YPP Network Description

The MacArthur Research Network on Youth and Participatory Politics (YPP) formed out of recognition that youth are critical to the future of democracy and that the digital age is introducing technological changes that are impacting how youth develop into informed, engaged, and effective actors.

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

Confessions of an Aca-Fan - September 11, 2013 - 1:59am
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.

Reservation Policy for Free Programs:
As most [ALOUD] at Central Library programs are free of charge, it is our policy to overbook. In the case of a FULL program your free reservation may not guarantee admission. We recommend arriving early.
Space permitting, unclaimed reservations will be released to standby patrons at 7 PM. 

Book signings
ALOUD is one of the many free programs the Library Foundation makes possible at the Los Angeles Public Library. Most ALOUD author programs are followed by book signings.  To help sustain this valuable cultural exchange, at least one copy of the author’s book must be purchased from the Library Store if you wish to participate in the post-program book signing. Proceeds support the Los Angeles Public Library.  Library Foundation members receive a 15% discount on all Library Store purchases.


From Page to Stage: Moby-Dick: Then and Now
Featuring Ricardo Pitts-Wiley and Mixed Magic Theatre
Visions and Voices Friday, October 11, 2013 : 7:00pm

University Park Campus
Annenberg Auditorium (ASC)

Reception to follow.

Admission is free. Reservations required. RSVP at the links below beginning Tuesday, September 17, at 9 a.m.

USC Students, Staff and Faculty: To RSVP,click here.
General Public: To RSVP, click here.

The fateful voyage of the Pequod and its revenge-obsessed Captain Ahab is reimagined in Moby Dick: Then and Now. Alba, a young woman in contemporary urban America, is hell-bent on avenging the gang-related death of her brother Pip in this adaptation of Herman Melville’s classic American novel. Moby Dick: Then and Now emerged through Ricardo Pitts-Wiley’s work with incarcerated youth at the Rhode Island Training School, a juvenile prison. Pitts-Wiley, an actor, director, playwright and composer with Mixed Magic Theatre, encouraged the youth to read and rewrite this challenging novel in relation to their own realities. The 19th-century whaling trade became the 21st-century drug trade, and the young writers’ creativity inspired the stage production, which remixed Melville’s language with hip hop. Pitts-Wiley’s approach is featured in the new book Reading in a Participatory Culture: Remixing Moby-Dick in the English Classroom, co-written by USC professor Henry Jenkins. This staged reading will feature student actors from USC and local high schools. Henry Jenkins will moderate a post-show discussion with Pitts-Wiley and the cast.

Organized by the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. Co-sponsored by the USC School of Dramatic Arts.


For further information on this event:

Categories: Blog

The Fact-Catcher in the Rye

Howard Gardner - September 10, 2013 - 9:51am

Check out Howard Gardner’s most recent contribution to the Cognoscenti blog. In this piece, Gardner critiques author David Shields’ tendency to blur the lines between fact and fiction, with an especial focus on the author’s two books: Reality Hunger and Salinger. 

Categories: Blog, Homepage

How to Apply to Be a Grad Student with the Center for Civic Media

MIT Center for Civic Media - September 9, 2013 - 10:44am

It's early September and a new crew of master's students are starting work at Center for Civic Media. If you're interested in becoming part of next year's team, this is a great time to start working on your application, and you likely have some questions about how one gets accepted to work at Center for Civic Media. This post tries to offer some answers.

Who gets accepted to work at Center for Civic Media?

We accept a small number of masters candidates for study every year, usually two to four people in total. Some apply through the MIT Media Lab, where they will be earning an S.M. degree in Media Arts and Sciences. Others apply through Comparative Media Studies/Writing, where they will earn an S.M. in Comparative Media Studies. We are not currently admitting doctoral candidates.

While the requirements for degrees through the Media Lab and through Comparative Media Studies are different, successful candidates for Center for Civic Media tend to have certain traits in common. They're interested in social change and involved with social movements, in their communities or focused on global issues. They write well and often have a background in journalism or citizen media. They have a deep understanding of information technology and often are talented programmers.

Work through the Media Lab is highly project-focused, so successful candidates for Center for Civic Media need to be able to carry out projects either through their own programming and technical skills or by overseeing teams of undergraduate software developers. We are far more likely to accept people with a track record of creating software than people who've not programmed or managed programmers before.

Work through Comparative Media Studies can also involve implementing new tools but focuses heavily on scholarly research. Demonstrated ability to carry out this research independently and at a high level is helpful for a strong candidacy.

What projects will I work on?

Both Media Lab and CMS students work on a combination of ongoing research projects and their own research ideas. In effect, students work twenty hours a week on Center for Civic Media research in exchange for a tuition waiver and a stipend. It's helpful to identify projects you could contribute to in our portfolio of existing research. It's at least as important to identify research ideas you want to explore. While we understand your research interest may (and, perhaps, should!) shift during your time at MIT, it's really helpful to see what questions you are passionate about exploring as an applicant.

Who will I work with?

You're likely to work with a number of faculty members, affiliates, research fellows and students. Most students end up working closely either with me or Sasha Costanza-Chock, two of the Center's principal investigators. But you're likely to work in teams and with different groups of people as you work on different projects.

Can I visit Center for Civic Media? Can I talk with faculty about my application?

Yes, and no. You're very welcome to visit us, either during our formal open house, during our Google Hangout sessions, or by joining one of our public lab meetings, held alternate Thursday afternoons or public lunches. All these events are publicized on our website. Unfortunately, we cannot schedule meetings for candidates to talk about Center for Civic Media and discuss your portfolio and application. We receive close to two hundred applications a year and cannot meet with everyone who requests a meeting. And since not everyone is able to visit the Center, we have chosen not to set up meetings with people visiting out of fairness to people who cannot visit.

Is there an interview process associated with the application?

Yes. Sasha Costanza-Chock and I read each application that comes in and determine shortlists of candidates. Existing students and staff read those shortlisted applications, and we select a small set of candidates who interview with staff and students over audio or videoconference.

What are the most important parts of my application?

We want to see evidence that you are thinking about the relationship between media, civics, and social change in a sophisticated and committed way - we want to see evidence of this in your essay and in your C.V. It's important to articulate a project that you want to work on or a research direction you want to explore. Make it clear why the Center for Civic Media is the right place to explore the questions that excite you. We get a surprising number of applications in which applicants tell us how excited they are to study at MIT or to be part of MIT's Media Lab - those applications aren't as successful as ones that help us understand how your research interests fit in with ours at the Center.

graduate programmaster's degreeCivic mediaeducation
Categories: Blog

Building Imaginary Worlds: An Interview with Mark J. P. Wolf (Part Four)

Confessions of an Aca-Fan - September 9, 2013 - 2:19am

You make an important observation about the nature of sequels here: “A trade-off between novelty and familiarity occurs: The world is no longer new to the audience, but the burden of exposition is lessened by what has already been revealed of the world.” So, one could argue that the creator of the sequel is freed to do different things than the creator of the original. If this is true, what are some examples of creators who have effectively exploited that freedom to do something interesting?

Contrary to the negative image many people have when it comes to sequels, some sequels are generally considered better than the original works they follow.  In my experience, anyway, people often say they like The Empire Strikes Back (1980) better than Star Wars (1977); The Lord of the Rings certainly builds interestingly on the world introduced in The Hobbit; and Riven (1997) is arguably better than Myst (1993).  In all three cases, the sequel expands the world a great deal, while carrying forth characters and situations established in the original.  Each also builds upon how the world works, extending the world logic from the original work (for example, the rules regarding the functioning of lightsabers, the One Ring, and linking books).

Authors may find it easier to develop an existing world than begin an entirely new one, and expansions can still introduce as much (or more) new world material as the original work.  Practically speaking, this can also have to do with economics; a longer book or a higher-budget movie is more of a financial risk to a publisher or studio, so original works that introduce a world may be more likely to be represented by shorter books and lower-budget movies, while sequels to a successful work will be given more investment (for example, Pitch Black (2000) had a budget of $23 million, while its sequel, The Chronicles of Riddick (2004) had a budget of over $100 million).  Whatever the case, world expansion is necessary for a sequel to continue to engage an audience, who wants to revisit the world they like, but at the same time, have new experiences in it.

The Star Trek film this summer was controversial precisely because of its ret-conning practices: it’s restaging and reimagining of the Wrath of Khan narrative seems to have been embraced by some new fans, but at the cost of much gnashing of teeth by veteran fans (myself among them). What does this example tell us about the challenges or opportunities in revising or revisiting familiar worlds within popular media?

 In the case of Star Trek, they wanted to have it both ways; a fresh start, while keeping continuity with what has come before.  Technically speaking, the 2009 film was not a reboot, due to the “alternate timeline” device (complete with “Spock Prime”, with a Nimoy cameo that may have been thrown in to suggest to fans that if Nimoy accepts this film enough to appear in it, then you ought to accept it, too), but most people still consider it a reboot.  Like you, I, too, found this recasting of Kirk, Spock, and McCoy annoying; why not move on to a new set of characters, as the TV shows did, and mostly successfully at that?  And the motive here is not the best, either.

Retconning, even when not taken to the extreme of a reboot, may be done for artistic or narrative reasons (as with Tolkien’s adjusting of The Hobbit so as to fit The Lord of the Rings better, or Lucas’s clean-up and added effects shots in the “Special Edition” re-releases), but when it’s done for purely commercial reasons, it may seem more suspect, since money, not art, is the motive.  Of course, the degree to which retcon occurs also makes a difference; cosmetic changes are more easily accepted than those which change the story or characters too directly or too much.It’s also usually easier to reboot a character-based franchise than a world-based franchise, because the background world is closer to the Primary world to begin with, and reboots are usually concerned with bringing things up-to-date more than anything else; changes in the Batman, Spider-man, and Superman franchises are a good example of this.

But in more world-centered franchises, like Star Trek and Star Wars, you don’t need to have the same characters present all the time (Star Trek shows remained on TV 1987 to 2005 without relying on Kirk, Spock, and McCoy); it’s the world, with all its designs, devices, locations, and logic, that keeps the audience engaged.  So one can only hope that Abrams doesn’t reboot Star Wars.


While as the book jacket informs us, you reference more than 1400 imaginary worlds across the book, certain worlds keep recurring, among them Oz, Middle-earth, and the worlds associated with Star Wars. What makes these worlds especially rich for your analysis?

Certain worlds are larger and better developed, so when it comes to discussions of infrastructures, internarrative theory, sequence elements, and so forth, there’s just more to work with and examine in larger worlds.  Their infrastructures have thousands of pieces, and some are still growing.  The worlds of Oz, Middle-earth, and Star Wars are also very influential ones, and ones that helped forge the imaginary world tradition.  And, when using them for examples, they are also worlds that the readers of the book will likely already be familiar with, and which require less explanation.  But there are so many interesting ones that are less known, and deserve more attention (like Defontenay’s Star and Dewdney’s Planiverse), and I try to highlight some of these in the book as well.

You revisit the familiar debate between interactivity and storytelling (or narratology and ludology as it is sometimes framed in game studies), which seems to be unresolvable. But, you suggest that there are ways to reconcile competing claims for game play and world building/exploring. Can you elaborate a bit? How might this focus on immersion offer us a way of reframing these core issues in Game Studies (which is a field where you have made many contributions already)?

Video games and the experiencing of imaginary worlds both involve such activities as world exploration and the learning of a set of intrinsic rules and how things work, and in many cases, piecing together a backstory and seeing how actions relate to consequences.  So interactivity is perhaps more compatible with the experiencing of a world than it is with the telling of a story.  It’s the difference between causality and a causal chain of events.  You can have causality built into a world, so that one kind of action results in a particular result, but due to choices made or chance, you don’t always get the same sequence of events.  A fixed causal chain of events, like that found in a novel, stays the same and doesn’t change.  But a world can accommodate either.

The interactivity vs. storytelling debate is really a question of the author saying either “You choose” (interaction) or “I choose” (storytelling) regarding the events experienced; it can be all of one or all of the other, or some of each to varying degrees; and even when the author says “You choose”, you are still choosing from a set of options chosen by the author.  So it’s not just a question of how many choices you make, but how many options there are per choice.  Immersion, however, is a different issue, I think, which does not always rely on choice (such as immersive novels), unless you want to count “Continue reading” and “Stop reading” as two options you are constantly asked to choose between.  And it isn’t just immersion, but what happens after it as well (that is, absorption, saturation, and overflow, which are discussed in detail in chapter one).  By focusing on worlds and the experience of them, video games studies will be better able to make comparisons between game experiences, and describe them in a more world-based fashion.


Your term, “deinteractivation” may be somewhat awkward, but it also provides the best explanation I’ve seen for why it has been so difficult to translate games into other kinds of media experiences — for example, films or comics. Defiance represents an interesting recent experiment. To what degree do you think it has been successful at creating a world that bridges between games and television?


Although long, I believe “deinteractivation” is a morphologically-sound coinage, related as it is to words like “deactivation” and “interact”, and no more clumsy than the words one finds in polysynthetic languages like Ainu, Chukchi, or Yupik. Hopefully its etymology is clear enough to indicate that it means the removal of interactivity, something that occurs when a world or narrative makes a transmedial move from an interactive medium to a noninteractive medium.  (As a form of adaptation, it is something we will see more of as video games make transmedial moves into other media.)

In the case of Defiance, where both the TV show and the game were developed together, I would say that the world appears to have been designed with both media in mind already, rather than beginning as a game that was later adapted into a TV series.  But it will be interesting to see which survives longer, the game or the show, and how they influence each other.

Also, the fact that the game is an MMORPG means that it is more interactive than a stand-alone game, but also more vulnerable to the ravages of time; while a stand-alone game, just like a TV show, could be experienced in its entirety at some future date, an MMORPG can really only be experienced as it was during the time it is being run; once it ends, it’s over, and it cannot be re-experienced.  It may be too soon to know whether it successfully bridges the two medium, or creates a solid fan community around the show/game experience (will other media venues follow?)

Perhaps we can get some idea from the text on the Defiance website: “Players of the Defiance game will have the chance to cross over into the show in a new and bigger way: By seeing their avatar recreated as a character in the second season!” First, this conflates players and their avatars, and second, the avatar will be “recreated” as a character; so it appears all interactivity has been lost during these two removes.  One can imaging other ways an MMORPG and a TV show could be linked; for example, a TV show could be made from the events of the MMORPG as they occur, or perhaps the storyline of the TV show could be adjusted based on the events of the MMORPG (the game events could provide the ever-changing background for the TV characters’ lives; if a revolution is stirred up in the MMORPG, it occurs in the background of the TV show, affecting the characters, and so on).  If nothing else though, and despite the outcome, Defiance is an interesting experiment, its name perhaps referring to its attitude toward standard television fare.

Mark J. P. Wolf is a Professor in the Communication Department at Concordia University Wisconsin.  He has a B. A. (1990) in Film Production and an M. A. (1992) and Ph. D. (1995) in Critical Studies from the School of Cinema/Television (now renamed the School of Cinematic Arts) at the University of Southern California.  His books include Abstracting Reality: Art, Communication, and Cognition in the Digital Age (2000), The Medium of the Video Game (2001), Virtual Morality: Morals, Ethics, and New Media (2003), The Video Game Theory Reader (2003), The World of the D’ni: Myst and Riven (2006), The Video Game Explosion: A History from PONG to PlayStation and Beyond (2007), The Video Game Theory Reader 2 (2008), Before the Crash: An Anthology of Early Video Game History (2012), the two-volume Encyclopedia of Video Games: The Culture, Technology, and Art of Gaming (2012), Building Imaginary Worlds: The Theory and History of Subcreation (2012), The Routledge Companion to Video Game Studies (forthcoming), Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood (forthcoming), Video Games Around the World (forthcoming), and LEGO Studies: Examining the Building Blocks of a Transmedial Phenomenon (forthcoming) and two novels for which he has begun looking for an agent and publisher.  He is also founder and co-editor of the Landmark Video Game book series from University of Michigan Press.  He has been invited to speak in North America, Europe, Asia, and Second Life, and is on the advisory boards of Videotopia and the International Journal of Gaming and Computer-Mediated Simulations, and on several editorial boards including those of Games and Culture, The Journal of E-media Studies, and Mechademia: An Annual Forum for Anime, Manga and The Fan Arts.  He lives in Wisconsin with his wife Diane and his sons Michael, Christian, and Francis.  [mark.wolf@cuw.edu]

Categories: Blog

Reflecting on Your Life

Howard Gardner - September 6, 2013 - 8:01am

Howard Gardner was recently featured in the Harvard Gazette article, “For big questions, a bigger forum.” Check out the article today to learn more about the Reflecting on Your Life initiative and it’s upcoming expansion. 

