart retail chain (Arnold, Kozinets, and Handelman 2001). Stephen Brown, John Sherry, and I define retrobranding as “the revival or relaunch of a product or service brand from a prior historical period, which is usually but not always updated to contemporary standards of performance, functioning, or taste,” seeing retro goods as “brand-new, old-fashioned offerings” (2003b, 20). Old brands retain value simply by being old: the value of nostalgia, the so-called retro appeal. There is also value in the communal or cultural relationships that the brand has built over its lifetime. Finally, there are values on an individual level that relate to the former two other values.

In a set of studies cutting across three different retro, “cult brand” products—the Volkswagen Beetle, Star Wars, and Quisp breakfast cereal—Brown, Sherry, and I have sought to explain the underlying principles of retrobranding and the way consumers responded to it (2003a, 2003b). The VW Beetle was a popular car associated with the 1960s era and hippies and also immortalized in Disney’s Herbie films, a series of four films originating with 1968’s hit The Love Bug (the series itself later updated and retrobranded into Herbie: Fully Loaded, a 2005 motion picture starring Lindsay Lohan). Star Wars is one of the most successful media franchises of all time. And Quisp cereal is an American breakfast cereal released in the 1960s using cartoon advertising created by Jay Ward, the creator of cult animation hit Rocky and Bullwinkle, and employing some of the same voice talents.

In each case, the entertainment connections of the brand have helped spur a type of residual and actual “brand fandom” that led to the possibility of a revival. In the case of the VW Beetle, this was the 1998 launch of the VW New Beetle. For Star Wars, it was the much-maligned 1999 prequel The Phantom Menace. For Quisp cereal, it was the quiet and limited redistribution of the cereal into select markets in the 1980s, after it had languished without support since the late 1970s. As well, Quisp’s fan-spurred and eBay-supported emergence in the mid-1990s marked it as the first so-called Internet cereal.



Existing in dialectical tension with contemporary games which trumpet their photorealistic graphics, sprawling storyworlds, and intricate, extended, networked play, retrogames preserve and celebrate a prior era of gaming often referred to as a “golden age” of arcade standards (such as Asteroids, Tempest, and Donkey Kong) from the late 1970s and early 1980s. Increasingly, the category also covers the decade that followed the industry crash of 1983, when the locus of gaming shifted to home consoles such as the Nintendo and Super Nintendo Entertainment Systems (NES and SNES), the Sega Genesis and Dreamcast, and home microcomputers such as the Commodore 64 and Amiga, as well as the first generation of PCs and Macintoshes. Compared with games for contemporary consoles such as the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 that occupy gigabytes of memory, resurrections of 8-bit, 16-bit, and 32-bit video and computer games look like the mathematically downscaled primitives they are: their blocky resolutions, limited color palettes, and blip-bleep-bloop sound reproduction are matched by equally simple and repetitive gameplay. However, retrogames are not hopelessly antiquated museum pieces lacking the good sense to stay buried in gaming history. Their continued presence complicates easy (and industry-friendly) conceptions of technological and aesthetic progress, in which the newest equals the best equals the most expensive.

Older games thrive alongside their more sophisticated descendants, gaining popularity and influence with each passing year. Retrogames continue to be played in both authorized and unauthorized forms. Their minuscule memory footprint, easily grasped rules, and convenient fit within the interstices of daily routine make them ideal content for mobile devices. For instance, the App stores for iTunes and Google Android phones devote sections to retrogames. The Xbox Live Arcade markets “updated retro classics” alongside its “newest hits,” while the Wii Virtual Console sells downloads from “the greatest video game archive in history”—actually licenses owned by Nintendo. These monetized properties coexist uneasily with the thriving emulator scene, where every conceivable old game has its software simulacrum and renegade read-only memories (ROMs)—files containing data images copied from memory chips, computer firmware, or the circuit boards of arcade machines—circulate beyond the bounds of copyright. For both legal and illegal purposes, the Internet functions as both archive and distribution network, supporting the sharing, spreading, and mutation of content




Clothing, almost by definition, is a medium of transmission within a spreadable media ecology. It is both the means and the site for the storage and spread of information. Clothes are made to be carried by the human body (as in the French porter and the Haitian Creole pote). Textile skins were, from their origins, portable artifacts and temporary prostheses, shaped by the demands of a mobile body and inscribed with markers of that body’s history. The demands on clothing have always been high—armor (protection against shame, enemies, and the elements) and aesthetics, comfort and durability. Clothing is portable, proximate to the human body, and eminently changeable. Clothes remain artifacts in continual flux. They convey messages to the world, and they also provide the raw material for subversion of precisely these messages.

Before the industrial era, vestments were few and far between. Their production took a great amount of human and material resources. Into their tailored forms much was literally and culturally invested. In the Western tradition, throughout the Middle Ages and Renaissance, clothing—once shaped to a given body—might be worn for years, sometimes carried for a lifetime. The clothing wore its owner as much as the owner wore the clothing, bearing comparable markers of a personal narrative. Through the movements of a body in time, its clothes would acquire increasingly personal and human characteristics—worn knees and elbows, a stretched waist. Stains, patches, tears, and color changes accompanied a life journey, or at least several decades thereof.

Sometimes an article’s function was portable. This was especially true when even the simplest clothing was scarce: its production costly, time consuming, and labor intensive. A coat might be cut down into a vest, or a dress into a scarf. As a garment’s function evolved, so too might the identity of its wearer. A dress might be handed from mother to daughter through a gift economy. In such instances, it carried with it signs and markers of generational passing. A master might give his worn-out shirt to his servant, for whom it could serve as either bodily cover or portable currency. In the Renaissance, it was common for servants to sell their masters’ old clothing to peasants in neighboring villages. Itinerant rag and old clothes dealing grew into a veritable calling within a commodity-based economy. This was a profession of portability. The dealer became an intermediary between wearers, marking a transitional phase in an article’s mobile life history.