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.

One Book, One School, Or This is Henry's Brain at Annenberg

When I left MIT three years ago, after having spent the whole of my professional career at one institution, I left with a sense that what I had produced so far represented who Henry was at MIT. I had been impacted by everything about that school -- starting with the fact that I arrived there just in time to watch most of the progress of the "digital revolution" move outward from leading technical research institutions and hit the general population, and continuing through everything that had been involved in creating and sustaining the Comparative Media Studies Program for more than a decade. Add to this my experiences as a housemaster for Senior Haus for sixteen years, and you have a picture of someone who was deeply shaped by where they were and how they worked. As I reflect back, I keep discovering ways that I absorbed ideas from colleagues, even people I never really got to know, but whose ideas permeated the environment of the Institute. I have now been at USC for the better part of three years, long enough for us to start to discover who I am in this new institutional environment. And the Annenberg School provided me with a great chance a week or so ago to reflect on the nature of the changes. The School has initiated what it is calling the "One School, One Book" program, where each year, they will showcase a book by a member of the faculty which they try to get the students, faculty, and staff to read and discuss. This first year, they chose my book, Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide. I was deeply honored and even more so, when they asked that I bring together some of the students I have worked with most closely in the school to share their insights into how the book had impacted their own research.

My joke these days has been that I have reached an age where I know longer want to be disciplined and I am not yet ready to be institutionalized, but it is only partially true in both cases.

If our institutions help to define what we know and what we think and what kinds of work we can do, a lot of that influence is through the students we have a chance to work with, and I have been profoundly lucky to have a chance to work with some extraordinary students in Annenberg, the Cinema School, and beyond. This occasion came at an interesting moment, having sent in the finished manuscript for my next book, Spreadable Media: Creating Meaning and Value in a Networked Society, which I co-authored with Sam Ford and Joshua Green. Due out in January 2013, this book represents in some ways the culmination of all of the work we did through the Convergence Culture Consortium at MIT. In my remarks here, I describe it as my transition book, one which is still strongly influenced by contacts and conversations at MIT, but still heavily influenced by my encounters and experiences at my new academic home.

After some opening remarks by our Dean Ernest Wilson and by myself about the experience of writing these two books, we turn the floor over to Francesca Marie Smith, Laurel Felt, Kevin Driscoll, and Meryl Alper, who describe how they relate to different aspects of the work I have begun in Los Angeles on fan studies, new media literacies, civic engagement, and transmedia play, respectively.

By the time this was over, I was bursting with pride over how articulate and thoughtful these students were. I had to share this experience with the loyal readers of this blog, so that you have a stronger sense of what my day to day experiences are like here in Southern California.

Do keep in mind that I also have several other intellectual families here through my work in the Cinema School and the School of Education.

C Is For Convergence: How the Cookie Monster Reformed Canadian Health Care

A few weeks ago, Glenn Kubish, an Alberta-based reader of this blog, wrote to me to share a remarkable story about the power of grassroots media and participatory culture. Like a typical U.S. yokel, I had no idea what had happened up in Canada, but was blown away by the story he told and asked him to share it with the other readers of this blog. Kubish is currently working on a thesis which explores more fully the implications of these events, and would be happy to receive insights or suggestions from you fine folks. With this in mind, I've included his contact information in the bio which follows this piece. For now, sit back, grab some cookies and milk, and read what happened. C Is For Convergence!

by Glenn Kurbish

It's fairly widely known that Canadians are passionate about health care and the state of hospitals, so what happened to the man who used to run Alberta Health Services (AHS) shouldn't have come as too much of a surprise.

What was surprising was the role played by the Cookie Monster.

Welcome to my astonishing introduction to convergence culture.

You may not have heard of CTV Edmonton (the local television station in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, where I used to work as news director) or Stephen Duckett (who used to work as president and CEO of Alberta Health Services, the government agency that oversees all aspects of health delivery in this province), but you have heard of the Cookie Monster, and I guess that is part of the point. But first, the facts.

On the morning of November 19, 2010, we did what we in the broadcast news craft always did to start the day. We met around around a table and behind a door to discuss story ideas and decide the shape of the evening news. Emergency room wait times was again a big issue that day, as hospital leaders from around the province were themselves meeting around a table and behind a few sets of doors at a downtown hotel. Their goal was to establish new standards for care and admissions.

The center of attention was Stephen Duckett. As he left the meeting, he was met by our reporter, who asked if she could ask him a question.

Actually, my words won't do justice to the 2:14 encounter. Some 337,000+ others took a look at it on YouTube.

Summary: Duckett wouldn't answer conventional media questions because he was:

a) eating a cookie,

b) still eating a cookie,

c) interested in eating his cookie,

d) of the opinion that the media should not question him, but, rather, go to a news conference at which an underling would speak about the day's discussions,

e) crossing the street, and

f) eating his cookie.

Dubbed the Cookie Affair and Cookiegate, that piece of video made it to the highest office in the province. The Alberta premier told the legislature, "I think everyone in Alberta watched and saw the offensive comments. I'll just leave it at that." Of course, he didn't leave it at that; he fired Duckett later that day.

And, as it turned out, Albertans did more than just watch and see the video. They posted thousands of comments in that new public square, the YouTube rectangle. Some found fault with the media:

Damn! Let the man eat his cookie! #$#$ media! Would you even had to bother him if he was sitting in the toilet?!? (SpiderQED)

Others defended the reporters' tack:

what a F**ing jerk. He is just so rude, so inconsiderate...They were asking him questions about the state of Alberta's healthcare, something he is responsible for. (maymonk)

And, predictably, others responded by playing some version of the Sesame Street card:


(It is fascinating how one 61-lettered, upper-cased, misspelled word gets the message across, complete with a moving image, with audio, of The Cookie Monster!)

And while many responded from their various perspectives, some recreated the video, using the video of the Duckett-media encounter as their own raw material in remixes that drew tens of thousands of views. Take a look (and tell me if you don't smile at the editing touch at :50!)

Here's another creative, autotune remix effort

And here's one that combines contributions from mass media current and past (Sesame Street's Cookie Monster, NBC's The Apprentice, CBS's Hee Haw) to make a grassroots media case against Duckett.

All of this news and reaction dominated front pages, tops of newscasts, radio call-in shows, chat forums, political blogs, Twitter and Facebook pages. TV Tropes picked it up. I'm Eating My Cookie badges popped up.

For his part, Duckett, a day after the video was posted on YouTube, responded, conventionally, with a letter to the media, which ended:

Most regrettably, I did not convey what I deeply feel, which is the greatest respect for the difficult challenges our health care providers face every day, and their innumerable achievements, and what those challenges and achievements mean for our patients and their families. When I got back to my desk I finalized and uploaded a blog which conveys my feelings in my words.

The blog was seen by AHS staff, but what struck me at the time was what strikes me now as I hit the keyboard letters, and that's how weak written words can be -- especially up against the Cookie Monster! Admittedly, that's not a new insight. Here, Lawrence Lessig in Remix makes the same point: "My favorite among the remixes I've seen are all cases in which the mix delivers a message more powerfully [emphasis added] than any original alone could, and certainly more than words alone could."

But it was a new insight for me as a news director and for the newsroom I managed, even though the superior power of the image and the sound over the word was the price of admission into the TV news industry. This was different. It's not that our station's question-asking and video-recording sparked subsequent debate, because that was routine. It was that the media we produced in this case became the primary material for others, and not so much to produce their opinions as much as to express their opinions by producing their own media.

This, for me, was new territory where, in the words of Henry Jenkins, "old and new media collide, where grassroots and corporate media intersect, where the power of the media producer and the power of the media consumer interact in unpredictable ways."

It is surely the case that Duckett, an erudite and by many accounts friendly and caring citizen, was caught unaware not some much by the pitch of his opponents' attacks -- he was, after all, no stranger to public and political criticism -- but by the strange key in which it was composed, allowing notes from , well, muppets. Of course, this is my speculation, but it seems reasonable on the evidence that Duckett simply did not see the convergence culture moment he became trapped in and, ultimately, a victim of.

The evidence is admittedly indirect, but his retreat into the written word, and his wife's subsequent written defence of her husband's actions suggest, at the very least, a discomfort with the mashup tools arrayed against them.

"Alberta," wrote Duckett's wife in a letter the following month published in the capital city's broadsheet newspaper, "will not find a more passionate defender of publicly funded health care.

"In retrospect...was it too flippant? Probably."

This is all very reasonable. And it would have been very reasonable for the most vociferous of Duckett's critics to debate the statistics around emergency room admissions and treatment versus the targets for the same. Just like it was very reasonable for Duckett, who was bestowed by the University of Bath with a Doctor of Business Administration degree in Higher Education Management, to remind reporters that a news briefing on those very questions would take place within the half hour. (I should note that our news station also covered that news conference).

But all this talk of reasonableness only makes Stephen Duncombe's voice louder and his argument more insistent. In his 2007 book, Dream: Re-Imagining Progressive Politics In An Age Of Fantasy, Duncombe chastises progressive leaders for hitching their star to the rationalism wagon.

Appeals to truth and reality, and faith in rational thought and action, are based in a fantasy of hte past, or, rather, past fantasy. Today's world is linked by media systems and awash in advertising images...We live in a "society of the spectacle," as the French theorist-provocateuer Guy Debord declared back in 1967.

Keep in mind the mediasphere that grew around the Duckett Cookie episode as Duncombe briefly surveys the work of cognitive linguist George Lakoff, who found in the mysterious human capacity for metaphor a radical admission that hard information, rationality, reasonableness are not enough. These categories and metaphors, he argues, allow us to "translate hard information and direct experience into a conceptual form familiar and comfortable for us." He continues:

[P]rogressives need to think less about presenting facts and more about how to frame these facts in such a way that they make sense and hold meaning for everyday people.

Quite apart from whether you are in the progressive chorus, this is a solid stage on which to build a case for what really happened in the Duckett Cookie episode. Those who used the tools of spectacle, including raw material culled from pre-existing media and a laptop edit suite, have heard Duncombe's admonition. Says Duncombe in a chilling remark: "Those who put their trust in Enlightenment principles and empircism today are doomed to political insignificance."

As I continue to study this episode, and ask you for any thoughts or directions on finding and picking the theoretical fruit it contains, it is worth sharing a few provisional conclusions:

  1. It was not the bloggers nor the twitizens nor any other member of the new media who played the pivotal role of being in place to ask Duckett the questions and record his answers. The conventional media may indeed face a threatening business model, but we are not yet in the new world where public figures are directly asked questions by those other than the conventional media who have the resources (time, money) to do so.
  2. The Duckett Cookie episode is unthinkable without the contributions of mass media (Sesame Street) and the gamble, not much of one, that viewers of mashed up videos would immediately understand the Cookie Monster text.
  3. Laughter and ridicule remain potent politcal weapons. I am not the first to point out that once a public figure is ridiculed, he or she cannot be taken seriously.
  4. None of this would have happened if one unconventional decision was made in our conventional newsroom, and that was to post the raw video to YouTube in the first place. Why did we do this? For many reasons, including the feeling that the usual packaging of a television news story (heavily edited, 1:45 in length, reaction clips) did not serve our viewers in forming opinions about the issue.
  5. In convergence culture, the Cookie Monster matters.

Glenn Kubish is working towards a Master of Arts in Communications and Technology at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, where his final research project will analyze what happened in the 2:14 of video and in its sharing across social media. He can be reached at glenn.kubish@gmail.com

Sites of Convergence: An Interview for Brazillian Academics (Part Two)

Participation in a culture of convergence requires the development of certain cognitive capacities. Multitasking, for example, is a skill that young people, the digital "natives," seem more comfortable with than those of older generations, who lived in less complex media environments and were expected to think linearly. In the current media environment, what do we lose and what do we gain in terms of cognitive skills? And can new ways of learning co-exist with old forms of knowledge?

I am often reminded of Plato, who reacted with horror at the thought that writing would displace oral language at the center of Ancient Greek culture; he feared that we would lose the capacity to remember the core values and traditions of our society as we became overly reliant on the technology of writing. He was right in some ways. We do not command the kind of oral-based memory that dominates in pre-literate societies, but it is hard to argue that we would have been better off as a society in the absence of writing - or later, of print.

Every new technology opens up rich possibilities for human communication and expands in significant ways our cognitive capacities. Yet, at the same time, there is always a loss of some skills, which have been valuable to us in the past. We are in such a moment of transition. It's hard to see with any certainty all of the trade-offs we are going to be asked to make, but it is also clear that what is coming will dramatically expand our capacity to create, to learn, and to organize.

The question is how to balance the new skills with the old, how to embrace the capacity of the young to process multiple channels of information with the values of contemplation and meditation, which were the virtues of older forms of learning. We need students who can learn from computers and from books, rather than forcing a false choice between the two. We need young people who can embrace and deploy a range of different cognitive strategies to confront a range of different sources of information and to express themselves across a range of different discursive contexts.

For me, this is never about displacing traditional literacy with new media literacies, but rather expanding the ways young people learn to encompass what is most valuable about the new and retain what was most effective about the old.

How can humanist traditions of critical thinking survive the overflow of information that comes with new media?

To be honest, I don't know. But we will need critical thinking now more than ever if individually and collectively we will navigate through a much more complex information-scape and be able to make quick, effective decisions about the reliability and value of the sea of documents and videos that pass over our eyeballs in the course of our day. One way forward is to embrace what Pierre Levy calls collective intelligence. Levy argues that, in a networked society, nobody knows everything - get rid of the idea of the Renaissance man and rid education of the concept that every student should learn the same things. Everybody knows something - foster a culture of diverse expertise and multiple ways of knowing. And what any given member knows is available to the group as needed - enhance mechanisms for allowing us to compare notes, to deliberate together, and learn from each other. Individually, we are no match against the tsunami of data that crests over us every day of our lives, but collectively, we have the mental capacity to tackle complex problems that would be far beyond our personal competencies.

For us to achieve that potential we have to embrace collaborative learning at every stage of our educational process and we have to allow individuals to develop their own distinctive expertise rather than push our schools towards greater standardization.

From this perspective, the use of new media can in fact help build communities. The opposite, however, also seems to be true. Some media scholars have insisted, for example, that YouTube undermines this promise of community building and collective action precisely because of the huge amount and wide range of information published by its users. Making information publicly available is not the same thing as organizing community or mobilizing action. How would you respond to those who argue that fragmentation and dispersal, rather than purposeful collective action, are the likely outcomes of information overflow? Does access really translate into agency?

I would argue that YouTube represents the opposite of fragmentation. It is a site where media producers of diverse backgrounds and goals pool their resources and share with each other what they have produced. We are more aware of the diversity of our culture when we look at YouTube in large part because it has brought us into contact with forms of cultural production that were once hidden from our view, drowned out by the amplified voice of mass media, and isolated from us by all the various structures of exclusion that shape our everyday cultural experience. This is the heart of what Yochai Benkler argues in The Wealth of Networks - that many of these new sites represent a meeting ground for diversely motivated groups and individuals.

There is, at least potentially, much greater flow of information across groups at the grassroots level now than ever before. Groups that were once invisible are now gaining greater public impact through bringing their cultural productions into these new common spaces. These materials move much more fluidly through the population because they do not have to rely on traditional gatekeepers.

I don't want to overstate this point. Much recent research on social networks suggests that they reflect other kinds of segregation in our culture: people tend to gather online with people they know in their everyday lives rather than exploit the full capacity of a networked culture; they tend to seek out people like themselves rather than use the technology to build "bridging" relationships. And this tends to blunt the potential of a participatory culture to diversify our experiences and knowledge.

I would agree that access does not necessarily translate into agency: it certainly doesn't in the absence of knowledge and skills to deploy the affordances of these new social networks effectively; it doesn't in the absence of a mindset that places a real value on diversity or respects the dignity of all participants; it doesn't in the absence of new forms of social organization that help us to leverage the potentials of digital media to confront the challenges and problems of the 21st century.

The concepts of authorship and intellectual property are key to current debates on new media. On the one hand, digital culture encourages appropriation and popular uses of mass cultural texts, offering increased public exposure to fan creativity. On the other, the surge in what you call "grassroots creativity" has met with growing efforts on the part of the media industry to control the use and circulation of information. Is the notion of intellectual property on the wrong side of history? And what role - if any - can it play in the world of media convergence?

Intellectual property is the battleground that will determine how participatory our culture becomes. In some ways, the mass media industries are opening up greater space for participation, are accepting more appropriation than I ever anticipated. But they are not likely to give up the fight to own the core stories, images, and sounds of our culture without some pretty serious pushback from the public.

If we look at the history of culture, we can see some broad movements, which argue against the long-term viability of our current models of intellectual property. First, there was a folk culture, which supported broad participation, which drew few lines between amateur and professional creators, which stressed the social rather than the economic value of our creative acts, and which relied on peer-to-peer teaching of skills and practices. Second, there was a mass media culture, where the production of culture was privatized and professionalized, where most of us consumed and a few produced, and where none of us could lay claim to the cultural traditions that had sustained us or to the stories that had captured our imagination.

Now, the rise of participatory culture represents the reassertion of the practices and logics of folk culture in the face of a hundred years of mass culture. We now have greater capacity to create again and we are forming communities around the practices of cultural production and circulation. We now have the ability to share what we create with a much larger public than was possible under folk culture, and yet our templates for what culture looks like are still largely formed around the contents and practices of mass culture. This is why fan culture thrives in this new environment. Participatory culture cannot grow without the capacity to archive, appropriate, and recirculate media content; it cannot sustain itself long term without an expanded notion of fair use and a reduction on the capacity of corporate media to exert a monopoly control over our culture.

Everyone sees that the future will be more participatory, but we are fighting over the terms of our participation. New business models seek to liberalize the terms, opening up more space to consumer control, much as autocratic regimes are often forced over time to allow some kinds of democratic practices and institutions as they struggle to stay in power. But my bet is that the public demand is going to be greater than their capacity to let go of their control over the mechanisms of cultural production and circulation. They are not going to be capable of moving far enough fast enough. More and more of us will become "pirates" as we seek to pursue our own interests in a media environment that supports greater participation and a legal environment that seeks to channel that participation in ways that serve the interest of major media conglomerates.

Vinicius Navarro is assistant professor of film studies at the Georgia Institute of Technology. He is the co-author (with Louise Spence) of Crafting Truth: Documentary Form and Meaning (Rutgers University Press, 2011). He is currently working on a book on performance, documentary, and new media.

