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.

"Critical Pessimism" Revisted: An Open Letter to Adam Fish

A few weeks ago, Adam Fish called me out through his blog, Savage Minds, for what he saw as a harsh and unfair representation of the Media Reform movement in the final paragraphs of my book, Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide. He did so for the most part by simply reprinting my own words to frame a story he wrote about the recent Media Reform conference. I was a bit surprised to find myself singled out as an enemy of the Media Reform movement. If I am the biggest obstacle to your success, you are much closer to victory than I had previously imagined. :-)

The experience was uncomfortable for me, but in a very constructive way, in that it has forced me to revisit my own words and reflect on how much my thinking has changed since I wrote them. It also hit at the end of the term so I am only now able to share some of these reflections with you.

Much of this change has been provoked through conversations with Eric Klinenberg, who I have gotten to know through several summers together at the Aspen Policy Institute, and through my participation in the Verklin Media Policy and Ethics Conference at the University of Virginia shortly before I left MIT. I have since written in my blog about some of these shifts in my thinking, making the argument that there is such urgency in the need for media reform right now that there is no longer any room for the usual infighting between critical and cultural studies perspectives.

Through these experiences, I have had a chance to get to know some of the young leaders who are pushing the Media Reform movement in significant new directions, including a deeper embrace of the potentials of digital media and networked communication and a willingness to partner with fan activist groups in ways which moves them away from a history of dismissing popular culture and scolding those of us who are engaged by it. When I wrote the passages for Convergence Culture which critiqued some aspects of the media reform movement, I was speaking about a very different generation of leaders and a very different set of rhetorics and practices. Even so, my caricature was inadequate and inaccurate, but perhaps even more so now.

Given these shifts in my thinking, I had very much hoped to attend and participate at the media reform conference this year, but was unable to do so because of a personal commitment. When I read Fish's post, I felt a need to speak out less my absence be misinterpreted. It still remains to be seen to what degree someone who comes with my theoretical and political commitments will be welcomed into the ranks of the media reform movement, all the more so because I am clearly going to be forced to eat my words. But I remain eager to revise even more my picture of the reform movement.

There remain, as there have been, very real differences in emphasis and perspective. Many of those academics featured at the Media Reform conference come from critical studies and political economies backgrounds which have often dismissed the cultural studies traditions that inform my work. These traditions bring different things to the table, to be sure, and look at the world through very different lens, but what the world needs now is an approach to media reform which combines critical studies' focus on structural inequality and cultural studies' focus on agency and empowerment. We need to embrace the potentials of participatory culture even as we critique the exploitative practices of web 2.0. We need to understand the ways that digital media does and does not transform the terrain upon which debates about media policy are occurring.

At the heart of Fish's account of Free Press's gathering was a question which has haunted my own recent work as well: "Is the open, decentralized, accessible and diverse internet - by which media production, citizen journalism and community collaboration have been recently democratized - becoming closed, centralized and homogenous as it begins to look and feel more like the elite-controlled cable television system?" And there is in this piece a celebration for "ancient movement of ordinary people taking back power from entrenched elites," which for him is embodied through the work of Free Speech TV. For the record, this "open, decentralized, accessible and diverse internet -- by which media production, citizen journalism and community collaboration have been recently democratized" is what I mean by participatory culture and Free Speech TV is participatory culture.

We share common goals in providing the American public with the resources needed to sustain democratic citizenship, with a commitment to insuring diversity of perspectives, with a desire to expand the ranges of voices which can be heard, with a push to put the potential for media production in the hands of those who have historically been excluded and marginalized.

My own way forwards towards these goals has been to promote what I call participatory culture, to expand opportunities for people of all backgrounds to produce and share media with each other. I work to promote media reform through advancing the cause of media literacy and defending opportunities to participate through new media channels. My initial frustration with the media reform movement stemmed in part from my disappointment that some of its leadership have historically dismissed media literacy and new media practices as meaningful contributions to the media reform movement, which is why shifts in the movement rhetoric starting with the "Save Our Internet" campaign and the struggles over Net Neutrality represented a significant improvement from my point of view over earlier media reform formulations.

For many in the media reform movement, their strategy starts with a focus on concentration of media ownership. I certainly care about concentration issues, but see them as part of a much larger context of struggles over the nature of our communication and information capacities. The decline in journalism can only partially be understood as a byproduct of media concentration and has to also be understood as a product of other economic and technological shifts. I would, in any case, be as concerned if media was concentrated in the hands of governments, nonprofits, educational institutions, or the media reform movement itself as I am with the fact that it is corporately controlled. The goal should be to insure a world where media power is spread as widely across the culture as possible.

The defense of participatory culture and the critique of media ownership are two sides of the same coin -- two flanks in a battle to democratize and diversify media in this country. One starts with a focus on agency (participatory culture), the other with a focus on structure (media concentration); one starts with an emphasis on the new world we are trying to build, while the other focuses on the system we are trying to dismantle; one is focused on what we are fighting for and the other what we are fighting against.

These are the differences I was trying to get at in making a distinction between critical utopianism and critical pessimism. "Critical pessimism" is at least as accurate a description of what I see as the limits of the critical studies perspective as phrases like "cultural populism" and "techno-utopianism" have been at describing the limits of a cultural studies perspective. Neither set of terms is totally fair, yet they also have descriptive value in helping us to understand where our approaches, taken to their logical extremes, may lead us.

For me, the term, "critical pessimism," captures the distinction between cynicism and skepticism. My hope is that a viable media reform movement will embrace skepticism, asking hard questions of government policy, corporate actions, and, yes, its own assumptions and beliefs. We are not served, though, when skepticism becomes cynicism, when the rhetoric forecloses any meaningful change, when all corporate action, say, is treated as equally repressive and reprehensible. And we are not served, on the other side, by rhetoric which sees digital media as inevitably democratizing and thus does not feel the need to struggle for social justice and media reform, which sees grassroots media as somehow adequate in taking on the concentrated power of mass media. A naive celebration of contemporary digital culture denies the need for struggle and a cynical perspective on grassroots change denies the value of struggle. These are the blind spots which we need to work together to overcome in our work.

So, critical pessimism is not a bad term to describe certain forms of critical studies and political economy work at its worst, but I was wrong to imply that this is the only thing going on here, to conflate critical studies and the media reform movement, to simplify the media reform movement to a small number of highly visible figures, or to suggest we can dismiss the importance of the media reform efforts as a result of our disagreements in disposition and tactics. I have been struggling in some of my own recent work, much of it still not published, to try to work through a critique of Web 2.0 which combines the concerns for structural inequalities and the exploitation of free labor which comes from the critical studies camp with a defense of participatory culture (perhaps the best basis for such critiques) which reflects work from the cultural studies tradition.

I hope we can find ways to bring these two camps together through political activism as well, and my own current work is focused on understanding how the mechanisms of participatory culture can be deployed to foster greater political participation and civic engagement, work partially inspired by watching how the "Save Our Internet" movement was able to bridge between different sites of participatory culture and use grassroots media as the basis for critiquing corporately-controlled media.

Where my comments in Convergence Culture went too far was in my hyperbolic description of certain kinds of media reform advocates as seeking to "opt out of media altogether and live in the woods, eating acorns and lizards and reading only books published on recycled paper by small alternative presses". This was frankly sophomoric and beneath the standards I set for myself. Fish writes, "This is a false exaggeration of a movement that is providing a necessary check on corporate power and mindfully working for greater civic, community, and citizen involvement in media production." I agree.

So, let me now publicly apologize for stooping to this kind of stereotype. It was a really dumb thing to say. I am, I'm afraid, still a work in progress on these issues.

At the time I wrote this passage, I was frustrated by the recurring descriptions of popular culture as "weapons of mass distraction," as "bread and circuses," etc. I see popular culture as a much more complex terrain and respect those who would mobilize it for their own ends -- whether in the form of fan culture or Free Speech TV. I have been delighted to see many images now emerging from the Media Reform movement which are not anti-media or anti-popular culture, but rather raise legitimate concerns about the distribution of media power and in particular the decline in substantive journalism, issues very close to my own heart.

I am sometimes struck that many critical studies writers are far more idealistic than critical utopianists insofar as their embrace of the ideal often does not allow them to recognize partial victories or contradictory advances. My own work talks often of "negotiations" between different forms of cultural power, of gains and losses, of progress made even if bigger battles remain to be fought, and for me, the recognition of the good, even when we can still imagine something better, is a necessarily fuel for media reform. To describe oneself as a "utopianist" is often to be accused of imagining that this is the "best of all possible worlds", but in fact, as Stephen Duncombe has been reminding us in some of his recent writing, the construction of utopias has historically been a vital form of social critique, one which can both focus attention on the ways current conditions fall far short of ideal and allowing us to imagine alternative structures that might better meet human needs.

I have often heard critical studies writers accuse us of "not being at all critical," and I agree that this is a charge worth examining, but I want to challenge critical studies writers to be equally concerned with the charge that they are "not at all celebratory." There is something important at stake in our struggles to defend the Internet and if you can not recognize progress made, how can you realize what's at risk? Again, it comes back to the idea that any reform movement needs to be as concerned with what it is fighting for as what it is fighting against. But either way, we should not be fighting with each other, whether in the form of my original critique or Fish's more recent provocation.

So, let me end by celebrating the strong ongoing tradition of media reform in this country as represented by the recent conference and let me urge all of us to work across artificial divides which may get in the way of us working together towards shared goals.

The Aesthetics of Transmedia: In Response to David Bordwell (Part Three)

This is the third and final segment of my response to David Bordwell's thoughtful analysis of some of the pitfalls and challenges associated with transmedia storytelling. Thanks to David for sparking what has been a fascinating exchange, one which has forced me to sharpen my thinking about certain key issues that I am working through for my class.

Bordwell writes:

Another drawback to shifting a story among platforms: art works gain strength by having firm boundaries. A movie's opening deserves to be treated as a distinct portal, a privileged point of access, a punctual moment at which we can take a breath and plunge into the story world. Likewise, the closing ought to be palpable, even if it's a diminuendo or an unresolved chord. The special thrill of beginning and ending can be vitiated if we come to see the first shots as just continuations of the webisode, and closing images as something to be stitched to more stuff unfolding online. There's a reason that pictures have frames.

Again, I'd argue that Bordwell is describing a specific kind of filmmaking, one that may gain very little from transmedia expansion. Yet, as I said earlier, the aesthetic properties of texts that lend themselves to transmedia experience are world-building (as we've been discussing) and seriality. By definition, a serial text is not self-contained. It resolves one chapter and immediately plants the book that will draw us into the next. It is, as Angela Ndalianis stresses in Neo-Baroque, a work which pushes beyond its frame. Now, to be clear, the cliffhangers which have shaped many classic serial forms do depend on an understanding of where one text stops and another begins. But we can see this as an art of chunking rather than framing. They know how to break the story down into meaningful chunks which are compelling emotionally within themselves but which gain greater urgency when read in relation to the other installments of the story. We still have a lot to learn about how to create meaningful chunks and link them together across media platforms. As such, I am watching more and more vintage serials to see how they balance between self-containment and openness.

This may be why transmedia seems so far to work best in relation to television, which is increasingly relying on seriality (and back story) to create a particular kind of aesthetic experience, and where it is applied to film, it seems to work best for franchises which will have a series of increasingly preplanned sequels. No one would take away the aesthetic pleasures of closure and containment, but there are also aesthetic pleasures in seriality, openness, and especially, for me, a pleasure in suddenly understanding how a bit of information consumed in one medium fits into the puzzle being laid out for us in a totally different platform.

So far, transmedia texts have been most compelling while they are mid-process and have tended to disappoint when they reached their conclusion. This phenomenon may tell us something about the degree to which they rely on open-ended and serialized structures rather than the kinds of closure which is the pleasure of a different kind of fiction. The anxious fan wants to know that the producers of Lost isn't making it up as they go along, though of course, on one level, every storyteller is making it up as they go along. The hope though is for a certain level of integrity and continuity between the pieces which allows us to find the coherent whole from which the many parts must have once broken adrift.

For me, though, I am also intrigued by the moment when the story is rich with possibilities, when fan speculations span out in many different directions, and when each of us has taken the parts as resources for constructing our own fictional world. I wrote about this almost 20 years ago in response to Twin Peaks: I was much more interested in the hundreds of complex theories about who killed Laura Palmer that invested fans constructed individually and collectively than I was in the official version which David Lynch and Mark Frost were forced to add under pressure from the networks.