Categories: Blog

Building Imaginary Worlds: An Interview with Mark J. P. Wolf (Part Three)

Confessions of an Aca-Fan - September 6, 2013 - 1:38am

As you note, audiences often police the continuity of their favorite franchises, holding the creators accountable to seemingly impossible standards of consistency and coherence. What might your book tell us about the things that motivate this high level of fan investment in continuity?

Tolkien’s concept of “Secondary Belief” sums it up best.  It’s not so much a “suspension of disbelief”, as Coleridge supposed, but rather belief in the secondary world we are experiencing, that makes it compelling.  When one imagines the world, it needs a certain degree of consistency and coherence to produce secondary belief, and this is certainly not an impossible standard to achieve.  Once it is achieved, however, fans will attempt, and often work quite hard at, explaining away any consistencies that do occur; but of course these will be smaller ones that do not destroy secondary belief.

So how much consistency and coherence is enough?  And, of course, the amount of world detail is important as well; that’s why I argue that completeness (or, really, the illusion of completeness) is also necessary.  You can make a tiny world with very little invention or detail, and it will be consistent and coherent, but there won’t be enough there to evoke a sense of travelling to another place.  And the quality of the details matters as well; you can have huge amounts of detail, but still have an uninteresting world which no one will care about.

So if fans are making demands on a world and policing its continuity, it is a good sign, for it shows that they care about it enough to complain; world-makers should accept that as a compliment.  And world-makers should try to be clear as to what is canonical, and also try to be as consistent as possible; while this may hamper the growth of a world, I think it should be seen as a challenge to be met, and which can be met.  There are always ways of expanding a world that do not disrupt its consistency.

 You trace the origins of many of today’s fictional worlds back to the traveler’s tales of the ancient and medieval worlds. What might we learn about contemporary fantasy and science fiction stories if we were to know more — as you clearly do — about those earlier traditions? What changes when we move from a world where there are unknown spaces within the real physical world to one where we have to map radical difference elsewhere — in space, underneath the sea, at the center of the Earth? Are we still dealing with the consequences of that shift?


First, so many things have been done earlier than we realize.  Charles Ischir Defontenay’s novel Star (Psi Cassiopeia): The Marvelous History of One of the Worlds of Outer Space (1854), for example, is certainly ahead of its time in the world-building it does, with its alien cultures, world details, and story arc.  Second, it’s important to know your audience.  The Age of Exploration encouraged worlds to find new locations, and they did, but one can still find more traditional island worlds (like Isla Nublar in Jurassic Park (1990)).

The main difference is that today, audiences are geographically more savvy, and less likely to accept information that goes against what they already know.  A fictional island in the Pacific Ocean still works, since no one knows them all (or even how many there are; according to Wikipedia, there are between 20,000 and 30,000 of them).  But fictional U.S. states are much harder to believe in (at least for an American audience), because most people know them all.

Today, this extends even beyond the earth; most people know the planets of the solar system, making new planets in our solar system more difficult to propose, and conditions on these planets are well-known enough that earth-like civilizations on Jupiter or Pluto, for example, will be thought unrealistic.  Likewise, future settings set too close to our own soon become just alternate realities (for example, the worlds of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) or Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)).  General audiences have more scientific and cultural knowledge as well, so means of traveling to worlds, and the workings of the worlds as well, are under greater scrutiny.

Just compare the original appearances of the Star Trek galaxy to its later additions, and you can see changes in what is considered acceptable.  So the level of the general knowledge of the audience (and not merely geographical knowledge) have propelled world-makers to a higher degree of sophistication, detail, and consistency, while the greater (and increasing) number of secondary worlds has also established traditions and conventions which also shape expectations.


In my own work on transmedia storytelling, I keep coming back to the idea that most transmedial extensions are designed to serve one of three tasks: explore the world, expand the timeline, or flesh out secondary characters. As I read your discussion of different ways of structuring our encounters with worlds, you suggest a range of different devices — including maps, timelines, and genealogies — but they seem to me to fall back on the same basic functions. Would you agree?

Those three things you mention coincide nicely with the three basic infrastructures that I discuss in chapter three; that is, maps, timelines, and genealogies, which correspond the three basic things you need to have a world (space, time, and characters).  Along with these three, other infrastructures (nature, culture, language, mythology, philosophy, and of course, narrative) also have the basic function of organizing world information into a coherent form, by providing  contexts for, and connections between, pieces of world data.  And, these are the structures that all new world information is attached to, and that determine what new material can be added.  So, in that sense, they have a similar function.  Ancillary works can extend a single infrastructure without adding narrative content; a dictionary for an invented language, for example.  This would be an example of a transmedial extension of a world that does not deal with maps, timelines, or characters (although it may provide etymologies for place-names and character-names), but it would still serve the function of organizing world data into a structure.

Mark J. P. Wolf is a Professor in the Communication Department at Concordia University Wisconsin.  He has a B. A. (1990) in Film Production and an M. A. (1992) and Ph. D. (1995) in Critical Studies from the School of Cinema/Television (now renamed the School of Cinematic Arts) at the University of Southern California.  His books include Abstracting Reality: Art, Communication, and Cognition in the Digital Age (2000), The Medium of the Video Game (2001), Virtual Morality: Morals, Ethics, and New Media (2003), The Video Game Theory Reader (2003), The World of the D’ni: Myst and Riven (2006), The Video Game Explosion: A History from PONG to PlayStation and Beyond (2007), The Video Game Theory Reader 2 (2008), Before the Crash: An Anthology of Early Video Game History (2012), the two-volume Encyclopedia of Video Games: The Culture, Technology, and Art of Gaming (2012), Building Imaginary Worlds: The Theory and History of Subcreation (2012), The Routledge Companion to Video Game Studies (forthcoming), Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood (forthcoming), Video Games Around the World (forthcoming), and LEGO Studies: Examining the Building Blocks of a Transmedial Phenomenon (forthcoming) and two novels for which he has begun looking for an agent and publisher.  He is also founder and co-editor of the Landmark Video Game book series from University of Michigan Press.  He has been invited to speak in North America, Europe, Asia, and Second Life, and is on the advisory boards of Videotopia and the International Journal of Gaming and Computer-Mediated Simulations, and on several editorial boards including those of Games and Culture, The Journal of E-media Studies, and Mechademia: An Annual Forum for Anime, Manga and The Fan Arts.  He lives in Wisconsin with his wife Diane and his sons Michael, Christian, and Francis.  [mark.wolf@cuw.edu]


Categories: Blog

Youth of Color Support Comprehensive Immigration Reform at Higher Rates than White Youth

Black Youth Project / Research - September 5, 2013 - 7:27am

According to the Black Youth Project’s latest memo, Youth of color support a comprehensive approach to immigration reform at higher rates than white youth, who are more supportive of punitive measures and increased enforcement of existing law.

Because major congressional proposals on immigration reform, including the DREAM Act and the Kids Act, focus on young people, our analysis examined public opinion on immigration among youth between the ages of 18 and 29.

In contrast to their white peers, Black youth expressed greater support for immigration proposals focused on a creating a path to citizenship and extending citizenship to undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as children who earn a four-year college degree or serve in the U.S. military.

Black youth also support extending government services, including welfare, Medicaid, and food stamps, to undocumented immigrants before becoming citizens at much higher rates than white youth.

However, the report also indicates that attitudes toward immigrants may be a barrier to Black-Brown coalitions. Nearly sixty percent of both Black and white youth believe that immigrants take away jobs, health care, and housing from people born in the U.S. In addition, more than sixty percent of Black youth report that immigrants are treated better than most Black people born in this country, which represents an increase from 2009.

This latest report is the 12th in a series of memos entitled “Black and Latino Youth: The Future of American Politics” released by the Black Youth Project.


Categories: Blog, Homepage

Building Imaginary Worlds: An Interview With Mark J. P. Wolf (Part Two)

Confessions of an Aca-Fan - September 4, 2013 - 2:05am

There is a tendency for critics to dismiss sequels and prequels as being driven almost entirely by commercial motives. Yet, you show here that such structures have a much longer history. What does this history tell us about other motives that might drive such devices?

Sequels and prequels (and other kinds of sequence elements) are seen as commercially attractive in the first place only because there are other motives for wanting them to begin with; if not, then why would they be thought of as having commercial potential? I think the main reason for wanting them is the idea of returning for more visits to a world that you like, whether you are the audience or the author. That’s really the only reason there is; if you don’t like the world enough to want to go back, there’s no reason to make another work which is set there. One can experience the same work multiple times (as happens with works like Star Wars (1977) or The Lord of the Rings (1954-1955)), which may be rich enough in detail to require multiple visits in order to notice everything, but ultimately audiences will want new experiences within the same world.

Authors who world-build will often create a world to house the original story set there, but if they like world-building, they may go beyond the needs of the story, generating more and more of the world, eventually developing additional narratives set in the world, usually ones connected in some way to the original narrative. The same thing can happen with popular characters that people want to hear more about; a rather early sequel, the second part of Cervante’s Don Quixote (part one, 1605; part two, 1615), was written in response to the audience’s desire to read more of Quixote’s adventures, and particularly because a spurious sequel had appeared after the first volume was published (the spurious sequel is even mentioned within the second volume of Don Quixote, and is condemned by the characters as noncanonical).

So I think commercial potential can only exist if other motives already exist; although one could try to make a sequel to a failed work set in an unpopular world, such a work is also likely to be a commercial failure (even if it is better than the original, its success could actually be hurt by its association with the original, if the original is disliked enough).

You note throughout that world-building (and world-exploring on the part of the audience) can be an activity which is meaningful quite apart from its role in a particular story. There may well be films — Avatar come to mind — which are widely criticized for their stories but widely praised for their world-building, and there are certainly directors — Tim Burton for example — who consistently seem more interested in exploring worlds than in telling coherent stories. Why, then, do we tend to devalue world-building in favor of story-telling when we evaluate so many media and literary texts?

 In works set in the Primary world (which are arguably the dominant kind), world-building mainly exists to serve storytelling, not the other way around. Thus, world-building is seen as a background activity, something done not for its own sake, and something done only to the extent necessary for a story to be told. As such, most critics’ methods of analysis still center around story (and such things as character, dialogue, and events) as the way meaning is conveyed, and many are intolerant of anything that departs too far from the “realism” of the Primary world (Tolkien notes this when he points out how calling something “escapist” is considered by many as an insult, whereas he says this is confusing the “escape of the prisoner” with the “flight of the deserter”; but this is another issue altogether).

But, of course, character, dialogue, and events are not the only ways meaning is conveyed; only the most obvious ways.

A world’s default assumptions, which differ from the Primary world, can suggest new ways that something can be considered, and perhaps make an audience more aware of their own assumptions they normally take for granted. Just like encountering other cultures can help you become more aware of your own culture, and make you realize that there are other ways of doing things or other ways to live, imaginary worlds can comment on the Primary world through their differences, they can embody other ideas and philosophies, and convey meaning in a variety of ways beyond the traditional ways found in stories set in the Primary world.

But these effects are the most powerful when the worlds in question have a high degree of completeness and consistency, in order to be believable; when this is lacking, the world may be risk being rejected as too outlandish and merely silly. And enough worlds are that way, that critics may regard even good ones suspiciously. The popularity of The Lord of the Rings is still not understood by some literature faculty, and likewise, some critics of the Star Wars prequel trilogy wonder why the films were so popular.

Stories and Worlds are evaluated by different sets of criteria, and one cannot simply apply one to the other. Sometimes a story is only there to serve the purpose of providing a framework with which to experience a world, as is the case, I would argue in a movie like Titanic or a book like The Planiverse (1984). While we generally do not fault good stories which don’t involve much world-building (since one has the Primary world to fall back upon, when the author does not provide invention), worlds, even elaborate ones, are often faulted if they do not contain good stories.

Of course, a world is always more enjoyable if the stories set in it are good ones, but some stories are clearly vehicles to convey a vicarious experience of a world and nothing more; once this is realized, one can set aside narrative expectation and focus on the world for what it is. General audiences seem to be able to do this rather well, especially in cinema, where the experience of visiting a world is made vivid through concrete imagery and sound, or in literary genres like fantasy and science fiction. Now that worlds and world-building are more prominent in culture, and particularly in popular culture, and with the rise of media like video games in which the experiencing of a world can be done with little or no narrative, critical criteria may begin to change to recognize the merits of well-built worlds.

Given what we’ve said above, what might be the criteria by which we would evaluate a text based on its world-building capacity?

 Well, as I discuss in chapter three, one way to examine the depth to which a world has been built is to examine the degree to which its infrastructures (such as maps, timelines, genealogies, nature, cultures, languages, mythologies, and philosophies) have been developed, and the interconnections between these infrastructures (which involves examining their degree of invention, completeness, and consistency). The more developed a world is, with these criteria in mind, the more we have something which appears viable, and the more we can extrapolate a world’s logic to fill in missing details, making the world seem more complete than it actually is (a well-designed world makes it so easy to fill in missing details that we may do so without even consciously noticing that we are doing so).

And it is not simply a question of the quantity of details, but their quality as well; their aesthetics must be appealing, in one way or another (this does not always mean something is beautiful) and the ideas embodied within a world must be engaging as well. Good stories will still always help the enjoyment of a world, since vicarious experience relies on character identification to some degree; one can marvel at a work of world-building but not feel one is within a world; and one could argue that such vicarious experience need not be a criterion of greatness.

But most audiences will still want such experiences. When one looks at the worlds that have endured over the years, or have found great popularity, one will find many of these elements are usually present; although some excellent and well-built worlds, like those of Defontenay’s Star (1854) or Wright’s Islandia (1942) remain obscure despite their greatness, but will perhaps hopefully gain the respect they deserve, now that world-building is becoming more valued.

 As I am writing these questions, I just saw Pacific Rim. Here, the filmmaker sets himself a challenge in creating a totally new franchise in introducing the viewer into a fictional world and establishing its basic contours. In this case, of course, he is not creating in a vacuum, since he relies heavily on audience familiarity with conventions from Japanese popular media — the Mecha and giant monster genres. Yet, it can still be challenging to make sense of what we are seeing on screen given the range of unfamiliar objects and creatures going at it at once. What might Pacific Rim teach us about the challenges of introducing new worlds to audiences?

While Pacific Rim does feature some futuristic cities and a single glimpse of a new planet (near the very end of the film), it is still mainly set in the Primary world (our world) and not all that far into the future, so the world-building that occurs is mainly on a more local level (like the Shatterdomes).  But as you say, there’s much in the way of new technologies and creatures appearing on-screen, combined with a rapid pace.  And I also found it interesting that the film was neither based on an existing franchise or constructed as a star vehicle; it seems to have been made and marketed strictly on its own merits (although special effects were highlighted as an audience draw).  Also, as you mention, most of what we need to learn to follow the story relies on established science fiction conventions, along with the film’s two new terms naming its combatants (Kaijus and Jaegers) literally defined up front.