Sites of Convergence: An Interview for Brazillian Academics

Vinicius Navarro has published an extensive interview with me in the current issue of Contracampo, a journal from Universidade Federal Fluminense (Brazil). Navarro and his editors have graciously allowed me to reprint an English version of the interview here on my blog. Done more than a year ago, Navarro covered a broad territory including ideas about convergence, collective intelligence, new media literacies, globalization, copyright, and transmedia storytelling. Sites of Convergence: An Interview with Henry Jenkins

by Vinicius Navarro

Media convergence is not just a technological process; it is primarily a cultural phenomenon that involves new forms of exchange between producers and users of media content. This is one of the underlying arguments in Henry Jenkins's Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide, a provocative study of how information travels through different media platforms and how we make sense of media content. Convergence, according to Jenkins, takes place "within the brains" of the consumers and "through their social interactions with others." Just as information flows through different media channels, so do our lives, work, fantasies, relationships, and so on. In Convergence Culture, Jenkins explores these ideas in discussions that include the TV shows Survivor and American Idol, The Matrix franchise, fans of Harry Potter and Star Wars, as well as the 2004 American presidential campaign.

Henry Jenkins is one of the most influential contemporary media scholars. In addition to his book on media convergence, he is known for his work on Hollywood comedy, computer games, and fan communities. More broadly, Jenkins is an enthusiast of what he calls participatory culture. Contemporary media users, he argues, challenge the notion that we are passive consumers of media content or mere recipients of messages generated by the communications industry. Instead, these consumers are creative agents who help define how media content is used and, in some cases, help shape the content itself. Media convergence has expanded the possibility of participation because it allows greater access to the production and circulation of culture.

In this interview, Jenkins speaks generously about the promises and challenges of the current media environment and discusses the ways convergence is changing our lives. As usual, he celebrates the potential for consumer participation, but he also notes that our access to technology is uneven. And he calls for a more inclusive and diverse use of new media. One of the places in which these discrepancies are apparent is the classroom. Jenkins believes that we need new educational models that involve "a much more collaborative atmosphere" between teachers and students. He also argues that we must change our academic curricula to fit the interdisciplinary needs of our convergence culture.

These are some of the questions we must confront in the new media environment of the twenty-first century, an environment in which consumer creativity clashes with intellectual property laws, Ukrainian TV shows find their way into American homes via YouTube, and transmedia narratives reshape the way we think about filmmaking.

In Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide, you oppose "the digital revolution paradigm" - the idea that new media are "going to change everything" - to the notion of media convergence. You also say that "convergence is an old concept taking on new meanings." What exactly is new about the current convergence paradigm? And what changes may we expect from the convergence (or collision) of old and new media?

The idea of the digital revolution was that new media would displace and, in some ways, replace mass media. There were predictions of the withering away of broadcasting, just as earlier generations of revolutionaries liked to imagine the withering away of the state. That's not what has happened. We are seeing greater and greater interactions between old and new media. In certain cases, this has made new media more powerful rather than less. The power of the broadcast networks now co-exists with the power of the social networks. In some ways, this has pushed broadcasters to go where the consumers are, trying to satisfy a widespread demand for the media we want, when we want it, where we want it, demand for the ability to actively participate in shaping the production and circulation of media content. This is the heart of what I mean by convergence culture. The old notion of convergence was primarily technological - having to do with which black box the media would flow through. The new conception is cultural - having to do with the coordination of media content across a range of different media platforms.

We certainly are moving towards technological convergence - and the iPhone can be seen as an example of how far we've come since I wrote the book - but we are already living in an era of cultural convergence. This convergence potentially has an impact on aesthetics (through grassroots expression and transmedia storytelling), knowledge and education (through collective intelligence and new media literacy), politics (through new forms of public participation), and economics (through the web 2.0 business model).

What's new? On the one hand, the flow of media content across media platforms and, on the other, the capacity of the public to deploy social networks to connect to each other in new ways, to actively shape the circulation of media content, to publicly challenge the interests of mass media producers. Convergence culture is both consolidating the power of media producers and consolidating the power of media consumers. But what is really interesting is how they come together - the ways consumers are developing skills at both filtering through and engaging more fully with that dispersed media content and the ways that the media producers are having to bow before the increased autonomy and collective knowledge of their consumers.

The concept of "convergence" brings to mind the related notions of co-existence, connection and, in some ways, community. In this culture of convergence, however, we continue to see a divide - social as well as generational - between those who participate in it and those who don't. What can we do to narrow this gap and expand the promise of participation?

This is a serious problem that is being felt in countries around the world. Our access to the technology is uneven - this is what we mean by the digital divide. But there is also uneven access to the skills and knowledge required to meaningfully participate in this emerging culture - this is what we mean by the participation gap. As more and more functions of our lives move into the online world or get conducted through mobile communications, those who lack access to the technologies and to the social and cultural capital needed to use them meaningfully are being excluded from full participation.

What excites me about what I am calling participatory culture is that it has the potential to diversify the content of our culture and democratize access to the channels of communication. We are certainly seeing examples of oppositional groups in countries around the world start to route around governmental censorship; we are seeing a rise of independent media producers - from indie game designers to web comics producers - who are finding a public for their work and thus expanding the creative potential of our society.

What worries me the most about participatory culture is that we are seeing such uneven opportunities to participate, that some spaces - the comments section on YouTube for example - are incredibly hostile to real diversity, that our educational institutions are locking out the channels of participatory media rather than integrating them fully into their practices, and that companies are often using intellectual property law to shut down the public's desire to more fully engage with the contents of our culture.

One place where the divide manifests itself very clearly is the classroom. In an interview for a recent documentary called Digital Nation (PBS), you said: "Right now, the teachers have one set of skills; the students have a different set of skills. And what they have to do is learn from each other how to develop strategies for processing information, constructing knowledge, sharing insights with each other." What specific strategies do you have in mind? What educational model are you thinking about?

Last year, I had the students in my New Media Literacies class at USC do interviews with young people about their experiences with digital media. Because my students are global, this gave us some interesting snapshots of "normal" teens from many parts of the world - from India to Bulgaria to Lapland. In almost all cases, the young people enjoyed a much richer life online than they did at school; most found schools deadening and many of the brightest students were considering dropping out because they saw the teachers as hopelessly out of touch with the world they were living in.

Yet, on the other side of the coin, there are young people who lack any exposure to the core practices of the digital age, who depend upon schools to give them exposure to the core skills they need to be fully engaged with the new media landscape. And our schools, in countries all over the world, betray them, often by blocking access to social networks, blogging tools, YouTube, Wikipedia, and so many other key spaces where the new participatory culture is forming.

Over the past few years, I've been involved in a large-scale initiative launched by the MacArthur Foundation to explore digital media and learning. I wrote a white paper for the MacArthur Foundation, which identifies core social skills and cultural competencies required for participatory culture and then launched Project New Media Literacies to help translate those insights into resources for educators. The work we are doing through Project New Media Literacies (which was originally launched at MIT but which has traveled with me to USC) is trying to experiment with the ways we can integrate participatory modes of learning, common outside of school, with the core content which we see valuable within our educational institutions.

For us, teaching the new media literacies involves more than simply teaching kids how to use or even to program digital technologies. The new media landscape has as much to do with new social structures and cultural practices as it has to do with new tools and technologies. And as a consequence, we can teach new mindsets, new dispositions, even in the absence of rich technological environments. It is about helping young people to acquire the habits of mind required to fully engage within a networked public, to collaborate in a complex and diverse knowledge community, and to express themselves in a much more participatory culture. This new mode of learning requires teachers to embrace a much more collaborative atmosphere in their classrooms, allowing students to develop and assert distinctive expertise as they pool their knowledge to work through complex problems together.

Vinicius Navarro is assistant professor of film studies at the Georgia Institute of Technology. He is the co-author (with Louise Spence) of Crafting Truth: Documentary Form and Meaning (Rutgers University Press, 2011). He is currently working on a book on performance, documentary, and new media.

The Revenge of the Origami Unicorn: Seven Principles of Transmedia Storytelling (Well, Two Actually. Five More on Friday)

Across the next two weeks, we will be rolling out the webcast versions of the sessions we hosted during the recent Futures of Entertainment 4 conference held last month at MIT. (see Monday's post for the session on Grant McCracken's Chief Culture Officer). Many of the conference sessions were focused around the concept of transmedia entertainment. The team asked me to deliver some opening remarks at the conference which updated my own thinking about transmedia and introduced some basic vocabulary which might guide the discussion. My remarks were largely off the cuff in response to power point slides, but I am making an effort here to capture the key concepts in writing for the first time. You can watch the recording of the actual presentation here and/or read along with this text.

Many of these ideas were informed by the discussions I've been having all semester long within my Transmedia Storytelling and Entertainment class at the University of Southern California.

Revenge of the Oragami Unicorn: Seven Core Concepts of Transmedia Storytelling

[Electronic Arts game designer] Neil Young talks about "additive comprehension." He cites the example of the director's cut of Blade Runner, where adding a small segment showing Deckard discovering an origami unicorn invited viewers to question whether Deckard might be a replicant: "That changes your whole perception of the film, your perception of the ending...The challenge for us, especially with the Lord of the Rings is how do we deliver that one piece of information that makes you look at the films differently?" -- Henry Jenkins, Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collides (2006).

I first introduced my concept of transmedia storytelling in my Technology Review column in 2003 and elaborated upon it through the "Searching for the Oragami Unicorn: The Matrix and Transmedia Storytelling" chapter in Convergence Culture. For me, the origami unicorn has remained emblematic of the core principles shaping my understanding of transmedia storytelling, a kind of patron saint for what has emerged as increasing passionate and motivated community of artists, storytellers, brands, game designers, and critics/scholars, for whom transmedia has emerged as a driving cause in their creative and intellectual lives. We all have somewhat different definitions of transmedia storytelling and indeed, we don't even agree on the same term - with Frank Rose talking about "Deep Media" and Christy Dena talking about "Cross-media."

As Frank has put it, same elephant, different blind men. We are all groping to grasp a significant shift in the underlying logic of commercial entertainment, one which has both commercial and aesthetic potentials we are still trying to understand, one which has to do with the interplay between different media systems and delivery platforms (and of course different media audiences and modes of engagement.)

Whatever we call it, transmedia entertainment is increasingly prominent in our conversations about how media operates in a digital era - from recent books (such as Jonathon Gray's Show Sold Seperately: Promos, Spoilers, and Other Media Paratexts and Chuck Tryon's Reinventing Cinema: Movies in the Age of Media Convergence) to dedicated websites (such as the Narrative Design Exploratorium which has been running a great series of interviews with transmedia designers and storytellers) and websites created by transmedia producers, such as Jeff Gomez, to explain the concept to their clients. We are seeing senior statesmen across multiple disciplines - from David Bordwell in film studies to Don Norman in design research - weigh in on the aesthetics and design of transmedia experiences. All of this influx of new interest invites us to pull back and lay out some core principles that might shape our development or analysis of transmedia narrative and to revise some of our earlier formulations of this topic.

Six years ago, fans and critics were shocked at the idea of transmedia as they first encountered what the Wachowski Brothers were doing around The Matrix. Now, there is almost a transmedia expectation, as occurred when fans of Flash Forward complained recently because the series introduced a Url on the air and then only provided impoverished extensions to those fans who tracked down the link. Have we reached the point where media franchises are going to be judged harshly if they do not sustain our hunger for transmedia content?

Let me start with the following definition of transmedia storytelling as an operating principle: "Transmedia storytelling represents a process where integral elements of a fiction get dispersed systematically across multiple delivery channels for the purpose of creating a unified and coordinated entertainment experience. Ideally, each medium makes its own unique contribution to the unfolding of the story." Some of what I will say here will complicate this conception of a "unified and coordinated entertainment experience," as we factor in the unauthorized, grassroots expansion of the text by fans or consider the ways that franchises might value diversity over coherence in their exploration of fictional worlds.

We should be clear that narrative represents simply one kind of transmedia logic which is shaping the contemporary entertainment realm. We might identify a range of others - including branding, spectacle, performance, games, perhaps others - which can operate either independently or may be combined within any given entertainment experience. During the conference, Nancy Baym asked us to think about when and how music has gone transmedia. We struggled to come up with examples - everyone of course immediately latched onto the ARG created around the Nine Inch Nails; I proposed the Comic Book Tatoo where artists and writers used Tori Amos songs as their inspiration. The question looks different, though, if we ask about transmedia performance, because most contemporary musical artists perform across multiple media - minimally live and recorded performance, but also video and social network sites and twitter and...

We might also draw a distinction between transmedia storytelling and transmedia branding, though these can also be closely intertwined. So, we can see something like Dark Lord: The Rise of Darth Vader as a extension of the transmedia narrative that has grown up around Star Wars because it provides back story and insights into a central character in that saga. (Thanks to Geoffrey Long for this example) By comparison, a Star Wars breakfast cereal may enhance the franchise's branding but it may have limited contribution to make to our understanding of the narrative or the world of the story. The idea that Storm Troopers might be made of sugar sweet marshmellow bits probably contradicts rather than enhances the continuity and coherence of the fictional world George Lucas was creating.

Where does this leave the Star Wars action figures? Well, they represent resources where players can expand their understanding of the fictional world through their play. Minimally, they enhance transmedia play, but in so far as coherent stories emerge through this play, they may also contribute to the expansion of the transmedia story. And indeed, writers like Will Brooker and Jonathon Gray have made compelling arguments for the specific ways these toys expanded or reshaped the transmedia narrative, adding, for example, to the mystique around Boba Fett.

While we are making distinctions, we need to distinguish between adaptation, which reproduces the original narrative with minimum changes into a new medium and is essentially redundant to the original work, and extension, which expands our understanding of the original by introducing new elements into the fiction. Of course, this is a matter of degree - since any good adaptation contributes new insights into our understanding of the work and makes additions or omissions which reshape the story in significant ways. But, I think we can agree that Lawrence Olivier's Hamlet is an adaptation, while Tom Stoppard's Rosencranz & Guildenstern Are Dead expands Shakespeare's original narrative through its refocalization around secondary characters from the play.

My own early writing about transmedia may have over-emphasized the "newness" of these developments, excited as I was to see how digital media was extending the potential for entertainment companies to deliver content around their franchises. Yet, Derrick Johnson has made strong arguments that the current transmedia moment needs to be understood in relation to a much longer history of different strategies for structuring and deploying media franchises. Indeed, when I head to University of Southern California each morning to teach, I am given a forceful reminder of these earlier stages in the evolution of transmedia entertainment in the form of a giant statue of Felix the Cat which has sat atop a local car dealership since the 1920s and has become a beloved Los Angeles landmark. Felix, as Donald Crafton, has shown us was a transmedia personality, whose exploits moved across the animated screen and comics to become the focus of popular music and merchandising, and he was one of the first personalities to get broadcast on network American television. We might well distinguish Felix as a character who is extracted from any specific narrative context (given each of his cartoons is self-contained and episodic) as opposed to a modern transmedia figure who carries with him or her the timeline and the world depicted on the "mother ship," the primary work which anchors the franchise. As I move through this argument, I will connect transmedia to earlier historical practices, trying to identify similarities and differences along the way.

1. Spreadability vs. Drillability

At last year's Futures of Entertainment conference, we unrolled the concept of "spreadability" which is the central focus of my next book, which is now being written with Sam Ford and Joshua Green. Spreadability refered to the capacity of the public to engage actively in the circulation of media content through social networks and in the process expand its economic value and cultural worth. Writing in response to that argument, Jason Mittell has proposed a counterveiling principle, what he calls "drillability" which has some close connection to Neil Young's concept of "additive comprehension" cited above. Mitell's discussion of drillability is worth quoting at length here:

"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 encourages viewers to dig deeper, probing beneath the surface to understand the compleity of a sotry and its telling. Such programs create magnets for engagement, drawing viewers into the storyworlds and urging them to drill down to discover more...The opposition between spreadable and drillable shouldn't be thought of as a hierarchy, but rather as opposing vectors of cultural engagement. Spreadable media encourages horizontal ripples, accumulating eyeballs without necessarily encouraging more long-term engagement. Drillable media typically engage far fewer people, but occupy more of their time and energies in a vertical descent into a text's complexities."

A key phrase here may be "necessarily" since we've seen that helping to spread the message may well be central to enhancing viewer engagement and may encourage further participation - as we've seen in the past few weeks where the release of Susan Boyle's album, more than six months after the participatory circulation of her original video, has broken sales records this year, swamping by something like seven to one the release of an album by American Idol winner Adam Lambert.

Yet, Mittell invites us to think of a world where many of us are constantly scanning for media franchises that interest us and they drilling down deeper once we find a fiction that captures our imagination. Both potentials may be built into the same transmedia franchise, yet they represent, as he suggests, different dimensions of the experience, and there may well be cases where a franchise sustains spreadability without offering any real depth to drill into or offers depth and complexity without offering strong incentives to pass it along through our social networks. More work needs to be done to fully understand the interplay between these two impulses which are shaping current entertainment experiences.

2. Continuity vs. Multiplicity

I mentioned earlier that some of my recent thinking about transmedia starts to challenge the idea of a "unified experience" which is "systematically" developed across multiple texts. It is certainly the case that many transmedia franchises do indeed seek to construct a very strong sense of "continuity" which contributes to our appreciation of the "coherence" and "plausibility" of their fictional worlds and that many hardcore fans see this kind of "continuity" as the real payoff for their investment of time and energy in collecting the scattered bits and assembling them into a meaningful whole. We can see the elaborate continuities developed around the DC and Marvel superheroes as a particular rich example of the kind of "continuity" structures long preferred by the most dedicated fans of transmedia entertainment.

Yet, if we use these comic book publishers as a starting point, we can see them pushing beyond continuity in more recent publishing ventures which rely on what I described in my contributions to Third Person as a logic of "multiplicity." So, for example, we can see Spider-Man as part of the mainstream continuity of the Marvel universe, but he also exists in the parallel continuity offered by the Ultimate Spider-Man franchise, and we can see a range of distinctly separate mini-franchises, such as Spider-Man India (which sets the story in Mumbai) or Spider-Man Loves Mary Jane (which stands alone as a romance comic series for young female readers). And indeed, some of these experiments - Spider-Man India, the DC Elseworlds series - use multiplicity - the possibility of alternative versions of the characters or parallel universe versions of the stories - as an alternative set of rewards for our mastery over the source material.

Multiplicity allows fans to take pleasure in alternative retellings, seeing the characters and events from fresh perspectives, and comics publishers trust their fans to sort out not only how the pieces fit together but also which version of the story any given work fits within. We can compare this with the laborious process the producers had to go through to launch the recent Star Trek film, showing us that it does indeed take place in the same universe as the original and is part of the original continuity, but the continuity has to be altered to make way for the new performers and their versions of the characters.

This pleasure in multiplicity is not restricted to comics, as is suggested by the recent trend to take works in public domain, especially literary classics, and mash them up with more contemporary genres - such as Pride and Predjudice and Zombies, Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters, or Little Women and Werewolves.