Bordwell writes:

In between opening and closing, the order in which we get story information is crucial to our experience of the story world. Suspense, curiosity, surprise, and concern for characters--all are created by the sequencing of story action programmed into the movie. It's significant, I think, that proponents of hardcore multiplatform storytelling don't tend to describe the ups and downs of that experience across the narrative. The meanderings of multimedia browsing can't be described with the confidence we can ascribe to a film's developing organization. Facing multiple points of access, no two consumers are likely to encounter story information in the same order. If I start a novel at chapter one, and you start it at chapter ten, we simply haven't experienced the art work the same way.

Transmedia storytellers are becoming increasingly skilled at deciding when extensions should be rolled out in relation to the franchise's "mother ship." Some plot developments do require careful sequencing. There's a pleasure to be had in watching Robert Rodriquez's Shorts in making fun of a schoolboy who claims that sharks ate his homework in an early scene and then looping back in time to discover that he is telling the truth. Even though the plot of the film shifts around the story information so we see events out of sequence, there is still a larger rationale determining why we experience these events in a particular order.

The same may be said for the difference between materials released to the web before we encounter the film or television series, which often are designed to help us manage the complexity of an unfamiliar world or an ensemble-centered narrative, and those which come later in the unfolding of the franchise. Enter the Matrix comes at a particular juncture in the film series, while the multiplayer game based on The Matrix comes only after the film series was completed and the Wachowskis wanted to cede greater creative control back to the consumers to take the world in new directions. The Battlestar Galactica webisodes , "Face of the Enemy," which came on the eve of the final season went back in time to refocus us on the character of Felix Gaeta, who had been a secondary figure for most of the run, showing us the events from his point of view and revealing previously unknown aspects of his motivation, just in time to set us up for the character to play a much more central role in the series's final year. This is why transmedia "chunks" often tell us explicitly where they fit into the larger time line and why many of us prefer to read those chunks within a narrative sequence.

So, we may simply be over-stating the degree to which the dispersal of information is open-ended. Certainly, once the information moves beyond the borders of a single text, there's no control over what order the spectator encounters it. And it may not matter in which order we encounter certain aspects of the world building. But it may still be the case that the release and roll out of transmedia content is carefully timed and structured to construct a preferred reading sequence. Geoff Long has called for navigational tools that help viewers to find relevant content and to identify at what point it fits into the unfolding of the larger transmedia story. Given this, I believe that it would be possible to do a formalist reading of a transmedia narrative which mapped the functions of different bits of information and for me, that would go beyond simply a list of joints and citations. It would simply be a task of enormous complexity. Much as Roland Barthes could apply his methods to only a small segment of a Balzac story, Geoff Long has been able to apply the narrative analysis to only a short segment of Jim Henson's transmedia texts.

Bordwell writes:

Gap-filling isn't the only rationale for spreading the story across platforms, of course. Parallel worlds can be built, secondary characters can be promoted, the story can be presented through a minor character's eyes. If these ancillary stories become not parasitic but symbiotic, we expect them to engage us on their own terms, and this requires creativity of an extraordinarily high order.

Well, yes, and these are the functions of transmedia extensions which interest me the most -- and for that matter, the ones which spark the most excitement in the industry types who seem to grasp the concepts the best. It isn't simply about the narrative; it isn't simply about filling in gaps in the plot. "Gap-filling" seems to be a special case: the parlor trick that The Matrix franchises plays with the delivery of information from the doomed Osyrus which unfolds across three different media platforms. More often, transmedia is about back story which shifts our identifications and investments in characters and thus helps us to rewatch the scenes again with different emotional resonance. More often, it is about picking up on a detail seeded in the original film and using it as a point of entry into a different story or a portal into exploring another aspect of the world. And yes, to do this well is creativity of an extraordinarily high order, which is why most transmedia extensions disappoint; they fail to achieve their full potential. Transmedia is appealing to artists of a certain ambition who nevertheless want to work on popular genre entertainment rather than developing avant garde movies or art films. It appeals to intellectually engaged viewers who are more at home with popular culture than with gallery installations.

I'm curious to hear what other transmedia critics and creators are thinking about this exchange.

The Aesthetics of Transmedia: In Response to David Bordwell (Part One)

David Bordwell, my graduate school mentor and one of the leading figures in academic film studies, joined the conversation about transmedia storytelling the other week with a typically thoughtful and engaging entry that explored the strengths and limits of transmedia as an expansion of the cinematic experience. Personally, I read Bordwell's analysis as a friendly amendment and generous "shout out" to the work I've been doing on this topic, not to mention a timely one since it arrived on the eve of the start of my Transmedia Storytelling and Entertainment class at USC. His greatest contribution here is to raise a series of constructive objections and challenging questions any filmmaker would need to think through before moving their film -- mainstream or independent -- in a transmedia direction. To keep the conversation on these topics flowing, I thought I would respond to some of Bordwell's arguments. Bordwell writes:

Transmedia storytelling is very, very old. The Bible, the Homeric epics, the Bhagvad-gita, and many other classic stories have been rendered in plays and the visual arts across centuries. There are paintings portraying episodes in mythology and Shakespeare plays. More recently, film, radio, and television have created their own versions of literary or dramatic or operatic works. The whole area of what we now call adaptation is a matter of stories passed among media....

What makes this traditional idea sexy? ... Some transmedia narratives create a more complex overall experience than that provided by any text alone. This can be accomplished by spreading characters and plot twists among the different texts. If you haven't tracked the story world on different platforms, you have an imperfect grasp of it.

I can follow Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories well without seeing The Seven Percent Solution or The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes. These pastiches/continuations are clearly side excursions, enjoyable or not in themselves and perhaps illuminating some aspects of the original tales. But according to Henry, we can't appreciate the Matrix trilogy unless we understand that key story events have taken place in the videogame, the comic books, and the short films gathered in The Animatrix.

I would certainly agree with Bordwell that transmedia storytelling does not begin with The Matrix. When Jeff Gomez (Starlight Runner) spoke to my students last week, he repeatedly used the phrase, "mythology," to describe the structure of transmedia narratives and others adopt a long-standing industry term, "Story Bible," to describe the documentation that organizes the continuity. Both metaphors pay tribute to earlier forms of branching or encyclopedic narrative. In Gomez's case, we might trace the concept of "mythology" backwards from the D&D games he played as a young man into the writings of J.R.R. Tolkien who clearly conceived of Lord of the Rings as modeled on structures found in folklore and mythology. I'd also argue that C.S. Lewis's writings on stories contain a lot of great insights onto the value of telling details in fleshing out fictional worlds, suggesting that modern transmedia fans might have enjoyed a rich exchange if they were able to sit down in the faculty room at Oxford in the early part of the last century.

If I was having an imaginary conversation about the origins of this concept, I'd also want to include L. Frank Baum, who unfolded the world of Oz across a range of media platforms. What we now might read as a series of novels that fleshed out the Land of Oz began life as short films produced by Baum's studios, Broadway musicals, and comic strips. (See the recent republished edition of The Marvelous Land of Oz which collects the comic strip elaborations of his "mythology.") Indeed, you could argue that the shifts across media give the book series a kind of wacky incoherence, involving radical shifts in tone or theme, inconsistent conceptions of characters, and so forth.

I might also want to invite Cordwainer Smith, a science fiction writer who I've long been convinced was a time traveller, since his works prefigure many of the key themes and motifs of cyberpunk. Smith developed a complex and interlocking "mythology" which links together dozens of short stories published across a range of different magazines, and he specifically depicted many of his stories as "versions" or "installments" of a narrative the reader is already presumed to understand from encountering it across a range of previous media incarnations. Smith himself wrote only prose narratives, but in his fictions, he imagines explicitly how his tales would take shape on stage or television.

I would argue that the contemporary moment of transmedia has heightened our awareness of these earlier moments of authors unfolding stories across media, much as the rise of digital media more generally has led to a revitalization of the study of "old media when they were new" or the history of the book. We certainly want to understand what is new about our current push for transmedia entertainment, which to me has to do with the particular configuration of media systems and the push towards a more participatory culture.

Tolkien, Lewis, Baum, and Smith all sought to model contemporary fictions on the dispersed, episodic, yet interlocking structures of classic mythology -- creating a folklore for a post-folkloric society. And so, yes, there are going to be many resemblances to be drawn between transmedia stories, informed by these creative figures, and traditional religious or mythological works.

That said, many of Bordwell's examples above are simply adaptations of works produced in one medium for performance in another platform. And for many of us, a simple adaptation may be "transmedia" but it is not "transmedia storytelling" because it is simply re-presenting an existing story rather than expanding and annotating the fictional world. Of course, this distinction assumes a pretty straight forward adaptation. Every adaption makes additions -- minor or otherwise -- and reinterpretations of the original which in theory expands our understanding of the core story. These changes can be read as "infidelities" by purists but they may also represent what I describe in CC as "additive comprehension" -- they may significantly reshape our understanding of what's happening in the original work. Still, I think there is a distinction to be made between "extensions" to the core narrative or the fictional universe and adaptations which simply move content from one medium to another.

Bordwell continues:

The "immersive" ancillaries seem on the whole designed less to complete or complicate the film than to cement loyalty to the property, and even recruit fans to participate in marketing. It's enhanced synergy, upgraded brand loyalty.

For the most part Hollywood is thinking pragmatically, adopting Lucas' strategy of spinning off ancillaries in ways that respect the hardcore fans' appreciation of the esoterica in the property. Caranicas quotes Jeff Gomez, an entrepreneur in transmedia storytelling, saying that for most of his clients "we make sure the universe of the film maintains its integrity as it's expanded and implemented across multiple platforms." It would seem to be a strategy of expanding and enriching fan following, and consequent purchases.

As best I can tell, then, in borrowing this academic idea, the industry is taking the radical edge off. But is that surprising?

I've long ago given up trying to separate the creative and commercial motivations of transmedia entertainment, but then, all popular culture, no, all art depends on a complex balance between the two. From the start, most transmedia has been funded through the promotional budget rather than being understood as part of the creative costs of a particular franchise, even where it has been understood as performing key world building or story expanding functions. This was a central issue in the Writer's Strike a few years ago. Indeed, in so far as Hollywood has grasped transmedia, it has been in the context of a growing awareness of the urgency of creating "consumer engagement" that has been a buzz word across the entertainment industry in recent years. This is why the transmedia chapter in CC follows so closely after the discussion of "affective economics" and American Idol.

Yet, as I suggested in my recent discussion of District 9, one man's promotion is another man's exposition. Increasingly, transmedia extensions are released in advance of the launch of major franchises and do some of the basic work of orientating us to the characters, their world, and their goals, allowing the film or television series to plunge quickly into the core action. Yet, even at this level, they can do other things -- creating a more layered experience by introducing us to conflicting points of view on the action (as when we learn more about alien rights protesters through the District 9 promotional materials). Most of the people in the industry who take transmedia seriously are open about the fact that they are highjacking parts of the promotional budget to experiment with something that they think has the potential to refresh genre entertainment as well as reward viewer investments.

On another level, I'd say we are still at a moment of transition where transmedia practices are concern. Each new experiment -- even the failed ones -- teach us things about how to shape a compelling transmedia experience or what kinds of tools are needed to allow consumers to manage information as it is dispersed across multiple platforms. In some ways, the transmedia stories may need to be conservative on other levels -- adopting relatively familiar genre formulas -- so that the reader learns how to put together the pieces into a meaningful whole, much as the first jigsaw puzzles we are given as children take shape into familiar characters and do not have the challenges found in those designed for hardcore puzzlers.

(Two More Installments To Come)

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".

Fan Fiction as Critical Commentary

This has been my week for dealing with law professors -- having engaged in a conversation with Yale Law Professor Yochai Benkler last week at the MIT Communications Forum, I was pleased to find a review of Convergence Culture over at the blog of the University of Chicago Law School written by Randy Picker. The first and second parts of the review mostly provide a detailed, accurate, and positive summary of the key points from the book, targeting those passages which may be particularly relevant to people interested in the legal implications of participatory culture. The last segment, not surprisingly, gets into the book's discussion of fandom and intellectual property law. I thought I would use my post today to respond to a few of Picker's key points there. Now let's be clear that I am no expert on the law. My wife happens to have a law degree from the University of Wisconsin and we both take some interest in developments in the area of intellectual property law and regulation of free speech. I suspect I know more than most laymen about these matters as they impact fan culture and the other sites of grassroots participation I have written about. But I would be a fool to try to debate the fine points of the law with a scholar of Picker's stature.