So while I liked the fact that the film starts a new franchise, it seems as though doing so made the filmmakers (most likely, the producers) cautious to do anything too far removed from established conventions. As a result, the film has relatively little innovation and there seems to be little reason to see it a second time; everything seems clearly explained, leaving few, if any, unsolved enigmas.

While concentrating on making the story clear is fine, there could have been more extensions of the world beyond what was required to tell the story; there is not a lot of background detail and action that would warrant additional screenings, and very little world outside the activities surrounding the Kaijus and Jaegers themselves.  As the Star Wars films have shown, though developing and creating such additional background world material may raise the cost of a film, the richness that it adds to a world will make audiences want to return again, inviting speculation and perhaps even generating enigmas that need not be solved for the narrative to be complete.  The world of Pacific Rim, on the other hand, does not seem to extend far beyond the needs of the narrative.


Mark J. P. Wolf is a Professor in the Communication Department at Concordia University Wisconsin.  He has a B. A. (1990) in Film Production and an M. A. (1992) and Ph. D. (1995) in Critical Studies from the School of Cinema/Television (now renamed the School of Cinematic Arts) at the University of Southern California.  His books include Abstracting Reality: Art, Communication, and Cognition in the Digital Age (2000), The Medium of the Video Game (2001), Virtual Morality: Morals, Ethics, and New Media (2003), The Video Game Theory Reader (2003), The World of the D’ni: Myst and Riven (2006), The Video Game Explosion: A History from PONG to PlayStation and Beyond (2007), The Video Game Theory Reader 2 (2008), Before the Crash: An Anthology of Early Video Game History (2012), the two-volume Encyclopedia of Video Games: The Culture, Technology, and Art of Gaming (2012), Building Imaginary Worlds: The Theory and History of Subcreation (2012), The Routledge Companion to Video Game Studies (forthcoming), Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood (forthcoming), Video Games Around the World (forthcoming), and LEGO Studies: Examining the Building Blocks of a Transmedial Phenomenon (forthcoming) and two novels for which he has begun looking for an agent and publisher.  He is also founder and co-editor of the Landmark Video Game book series from University of Michigan Press.  He has been invited to speak in North America, Europe, Asia, and Second Life, and is on the advisory boards of Videotopia and the International Journal of Gaming and Computer-Mediated Simulations, and on several editorial boards including those of Games and Culture, The Journal of E-media Studies, and Mechademia: An Annual Forum for Anime, Manga and The Fan Arts.  He lives in Wisconsin with his wife Diane and his sons Michael, Christian, and Francis.  [mark.wolf@cuw.edu]

Categories: Blog

Is Spike Lee Doing The Right Thing by crowdfunding?

MIT Center for Civic Media - September 2, 2013 - 8:30pm

Spike Lee joins Zach Braff and Rob Ford’s Veronica Mars on the list of celebrities to turn to Kickstarter to fund a project. It now seems that no star is too big — or too cool — to crowdfund. But what does the arrival of big names mean for the future of crowdfunding?

With big names, come big backers: Lee raised $1.4 million, a fifth of which came from 29 backers who each pledged $10,000. One of them was director Steven Soderbergh. Lee’s success at the top end of the funding spectrum is relatively unusual, too: the Braff and Ford campaigns each managed only one backer at that level.

For celebrities to be participants in the crowdfunding market as both funders and fundraisers demonstrates its maturity as a funding model. But the entrance of bigger names hasn’t gone without criticism. James Franco said the purpose of crowdfunding should be to “give a chance to talented people that deserve it but maybe wouldn’t have the opportunity to otherwise.” Franco himself raised $500,000 on IndieGoGo to fund film adaptations of his book Palo Alto by up-and-coming directors, a campaign he said was developing new talent in the industry rather than supporting his own career. Braff defended his decision to crowdfund in a lengthy video. So is the entrance of bigger names into the market a betrayal of crowdfunding’s roots?

For some, crowdfunding was a way to fund the unfundable: To open up access to finance to things that conventional investment sources wouldn’t touch, or weren’t managing well. Crowdfunding sites attained much their early popularity by channeling the struggling artist paradigm, and for some including Franco, that’s now in question. In the early days of crowdfunding, the model supported a clear and compelling message from musicians like Marillion: help us fund our activities and liberate us from the failing A&R model of most record labels.

This ‘funder of last resort’ condition clearly doesn’t apply to celebrated actors and directors. Many funders don’t seem to mind. While some crowdfunders see themselves as patrons or donors, for others, backing a campaign is a pretty conventional consumer transaction: the majority of pledges in campaigns tend to cluster around the purchase price of the item, and the reward for pledging at that level is usually the item itself. Operating this way, a campaign is merely a large-scale pre-sale. So if millions of people want to see a new Spike Lee film, what’s wrong with those people pre-paying for tickets? Despite Lee’s high-level backers, $50 was by far the most popular pledge level for the campaign, close to the typical cost of a movie night with a friend.

If crowdfunding is becoming largely a pre-sale exercise in some cases, is a norm of pre-paying in this way a bad precedent? Possibly. An audience member at Digital Preservation 2013 last month remarked to me that crowdfunders are being asked to take a greater leap of faith than ordinary consumers because they are buying into the unknown. True, the ordinary consumer takes a risk in buying a cinema ticket — a bet on the quality of the product based on a trailer (probably not much slicker than the best crowdfunding videos) and the opinions of reviewers who are subject to very little public accountability.

But the crowdfunder consents to a much bigger transfer of risk in two ways: firstly, there can be a time lag of several months before a funder gets to see the outcome of their donation. Secondly, the consumer agrees to assume, in the aggregate, the up-front financial risk of the project. This risk transfer is intrinsically beneficial to the project (crowdfunding has lower borrowing costs than conventional finance) but it’s also a powerful expression of trust and care. How an individual audience member will feel about being asked to allow a famous artist to deleverage at his expense is difficult to anticipate. In some cases, it’s a welcome arrangement; in other cases, it’s brash at best. Either way, the bigger ongoing question is whether audiences will become fatigued by being asked to make that level of commitment to successive projects.

As well as consuming audiences’ desire to give and commit, the entrance of larger players also has an impact on the attention economy. The entrance of campaigns with bigger resources inevitably makes it harder to get your crowdfunding campaign noticed. Projects with smaller campaign goals are inevitably less eye-catching than those with $1M+ price tags, making it harder for local projects to gain national attention. The halcyon days of crowdfunding — when small campaigns could attract attention because the method itself was novel, and skepticism around fulfillment was much lower — are over. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing, if it focuses attention on the highest quality ideas and projects. However, if running a crowdfunding campaign requires an escalating investment of time (and therefore money), the claim that it democratizes access to capital deteriorates.

Braff, Lee, Ford and Franco are demonstrating the potential of crowdfunding to build big ambitions on many small pieces. Let’s hope their campaigns are an inspiration to the thousands of smaller, underserved ambitions we haven’t yet heard of.

crowdfundingspike leemediasocial networks
Categories: Blog

Charities in Seattle and Beyond

MIT Center for Civic Media - September 2, 2013 - 4:44pm

I'm just back from an amazing summer in Seattle at Microsoft Fuse Labs. As I unpack back at MIT, I'm enjoying great memories and stories of neighbourhoods and organisations that are doing fantastic work in Seattle. 

FareStart Guest Chef Night, 2011, by Caffe Vita on Flickr

Before I left, I asked friends for suggestions of Seattle charities. Here are some of the organisations in Seattle and elsewhere that I chose to support, followed by the list of other awesome organisations I learned about this summer. Have I missed any? Add your suggestions in the comments.

FareStart  is an amazing culinary job training and placement program for homeless and disadvantaged individuals in Seattle, similar to Jamie Oliver's Fifteen. Unlike Oliver's fine dining restaurant, FareStart has served millions of meals to disadvantaged people in Seattle. I love how good FareStart is at building partnerships for success across the food services industry and throughout the city. I only regret that I didn't make it to their weekly Thursday graduation dinner.

Geeks Without Bounds, based in Seattle, is an accellerator for humanitarian projects. They offer a six month mentorship program to take good intentions into an actual deployed project. The summer 2013 teams included a low power light-based mesh network, a Baltimore project to deliver STD results privately over the phone, a Red Cross disaster content management system, and a technology for automatic voice form processing for disaster organisations.

Black Girls Code supports young women in 7-17 years old to become innovators in Science, Tech, Engineering, and Maths. They run learning workshops and summer camps, including projects with the Latino Startup Alliance. Recently, they have started bilingual workshops, which are AWESOME.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation is at the forefront of protecting digital civil liberties. I donate through the Humble Bundle and get videogames at the same time.

The Ministry of Stories is a creative writing and mentoring centre in London that supports young people ages 8-18 to tell stories and express themselves. I was their first Chief Technical Advisor and am delighted to see the organisation continue to thrive.

This year is the 30th anniversary of the Free Software Foundation. GNU/Linux and Free Software were critical resources in my teenage development, and I am glad to support the FSF. I'm still deciding if I want to go to the anniversary hackathon.

Other organisations I learned about this summer:

  • Jigsaw Renaissance is a non-profit maker-space in central Seattle
  • Seattle Attic is a feminist hackerspace in Pioneer Square. I spent a fun afternoon there helping document their CRM software. 
  • Mary's Place Seattle helps homeless women and their kids in the Puget Sound region
  • Youth Digital Media is a YMCA program that funds tech literacy in Seattle. They support the Puget Sound Off, a youth media activism project
  • Food Lifeline is one of the umbrella food banks in Seattle, and friends who've volunteered there say it's very good
  • Union Gospel Mission is one of the major city-centre programs to help feed and house homeless people in Seattle
  • Bread of Life Mission is another major homelessness charity in Seattle
  • The Compass Housing Alliance helps people find short term shelter and permanent housing. They also work towards affordable housing in the city
  • The Kindling's Muse facilitates a broad community of Christian creatives in Seattle. It's affiliated with the writer's group I spent time with this summer
  • The Sacred Music Alliance promotes excellent in Christian sacred music composition

Thanks everyone for your great suggestions! And thanks Microsoft for paying interns enough that I was able to allocate funds to worthwhile charities. Have I missed any? Add your suggestions of great Seattle charities in the comments.

Categories: Blog

Building Imaginary Worlds: An Interview with Mark J. P. Wolf (Part One)

Confessions of an Aca-Fan - September 2, 2013 - 12:14am

This is the first of a series of interviews I am planning to run on this blog throughout the fall with authors, critics, and designers who are exploring the concept of world building through their work.


The concept of world-building (or world-sharing, as Derek Johnson recently described it) has a long and varied history with roots in the popular discourse of science fiction and fantasy writers and in analytic and aesthetic philosophy. Increasingly, the concept of world building has become foundational to discussions of transmedia storytelling. As one long time screen writer told me some years ago, when he started, he pitched a story because you needed to have a great story to make a great film; then, he pitched a character because a compelling character can extend across a series of sequels; and now, he pitches a world, since a world can support multiple stories involving multiple characters across multiple media platforms. Yet, even without the kind of radical intertextuality represented by transmedia practices, world-building is central to a great deal of genre fiction writing. Indeed, some have complained that science fiction and fantasy often lacks compelling (or at least rounded) characters or classically constructed plots because it is more interested in building and exploring worlds than dealing with individuals.


For an example of how the concept of a world gets used in conversations around contemporary media franchises, check out  Travis Beacham’s introduction to the graphic novel prequel to Pacific Rim:

“The story is in the world; not the other way around. That is to say, a world is big and hopelessly uncontrollable. It spills messily outside the edges of any one story. A world has books on its shelves and articles in its newspapers. It has ephemera and lore. It has slang and jargon. It has footnotes and obscure references to take for granted. It has a deep past and a far side. It has roads that fork away from the plot to some only hinted-at place. Just as ‘real world’ stories set themselves on this Earth, with all her richness and complexity, the challenge of genres like science fiction and fantasy is to not only spin a good tale, but to invent for that tale an imagined backdrop that seems to stretch clear into the horizon.”

One of my favorite descriptions of the concept of the world comes from Dudley Andrew’s book, Concepts in Film Theory:

“Worlds are comprehensive systems which comprise all elements that fit together within the same horizon, including elements that are before our eyes in the foreground of experience, and those which sit vaguely on the horizon forming a background. These elements consist of objects, feelings, associations, and ideas in a grand mix so rich that only the term ‘world’ seems large enough to encompass it….We step into a Dickens novel and quickly learn the type of elements that belong there. The plot may surprise us with its happenings, but every happening must seem possible in that world because all the actions, characters, thoughts and feelings come from the same overall source. That source, the world of Dickens, is obviously larger than the particular rendition of it which we call Oliver Twist. It includes versions we call David Copperfield and The Pickwick Papers too. In fact, it is larger than the sum of novels Dickens wrote, existing as a set of paradigms, a global source from which he could draw. Cut out from this source are anachronistic elements like telephones or space ships, and elements belonging to other types of fiction (blank verse, mythological characters, and even accounts of the life of royalty.) It should be clear that even such a covering term as ‘the world of Dickens’ has no final solidarity or authority. A young reader of David Copperfield and Oliver Twists might consider these texts to be versions of a world of education and family relations which concern him outside of literature. The Dickens scholar naturally would consider these texts to be part of the complete writings of Dickens. What they represented for Dickens himself, who lived within them during the years of their composition, no one can say. One goal of interpretation has always been to make coincide the world of the reader with that of the writer.”

Andrew’s comments already point to fault lines in our understanding of the concept of world-building. Mark J. P. Wolf’s new book, Building Imaginary Worlds, uses as its foundation J.R.R. Tolkien’s concept of “sub-creation,” an approach he explains below. This approach values world building which expands beyond the world as we currently know it, which creates an imaginary world from scratch. Andrew’s approach here sees all texts as building up worlds that help define what events may or may not occur there, what characters may or may not exist, what outcomes are or are not plausible, etc. Historical fiction or documentary fiction, by this definition, may require extensive amounts of research in order to build up a richly realized world and make it comprehensible to the viewer. I have, for example, been drawn into the world of women’s prisons as mapped and explored by this summer’s Orange Is the New Black: while this world looks very much like real institutions,  while this series is loosely based on a memoir, most of us knew little of this world before we started to watch the series, the author has gradually added more details and complicated our initial impressions of this world episode by episode, and we draw more and more on that expanded comprehension to make sense of what we are seeing. I often point to something like Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York as a fantastic example of the role of world-building in historical fiction, even if, again, this world is being reconstructed rather than fabricated from scratch. Andrew’s account suggests worlds are built as much by readers as by authors, that they emerge intertextually through the relationship between a range of different texts, and moving a bit beyond him, I would argue that worlds are performative — that is, any given text seeks to evoke a world in the mind of the reader and may or may not successfully achieve that project. Perhaps there is no real conceptual disagreement between these different senses of a world, only a matter of emphasis: Wolf, for example, acknowledges that works that remain closer to the primary world of real experience may still engage in activities of world-building, while his own emphasis is on works that are “sub-created,” that involve a higher degree of original creation on the part of their authors (and readers?).

This potential disagreement aside,  Mark J. P. Wolf’s Building Imaginary Worlds is an extraordinary accomplishment –and a great starting point for an ongoing discussion of the concept of world-building.  Wolf starts with a core background in game studies and science fiction/fantasy and expands outward to develop an encyclopedic account of the place of imaginary worlds in contemporary narrative practice. I’ve known Mark for a long time and he’s been working on this book as far back as I can remember, and it’s exciting to see all of the pieces fall into place. He employs thousands of examples of fictional worlds to illustrate his core arguments, which include discussions of history as well as theory, going back to the earliest adventure stories and forward to contemporary experiments in transmedia storytelling. I have assigned this book for my Transmedia class this term and see it as essential reading for anyone interested in understanding the place of world-building in contemporary culture. Wolf is perhaps best known to my readers as a scholar who has written extensively about video and computer games, so games researchers may be interested to see how he uses theories of imaginary worlds here to revisit some of the core questions animating that field also.

