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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By Any Media Necessary (Part Four): The NAMLE/MAPP Educator Collaboration

April 7, 2016 - 4:14am

This is the Fourth in a series of posts showcasing the archive and resources we have assembled around our book project, By Any Media Necessary: The New Youth Activism, which is being released by the New York University Press. This book was funded by the MacArthur Foundation’s Youth and Participatory Politics Network and written by Henry Jenkins, Sangita Shresthova, Liana Gamber-Thompson, Neta Kligler-Vilenchik, and Arely Zimmerman.

The NAMLE/MAPP Educator Collaboration

by Michelle Ciulla Lipkin

The exploration of the topics of credibility, remix, agenda shifting and privacy are of utmost importance for media literacy educators. I was thrilled when the organization I lead, The National Association for Media Literacy Education (NAMLE), was asked to develop and implement a strategy to distribute videos and curriculum related to these topics to educators. These Conversation Starter Videos featured as part of the MAPP Project were created through collaboration between MAPP, Participant Media and Joseph Gordon Levitt’s HitRecord. Supporting materials were also developed for the videos to be used in high school and higher education classrooms.

The goal for this particular project was to conduct professional development sessions with the videos and accompanying materials for high school teachers and college professors. NAMLE conducted a series of workshops with the Conversation Starter Videos in various locations around the U.S.A. from July, 2015 – November, 2015. I had the opportunity to coordinate and lead these workshops. I attended NCTE’s WLU Literacies for All Summer Institute in Atlanta, Georgia and the University of Rhode Island’s Summer Institute in Digital Literacy in Providence. I coordinated a professional development session in collaboration with the Jacob Burns Film Center in White Plains, NY and the Newseum in Washington, D.C. I also had the chance to conduct a workshop for Rhode Island librarians as part of the statewide Media Smart Libraries Initiative.

You’d think that in my role as Executive Director of a national education organization that I would have lots of the opportunities to talk directly to teachers. I certainly do my best to create those opportunities but I often find that my time is spent doing lots of other things in support of teachers but not necessarily with them. This project was unbelievably appealing to me because it gave me an opportunity to be face to face with teachers to talk about topics integral to media literacy. The conversations did not disappoint.

Overall, the videos and materials were very well received. Teachers felt the videos were engaging and thoughtful. There were certain themes that resonated throughout the workshops. Teachers are hungry for easily accessible resources to use in their classrooms. They greatly appreciate free resources. It allows all teachers to have access. They want contemporary content that speaks to their students and echoes the type of media their students are consuming and creating. Teachers want the opportunity to decide how they want to use resources in their classroom rather than being told how to use them in a prescriptive way.

As far as the video topics are concerned, there are two points that really stuck out for me. First, the topic of credibility is of tremendous concern to educators. In the workshops that I conducted, teachers were asked to break out into small groups and develop activities using one of the videos. By far, credibility was the one people chose to discuss. There is an evident desire to explore the ways to teach credibility. Teachers feel that the issue of credibility continues to grow more and more complex with the increase of digital technologies that allow access to more and more information. It was apparent that teachers are struggling with how to teach their students the skills they need to assess credible information in a media saturated world.

Second, teachers had the most questions about the remix video, having difficulty understanding the basic concept of remix and how to teach it. It was tough to delve deeply into substantial conversation after the remix video because of the focus on clarifying the topic itself. The divide between the generations was evident here. While youth embrace the remix culture, adults are somewhat confused by it. It is apparent that more tools need to be developed to help teachers comprehend remix and its relevance in their classrooms.

One of the highlights of the project came during the one student workshop we conducted with the Student Leadership Committee of the National Speech and Debate Association. The National Speech and Debate Association is the largest speech and debate organization serving middle school, high school, and college students in the United States. 153 students from 38 states actively participated in our online chat and were very engaged by the material. The video format, music, and style were very appealing to the students. They had a lot of thoughts on the topics, were eager to share their answers with the questions posed in the videos, and were willing to debate points with each other. It was clear these videos sparked conversation for the students.

After conducting these workshops, I conclude the videos and accompanying materials are valuable resources for teachers interested in exploring issues with credibility, remix, agenda shifting, and privacy. Their energetic style with a celebrity host only adds to the appeal for students. It is important to note the videos really do act simply as conversation starters. While they pose important questions and provide discussion prompts, they do not provide answers or practical action steps. Teachers consistently said that they would have appreciated more concrete answers to the questions posed. The use of accompanying materials and additional resources are needed to truly explore the topics.