The concept of multiplicity paves the way for us to think about fan fiction and other forms of grassroots expression as part of the same transmedia logic - unauthorized extensions of the "mother ship" which may nevertheless enhance fan engagement and expand our understanding of the original. For those franchises where there is a strong desire to police and preserve continuity, fan fiction can be experienced by producers as a threat, something which may disrupt the coherence of their unfolding story, but where we embrace a logic of multiplicity, they simply become one version among many which may offer us interesting insights into who these characters are and what motivates their behavior.

In my class and at the conference, this concept of multiplicity has been experienced as liberating, allowing us to conceive of alternative configurations of transmedia, and lowering some of the anxiety about making sure every detail is "right" when collaborating across media platforms. My key point, though, would be that there needs to be clear signaling of whether you are introducing multiplicity within the franchise, as well as consistency within any given "alternative" version of the central storyline.


Click Click Ranger: A Transmedia Experiment for Korean Television (Part One)

I am offering today's post as part of the ongoing conversation I've been having throughout the semester about transmedia storytelling practices. Below you will find the first of two installments written by HyeRyoung OK, a recently minted USC PhD, who I have met through my work with a new MacArthur Foundation Research Hub on Youth, New Media, and Public Participation. She has done some groundbreaking research on the deployment of transmedia practices in Korean television, projects which have gotten very little attention on this side of the world, but which have a lot to offer as an alternative model for how mobile technologies and public space can be deployed as part of a transmedia strategy. Click Click Ranger: A Transmedia Experiment for Korean Television

by HyeRyoung Ok

By now we all know that the mobile phone is not simply a phone anymore. Since its introduction, the mobile phone has evolved into something that constantly broadens and transforms its boundary. Indeed, it is one of the most convergent media devices available that materializes the paradigm of media convergence. In most countries where mobile technology is widely adopted, the mobile phone is rapidly becoming a new outlet for traditional media industries responding to the "visions of wireless phones becoming hand-held entertainment centers." Yet the mobile phone's entry into the existing media environment is not a natural and homogeneous process. Continuing, disrupting, and mixing existing media practices to a newer form, rather, it came to terms with conventional media in heterogeneous ways depending on the socio-culturally specific contexts.

Then, here comes the story of the mobile phone in Korea, the country recently known as "IT powerhouse" where the adventure of the mobile phone ever continues. The mobile phone in Korea is literally a focal point where technical, industrial, and cultural innovations to explore the 'newer' forms of media service converge (see my blog posts on general review of Korean IT practices). What is particularly unique about Korean mobile culture is the continuing emphasis on the potential of mobile phones as 'screen' media. It is not surprising phenomenon considering the weight of 'screen' related - all dimensions of hardware and software - industries in Korean society. I would like to illustrate how the mobile screen is positioned in the flux of these transmedia experiments across new and old media in a culturally specific way through the case of Click Click Rangers: aka Mobile Rangers, an entertainment program on channel MBC in Korea.

Click Click Rangers: aka Mobile Rangers, is an interesting case that shows how the media content is designed to be produced/consumed based on the principle of "connecting" multiple forms of screens: mobile screen, television screen, and outdoor LED screen. Click Click Ranger is one of three sections in the popular Sunday prime time entertainment show, titled !: Exclamation Mark which was broadcast from December 2004 to August 2005 on channel MBC - one of three major television networks in Korea. In Click Click Ranger, the mobile screen is used in two significant ways: mobile phone imaging for moving image production and mobile TV for moving image circulation. Although it was short-lived, this show set up a model for employing mobile phone technology thematically as well as formally into the television program format and inspired other shows in competing networks. As a prototype, Click Click Ranger raises several interesting issues on the relation between new media technology, the existing media conventions, and culture. Taking Click Click Ranger as a starting point, let's begin to explore how Korean television mediates the mobile screen as part of the larger outdoor screen culture and thus complicates the issue of 'convergence of spaces.

Click Click Ranger (aka Mobile Ranger): Capture Korea's Today

Click Click Ranger's catchphrase of "Capture Korea's today" literally and symbolically sums up the goal and the structure of the show: To report the present realities of Korea. In terms of content, Click Click Ranger presents several short video clips of anonymous do-gooders and misbehaviors on the street in a fashion similar to citizen reports. These clips are captured and sent by random citizens and "mobile rangers," a group of pre-selected young college students and volunteers (in total, 100 members). Technically, mobile rangers and anonymous participants capture videos on the street and send clips 'in real time' to the studio while the program is being pre-recorded. It is reported that ninety percent of participants use a mobile phone camera and send clips through the wireless internet on their mobile phone. Most interestingly, Click Click Ranger adopts a multi-screen format of display that tackles the paradigm of media convergence by manipulating the 'flow' of content across media (Jenkins, 2007). The clips captured by mobile phone camera and selected for showing on regular television are simultaneously broadcast on a large LED screen installed over Seoul City Hall Plaza. In fact, the program itself is shot on the rooftop of the city hall building, where two MCs run the show as if they were news reporters as is illustrated in the picture above. Hence, what the viewers on a regular television set at home actually watch are alternating shots between the outdoor screen display, the MCs, and small video clips in quick-time movie format. Later on, the program re-runs on Mobile TV, particularly on the channel BLUE of Satellite DMB (Digital Multimedia Broadcasting) service on the following Monday. Following this path, the clips of Click Click Ranger finish their journey from the street to multiple screens encompassing all hot spots ('hot screens') in the current mediascape of Korea as diagram below illustrates.


Creating the Public: Private Imaging and Public Exhibition

To the savvy viewers, who got used to all sorts of strategies to utilize the mobile phone for the television show by now, early attempt of Click Click Ranger may not look so fresh. What makes this show unique is the way in which it attempts to employ the mobile phone, an icon of personal media, in the service of constructing the 'public space' within a commercial entertainment. As a matter of fact, from the beginning, ! : Exclamation Mark has built a reputation for being a 'public value concerned entertainment' program. Previous and current sub-sections of the show have adopted 'human documentary' or 'news report' format in which show hosts visit and follow various people, with the goal of promoting the 'good civilian life and consciousness' in the fashion of a public service campaign. So far, its campaigns have been successful in generating issues in public discourse and have had real consequences in social life in Korea. Some of its famous campaigns include: "Let's read books," "Let's obey the traffic sign," "Let's eat Breakfast," "Street Lessons," "Open your Eyes (Donation/Transference of cornea for the blind)," "Asia Asia (Illegal worker's home visiting project)" and so on.

Partially, the show's strategy to foreground public good within entertainment content reflects the unique hybrid characteristic of its network, MBC: MBC is private but at the same time closer to a public broadcasting network. It runs as a private company but is in fact indirectly owned by the government (by KBS, a major public network) and under the direct control of the Commission of Television Broadcasting. This dominant discourse of the program not only circumscribes the content of the clips in Click Click Ranger but also affects its program format. Typical clips of Click Click Ranger would feature various incidents such as violation of minor civil laws, misdemeanors, or good samaritans who help weak, elderly people at the subway station and so on. In each episode, if the best citizen is chosen among the good samaritans, the show's host calls up the mobile ranger on the scene and runs to there to give the samaritan a reward-a golden badge.

(To be continued)

HyeRyoung Ok is a postdoctoral researcher at the University of California Humanities Research Institute, Irvine, working for the Digital Media and Learning Hub. Currently she is carrying out research for the Public Participation Research Network led by Joe Kahne. As a cultural studies scholar, HyeRyoung looks at newly emerging transmedia culture from interdisciplinary perspective, with a focus on the transition of cinematic tradition to digital media, mobile media culture, and transnational flow of cultural content, particularly in East Asian context.

Strange Overtures: Vodephone, Tchaikovsky, Ernie Kovacs and the "Wowness" of New Media

One of the great joys of our present moment is waking up to some delightful gift -- a compelling bit of media content -- sent to you by friends, family, or in this case, a former student (Eric Schmiedl). Several years ago, I wrote a blog post about the ways that YouTube has brought back many aspects of the vaudeville aesthetic that I discussed in my first book, What Made Pistachio Nuts?: Early Sound Comedy and the Vaudeville Aesthetic: The video below is a great example -- an advertisement produced in New Zealand for Vodephone which offers us a spectacular technological performance, one which calls attention to the emerging properties of our media environment in several ways.

First, of course, the video demonstrates some of the expressive potentials of mobile phones, not to mention the prospects of using digital media to coordinate signals within a complex structure. This is a compelling example of technological virtuosity. My first response was to go "Wow" and in our modern age, "wowness" is a hard earned quality. Here's what I wrote about it in my recent book, The Wow Climax: Tracing the Emotional Impact of Popular Culture::

Consider the singular beauty of the word 'Wow.' Think about the pleasure in forming that perfectly symmetrical phrase on your tongue. IOmagine the particular enthusiasm it expresses -- the sense of wonderment, astonishment, absolute engagement. A 'Wow' in something that has to be earned, and in the modern age we distribute standing ovations far too often when we are just being polite, but we have become too jaded to give a wow. The term takes on a certain irony, as if it can only be uttered in quotation marks.

This immediate, visceral response makes this the kind of content you want to "spread" to others in your social network. Eric forwarded it to me; I'm posting it on my blog and sending it out through my Twitter feed; and perhaps you will like it well enough that you will pass it along further. This is at the heart of what we are calling "spreadable media." And trust me, the folks at Vodephone are not going to be heartbroken at our circulation of their commercial message. They no doubt think this video has gone "viral" -- It didn't, god forbid. But a bunch of us did decide, for our own reasons, to keep it in constant and varied circulation.

One of the ways that Vodephone has found to extend our engagement with this video has been to create a "Making Of" segment which is in many ways just as fascinating as the original. That's the great thing about technological virtuosity -- we can admire it even when the magician invites us behind the red velvet curtain and shows us how he does his tricks. I am reminded of what the French media theorists Christian Metz wrote about "trucage" or what we Americans call "special effects." That they are "artifaces" that are not so much hidden as proclaimed. When we all watch Avatar in a few weeks, we are not going to simply be immersed into the world of the film; we are going to stand back and gasp at the spectacular breakthroughs in special effects which have been publicized around the making of the film. And this fascination with how they did it will in no way diminish, may in fact increase the emotional impact of what we are seeing.

This being the age of participatory culture and interactive media, Vodephone takes this a step further on the webpage they've constructed around this advertisement, which allows us to take the basic building blocks behind this spot and remix them towards our own ends. This thus completes the process of technological amazement -- allowing us to experience first hand the delights of expressing ourselves through ringtones.

When I first saw the Vodephone spot, though, I was reminded of a much earlier moment of technological virtuosity and the vaudeville aesthetic. Take a look and you will see why.

Ernie Kovacs was a spectacular visual comedian who worked in the early days of American television. Kovacs exploited for comic effect our heightened awareness of the visual properties of this new and emerging medium. Television was not yet ambient; we had not yet started to take the visuals (which, after all, are what separated television from radio) for granted. Kovacs counts on us not being able to take our eyes off the screen.

So, why do both of these artists draw upon Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky's 1880 composition, 1812 Overture, as the basis for their spectacular performance. I suspect there are many reasons, starting with the fact that the 1812 Overture embodies the high art status we ascribe to classical music. New media seeking to gain recognition often signal their cultural ambitions by drawing on works which we already respect from older media traditions. They do Shakespeare or Mozart or Tchaikovsky. Second, these works at the same time poke fun at the cultural hierarchies they seek to transcend -- there's something really profoundly silly about the ways they are performing or illustrating the 1812 Overture in these segment. And finally, at least in the case of the Vodephone ad, they respect the complexity of this particular composition as a way of demonstrating their own mastery over the new technologies involved. The Vodephone ad would not be nearly as absorbing or engaging if the phones were playing Chopsticks or Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star.

So, if you want to learn more about our concept of spreadable media, check out the webinar which I will be conducting with Sam Ford and Joshua Green on Friday 6 November (from 12-1 pm EST). Registration is free!

Moving from "Sticky" to "Spreadable": The Antidote to "Viral Marketing" and the Broadcast Mentality

Based on years of researching how and why people spread news, popular culture, and marketing content online through the Convergence Culture Consortium for the past several years , our speakers are currently working on a book entitled Spreadable Media. This Webinar will look at what "spreadable media" means, why the concept of "stickiness" is inadequate for measuring success for brands and content producers online and ultimately why marketers and producers should spend more time creating "spreadable material" for audiences than trying to perfect "viral marketing." In this one-hour session, the speakers will share the ideas and strategy behind "spreadable media" and a variety of examples of best--and worst--practices online for both B2B and B2C campaigns.

This panel will address:

-- The concept of "stickiness" and why it cannot solely be used as a way to measure success online;

-- How and why viral marketing does not accurately describe how content spreads online;

-- Why a "broadcast mentality" does not work in a social media space;

-- The strategy companies should undertake when creating material for audiences to potentially spread online;

-- Companies that have learned difficult lessons and/or gotten the idea of "spreadable media" right;

-- Trends in popular culture/entertainment one which brands should keep a close eye;

-- How "spreadable media" might apply to B2B audiences.

Reflections on Cultural Politics: My Interview for Poli (Part Two)

Today, I am running the second part of the English language translation of an interview I did last year with Maxime Cervulle for Poli, a French magazine of media and cultural theory. Last time, the focus was on cultural politics and cybercitizenship. In this part, I turn my attention more fully to issues around Web 2.0. Enjoy and as always, let me know what you think.
In the current context, user-generated content faces new forms of media concentration, and new types of worrying alliances between governmental power and media conglomerates (for example in the Italian and French political context). Is this a paradoxical situation, or does "participatory culture" sometimes serve as a smoke screen for new economic and political configurations?

At the current moment, participatory culture, user-generated content, web 2.0, refer to a range of different corporate and grassroots practices, some of which are more tightly controlled than others. Certainly, as writers like Tzianna Terranova have suggested, user-generated content can become another word for "free labor", allowing for the outsourcing of expressive activity at considerable cost to those working in the creative industries. Certainly, as Trebor Sholtz and others have suggested, social networks seek to lock down our information, making it harder for us to port our data from space to space. As John Campbell has suggested, many of these sites invite us to trade privacy for access to powerful tools for producing and circulating media content, engaging in various forms of surveilance which may or may not be acknowledged to the users.

As I have suggested, a participatory culture is not necessarily a diverse culture. Indeed, sites like YouTube, which rely on user-moderation, often operate on majoritarian premises which place very little value on access to minority perspectives and in some cases, may be less diverse at their most visible levels than forms of public broadcasting which have a strong mandate for broad representation. So, we really do need to look all of these gift horses in the mouth and try to understand the paradoxes and contradictions of web 2.0 culture.

That said, the sheer proliferation of tools has made it much easier for grassroots communications to route around official censorship, whether corporate or governmental. For example, Huma Yusuf has studied the ways that a range of different media channels -- YouTube, SMS, Facebook, Flickr, among them -- were deployed by activists and citizen journalists to get word out about what was happening in Pakistan during the 2007-2008 state of national emergency. She argues that no sooner did the government seek to close off one channel, then activists rerouted towards a different platform. And when activists were

stiffled at the geographically local level, they were able to tap the participation of a larger diasporic community which remain strongly connected to Pakistan through these various participatory power.

The trick, in other words, is to see participatory culture as having some real potentials for grassroots empowerment even as we maintain a healthy skepticism towards

specific web 2.0 practices which restrain rather than enable meaningful participation.

Many of the European writers about web 2.0 raise important concerns that we all need to factor into our analysis, but they are also, in my opinion, too quick to dismiss any claims that these tools and platforms can be used to effect meaningful social, cultural, and political change. The evidence is all around us that even in their most corrupted forms, they offer significant new

opportunities for activism, for cultural experimentation, and for new kinds of knowledge production. This is at the heart of what some people are describing as Networked Publics. It's easy to characterize my perspective as utopian, which often occurs in European responses to my work, yet if this is the case, I am not a blind utopian. For me, a recognition of the progressive potentials of these technologies and practices provides a basis for critiquing the abuses and manipulations which block such a deployment.

Does the recent turn to "creative industries" (in cultural studies as well as in public policy ­ see UNESCO for example) mark an obsolescence of the notion of "cultural industries"? How does this new notion might help us map new terrains in the relationship between culture, economy and society?

The term, "culture industries," is so closely associated with the Frankfort School tradition that I'm afraid that it locks us into old theoretical models of how the entertainment industry operates. There is some danger that the term, "creative industries," may similarly be coopted, especially as it gets deployed through public policy advocates, into a particular neo-Liberal inflection which may blind us to some of the critical issues I've raised above.

Yet, in the short run, it seems to me that the emergence of a new vocabulary allows us to ask some important questions about shifts in the patterns of cultural production and distribution, changes in the way information gets produced and deployed, and the degree to which our whole economic system may be shifting from commodity capitalism to a service economy to a creative economy, which has significant implications for culture and for education.

As we've seen, the power relations created around mass media, which formed the basis for many of our cultural theories, have been altered through the expansion of social networks and the increased visibility and centrality of participatory culture.This is not to say that commercial interests do not exert a strong influence over the communication environment. Of course, they do, but their power is no where near as totalizing as those classical accounts would suggest. This is not to say that these commercial interests do not seek to shape the hearts and minds of their consumers, but they are adopting rather different models of persuasion which depend upon our active participation and which are subject to our collective critique.

So, the most powerful reason to shift from talking about "culture industries" to 'creative industries" is to signal that we need to question and challenge old assumptions and rethink old theories as we deal with some fundamental changes in the way media gets produced,circulated, and consumed in this era of convergence culture.

What do you mean by "creative economy"? Are you refering to the concept of "cognitive capitalism" ?

I was not familiar with the phrase, "cognitive capitalism," but I took the logical next step in an era of collective intelligence: I looked it up on Wikipedia, where there happens to be a particularly good summary of its core ideas. Here's part of what Wikipedia says: "The production of wealth is no longer based solely and exclusively on material production but is based increasingly on immaterial elements, in other words on raw materials that are intangible and difficult to measure and quantify, deriving directly from employment of the relational, affective and cerebral faculties of human beings." The Wikipedia entry stresses that these "immaterial elements" are getting translated into "intellectual property" and are thus generating rents

through copyright protections. So, based on this definition, then I would say there's a close relationship between the two concepts.

The "cognitive capitalist" model seems to adopt a largely critical stance on these developments, where-as most of those who use "creative economy" are celebrating the shifts. Both are describing a series of moves from commodity and industrial based modes of production towards a service based economy towards an economy based on brands and intellectual property. And there's no question that the struggles over intellectual property will be the core conflicts which will shape our cultural and political lives for the coming decades. The good news is that we are seeing considerable activism emerging around issues of fair use, net neutrality, privacy, and control over personal information and these groups are gaining some ground in institutional change and much more ground in terms of actual cultural practice. The general public today embraces a model of intellectual property which differs fundamentally with the stated goals and

interests of the corporate sector, as they are increasingly taking media into their own hands, and that is forcing legal and economic changes that have to acknowledge, incorporate, and respect the emerging power of participatory culture.