Fan FIction and Fair Use

Picker writes:

Jenkins pushes (p.190) for a reformulation of fair use "to legitimate grassroots, not-for-profit circulation of critical essays, and stories that comment on the content of mass media." But he clearly wants more, as he recognizes that most fans aren't that interested in producing work that the law is most likely to protect (parody or critical commentary of the sort seen in The Wind Done Gone), but who want instead to write about Ron and Hermione kissing.

Let me spell out a little more precisely what I argue on page 190 in the book:

Nobody is sure whether fan fiction falls under current fair-use protections. Current copyright law simply doesn't have a category for dealing with amateur creative expression. Where there has been a public interest factored into the legal definition of fair use -- such as the desire to protect the rights of libraries to circulate books or journalists to quote or academics to cite other researchers -- it has been advanced in terms of legitimated classes of users and not a generalized public right to cultural participation. Our current notion of fair use is an artifact of an era when few people had access to the market place of ideas and those who did fell into certain professional classes. It sure demands close reconsideration as we develop technologies that broaden who may produce and circulate cultural materials. Judges know what to do with people who have professional interests in the production and distribution of culture; they don't know what to do with amateurs or people they deem to be amateurs.

For me, the phrase, the public right to cultural participation is a key concept underlying the book's discussion. If I had my way, the right to participate would become as important a legal doctrine for the 21st century as the right to privacy as been in the late 20th century. I argue elsewhere in the book that a right to participate might be abstracted from the combined rights listed in the First Amendment and the right to participate would include the right to respond meaningfully to core materials of your culture. In that sense, I might go beyond our current understanding of fair use.

But a key point here is that I regard all or at least most fan fiction to involve some form of criticism of the original texts upon which it is based -- criticism as in interpretation and commentary if not necessary criticism as in negative statements made about them. Not being a legal scholar, I have had trouble producing a more precise definition of what constitutes critical commentary for the purposes of Fair Use. I'd be curious if any reader could provide a workable one for the purposes of this discussion.

For the moment, I am relying on my understanding as someone who is in the criticism business. I reviewed a number of guides for critical essays written at writing centers at major universities. What they seem to have in common is the following: a critical essay puts forth an interpretation of the work in question, one which includes debatable propositions which are in turn supported by the mobilization of some kind of evidence -- either internal (from the work itself) or external (from secondary texts which circulate around the work). All of them make clear that critical commentary may, in fact, embrace the ideas included in the original work as well as take issue with them.

Hand Holding, Snogging, and Critical Commentary

My discussion of critical commentary in the book continues:

One paradoxical result [of current copyright law] is that works that are hostile to the original creators and thus can be read more explicitly as making critiques of the source material may have greater freedom from copyright enforcement than works that embrace the ideas behind the original work and simply seek to extend them in new directions. A story where Harry and the other students rise up to overthrow Dumbledore because of his paternalistic policies is apt to be recognized by a judge as political speech and parody, whereas a work that imagines Ron and Hermione going on a date may be so close to the original that its status as criticism is less clear and is apt to be read as an infringement.

So, yes, I am concerned about stories where the characters hold hands or snog and not simply those where same sex couples end up in bed together or when the story is told from the perspective of He Who Must Not Be Named. This goes to the very nature of fan culture: fans write stories because they want to share insights they have into the characters, their relationships, and their worlds; they write stories because they want to entertain alternative interpretations or examine new possibilities which would otherwise not get expressed through the canonical material. These interpretations are debatable -- indeed, fans spend a great deal of time debating the alternative interpretations of the characters which appear in their stories.

Fan stories are in no simple sense just "extensions" or "continuations" or "extra episodes" of the original series. Unlike the model critical essays discussed by the various university writing centers, the insights about the work get expressed not through nonfictional argumentation but rather through the construction of new stories. Just as a literary essay uses text to respond to text, fan fiction uses fiction to respond to fiction. That said, it is not hard to find all kinds of argumentation about interpretation woven through most fan produced stories. A good fan story references key events or bits of dialogue to support its particular interpretation of the character's motives and actions. There are certainly bad stories that don't dig particular deeply into the characters or which fall back on fairly banal interpretations, but the last time I looked, fair use gets defined in functional terms (what is the writer trying to do) and not aesthetic terms (what they produce is good or bad artistically). Fan fiction extrapolates more broadly beyond what is explicitly stated in the text than do most conventional critical essays and may include the active appropriation and transformation of the characters as presented but even here, I would argue that the point of situating the characters in a different historical context, say, or in another genre is to show what makes these characters tick and how they might well remain the same (or be radically different) if they operated in another time and place. Fan fiction is speculative but that does not mean that it is not at its core interpretative.

Elsewhere, I have argued that fan fiction emerges from a balance between fascination and frustration. If the original work did not fascinate fans, they would not continue to engage with it. If it did not frustrate them in some level, they would feel no need to write new stories -- even if the frustration comes from an inadequate amount of material. In most cases, the frustration takes the form of something they would change in the original -- a secondary character who needs more development, a plot element that is underexplored, an ideological contradiction that needs to be debated. And in that sense, fan fiction is often critical of the original in the looser sense that it expresses some concern about the story it tell.

Commercial Competition

As Picker notes, I do acknowledge the rights of creative industries to protect themselves against commercial competitors even as I would argue for a broader definition of fair use for amateur media makers who circulate their works for free. As I note in the book,

Under the current system, because other companies know how far they can push and are reluctant to sue each other, they often have greater latitude to appropriate and transform media content than amateurs, who do not know their rights and have little legal means to defend them even if they did.

In so far as they impact fan fiction, the studio's intellectual property "rights" are the product of intimidation and chilling effects and not based in any real legal doctrine; so far there is no case law which speaks directly to the fair use or parody status of fan fiction. Unfortunately, so far, the various public interest law organizations, including the Electronic Frontier Foundation, have been more willing to protect the rights of Napster to facilitate illegal downloads than the rights of fans to publish stories which comment critically on the characters of Harry Potter. And a teenager confronted with a threat from a major studio that could bankrupt their family tends to fold rather than seek legal counsel.

My distinction between commercial competitors and amateur cultural production leads Picker to make the following observations:

Jenkins asserts that IP holders attempt to use IP rights to control authoritativeness. I think that is probably right, but authoritativeness is much more organically tied to the author herself. So I don't think that Jenkins provides any examples of fans hijacking the canon from the author. This is almost a question of market share. In a world without fan fiction, Rowling had a 100% share in the Harry Potter creation market. With fan fiction, her share is smaller, but I suspect that it is still in the high 90s. This isn't about sheer number of words written--fans could quickly surpass an original author--but more about reading share and mindshare. Every fan will read HP VII, but what fraction of those has read whatever is the leading non-official Potter text?

Actually, I wouldn't read this simply in terms of market share. It is almost certainly true that the commercial text will outdraw any texts fans are going to be able to produce. Moreover, anyone reading the fan text is in almost every case going to end up reading the commercial inspiration for that work -- after the fact if not before. The fan work depends on a reader with at least some superficial familiarity with the original and one could argue that fan texts may extend the shelf life of the original by generating new generations of readers.

Canon and Fanon

But again, it doesn't stop there: I would suggest that most fans take the "canon," that is, the official texts (in almost every instance) provide the base line for the conversation. The author makes a statement about the characters; the fan writer proposes alternative interpretations of the characters. That's why fans draw a distinction between canon (the original text) and fanon (the works produced by other fans which may or may not be constraining on subsequent interpretations).

There are instances where fans reject canon but it is most often in cases where subsequent developments in the series go against what fans took to be something foundational to their experience of the program. Fans reject canon when canonical authors contradict themselves or violate the spirit of their contract with the readers. I discuss one such instance in my earlier book, Textual Poachers, around the series, Beauty and the Beast, where plot developments tarnished aspects of the series which fans had been taught were sacred in earlier episodes and were rejected by a sizable section of fandom. The value which fans place on canon has to do with the moral economy that emerges around the series and only holds when the producer plays fair with her readers.

My concern is not just that the original texts exert a certain authority over fans. It is that the producers use that authority to police fan interpretations, normalizing some and marginalizing others. In the book, for example, I discuss the ways that Lucas's official Star Wars film contest adopts seemingly neutral rules which a) only grant to fans those rights it would be most difficult for the company to restrict -- the right to make parodies or documentaries and b) have the effect of making the works of male fans highly visible while pushing the work of female fans underground.

Picker continues:

IP matters here in the sense that if commercial competitors could write Harry Potter stories, a non-Rowlings text might do well. A commercial house would engage a professional writer and could put its marketing muscle behind the story. That would look a lot like Lucasfilm with its sixty best sellers, except that we would have more competitors. But I don't think that copyright is driving control over the canon against fans. The fan texts would have to achieve greater mindshare to become canonical.

It is possible to imagine a commercial competitor producing a text which generates a good share of the market -- especially given, as Picker notes, the likelihood of aggressive marketing but also given the possibility that the competitor really did their homework and were more willing to provide fans with what they wanted. But the new text might still not be read as canon, would be judged against the original, and would likely be perceived as a rip-off which tarnished rather than enhanced the experience of the series. One should not under-estimate the degree of loyalty fans will feel towards original creators or their desire to see themselves as protecting the integrity of favored works. There would be very few works produced by commercial competitors which would carry the same cultural authority whatever their commercial fates may be.

Picker continues:

When we don't observe licensing to extend the story, it seems unlikely that fan fiction competes with the authoritative texts or with licensing opportunities in adjacent markets. So Rowling licenses for movies, but she isn't building--yet--the Harry Potter Extended Universe. Lucasfilm has done exactly that, and, in that context, fan fiction may compete with officially licensed versions and represents a missed licensing opportunity

Hmm. My hunch is that in practice, fan fiction rarely decreases the amount of commercial content any given consumer consumes regardless of whether there is commercial content available. When fans get really interested in something, they want to suck in as much information and insight as possible. But I would be hard pressed to know how to prove this. He's right that the more broadly extended the universe becomes, the lower the likelihood that any given fan will consume all of that material. Very few people have consumed every story associated with Star Wars or Star Trek. Yet, this would be true for people who did not read fan fiction as well and I'd wager that the people who read fan fiction are likely to consume more not less of the commercially produced material than fans of the series who do not read fan fiction, just because they have a deeper engagement of the material over all, and because the fan fiction is likely to send them back to the primary text in search of evidence with which they may adjudicate conflicting claims about the characters and their motivations.

Erotic Criticism

He continues:

As Jenkins describes it (p.150), Lucasfilm has been most aggressive in trying to block erotic stories involving the Star Wars characters. (I haven't gone looking but my guess is that if we permute and combine Han/Leia/Luke/Chewie, we can come up with a full-range of variations.) This is like parody in the sense that we think that it is outside of what the author would be willing to agree to, but probably unlike parody as it may not operate as a commentary on the original text. As the parody case makes clear, copyright has been willing to protect as fair use the use that wouldn't be licensed voluntarily.

Again, we come back to a core question I identified earlier: for me, all fan fiction constitutes a form of critical commentary on the original texts and indeed, erotic fiction seems most often interested in providing a critique of the constructions of gender and sexuality found in the original works. This is part of what distinguishes fan erotica from much of the pornography that circulates in our culture: it is not anonymous sex; it uses sex as a vehicle to investigate the psychology of the characters and as such, it may be the form of fan fiction which most clearly comments on the original text. Fan erotica does more than comment on the original text: it clearly has mixed motives but there is very little fan erotica that is not also involved in critical commentary in some form.