I was incredibly glad to be able to share media content with teachers for free that could lend itself to important conversation. Watching teachers discuss and debate credibility, remix, agenda shifting and privacy made it apparent how essential media literacy professional development is to the success of a 21st century classroom. Teachers are eager to discuss these topics and enthusiastic about bringing them into the classroom.

As an organization, NAMLE is committed to ensuring that everyone is taught to be a critical thinker, effective communicator and an active citizen. It is no surprise that we are inspired and encouraged by the work of Henry Jenkins and the MAPP project. We were so honored to be part of this project and look forward to seeing how these resources are used in classrooms across the country.


Michelle Ciulla Lipkin has been the Executive Director of NAMLE since September 2012. After graduating from NYU’s Film School in 1994, Michelle began her career in children’s television production, working for Nickelodeon from 1995 – 2000. Michelle returned to NYU to earn her graduate degree at the Gallatin School of Individualized Study.

Michelle focused her grad work on children and television while also continuing to do freelance television production. Since earning her graduate degree, Michelle has been lecturing and doing workshops for parents and children on media use and digital citizenship. Michelle also worked as a facilitator for The LAMP (Learning about Multimedia Project) from 2010 – 2013 teaching media literacy and production classes from Pre-Kindergarten to 5th grade.

For the last 7 years, Michelle has been an active parent in the NYC public school system. Michelle served as Chair of the Chancellor’s Parent Advisory Council, President of the District 3 President’s Council, and President of the P.S. 199 P.T.A. Michelle currently serves on the Parent Association Board and School Leadership Team of M.S. 245, The Computer School. Michelle lives in New York City with her husband, son and daughter.

Categories: Blog

By Any Media Necessary (Part Three): Educator Collaborations with the National Writing Project

April 5, 2016 - 7:43am

This is the third in a series of posts showcasing the archive and resources we have assembled around our book project, By Any Media Necessary: The New Youth Activism, which is being released by the New York University Press. This book was funded by the MacArthur Foundation’s Youth and Participatory Politics Network and written by Henry Jenkins, Sangita Shresthova, Liana Gamber-Thompson, Neta Kligler-Vilenchik, and Arely Zimmerman.

Educator Collaborations with the National Writing Project

by Diana Lee (with materials created by Liana Gamber Thompson, Gabriel Peters-Lazaro, Alexandra Margolin and Sangita Shresthova)

Are you interested in how teachers are using the By Any Media resource to plan lessons? The educators section of byanymedia.org offers an in-depth look at how educators and activists have helped us build on and improve this resource for use in learning spaces by sharing their  lesson planning processes.

Starting in Summer 2014, we began piloting the By Any Media Necessary (BAM) online resource with groups of K-12 educators affiliated with the National Writing Project. This was done in an effort to see how teachers can utilize the resource in their classrooms. Sessions brought together small groups of teachers to informally explore the BAM resource, provide feedback on the utility of the scalar platform and usability of the interface, test drive some of the available materials such as the MAPP workshops anddigital media toolkit, and engage with the sizable archive of media on BAM. For example, high school Economics teacher Albert spoke from experience as a teacher who already incorporates creative use of digital media and technology into his classroom. He described how different aspects of the BAM resource could help him scaffold and build lessons that deepen students’ critical engagement with social issues and how working with these practices and tools could help students learn to express their knowledge and opinions through creative and maker practices that they are passionate about.

Through our conversations, we also sought to understand some of the structural obstacles preventing teachers from working with digital media and technology in their classrooms. For example, high school Language Arts teacher Kate talked with us about administrative and systemic barriers to working with cellphones and other kinds of digital media and technology at her school, and discussed ways that she and other teachers could legitimize this kind of work and navigate around these barriers.

While the MAPP team hopes that BAM is a resource for teachers, we understand that we ourselves are not teachers and therefore the development of lesson and unit plans is not our expertise. Rather than outline how we feel BAM can be used in the classroom, we would like to highlight how actual teachers are using the resource. We hope to continue to partner with teachers who are using BAM in their classrooms in the months ahead.