So, if the intellectual property industries represent a form of "cognitive capitalism," might we argue that Wikipedia itself represents a kind of "cognitive socialism?" After all, the content of the site is freely given by those who choose to participate; participates seek no material rewards but

rather are sharing knowledge for the common good; I was able to access that information without paying rents; and I was just able to deploy it in responding to your question. And that's precisely the challenge I would pose to the most critical accounts of these trends.

There is something different taking place here in social organization and political behavior in a world where information can become a source of power and wealth, where social networks allow for new forms of collaborations between groups and individuals, where information can circulate with little to no direct costs, and where much information is being provided for free from groups which are not motivated primarily on a commercial basis. Certainly, we need to be very aware of how commercial interests may feed upon and exploit this grassroots effort at the production of information. But we also need to recognize the alternative economy which is represented by the growth of these new social networks.

In some current work, I've been looking closely at Lewis Hyde's book, The Gift which talks about the ways that commodity capitalism intersects with the gift economy. I'm finding this as a very helpful starting point for understanding the tensions which are now defining our economic and legal systems. Many of the groups which have emerged on or moved to the web have historically operated not only according to different values than commodity culture but they have explicitly argued against making profits from the circulation of their work. This is certainly true of the female-centered fan culture which was the focus of my book, Textual Poachers, several decades ago. And the movement to the web has enabled them to lower costs of production and circulation even more, transforming their cultural goods into gifts which are freely bestowed on anyone who is interested. We can't romanticize this new "gift economy." We have to understands the strengths and limitations of its models. But we can't

ignore it as a counterforce on "cognitive capitalism" if we are to develop a full understanding of the new information landscape.

The model of "cognitive capitalism," at least as represented through Wikipedia, seems incomplete if it emphasizes only the mechanisms by which capitalism is reproducing itself in an era where intellectual property is king, and does not confront the alternative systems of production and distribution which are emerging from participatory culture. So, the wikipedia definition, based on the writings of Ed Emery, continues: "The subjection of the worker within the production process is no longer imposed in disciplinary fashion by direct command (foremen etc); most of the time it is introjected and developed through forms of conditioning and social control. Individualised contractual relations are the order of the day, and this tends to introduce individual competitiveness into people's working behaviours." Yet, we can also argue that

a networked society has enabled new forms of informal, noncommercialized collaboration and cooperation in which information is freely shared for the benefit of all.

Even as this new stage of capitalism you're refering to could completely remap power relations and economic opportunities in new and imprevisible ways, it also implies that unequal access to technologies, computation power or high-speed connection might result in unequal economic developments. What kind of "access politics" should be deployed?

I make a distinction between the digital divide, which has to do with access to the technology, and the participation gap, which has to do with access to skills, knowledge, and cultural/social capital. In many ways, the first is a problem which can be and is being addressed through the provision of access to networked computers via schools and public libraries. The second, on the other hand, is a much more difficult problem to confront.

The Participation Gap is an educational issue: how do we insure that every citizen has access to the social skills and cultural competencies required to be a full participant in the new media landscape? It is also a cultural issue: how do we insure that all have a sense of "empowerment" or "entitlement" which insures that they feel comfortable entering into these emerging networked

publics? And in some ways, it is an economic one, having as much to do with the distribution of time as it does with the distribution of wealth and power, though it is hard to separate the three. So, certain classes of people, because of the restructuring of work, have more flexible or disposable time through which they can interface with networked publics, while others have lives

structured by routinized labor and the demands to struggle to support their families which makes it much harder for them to enter the rhythmns and flows of digital communications.

The participation gap refers to all of these obstacles to full participation. In my case, the work I am doing with the MacArthur Foundation around new media literacies is intended to represent a model for the kinds of "access politics" required to confront the participation gap. It starts from the recognition that the informal forms of participation and social networking which are part of the

lives of many American young people are not available to all. These sites of informal learning are the new "hidden curriculum." Historically, educators note, those kids who have access to encyclopedias and opera records, dinner table conversations about politics and trips to the art museum, performed better, and were perceived to perform better, in schools than those young

people who lacked these experiences. These informal, domestic activities shaped their cultural capital as they entered institutional learning. Similarly, research shows that such kids are much more likely to go to public art institutions even if you lower economic barriers than those kids who lack this kind of cultural capital. Pierre Bourdieu's work is a great illustration of the relationship between education and these forms of cultural distinction and discrimination. So, we are trying to develop resources which help broaden access to the kinds of skills, competencies, and self perceptions which emerge through these informal online activities. We are doing so as part of a network of researchers, across a range of disciplines and institutions, working with

the MacArthur Foundation, to reshape the core institutions that impact young people's lives in response to the shifts in the cultural and informational environs.

Do new modes of knowledge production made possible by web 2.0 actually change the politics of knowledge? Can "collective intelligence" become a counter-hegemonic sphere or does it tends to reproduce -as you underlined with YouTube- majoritarian premises?

The first thing I'd stress is that the technologies in and of themselves guarantee nothing. What matters are the social practices, cultural norms, and institutions which emerge around these technologies. Too much early digital theory talked about the democratizing impact of new media without recognizing that those tools and platforms can be deployed towards many ends as they get inserted into different political, economic, and social contexts.

We can argue that there are a range of different models of collective intelligence shaping the digital realm at the present time. We might distinguish broadly between three different models: 1)An aggregative model which assumes that we can collect data based on the autonomous and anonymous decisions of "the crowd" and use it to gain insights into their collective behavior. This is the model which shapes Digg and to some degree, YouTube. 2)a curatorial model where grassroots intermediaries seek to represent their various constituencies and bring together information that they think is valuable. This is the model which shapes the blogosphere. 3)a deliberative model where many different voices come together, define problems, vet information, and find solutions which would be impossible for any individual to achieve. This is the model shaping Wikipedia or even more powerfully alternate universe games.

Of the three, the deliberative model offers the most democratic potentials, especially when it is tempered by ethical and political commitments to diversity. This is the model which Pierre Levy describes in his book, Collective Intelligence. Levy's account stresses the affirmative value placed on diversity in such a culture. The more diverse the community, the broader range of possible information and insights can inform the deliberative process.

So, the Wikipedians talk about "systemic bias" to reflect the kinds of gaps or excesses in their information which comes from the predominance of geeks and the limited participation of some other groups in their authoring community. Some topics get extensive treatment while others get neglected as long as some groups are over-represented and others under-represented in the process. Yet, Wikipedia's norms as a community stress the importance of insuring that as many

different points of view get represented. The group seeks to lower obstacles to more diverse participation and to make room for those viewpoints which might otherwise get silenced. This was seen as a way out of "edit wars" which would stall the project, but it also has the effect of creating a possitive value on broader representation and inclusiveness.

No such mechanism exists in YouTube, say, which does adopt a more majoritarian model. It isn't that minority perspectives can't be found on YouTube: the platform can be used by many groups who circulate its contents in their own communities through the curatorial processes of blogs and social network sites. But there's nothing that places a positive value on insuring that this diversity gains visibility at the highest levels on the site: you can come to Youtube and

not be exposed to views or content which operates outside the dominant perspectives of its user base (though keep in mind that those perspectives may or may not align with those which govern "mainstream" mass media and so YouTube may still represent a challenge to old style hegemony.)

We are at a moment where a lot of social experimentation is taking place around collective intelligence. We have lots of models to chose from and there's some key work for media scholars and theorists to be reflecting on the social mechanics and technical affordances of different sites to see which may best promote the democratization of knowledge production. There's plenty of room for healthy skepticism in this process as well as I hope, some space for the utopian imagination. But, we get nowhere if the theorists adopt a purely cynical and critical perspective, seeing it all as more of the same, as capitalism in new bottles, and thus failing to make meaningful distinctions between different social and cultural practices that are emerging in cyberspace.

Reflections on Cultural Politics: My Interview for Poli (Part One)

Earlier this fall, the French cultural theory magazine, Poli, ran an extensive interview with me conducted by Maxime Cervulle. The interview explored a range of topics surrounding the cultural politics of participatory culture and web 2.0, specifically addressing concerns raised by European intellectuals about some of the themes I explored in Convergence Culture. I saw it as an opportunity to identify points of contact as well as differences in how we thought about digital media and political/economic change. The readership of this interview was academic so the language deployed may be a bit more high-flying than I usually would run in this blog. But I felt it would be valuable to distribute an English language translation of the exchange. By prior arrangements with the magazine's editors, I've waited several months since it's appearance in France and am now sharing it with you. Many of the themes are ones which have surfaced on this blog before but some of the topics were new to me and opened up some interesting lines of thinking. The interview came back to my mind this past week because of a series of exchanges with USC students about the relationship between work in cultural studies, such as my own, which was influenced by the work of John Fiske, my graduate mentor, and work in political economy, which has tended to be far more critical of developments in digital media. When you first published Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Culture in 1992, the active audience you analyzed through the figure of the fan seemed to be quite a marginal phenomenon. With the development of interactive cultures, participative audiences seem now to have taken center stage. How does this 20 years reconfiguration of media audiences change the way we think the relationship between culture and audience?

When I began my career, some cultural and media scholars were prepared to acknowledge an "active," "resistant" or "participatory" audience as a theoretical possibility. When I first began to document fan practices, it was assumed that this was a "minority" practice, that fans were "exceptional" readers. Increasingly, in the era of YouTube and FaceBook, it becomes clearer that many more people than even I imagined might want to actively engage with media content, appropriating and reshaping it to better reflect their personal and shared interests.

Today, it is meaningless to write about the changing media scape without paying close attention to various forms of audience participation and the various business models which have emerged under the banner of "web 2.0" to capitalize on the desire of consumers to play a more visible and active role in shaping the production and circulation of media content. It is inconceivable to study YouTube without understanding the behavior of media consumers in a way that previous generations of film scholars might have dealt with cinema exclusively through the analysis of auteurs.

It doesn't mean that media creators and media industries don't matter. Of course,

they do and they exert much more power than the more wide-eyed cyberenthusiasts might acknowledge. Contrary to what you may have heard, we do not yet and probably never will live in a world without gatekeepers. We need to be paying close attention to the mechanisms by which media industries frame some kinds of audience participation as acceptable and others as unacceptable, even as they claim to expand the power of consumers and diversify the contents of our culture. We need to be attentive to the limits of participation even as we are excited about the broadening franchise which consumers do enjoy in this new convergence culture.

The fans I described in Textual Poachers were in many ways the shock troops of

this cultural transformation: they lived in virtual communities decades before the rest of us; they knew how to tap collective intelligence long before the general population had ever heard of this context; they were remixing video and circulating it amongst themselves decades before Youtube; they were writing their own stories and sharing them with each other before anyone termed the phrase "user-generated content."

And it is significant that much of this early fan practice was done by women who are increasingly being written out of the history of digital media. Fan women played an important role in helping their friends make the transition into the new media scape and they modeled what a more participatory culture might look like when it meant patching two vcrs together. We should not forget that history even as we are fascinating with the broadening of participation that is being enabled by the lowering costs and ease of use embodied in the latest digital platforms.

How can we move from consumer participation to citizen participation, from a participatory culture to a participatory democracy? Are the two connected?

I am just now launching a new project to explore this issue more closely, so I can only paint in broad outlines here. I am interested in better understanding the mechanisms within fan communities that enable and sustain participation and in particular, the ways fan communities educate their members in order to prepare them to take collective action. So, for example, I think there's a lot we can learn about new forms of activism by understanding how fan communities launch letter-writing campaigns to keep their favorite programs on the air or

to defend their appropriations of intellectual property in the face of threats from studio lawyers.

From there, we might look at some recently launched organizations which self-consciously fuse together the identities of fan and citizen. I am thinking about groups like the HP Alliance, which has mobilized Harry Potter fans in the global human rights movement, or The

Organization for Transformative Works, which has brought together fan professionals to develop a

more rigorous defense of Fair Use, or Global Kids which is using Second Life as a platform for kids to educate each other about issues impacting youth around the world.

Such organizations tap the playful fantasies and popular metaphors and grassroots infrastructure of the fan community and turn it towards the goal of transforming the society. In some cases, they are relying on a politics of volunteerism, sometimes governmental advocacy, but in every case, they have lowered the threshold for participation and engagement with political change. I am interested in how popular culture may offer a different set of metaphors for thinking about the political processes. Those of us who are academics forget how exclusionary and specialized much of political discourse can be. You really can't understand this policy wonk talk unless you are already initiated into the language of politics and governance.

So, these groups are modeling a new kind of political language. They are also sites where average people are acquiring core skills at social networking, media production, collaborative problem solving, which are being turned to political causes.

What do you think of the use by political leaders, such as Barrack Obama in the U.S, of the rhetoric of "citizen participation" and/or "citizen expertise"?

The Obama campaign is a powerful example of how politics might play out in convergence culture. For one thing, the Obama campaign understood the need to spread its message across every available media platform. They not only worked with established media -- television networks, newspapers -- but they also experimented with the use of games systems, mobile phones, social networks, and YouTube as vehicles through which they could reach out and connect with voters. They saw campaigning not as the one-time delivery of a pitch but the building of a long-term network which linked the voters to each other to form a community of support. They embraced popular appropriations and remixing of Obama's image so that people felt a great sense of possession over this man and his message. They adopted a "we" language which was highly compatible with their supporters lived experiences of social networks and collective intelligence.

In many ways, the Obama campaign was less a political movement and more a fandom. And that's why the McCain people so actively sought to pathologize the emotional investments which Obama's supporters made in the candidate and the campaign. There were a number of commercials ridiculing the candidate as a "celebrity" and his supporters as "fans," suggesting that they were spooked by the "enthusiasm gap" between the two candidates -- justly so, as it turns out, because Obama was drawing record crowds at his campaign stops and this translated into an extraordinarily diverse and far-reaching base of support. I am certain we are going to see similar tactics emerge in countries all over the world, because the Obama campaign so perfectly tapped the affordances and "structure of feeling" of the new participatory culture.

Since you are speaking of the "fan base" of Obama, and of the way he was sometimes seen as a "celebrity", I'd like to ask you how you understand the political and cultural meaning of celebrity culture ? Can "celebrities" still be understood as a "mode of displacement" - as Richard Dyer argued in Stars - displacing politics to the "private" sphere, and displacing collective issues to a singular experience ; or is there a new relationship to celebrity

emerging ?

Richard Dyer's work on Stars was enormously important in opening up a whole new model for the analysis of motion pictures, one which recognized that stars were a central organizing principle of the Hollywood entertainment system and that the meanings of stars needed to be constructed intertextually -- across a range of different texts and media. I've learned a tremendous amount from his work.

But it's also worth keeping mind he is describing how stars functioned in a very particular information environment. He's describing a time when the meanings of stars were largely if not entirely articulated top down through mainstream media -- either through the studio's publicity mechanisms or through the scandel sheets which existed in parallel and sometimes in opposition to the studios. The stars, themselves, were under contracts which severely restricted their ability to exert their own voices through the public sphere and which thus gave them very little say in how the public perceived them. And the public might construct alternative fantasies around these stars, as we now know through, for example, Dyer's account of how the gay community took up Judy Garland, but those meanings could not be easily spread from local communities to a larger public.

All of this has changed. Today's celebrities are, for better and for worse, free agents who have their own publicity machines which help to shape their images. Many of them follow older patterns with an emphasis on their private lives and much of the news media focuses on the same kinds of romantic, sexual, and substance abuse scandals that titilated readers decades ago. But other stars are speaking out about political issues, endorsing candidates, lobbying for legislation, and supporting activist efforts. We might, for example, cite the example of the Will.i.am video produced for Obama in response to his "Yes We Can" theme as work that emerged from celebrities working together and using their power of publicity to increase public awareness of civic concerns. Or we might point to the role which hip hop performers like Chuck D, Kanye West, or Russell Simmons have played in rallying opposition to the Bush administration. Even a celebrity who might seem totally apolitical and focused purely on the private sphere may be pulled into political debates, as occurred when Paris Hilton produced her own video responding to McCain's comparison between her and Obama. The video was partially humorous but it also gave her a platform to speak out about global warming.

At the same time, the public has a much greater ability to appropriate, remix, transform, and recirculate celebrity images than ever before, mobilizing them towards alternative fantasies or politics. Because celebrities are widely known, appropriations of their images circulate more widely and swiftly than more conventional kinds of political messages. Because they are mythic, larger than life figures, their meaning is always up for grabs. This phenomenon is not unique to the United States: film stars in India often cross over from Bollywood into politics, carrying with them mythic associations from their best known film roles, while in Mexico, Lucha Libre wrestlers can become powerful spokespeople for the underclass.

Cordwainer Smith Imagined Convergence Culture (and Viral Media) in 1964

Science fiction writers do not so much invent the future as they inform it. I mean inform here in two ways - first, they give us the information we need to process issues in the present moment and to therefore anticipate some likely consequences of the choices we face as a society and second, having given a vivid picture of a possible future, they inspire scientists, policy makers, and others to reshape reality to conform to their depiction.

How many contemporary technological developments emerged from designers whose imagination was incited by some science fiction novel or television series? Without Star Trek, would we have flip phones? Without Snow Crash would we have had Second Life?

I have been pondering this relationship between science fiction and reality a lot this week having recent taught some short stories by Cordwainer Smith in my transmedia entertainment and storytelling class at USC.

If you just mumbled, "Cordwainer who?," you are not alone. Smith's works are rarely cited today. Smith wrote short stories rather than novels, scattered them across a range of publications, and published many of them after his death. Even hardcore science fiction fans may know him only for his first published story, "Scanners Live in Vane," which is included in the Science Fiction Hall of Fame anthology which is often deployed in science fiction classes. The New England Science Fiction Association collected and republished his stories several years ago as The Rediscovery of Man. Maybe it's time for the rediscovery of Cordwainer Smith.

When I first read "Scanners Live in Vain" some years ago, I was stunned. The writing is challenging and vaguely modernist, especially when compared to the hard edged realism and classicism of his 1950s era contemporaries like Robert Heinlein or Issac Asimov. He thrusts you into the world of the story without much preliminaries; he relished the strange and unfamiliar elements which are dealt with it ways that are at once defamiliarizing (in that they break from our world) and familiarizing (in that they treat these strange elements as if they were perfectly normal, even banal.) In many ways, the story's focus on the fusion of man and machine, which gets depicted with ambivalence rather than dread, helped pave the way for similar representations in the early cyberpunk movement.

As I've read more of his work, I've become fascinated with the ways that he prefigured science fictions fascination with media change - digital media primarily in the case of the Cyberpunks but something very close to what I call Convergence Culture in the case of Cordwainer Smith. Consider, for example, this passage from "The Dead Woman of Clown Town" which seems to anticipate the concept of viral media:

"A bad idea can spread like a mutated germ. If it is at all interesting, it can leap from one mind to another halfway across the universe before it has a stop put to it. Look at the ruinous fads and foolish fashions which have nuisanced mankind even in the ages of the highest orderliness."