This is a fascinating legal discussion -- though as I suggest in the book, I am more apt to put my faith in the short term in companies liberalizing their policies towards fan fiction because it is in their economic interests to do so. We are already seeing this shift happen with very little fanfare. The Powers That Be are recognizing that fans create value by generating greater interest in their works, expanding rather than diminishing the market. I often argue that fans can be seen to appreciate a favorite show in two senses: they like it and they add to its value through their various creative and emotional investments. They do invisible work which is increasingly valued by media producers and as a result, we are seeing studios start to turn a blind eye to fan fiction and in a few cases, actively promote it. This will result in a liberalization of fan fiction in the short run which may or may not help to settle the legal issues in the long term. Can they give us free access to walk across their land for a period of time and then reverse course and start prohibiting access or charging us rent? The law would seem to give us some contradictory messages on this point

Getting Lost

I've been sitting out the conversation that Jason Mittell, Jane McGonigal, and Ian Bogost have been having about Lost, Twin Peaks, serial fiction, and puzzles until now. I have had limited time to write new content the past week or so. One of the thing that interests me about this conversation is that it suggests what ludologists and narrativists can learn from each other if they actually talked amongst themselves. I am finding myself pulled back and forth as I read this discussion in part because both groups have valid points and a lot rests on how one reads the series. I m learning so much by looking at television through the eyes of game designers like Jane and Ian.

Puzzles or Enigmas?

Lost is a series that works on multiple levels:

1) There are indeed puzzles (defective ones, perhaps, but ones that seem engaging to an awful lot of folks who watch the series): what's inside the hatch, what's the status of the Island (social experiment, purgatory, what have you), what can we learn from deciphering the map, what do those numbers mean, etc.

2) There is all of the well-constructed backstory -- with each character allowing us a point of entry into a slightly different genre and into a different world.

3) there is the unfolding life of the castaways and the world they are building for themselves on the island -- all of the interpersonal politics, the stories of redemption or corruption, the issue of how they are going to deal with the Others, etc.

Lost is very very good at pitting these differebt pleasures and interests against another, with some new information added at each level in any given episode and the satisfaction of one level of interest being used to defer resolution on another level. Lost is a very well constructed serial fiction in that regard. Some of these pleasures are game-like in their dependence on puzzles, mazes, and ciphers; others are narrative in their dependence on enigmas.

The combination of puzzles and enigmas seems especially effective at motivating fan engagement and participation. This accounts for how Lost can work, in my book's terms, both as a textual attractor (drawing together a community that shares a common interest) and a textual activator (feeding that community something to do, some information to process, some knowledge to gather).

Twin Peak Revisited

Twin Peaks keeps getting pulled into this discussion -- rightfully so -- and as it happens, I did ab ethnography of Twin Peaks fans more than a decade ago. That essay is reproduced in my new collection, Fans, Gamers, and Bloggers.

Here's what I wrote at the time:

Theories about possible murderers emerged with astounding density and even more remarkable diversity within this reception context. In a world where almost everything can count as a clue, including both material explicitly presented within the aired episodes and information from one of the many ancillary texts surrounding the series (interviews, the European release print, the published Laura Palmer diary, the Cooper tapes and autobiography, the Julee Cruise album and music videos, etc), almost any character could become a prime suspect. There were strong constituencies behind Leland Palmer and Ben Horne, characters Twin Peaks seemed to foreground as likely candidates. Others were convinced that Madeline and Laura had switched places and that, as a result, Laura was actually still alive. Another was certain that Josie or the mysterious Asian Man (then believed to be her henchman) was the killer (if only because the series' otherwise unmotivated opening shot - focusing on Joe's enigmatic face - must have some significance.) More ambitious critics developed elaborate explanations for why the killer was Sheriff Truman, Deputy Andy, Donna, Ronette Pulaski, or Doc Hayward, going well beyond possibilities explicitly raised on the program. Consider, for example, the case that one fan built to support his theory....

The formulation of such theories is the logical response to a mystery, part of the typical reception of any whodunit, yet rarely has the consumption of a mystery been conducted in such a public fashion. The technology of the net allows what might previously have been private meditations to become the basis for social interaction. Each case made against a possible suspect represented a different formulation of Twin Peaks' moral economy, a different emplotment of its events, that necessarily changed the meaning of the whole and foregrounded some moments at the expense of others. A world where Laura Palmer is murdered by the kindly doctor who delivered her into the world is a very different place than one where she is murdered by the Horne brothers in their efforts to protect their drug trade or where Laura kills her cousin and assumes her identity. Different theories were grounded in different assumptions about the nature of evil and the trustworthiness of authority. No one was sure how black Lynch's narrative would become.

What these competing theories meant was the continued circulation and elaboration of multiple narratives, each of which could be sustained by the aired information, each of which posed a different way of making sense to the series. Each new revelation on the air produced new challenges for some theories while seeming to add ammunition to others. Each clue was reread multiple times to provide support for each of the metatextual narratives that assumed lives of their own apart from Lynch's text.

In other words, the myth that fans were somehow solving a puzzle proved surprisingly generative, enabling a prolonged process of interpretation -- but I would go beyond this and describe each of these theories as a form of fan fiction. Most of the people who posed these theories -- especially those involving more obscure suspects -- knew they were unlikely to be "right" (predicting Lynch's narrative trajectory). Rather, they were showing off their ability to reimagine the story on different terms and still make all of the pieces fit. They weren't so much interpreting Lynch's series as constructing an alternative version of it. I am certain this is also what goes on with many of the theories around Lost.

There's a problem here: the notion of a mystery or a puzzle puts the focus on the product (figuring out the solution) rather than on the process (enjoying the play with multiple possible versions of the story). So, ironically, the pleasure is greatest in the middle -- once there are enough pieces of information out there to enable multiple competing versions of the story to be placed into circulation and to be debated but before the series starts to close down possibilities. A collective intelligence can generate a richer, more nuanced version of the narrative than a small creative team working within the economic constraints of the American media industry can possibly facilitate. These series are almost certain to end in disappointment, almost certainly going to let their fans down in the end. We've seen this with Twin Peaks and with The Matrix and with Babylon 5 and perhaps now with Lost with varying degrees of disappointment and frustration.

The Trickster Author

That said, notions of authorship play crucial roles in motivating and justifying this activity. These fans needed to see themselves as exceptional readers (going beyond what "Joe Sixpack" was willing to do with the content of popular television) and to justify that, they needed to see David Lynch as an exceptional author (one who was going to flaunt television conventions, one who had thought this through at a deeper level, one who would at any given moment pull the rug out from under his fans):

The fans' pleasure lay simultaneously in their mastery over the text (their ability to successfully predict the next turn of its convoluted plot) and their vulnerability to Lynch's trickery (their inability to guess what is likely to happen next). Matching wits against Lynch became the ideal test of their own intellectual rigor and creative impulses, a chance to demonstrate their knowledge and mastery at a task that refused to yield easily to their probing. While most critics were pushing the producers the resolve the Palmer murder before they lost all of their viewers, the computer net fans only wanted to see the enigmas expand, wanted to forestall closure in order to prolong their pleasure in playing with textual puzzles. One fan posted a joke that perfectly captured their pleasurable agony over the deferral of narrative resolution: "A robber walks into a bank and says to the teller, 'Give me all your money or I'll tell you who killed Laura Palmer.'"

Many of them gained a special prestige from their ability to understand this program that proved incoherent and unapproachable to many of their friends and family members. The fans wanted its complexities to proliferate so they could spend more hours trying to work through the problems it posed.

And as the process continues, as the ending grows closer, there is a panic that sets in that the writer may not be quite as bright as one had imagined. Here's how one TP fan talked about Lynch (the terms are very similar to the way some Lost fans are now talking about Abrams):

Am I the only one experiencing a crisis of faith? I waken in the middle of the night in a cold sweat imagining a world in which no one knows who killed Laura Palmer. I imagine Lynch and Frost just making it up as they go along, snickering about attempts to identify the killer when none exists. I see them ultimately making an arbitrary choice of culprits, a totally unsatisfying conclusion to the mystery. Are we being treated to an excruciatingly slow fuck destined to end in a whimper of an orgasm? Don't get me wrong. I'm not complaining, there are worse things in life.

And of course, Abrams faces the added burden, as Bogost notes, of having already screwed over fans of Alias and thus having to escape his reputation for slap-dash storytelling. (Under the circumstances, I've been surprised by how much Lost coheres and yet still manages to surprise).

Here's how I discussed this problem in terms of Twin Peaks:

Paradoxically, the more authority fans ascribed to the author, the more suspicious they become of that authority. So much was riding on their conception of Lynch's masterfulness that their anxiety intensified as the series unfolded. If Lynch as author justified their fannish activity, rationalized the time and attention devoted to his text, what would happen if the text was meaningless - or rather, if they all found meaningful originated within the reception community rather than the author?

We could of course take another perspective -- suggesting that a text should be judged by the generativeness of its content and not by the coherence of its final resolution. A good television show would be one that inspires the most activity within the community and inspires fans to put together the pieces in the most interesting ways. The aired resolution represents one possible way of understanding that material -- given no more or less status than any other interpretation of the fictional world and judged against the richness that the fan community itself produced. Yet, most of us aren't willing to go this far in terms of valuing fan creativity over professional entertainment.

A Corrupted Art?

Let me respond briefly to two other claims that Bogost made in his comments here, since they speak to either a misunderstanding of each other's positions or to a fundamental difference about the nature of popular culture (take your pick):

Bogost writes:

In my opinion (you knew this was coming), this technique is primarily used to hook viewers and insure their commitment to the show in order to increase the value of the broadcast's advertising dollars. Such value is the primary currency of consolidated media, but it also benefits creator JJ Abrams, who gets a cut of the show's value thanks to his role as creator and executive producer. So, there is a financial incentive toward false riddles or riddle simulations, which are arguably easier to craft than real one.

Yes, Ian, I knew that one was coming. I don't totally disagree.

But the same elements in the series can have both commercial and aesthetic motivations at the same time. Every media maker is in the business of making money for the people who finance their work. Every choice has to be justified to their backers as a commercial calculation. Yet, in practice, there are a wide array of different ways one can make money off your consumers and at some point, other kinds of values enter into the choices that get made around the production of a television show. In this case, Abrams seems honestly interested in the aesthetics of serial fiction and seems to particularly enjoy puzzles, ciphers, and mazes (not to mention backstory) as building blocks for television entertainment.

Lost was far from guaranteed success when it launched: there weren't other shows with strong audiences that followed these practices and you could argue that he was going deeper in the same direction that was associated with the critical and commercial collapse of his previous series. No matter how you cut it, Lost was a gamble. Many other television producers have tried to duplicate the formula of Lost and so far, none of them have enjoyed either its commercial or critical success. Something is going on here that audiences find compelling. And if it were as simple as making the right commercial calculations, then we would see many more successful duplications. To date, Prison Break is the only new series, post-Lost, to succeed on these terms and its success is modest compared to what Lost has accomplished. We will see if any of the new fall serials can break out of this pattern.

I often find myself draw to a quote from Roger Corman that speaks to this tension between commercial and aesthetic motivations:

I think films are a compromised and corrupted art form, a combination of business and art. And I think filmmakers who treat it completely as a business fail. A business-oriented film is too blatant. It must have something more. To me, films that succeed are those that are slightly corrupted, that attempt to be both business and art, knowing they can never be a full work of art and should never be a full work of business.

A Disruptive Audience?

Bogost also writes:

I know that Henry (and you too, from the sound of it) believe that these fan gestures are disruptive to commercial enterprise, but I think the argument for such disruption is much stronger in the case of Survivor than in the case of Lost.

Actually, this is a simplification of what I am arguing about fan's relations to television. It is perhaps a more accurate description of what I argued in Textual Poachers than of what I am arguing in Convergence Culture.

Textual Poachers was very much shaped by the language of cultural studies which at the time was locked into a debate with other theoretical traditions about whether people who consumed popular media were somehow ideological dupes of capitalist patriarchy. The counterargument then necessarily focused on resistance, suggesting that audiences had a largely oppositional relationship to television producers and content. In Poachers, I hint at some flaws in this argument, suggesting the ways that fan activity is motivated both by fascination and by frustration, suggesting that appropriation involves both proximity and distance to the text, and arguing that not all appropriations fit comfortably within the progressive ideologies being celebrated by writers in the Cultural Studies tradition. But, the most oft cited passages of the book celebrate the oppositional nature of fan culture.

The relations between contemporary media producers and fans are more complicated still because of this elaborate courtship dance that is taking place at the moment around relationship marketing, user-generated content, and audience participation. The result may be a broad array of different relationships between consumers and producers, some oppositional, some collaborative, and typically there are shifts in that relationship over time. As I suggest, Survivor fans are not operating outside of the design of the series when they show strong interests in who wins the million dollars; they may become part of the buzz around the series when producers want to talk about the extreme lengths they will go to find answers; the producers may play cat and mouse games to keep them engaged. At the same time, Survivor fans increasingly view the producers as antagonists and producers increasingly feel threatened by their ability to expose what they find to a larger public.