The following conversation only scratches the surface. Today, we are going to try to map Wolf’s basic model of “sub-creation” and “imaginary worlds,” and over three more installments, we will get deeper into the implications of this model, looking at such contemporary examples as Star Trek: Into Darkness, Pacific Rim, and Defiance.

Let’s start with the key words in the book’s title. What do you mean here by “worlds” and how is it related to the concept of “subcreation”?

 As I explain in the first chapter, the term “world” is not used in the geographic sense (like planets), but in the experiential sense, meaning the sum total of a character’s experiences; therefore, an imaginary world could be a planet or galaxy, or more limited in scope, like a continent, a country, or even a city. The fact that it is an imaginary (or “secondary”, to use Tolkien’s term) world means that it is somehow set apart from the “real” (or “Primary”) world, with some boundaries between them, making the secondary world a thing of its own; and whereas some boundaries are physical or geographic in nature, such as mountain ranges, deserts, oceans, and so forth (or the surface of the earth itself, for underground worlds), some boundaries are temporal in nature (as in worlds set in the distant past or future, making them equally inaccessible to us in the present), or even conditional, such as in the alternate versions of the Primary world that some stories present. Tolkien separates the two by calling them the Primary world and Secondary worlds (borrowing terms from Coleridge’s discussion of the two types of imagination), and writes that the latter is dependent on the former, hence the term “subcreation” (literally, “creating under”); secondary worlds use material from the Primary world, reshaping and recombining elements from it, so that the end result is both recognizable but also new and different. So what the book examines, then, is how imaginary worlds depart from our world, and how they are created by authors.

Does the term, world-building, apply to works, such as, say, Gangs of New York, which reconstruct richly-detailed versions of actual historical worlds or does it only apply to works of the imagination?

 I would say the term “world-building” definitely applies, since in cases like Gangs of New York (2002) or Titanic (1997), the past is being meticulously built and recreated. But in both of these cases, and especially that of Titanic, it is something from the Primary World that is being recreated (even though some of the characters are fictional), whereas the kind of world-building that my book is mainly concerned with is the building of secondary (imaginary) worlds. So the term can apply to both.

Of course, it could be pointed out that even the version of the Primary world that each person carries around in his or her head involves a certain amount of imagination, since we fill in parts of the world we have not seen or have forgotten, so in a sense, both kinds of worlds involve the imagination; but secondary worlds are more clearly set apart from the Primary World.

As I point out in the book’s first chapter, there are varying degrees of what we could call “secondariness”, based on how much invention a secondary world contains; some, like the Star Wars Galaxy or Middle-earth, are very different from the Primary World, whereas others, like Lake Wobegon or More’s Utopia, have less invention but are still imaginary.

Then the question becomes, how much invention is needed to call something a “world”? Some fictional characters set in a real place isn’t really enough; to be a “world” you would, I would argue, need a fictional location as well, and one large enough that someone could live there (getting back to the experiential sense of “world”). So although it is a matter of degree, there is a point where you have enough that a secondary world can stand alone on its own, and that’s usually where most people would probably consider it a separate “world”.

In discussing Nelson Goodman’s Ways of World-making, Dudley Andrew argues that the works of a single author — his example is Dickens — may add up to a single world, even if the author never signals any connection between these works. Would you agree?

 I suppose it is possible, though if no connection is indicated, then one would not be forced to conclude that the worlds are connected. Such connections are often made clear by the author, sometimes retrospectively, like L. Frank Baum’s tying together the various lands his stories take place in, which he did to connect them to Oz. Certainly if an author has a popular world, it is in the author’s interest to do so, as this adds canonical material to a world that an audience may be interested in (and sometimes such a link is the only reason an audience is interested, at least initially).

Dickens’ works are all arguably set in the Primary world, so I think it would be difficult to make the case that he’s creating a secondary world; in such a situation, transnarrative characters could signal ways that individual narratives are connected, but they can still be set together in the Primary world without creating a secondary world (if the amount of invention is low enough). So one could have connected stories set in the Primary World, which make no reference to a secondary world, even though they contain fictional characters and events. On the other hand, two or more series can take place in a linked universe in such a tenuous way that for all practical purposes the series are considered separately; for example Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Barsoom series (about Mars), his Amtor series (about Venus), and his Tarzan series all arguably take place in the same universe, but each has a different main character and occurs on a different planet, with only a little overlap between them.


Mark J. P. Wolf is a Professor in the Communication Department at Concordia University Wisconsin.  He has a B. A. (1990) in Film Production and an M. A. (1992) and Ph. D. (1995) in Critical Studies from the School of Cinema/Television (now renamed the School of Cinematic Arts) at the University of Southern California.  His books include Abstracting Reality: Art, Communication, and Cognition in the Digital Age (2000), The Medium of the Video Game (2001), Virtual Morality: Morals, Ethics, and New Media (2003), The Video Game Theory Reader (2003), The World of the D’ni: Myst and Riven (2006), The Video Game Explosion: A History from PONG to PlayStation and Beyond (2007), The Video Game Theory Reader 2 (2008), Before the Crash: An Anthology of Early Video Game History (2012), the two-volume Encyclopedia of Video Games: The Culture, Technology, and Art of Gaming (2012), Building Imaginary Worlds: The Theory and History of Subcreation (2012), The Routledge Companion to Video Game Studies (forthcoming), Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood (forthcoming), Video Games Around the World (forthcoming), and LEGO Studies: Examining the Building Blocks of a Transmedial Phenomenon (forthcoming) and two novels for which he has begun looking for an agent and publisher.  He is also founder and co-editor of the Landmark Video Game book series from University of Michigan Press.  He has been invited to speak in North America, Europe, Asia, and Second Life, and is on the advisory boards of Videotopia and the International Journal of Gaming and Computer-Mediated Simulations, and on several editorial boards including those of Games and Culture, The Journal of E-media Studies, and Mechademia: An Annual Forum for Anime, Manga and The Fan Arts.  He lives in Wisconsin with his wife Diane and his sons Michael, Christian, and Francis.  [mark.wolf@cuw.edu]

Categories: Blog

Is School Enough?: Forthcoming PBS Documentary

Confessions of an Aca-Fan - August 30, 2013 - 4:43am

If you live in the Los Angeles area, I invite you to join me for what promises to be an exciting screening and discussion on Sept. 5 of Is School Enough?,  a new documentary, produced for PBS, which deals with the concept of “connected learning” as it has been articulated by the MacArthur Foundation’s Digital Media and Learning Initiative. Details are below.

If you do not live in Southern California, I would encourage you to check online here and see when and where this documentary might be airing in your area. Here’s a preview of the film.

Many of you will already know New Learners in the 21st Century, which aired a few years back.  You can check out this film online here. For my money, this is probably the best film produced on the new forms of learning that have emerged within a networked culture, one which explains why these approaches matter to educators, researchers, students, and parents, and one which moves far beyond the usual focus on “risks” and “dangers” that have dominated some other PBS documentaries on these topics. I was proud to have been included in the New Learners documentary and even more excited when the filmmaker, Stephen Brown, consulted with me about this new production. I was able to help connect him with the incredible work being done by the Harry Potter Alliance, which becomes a key segment of Is School Enough?, and I ended up being a talking head featured in this film. Indeed, I get the Aaron Sorkin-like final speech summing up the vision as a whole. I’ve seen the film when an earlier cut was screeened earlier this year at the Digital Media and Learning conference, and I am looking forward to joining this discussion at USC.



Make Reservations »

September 5, 2013, 7:00 P.M.

The Ray Stark Family Theatre, SCA 108, George Lucas Building, USC School of Cinematic Arts Complex, 900 W. 34th Street, Los Angeles, CA 90007

Cinematheque108, The Pearson Foundation, and PBS invite you and a guest to a special screening of

Is School Enough?

Followed by a panel discussion with Stephen Brown, Producer/Director of Is School Enough?; Henry Jenkins, Provost Professor of Communication, Journalism, and Cinematic Arts, USC; Juan Devis, Public Media Producer, KCET; Sujata Bhatt,  Founder and Lead Teacher, the Incubator School, Los Angeles; and Abby Larus, Member, the Harry Potter Alliance and student at Duke University. 7:00 P.M. on Thursday, September 5th, 2013 The Ray Stark Family Theatre, SCA 108
900 W. 34th Street, Los Angeles, CA 90007 FREE ADMISSION. OPEN TO THE PUBLIC. Released to PBS stations on September 3, 2013. About Is School Enough?

While policy-makers and educational experts try to determine the best “system” for delivering a world-class education to tens of millions of students across the country, many young people are finding their own ways of expressing themselves, pursuing interests, and participating in communities that are both on and offline. Largely unmediated by school and teachers, these young people, without really being aware of it, are connecting how they learn with what they care most about. Too commonly, young people are asked to solve problems in the classroom that have no relationship to the real world or relevance to their lives. Memorization and the measurement of what we know is the final basis for evaluating a students’ success; moreover, it’s the final evaluation of a teacher’s success as well. But in what ways do we ask our students to apply what they’ve learned in the classroom to something that’s happening in the world outside of it?

In what ways do we reward the authentic learning and work that young people do that is not validated and evaluated by our educational institutions? In this highly connected world that is powered by what we need when we need it, is school really enough?

Designed for parents and educators inside and out of the classroom, Is School Enough? – a one hour documentary – examines how young people are using everyday tools – including today’s digital ones – to explore interests, connect with others, solve problems, and change the world around them. It is a call to action that moves the discourse away from how do we fix schools to how can we support, sustain and galvanize learning by helping students solve problems in their everyday lives.

Is School Enough? is a production of tpt National Productions, in association with Mobile Digital Arts. Not rated. Running time: 60 minutes.

Visit the Official Website: http://www.pbs.org/program/school-enough/ About the Guests

Stephen Brown, Producer/Director of Is School Enough?

Stephen Brown is President and Executive Producer at Mobile Digital Arts. Mobile Digital Arts uses film and video production as a way to showcase and advocate for innovative educational practices, digital media programs, and 21st century approaches to learning. Brown produced Reborn, New Orleans Schools, a feature documentary about the school reform movement after Hurricane Katrina; A 21st Century Education, a series of twelve short films about innovation in education; and Digital Media and Learning, eleven short films profiling the work of leading researchers, educators and thinkers on the impact that digital media is having on young learners. Mobile Digital Arts’ production – Digital Media, New Learners of the 21st Century – aired nationally on PBS in February 2011. He is also producing an on-going series of films with the OECD about the world’s best performing educational systems. Brown is currently the General Manager of the New Learning Institute for the Pearson Foundation.

Henry Jenkins, Provost’s Professor of Communication, Journalism, and Cinematic Arts at the University of Southern California

Jenkins arrived at USC in Fall 2009 after spending the past decade as the Director of the MIT Comparative Media Studies Program and the Peter de Florez Professor of Humanities. He is the author and/or editor of twelve books on various aspects of media and popular culture, including Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Culture, Hop on Pop: The Politics and Pleasures of Popular Culture and From Barbie to Mortal Kombat: Gender and Computer Games. His newest books include Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide and Fans, Bloggers and Gamers: Exploring Participatory Culture. He is currently co-authoring a book on “spreadable media” with Sam Ford and Joshua Green. He has written for Technology Review, Computer Games, Salon, and The Huffington Post.

Juan Devis, Public Media Producer, KCET

Juan Devis is a Public Media producer, whose work crosses across platforms – video, film, interactive media and gaming. His work, regardless of the medium is often produced collaboratively allowing for a greater exchange of ideas in the production of media. Devis iscurrently the Director of Program Development and Production for the largest independent television station in the United States, KCET. Devis has charted the stations’ new Arts and Culture initiative, Artbound, consisting of a television series, an online networked cultural hub and the creation programmatic partnerships with cultural institutions in Southern California. In addition, Devis has spear headed a new slate of series that are either in production or development, some of these include the Presidential Japan Prize Winner Departures, Live @ the Ford among others. For over a decade, Devis has worked with a number of non-profit organizations and media arts institutions in Los Angeles serving as producer, director, educator and board member. Some of these include: The City Project – Outpost for Contemporary Art – PBS World – LA Freewaves – OnRamp Arts – Center for Innovative Education – Los Feliz Charter SchoolFor the Arts.

Sujata Bhatt,  Founder and Lead Teacher, the Incubator School, Los Angeles

Sujata Bhatt is the founder of the Incubator School, an LAUSD-Future is Now Schools, 6-12 pilot school that opened this August aiming to launch the entrepreneurial teams of tomorrow. Inc. reimagines the traditional school day as a mix of individualized computer-based learning and deep, collaborative engagement via design thinking, real world problem-solving, and game-based learning.  The schooldraws upon Bhatt’s 12 years’ experience working as a Nationally Board Certified teacher in a Title 1 school in LAUSD as well as her background in education reform, technology, and startups. She has developed ‘big picture’ educational policy as a Teaching Policy Fellow with Teach Plus and with Our Schools, Our Voice, and Future is Now Schools. She has written on education reform in The Los Angeles Times, The Huffington Post, The Washington Post, Education Week, Eduwonk, and The Impatient Optimist. She also serves on the Joan Ganz Cooney Center @ Sesame Workshop’s Games and Learning Publishing Council and is a member of the founding team of Outthink Inc., a startup that produces gamified science iPad apps.

Abby Larus, Member, the Harry Potter Alliance and student at Duke University

Abby Larus is a second-year student at Duke University. She’s been involved in the Harry Potter fan community online since middleschool, when she began working with the Harry Potter Alliance, an organization that encourages civic activism by relating real world problems to the issues in the Harry Potter books. Abby started her work with the HPA as a Chapter Organizer, applying the HPA’s campaigns locally in North Carolina. She later became a volunteer on the organization’s communications staff, before taking on the role of Assistant Campaign Director. Abby has since transitioned to a position outside of the HPA, where she is the Associate Director of Logistics for LeakyCon, the largest annual Harry Potter fan convention. But she hasn’t forgotten her roots – a portion of LeakyCon’s proceeds go towards the HPA every year.

About The Pearson Foundation

The Pearson Foundation is an independent 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that aims to make a difference by promoting literacy, learning, and great teaching. The Foundation collaborates with leading businesses, nonprofits, and education experts to share good practice; foster innovation; and find workable solutions to the educational disadvantages facing young people and adults across the globe.

More information on the Pearson Foundation can be found at www.pearsonfoundation.org.

About Cinematheque108

Cinematheque108 is an alternative screening series sponsored by the Critical Studies Department at the University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts. The series offers a rare selection of events that highlight noteworthy experimental, documentary, and/or foreign films, many of which can not be seen anywhere else. Cinematheque108 is an educational forum that aims to expand understanding of alternative film and media. All screenings are free of charge and open to the pubic.

Check-In & Reservations

This screening is free of charge and open to the public. Please bring a valid ID or print out of your reservation confirmation, which will automatically be sent to your e-mail account upon successfully making an RSVP through this website. Doors will open at 6:30 P.M.

All SCA screenings are OVERBOOKED to ensure seating capacity in the theater, therefore seating is not guaranteed based on RSVPs. The RSVP list will be checked in on a first-come, first-served basis until the theater is full. Once the theater has reached capacity, we will no longer be able to admit guests, regardless of RSVP status.