Here, Smith tries to capture the perspective of a totalitarian regime which seeks to manipulate the flow of information in order to prevent a shift in public sentiment towards the underpeople, a permanent underculture which exists of half-human/half-animals. Smith warns after a particularly empassioned speech on human rights of the need to reframe what is being said lest it undermine the established order:

"The dog-girl was making points which had some verbal validity. If they were left in the form of mere words without proper context, they might affect heedless or impressionable minds."

Published in 1964, "Dead Woman of Clown Town," can be easily read as an allegory for the civil disobedience and nonviolent protest which shaped not only the then-contemporary protests of Martin Luther King, but also a range of protest movements across Asia during the struggle against colonialism. In the story, the human, Elaine, and the dog-girl, D'Joan, lead an army of underpeople on a march which brings them into the face of armed guards, who obligingly shoot them down or in D'Joan's case, torches her alive, forcing them to confront the brutal consequences of their own discriminatory policies.

Smith's depiction is particularly concerned with the psychological experience of subordination and oppression, using for example the figure of C'Mell, the cat-woman and professional "girly-girl" (escort) in "The Ballad of Lost C'Mell" to deal with the ways that the enslaved must develop much greater knowledge of the dominant group than the other way around:

"She had a womanliness which was truer than that of any hominid woman. She knew the value of her trained smile, her splendidly kept red hair with its unimaginably soft texture, her lithe young figure with firm breasts and persuasive hips. She knew down to the last millimeter the effect which her legs had on hominid men. True humans kept few secrets from her. The men betrayed themselves by their unfulfillable desires, the women by their irrepressible jealousies. But she knew people best of all by not being one herself. She had to learn by imitation, and imitation is conscious. A thousand little things which ordinary women took for granted, or thought about just once in a whole lifetime, were subjects of acute and intelligent study. She was a girl by profession; she was human by assimilation; she was an inquisitive cat in her genetic nature....Sometimes it made her laugh to look at human women with their pointed-up noses and their proud airs, and to realize that she knew more about the men who belonged to the human women than the human women themselves ever did."

Key scenes occur at the moment when the human characters are forced to experience something of the subjective experience of the lower castes, as occurs when Elaine gets linked to D'Joan through telepathy, which is understood here as a kind of radicalization process, a shift in sympathy not unlike that experienced by many white liberals in the Civil Rights era who were motivated by the burning of black churches and the slaughter of black children to rethink a lifetime of segregationist practice.

Smith's interest in the concept of information war-fare and media as a resource for political transformation can be explained by his own fascinating life story. Here's some of the details as presented by Wikipedia:

Cordwainer Smith - pronounced CORDwainer[1] - was the pseudonym used by American author Paul Myron Anthony Linebarger (July 11, 1913-August 6, 1966) for his science fiction works. Linebarger was also a noted East Asia scholar and expert in psychological warfare...

Linebarger was born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. His father was Paul M. W. Linebarger, a lawyer and political activist with close ties to the leaders of the Chinese revolution of 1911. As a result of those connections, Linebarger's godfather was Sun Yat-sen, considered the father of Chinese nationalism. As a child, Linebarger was blinded in his right eye; the vision in his remaining eye was impaired by infection. When he later pursued his father's interest in China, Linebarger became a close confidant of Chiang Kai-shek. His father moved his family to France and then Germany while Sun Yat-sen was struggling against contentious warlords in China. As a result, Linebarger was familiar with six languages by adulthood.

At the age of 23, he received a Ph.D. in Political Science from Johns Hopkins University. From 1937 to 1946, Linebarger held a faculty appointment at Duke University, where he began producing highly regarded works on Far Eastern affairs. While retaining his professorship at Duke after the beginning of World War II, he began serving as a second lieutenant of the United States Army, where he was involved in the creation of the Office of War Information and the Operation Planning and Intelligence Board. He also helped organize the Army's first psychological warfare section. In 1943, he was sent to China to coordinate military intelligence operations. By the end of the war, he had risen to the rank of major....

In 1947, Linebarger moved to the Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, DC, where he served as Professor of Asiatic Studies. He used his experiences in the war to write the book Psychological Warfare (1948), which is regarded by many in the field as a classic text. He eventually rose to the rank of colonel in the reserves. He was recalled to advise the British forces in the Malayan Emergency and the U.S. Eighth Army in the Korean War. While he was known to call himself a "visitor to small wars", he refrained from becoming involved in Vietnam, but is known to have done undocumented work for the Central Intelligence Agency. He traveled extensively and became a member of the Foreign Policy Association, and was called upon to advise then-U.S. President John F. Kennedy.

In short, Smith was the consummate political insider both to global politics and to the emergence of what Eisenhower called "the military-industry complex." He brought to science fiction complex theories of communication, psychology, and political change and at the same time, grafted them onto story traditions he had absorbed from classical Chinese literature and he had learned through his global travels. Underlying his almost surreal stories, then, is a deeper understanding of the nature of power and how governments seek to shape the subjective experience of their populations.

Smith's relevance for a transmedia class is two-fold. First, Smith was a consummate world builder. All of his 32 short stories and his novel, Norstrilia, take place within a single timeline which spans more than 16000 years of future history and play out across the interconnected history of many different worlds. He depicts a future which emerges from Earth's past as our cultural traditions are revived, reproduced, forgotten, and reperformed until they have lost much of their meaning, becoming mere formalisms. In this world, he shows an acute understanding of how cultural change impacts the ways we treat each other and how we structure labor and governance. Here, for example, is a vivid passage from "The Story of Lost C'Mell," another key work in his depiction of the undermen:

"Ever since mankind had gone through the Rediscovery of Man, bringing back governments, money, newspapers, national languages, sickness and occassional death, there had been the problem of the underpeople -- people who were not human but merely humanly shaped from the stock of Earth animals. They could speak, sing, read, write, work, love and die; but they were not covered by human law, which simply defined them as 'homunculi' and gave them a legal status close to animals or robots. Real people from off-world were always called 'hominads.' Most of the underpeople did their jobs and accepted their half-slave status without question.... Human beings and hominids had lived so long in an affluent society that they did not know what it meant to be poor. But the lords of the Instrumentality had decreed that underpeople -- derived from animal stock -- should live under the economics of the Ancient World; they had to have their own kind of money to pay for their rooms, their food, their posessions and the education of their children. If they became bankrupt, they went to the poorhouse, where they were killed painlessly by means of gas. It was evident that humanity, having settled all of its own basic problems, was not quite ready to let Earth animals, no matter how much they might be changed, assume a full equality with man."

As this opening passage suggests, Smith treats his readers not as outsiders to whom such worlds must be explained but rather as insiders for whom these worlds are already well known. Consider the opening paragraph of "Dead Woman" which refers not only to some of Smith's other tales but also seeks to debunk existing representations of the events depicted in (yet fabricated for) his story:

"You already know the end -- the immense drama of the Lord Jestocost, seventh of his line, and how the cat-girl C'Mell initiated the vast conspiracy. But you do not know the beginning, how the first Lord Jestocost got his name, because of the terror and inspiration which his mother, Lady Goroke, obtained from the famous real-life drama of the dog-girl D'Joan. It is even less likely that you know the other story -- the one behind D'Joan. This story is sometimes mentioned, as the matter of the 'nameless witch,' which is absurd, because she really had a name. The name was 'Elaine,' an ancient and forbidden one."

Throughout the story, Smith offers many passages which refer outward from the current narration to discuss how the same story was told across many years, across many different media. Here are just a few examples:

"Much later, when people made songs about the strange case of the dog-girl D'Joan, the minstrels and singers had tried to imagine what Elaine felt like, and they had made up The Song of Elaine for her. It is not authentic, but it shows how Elaine looked at her own life before the strange case of D'Joan began to flow from Elaine's own actions."

"There are many famous painting of that scene. Most of the paintings show Elaine in rags with the distorted, suffering face of a witch. This is strictly unhistorical. She was wearing her everyday culottes, blouse and twin over-the-shoulder purses when she went in the other end of Clown Town. This was the usual dress on Fomalhaut III at that time...."

"On the actual stage the actors cannot do much with the scene of the interlude, where Joan was cooked in a single night from the size of a child five years old to the tallness of a miss fifteen or sixteen. The biological machine did work well, though at the risk of her life. It made her into a vital, robust yung person, without changing her mind at all. This is hard for any actress to portray. The storyboxes have the advantage. They can show the machine with all sorts of improvements -- flashing lights, bits of lightning, mysterious rays. Actually, it looked like a bathtub full of boiling brown jelly, completely covering Joan."

"This is the scene which we all remember, the first authentic picture tape of the entire incident."

"You all know about the trial, so there is no need to linger over it. There is another picture of San Shigonanda, the one from his conventional period, which shows it very plainly....This is all clear from the painting, and from the wonderful way that San Shigonanda has of forming them in informal ranks and letting the calm blue light of day shine down on their handsome, hopeless features. With the underpeople, the artist performs real wonders."

"And you have the real view-tapes, too, if you want to go to a museum. The reality is not as dramatic as the famous painting, but it has value of its own. The voice of Joan, dead these many centuries, is still strangely moving....The words of the trial, they too have survived. Many of them have became famous, all across the worlds."

"We know what the Lords Femtiosex and Limanono thought they were doing. They were maintaining established order and they were putting it on tape. The minds of men can live together only if the basic ideas are communicated. Nobody has, even now, found a way of recording telepathy directly into an instrument. We get pieces and snatches and wild jumbles, but we never get a satisfactory record of what one of the great ones was transmitting to another. The two male chiefs were trying to put on record all those things about the episode which would teahc careless people not to play with the lives of the underpeople. They were trying to make underpeople understand the rules and designs by virtue of which they had been transformed from animals into the highest servants of man. This would have been hard to do, given the bewildering events of the last few hours, even from one chief of the Instrumentality to another; for the general public, it was almost impossible."

Smith, thus, depicts a world where the most important stories flow across all available media franchises, get retold many times for many different audiences, with some details being encoded through cultural conventions and others distorted over time. Consider, for example, this description of a gesture which has become more cyptic as it has moved from real-world events to multiple media representations:

"The records show his appearance. He comes in at the right side of the scene, bows respectfully to the four Chiefs and lifts his right hand in the traditional sign for 'beg to interrupt,' an odd twist of the elevated hand which the actors had found it very difficult to copy when they tried to put the whole story of Joan and Elaine into a single drama. (In fact, he had no more idea that future ages would be studying his casual appearance than did the others. The whole episode was characterized by haste and precipitateness, in light of what we now know.)"

Smith's version, then, becomes not the point of origin for the story but rather a debunking of conventional versions.

Not only does he imagine the event as retold many times after they occur, Smith also depicts the events as predetermined because the figures have already become encrusted in mythology. A human intelligence embedded in a computer has run a range of simulations to try to determine how the underpeople can escape their brutal fate at the hands of the human, how they might avoid death. Out of all of the possibilities, she has discovered one which leads to the best possible outcome and she has sought to prepare her followers for that eventuality. Generations have named their children "D'Joan" and have rehearsed the particulars of their mythology so they can play the roles that are required of them. When Elaine, the witch, wonders into their warren by accident, she must be instructed in her expected role and actions, and must be continually reminded her function within the prescripted narrative whenever she seeks to exert free will. Like many of the other scenarios, this script results in the death of its key participants, yet it has the chance of forcing the issue upon the oppressors and forcing them to experience powerful emotions - the pangs of conscience and consciousness - which might lead ultimately to political change.

As we enter the climax of his story, Smith describes not only what happens but how it gets transmitted to subsequent generations, discussing what events were captured by cameras (and in some cases, from what angles) and describing which are preserved in archives, which have been subject to competing interpretations, and which have been restaged and commerated through paintings, video dramas, stage plays, songs, and prose. Such descriptions look forward to our own time when something isn't real until it has been transmitted through all available media channels:

"Fisi, in the pictures, stands back, his face sullen. In that particular frame of scenes, one can see some of the spectators going away. It was time for lunch and they had become hungry; they had no idea that they were going to miss the greatest atrocity in history, about which a thousand and more grand operas would be written."

Smith's writings, thus, anticipate our present transmedia moment and at the same time, offer a critical perspective on how stories flow across media. His own background as an expert on psychological warfare and as an adviser to the intelligence community allows him to anticipate how the spread of information can be manipulated by governments or shaped by dissent movements. In that sense, his references to alternative media presentation of his fictional events represents not simply a formal acknowlegement of the intertextual connections across all of his works but also as a critique of convergence, one written almost fifty years ago.

We might read Smith's fiction as a letter sent from his generation to ours. Too bad so few of us are reading his remarkable stories. Check them out.

To learn more about this remarkable writer, read Karen L. Helleckson's The Science Fiction of Cordwainer Smith.

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How Brazil Is Reshaping the Futures of Entertainment

Regular readers of the blog know that appropriations of my images or ideas are like catnip to me -- nigh on impossible for me to resist! Indeed, as someone who works on appropriation as a new media literacy, participatory culture and now, spreadable media, I am always intrigued by the ways that media theory is itself appropriated and spread beyond academic circles. So, please, anyone who wants to play around with my image, go ahead, but if I find it, I reserve the right to re-post and analyze it on my blog.

I howled with delight when Mauricio Mota from Brazil's New Content shared this video he had produced during the final panel (on Global Flows, Global Deals) at the Futures of Entertainment conference we hosted last fall. Mota's co-conspirator in generating the video was Ricardo Justus, who also joined us at the November conference.

Mota helped to facilitate the translation of Convergence Culture into Portuguese and was my host during a trip to Brazil earlier last semester; he's been a key player in connecting the Convergence Culture Consortium to a range of Brazilian companies as we are seeking ways to better understand media development in what economists are starting to call the BRIC (Brazil-Russia-India-China), which represent some of the fastest developing high tech economies in the world. And he's part of a smart group of thinkers, who call themselves the Alchemists, who are doing cutting edge work on transmedia storytelling and branding.

Mota's video was intended to dramatize the connection between some of the ideas in Convergence Culture and the practices for promotion that have emerged in his native country. Specifically, the footage here comes from Tropa de Elite (Elite Squad), released in 2007 and now one of the most commercially successful Brazilian films ever, despite having almost no conventional advertising or promotion. As Mota explained at the conference, a copy of the film was leaked to pirates while it was in the final stages of production and the pirates spread it across the countryside. It's been estimated that 11.5 million people watched the illegal copy of the film.

This is piracy on a scale which would wake most American media executives up in a cold sweat. But Mota's point is that it also insured an unprecidented level of visibility for the film. According to DataFolha, 77% of São Paulo residents knew about the movie, 180,000 people saw the film on its opening weekend in Sao Paulo and Rio, and by now, more than 2.5 million people have watched the film legally. (These statistics come from Wikipedia. Mota's estimates are even higher, suggesting that by the time the video had been further pirated via torrents in 15 countries around the world, it may have been seen illegally by 13 million and legally by more than 5 million people).

So, how do we read this story -- did the 13 million plus illegal views represent "lost revenue" to the company? Maybe some of them -- but it's also almost certainly the case that the legal box office returns would have been substantially lower if the pirated circulation of the film had not spread the word and heightened awareness about the title, while potentially lowering the cost of its promotion. Mota rightly sees this pattern as a paradox: loss of control may in this case have resulted in increased revenue and much greater cultural impact. In the process, Capitão Roberto Nascimento (the film's antihero) became something of a cult icon and was subject to all kinds of grassroots appropriations (as suggested by the sample from a fan vid which Mota includes at the end of his own mashup).

Mota's story about Tropa de Elite is a powerful illustration of the concept of spreadable media which ran through this year's Futures of Entertainment event. I developed some of the basic framework for thinking about Spreadable Media through my opening remarks at the conference.

we explored them further throughout the first morning of the conference, with a panel on Consumption, Value, and Worth.

Different forms of cooperation between producers and consumers, including the concept of the moral economy, were central to my conversation with Yochai Benkler (The Wealth of Networks).

Later this month, the Convergence Culture Consortium will be releasing what we hope will be a significant white paper which critiques the concept of viral media and offers an alternative model, one which respects the agency and motives of consumers in actively shaping the circulation of media content through a networked society and one which seeks to better understand the interplay between consumer capitalism and the gift economy in shaping the new era of web 2.0. Watch this blog for more on "spreadable media" in a few weeks.

Meanwhile, I wanted to use this post to signal that the webcast versions of the Futures of Entertainment conference have gone up over at MIT's TechTV site and are available for all of you who were unable to attend the conference. In many ways, this was our best event so far in this series -- in part because of a good balance between academics and industry people on each panel. Some of the highlights for me: Kim Moses, the Executive Producer, The Ghost Whisperer, sharing her insights on our Making Audiences Matter session; a very animated discussion of Franchising, Extensions, and World Building, which brought together perspectives from the world of wrestling, soap operas, and cult movies; and an especially provocative series of exchanges about the relationships between the academy and industry. But every panel has something to recommend it and every panelist made at least one contribution that changed the way I thought about the contemporary media landscape.

Given the latest news of the legal battle which is brewing around Watchmen's release, the exchange which I had with Alex McDowell, the film's gift art director, and Georgia State University's Alicia Perren, has been generating a fair amount of interest out there in the blogosphere. Mcdowell just shared with me a very interesting statement issued by one of the film's producers, Lloyd Levin, about the legal struggles around the film's production and distribution. This is a story which we are all following here at CMS with baited breath.

Why Universities Shouldn't Create "Something like YouTube" (Part Two)

Universite de Montreal is developing a new web strategy, they intend to integrate web 2.0 features. They are thinking about letting students become

publishers, but they fear a teacher backlash. Is this fear reasonable? What

would be the worst case scenario?

When we create more open platforms, we destroy old monopolies of information. That can be a brutal blow for those who gain their self worth from their role as the dispersers of that information. So, yes, when you open it up to students to submit materials, teachers feel threatened. There are some legitimate concerns here, having to do with the credentializing of information and the liabilities of the university. For most of us, credibility on the web is situational: we are not so much assessing content as we are assessing the reputations of the sources of that content. We tend to put our greatest trusts in the institutions we would trust for information in the physical world. So, many people who sought information from Universite de Montreal or MIT will make a general judgment about the reputation of the institution and then apply it to all content which gets circulated.

For me, a lot of this has to do with how we frame the materials -- as a reference work (which meets certain criteria of reliability, which many faculty members would be hard pressed to meet) or as a space for investigation, deliberation, and discussion (where there are ongoing conversations about the value of different content being circulated). Most academic web resources represent the former; Wikipedia and YouTube would be better understood as the latter. The need is to be clear about who is contributing the content and then you need to create a context where the community has the literacy practices and collective intelligence processes to take ownership over critically engaging with the materials being shared.