In the case of Lost, there's nothing particularly oppositional about audiences pooling knowledge and debating interpretations. (Indeed, Jason Mitell makes this very point in an essay he recently shared with me comparing spoiling Survivor with spoiling Lost.) This is, as Bogost notes, the mechanism that sustains interest in the series. It is also part of Lost's aesthetic design: there's no question that the producers are factoring internet based reception into their creative decisions on the series.

Response to Bogost (Part Three)

When Ian Bogost wrote me earlier today to say that his response to the first installment hadn't appeared on my site, I was confused. I went back to my spam filter and discovered that more than 30 substantive comments to this site from a variety of sources had gone missing. I had been trying to be as inclusive as possible and make sure all of the reader's comments were posted, cutting out only obvious spam and purely personal invective. I feel really bad to discover so many of you fell prey to the spam catcher. Now that I know it is an issue, I will be checking regularly. I have now reposted everything that got blocked -- for archival purposes if nothing else. Sorry for the mixup. All I can say is that I am new at this. Over the past two installments, I have been responding to Ian Bogost's thoughtful yet challenging review of my new book, Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide, over at Water Cooler Games. In part one, I addressed some issues surrounding the emotional dynamics of contemporary advertising. Last time, I addressed some questions around transmedia entertainment and fan culture. Today, I will wrap up with some thoughts on the commercialization of culture and the relationship between technology and culture, among other topics.

For those who might be interested in hearing me speak more about the ways convergence culture is impacting the games industry, check out my appearance on a podcast organized by the editors of The Escapist.

Noncommercial Media

Tthe omission of convergence communities that opt for more historically-entrenched creative practices in lieu of outright commercial commodities seems to reflect Jenkins's own preference for contemporary popular culture, and perhaps his own libertarian politics. The subversive undertones in Convergence Culture remain squarely on the side of mass market global capitalism. While Jenkins admits that many corporations are pushing convergence as a strategy of control, he frames consumer resistance as a struggle to get media companies to be more responsive to consumer tastes and interests.

Hmm. Where do I start? I see my book as describing a particular aspect of contemporary culture which has to do with the intersection between commercial and grassroots media. I am very clear from the start that no one can describe the full picture and that all I can offer are a limited number of snapshots of cultural change in practice. There is much about the culture which this book doesn't address, though I would hope that its insights help others to begin to explore these implications for their respected areas. I know that Mark Deuze, for example, has been applying some of these ideas to the study of news and journalism; I have myself done some writing lately about the implications of participatory culture for education and for participation in the arts; and so forth. I would have said that the book tries to show how trends in popular culture are relevent to the political process, to education, to religion, and to the military at various points along the way, which is more than what most books on popular entertainment have tried to do.

My own particular background as a scholar -- and my own particular interest as a fan -- lies in the area of popular culture. It doesn't mean I don't see value in other forms of cultural production. I do. But there are plenty of others in the academia who know those areas better, write about them more knowledgibly, and make better contributions to them. I find myself drawn to popular culture in part because it requires me to defend what some see as the indefensible and in the process, to try to complicate the easy hierarchies that too often operate within our culture.

Some of what my book doesn't discuss is addressed very well by Yochai Benkler's Wealth of Networks, a book that I really wish I could have read while I was writing my own book. He's making an argument that we need to discuss the present moment in terms of the shifting relationship between commercial, amateur, civic, and nonprofit sectors, each involved in the production and circulation of media, and each meeting each other on somewhat different terms because of the leveling influence of the web. Man, I wish I had said that. My book really focuses on the two extremes there -- the commercial on the one hand and the amateur on the other. I do think it could have said more about these other players in the middle -- various nonprofit groups, educational and cultural institutions, etc. and the role they play in reshaping the media landscape.


To become "full participants in our culture" seems to entail filming Star Wars action figures, decoding reality television puzzles, or authoring Harry Potter fanfic. Jenkins intends these examples to be paradigmatic, but the chasm between the book's examples and the set of possible niche-market or grassroots media properties is tremendous. Jenkins does believe in such properties, but it's a shame that they failed to make an appearance in Convergence Culture, even in the sporadic sidebar mini-essays that pepper the book. Among others, easy examples could have come from Second Life, where both creation tools are provided and intellectual property rights are conferred onto players.

Again, timing issues are involved here. Second Life really emerged too late to be a central focus in the book. I probably should have added more references to it during the last revision process but I felt like it would have taken more space than I could give it to really explain what's going on. Second Life is enormously important as a testing ground for all of the issues the book explores. Interestingly, my students have been most interested in exploring branding and product strategies within Second Life, suggesting again that it can not be understood purely on a grassroots level, but also represents the intersection between commercial and amateur content. (I hope to share some thoughts on the commercialization of Second Life in a future blog.)

Similarly, Chris Anderson's work on The Long Tail has heightened my awareness and interest on niche media production. More and more, niche media dominates my writing here on the blog and I am certain to have a lot more to say about it in the future.

I would be horrified if what people took from the book was the idea that I thought being a fan was the only meaningful way of participating within our culture. I simply want people to recognize that being a fan is one meaningful way of participating in our culture. We need to acknowledge that the stories generated by mass media still have enormous reach: they are the common culture that most other forms of cultural expression define themselves against. It is worth struggling for access to those stories; what stories get told and how those stories get retold is of enormous cultural, political, and economic importance. But there are clearly other kinds of participation that matter -- most importantly perhaps, participation in civic life, which is a central concern in my "Photoshop for Democracy" chapter.

Again, though, I want to challenge an easy seperation between popular culture and public culture. I see public culture/civic media as increasingly informed by both the content and practices of popular culture and I don't necessarily see this as a bad thing if the result is to get people more engagted with public debates (as I think occurs around the Daily Show) or allows them to feel more comfortable expressing their ideas (as I think happens around the blogosphere.)

The User Content Pyramid

Jenkins somewhat ignores the massive disparity in participation among collective intelligences. While he does cite Survivor producer Mark Burnett's claim that the show's 20 million viewers massively dwarfs the community of online spoilers, Jenkins seems to assume that this disparity is a temporary one. In the future, as convergence culture takes hold, participation will become universal. Unfortunately, participation seems to take place more naturally in levels. Raph Koster points to a User Content Pyramid Will Wright used to use when talking about The Sims. A small number of tool makers supplies a slightly larger number of content creators, who publish content on a slightly larger number of web sites, for a slightly larger number of content downloaders, compared to the even larger number of ordinary players.

I wouldn't disagree with any of this. I think there has been a shift over the past decade in terms of the percentage of people who are interested in actively participating in the production and distribution of media content. The Pew study last December found that 57 percent of teens online have produced some kind of media content and about half of those have circulated it via the web. That's the beginning of a pretty large scale shift in how our culture operates. And there are many factors encouraging more and more forms of cultural participation.

That said, we will not all participate to the same degree. Already in the Pew study we can see that 43 percent of teens online do not make media content -- at least as Pew has defined it. There will be varying degrees of participation and there will be some at one end of the continuium who simply want to consume. There are some signs, though, that the kinds of culture produced in an era where the public is free to and expects to have the right to participate will differ dramatically from those produced in an era where most people purely watch. As Steve Johnson and James Gee suggest, they make different demands on consumer attention and cognition; they require us to take different kinds of actions if we want to fully understand what we are consuming. Moreover, a world when a large percentage of people participate will result in a much more diverse mediascape than we currently enjoy.

There will be many different forms of diversity. One kind Bogost alludes to here -- the potential for niche media or for noncommercial media to find a larger public. But I am also interested in insuring diversity at the heart of consumer culture, in showing how the popular culture materials we share may still be open to different interpretations and appropriations.

That said, I am very concerned about what I am calling the Participation Gap, something I reference near the end of the book but which is driving my work on new media literacies. The participation gap is a gap in the access to opportunities to participate in our culture (and the skills required to take advantage of these opportunities). Most of the discussion about the Digital Divide focused exclusively on issues of technological access. We now have reached a point where most American kids, outside of a few nagging pockets, have access to the internet through the classroom or public libraries if not at home, but there are tremendous gaps in their ability to participate in core online experiences (as I suggested the other day in my comments about DOPA and MySpace). This is not a case of people choosing not to move further up the pyramid of user generated content. They don't have a choice given the conditions that shape their online access, given their exclusion from the cultural practices by which others are learning how to participate.

ARG? Argh!

The first is somewhat pedantic. There are a few factual/transcription errors that may quickly obsess popular culture mavens. For one, Jenkins misspells Galdalf (as Gandolf, which is a common mistake but not one a scholar of popular culture can afford to make). For another, he mistakenly calls Alternate Reality Games (ARGs) Alternative Reality Games. Worse, Jenkins attributes the incorrect term to pervasive game researcher and designer Jane McGonigal ("Jane McGonigal ... calls the genre alternative reality gaming"), misciting one of her presentations as "Alternative Reality Gaming." If it were just the name, this might not be such a big deal. But McGonigal actually makes an important theoretical distinction (PDF) between alternate and alternative realities. Alternate realities, she argues, are "real worlds that use games as a metaphor." She contrasts this notion with alternative realities, realities one chooses between. McGonigal further traces the concept of "alternate reality" to science fiction, where the term refers to depictions of a world of changed history, and consequently of changed dynamics. This name, then, is central to McGonigal's claims that ARGs allow players to actively change the nature of their real reality by participating in these alternate ones.

Mea Culpea. I could offer various explanations for how this happened or how hard I worked to fact check the book. But the reality is that I screwed up. These are things I will change in the second printing. In the case of alternate reality, I have already started using this prefered term in my current writing and speaking. Somehow I got confused and passed the confusion onto the readers. I wouldn't read any deep theoretical significance into the terminological confusion. I don't think the use of the wrong term impacts the heart of my argument about ARGs, though as Ian notes, it does blur some important distinctions that theorists like McGonigal have been making through their work. Sorry, Jane.

Culture and Technology

One of Jenkins's major innovations in Convergence Culture is identifying the "black box fallacy" and offering a more distributed view of media convergence. His insistence on the cultural tenor of convergence is welcome, but Jenkins takes this emphasis to an extreme, arguing that "if we focus on the technology, the battle will be lost before we even begin to fight. We need to confront the social, cultural, and political protocols that surround the technology and define how it will get used." This point is well taken. But in opposing the cultural against the technological, Jenkins risks missing the importance of the technology. Technologies--particular ones, like computer microprocessors, mobile devices, telegraphs, books, and smoke signals--have properties. They have affordances and constraints. Different technologies may expose or close down particular modes of expression. Part of convergence culture must entail technical media literacy, an ability to consume and create media content that takes advantage of the particular properties of particular technology systems. Most, if not all of Jenkins's examples of computer technology take the computer for a network appliance rather than a processing machine.

I was a bit thrown by this response. I would have said that the book makes a very similar point multiple times. Drawing on Lisa Gitelman, I describe a medium as both a communications technology and the cultural protocals that grow up around it. Both sides of this are important for the reasons that Bogost argues here. My own expertise is cultural. I don't think anyone would want to read what I have to say about technologies as technologies -- there are lots of better writers on this topic. It may be my particular vantage point at MIT but I do think there is a tendency to think of convergence first in technological terms and only secondarily in cultural terms. I was trying to enlarge the conversation not narrow it.

My own notion of media literacy, which is central to the current focus of my work, certainly includes an understanding of technology, including the ability to produce and interprete simulations. There's no real disagreement here as far as I can see.

At best, we may differ in terms of emphasis. Rereading the qoute above, the one revision I would make would look something like this: "if we focus on the technology, the battle will be lost before we even begin to fight. We [also] need to confront the social, cultural, and political protocols that surround the technology and define how it will get used." I didn't mean to say that fights around the design of technology were not worth fighting. I simply think many of those issues appear first through cultural practices that jerryrig or retrofit technologies for new purposes and only later surface in the technologies themselves. But the reverse is also true: the release of a new technology can spark profound cultural changes as people experiment with how it will be used and begin to develop new protocals.