The USC School of Cinematic Arts is located at 900 W. 34th St., Los Angeles, CA 90007. Parking passes may be purchased for $8.00 at USC Entrance Gate #5, located at the intersection of W. Jefferson Blvd. & McClintock Avenue. We recommend parking in outdoor Lot M or V, or Parking Structure D, at the far end of 34th Street. Please note that Parking Structure D cannot accommodate tall vehicles such as SUVs. Metered street parking is also available along Jefferson Blvd.


Categories: Blog

Citizen science versus NIMBY?

…My Heart’s in Accra - August 29, 2013 - 11:36am

There are ten graduate students associated with the Center for Civic Media, half a dozen staff and a terrific set of MIT professors who mentor, coach, advise and lead research. But much of the work that’s most exciting at our lab comes from affiliates, who include visiting scholars from other universities, participants in the Media Lab Director’s fellows program and fellow travelers who work closely with our team.

Two of those Civic affiliates are Sean Bonner and Pieter Franken of Safecast. Safecast is a remarkable project born out of a desire to understand the health and safety implications of the release of radiation from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in the wake of the March 11, 2011 earthquake and tsunami. Unsatisfied with limited and questionable information about radiation released by the Japanese government, Joi Ito, Peter, Sean and others worked to design, build and deploy GPS-enabled geiger counters which could be used by concerned citizens throughout Japan to monitor alpha, beta and gamma radiation and understand what parts of Japan have been most effected by the Fukushima disaster.

The Safecast project has produced an elegant map that shows how complicated the Fukushima disaster will be for the Japanese government to recover from. While there are predictably elevated levels of radiation immediately around the Fukushima plant and in the 18 mile exclusion zones, there is a “plume” of increased radiation south and west of the reactors. The map is produced from millions of radiation readings collected by volunteers, who generally take readings while driving – Safecast’s bGeigie meter automatically takes readings every few seconds and stores them along with associated GPS coordinates for later upload to the server.

It’s hard to know what an appropriate response to the Safecast data is – Safecast is careful to note that there’s no consensus about what’s “safe” in terms of radiation exposure… and that there’s questions to be asked both about bioaccumulation of beta radiation as well as exposure to gamma radiation. Their work provides an alternative set of information to official government statistics, a check on official measurements, which allows citizen scientists and activists to check on progress made on cleanup and remediation. This long and thoughtful blog post about the progress of government decontamination efforts, the cost-benefit of those efforts, and the government’s transparency or opacity around cleanup gives a sense for what Safecast is trying to do: provide ways for citizens to check and verify government efforts and understand the complexity of decisions about radiation exposure. This is especially important in Japan, as there’s been widespread frustration over the failures of TEPCO to make progress on cleaning up the reactor site, leading to anger and suspicion about the larger cleanup process.

For me, Safecast raises two interesting questions:
- If you’re not getting trustworthy or sufficient information from your government, can you use crowdsourcing, citizen science or other techniques to generate that data?
- How does collecting data relate to civic engagement? Is it a path towards increased participation as an engaged and effective citizen?

To have some time to reflect on these questions, I decided I wanted to try some of my own radiation monitoring. I borrowed Joi Ito’s bGeigie and set off for my local Spent Nuclear Fuel and Greater-Than-Class C Low Level Radioactive Waste dry cask storage facility.

Monroe Bridge, MA is 20 miles away from my house, as the crow flies, but it takes over an hour to drive there. Monroe and Rowe are two of the smallest towns in Massachusetts (populations of 121 and 393, respectively) and are both devoid of any state highways – two of 16 towns in Massachusetts with that distinctively rural feature. Monroe, historically, is famous for housing workers who built the Hoosac Tunnel, and for a (long-defunct) factory that manufactured glassine paper. Rowe historically housed soapstone and iron pyrite mines. And both now are case studies for the challenge of revitalizing rural New England mill towns.

Yankee Rowe, prior to decommissioning

But from 1960 to 1992, Rowe and Monroe were best known for hosting Yankee Rowe, the third commercial nuclear power plant built in the United States. A 185 megawatt boiling water reactor, Yankee Rowe was a major employer and taxpayer in an economically depressed area… and also a major source of controversy. I was in school at Williams College, 13 miles from Yankee Rowe, when the NRC ordered the plant shut down in 1991, nine years before its scheduled license renewal, over fears that the reactor vessel might have grown brittle. The plant was a source of fascination for me as a student – the idea that a potentially dangerous nuclear power plant was so nearby led to a number of excursions, usually late at night, to stare at a glowing geodesic dome (the reactor containment building) from across the Sherman Reservoir.

Since 1995, Yankee Rowe has been going through the long process of decommissioning, with the goal of returning the site to wilderness or to other public uses – the plant’s website features an animated GIF of the disassembly process. But there’s a catch – the fuel rods. Under the Nuclear Waste Policy Act, spent fuel was supposed to start moving from civilian power plants like Yankee Rowe to underground government storage facilities in 1989. That hasn’t happened. Fierce opposition from Nevada lawmakers and citizens to storing the waste at Yucca Mountain and from people who don’t want nuclear waste traveling through their communities enroute to storage facilities have meant that there’s no permanent place for the waste.

During the decades nuclear waste storage has been debated in Congress, more waste has backed up, and Yucca Mountain would no longer accomodate the 70,000 metric tons of waste that needs storage. The Department of Energy is now planning on an “interim” disposal site, ready by 2021, in the hopes of having a permanent disposal site online by 2048. The DOE needs the site, because companies like Yankee are suing the US government – successfully – to recover the costs of storing and defending the spent fuel in giant above-ground casks. (Yankee’s site has a great video of the process of moving these fuel rods from storage pools into concrete casks, a process that involves robotic cranes, robot welders and giant air bladders that help slide 110 ton concrete casks into position.)

So… at the end of a twisty rural road in a tiny Massachusetts town, there’s a set of 16 casks that contain the spent fuel of 30 years of nuclear plant operation, and those casks probably aren’t going anywhere for the foreseeable future. So I took Joi’s geiger counter to visit them.

I’d been to Yankee Rowe before, and remembered being amused by the idea of a bucolic nuclear waste facility. The folks involved with Yankee Rowe have worked very hard to make the site as unobtrusive as possible – it’s marked by a discrete wooden sign, and the only building on site looks like an overgrown colonial house. Not visible from the road is the concrete pad where the 16 casks reside, but it’s 200 meters from the road and 400 meters from “downtown” Monroe Bridge.

I was curious whether I’d be able to detect any radiation using the Safecast tool. Sean and Pieter pride themselves on the fact that the bGeigie is a professional grade tool and routinely detects minor radiation emissions, like a neighbor who had a medical test that involved radioisotopes. I drove to Yankee Rowe late yesterday afternoon, took the bGeigie off my truck (it had been collecting data since I turned it on in Greenfield, the closest big town) and tried to get as close as I could to the casks.

That turned out to be not very close. Before I had time to read the NRC/Private Property sign, I was met at the gate – the sort of gate you expect to see at a public garden, not a barbed-wire, stay out of here gate – by two polite but firm gentlemen, armed with assault rifles and speaking by radio to the control center that had seen my truck over the surveillance cameras, make clear that I was not welcome beyond the parking lot.

That said, I got within 300 meters of the casks. And, as you can see from the readings – the white and green circles on the map – I didn’t detect any radiation beyond what I’ve detected anywhere else in Massachusetts. That’s consistent with the official reports on Yankee Rowe – dozens of wells are monitored for possible groundwater contamination, and despite a recent scare about Cesium 137, there’s been no evidence of leakage from the casks.

It would have been a far more exciting visit had I somehow snuck past the armed guards and captured readings from the casks suggesting significant radiation emissions, I guess… though what it would demonstrate is that you probably shouldn’t sneak in and stand too close to those casks. Better might have been to use Safecast’s new hexacopter-mounted drone to fly a bGeigie over the casks, though I can only imagine what sort of response that might have prompted from the guards.

While I’m reassured that there’s no measurable elevated levels of radiation at Yankee Rowe, it still seems like a weird state of affairs that Yankee’s waste is going to remain on a hillside by a reservoir for the foreseeable future, protected by armed guards. (The real estate listings for property owned by Yankee Atomic Energy Corporation are pretty wonderful – “Special Considerations: An independent spent fuel storage installation (ISFSI) associated with the previous operation of the Yankee Rowe Plant is located in the former plant area and remains under a U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission license. Future ownership of the 300 meter buffer surrounding the ISFSI will be negotiated as part of the property disposition.”)

And there’s lots of sites like Yankee Rowe that already exist, and more on the way. The map above, from Jeff McMahon at Forbes, shows sites in the US where nuclear fuel is stored in pools or dry casks. And more plants are shutting down – Yankee Rowe’s sister plant, Vermont Yankee, announced closure this week to speculation that nuclear plants aren’t affordable given the low cost of natural gas. Of course, given the realization that cleaning up Yankee Rowe has cost 16 times what the plant to build and will continue until the waste is in a permanent repository might give natural gas advocates pause – will we have similar discussions of the problems of remediating fracking sites in a few years or a few decades?

Projects like Safecast – and the projects I’m exploring this coming year under the heading of citizen infrastructure monitoring – have a challenge. Most participants aren’t going to uncover Ed Snowden-calibre information by driving around with a geiger counter or mapping wells in their communities. Lots of data collected is going to reveal that governments and corporations are doing their jobs, as my data suggests. It’s easy to track a path between collecting groundbreaking data and getting involved with deeper civic and political issues – will collecting data that the local nuclear plant is apparently safe get me more involved with issues of nuclear waste disposal?

It just might. One of the great potentials of citizen science and citizen infrastructure monitoring is the possibility of reducing the exotic to the routine. I suspect my vague unease about the safety of nuclear waste on a hillside is similar to the distaste people feel for casks of spent fuel passing through their towns on the way to a storage site. I feel a lot more comfortable with Yankee Rowe having read up on the measures taken to encase the waste in casks, and with the ability to verify radiation levels near the site. (Actually, being confronted by heavily armed men also reassures me.) I’m more persuaded that regional storage facilities are a good idea than I was before my experiment and reading yesterday – my opinion previously would have been based more on a kneejerk fear of radioactivity than consideration of other options. (The compact argument: if we’ve got fuel in hundreds of sites around the US, each protected by surveillance cameras and security teams, it seems a lot more efficient to concentrate that problem into a small number of very-well secured sites.)

If the straightforward motivation for citizen science and citizen monitoring is the hope of making a great discovery, maybe we need to think about how to make these activities routine, an ongoing civic ritual that’s as much a public duty as voting. Monitoring a geiger counter that never jumps over 40 counts per minute isn’t the most exciting experiment you can conduct, but it might be one that turns a plan like Yucca Mountain into one we can discuss reasonably, not one that triggers an understandable, if unhelpful, emotional reaction of “not in my backyard.”

Categories: Blog, Homepage

[Video] Peer economy takeaways from my summer research

MIT Center for Civic Media - August 29, 2013 - 6:45am

Comparative Media Studies @ MIT kicked off the 2013 academic year yesterday with orientation presentations. The second-year CMS grad students pulled together a 10-minute presentation about their thesis topic and summer research and then presented to faculty, staff and incoming graduate students.

I thought you'd be interested!

RE: points in the video -

  • César Hidalgo (Media Lab: Macroconnections) and I have been discussing whether "political economy" is the right term, or if something like "political science" would be a better fit in understanding the agenda, political influence and different sorts of power involved in systems. While political science seems to get at it better (economy would mean incentives, etc.), we're not completely satisfied with that term either.
  • On the potential behavioral demographic research, this is just a possibility of many things I may be doing this semester (lots of exciting updates to come!). The crucial factor for me is whether the resolution of this data will be high enough to map to geographic locations. I'm interested in rate of participation. I had to cut out a parallel example from the video, but I likened it to the rate of smart phone adoption. Technological and creative classes (closely correlated with class and privilege) were the first to adopt, but the rate was actually highest among low-income.
peer economycollaborative consumptionsharing economyresearchDenise's thesisgovernmentlocal communitiesmedianetworkstechnology solutions
Categories: Blog

Transmedia Storytelling and Entertainment: A New Syllabus

Confessions of an Aca-Fan - August 27, 2013 - 11:28pm

Last time, I shared the syllabus for a new course I am offering this fall focused on, basically, “how to be a public intellectual.” Today, I am sharing the syllabus for the other class I am teaching this term. I have taught Transmedia Entertainment three times since coming to USC, each time I have more or less had to re-imagine and redesign the class to reflect shifts in media practice and especially the expanding body of scholarship about transmedia. You can see my first and second versions of the class as I shared them through earlier blog posts. You will see that recent scholarly publications have resulted in much richer models for thinking about the economic and cultural impact of the current franchise structure, the distinctive nature of “media mix” in Japan as a point of comparison with the ways transmedia has taken shape in Hollywood, and the nature and function of world-building. Alongside this class, I am going to be featuring in my blog this fall a series of interviews with the authors of many of these new books, starting soon with an in-depth exchange with Mark J. P. Wolf, author of Building Imaginary Worlds. As always, I am taking advantage of my Los Angeles location to bring into my classroom a rich array of guest speakers who are doing some of the cutting edge experimentation around transmedia.


Transmedia Entertainment

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


A transmedia story represents the integration of entertainment experiences across a range of media platforms. A story like Heroes or Lost might spread from television into comics, the web, alternate reality or video games, toys, and other commodities, etc., picking up new audiences as it goes and allowing the most dedicated fans to drill deeper. The fans, in turn, may translate their interests in the franchise into concordances and Wikipedia entries, fan fiction, vids, fan films, cosplay, game mods, and a range of other participatory practices that further extend the story world in new directions. Both the commercial and grassroots expansion of narrative universes contribute to a new mode of storytelling, one which is based on an encyclopedic expanse of information which gets put together differently by each individual, as well as processed collectively by social networks and online knowledge communities.


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


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



  • Derek Johnson, Media Franchises: Creative Licensing and Collaboration in the Creative Industries (New York: New York University Press, 2013)
  • Andrea Phillips, A Creator’s Guide to Transmedia Storytelling (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2012)
  • Michael Saler, As If: Modern Enchantment and the Literary Prehistory of Virtual Reality (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011)
  • Mark J. P. Wolf, Building Imaginary Worlds: The Theory and History of Subcreation (London: Routledge, 2013)


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



For the first assignment, you are asked to write a 5-7 page autobiographical essay describing your relationship to a media franchise that you have found to be personally meaningful. You should use this essay to identify the cultural attractors that drew you to this franchise, to discuss which variants of the franchise you experienced, and to describe any cultural activators that encouraged you to more actively contribute to the fan community surrounding this franchise. Be as specific as possible in discussing moments in the transmedia story that were especially important in shaping your engagement with the property. Where possible, make explicit reference to ideas about transmedia and engagement from the readings. This assignment is partially about getting to know you as a transmedia participant and partially about getting you to experiment with the critical vocabulary we’ve introduced so far for talking about transmedia experiences. (Due September 23) (20 Percent)



Write a 5-7-page essay examining one commercially produced story (comic, website, game, mobisode, amusement park attraction, etc.) that acts as an extension of a “core” text (for instance, a television series, film, etc.). You should try to address such issues as its relationship to the story world, its strategies for expanding the narrative, its deployment of the distinctive properties of its platform, its targeted audience, and its cultural attractors/activators. The paper will be evaluated on its demonstrated grasp of core concepts from the class, its original research, and its analysis of how the artifact relates to specific trends impacting the entertainment industry. Where possible, link your analysis to the course materials, including readings, lecture notes, and speaker comments. (Due October 25) (20 Percent)




Students will be organized into teams, which—for the purpose of this exercise—will function as transmedia companies. You should select a media property (a film, television series, comic book, novel, etc.) that you feel has the potential to become a successful transmedia franchise. In most cases, you will be looking for a property that has not yet added media extensions, though you could also look at a property that you feel has been mishandled in the past. You should have identified and agreed on a property no later than Sept. 13th. By the end of the term, your team will be “pitching” this property. The pitch should include a briefing book that describes:

  1. the defining properties of the media property
  2. a description of the intended audience(s) and what we know of its potential interests
  3. a discussion of the specific plans for each media platform you are going to deploy
  4. an overall description for how you will seek to integrate the different media platforms to create a coherent world
  5. parallel examples of other properties which have deployed the strategies being described


For a potential model for what such a book might look like, see the transmedia bible template from Screen Australia, available here: http://www.screenaustralia.gov.au/filmmaking/digital_resources.aspx. Or visit: http://zenfilms.typepad.com/zen_films/2010/06/transmedia-workflow.html. If you use either as a model, include only those segments of their bible templates that make sense for your particular property and approach. You can also get insights on what a bible format might look like from the Andrea Phillips book.