Everyone in the university would need to have a stake in insuring the integrity of the process and that means being highly critical and skeptical of anything that gets submitted, whether by a student or a teacher.

Can a platform upstage the learning process ? By that I mean that students

would get lost in a pile of information and would no longer be able to know

what to use ?

A platform certainly can upstage the learning process if by a platform you mean a technology. It is not at all unusual for faculty members to become enchanted

with one or another kind of hardware and not think through its pedagogical implications. We can see some of the ways universities have embraced Second Life as an example of this process. Second Life has some remarkable affordances which can support powerful new kinds of learning, but it's also a challenging technology to learn how to use. There's no point in using it for things that can be done just as easily through more traditional learning platforms and there's no point in using it if it takes much longer to learn how to use the program than it is going to be possible to use the program for instruction. In

other words, we have to do a cost/benefit analysis and know why we are using this platform, why it is better than traditional means, what it allows us to do that we couldn't do otherwise, what challenges it poses to learners, and so forth.

On the other hand, I would argue that a process or a community is less likely to upstage learning because for the most part, it comes with its own pedagogical logic and if you work within that logic, everything you do will ultimately contribute to learning. Again, the choice of the community needs to be aligned to the pedagogical goals, because the community will impose its own goals which will often be more deeply motivating.

Is there more value in sharing ( as with OpenCourseWare) or in mashing and

allowing expression ?

For me, they are two parts of the same process. When I hand you a printed book, which couldn't be more fixed in its content and couldn't be harder to reconfigure, you are still going to pay attention to only those parts that are of interest to you; I can't determine whether you read the whole thing; I can't determine what parts you cite in other works you write; and indeed, the book only becomes valuable when you can take out your yellow pen, mark up the passages that are meaningful to you, compare them with other books on your shelf, and use them as resources for your own explorations and ruminations.

So, why should we imagine that digital resources are any different? Once you share them, they are going to be sampled and remixed, if they are of any value to the person who receives them. That's at the heart of the learning and research processes. So, the question isn't whether to allow remixing; you can't stop it and you really wouldn't want to if you could. The question is whether to facilitate it or for that matter, whether to increase the visibility of what readers do with the content you provide. In the end, that boils down to the question of whether you want to be part of a conversation or whether you simply

want to publish.

In our participatory culture, though, keep in mind that publishing as an end unto itself is having diminishing return and people are much more likely to be drawn towards spaces which enable and support meaningful dialog. You can try to block it, if you wish, but you are also cutting yourself out from the marketplace of ideas, so what's the point?

Should all this self-expression be recognized ? Where can we draw the line between « artistic self-expression » and bad work ?

The point is that I don't draw the line; the community draws the line. A society where there is lots of bad work out there is ultimately more generative than one

which supports only excellent work. It provides points of entry for more people who are encouraged to try things, be bad, get feedback, and do better. A society which circulates only excellent work creates too strong a barrier to access and thus discourages most people from producing anything. The result is that we lack the diversity we need for collective decision making or shared cultural experiences.

So, the goal should never be to get rid of bad work; the goal should be to develop mechanisms which helps us to identify what we see as valuable or meaningful work according to our own criteria. There are a number of different mechanisms which allow us to do so: we can have gatekeepers who curate the materials and use their personal reputation to bestow recognition on work they consider valuable; we can have some kind of system of aggregation, such as Digg, where many people vote on what's valuable and the "best" stuff rises to the top; we can have some system of collective deliberation in which we have ongoing debates about what constitutes good work and what works are

good. All of those mechanisms can be found at work in one or another site online.

We still don't fully understand how these mechanisms work and what kinds of areas each works best. And universities would have a lot to contribute into research in these areas if they would free themselves from the burden of feeling like they can only support excellence.

A lot of bad work could tarnish the reputation of a university. How can it reconcile openness and the promotion of itself as a supplier of good knowledge?

It depends on what the university is trying to sanctify: is it seeking to guarantee the integrity of the product (in which case, every bit of content needs to be vetted) or the integrity of the process (in which case, the university is creating a space where people learn through vetting each other's content.) Is the reputation of a university based on the fact that they gather together lots of people who know things or is it based on the fact that they create a context where the ongoing questioning of information takes place?

What is the role of universities in this new « knowledge society » ?

Universities have gathered together many forms of expertise into one institution and they have provided the time and space for those expertise to be exercised

around compelling questions. They have developed processes by which questions can be asked and answers can be debated, where information can be produced, exchanged, and evaluated, and where expertise can be exchanged between many different minds. So, how do universities expand those functions and processes beyond their brick and mortar campuses? How do they open up these conversations to include a larger public who wish to continue learning beyond their undergraduate years or who wish to learn things that are not available to them at their local level? Universities can potentially play an enormous role here but it requires them to rethink their interface with their public and indeed, requires them to expand their understanding of what constitutes the constituency for higher learning.

Note: In response to the first installment of this interview, reader Chris Lott asks why the Creative Commons license for MIT's Open Courseware initiative constitutes a "conservative" approach to Fair Use. I am not, in this case, concerned about reader's making Fair Use of my materials. They are welcome to use them with attribution as far as I am concerned. But my problem is that as a media scholar, I need to be able to provide excerpts from other people's media -- especially corporate media -- if my teaching materials and approaches are going to be accessible to people around the world who may not have ready access to American media. MIT's position is that we have to clear rights for every piece of material that we include in our course materials, rather than asserting a broader understanding of Fair Use which would define such materials as being circulated for the purpose of critical commentary. I apply such a broader notion in my own blog but so far, the Open Courseware people will not accept this perspective and as a result, I've been locked out of contributing to this program. People often ask why not use materials under Creative Commons license and the problem is that the kinds of materials currently circulating under Creative Commons tends to be indie media, which is great, but in teaching media studies, I also have to deal with material by mainstream media and universities feel themselves vulnerable to the exagerated assertions of copy right by many corporate rights holders. I hope this further clarifies my position.

Why Universities Shouldn't Create "Something like YouTube" (Part One)

I was recently interviewed by a Canadian journalist, Alexandre Cayla-Irigoyen Chef de pupitre - Societe Monde, about OpenCourseWare, Collective Intelligence, and the modern university. Somehow, the interview questions sparked me to dig deep on some ideas that I hadn't really formulated before and I figured the answers might prove interesting to blog readers. So I asked the reporter if I could run the transcript here, once he had gotten what he needed from it for his story.

I read your book (Convergence Culture) and also a couple of other of your publications. You argue that, right now, the school system is failing its children because they are learning more experimenting outside class than in it. Do you think that Internet and the tools that are being developed will help change this situation ?

The internet is improving opportunities for learning for at least some portion

of our youth, but most of what is most valuable about it is locked outside of

schools. For example, many American schools block all access to YouTube, to

social network sites, even to blogging tools, all of which are key sites for

learning. Schools are discouraging young people from using Wikipedia rather

than engaging with it as an opportunity to learn about the research process and

to engage with critical discussions around issues of credibility. The schools are

often frightened of anything that looks like a game to the point that they lock

out many powerful tools which simulate real world processes, encourage a 'what

if' engagement with history, or otherwise foster critical understanding of the


As long as they react to these developments as risks rather than resources, then those kids who have access to this online world are going to be de-skilled as they enter the schoolhouse gates and those kids who don't have access are going to be left further behind because they have been abandoned by the institutions which are otherwise best situated to address the digital divide in terms of technical access and the participation gap in terms of access to skills and experiences. So, yes, informal learning is taking place outside of school for those who are able to access it but the refusal of schools to engage with it further amplifies the inequalities between information haves and have nots.

Can such changes be implemented in university classes? Flexibility seems to be the key aspect of this new approach whereas the university classroom is typically governed by a rigid student-teacher relation (at the undergrad level at least).

Whatever their limitations in terms of bureaucratic structure, most university

instructors have much greater flexibility to respond to these challenges than the average public high school. Unfortunately, by the time we get to college, these gaps in experiences, skills, and resources will have already had a near lethal impact on those kids who are being left behind. It isn't just that we will need to have a head start program to get them the technical skills they need to deploy these technologies. It is going to be much harder to give them the sense of empowerment and entitlement needed to allow them to feel fully part of the online world. They are going to be much less likely to play and experiment with the new technologies because they will be afraid of failing and looking dumb in front of classmates who will have been using these tools for more than a decade.

That said, we certainly do want to integrate these skills into college classes, because they are key to higher order thinking an research in most of our disciplines, because doing so is the best way of reaching a generation that expects to be able to participate in social networks and manipulate data through simulations. But we shouldn't delude ourselves into thinking we can fix a decade's worth of neglect through the public schooling system.

How can an institution recreate the type of communities you spoke about in your book ?

The kinds of communities I discussed in the book are what Cory Doctorow calls "ad-hoc-cracies." They emerge quickly in response to shared interests and concerns. They last as long as people need the community to work through a common problems or query. They vanish when they are no longer useful to their members. They are radically interdisciplinary or I'd prefer, "undisciplined," in that they draw together people with many different expertises and they deploy social networks which observe few of the barriers to interaction we experience in the physical world to bring people together who should be working together. They develop informal yet very powerful systems for vetting information and for carrying out deliberation.

Almost none of this holds with the average college class which has a fixed duration, a prearranged sequence of materials and problems, a disciplined border, a geographically narrowed location, etc. So, if we want to integrate these into our classes, they require

much greater flexibility in imagining what constitutes an educational context. They certainly involve developing projects which span disciplines, which link several classes together and requires students to build on each other's work, and which may straddle multiple universities dispersed in space. All of this is easier said than done, of course, but we should be experimenting with how to achieve this goals since at this point it is even hard to point to many real world examples of what this would look like.

MIT has the OpenCourseWare program that seems to follow a more open logic. Does MIT have other programs that would help it achieve (or create) a more open, flexible and creative environment ?

The Open Courseware Initiative has very worthy goals -- indeed, the vision

behind it is deeply inspiring to me. Universities like MIT should be opening up their resources to the planet. We should being supporting independent learners and providing materials to support education in parts of the world which do not have what major research institutions have to offer. The scale on which Open Courseware is operating now is astonishing and a real tribute to the people who developed it.

That said, I do not myself participate in Open Courseware. I freely give away my own content through our various blogs, podcasts, and online materials. But MIT has failed to assert a strong Fair Use defense which allows instructors to meaningfully quote from and repurpose existing materials as part of their instructional process. As a media scholar, my teaching centers on helping students understand other people's media content and if I can't quote from and share that content with the users of the Open Courseware, I can not meaningfully reproduce my instructional practices online. MIT had an opportunity to be a leader in the arguments about Fair Use, especially given the good will they have gotten through Open Courseware, yet they have chosen to take a very timid and conservative legal approach to these matters and as a consequence, I feel like it severely compromises the goals and ideals of the Open Courseware initiative.

I am thus a conscientious objector in my relation to this project. I am going into this here not to slam the Open Courseware people but to suggest that the ideals of free distribution of content by educational institutions are compromised by the current intellectual property regime and that we are not going to be able to meaningfully achieve the full ambitions of such a project until we develop stronger defenses around Fair Use.

At the present time, MIT is thinking about its next step in its Internet strategy (after the OpenCourseWare project), what are the options ? What should a university try to implement ?

Many universities are trying to figure out how they can build "something like YouTube" to support their educational activities. Most of them end up building things that are very little like YouTube in that they tend to lock down the content and make it hard to move into other spaces and mobilize in other conversations. In a sense, these university based sites are about disciplining the flow of knowledge rather than facilitating it. As I think about what makes YouTube YouTube, I see a number of factors:

  • Anyone can submit content at anytime and thus doesn't have to operate from a base of academic and institutional authority. It respects multiple kinds of expertise, understands people are differently motivated, and appreciates that information can be posted for many different reasons.
  • YouTube content can be embedded on any website, blog, or social network page. It is spreadable and it gets value as it gets inserted into these various contexts, because they represent different social communities which are having ongoing conversations. YouTube sees information as something that can be used, not something that is simply stored.
  • YouTube provokes responses. Indeed, the most valuable content on YouTube is content which inspires other users to talk back, reframing and repurposing materials, coming at them from many different angles.
  • The content on YouTube can be reconfigured many different ways. It is not part of a structured curriculum; rather, it is modular, nonliner, unstructured. And as such, we are encouraged to play with it rather than being disciplined to approach it in set ways.

    So, I don't know for sure what the next stage of an academic content system looks like but my own sense is that it should look MORE like YouTube and less like what university lawyers and department heads think will be "something like YouTube".

Inviting Our Participation: An Interview with Sharon Marie Ross (Part One)

Increasingly, television invites our participation. Some shows, like American Idol, do so through explicit calls to share our thoughts and reactions. Some shows, such as Lost, do so through their deployment of serial structures which demand a particular kind of attention that we associate with cult media. In Convergence Culture, I talk about building entertainment properties to be cultural attractors (drawing like minded people together) and cultural activators (giving these networked audiences something to do). In the recent book, Beyond the Box: Television and the Internet, media scholar Sharon Marie Ross identifies as range of "invitational strategies" in contemporary television which encourage our participation as fans. Beyond the Box is an important contribution to our understanding of convergence culture, an exciting example of what happens when scholars effectively blend research methods including political economy, fan studies, and close textual analysis, which have historically been set in opposition to each other. Ross is able to understand not only what draws fans to such programs but also to explain what fans mean economically to television producers at the current moment of media in transition. I read this book with great gusto, delighted to find a kindred spirit, and pleased to see this further elaboration of the affective economy surrounding contemporary broadcasting.

I am pleased to be able to share with you this interview with an up and coming media scholar. Here, she not only lays out some of the book's core ideas but she also applies them to some very contemporary developments in Broadcasting, such as the Writer's Strike, the Gossip Girl phenomenon, and the release of Joss Whedon's Dr. Horrible.

Throughout the book, you write about what you call "invitational strategies" surrounding cult television series. Explain what you mean by this term.

The term "invitational strategies" actually emerged from a conversation among me, Janet Staiger, Amanda Lotz, and Matt Hills. I had started with "interpellation" but that didn't quite work for what I was trying to capture in terms of what I see emerging in TV and the Internet. What I've seen, across several genres, is a mode of address (sometimes explicit and sometimes less obvious) where producers/writers, and marketers also at times, create stories (which can encompass the show plot itself, and also how a show is marketed and how a show works with Internet addendums) that reach out to viewers/readers and "prod" them to become a part of the storytelling process. The goal is to have the reader become actively engaged and also to elicit among readers a feeling (and I mean "feeling" emotionally) that the story belongs to them in a significant way. This can run from overt invitations (asking viewers to vote or chat online or buy something) to organic (where a viewer is already likely to be engaged and the invitation is embedded more deeply in the plots) to obscured (where the invitation seems "hidden" and those outside the experience might not see any behind-the-scenes constructing of an invitation at work). I think organic is becoming dominant. The key element is that the reader feels as if those creating the story want their input and involvement in some way--and the reader has the power to refuse the invitation, accept it, bring along a guest, drop by or stay and really party (etc.) A definite two-way event (though as we know, the host ultimately decides what is available for consumption and what the hours of the party might be...I find myself slipping into more metaphors, but hope this explains it!:)

As a fan, I kept asking myself whether we really needed any kind of an invitation or whether fan culture might emerge around any program. You seem to suggest that

some texts are more "inviting" than others and more open to exploring alternative forms of audience participation. How important is that solicitation, whether implicit or explicit, to sparking such responses?

I do think invitations aren't necessary for people we think of as fans ( a category that is murky in and of itself). Those who become a fan on their own are ready to jump in and especially use the Internet to create their own forms of involvement. However, I do think fans respond to invitations when offered in the right way--not too confining, being key. This is especially true of more cult like shows like Lost or Dr. Who or even soaps. An invitation is appreciated as it shows deference to fans--but that invite better not preclude already established ways on interacting. For those for whom "fan" still connotes "horrors" of geekdom and over-investment, an invitation might provide the legitimacy needed to allow them to overcome the stigma of fandom and become involved in similar ways with a show. So many people still think of TV and the Internet as "guilty pleasures" that can slip into unhealthy involvement, and an invitation suggests that any involvement they then engage in is distanced from those societal fears of falling in too deeply...

Throughout the book, you draw heavily on research on soap operas to try to explain the kinds of responses surrounding reality television and cult dramas. What do you think television critics miss by trying to discuss the complexity of contemporary television without dealing with soaps?

Oh--sooo very much! As far as I'm concerned, soap operas (with their roots in also comics and Dickens' serials of yore) are the fundamental form of storytelling. Think about it: a story that keeps going--that will always be there for you no matter what stage of life you're in or what kind of mood--and even persists if you leave; a story that responds to the times and milieu of its viewers; a story that reacts to viewers' desires to some degree...and that requires careful attention without holding you too much to account. When critics dismiss this genre (often via its lower production values and its association with women) they overlook its core pleasures, which aren't about missing out on excitement in one's own life, or having little to do with one's day. The pleasures are about storytelling in its most basic sense: someone tells you a little bit about this person and their life, and you consider it in relation to your own; then you can consider further in relation to those around you--especially those who have also been told the story. And then you can spin the story outwards--what might happen next and why. I believe that humans inherently need stories to empathize with others, plan their futures (individually and as cultures), dream dreams, etc. Soaps tap into this need--and I think it's a healthy need. Contemporary TV that doesn't seem like a soap can often replicate this appeal using soap-like strategies of narration (interruption, open-endedness, current events and mores at work, sprawling plots to follow sprawling casts). If we as critics try to explain the appeal of modern shows without acknowledging their roots in this form and its seriality, we not only do a disservice to history (of the medium), we also are ignoring an understanding of what stories offer human beings. And at an academic level, how can we teach why a show has appeal or how a show needs to be written to have appeal without understanding a genre that has existed since pre-TV? I think scholars have often ignored the soap connection because academia shies away from things emotional in favor of the rational and formulaic...yet stories are all about emotion and psychology because humans are all about emotion and psychology. There are things in life and the world we don't always understand; seeking the answers is what makes us human. Stories (when done well) tap into this--and soaps especially have gloried in basic human questioning. (Why do people stop loving us? why do relatives die? what am I here for?)

You describe your own experiences in viewer activism around Buffy as paving the way for some of your intellectual interest around this topic. What did you learn through your fan involvement and how did it inform your work on this book?