Jenkins strongly downplays technology's role as a participant in convergence culture. The content must be delivered, and technologies are there to do it. Yet, the technologies we choose to create and consume media structure the type of convergence that is possible in the first place. The iPod emblazoned on the cover of Convergence Culture is essentially a hard drive with a few circuits run for streaming data off the disk. This device is well-suited to playing linear media, specifically audio and video content. The tremendous cultural uptake of iPods makes them desirable targets for creative output, even convergent, transmedial output that Jenkins advocates. But that output is necessarily constrained by the affordances of the device--for example, iPods can't easily run custom-built software.

Again, there's no real disagreement there. I do think that the kind of networked culture I describe would have been impossible without the extistence of a network in the first place. I do agree with Lawrence Lessig that we should be very concerned about the cultural and social policies that get translated into code rather than law. I do think we need a world where all technology can be modified by the user. I do describe digitization as a driver of convergence culture (alongside economic factors like the consolidation of the media industry). The affordances of technology can certainly limit how they can be used in ways that should concern all of us. At the same time, though, I would push back from a hardcore technologically deterministic stance. History shows us again and again that the same technology operates differently in different cultural contexts.

The Convergence Fallacy?

Technological mastery couples with cultural mastery to help producers and consumers decide how and why to develop and consume the artifacts of convergence culture. Without such an understanding, a counterpart of the black box fallacy rears its head. I might call this counterpart the convergence fallacy: the more a media property is delivered across more devices, the better it is.

This is certainly not the case. I spend a good chunk of the Matrix chapter trying to articulate some aesthetic standards by which we can measure the value of transmedia experiences. Some are more culturally meaningful than others. Media companies have the power inhouse to create a media franchise from scratch; they lack the power to force consumers to value that experience.

Right now, there's a lot of uncritical excitement about convergence and extensions and this often clouds judgements. Not every story should be told across all media. Not every experience is enhanced by moving it between platforms. I would hope that the book gave us a vocabulary to push beyond celebrating convergence for convergence sake and begin to explore how convergence enriches or impoverishes our culture.

Or, more convergence equals more expression. The notion that value builds exponentially as nodes in a network increases, sometimes called Metcalfe's Law, has been implicitly extended from infrastructure networks like telephones to social networks like MySpace to product networks like Spider-Man. But this kind of value is principally economic, not expressive. Even if we accept Jenkins's claim that the interpretive interests of fan communities undermine the intentions of mass media, they still support the financial interests of mass media. For consolidated media, convergence mitigates financial risk. And until we overcome the convergence fallacy, there is great risk that the promising grassroots convergence will subsume these mass market goals, even if they do not benefit individual creators.

Unless we know why to choose one medium over another, or one set of transmedia over another, how can convergence produce more meaningful expression? Or consume it meaningfully? Or critique it fairly, to address three of the problems Jenkins raises in the book. Without a grounding in technological literacy and critique as well as cultural savvy, convergence risks becoming bricolage, an oddjob pastiche of any old media, rather than a pioneering manipulation of particular media for particular and collective ends.

Again, I don't think we really disagree here. I do see the movement of stories across media as opening up new points for consumers to intervene, as opening up some greater space for cultural expression in response to commercially produced and circulated stories. In that sense, convergence can and often does expand expressive possibilities. Transmedia processes can also deepen cultural experiences as we add together pieces that may seem superficial in a single medium but fit to form a more complex world when read across media.

I also think that the emergence of a networked culture, a la Benkler, creates new opportunities for noncommercial groups to insert themselves. In the book's terms, we might think about pixelvision filmmaking or machinema as examples where alternative groups are taking advantage of commercially produced tools to generate their own niche or subcultural production. For this to happen, we certainly need to expand access to technical competency and we need to push for the development of tools that are open source and allow for inexperted users to manipulate them for their own purposes.

I see the Serious Games movement, which occupies a fair amount of attention from both Jenkins and Bogost, as a good illustration of this process in practice. Much of the work builds on models and tools generated by the commercial media. Most of the energy comes from the nonprofit sector and the desire to generate alternatives to commercial culture.

Yet, at the same time, all of us still have to confront bottom line issues because the price of producing and distributing games is high enough that we have to seek outside funding to pursue our work. At the end of the day, I don't think alternative culture has to originate outside commercial culture -- nor do I think that alternative culture ever operates fully independent of the economic contexts within which it is produced and circulated. There is no such thing as ideological or cultural purity. I hope my book helps people to think about the complexity by which commercial culture operates and also to identify strategies by which grassroots media makers can insert themselves into this process. I just am more ready to embrace grassroots media production that looks more like fan culture than Bogost seems to be from his remarks here.

Anyway, hope these responses help to clarify my position and perhaps pave the way for further dialogue. The issues Bogost raises are important. I doubt I have laid any of them to rest here. At least I hope not. These are conversations we should be having as a society. My hope is that my book's framing, flawed though it may be, will provide a foundation for further exploration and critique.

Response to Bogost (Part Two)

On Friday, I began the first of a three part response to Ian Bogost's thoughtful, engaging, and provocative review of my new book, Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide. Bogost's discussion of the book at Water Cooler Games allows me to respond to some anticipated challenges to the book's content and approach. It also seems that many of you are relishing a good debate in the dog days of the summer so far be it for me to deny you your entertainment. All of this will make more sense if you've read both the book and the review. Last time, I mostly addressed some questions Bogost raised about the affective economics chapter of the book. Today, I take up some issues about transmedia storytelling/entertainment and about fan culture more generally.

Keep in mind two things: Bogost's review was primarily positive and I have enormous respect for Bogost's contribution to the game studies world. This is an intellectual debate, not a blood feud.

Ludology vs. Narratology

As the sonic boom of the so-called ludology vs. narratology debate dissipates, I find it interesting that Jenkins continues to insist on the terms "narrative" and "storytelling" as the principle units of cultural expression. Even though Jenkins admits that "storytelling has become the art of world building," where artists create environments and situations for a multitude of consumer intersections, he still does not reimagine such a craft separate from the particularity of narrative. Following Roger Shanck and others, Jenkins argues that "stories are basic to all human cultures, the primary means by which we structure, share, and make sense of our common experiences." Yet, the examples he cites, from the rich worlds of The Matrix, and Star Wars to transmedial experiments like Dawson's Desktop, readily elude the narrative frame, offering representations of behaviors, fragments, and environments. Michael Mateas and Gonzalo Frasca have called the privileging of narrative expression narrativism, and I have argued that narrativist gestures like Jenkins's occlude representational gestures based on logics and behaviors. Convergence Culture continues Jenkins' narrativist practice.

Given the propensity for such non-narrative interpretations of media properties, it is curious that Jenkins did not choose the more general term transmedia authorship over transmedia storytelling

My first response upon reading this was to gasp, "not again." The last thing any of us wants is to reopen the trumped up feud between the self-proclaimed ludologists and the so-called narratologists. The argument is, in my opinion, based on a false set of distinctions that are getting imposed on a hybrid medium at a highly transitional moment. (Anytime someone accuses you of "occluding" something, you know you are in trouble.) More seriously, I think the ludology/narratology debate was based on misidentifications across cultural and language differences. When Espen Aarseth and I sat down together a few years ago at the HumLab, we found that there was relatively little to debate. We were involved in disagreements in emphasis but not in a substantive dispute about the future of game studies.

I want to refer here to something I wrote at the heat of the Ludology/Narratology debate in response to Marku Eskelinin. It more or less summarizes my perspective:

Ultimately, my interest is in mapping the aesthetic norms that constitute different forms of popular culture and in almost every case, narrative exists alongside, competes against, struggles with, and is often subordinate to alternative aesthetic logics that are fundamentally anti- or non-narrative in character. Eskelinen is correct to note that games have a long history, so does magic, dance, architecture, ars erotica, and so forth, which exist alongside storytelling as important cultural activities. These various alternative traditions are never completely autonomous from each other, but come together and move apart in different ways, at different times, in different cultures. My goal is not to reduce games to narrative but to explore the unstable relationship between a range of different transmedia logics - narrative, games, spectacle, performance, spatiality, affect, etc....

The market category of "games," in fact, covers an enormous ground, including activities that ludologists would classify as play, sports, simulations, and toys, as well as traditional games. Some, but certainly not all, of these products also make bids on telling stories; storytelling is part of what they are marketing and part of what consumers think they are buying when they invest in this software.

These computer games, then, are a strange, still unstable, and still undertheorized hybrid between games and narratives. They are a border case for any study of narrative, but they are also a border case for any study of games. Computer games are a bit like duck-billed platypuses, a species which, as Harriet Ritvo has documented, confounded early naturalists; some of them denied that such a creature could exist and denounced early reports as fraud, while others sought to erase all ambiguities about its status, trivializing any problems in classifying this species - which has a duck bill, web feet, and lays eggs - as mammals. Jon McKenzie accurately summarizes my position: "games are indeed not narratives, not films, not plays - but they're also not-not-narratives, not-not-films, not-not-plays." In the end, the zoological discipline has decided that platypuses are not birds; yet, we will not really get why platypuses are such strange mammals if we don't know what a bird is.

Near the end of his comments, Eskelinen proposes a range of examples that he takes to be a reductio ad absurdum of my essay's arguments. It might be helpful to take one of his cases and break it down. Are gardens spatial stories? We can agree that they are not. Most gardens are spaces - with little or no narrative interest at all. Some of those spaces may be designed in such a way as to enable certain life events to unfold - such as hidden nooks where lovers may meet - and thus gardens have been the settings for many stories. There is a tradition of using gardens to recreate spaces from fictional stories; I am thinking about the Bible gardens which dot the roadside of my native south or the fairy gardens that are popular throughout Europe. Here, we would say that those gardens operate in relation to a larger narrative economy. In most cases, however, these gardens are simply recreating spaces or vignettes from stories. They evoke stories, but they are not stories. In the case of some Bible gardens, these vignettes are arranged in a narrative sequence designed to unfold the story of Christ's martyrdom. As they do so, they start to move towards the borders of our current understanding of narrative.

So, on the one hand, I would welcome Bogost's efforts to broaden my term, "transmedia storytelling" towards something like "transmedia entertainment" or "transmedia authorship." It is certainly the case, as the passage above suggests, that narrative is simply one of a number of transmedia logics that are all expressive of the human condition. Perhaps I should have been clearer about this point in the book. I'll take my lumps for that.

That said, I do think there's an argument to be made for the centrality of narrative for understanding the specific examples used in the book -- Star Wars, Harry Potter, and The Matrix. Just as one can argue that narrative may take a back seat to play mechanics, say, in our effort to understand how games work, most critics have argued that the American film industry has been driven from day one by the push to tell stories and that narrative imperatives dominate over all other factors in shaping the aesthetics of Hollywood entertainment. I could point you to a large body of literature which has made this point over and over. These particular worlds, then, were created for the purpose of generating stories. They may, as I have suggested, support multiple stories, they may also follow other logics and practices, but they are still part of a storytelling system.

I make clear that I don't think the games or some of the other materials attached to these franchises are primarily in the business of telling stories: I suggest that they are much more invested in allowing a more immersive experience of the fictional worlds. But there's no question that many, if not all, players read their experience of the original works onto these worlds and take information learned from these games and apply it back to their understanding of the story of the film. We can understand conflicting responses to Enter the Matrix as suggesting the contrast between people who came there looking for an extension of the story (and thus don't mind the lengthy cut scenes) and those who came there wanting a game play experience (and thus are angry over the lengthy cut scenes.)

My point is not to suggest that everything that takes place within a transmedia system is a story -- and that's why I am perfectly happy if Bogost wants to expand my concept to talk about entertainment more generally. Music, for example, is profoundly transmedia and yet only occasionally narrative-driven (in the case of ballads, say).

It might be instructive to compare Survivor and American Idol in this regard. Survivor is a game that was constructed to form the basis of a narrative; American Idol is a series of performances that sometimes incorporate stories about the participants in order to shape our emotional response. They thus both mix and match several transmedia logics but it is still possible to identify the dominant aesthetic impulse in each case.

I accept gladly the ludologist point that there are experiences that can not be adequately be described as stories but that are deeply meaningful within our culture. Some of these take the form of games, some rituals, and so forth. I accept gladly the ludologist point that we need to develop a new vocabulary to talk about the play mechanics of games and that we are badly served if they are discussed primarily or exclusively as stories. But I sometimes think that the ludologists give over to a kind of phobia about stories that is also not helpful because it denies the meaningfulness of stories to culture or the relevance of narrative for understanding some aspects of what remain hybrid entertainment experience. Even if they are right that our culture is blinded by its preoccupation with stories, we surely need to understand where that preoccupation comes from, what it means, and what impact it has on how they process the information gathered through these transmedia experiences. I make no apologies for the fact that I like stories, that much of the pleasure I take from popular culture is a narrative pleasure, that I consider stories to be a rewarding aspect of human culture. If that makes me a narrativist in his eyes, so be it. (Frankly, I am thankful that the ludologists have finally figured out that narratology is a specific school of narrative theory that has nothing to do with me and my work or indeed that of most of the other American academics they tried to label with this term.)