Also see:

  1. Lesson Plans: Teachers from Locke High School in South LA
  2. Teaching Teachers: Nicole
  3. Conversations with Activists and Educators

Diana Lee is a doctoral candidate at USC’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism who researches the creation and circulation of mediated counter-narratives in response to racial microaggressions. Through multimedia visual culture and storytelling resistance practices, she explores how these networked participatory cultures aim to collectively process, speak back to, or educate about racial microaggressions and their layered, cumulative effects. She is particularly interested in the potential healing and empowering impact of participating in these resistance practices for those who frequently navigate microaggressions in their everyday lives, and how these kinds of engagement can be utilized and fostered for education in other contexts of learning. Before doctoral studies, Diana worked in education research and evaluation, afterschool programming and development, and on several mixed-methods research projects in education, psychology, mental health, immigration, youth culture, media literacy, and communication. Diana holds a B.A. in Sociology from UC Berkeley, an Ed.M. in Learning and Teaching from Harvard Graduate School of Education, and a M.A. in Media, Culture, and Communication from NYU.

Categories: Blog

By Any Media Necessary (Part Two): Conversation Starters on Digital Voice (By Any Media)

March 31, 2016 - 4:47am

This is the second in a series of posts showcasing the archive and resources we have assembled around our book project, By Any Media Necessary: The New Youth Activism, which is being released by the New York University Press. This book was funded by the MacArthur Foundation’s Youth and Participatory Politics Network and written by Henry Jenkins, Sangita Shresthova, Liana Gamber-Thompson, Neta Kligler-Vilenchik, and Arely Zimmerman.

resources curated by: Alexandra Margolin, Gabriel Peters-Lazaro, Sangita Shresthova

The “Conversation Starters on Digital Voice” collection aims to help you get a conversation on By Any Media Necessary started in communities, organizations and educational settings. The core theme shared by all the conversation starter short films in the series is that the nature of political participation is changing in an era of networked communication. More and more we rely on each other for news and information, more and more we work through issues and concerns in conversation with others within our social networks, and more and more we tap the affordances of new media in order to mobilize for change.

As we do so, then, there are practical and ethical challenges: Young people — indeed, all of us — need to take responsibility for the quality of information they circulate, they need to recognize the risks and opportunities of political engagement, they need to understand the copyright implications of their choices to remix and share media, and they need to respect the contributions of others within their community. We want to use these interstitials to help young people to better understand what is at stake in participatory politics and to ask core questions before they act online.

How were these films and materials created?
All the interstitial films were created through collaboration between MAPP, Pivot.tv and Joseph Gordon Levitt’s HitRECord. Below is a little more information about each of the collaborators.

The collaboration started with HitRECord, a self-described “professional open collaborative production company” founded by Joseph Gordon-Levitt. According to Gordon-Levitt:

HITRECORD is different than your typical Hollywood production company. Anyone with the Internet can contribute to our collaborative projects & this website is where we come to make things together, like Short Films, Books, Music, Art, and our latest & greatest production – our television show: HITRECORD ON TV. You can contribute your Video, Image, Text, or Audio RECords to any of the collaborations we’re working on, or you can start your own collaboration on the site. And if your work gets used in a money-making production, we pay you for it. For their work in 2013, the community is receiving a grand total of $737,175.09.

HITRECORD ON TV airs on the Pivot.tv television network which is a component of Participant Media.

Participant Media/Pivot.tv

Participant Media is a media company that serves a double line “dedicated to entertainment that inspires and compels social change.” According to their website:

Founded in 2004 by Jeff Skoll, Participant combines the power of a good story well told with opportunities for viewers to get involved. Participant’s more than 65 films include Lincoln, Contagion, The Help, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, Food, Inc., Waiting For “Superman,” CITIZENFOUR and An Inconvenient Truth. Participant has also launched more than a dozen original series, including “Please Like Me,” “Hit Record On TV with Joseph Gordon-Levitt,” and “Fortitude,” for its television network, Pivot.

Pivot.tv is Participant’s television network where Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s HitRECord is aired. In their own words:

We’re Pivot TV, a new TV network where what you watch does make a difference. We’ve got all the usual stuff like original shows, movies and docs, but we’ve also got a little something more. When you watch Pivot TV, you won’t just be entertained.  You can also take action on the issues raised in our content.  The chance to do something about it will be right there on the screen, or just inside the next commercial break. So go ahead and pivot. You just might be able to make a meaningful difference in the world. Pivot TV: It’s Your Turn.