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


The group will select its own team leader, who will be responsible for contact with the instructor/TA and who will coordinate the presentation. The team leader will be asked to provide feedback on what each team member contributed to the effort, while team members will be asked to provide an evaluation of how the team leader performed. Team members will check in with the TA on Week Six and with Prof. Jenkins on Week Ten and Week Thirteen to review their progress on the assignment. The instructor may request short written updates throughout the term to insure that the team is moving in the right direction.


Students will pitch their ideas to the panel of judges on December 2. They should expect to receive feedback from the instructor over the following few days, and then turn in the final version of their written documentation on the exam date scheduled for the class. (40 percent)



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


Week 1, Monday, August 26

Transmedia Storytelling 101

  • Mark J. P. Wolf, “Transmedial Growth and Adaptation,” Building Imaginary Worlds (London: Routledge, 2013), pp. 245-267.

Speaker: Geoffrey Long


Geoffrey Long is a media analyst, scholar, and storyteller exploring transmedia experiences, emerging entertainment platforms, and the future of entertainment. He is an alum of the MIT Comparative Media Studies program, a fellow with the Futures of Entertainment community, and a co-editor of the Playful Thinking book series from the MIT Press. He previously served as Lead Narrative Producer for the Narrative Design Team at Microsoft Studios. Find more at geoffreylong.com.


Week 2, Monday, September 2

No Class: Labor Day


Week 3, Monday, September 9

A Brief History of Transmedia

  • Henry Jenkins, “Transmedia: A Prehistory,” in Denise Mann (ed.), Wired TV (Work in Progress)
  • Michael Saler, “Living in the Imagination,” “Delight Without Delusion: The New Romance, Spectacular Texts, and Public Spheres,” As If: Modern Enchantment and the Literary Prehistory of Virtual Reality (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), pp. 25-104.
  • J.P. Telotte, Disney TV (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2004), pp. 61–79.
  • Justin Wyatt, “Critical Redefinition: The Concept of High Concept,” High Concept: Movies and Marketing in Hollywood (Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 1994), pp. 1-22.
  • Jonathan Gray, “Learning to Use the Force: Star Wars Toys and Their Films,” Show Sold Separately: Promos, Spoilers, and Other Media Paratexts (New York: NYU Press, 2010), pp. 177-187.

Students will meet in their teams for the first time.


Friday, September 13

Teams should have picked media franchise


Week 4, Monday, September 16

Transmedia Engagement

  • Christy Dena, “Emerging Participatory Culture Practices: Player-Created Tiers in Alternate Reality Games,” Convergence, February 2008, pp. 41-58.
  • Ivan Askwith, “Five Logics of Engagement,” Television 2.0: Reconceptualizing TV as an Engagement Medium, Master’s thesis, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2007, pp. 51-150.
  • Sam Ford, “True Blood Case Study” (Work in Progress)
  • Andrea Phillips, “The Four Creative Purposes for Transmedia Storytelling,” “Interactivity Creates Deeper Engagement,” “Uses and Misuses for User-Generated Content,” “Challenging the Audience to Act,” and “Make Your Audience a Character, Too,” A Creator’s Guide to Transmedia Storytelling (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2012), pp.  41-54, 110-126,  137-148, 149-182..
  • (Rec.) Ivan Askwith, “Deconstructing the Lost Experience,” Convergence Culture Consortium white paper,


Week 5, Monday, September 23

The Japanese Media Mix

  • Otsuka Eiji, “World and Variation: The Reproduction and Consumption of Narrative,” Mechademia 5, 2010, pp. 99-116.
  • Marc Steinberg, “Media Mixes, Media Transformations,” Anime’s Media Mix: Franchising Toys and Characters in Japan (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2012).
  • Ian Condry, “Characters and Worlds as Creative Platforms,” The Soul of Anime: Collaborative Creativity and Japan’s Media Success Story (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2013).
  • Mizuko Ito, “Gender Dynamics of the Japanese Media Mix,” in Yasmin B. Kafai, Carrie Heeter, Jill Denner, and Jennifer Y. Sun (eds.), Beyond Barbie and Mortal Kombat: New Perspectives on Gender and Gaming (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2008), pp. 97-110.

Autobiographical response due

Speaker: Aaron Koblin


Aaron Koblin is an artist and designer specializing in data and digital technologies. Aaron’s work takes real-world and community-generated data and uses it to reflect on cultural trends and the changing relationship between humans and the systems they create. His work is part of the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York, the Victoria & Albert Museum (V&A) in London, and the Centre Pompidou in Paris. His projects have been shown at international festivals including TED, Ars Electronica, SIGGRAPH, OFFF, and the Japan Media Arts Festival. He received the National Science Foundation’s first place award for science visualization and two of his music video collaborations have been Grammy nominated. He received his MFA in Design|Media Arts from UCLA. In 2010 Aaron was the Abramowitz Artist in Residence at MIT and he leads the Data Arts Team in Google’s Creative Lab.


Week 6, Monday, September 30

Transmedia Learning

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

TA meets with franchise development teams to review progress.

Speaker: Erin Reilly


Erin Reilly is Creative Director for Annenberg Innovation Lab and Research Director for Project New Media Literacies at USC’s Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism.  Her research focus is children, youth and media and the interdisciplinary, creative learning experiences that occur through social and cultural participation with emergent technologies. Having received multiple awards, such as Cable in a Classroom’s Leaders in Learning, she is most notably known for co-creating one of the first social media citizen science programs, Zoey’s Room.  Her current projects include PLAY!, a  new approach to professional development that refers to the value of play as a guiding principle in the educational process to foster participatory learning and The Mother Road, a chance to explore collective storytelling through the development of the Evocative Places eBook series. Erin consults with private and public companies in the areas of mobile, creative strategy and transmedia projects for children.


Week 7, Monday, October 7

The Franchise System

  • Derek Johnson, “An Industrial Way of Life,” “Imagining the Franchise: Structures, Social Relations, and Cultural Work,” “From Ownership to Partnership: The Institutionalization of Franchise Relations,” Media Franchises: Creative Licensing and Collaboration in the Creative Industries (New York: New York University Press, 2013), pp. 1-106.
  • Sam Ford, “Glee Case Study” (Work in Progress).


Week 8, Monday, October 14

Producing Transmedia

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

Speaker: Andrea Phillips


Andrea Phillips (born 20 July 1974) is an American transmedia game designer and writer. She has been active in the genres of transmedia storytelling and alternate reality games (ARGs), in a variety of roles, since 2001. She has written for, designed, or substantially participated in the creation of Perplex City, the BAFTA-nominated Routes (a project of Channel 4), and The 2012 Experience, a marketing campaign for the film 2012. Phillips came to the genre in 2001, when she co-moderated the Cloudmakers mailing list, which served players of “The Beast”, the ARG which revolved around the release of the movie A.I. Artificial Intelligence. Phillips in 2012 published A Creator’s Guide to Transmedia Storytelling as a guide for current and aspiring modern storytellers.


Week 9, Monday, October 21

No Class: Meet with your teams


Friday, October 25

Extension Paper Due


Week 10, Monday, October 28

World Building

  • Derek Johnson, “Sharing Worlds: Difference, Deference, and the Creative Context of Franchising,” Media Franchises: Creative Licensing and Collaboration in the Creative Industries (New York: New York University Press, 2013), pp. 107-152..
  • Mark J. P. Wolf, “World Structures and Systems of Relationships,” Building Imaginary Worlds: The Theory and History of Subcreation (London: Routledge, 2013), pp.153-197.
  • Michael Saler, “The Middle Positions of Middle Earth: J.R.R. Tolkien and Fictionalism,” As If: Modern Enchantment and the Literary Prehistory of Virtual Reality (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), pp. 158-196.
  • Henry Jenkins, “The Pleasure of Pirates and What It Tells Us about World Building in Branded Entertainment”, Confessions of an Aca-Fan, June 13, 2007
  • If you have not already done so, please try to watch Oz, the Great and Powerful before this class session.

Prof. Jenkins check-in with teams

Speaker: Alex McDowell


Alex McDowell is one of the most innovative and influential designers working in narrative media today, with the impact of his ideas extending far beyond his background in cinema. McDowell advocates for an immersive design process that acknowledges the key role of world building in visual storytelling. Since moving to Los Angeles from London in 1986, McDowell has designed for directors as diverse as Terry Gilliam, Tim Burton, David Fincher, Zack Snyder and Steven Spielberg. Currently McDowell is production designer for Man of Steel with director Zack Snyder, produced by Chris Nolan. He recently completed In Time, directed by Andrew Niccol. With many awards for his film design work, McDowell was named a Royal Designer by the UK’s Royal Society of Arts in 2006. McDowell, who currently serves on the AMPAS SciTech Council, recently joined the faculty of the School of Cinematic Arts, where he will teach across several of the SCA divisions focusing on the role of world-building in the cinematic process. McDowell is co-founder and creative director of 5D | The Future of Immersive Design, a global series of distributed events and an education space for an expanding community of thought leaders across narrative media.

Week 11, Monday, November 4

Continuity and Multiplicity

  • William Uricchio and Roberta E. Pearson, “I’m Not Fooled by That Cheap Disguise,” in Roberta E. Pearson and William Uricchio (eds.), The Many Lives of the Batman: Critical Approaches to A Superhero and His Media (New York: Routledge, 1991), pp. 182-213.
  • Sam Ford and Henry Jenkins, “Managing Multiplicity in Superhero Comics,” in Pat Harrigan and Noah Wardrip-Fruin (eds.), Third Person: Authoring and Exploring Vast Narratives (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2009), pp. 303-313.
  • Shawna Kidman, “Five Lessons For New Media From the History of Comics Culture,” International Journal of Learning and Media 3.4 (2012): 41-54.

Speaker: Corniela Funke


During the late 1980s and the 1990s, Corniela Funke established herself in Germany with two children’s series, namely the fantasy-oriented Gespensterjäger (Ghosthunters) and the Wilde Hühner (Wild Chicks) line of books. Funke has been called “the J. K. Rowling” of Germany. The first of her books to be translated into English was Herr der Diebe in 2002. It was subsequently released as The Thief Lord by Scholastic and made it to the number 2 spot on The New York Times Best Seller list. The fantasy novel Dragon Rider (2004) stayed on the New York Times Best Seller list for 78 weeks. Following the success of The Thief Lord and Dragon Rider, her next novel was Inkheart (2003), which won the 2004 BookSense Book of the Year Children’s Literature award.  Inkheart was the first part of a trilogy which was continued with Inkspell (2005), which won Funke her second BookSense Book of the Year Children’s Literature award (2006). The trilogy was concluded in Inkdeath (published in Germany in 2007, English version Spring 2008, American version Fall 2008). Funke has been working with Mirada to create a multimedia experience for the iPad based on her Mirrorworld book series.


Week 12, Monday, November 11

Immersion and Extractability

Time to meet with teams

Speaker: David Voss, Vice-President of Design, Mattel Toys


David Voss is Vice-President of Design at Mattel Toys in Los Angeles. He is an alum of the Fashion Institute of Technology.


Week 13, Monday, November 18


  • Jason Mittell, “All in the Game: The Wire, Serial Storytelling, and Procedural Logic,” in Pat Harrigan and Noah Wardrip-Fruin (eds.), Third Person: Authoring and Exploring Vast Narratives (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2009), pp. 429-438.
  • Neil Perryman, “Doctor Who and the Convergence of Media: A Case Study in Transmedia Storytelling,” Convergence, February 2008, pp. 21-40.
  • Mark J. P. Wolf, “More Than a Story: Narrative Threads and Narrative Fabric,” Building Imaginary Worlds: The Theory and History of Subcreation (London: Routledge, 2013) pp. 198-225.
  • Sam Ford, “U.S. Soap Operas” (Work in Progress)
  • Elena Levine, “’What the Hell Does TIIC Mean?’: Online Content and the Struggle to Save Soaps,” in Sam Ford, Abigail De Kosnik, and C.Lee Harrington (eds.) The Survival of Soap Opera: Transformations for a New Media Era (Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 2012), pp. 201-218.
  • Andrea Phillips, “Conveying Action Across Multiple Media,” A Creator’s Guide to Transmedia Storytelling (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2012), pp.  93-102.

Prof. Jenkins check-in with teams

Speaker: Katie Elmore Mota, Executive Producer, East Los High

Katie Elmore Mota is CEO of PRAJNA Productions: Stories with Social Relevance, a Los Angeles-based production company that is focused on creating cutting edge television/transmedia programming that is socially relevant for the Americas and beyond. PRAJNA specializes in the development and production of top-rated dramatic series that address a wide array of social and health issues. Prior to founding PRAJNA, Katie served as Vice President of Communications and Programs for Population Media Center, an international NGO
specializing in entertainment-education, for more than 6 years. At Population Media Center, Katie oversaw the design, development, and management of numerous programs using media for social change around the world. Katie was also Executive Producer for a cutting edge new series that takes place in East Los Angeles called, ‘East Los High’ that will go to air in 2013. She also produced a 70-episode novela with MTV for all of Latin America called ‘Ultimo Año,’ which will premier in the US in February 2013.

Week 14, Monday, November 25

Subjectivity And Performance

  • Henry Jenkins, “‘We Had So Many Stories to Tell’: The Heroes Comics as Transmedia Storytelling,” Confessions of an Aca-Fan, Dec. 3, 2007
  • M. J. Clarke, “Tentpole TV: The Comic Book,” Transmedia Television: New Trends in Network Serial Production (New York: Bloomsbury, 2013), pp.27-61.
  • Andrea Phillips, “Online, Everything is Characterization,” A Creator’s Guide to Transmedia Storytelling (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2012), pp. 83-92.
  • Sam Ford, “World Wrestling Entertainment: A Case Study,” (Work in Progress).

Time to work with teams


Week 15, Monday, December 2

Final Presentations

Categories: Blog

New Project Zero Course

Howard Gardner - August 27, 2013 - 12:45pm

Project Zero researchers have developed a new course at HGSE.

Entitled “Thinking & Learning in the 21st Century: Project Zero Perspectives,” this course offers students an opportunity to engage with Project Zero principal investigators and researchers around key ideas, pedagogical frameworks, and approaches to thinking and learning from PZ.  The course will be co-taught by Carrie James and Daniel Wilson, but will involve interactive sessions with other PZ investigators, including David Perkins, Howard Gardner, Tina Grotzer, Lynn Barendsen, Wendy Fischman, Liz Dawes Duraisingh, Veronica Boix-Mansilla, and Shari Tishman.

We believe that the content and questions engaged in this course are relevant to students across HGSE and other schools at Harvard. This course will give students a way to engage directly with different PZ researchers and strands of work.  For more information, visit the course iSite.