More interesting to me though is an implicit question raised in Bogost's comments: As these transmedia systems take on more and more of what Janet Murray has described as an encyclopedic logic, as they become more about worlds that support multiple stories and less about individual plots, then the centrality of narrative necessarily shifts. Will we reach a point where the stories exist to fit into the concordance rather than the concordance existing to illuminate the story?

Fandom and Other Cultural Traditions

But Jenkins does not adequately answer another objection, namely that a fixation on existing media properties like Harry Potter may reduce a child's interaction with the cultural, literary, and historical traditions that made such works possible in the first place. The success of Harry Potter and similar books may have duped us into the belief that reading in itself is honorable, no matter the content.

This is a very interesting point and I have struggled to know how to respond to it. I would have said that the book cites a number of examples where popular culture evokes intertexts across larger cultural, literary, and historical traditions -- see, for example, my discussion of the role of myth in The Matrix films or the debates about ethics and religion that surround Harry Potter. Indeed, one of the remarkable things about the online fan cultures that emerge around such works is the degree to which fans read intertextually and suck more and more cultural materials into their conversations. Fans don't respect the borders we like to erect around differently modes of cultural experience: everything is connected to everything else. This is part of how collective intelligence works -- everyone contributes what they know and as they do so, the conversation expands outward to include much broader traditions. Such works provide a context for kids to become interested in these older materials that are authentic in the sense that these materials help them address questions that matter to them as opposed to the forced march through the western tradition that constitutes school curriculum.

Of course, there's no guarantee that any given reader will move beyond the franchise itself in their search of meaning: these franchises can become a dead end for some people. I would think we should be trying to explore strategies that bridge between these different cultural spheres rather than trying to build walls between them. That's part of what I hope to be doing in my work around media literacy and it is part of why I am so interested by groups like Wondering Minstrels and what they are doing around poetry.

Lost in Commerce?

Perhaps more concerning than becoming lost in fantasy is becoming lost in commerce. Doesn't fandom reorient children and adults alike toward the consumption of more and more commercial products from the franchise?

I would have phrased this the other way around -- as I suggest in the Star Wars chapter of the book. I see fandom as responding to the commercialization of our culture and pulling us back towards older models of cultural production. Commercial culture has tried very hard throughout the 20th century to totally displace folk culture and it has utterly failed to do so. The desire to participate in the production and circulation of cultural materials on the grassroots or amateur level has remained extremely strong. That said, what has come out of the confrontation between commercial culture and folk culture is anything but pure. Folk culture now builds upon the materials of commercial culture and commercial culture now appropriates freely from grassroots cultural practices. Fandom represents a way of asserting grassroots concerns in the face of the commercialization of our culture. It represents a way of introducing non-market criteria into the production and circulation of media. It transforms commodities into resources for collective elaboration.

There is no evidence that fans consume more media -- or more products -- than any other segment of the population. Indeed, much evidence suggests that fans spend less hours each day watching television than nonfans. Television simply plays a different role in their lives: it fosters other social and creative activities. So they may spend more time focused thinking about and talking about a particular franchise (though often in relation to a range of other cultural works, as I suggested above) but they may not consume more overall. And much of what fans do consume comes within the context of the gift economy that grows up alongside commercial culture. Reading fanzine stories may intensify their interest in the commercial media content but it may also displace the purchase of ancillary products tied to the series that may less perfectly jell with the fan community's particular view of the series.

That said, there's no question that many of the convergence practices the book describes are motivated top down by market logic. I never deny that and indeed, try many times to try to identify what that market logic is. One of my goals for the book was describe fan culture both from the point of view of the commercial sector and from the point of view of the grassroots culture. But I don't think these practices can be reduced to market motives. These franchises mean something more to the people who work on them (as I suggest in terms of The Matrix) and the people who consume them (as I suggest throughout).

Marketing proves most ineffective at getting people to consume cultural goods. There are so many examples of expensive failures in developing media franchises, of monumental miscalculations. My experience has been that where a media product finds an audience, there is something meaningful going on within the culture and the task of the cultural critic is to try to identify what it means. We may not like what it tells us about our culture, but it's no fair trying to treat it as if it was mindless or meaningless. That's sheer laziness on the part of the cultural critic.

In the final installment, I return to issues of commercialization, apologize for some legitimate errors Bogost caught, and take up the relationship between culture and technology. Stay tune, boys and girls. See you tomorrow, same bat time, same bat channel.

A Response to Ian Bogost (Part One)

Ian Bogost wins the award for being first to market with a thorough, thoughtful critique of my new book, Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide. The review is worth reading in its entirity because it really does set a high bar for debate and discussion around this book. Bogost does all of us a great service in taking on this task: the review is helpful to me in identifying some of the battlegrounds that are apt to emerge around this book. As I wrote to him, there are some points of real disagreement here, some points where we place different emphasis, and some points where we agree more than his summary of the book suggests. Some of his criticisms made me wince; some left me scratching my head. I wish I had read some of them before the book went to press.

It seems the most constructive thing one can do at this point is to respond to some of his questions publically in the hopes of getting a larger conversation going around the issues he raises. Because I wanted to respond fully to a range of interesting questions Bogost raised, I am going to be running my response over my next three posts.

I Can't Belive It's Margarine!

Bogost's review begins promisingly enough from my perspective with the following lines:

The book is a short, smart, buttery read on a hot topic, and it is sure to draw both popular and academic interest.

I cite this passage here -- other than my amusement over the buttery metaphor -- just to show that he really does seem to like the book. (Bless you, Ian, for calling the book "short." It has to be the first time in human history I haven't been accused of being long winded.) Hinceforth, I am going to generally ignore the many nice things he says about the book in order to address points of disagreement. I am not trying to pick a fight with Bogost, who I admire, simply trying to respond to the issues that seem most urgent here and I have told Bogost I am planning to do this. My hope is that I can coax him to respond to my response and keep the exchange going.

Reality and Fiction

The discussion of collective intelligence in the Survivor community offers a welcome counterpoint to prevailing ideas that "puzzling" over apparently complex mass-media offers cognitive and cultural value in and of itself, such as those recently advanced by Steven Johnson; the Survivor spoilers are solving a real problem, rather than becoming drawn in to the elusive, unplanned web of J.J. Abrams telescripts gone awry.

This is one of the passages that left me scratching my head. Yes, I think it matters on all kinds of levels that the Survivor fans are exploring something that occured in the real world rather than a work of fiction. They can pool money and send representatives to the Amazon or Pearl Island and interview real people. The fans of Lost really don't have a chance to crawl down into that hatch and see what they can get from looking around. There's something fascinating about the experiences of Mario Lanza, the fan fiction writer who corresponds with and gets advice from his characters because they are real people. But I bristle a little at the hierarchy between reality and fiction implicit in this argument.

Perhaps Bogost doesn't like Lost as much as I and many of my students do. But a key assumption running through my book is that we can use fiction as a vehicle to talk through core concerns and that the activity of making sense of fiction may teach us skills that can be put to a broader array of other purposes. It may be true to Abrams and company are making up what's happening on Lost as they go -- in part in response to the speculations of the fan community. This doesn't devalue it as art -- after all, we know Dickens did more or less the same with the serial publications of his novels. People are still talking about real issues when they talk about Lost, whether they are discussing the spiritual conflicts faced by the characters or the show's representation of the politics of Iraq, Korea, and Africa. They are also learning how to work within a knowledge community and working through the ethics of collaborative information production and knowledge sharing in ways that have larger applications.

Similarly, I think we can use Survivor to ask some fundamental questions about group dynamics, sexuality, gender, race, and so forth, and as I suggest in the book, I think reality television poses a series of ethical questions that are designed to become the stuff of gossip within the fan community. It's ability to do so may have less to do with its factual status (especially given how contrived the situation is in the first place) and more to do with its rhetorical and dare I say, narrative construction. But the most important thing in both cases is they provide shared reference points around which conversations cane emerge. In the book's terms, they act as cultural attractors bringing like minded individuals together to form a reception community and as cultural activators giving the community something to do which exploits the resources of a collective intelligence.

Affective Economics

In particular, economic changes like the decreasing value of the 30-second television spot are forcing mass media into cultural convergence. Survivor and American Idol represent instances of what Jenkins calls affective economics, a marketing technique that appeals to consumers' emotional vicissitudes. I found it curious that Jenkins chose to invent this somewhat awkward term for a concept that has many names in contemporary marketing theory, including associative advertising and lifestyle marketing. One might assume that Jenkins knows about these concepts, but chooses not to mention them in order that he can reconnect the same underlying concept to cultural studies and fan communities. Yet, he also argues that affective economics is "on the fringes" in the media industry, suggesting that he may have a greater distinction in mind.

The problem of terminology is a vexing one in a book like Convergence Culture. Because the space involves imput from many different sectors, because the phenomenon discussed is evolving, and because there are almost always competing paradigms present to account for any observed phenomenon, there are always multiple terms you could use to describe a particular set of practices. Bogost has identified several places here where I had to drive a stake in the ground and I went with what seemed to me to be the best term to describe what I was talking about.

Frankly, I am less invested in these terminological questions than Bogost is. I see the varied terms as different ways of describing the same phenomenon. Each term helps us see some aspects more clearly and makes others harder to see. For that reason, there's an argument to be made for keeping multiple terms in play rather than trying to figure out which one is best. If my words are useful, use them. If not, dump them.

He's right that part of what I was trying to do in this chapter was to show the match between what academics in cultural and media studies had said about fans and an emerging discourse about the role of emotional investments within the brand space. I intended the phrase, affective economics, to be a tad oxymoronic. We tend to think of economics as a cold rational field quite removed from emotion. I wanted to suggest the various ways that people are trying to attach value to emotion in the new media economy. I was interested in several things: the talk about "lovemarks" or "emotional capital" which was shaping the strategies of brand managers and advertising executives; the degree to which research inside the industry was demonstrating in economic terms the value of fan commitments to programs; the work by Robert Kozinets and others about brand communities and the ways they parallel fan communities; and the ways that product placements sought to connect the emotions associate with entertainment onto products embedded within that story.

Some aspects of what I am calling affective economics are deeply embedded in current advertising practice, referred to by the various terms Bogost identifies ("lifestyle marketing," "associative advertising," "relationship marketing," etc.) while others are still emerging -- such as the focus on "favorite viewers" as opposed to demographic or ratings to measure the success of a program.

I am convinced that this shift represents the best means we have of getting media producers to reassess their relationship to their consumers and that seems to be key to the long term viability of participatory culture. In the book, I cite Grant McCracken's observations that companies will have a legal right for the foreseeable future to tightly control their intellectual property and shut down most forms of fan participation but they will have an economic interest in opening themselves up to greater participation from their consumers. One of the reasons for this is that they are discovering, perhaps some would say rediscovering, the value of committed consumers.

When I talk to executives at advertising companies or media companies, I get two key messages right now: one, they are terrified about losing control of their brands or products; they fear what the consumer can do to them through online communications. Second, they want very much to build a strong brand community that will help support their brands and products. And for the short term, this makes it possible to rewrite our contracts with the media company.

Part of what I wanted to stress in the book was Robert Kozinet's argument that brand communities can both promote and police the behavoir of media companies -- can help them reach new consumers, can hold them accountable for bad decisions. This happens because we are no longer talking about isolated consumers; we are talking about groups that pool knowledge, deliberate together, and take collective action. At one point, I refer to these new brand communities as collective bargaining units.

I was intrigued by Jenkins's willing adoption of lifestyle marketing practices, mostly since I have been such a vocal critic of this type of advertising, both here (1, 2) and, in considerably more detail, in my forthcoming book Persuasive Games: Videogames and Procedural Rhetoric. Essentially, my argument is that lifestyle marketing does not address consumers' actual lifestyles, but fashions lifestyles as constructs that marketers manipulate consumers to adopt.