Oh, very very much is indebted to Buffy!! I became a fan "on my own" and this show spoke to me as a woman, a scholar, a feminist, a lover of TV...It tapped into so many of those human questions mentioned above...I had loved TV before, but this was my first real experience as a fan beyond soap operas proper. I found myself fascinated BY myself (ha ha--narcissism reigns always among scholars!). How could a TV show--especially one so initially disparaged--allow me to grow as a person and as a teacher and scholar? How could such a show appeal to so many different kinds of people (as I eventually discovered)? After focusing on this and Xena initially, I began to see other shows that did the same for other groups of viewers--from wrestling to sports to reality TV. Was there something connecting such disparate groups and such disparate styles of TV programs? And given the role of the Internet with Buffy fandom and the role of Joss Whedon in becoming involved with fans online (and off), was there something about this new medium that was bringing together these areas of culturally "disconnected" forms of storytelling? As I started working on this book, Buffy always served as a barometer of sorts. How was Buffy fandom different and how the same from say American Idol or The O.C.? How did the structure of the show differ and not from other shows? How the content/themes? How the role of the producers and critics? I began to see the storytelling connection as fundamental to linking different things that seemed so very different...In the end, does a show call out to people in such a way that they feel a personal connection AND ultimately a social connection to other people? Last, via my involvement with Buffy fandom both personally and as a scholar, I began to see at work the real role and impact of cultural biases against genres and fandoms and to become fascinated by what can get in the way--and also aid and abet--people's willingness to embrace a story as having true value and meaning in life--to embrace "entertainment" as something that serves a purpose.

One of the most talked about examples of "viral media content" this summer was the online distribution of Dr. Horrible. How might we see this experiment as an outgrowth of Joss Whedon's long-term engagement with his hardcore fans?

Definitely an outgrowth! (Loved it, by the way...) Dr. Horrible is a fascinating example of so many themes in my book coming together (after publication, of course! That's always the way...) People who had come to respect Joss Whedon as an auteur came to this text; along with those who loved Buffy or Firefly; and those who love Neil Patrick Harris and How I Met Your Mother; those who follow viral videos...and of course it was a by-product of the writers' strike that was immersed in the Internet's relationship with TV. Some heard of it through friends, some online, some via Entertainment Weekly and TV Guide...So on the one hand, while its success was rooted in Joss Whedon's awareness that his fans are out there and always looking for new work from him and that they will seek work in untraditional forums, on the other hand the success was also a product of the Internet becoming a more acceptable venue for storytelling in the ways in which I have been discussing it and the ability of the Internet to draw together "unheard of" combinations of fans. In short, when someone reaches out with a personal story (and it was pretty personal to pull this off when a strike was going on), people will respond in kind with personal attention.

You discuss teen television as one genre that reflects contemporary youth's expectations of participation. What have current teen shows, such as Gossip Girl, learned from the earlier experiments in "teleparticipation" you discuss in the book?

This is funny--I was watching Gossip Girl all summer while pregnant and began loving it as a junior Dynasty. Having interviewed Josh Schwartz and Stephanie Savage about The OC and hearing about their travails with the show and Internet fans and FOX, I definitely was looking for signs of the old (good use of soap strategies, attention to the role of new media communication) and signs of the new (how to attend to fans without cowtowing to them, how to not spill all of a story too soon). And there I am, watching a week ago, and I see a brief funny bit in which pre-teen girls accost Serena and Dan (the main couple) in the park, offering their totally contradictory two cents about whether or not the couple should stay together, etc. And Serena and Dan became Josh and Stephanie: we hear you, we admire your interest and your new media involvement (hearing about the couple's troubles via the Gossip Girl blog)--but back off! The story is still unraveling and if we listen to all of you, it'll all spiral into meaninglessness as a story. This reminded me so much of my interview with them, in which they discussed the many different groups of fans they were dealing with, and how trying to keep up with all of their demands ultimately robbed them of their power to deliver a story they were connected with. You can't please everyone--but you should listen at the very least.

Teen shows make it tricky--there are so many different social audiences invested, with differing needs and desires. But the teen demo is so very new media savvy, you need to be able to keep up with their interests--and their skills as readers. I see Gossip Girl skillfully negotiating this demo with its older demo (18-34) by weaving in new media more deftly to the plots, by heeding online talk--but ultimately by the producers laying claim to their role as storytellers. (vs. story-givers--where you totally hand the story off and abandon ship.) It will be interesting to see if 90210 follows suit and if Smallville can survive its core Lex/Clark fan base now that Lex is gone (too early to tell). But I think the teen demo is so key to success with many shows that producers are definitely working harder to listen to them, and reach out to them online and via script. The key thing is can they do this without sacrificing their own creativity and their own needs as storytellers? (I think we often forget that writers, even in L.A., are humans too--driven to tell stories for very personal reasons and not solely driven by profit. It's a mean business and no one sticks with it without really loving it.)

Sharon Ross is an assistant professor in the Television Department at Columbia College Chicago. She teaches courses in the areas of TV history and critical theory and her research focuses on issues of television reception; this semester she is excited to be teaching a 5 week intensive seminar on a single script from Buffy the Vampire Slayer. She is the associate editor of the journal for the International Digital Media Arts Association and co-editor with Dr. Louisa Stein of the anthology Teen Television: Essays on Programming and Fandom. She has too many "must see" TV shows to mention but highly recommends Mad Men and How I Met Your Mother this season.

What Does Popular Culture Have to Do With Civic Media?

The following post originally appeared on the Media Shift Idea Lab blog, which is run by the Knight Foundation as part of their ongoing focus on civic media and citizen journalism. If you don't know this blog, you should. Regular contributors include such key thinkers in this area as Dan Gilmor, Jay Rosen, Gail Robinson, Ian Rowe, J.D. Lasica, Leslie Rule, Mark Glaser, Lisa Williams, and many others. It is a great space to go and learn about how new technologies and cultural processes are being deployed to enhance civic engagement. I had the chance to hang out with many of these folks last week at a conference we hosted at MIT. The Center for Future Civic Media is collaborating with the MIT Communications Forum to host an ongoing series of conversations about media and civic engagement. This past term, we hosted two such exchanges --- "Our World Digitized: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly," an exchange between University of Chicago law professor Cass Sunstein (Infotopia: How Many Minds Produce Knowledge) and Harvard University law professor Yochai Benkler (The Wealth of Networks) and "Youth and Civic Engagement" with University of Washington political science professor Lance Bennett, actvist Alan Khazei (Be the Change), and our own Ingeborg Endter (formerly with the Computer Clubhouse project, now a key player at the Center for Future Civic Media.) These events are now available on audiocast: you can find "Our World Digitized" here and "Youth and Civic Engagement" here. What follows are some personal reflections on a theme touched upon in the first exchange and explored more deeply in the second -- the relationship of popular culture to civic engagement.

Despite its title, the goal of the Benkler/Sunstein exchange was not to sort through which of us was "the good, the bad, or the ugly" or even to present a debate between an Internet critic and an advocate. My own sense is that both Sunstein and Benkler have more complex, more multivalent perspectives on contemporary digital culture than is generally acknowledged. I know that both writers are ones I regularly teach in my classes and both raise questions which we need to address if we are to develop a sophisticated understanding of how and why civic engagement operates in the digital era. Our discussion was far reaching and defies easy description or summary here. You will have to listen to it yourself.

Near the end of the session, one of my graduate students, Lana Swartz (bless her soul!), asked a question about how popular media and participatory culture fit into their ongoing discussion about the state of American democracy. Neither speaker was fully prepared to address this question, though Sunstein showed in the process a previously unsuspected enthusiasm for Lost. As a moderator, I had not felt it was my place to introduce my own perspectives on this question so I wanted to take advantage of this space to spell out a bit more about why I think Sunstein should pay more attention to the way popular culture gets discussed on the web.

A core premise running through Sunstein's two most recent books, Republic.com and Infotopia is this concern that despite or perhaps even because of the dramatic expansion of the information environment brought about by the introduction of the web, most of us are accessing a much narrower range of opinion than previous generations in part because of our tendency to filter out news that is not personally interesting to us, in part because many of the forums we frequent do not have strong mechanisms for insuring diversity of perspective, and in part because such groups tend to develop very firm yet polarizing consensus over time which further narrows what gets said. I first read Sunstein's argument when I was asked to be a respondent to his article, "The Daily We," for Boston Review.

At the time, I wrote:

Sunstein assumes that we join virtual communities primarily on the basis of ideological identifications. Yet, many, if not most, Net discussion groups are not defined along party affiliations but rather around other kinds of shared interests--hobbies or fandoms, for example--which frequently cut across political lines. The fact that you and I both watch Buffy the Vampire Slayer may or may not mean that we share the same views on gun control. Many ideological questions may surface in such contexts: aviation buffs debate the naming of an airport after Ronald Reagan, the fans of a particular soap opera debate the moral choices made by a character. Sometimes these exchanges produce flame wars, sometimes mutual understanding. Still, they bring together people who would have had little or no prior contact and thus constitute contexts where more diverse opinions can be heard. We should not underestimate such exchanges by maintaining a crisp separation of political dialogue from other kinds of social interaction.

Then as now, I find Sunstein's argument most convincing when he is speaking about those communities which are defined explicitly around political communication, i.e. the kinds of communities that law professors are most likely to spend time studying. Yet, they seem to break down as we move towards other kinds of communities, such as the fan communities which I most often explore.

While ideological perspectives certainly play a role in defining our interests as fans and media consumers, they are only one factor among others. So, we may watch a program which we find entertaining but sometimes ideologically challenging to us: I know conservatives who watched The West Wing and laugh at The Daily Show; I know liberals who enjoy 24 even if they might disagree about the viability of torture as a response to global terrorism. Television content provides a "common culture" which often bridges between other partisan divides within the culture, even in the context of culture war discourses which use taste in popular media as a wedge issue to drive us apart.

So, a fan group online is apt to be far more diverse in its perspectives than a group defined around, say, a political candidate or a social issue. This is not to suggest that fan communities do not form firm consensus perspectives which block some other ideas from being heard, but they form them around different axis -- such as desired sets of romantic partnerships between characters -- which may or may not reflect ideological schisms. There may be rich discussions, then, about the philosophy of education which should rule at Hogwarts, just not on which character constitutes the most appropriate life partner for Harry Potter.

At the same time, the nature of popular culture means that it continually raises social, political, and ethical issues; popular media projects something of our hopes and fears and as such, it provides us a context for talking through our values. Research for example shows that fans of reality television shows spend more time talking about ethical issues than trying to predict the outcomes. Indeed, on a fan discussion group, there is an active desire for diversity of background and perspective to sustain the conversation and allow all participants to get new insights which refreshes their relationship with the series. In some cases, the community is engaged in a collective activity of problem solving, as in the case of the Survivor spoilers I discussed in Convergence Culture or for that matter, the various groups online trying to figure out the mysteries of Lost.

In many cases, these groups are seeking to make predictions which have, in the end, right or wrong answers: someone's going to win Survivor; someday, we hope, we will know what's really going on on that island. As such, they split around competing theories, often adopting perspectives which are adversarial in the same sense that a court of law is adversarial: competing sides contest each claim made in the hopes of getting closer to the truth. Such communities, thus, have mechanisms built into them that insure that competing truth claims get heard and that the relationship between them get played out at a fairly deep level. Many of these mechanisms look very much like the solutions which Sunstein proposed for insularity and polarity in Infotopia, but they are being applied to less "serious matters."

Again, though, we can't assume that no important civic discussions take place here. Consider, for example, the representation of an American political campaign depicted in the final season of The West Wing, which was depicted as a contest between Alan Alda as a thoughtful maverick Republican (closely model on John McCain) and Jimmy Smitts as a minority candidate who refuses to play old style race politics (modeled on Barack Obama). In the course of the season, both fictional candidates rehearsed themes, issues, and rhetorical styles which were designed to play to a "purple America" and were intended to be a utopian alternative to the 2004 campaign cycle. More and more, it looks like this fictional campaign was in fact a rehearsal for our current presidential season and that the program, in effect, market tested a range of new ways of framing the relationship between the two parties. Surely, we have to see such a process as deeply bound up with our contemporary understanding of civic engagement. The program both educated us about core civic concerns and gave us a new framework for thinking about what a good candidate might look like. And because the program was watched by people from all ideological stripes, it offered a context for a bi-partisan or "post-partisan" exchange at the same time we were incapable of talking to our neighbors about politics in the real world.

In Convergence Culture, I argue that we are learning through play skills which we are increasingly deploying towards more serious purposes: in this case, a generation of young people may have found their voice in online debates and discussions around their favorite television programs. In this space, they felt empowered to express and argue for their points of view, precisely because talking about popular culture lowered the stakes for everyone involved. And it was through these conversations that they developed a strong sense of social ideals and values which they carry with them as they venture into real world political debates. I am unshamed to say that much of what I now believe about diversity and social justice I learned growing up watching Star Trek in the 1960s, watching a multiracial crew operate as friends and team members on the bridge, seeing how they responded to the challenges posed by alien societies radically different from their own.

And this brings us to the second of the MIT Communication Forum events on youth and civic engagement. For me, one of the most exciting development of the past year has been watching the dramatic increase in youth participation in the Democratic and Republican primaries, seeing so many young people vote for the first time. Our speaker, W. Lance Bennett, edited an important new collection of essays for the MacArthur Foundation's Digital Learning and Youth series at the MIT Press, which is essentially reading for anyone who wants to understand what current research tells us about young people's civic lives online. You can read the book for free online.

In his introduction to that book, Bennett outlines conflicting claims about young people's relations to civic life: one which sees them as apathetic, ill-informed, and disinterested because they tend to shy away from traditional civic organizations, tend to get news from nontraditional sources, and tend to be skeptical if not cynical about the claims made by political leaders. The other sees strong signs that their experience as media producers and participants in online communities, are giving them a much greater sense of empowerment, creating a stronger sense of shared social responsibilities, and are leading them to feel more comfortable speaking out about what they believe in. Bennett argues that those who want to get young people more involved in the political process, including the designers of future civic media or the developers of school curriculum about politics, need to spend more time studying the kinds of civic lives young people do find engaging and examining the language which speaks to this generation.

Bennett notes that most campaigns spend little time addressing young people's concerns because they are seen as a hard to reach demographic which rarely makes a difference in elections. We will see whether these patterns hold, given the amount of attention now being paid for the centrality of the youth vote to the Obama campaign. As we look back through the aftermath of the current campaign season, we will certainly want to think long and hard about what impact YouTube parodies, Saturday Night Live, The Daily Show, and Stephen Colbert had on young people's engagement and participation in this election and will want to pay attention to how each of the major candidates have tapped into references to these shows as a way of reaching young voters.

So, what does popular culture have to do with civic media? More than many law professors might assume...

More Transmedia News

I've been meaning to do another post on this topic for a while. First, I was inspired by a story in Fast Company, sent to me by Jesse Alexander, which described a gathering of Hollywood's fan boy elite to talk about the futures of cross-platform storytelling:

Tim Kring, the lanky, goateed guy at the head of the table, created Heroes, NBC's hit television show about superpowered people. To his right, in a black hoodie and narrow black-framed glasses is Damon Lindelof, cocreator of Lost, ABC's island-fantasy juggernaut, as well as producer of next year's eagerly anticipated Star Trek movie, directed by J.J. Abrams. Across the way is Lindelof's buddy Jesse Alexander, co-executive producer of Heroes (formerly of Lost and the pioneering she-geek hit Alias). Nearby is Rob Letterman, the self-described nerdy director of DreamWorks' next mega-franchise movie, Monsters vs. Aliens. He's chatting up video-game creator Matt Wolf, who's developing a project with Alexander....The long-haired bearded guy pouring straight bourbon is Ron Moore, creator of the new Battlestar Galactica, the SciFi Channel's acclaimed reimagining of the classic series. The guy eating pizza on the couch is Javier Grillo-Marxauch, a veteran producer of Lost and NBC's paranormal series Medium, who's now having his own fantasy graphic novel, Middleman, turned into a series on ABC Family.

so, how come I never get invited to parties like this?

The article goes on to introduce the concept of transmedia entertainment and to suggest that it is one of the hotest topics in the entertainment world today:

"In five years," Kring is saying, "the idea of broadcast will be gone."

"Right," says Lindelof. "Instead of watching Heroes on NBC, you'll go to nbc.com and download the show to your device, and the show will be deleted as soon as you finish watching it -- unless you pay $1.99; then you get audio commentary. You enhance it. It's like building your Transformer and putting little rocket ships on the side." ...

In the analog era, such efforts might have fallen under the soulless rubric of "cross-promotion," but today they have evolved and mashed up into a new buzzword: "transmedia." The difference is that cross-promotion has nothing to do with developing or expanding an established narrative. A Happy Days lunch box, in other words, does nothing to advance the story of Fonzie's personal journey.

While such merchandising campaigns still exist, transmedia offers one big plot twist: X-ray vision. Today's audience, steeped in media and marketing, sees through crass ploys to cash in. So the Geek Elite are taking a different approach. Rather than just shill their products in various media, they are building on new and emerging platforms to expand their mythological worlds. Viewers watch an episode of Heroes, then follow one character's adventure in a graphic novel. They tune in to Lost, then explore the island's twisted history in an online game. It is this "transmedia storytelling," as Alexander puts it, that ultimately lures the audience into buying more stuff -- today, DVDs; tomorrow, who knows what.

The article offers a pretty good snapshot of where the industry's thinking is at in terms of transmedia properties and certainly offers an up date on my discussion of The Matrix in Convergence Culture.

This week, the New York Times reported on the plans to release a suplamentary dvd to more or less coincide with the release of the Watchmen movie next year:

The second film, tentatively called Tales of the Black Freighter, follows a side Watchmen storyline about a shipwreck and will arrive in stores five days after the main movie rolls out in theaters. The DVD will also include a documentary-style film called Under the Hood that will delve into the characters' backstories.

Those of you who have read Alan Moore's original graphic novel will recognize both of those titles as materials which are complexly woven into the narrative, offering us a glimpse into the way popular culture might have evolved -- towards pirate comics -- in a world where superheroes are real (Black Freighter) and a sense of the ways superheroes might be covered as cultural celebrities (Under the Hood). As the producers have striped down Watchmen for the screen, they have pushed these elements to the margins. In another era, they would have been left on the cutting room floor, but instead, they are becoming the backbone of Warner Brother's transmedia strategy for the film.

The article also noted:

In addition, the studio plans a dozen 22- to 26-minute Webisodes to help make the complex story easier for the uninitiated to digest. Called "The Watchmen Motion Comic," it will be a panel-by-panel slide show of the graphic novel narrated by an actor.

Keep in mind that Warner Brothers was the studio which sponsored the Wachowski Brothers's transmedia development around the Matrix franchise.

All of this suggests how central transmedia entertainment has become to the thinking inside Hollywood today. So it is great to have a chance to share with my readers some insights from a real master of this practice.

Talking Transmedia: An Interview with Starlight Runner's Jeff Gomez (Part Two)

How important do you think hardcore fans are to the success of genre entertainment? How do such fans create value around your properties?

As exemplified by the efforts of many recent genre producers, the cultivation, validation and celebration of fandom are vital to the success of any genre rollout. It's interesting to note that two major genre releases in 2007, The Seeker: The Dark is Rising and The Golden Compass were both released with either limited or no transmedia components designed to immerse a potential fan base into the fantastical worlds of the films--no one was indoctrinated into the fiction--and both failed spectacularly.