Categories: Blog

Public Intellectuals: Theory and Practice

Confessions of an Aca-Fan - August 26, 2013 - 12:48am

Today’s post represents my return from an extended summer hiatus with the blog, as well as the first day of classes for the new term. I wanted to share with you the syllabus for a new subject I am introducing at USC this fall, one intended to provide professional development for our graduate students. The class reflects my own vision of some of the different opportunities for public intervention within the fields of media and communications studies. I have often argued here that at a moment of profound and prolonged media change, which is impacting all aspects of our society, we have a professional obligation to lend our expertise to larger conversations that are going to impact our collective future, that we should be engaged in conversations with industry, journalists, policy makers, and the larger public, and that we should be taking advantage of the full range of affordances of networked media as vehicles for sharing our ideas beyond our own disciplinary enclaves.


I am lucky to be at a place like the USC Annenberg School where so many of my colleagues, from the Dean on down, share such a vision, and so I am drawing on many of them to talk with the students about their work, to share their experiences and insights about what it means to be a public intellectual. I am also giving students a chance to practice and refine their skills at a range of other genres of scholarly writing which go beyond the peer-reviewed journal article and the university press monograph, and to reflect on what roles such modes of writing might play in their own careers as they envision them. And finally, I want to give students a chance to explore options for their future that involve working outside of the university. Too often, we treat graduate students who do not become professors as “failures” or “losses” when the reality is that the field can not absorb the number of students we are producing and there are many other places which do need the kinds of expertise and commitments they have developed. I want to look at the paths of some people who have chosen to do scholarship within non-academic contexts, as many of my best students are starting to consider. I have been delighted by the level of cooperation from my colleagues and staff, at USC and elsewhere, I have received in terms of making this experiment a possibility, as well as the amount of early interest in the class from students.

Some of my colleagues here have expressed concern that this class is adding to the pressure  students will confront as they enter into the job market, that many of them will end up at more conservative institutions that may not value the kinds of public activities that are prized here at USC. I certainly want students to make informed choices that feel right to them, personally and professionally. There’s no question that anyone entering the field as an academic is going to be evaluated first and foremost as a scholar based on their academic writing and publishing. Publish or Perish remains the rule of the day. But, some of us are trying to make the case that a broader range of modes of writing should be valued for the purposes of promotion and tenure and we are seeing a much broader array of career trajectories than would have been common when I entered the field thirty years ago. I want my students to know what those options look like, to have some of the skills and knowledge they would need to pursue those paths if they choose them, and to understand why some of us believe that such work is essential for the field as a whole.

I hope to be sharing some more developments on this course as the semester goes along, but for today, I just want to offer this as a model (reflecting, as such a class must, our local particulars) of what such an approach to professional development might look like.

Public Intellectuals: Theory and Practice

COMM 620

Tuesdays, 6:30-9:20

This class is designed to help promote the professional development of graduate students pursuing research in the fields of media and communications. The class was inspired by three primary concerns:


  1. USC faculty engage in a broad range of public-facing professional practices which are expected and rewarded through promotion and merit raise practices, yet—for the most part—graduate students are trained with a primary focus on producing academic monographs and essays for peer-reviewed journals and without deep focus on this public-facing role.
  2. The digital era has created a much broader range of opportunities for actively engaging as intellectuals in important political and cultural conversations outside of academia, yet there are still relatively few academics who are participating in these dialogues or reacting to arguments that are shaping other realms of professional activity (policy, law, business, education, etc.)
  3. There is a growing range of different professions and industries seeking expertise in media and communication at a moment of profound technological and cultural change, yet, for the most part, graduate students are encouraged to think of these other opportunities as afterthoughts as they are being prepared almost entirely for careers as academics.


My goals in this class are to expose you to the diversity of contemporary scholarly and intellectual practices, to encourage you to look closely at outstanding exemplars of work in these arenas, to create conversations with faculty members about their professional experiences, to help students think more deeply about their intellectual profile, and to offer some core advice and practical experiences. We will be exploring a broad range of theories of media and communication across the class, but the primary focus is going to be applied and practical, as students cultivate the skills and understanding required to make meaningful interventions as public intellectuals. For this reason, the class is structured around smaller, more focused assignments than would be typical for a more research-oriented PhD Seminar.


Required Books:

  • Jason Haas and Eric Klopfer, The More We Know (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2013).
  • Brenda Laurel, Utopian Entrepreneur (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2001).

All other readings will be via Blackboard.


Assignments (Description of each assignment embedded in class schedule below):

Short Personal Profile 10% (Due Sept. 3)

Blog Post 10% (Due Sept. 24)

Op-Ed Piece 10% (Due Oct. 1)

Written Interview 10% (Due Oct. 15)

Radio Interview 10% (Due Oct. 29)

Scalar Pages 20% (Due Nov. 19)

Personal Reflection 20% (Due Dec.  3)

Class Participation 10%


Tuesday, August 27


  • Course mechanics
  • The historic mission of the intellectual and how it is changing in the digital era
  • Developing your intellectual profile




Assignment: Draft a 1-2 page description of your profile as an intellectual that includes your core background, your primary and secondary intellectual interests, your current online activities, the core conversations to which you wish to contribute, and the primary networks/communities within which you participate. Finally, try your hand at writing an author’s blurb for who you want to be, circa 2020. (Due at the start of class on September 3.)


Tuesday, September 3

The Intellectual in the Public Sphere

  • Ernest Wilson on W.E.B. Du Bois and the tradition of the black public intellectual (6:30-7:45 p.m.)
  • Henry Jenkins and Karen Steinheimer on their experiences testifying before various governmental bodies about research into youth and media violence (8:00-9:30 p.m.)



  • Cornel West, “The Dilemma of the Black Intellectual,” in The Cornel West Reader (New York: Basic, 2000), pp. 302-315.
  • bell hooks, “Black Women Intellectuals,” in Cornel West and bell hooks, Breaking Bread: Insurgent Black Intellectual Life (Boston: South End Press, 1991), pp.147-164.
  • Cornel West, “Why I Left Harvard University,” The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education 47 (Spring 2005), pp. 64-68.
  • Ernest J. Wilson, “Communication Scholars Need to Communicate,” Inside Higher Education, July 29 2013.
  • Henry Jenkins, “Professor Jenkins Goes to Washington,” in Fans, Bloggers and Gamers: Understanding Participatory Culture (New York: New York University Press, 2006), pp. 187-197.
  • Karen Steinheimer, “From Screen to Crime Scene: Media Violence and Real Violence,” in Connecting Social Problems and Popular Culture: Why Media Is Not the Answer (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 2013), pp. 101-138.


Tuesday, September 10

The Policy White Paper

  • Mimi Ito on the drafting of white papers for the MacArthur Foundation’s Connected Learning Initiative (6:45-7:45 p.m.)
  • Michael Levine, Meryl Alper, and Becky Herr-Stephenson on the drafting and reception of “T is For Transmedia” (8:00-9:30 p.m.)


Tuesday, September 17

The Blogosphere and the Performance of Self

  • Elizabeth Losh on her project to write a graphic novel about political communication (6:30-7:45 p.m.)
  • The Aca-Fandom Debate: The Academic Blogosphere at Work (8:00-9:30 p.m.)



  • Elizabeth Losh, Jonathon Alexander, Kevin Cannon, and Zander Cannon, “Spaces for Writing” and “Why Rhetoric?,” in Understanding Rhetoric (Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s Press, 2013), pp. 1-65.
  • Elizabeth Losh and Jonathon Alexander,  “‘A YouTube of One’s Own’: ‘Coming Out’ Videos as Rhetorical Action,” in Christopher Pullen and Margaret Cooper (eds.), LGBT Identity and Online New Media (Routledge, 2010), pp. 23-36.
  • Maria Konnikova, “Why Grad Schools Should Require Blogging,” Scientific American, April 12, 2013.
  • Jason Mittell, “On Disliking Mad Men,” Just TV, July 29, 2010, http://justtv.wordpress.com/2010/07/29/on-disliking-mad-men/.
  • Ian Bogost, “Against Aca-Fans,” Ian Bogost Blog, July 29, 2010.
  • Henry Jenkins, “On Mad Men, Aca-Fandom, and the Goals of Criticism,” Confession of an Aca-Fan, August 11, 2010.
  • Anne Kustritz, Louisa Stein, and Sam Ford, “Aca-Fandom and Beyond,” Part One and Two, Confessions of an Aca-Fan, June 13-15, 2011, Part One, Part Two
  • Henry Jenkins, Erica Rand, and Karen Helleckson, “Aca-Fandom and Beyond,” Part One and Two, Confessions of an Aca-Fan, June 20-23, 2011,
  • John Edward Campbell, C. Lee Harrington, and Catherine Tosenberger, “Aca-Fandom and Beyond,” Part One and Two, Confessions of an Aca-Fan, July 28-29, 2011


Assignment: Write a blog post appropriate for sharing via Confessions of an Aca-Fan or another academic blog. The post should present some aspect of your research in a format that would be engaging to a non-specialist audience. Try to take advantage of the unique features of the web, such as the ability to embed videos or to link to other materials. (Due at the start of class on September 24.)


Tuesday, September 24

The Intellectual in the Court of Public Opinion

  • Workshop student blog posts (6:30-7:45 p.m.)
  • Jeff Brazil on advice for translating academic insights into op-ed pieces (8:00-9:30 p.m.)



  • selected op-ed pieces (TBD)
  • Mary C. Francis (ed.), “In Focus: Scholarly Publishing,” Cinema Journal, Winter 2013, pp. 114-136.


Assignment: Students will write an op-ed piece about some aspect of their research targeted for a specific publication; the op-ed piece should follow basic formulas we were given in class. I am going to be working with the Annenberg news office to try to place as many of these op-eds as possible. (Due at the start of class on October 1.)


Tuesday, October 1

Translating Ideas for Media

  • Jeremy Kagan and Alex Rotaru on translating your ideas into film production (6:30-7:45 p.m.)
  • Drew Morton on the Digital Essay as a new scholarly mode (8:00-9:30 p.m.)


Reading: Students will spend time examining the Media Education Foundation’s Website. Be sure to watch some of the trailers or clips offered for their films.

Ben Sampson, F for Fake:  http://www.tft.ucla.edu/mediascape/Fall09_FForFake.html Drew Morton, Transmedia Style, https://vimeo.com/59355775 Drew Morton, Free Will in THE SHINING, https://vimeo.com/64695910



Tuesday, October 8

The Interview

  • Gordon Stables on the differences between formal debates and media crossfire programs (6:30-7:45 p.m.)
  • Pacifica Radio’s Terrence McNally on interviewing academics (8:00-9:30 p.m.)



  • Henry Jenkins, “Coming Up Next! Ambushed on Donahue,” in Fans, Bloggers, and Gamers: Understanding Participatory Culture (New York: New York University Press, 2006), pp. 198-207.
  • Read at least three interviews from the Figure/Ground Communications Series
  • Listen to at least one episode of Aca-Media, .
  • Terrence McNally, “Q&A: Jane McGonigal,” Stories of a World that Just Might Work, January 24, 2012, podcast. (Please allow time to listen to the podcast.)

Also recommended:


Assignment: Students will complete the interview questions from the Figure/Ground Communications Series. (Due at the start of class on October 15.)

Tuesday, October 15

Scholarship and Curation

  • Joshua Kun on curation and publishing as extensions of his scholarship (6:30-7:45 p.m.)
  • Workshop interviews (8:00-9:30 p.m.)



Joshua Kun has asked us to explore some of the following links that illustrate different dimensions of his current projects:

Assignment: Students will be interviewed by the Annenberg Radio News team about your research.


Tuesday, October 22

Students will be interviewed by members of the Annenberg Radio News Team.


Tuesday, October 29

Digital Scholarship

  • Steve Anderson on electronic publishing and Critical Digital Archives (6:30-8:30 p.m.)
  • Workshop interviews (8:30-9:30 p.m.)



  • Kathleen Fitzpatrick, “Peer Review” and “Texts,” in Planned Obsolescence: Publishing, Technology, and the Future of the Academy (New York: New York University Press, 2011), pp. 15-50, 89-120.
  • Tara Mcpherson (ed.) “In Focus: Digital Scholarship and Pedagogy,” Cinema Journal, Winter 2009, pp. 119-159.
  • Tara McPherson, “Scaling Vectors: Thoughts on the Future of Scholarly Communication,” Journal of Electronic Publishing, Fall 2010
  • Steve Anderson and Tara McPherson, “Digital Scholarship: Thoughts on Evaluating Multimedia Scholarship,” Profession, 2011, pp. 136-151.
  • Check out Critical Commons, http://www.criticalcommons.org.


Assignment: Students will write three pages in Scalar discussing a core concept from their research and using as many of the multimedia capabilities as makes sense in relation to their project. (Due at the start of class on November 19.)


Tuesday, November 5

Beyond the Academy: The Chief Culture Officer

  • Sam Ford on Chief Culture Officers (6:30-7:45 p.m.)
  • Brian David Johnson on doing scholarship embedded within a company (8:00-9:30 p.m.)



  • Grant McCracken, “How to Be a Self-Supporting Anthropologist,” in Riall Nolan (ed.), A Handbook of Practicing Anthropology (New York: Wiley-Blackwell, 2013), pp. 104-113.
  • Sam Ford, “Listening and Empathizing: Advocating for New Management Logics in Marketing and Corporate Communications,” in Derek Kompare, Avi Santo, and Derek Johnson (eds.), Intermediaries: Management of Culture and Cultures of Management (New York: NYU Press, 2014).
  • Henry Jenkins, Sam Ford, and Joshua Green, “How to Read This Book,” in Spreadable Media: Creating Meaning and Value in a Networked Culture (New York: New York University Press, 2013), pp. ix-xv.
  •  Brian David Johnson, “Do Digital Homes Dream of Electric Families?: Consumer Experience Architecture as a Framework for Design,” in Wolfgang Minker, Michael Weber, Hani Hagras, Victor Callagan, and Achilles D. Kameas  (eds.), Advanced Intelligent Environments (New York: Springer, 2009), pp. 27-39.
  • James H. Carrott and Brian David Johnson, “A Futurist and a Cultural Historian Walks into a Bar,” “A Note from the Futurist,”  “We Want to Remember a Time When Our Lives Were Not Made of Plastic,” and “What’s Next?,” in Vintage Tomorrows: A Historian and a Futurist Journey Through Steampunk into the Future of Technology (New York: Make, 2013), pp. 1-14, 283-284, 359-376.


Assignment: Students should write a short five-page reflection sharing their current understanding of the concept of the public intellectual and discussing which models from the class they might choose to pursue in their own career. Be as specific as possible about how these ideas might apply to the intellectual interests you identified in the opening audit. (Due at the start of class on December 3.)


Tuesday, November 12

Risks and Rewards of Industry-Academia Relations

  • Eric Klopfer, Alex Chisholm, and Jason Haas on the NBC IQue Project (6:30-7:45 p.m.)
  • Sandra de Castro Buffington on Hollywood, Health and Society as an intervention into entertainment education (8:00-9:30 p.m.)



  • Jason Haas and Eric Klopfer, The More We Know (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2013).
  • Shiela T. Murphy, Heather J. Hether, Laurel J. Felt, and Sandra de Castro Buffington, “Public Diplomacy in Prime Time: Exploring Potential of Entertainment Education in International Public Diplomacy,” American Journal of Media Psychology 5(1-4), 2012, pp. 5-32.
  • Sandra de Castro Buffington, “Entertaining Health: Inspiring Writers and Producers to Create Storylines that Change Knowledge and Behavior,” Sustain, Spring-Summer 2013, pp. 16-21.
  • Charlotte Lapsansky, Janel S. Schuh, Lauren Movius, Paula D. Woodley, and Sandra de Castro Buffington, “Evaluating the ‘Baby Jack’ Storyline on The Bold and the Beautiful: Making a Case for Bone Marrow Donations,” Cases in Public Health Communication and Marketing 4, 2010, pp. 8-27.
  • Janet Okamoto, Sandra de Castro Buffington, Heather M. Cloum, Brett M. Mendenhall, Michael Toboni, and Thomas W. Valente. “The Influence of Health Knowledge in Shaping Political Priorities: Examining HIV/AIDS Knowledge and Public Opinion about Global Health and Domestic Policies,” Global Public Health 6(8), 2011, pp. 830-842.