This point of disagreement probably deserves a whole blog post in and of itself. To make short work of it, I think Bogost is right that lifestyle marketing can be an empty gesture, a desire to herd us into fixed demographic categories that may have little or nothing to do with how we actually live and think. I suspect, though, that this form of lifestyle marketing is apt to become less and less effective as we are able to get together with like-minded individuals and share insights on the web. Bloggers are pretty aggressive at unmasking and debunking lifestyle pitches that seem inauthentic or run counter to the established practices and beliefs of particular communities. Most of the brand communities I am describing emerge bottom up from the grassroots, though companies may step in to facilitate their activities more fully. These communities emerge because we have authentic investments in the goods that constitute our everyday life and because brands express meanings that we draw upon to express our identities.

The fact that brands serve a range of other functions for the companies that produce and market them doesn't take away from the fact that we also make use of those brands for our own expressive purposes. For example, having grown up in Atlanta as part of a certain generation, I feel a strong emotional bond to Coca Cola. Its international success as a company becomes an extension of my pride in my home town. This was especially powerful when I was a boy and Atlanta was first fighting to become a global city. It was astonishingly important to me that I knew that Coke was a product produced in Atlanta and consumed around the world. I still feel that aura around Coca Cola even though I have an allergic reaction to carbonation that means I don't actually drink Coke. In that sense, my emotional investment in the brand is totally divorced from the reality of the product and does not even translate directly into my role as a consumer. It is up to Coca Cola's advertising executives to figure out how to transform my warm feelings towards the company into purchasing decisions. And in my case, I am a hard sell because it makes me sick to drink the stuff. While I think advertising plays with powerful emotions, those emotions do not necessarily over-ride our rational judgements about how the actual product will operate in the context of our own lives.

Again, I am interested in what happens when the top-down efforts of companies to sell products meet bottom-up forces from consumers who are asserting their identity through their relationship to products. I avoid the classic cultural studies term, resistence, in describing this because it paints too simple a picture of what's going on. Sometimes, these interests are alligned, sometimes they are opposed. In most cases, some kind of negotiation has to occur to reconcile them. Most of them time they are "impure" in that they represent some complex blending of subcultural and commercial motives. The emergence of brand communities interest me because they are both an expansion of corporate reach and an expansion of consumer power.

I tried my best to honor Jenkins's request for readers to "bracket their anxieties about consumerism," but I never felt that he returned to the problem in earnest. Hopeful appeals to future potential are nice, but I expected more vision and leadership on this topic. It's possible that advertising just doesn't bother Jenkins very much; it is, after all, the primary fuel of popular culture.

I recognized that the American Idol chapter was going to be one of the most controversial in the book -- especially for academic readers. Let's face it: the academic world has sought to distance itself from the commercial sector for a long, long time. I think in doing so though we have lost the ability to frame meaningful critiques or engage in dialogue with some core forces within our society. We act as if there was something obscene about money or as if advertising was right next to child pornography on the ethical scale. As long as we start from this premise, we will not be able to meaningfully engage in the conversations that are shaping our culture. We will not be able to talk to people in the business world and have any chance of having them take our ideas seriously.

In other parts of the world (Canada, UK, Australia), media and cultural studies have been very actively involved in policy work, connecting on a regular basis with key government leaders, consulting in the formation of key policies that impact their society. In the United States, we have been largely locked out of those conversations. We don't have a seat at the table. Our government listens to social scientists about cultural matters but not those of us in the Humanities. In these other countries, though, it isn't as if the academics fully agree with the policymakers or totally support their agendas. But they have agreed to suspend disagreements on some levels in order to engage productively on others. In this country, our culture is shaped more by corporate decisions than government policies (though I would argue our desire to turn every conversation into a struggle against the entire economic system doesn't make us effective in either sector).

So, yes, it is probably true that I am less worried by the commercial aspects of our culture, including advertising, than Bogost is. I personally enjoy many products -- cultural and otherwise -- produced by American industry and do not think that commercialization per se corrupts the artistic process. It can but it doesn't have to. All art is produced in an economic context which shapes to some degree what gets produced. I would say the track record for popular entertainment under capitalism is pretty good.

Right now, I am choosing to engage in other kinds of conversations with industry, conversations designed to increase media company's responsiveness to their consumers. Perhaps it might be best to think of what I am calling for in the book is a consumer rights movement for consumers of popular culture -- a fan politics as it were.

In that regard, sweeping critiques of consumer capitalism seem less productive than more focused discussions of specific policies and practices. I think it can be productive to be critical of specific industry practices that may improve or diminish the quality of our lives. I think most consumers have made some kind of peace with the commercial impulses that surround them, have learned to read through them much of the time, have resigned themselves to accept them as a necessary evil if the result is getting access to entertainment or products they want. I see consumers increasingly savy about the economic interests that shape the culture they consume and more and more willing to make trade-offs which serve their interests.

I saw my book as addressed as much at the media industries as at consumers and was trying to provide a space where both sides could understand the other's perspectives a bit more clearly. Swatting your readers with a newspaper is hardly the best way to open up a dialogue. I fully expect the information provided in that chapter to be deployed in a range of different arguments about whether this new model of consumption is a good thing or a bad thing. I may even engage in some of those arguments from time to time. But what I was trying to do there was describe, as accurately as I could, how this new style of affective economics works by looking more closely at a specific advertiser, Coca Cola, and at a specific franchise, American Idol.

With luck, this book will push debates about consumerism to another level, allowing for more nuanced discussions of what is going on right now. Too often, critics of consumerism act as if nothing has changed in the ways brands operate since the 1950s. Bogost is a much more nuanced thinker on this subject: his critiques here of lifestyle marketing suggest a real engagement with contemporary industry discourse; he has also worked himself extensively in and around advertising so he has some front line perspective on this. I expect to learn a lot from his book. It's just apt to be a very different kind of book than the one I set out to write.

I do think I am offering both vision and leadership in trying to find the basis for reaproachment between academics and industry. I don't think the only way to show leadership is to go in with guns blazing. I As I suggest in the book's conclusion, the fight for the quality of our culture is one which needs to be fought on different levels.

In Part Two, I will take up Bogost's critique of my concept of transmedia storytelling and some of my arguments about fan culture. Since issues of commercialization run through his argument, they will resurface throughout this response.

Networked Publics Group Tackles Participatory Culture

The Networked Public group at USC's Annenberg Center recently posted a fascinating new essay on participatory culture, written by Adrienne Russell, Mimi Ito, Todd Richmond, and Marc Tuters. The group has been conducting conversations with leading thinkers about contemporary media and is now putting its collective heads together to jointly author a new book for the MIT Press. I was lucky enough to be included in the process, having an animated two hour conversation with them after they had read an advanced copy of Convergence Culture.

I was pleased to see that they had taken some of my insights to heart, expanding and enlarging on some of my book's arguments about participatory culture and linking it in productive ways with ideas from Yochai Benkler's The Wealth of Networks: How Social Production Transforms Markets and Freedom.

Convergence and Media Change

Here's what they have to say in the essay's conclusion:

"Convergence culture is not only a matter of industry and technology but also more importantly a matter of norms, common culture, and the artistry of everyday life. Professional commercial media brought us a slick common culture that has become a fact of life, the language of current events, shared cultural reference, and visual recognitions that lubricate our everyday interactions with one another. Commercial media, for better and for worse provide much of the source material for our modern language of communication. The current moment is perhaps less about overthrow of this established modality of common culture, but more a plea for recognition of a new layer of communication and cultural sharing. At best, this is about folk, amateur, niche and non-market communities of cultural production mobilizing, critiquing, remixing commercial media and functioning as a test bed for radically new cultural forms. At worst, this is about the fragmenting of common culture or the decay of shared standards of quality, professionalism, and accountability. The history of networked public culture has opened with a narrative of convergence and participatory culture; we lie at the crossroads of multiple unfolding trajectories."

The group describes our present moment as one where both grassroots and commercial interests are adjusting to some profound shifts in the relationship between media production and consumption brought about by the rise of networked media. The new media landscape, they argue drawing on Benkler, is characterized by a proliferation of different groups (some grassroots and amateur, some civic or public funded or educational, some commercial) which are producing and distributing content and by new kinds of social communities which are emerging to produce, evaluate, and discuss new forms of culture and new forms of knowledge. The era when commercial media dominated the marketplace of ideas is ending -- even if the mass media continues to exert a disproportionate claim on our collective attention. The commercial industry is reacting with great anxiety and often limited foresight, trying to shut down many of the opportunities which are emerging as the public exerts a greater control over the circulation and production of media. Yet, they are being forced to give ground again and again as fan communities are beginning to operate as collective bargaining units. Those interests which can not adjust to the changes become increasingly imperiled.

Transforming the Music Industry

At the heart, the essay outlines a series of compelling case studies of the interface between commercial and public culture -- including discussions of how amateur music is being reshaped by new technologies of production and distribution, how anime fans are partnering with Asian media interests to get their desired content into the market, how Madison Avenue is learning -- mostly by making mistakes -- ways to tap viral marketing, and how the journalistic establishment is struggling to adjust to the competition and critique offered by the blogosphere.

For my money, the discussion of amateur music production was perhaps the most interesting, if only because it is the area that I know the least about going in. The authors argue that "music has always been a domain of robust amateur production, making it particularly amenable to more bottom-up forms of production and distribution in the digital ecology, and ripe for the disintermediation of labels and licensors....As late as 2001 the prevailing wisdom described local/amateur music being considered by fans, scholars, and musicians alike as 'something to get beyond.' In other words, the end game for the artist was still 'getting signed' and following the traditional industry model, with the time-honored decision-making chain. However as the lines further blur, remix becomes embedded into the culture (even beyond music), and technological changes continue to occur, it would appear that perhaps "getting beyond" might no longer be the goal."

The Saga of the Legendary K.O.

Reading this passage, I was reminded of recent news about how the hip hop community in Houston was using web distribution of music to respond to the aftermath of Katrina. The Legendary K.O., a little known Houston based group, used their music to express what they were hearing from the refuges that were pouring into their city. Randle lives near the Astrodome and Nickerson works at the Houston Convention center. Both found themselves listening to refuges tell their stories: "Not till you see these people face to face and talk to them can you appreciate the level of hopelessness. The one common feeling was that they felt abandoned, on their own little island." They found their refrain while watching Kanye West accuse Bush of being indifferent to black Americans during a Red Cross Telethon being broadcast live on NBC. The juxtaposition of West's anger and comedian Mike Myer's shock encapsulated the very different ways Americans understood what happened.

The Legendary K.O. sampled West's hit song, "Golddigger," to provide the soundtrack for their passionate account of what it was like to be a black man trying to make do in the deserted streets of New Orleans. They distributed the song, "George Bush Doesn't Care About Black People" as a free download and it spread like wildfire. The song has been perhaps the most powerful demonstration to date of Chuck D's prediction that free downloads could turn hip hop into "the black man's CNN," offering an alternative perspective to mainstream news coverage and thus enabling communication between geographically dispersed corners of the Black America. Within a few weeks time, the song had in effect gone platinum, achieving more than a million downloads, largely on the back of promotion by bloggers. And soon, people around the world were appropriating and recontextualizing news footage to create their own music videos. The song may have started in Houston, framed around both local knowledge and national media representations, but where it was going to end up was anybody's guess. They have since used their reputations to produce more songs which speak to topical concerns, especially those facing the black communities of Houston and New Orleans.

The Legend of Grizzly Bear

I was also reminded of the story of Grizzly Bear, one of the young artists which my student, Vanessa Bertozzi interviewed for a project we were doing together. Grizzly Bear created music in his own bedroom, making imaginative use of found objects, and deploying low-cost but highly effective digital tools to record and manipulate the sound. He tapped local networks to get his music out into the world via mp3 files and into the hands of a record company executive. He ended up getting a contract without ever having performed in public and then faced the challenge of putting together a band to go on the road and perform in public.

I suspect we will be hearing many more stories about groups like The Legendary K.O. and performers like Grizzly Bear in the years to come -- more groups coming from nowhere and exerting some influence on our culture. As these two examples suggest, sometimes these artists are going to be making and distributing music -- and building up a loyal fan base -- almost entirely outside the commercial sphere and beyond the control of record labels. In other cases, they are going to find labels to be effective allies in getting their sounds before a larger public. It is the hybrid nature of this new communications landscape which is central to Convergence Culture and to the Networked Public group's essay.