Genre fans are passionate. Passion is the least expensive and most powerful driver behind any endeavor. Passion can punch holes through the wall of noise that is media culture, it generates curiosity and leadership, and the passion of a base of fans can help to keep producers and creatives "honest"--forcing them to remain true to the core messages, themes, mythology and characterizations of the story world. Passion generates value, because it draws attention and is often quite infectious.

What do you see as the downsides of generating such passionate consumers?

On the other hand, passion can be blind and judgmental. Fan zeal can threaten to "box in" a property, potentially stunting its growth. It can generate negative "buzz" around a project, which can leak into media coverage and plant seeds of doubt in the general audience base. Despite the attachment of a well known director in George Miller for Warner Bros. upcoming Justice League super hero production, for example, many fans have expressed doubt around casting and story issues that have leaked to the fan media. These have raised concerns in the studio strong enough to postpone the start of production until after the Writers Guild of America strike ended. The delay allowed for the production to take a lower profile and for script and casting choices to be amended. Whether or not this will help the production remains to be seen.

As some of these genres have become more commercially viable, the San Diego Comic Con has emerged as an important media marketplace. Can you speak to the role this gathering plays in the marketing of your properties?

Comic Con International in San Diego plays a more and more pivotal role in heralding, marketing and launching new genre efforts. In the midst of negotiating with executives at The Walt Disney Company for a job working with one of their largest franchises, Starlight Runner took them on a tour of the Comic Con exhibition floor. Many of the "worlds" we helped to develop were on spectacular display: Mattel's Hot Wheels universe, the fantasy realms of Magic: The Gathering, high priced back issues of Valiant Comics, and the announcements for new video games and comic books based on Turok and our own "Team GoRizer" at Disney's own booth! Suffice to say, a deal was quickly sealed!

Each year, Comic Con attracts well over 100,000 "gatekeepers," fans of niche, cult or genre entertainment who make it their business to spread the word about the newest and coolest content to their friends and acquaintances both in their home communities and on the Internet. It used to be that one of these gatekeepers would have a circle of five to ten contacts back home to whom he or she would convey what was best about the convention. Now in the age of social networking and pop culture web portals, that number has multiplied exponentially. Add to this the mass media coverage given to Comic Con and content producers can reach untold millions through it.

The Christian community might be read as another kind of niche public for media properties -- often alienated from mainstream content, deeply interested in providing alternative forms of entertainment for their families. What are the challenges of reaching these consumers, and can their tastes be reconciled by the demands of the mass audience?

Like any niche audience, the Christian community wants to enjoy entertainment that reflects their values and sensibilities. Interestingly, the classic Hollywood ethos reflects Judeo-Christian values: good usually wins out over evil, the hero triumphs after embracing the just and moral path. The problem is actually rooted in how the studios choose to communicate with them.

When Disney and Walden Media reached out to the Christian community to promote The Chronicles of Narnia, what was interesting was that this was a property filled with supernatural beings, witches, magic and violence. However, the studio played up the film's allegory as evocative of the stories and themes of the New Testament.

Quite the opposite happened with The Golden Compass, another children's film that also portrayed supernatural beings, witches, magic and violence. Instead of bravely strategizing a plan and communicating to the Christian community that the film could be used as a tool to discuss vital issues such as faith, false prophets and the abuse of religious power, New Line Cinema chose to downplay those elements of the film and avoid contact with religious leaders. The result was suspicion and distaste for the film among smaller Christian organizations that leaked into the mass media, creating unease with the film among the general population. The film failed in North America.

In short, the entertainment industry is still grappling with how to properly market broad content to the Christian community niche, let alone content specifically designed to appeal to their personal experience.

To extend the religious metaphor of "cult media," do you see cult fans as playing a particularly important role in proselytizing for the content, "evangelizing" the brand?

Fan "apostles" often play an instrumental role in spreading the word and drawing attention to niche content. Many studios and publishers of genre entertainment are currently developing programs to secure relationships with the fan community (or various subsections thereof). While this is not easy to do and often brings on headaches large companies would rather avoid, it is becoming inevitable. After all, without evangelists, how can new religions (or tentpole franchises) spread?

Some have suggested that media producers with strong niche followings might be able to develop alternative distribution models for their entertainment content, marketing their properties directly to the public through subscriptions or downloads, rather than negotiating with networks or film studios. How realistic do you think this scenario is within the current marketplace? What do you think are the obstacles of establishing such a direct relationship between producers and their fans?

There has never been a better time to explore and establish alternative distribution models for niche entertainment content, but these opportunities are still not easy to exploit and may not last forever. It takes a cocktail of money, talent, timing and pure luck to build a major head with direct digital distribution of entertainment content, particularly if your resources are limited compared with those of a Hollywood studio or entertainment firm.

Of course, we've seen recording artists (Coldplay), independent filmmakers (The Blair Witch Project) and amateur content producers (Ask a Ninja) do just that, but it's still a long shot and remarkable resourcefulness is necessary to cut through the noise enough to generate global distribution that generates a reasonable return.

Starlight Runner views alternative distribution models as a means to launch a new property, particularly one with "cult" qualities, in an effort to build buzz, develop a fan base and establish proof of concept. This is a killer combination that can help producers leverage more equity and creative control over their properties after larger partners such as movie studios or media conglomerates move in.

The Nickelodeon smash TV series The Naked Brothers Band, for example, started out as a low-budget indie film making the rounds at small film festivals, before the producers established a web site that offered the film's songs as downloads and sparked a modest but intensely loyal fan following. Nickelodeon took note and granted the production a sweet deal in return for the rights.

Even now, tools and models are being devised that will more readily enable niche content producers to connect directly with their potential audience. Fans want to participate and express themselves, and producers must accommodate them with structures that will allow for guided user-generated content, story material that dovetails with the current storylines set in-canon, and perhaps one day, the opportunity to touch and interact with the canon itself.

Talking Transmedia: An Interview With Starlight Runner's Jeff Gomez (part one)

Jeff Gomez, the chief executive officer of Starlight Runner entertainment, spoke at Futures of Entertainment last fall as part of a panel discussion on Cult Media, which also included transmedia creator Danny Bilson, Heroes executive producer Jesse Alexander, and Gordon Tichell from Walden Media, the company which produces the Narnia films. Not surprisingly, given I was moderator, the session quickly became a geek out festival mostly centered around issues of transmedia entertainment. You can enjoy the podcast of the event here. As we were preparing for the session, we distributed a set of questions to the speakers, some of which were covered during the panel, some of which were not. Gomez recently wrote to send me his further reflections on many of those questions in the hopes to continue public conversation around recent developments in transmedia entertainment.

Here's a bio on Gomez:

As the Chief Executive Officer of Starlight Runner Entertainment, Jeff Gomez

is a leading creator of highly successful fictional worlds. He is an expert

at cross-platform intellectual property development and transmedia

storytelling, as well as at extending niche properties such as toys,

animation or video game titles into the global mass market.

After establishing himself in the tabletop adventure game industry, Jeff

helped to develop the super hero universe of Valiant Comics, adapting its

characters and storylines into videogames for Acclaim Entertainment. Jeff¹s

first transmedia effort was for the Wizards of the Coast trading card game

Magic: The Gathering, where he dramatized the mythology of the cards in an

elaborate storyline across a series of comic book titles, web sites and


Jeff conceived and co-produced one of the most successful transmedia

storylines of the decade with Mattel's Hot Wheels: World Race and Hot Wheels

Acceleracers comic books, video games, web content and animated series for

television. He has gone on to work with such blockbuster properties as

Pirates of the Caribbean and Fairies for The Walt Disney Company, James

Cameron¹s Avatar for 20th Century Fox, and Happiness Factory for The

Coca-Cola Company.

Jeff has also spoken at M.I.T.'s Futures of Entertainment conference and

given his seminar, Creating Blockbuster Worlds: Developing Highly Successful

Transmedia Franchises, to the Game Developers Conference, New York State Bar

Association, International Game Developers Association and the Producers

Guild of America, as well as to such corporations as Disney, Fox, Microsoft,

Coca-Cola, Scholastic, Wieden+Kennedy, and Hasbro.

Jeff Gomez can best be reached at jeff@starlightrunner.com.

Let's start by examining the concept of "cult media." What does this phrase mean to you, and do you think it accurately describes the kinds of projects you've worked on? Why or why not?

To me "cult media" is exemplified by the slow crumbling of traditional media content aimed at huge swathes of the population, down to the more contemporary approach of designing content to engage subsections of that population or even smaller "niches."

My company Starlight Runner works on "cult media" in that we work on projects that already have mass appeal or have the potential to reach mass appeal, but what those projects always have to begin with is a specific genre appeal that almost guarantees an extremely loyal core "niche" audience.

Starlight Runner also consults with movie studios, comic book and fiction publishers, and videogame developers to take their niche or "cult" content and prepare it for extension across multiple media platforms. In this case, we are acting as transmedia storytellers, developing and producing "cult" properties for exposure to a much larger audience.

The idea of cult media historically referred to films that appealed to a fairly small niche of consumers. But many genres, which once were regarded as cult -- fantasy, science fiction, superheroes -- have emerged as increasingly mainstream. What's changing? What accounts for the mainstreaming of niche media?

There are five factors that seem to be contributing to the "coming out" of cult media:

  1. Baby boomers and gen-X'ers weaned on the explosion of pop culture spurred by the proliferation of television and movies in the aftermath of World War II have come of age and taken control of the entertainment industry. Naturally, they have a strong desire to recreate what they loved and share it with others who've had similar cultural experiences.
  2. Genre product such as science fiction serials and horror films, which had been relegated to Saturday matinees and second or third billing in movie theaters, could now be given A-list treatment. The new moguls and visionaries could now apply top grade production value to this content, and hire marquee talent for it, secure in the knowledge that genre fare is more than likely to turn a profit. In the international market, a growing hunger for action and genre content could boost domestic failures into profitability.
  3. Attention to quality extended to storytelling. Filmmakers, comic book writers, genre novelists and their ilk were better educated and more interested in stories that conveyed better character development and stronger verisimilitude. Star Wars was fueled by the work of Joseph Campbell.
  4. Genre content became more reflective of the mood and politics of the time, and therefore resonated more powerfully with mass audiences. Note the nuclear spawned monsters of the 1950s, the "acid trip" sci-fi of the '60s, the terrifying "evil children" of the early '70s, the "gee whiz" hope ofStar Wars and Close Encounters later that decade, the political morass and moral ambiguity of Battlestar Galactica currently.
  5. Like no other time in history, devotees of this type of content have complete access to one another via the Internet. Fans whose imaginations are fired by these stories make a deep and lasting connection with them. They become "specialists," intensely knowledgeable of the property, the way that sports fanatics memorize the accomplishments and statistics of their favorite teams. These fans become "apostles" for the property, devoting time, effort and creativity in celebrating the story and characters, collecting ephemera and licensed extensions of the brand, celebrating it with others of their ilk. They form the property's core fan base, which in turn fuels the continued success of the brand.

What do you see as the challenges of generating content that appeals to both niche and mass publics at the same time?

Like any good story, content designed for genre-lovers or niche markets should contain strong characters, evocative issues and clear, accessible throughlines. Story arcs must be designed from the outset to feel complete and deliver on their promise.

Also importantly, the audience needs to be able to appreciate and enjoy the content as it is presented solely on the driving platform of the trans-media production. With Heroes, for example, the driving platform is the television series. Much of the success of the franchise hinges on the audience finding the show exciting, intelligible and complete.

What the producers of Heroes are doing quite well is in providing fans of the show with a far more expansive experience of the fictional universe of the show on the complementary or orbiting platforms of the trans-media production. This additional content is presented in the form of web sites, graphic novels, prose fiction, etc., and this material all takes place within the canon of the Heroes chronology. So fans are provided with the level of depth, verisimilitude, sophistication and complexity that they crave, but casual viewers are not required to seek it out to enjoy the show.

When the two approaches cross over, we have seen the potential for pop culture phenomena. The media's coverage of "The Lost Experience" for example, conveyed the fact that there was a greater architecture to the fictional universe of the Lost TV series than was originally suspected. The excitement generated by the trans-media components of the show helped to boost broad interest in it. The same can be said of similar approaches for both the Batman: The Darknight and Cloverfield feature films.

Also powerful on the home front, as families gather to watch Heroes, a teen fan of the show might recognize a peripheral character making her first appearance on a given night's episode as one he originally read about in the online comic. So our fan takes on the role of gatekeeper for the show, filling in family and friends on the backstory of the character, and giving them a greater appreciation of the show with his "exclusive" knowledge, and making the whole experience more entertaining.

In short, depth and complexity are built around the show, rather than weighing it down by presenting it front and center.

What kinds of trade-offs have to occur in order to broaden the appeal of media properties?

Studios and entertainment companies are now learning that fewer and fewer trade-offs are necessary to broaden the appeal of niche or "cult media" properties. Contemporary audiences are now primed for high quality genre entertainment across all media platforms. So long as marketing efforts place focus on a driving platform, the launch platform and complementary content can be used to build anticipation, educate audience "gatekeepers" about the property, and enrich the overall experience.

There may be trade-offs, however, when it comes to the level of depth and complexity of the core property and how interdependent the driving platform content is with complementary content. The Wachowski Brothers ran into difficulty with the mass audience reception of the second and third Matrix films, because the films were hard to understand without a working familiarity with the characters and storylines of the orbiting platforms (graphic novels, video games, direct-to-video animation). Hence, at this point in the evolution of transmedia storytelling, it is still vital to present a full and complete entertainment experience within each component of the rollout.

It should be noted that niche productions such as alternate reality games don't tend to bother with these distinctions, trusting the sophistication and intense loyalty of their audience to follow plotlines and story nodes back and forth across multiple media platforms almost indiscriminately. I believe that some day soon, web-based alternate reality games and experiences will evolve into much more accessible and dynamic productions, playing a vital role in transmedia storytelling.

What are the risks involved in alienating the base of your audience?

Franchises are built on the energy and loyalty of their hardcore fan bases. While these bases are often a fraction of the size of the total audience, they are indispensable, because they are vocal, passionate and active. A tiny fraction of the genre television series Jericho sent tons of jars of peanuts to the network that had just cancelled the program--moving them to reinstate the series. A small group of fans that gathered at conventions and shared amateur publications centered on the original Star Trek series managed to bridge the period between that series' cancellation and the Star Wars-inspired relaunch of the franchise in the late 1970s.

When the producers of the television series Enterprise publicly stated that the show was being designed for a much wider audience than previous incarnations of Star Trek, and exhibited this intention by altering the shows music cues, pandering to sexual titillation and (perhaps most egregiously) ignoring at will the established continuity and thematic tone of the fictional universe, the result was a gradual erosion of the franchise's core fan base. Without the approval and loyalty of "Trekkers" there would be no reason for the greater audience to stick around.

The original Crow graphic novel and feature film generated an extremely loyal fan base. But with the second feature, producers chose to ignore the fictional rules and tenets set down by the original work, and so the franchise experienced the first of what would become many fractures. Dubbing the property an "anthology franchise" that could be wildly altered based on the vision of individual artists and storytellers, the producers continued to build and deconstruct The Crow into smaller and smaller pieces, each with its own dwindling following. They chose to place the needs of their artists above the integrity of the mythology of the universe--a mythology that the fan base deeply cared about. The property now languishes in limbo.

Still More Toy Stories...

In what can only be perfect timing, I got e-mail this weekend from Damon Wellner of Probot Productions. Probot was one of the groups of Star Wars DIY filmmakers I discussed in Convergence Culture and continues to be a leader in the space of action figure cinema. Wellner shared their most recent production, Raiders of the Toy Box, which is being released just in time for the new Indiana Jones movie, and it's a great example of what Probot does. This amateur or semi-professional action figure filmmaking anticipated the emergence of commercial series such as Robot Chicken, as I suggested a while back here in the blog. Even more interesting to me was a press release describing some recent developments for the Probot producers:

Probot Productions was founded in 1998 by former Emerson College film students, Damon Wellner and Sebastian O'Brien, as an experimental attempt to create a universe of "living" toys, and to lampoon Hollywood with its own merchandise. Probot's world of Toy-Cinema was hatched out of the elaborate action-figure battles staged by Damon, Sebastian, and their toy collecting friends. Their first project, ALIEN 5, was made with no editing facilities, so the entire movie had to be shot in sequence, and edited in-camera, a painstaking process which took 6 months to complete. The resulting 22 minute video was finished for under $150....

Probot's epic Star Wars parody, PREQUEL, caught the attention of Hasbro, Inc. makers of the Star Wars toy line. Impressed, Hasbro commissioned Probot to produce recreations of scenes from the Star Wars Saga for their website. Probot met the challenge of reproducing the cinematography and effects shot-for-shot, using 4" action-figures. To help achieve this, the in-camera effects were enhanced in post-production with CGI elements, resulting in a unique blend of old and new-school styles. The video has had a resurgence as a hit viral-video on YouTube, and as a featured video on MySpaceTV, with over 420,000 views so far.

Since relocating to Hollywood in 2000, the team's production values have soared. Damon has learned more about the professional techniques of visual effects, miniature photography, and pyrotechnics, while working freelance for visual effects companies. Damon assisted the model-makers and pyrotechnics crews for big budget Hollywood features including Hellboy, Resident Evil 2, and The Punisher. Probot's 2004 release, ALIEN 5², a 30 minute sequel to ALIEN 5, was the culmination of all they had learned about storytelling and effects. Until now.

While the company continues to release a steady stream of new Toy-Cinema viral-videos each year, Probot's latest project, a feature film titled, The Gibbon, promises to take the company to the next level. It is a co-production of Cinefile Video, and after 18 months of pre-production, the film is in production now. The screenplay is an entirely original concept and story by Sebastian O'Brien, and is being shot and directed by Damon Wellner. The budget, just under $30,000, while microscopic by Hollywood standards, will be enormous in the microcinematic world of Probot Productions.

The entire cast consists of custom-designed, 7" scale action-figures, sculpted by a corral of talented sculptors and action-figure customizers. The original story combines elements of super-hero comics and classic monster movies. Probot's effects team will be pushing the envelope of Toy-Cinema with a newly developed technique by the director to digitally animate the character's faces. The result will be a truly unique film that will be hard to categorize, but easy to enjoy!

Thanks to my young nephew, Jacob Benson, I wanted to share another delightful example of how childhood play is giving rise to new forms of participatory culture -- in this case, through the use of hand puppets rather than through the animation of action figures.

"The Mysterious Ticking Noise" is my favorite of a series of episodes of an amateur produced Potter Puppet Pals series. It's hard to explain why this one brings a smile to my face but it just does.