Tuesday, November 19

Innovation and Change

  • Jonathan Taplin on the role of centers, labs, and think tanks in fostering innovation (6:30-7:45 p.m.)
  • (tent.) Manuel Castells on the global scholarly community





Tuesday, November 26

Theory, Arts, and Politics

  • Marsha Kinder on scholarly and artistic collaboration on the Labyrinth Project (6:30-7:45 p.m.)
  • Debating feminist porn



  • Marsha Kinder, “Designing a Database Cinema,” in Jeffrey Shaw and Peter Weibel (eds.), Future Cinema: The Cinematic Imaginary After Film (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2003), pp. 342-360.
  • Marsha Kinder will also make some of her digital projects available for access in advance of her session.
  • Editors, “The Politics of Producing Pleasure;” Constance Penley, “A Feminist Teaching Pornography?: That’s Like Scopes Teaching Evolution,” and Tristan Taormino, “Calling the Shots: Feminist Porn in Theory and Practice,” in Tristan Taormino, Celine Parrenas Shimizu, Constance Penley, and Mireille Miller-Young (eds.), The Feminist Porn Book: The Politics of Producing Pleasure (New York: The Feminist Press, 2013), pp. 9-22, 179-200, 255-265.
  • Carole Cadwalladr, “Porn Wars: The Debate That’s Dividing Academia,” The London Observer, June 15, 2013.


Tuesday, December 3

Final Reflections

  • The girls game movement as utopian entrepreneurship
  • Students on their personal goals growing out of the class



  • Brenda Laurel, Utopian Entrepreneur (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2001).
  • Justine Cassell and Henry Jenkins, “Chess for Girls?: Feminism and Computer Games,” in Justine Cassell and Henry Jenkins (eds.), From Barbie to Mortal Kombat (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2000), pp. 2-45.
Categories: Blog

Terminology 101 - A glossary for the sharing economy

MIT Center for Civic Media - August 21, 2013 - 3:14pm

No pun intended: I want to share something with you! I've been collecting terms around the peer economy. Stripped down to its core, this work paradigm is essentially about freelancing. It's 1099s, independent contractors and sole proprietors.

Collaborative, sharing, peer, consumption, economy... Those are enough terms to make heads spin. But I put this to you: These are not interchangeable terms. Read on, because I'm going to make my argument in the form of this fledgling glossary.

Image by MarcoD

Among platforms, analysts and consultants:

  • Collaborative consumption - Popularized by Rachel Botsman in What's Mine is Yours, "collaborative consumption" is an economy where there is net-zero production. On a company level, this looks like the upfront cost of equipment that will be rented out countless times, what Botsman calls a "product service system" (think car sharing or bike sharing). On an individual level, this could be renting out a spare room or other idling asset. In both of these situations, continual production is avoided.
  • Sharing economy - By far the most popular term to capture this networked economy, "sharing economy" encompasses any platform where things are sold directly between individuals, or are shared, bartered or traded.
  • Peer economy - I prefer the term "peer economy" because of my scope of study: platforms that enable people to monetize skills and assets they already have. The peer economy is different from the sharing economy in that it enables individuals to transact [monetarily] between each other. Services like CouchSurfingZipCar and Citibike are excluded from this categorization.
  • Mesh - Investor Lisa Gansky uses "meshiness" to refer to the networked nature of people, societal values and more in this economy. Like "sharing economy," it's a term that is liberally applied.
  • Collaborative economy - Why "collaborative economy" when there's already "collaborative consumption" and two other terms that use "economy?" According to Altimeter analyst Jeremiah Owyang, the other economy terms favor startups and individuals. Incumbent corporations and brands (think Marriott or Daimler) are jumping in, and "peer/sharing economy" are not inclusive enough.

In media:

In other traditions:

  • Informal economy / Système D (sometimes called the hustling economy)- The term "informal economy" has been used widely since the 1970s. Basically, it is any income earned through work that is unregulated. Keith Hart, an anthropologist who popularized the term, had originally meant it to describe workers who add to the economy despite the lack of regulation (i.e.: providing portable clean water in plastic bags, building toilets and charging for their use since there is no public infrastructure for public toilets, etc.). However, it is liberally used to include shadow economy activities such as mobs, and organ, drug and sex trafficking.
    In Stealth of Nations, Journalist Robert Neuwirth has tried to get at Hart's original meaning by repolishing the term "Système D." Système D, an abbreviation of "l'economie de la debrouillardise," is a class of entrepreneurs who identify gaps in public infrastructure as commercial opportunities to provide access to services and technologies (examples of those services are listed above for "informal economy"). In providing these services, these entrepreneurs are accelerating development through an unregulated push and are directly responsible for driving countries forward (i.e.: electronics in Africa, which has spurred technological development in Africa).
  • Portfolio of work - Philosopher Charles Handy uses this term most consistently. He wrote The Elephant and The Flea to reflect on his own experience as a "flea" in light of the increasingly patchwork nature of work, and how that career paradigm may actually enhance quality of life.
  • Circular economy - As a simplification, this means the same thing as "collaborative consumption." As a term, it's been around much longer and is defined by a recycling, closed loop in both production and acquisition. Architect Bill McDonough and chemist Michael Braungart mirror this especially well with the cradle-to-cradle design model, detailed in Crade to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things.
Denise's thesisterminologycollaborative consumptionsharing economypeer economymeshcollaborative economySysteme Dinformal economyportfoliohustling economygig economytemp landcircular economyeducationliteracy
Categories: Blog

Official Launch of NEW MI Website

Howard Gardner - August 20, 2013 - 7:19am

Howard Gardner is pleased to announce the official launch of his NEW website on Multiple Intelligences Theory: http://multipleintelligencesoasis.org/. Visit MI-OASIS today to learn about the latest developments in MI Theory, ask questions, and discuss best practices with teachers, parents, and policy makers. Join the OASIS in a sea of claims! 

Categories: Blog

The “good citizen” and the effective citizen

…My Heart’s in Accra - August 19, 2013 - 1:34pm

With Rewire out in the world, I’ve had some time this August to think about some of the big questions behind our work at Center for Civic Media, specifically the questions I started to bring up at this year’s Digital Media and Learning Conference: How do we teach civics to a generation that is “born digital“? Are we experiencing a “new civics”, a crisis in civics, or just an opportunistic rebranding of old problems in new digital bottles? My reading this summer hasn’t given me answers, but has sharpened some of the questions.

Earlier this summer, I was invited by the Mobilizing Ideas blog to react to Biella Coleman’s excellent book, “Coding Freedom“. In my response, I noted that Coleman’s ethnography of hacker culture makes clear her hacker friends aren’t the stereotypical geeks, surgically attached to their computers, sequestered in their parents’ basement – they go to conventions, write poetry, and engage in political protest, as well as writing code.

The sort of hackers Biella documents engage in politics, and when they do, they’ve got multiple tools they can use. They organize political campaigns and lobby congresspeople, as Yochai Benkler and colleagues so aptly documented in this recent paper on resistance to SOPA/PIPA. They can write code that makes a new behaviors possible, like Miro, written by the Participatory Culture Foundation, which makes peer to peer filesharing and search easier and more user-friedly. They protest artistically, as with Seth Schoen’s DeCSS haiku (which prominently features in Biella’s writing.)

Hackers engage in instrumental activism, seeking change by challenging unjust laws. They engage in voice-based activism, articulating their frustration and dissent from systems they either cannot or are not willing to exit. But hackers aren’t merely competent activists in Biella’s account – they are able to engage in civics in a more broad way than most citizens. In addition to traditional channels for civic engagement, they can engage by creating code, giving them a more varied repertoire of civic techniques than non-coders have. (We might make the same argument for artists, who may be more effective in spreading their voices than those of us with less artistic talent.)

I’ve been thinking about Biella’s hackers in the context of some ideas from Michael Schudson. Schudson is a brilliant thinker about the relationship between media and civic engagement, the question that currently shapes my work at the Center for Civic Media. In his book “The Good Citizen”, and this 1999 lecture, Schudson challenges the idea that a good American citizen is one who carefully informs herself about politicians, their positions and the issues of an election. Schudson argues that this is an unrealistic expectation for citizens, pointing to the absurdity of 200 page Voter’s Guides to Elections that, he argues, nobody reads. (I know for a fact that danah boyd not only reads them, but holds parties to get people to read them with her.) But he also argues that this model of the “informed citizen” is only one model of American citizenship the republic has experienced since its foundation.

In “The Good Citizen”, Schudson explores four models of citizenship the US has passed through in the last two centuries and change. When the nation was founded, citizenship was restricted to a small group of property-owning white men, and elections didn’t focus on issues, but elected men of high status and character, who went on to deliberate in Congress with similar social elites. In the age of party politics, Schudson argues, politics was a carnival, with votes based on personal loyalties and social alliances, not on consideration of the issues.

Not until the Progressive reformers attacked corruption in the party system (an attack which included support for prohibition of alcohol, as party bosses were often tavern owners and the ability to supply voters with drink was a key political technique) did the notion of the informed voter come into play. Progressives, through adoption of the secret ballot, the introduction of referenda and the rise of muckraking investigative journalism, shifted responsibility for politics from a small group of elites and party bosses, to the general public. Schudson observes that the general public hasn’t been especially excited by this shift – participation in elections fell sharply during the progressive era and has been below 50% of eligible voters since.

Now, Schudson argues, we are living in an era where change through elections is less important than change through the courts, an age that began with the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 60s. Informed citizens are important, but their power to make change comes from suing as much as it comes from voting, and activists and lawyers who understand how to challenge constitutionality through the court system are far more powerful than the average citizen.

While he’s critical of the informed citizen model as unrealistic, Schudson is not arguing for the superiority of the rights-based model, or for a return to party bosses. He’s pointing out that America has experienced different visions of what constitutes “the good citizen” and that these visions can change over time.

That’s helpful context for understanding Biella’s hackers. We may be experiencing a shift in citizenship where the idea of the informed citizen no longer applies well to the contemporary political climate. The entrenched gridlock of Congress, the power of incumbency and the geographic polarization of the US make it difficult to argue that making an informed decision about voting for one’s representative in Congress is the most effective way to have a voice in political dialogs.

Instead, we’re seeing activists, particularly young activists, taking on issues through viral video campaigns, consumer activism, civic crowdfunding, and other forms of civic engagement that operate outside traditional political channels. Lance Bennett suggests that we might see these new activists as self-actualizing citizens, focused on methods of civic participation that allow them to see impacts quickly and clearly, rather than following older prescriptions of participation through the informed citizen model.

Biella’s hackers are exemplars of self-actualizing citizens, using code as one of their paths towards self-actualization, alongside traditional political organizing and lobbying. Larry Lessig’s Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace, a book deeply popular with the hackers Biella studies, offers the possibility that these are only two of four paths towards civic engagement and change.

Lessig’s book is written as a warning about possible constraints to the open internet. While many contemporary scholars warned that the lawless internet would come under control of national and local governments, Lessig warned that it would also be regulated through code, which would make some behaviors difficult or impossible to accomplish online. Lessig outlines four ways complex systems tend to be regulated:

- By laws, created and enforced by governments, which prohibit certain behaviors
- By norms, which are created by or emerge from societies, which favor certain behaviors over others
- By markets, regulated and unregulated by laws, which make certain behaviors cheap and others expensive
- By code and other architectures, which make some behaviors difficult and others easy to accomplish

These four methods of regulation are also ways in which activists and other engaged citizens can participate in civics. Citizens frustrated and angered by NSA surveillance of domestic communications, for example, could lobby Congress to hold hearings on whether the NSA has overstepped its bounds, or whether FISA courts are providing sufficient oversight of government surveillance requests. Civic coders could build tools that make use of PGP encryption easier to protect the privacy of emails. Citizens could punish companies that have complied with surveillance requests and reward those who are moving servers outside of the US to make them more surveillance resistant. And people could begin using Tor and PGP routinely, to influence norms of behavior around encryption and make the NSA’s techniques significantly less effective.

These methods are often applied to non-technical issues as well. Social entrepreneurship uses market mechanisms to seek change, paying farmers a fair wage for their coffee, for instance, by buying from collectives rather than from exploitative wholesalers. Social media campaigns focus on harnessing attention and changing norms, bringing underreported issues to wider audiences. Using code to make government more transparent or more effective is a popular, if possibly overhyped, approach to social change. These models may represent a complement to the informed citizen and rights-based citizenship models Schudson examines, representing new civic capabilities in addition to the capability of influencing laws and governments.

Mastering these four capabilities is a tall order for any civic participant, but some activists are trying. Julian Assange has technical skills, as well as a deep understanding of media, which has allowed him to cooperate and compete for attention in working to change norms around secrecy and whistleblowing. His long run from prosecution has sharpened his understanding of legal systems, and, until the financial “blockade” against Wikileaks, he seemed to be doing reasonably well raising money for his project. (My friend Sasa Vucinic, involved with anti-Milosevic radio station B92 and founder of the Media Development Loan Fund, argues that the key to running a successful anti-government newspaper is to get the funding model right and build a sustainable media outlet.) Edward Snowden has proved extremely technically savvy, legally astute and has had an excellent relationship with the global press, essential to gain a wide audience for his revelations.

Schudson’s portrait of citizenship through the ages focuses on the behavior of large groups of citizens. Assange and Snowden are too idiosyncratic to serve as exemplars of a new class of digitally engaged citizens, promoting a new vision of citizenship. But they demonstrate what a highly competent, multifaceted civic participant might look like and I suspect that we will see more citizens leveraging the full suite of tools that Lessig’s structures of regulation point to.

A challenge for those of us who see the shape of civics changing is how we prepare people to participate in civics where the skills required are so diverse. If it’s difficult to expect citizens to be informed voters, as Schudson argues, it’s very difficult to expect them to be coders, entrepreneurs, lawyers and media influencers. We might hope, as Dewey does, that diverse interests will lead to an interlocking public – I care about surveillance and work to change norms, while you write code, and our friend tackles another challenge through social entrepreneurship. Or it may push us back to a democracy enhanced by expertise, as Walter Lippmann suggests, with citizens throwing fiscal and moral support to organizations that lobby for laws, write code, build just markets and influence public debate, leveraging the expertise and skill of those who dedicate their talents to one or more of these facets of citizenship.

I shared a draft of this post with Erhardt Graeff, who pointed out an inherent tension between ideas of the competent and effective citizen and the “good” citizen. The “good” citizens, in Schudson’s exploration, are those who participated in the system of the times, whether or not we see those systems as laudable in retrospect. A particularly cynical version of this idea would posit that today’s “good citizen” is a predictably partisan consumer, deviating as little as possible from the demographic predictions and models built by pollsters and data analysts to ensure that our candidates are correctly marketed to us. Highly participatory and effective citizens would challenge this sort of model, and it’s certainly possible that a democracy composed purely of Assanges and Snowdens would have a hard time functioning.

Erhardt points out that Lessig has been an activist throughout his career, and that his vision of regulation in Code is one consonant with the effective citizen. But can democracy work if all citizens are effective at promoting and campaigning for their own issues? Have we seen evidence of a society with high, effective engagement and with the other characteristics we expect of a democracy? Should a group like Center for Civic Media be working on thinking through models of effective citizenship or considering the larger question of what a large group of effective, engaged citizens could mean for contemporary visions of democracy?

Categories: Blog