Media, Activism and Participatory Politics (MAPP)
The Media, Activism and Participatory Politics (MAPP) research team is lead by Henry Jenkins and is based at the University of Southern California (USC). Over the past five years, MAPP conducted five case studies of diverse youth-driven communities that translate mechanisms of participatory culture into civic engagement and political participation.

Building on these findings, the MAPP team partnered with the Media Arts + Practice Division at USC’s School of Cinematic Arts to create resources, conversation starters and workshops that encourage participants to think critically about previous examples of civic media and act creatively as they draw on their own experiences and aspirations to translate these insights into their own media practice. These resources and workshops currently live in the “By Any Media Necessary” collection and can be accessed at byanymedia.org.

What does this collection contain?

This collection contains the following:

Films: Four short conversation-starter films created through a partnership between HitRecord, Pivot and the Media, Activism and Participatory Politics (MAPP) Project at USC. The films cover the following digital age topics: credibility, private vs. public, remix and shifting the agenda

Resource Packets: Four corresponding resource packets with sample questions, key points, key term definitions, and examples that will help you identify ways that these films may serve your community or students

Supplemental Resources: Additional article resources on related topics to help you further explore the topics covered.

Conversation Starter Topic: Credibility in the Digital Age


How do we assess the quality of information we encounter online? What accountability and responsibility should we have over the integrity of the social justice content we decide to circulate? And how prepared should we be to defend the claims we make to support our arguments around political issues? According to a recent survey conducted by the MacArthur Foundation’s Youth and Participatory Politics Network, 85 percent of high school aged youth want more help in learning to discern the credibility of the information they encounter online. For us, this issue is most powerfully raised by our case study of Invisible Children’s Kony2012campaign, but it is also one which almost every public awareness effort confronts sooner or later.

Conversation Starter Topic: Shifting the Agenda in the Digital Age

How might identity groups use media to react to, reshape, or even control the narrative being constructed about them in mainstream media? We are seeing many of the groups we study — but especially the DREAM activists and the American Muslim networks respond quickly to news stories or popular culture programming that they feel places them in a negative light. They are using their collective capacities to pull together information, critique representation, construct alternative narratives, and get them into circulation, often in ways that commands the attention of major news organizations. In part, these strategies work because of the ways they are able to quickly mobilize dispersed and decentralized networks that are invested in helping them spread content.

Conversation Starter Topic: Public vs. Private in the Digital Age

How might activists assess risks, especially those concerning privacy and security, as they share their stories online? In a widely shared critique of so-called “Twitter Revolutions,” The New Yorker’s Malcolm Gladwell argues that online activists do not face the same kinds of risks as previous generations faced in their struggles for civil rights. Yet, we are finding that there are high risks for, say, undocumented who post videos coming out via YouTube or American Muslim youth who use social media to think through their identities in the Post-9/11 era. Many of these risks emerge as these youth make choices about the bounds between publicity (“coming out,” “speaking out”) and privacy, which are similar to more mundane choices confronting all youth in the era of Twitter and Facebook.

Conversation Starter Topic: Remix in the Digital Age

How can appropriating and remixing content from popular culture lead to new kinds of political consciousness? And, how do activists who appropriate and remix  existing media in their campaigns resolve issues around copyright? These are the sorts of topics that prompted the Remix conversation starter video collaboration with HitRECord.

We are seeing examples of the merging of the identities of fans and citizens across a range of political movements — most spectacularly in our work through the Harry Potter Alliance and the Nerdfighters, but also in the use of remix for political expression via the Occupy Wall Street movement (like the Pepper Spray Cop memes), the protests against Gov. Walker in Wisconsin,  “Binders Full of Women” during the 2012 Presidential Campaign, and the use of the Guy Fawkes mask, most closely associated in the United States with V for Vendetta, by a range of activist groups, including Anonymous.

Remix promotes a mode of political speech that can be easy to understand, funny and powerful. It contrasts with the policy wonk language that often excludes youth from meaningful participation. Within this context, copyright can be seen as “private censorship” that silences a particular kind of expression. Creative activists need to understand the basic criteria of Fair Use and make informed choices as they quote and circulate pre-existing media. Diving into these complex issues with your organization, community or students can open up many opportunities for meaningful learning. In classroom contexts especially, remix practices may intersect with questions around plagiarism and present a productive context in which to develop best practices for citation and appropriate use of existing content for purposes of critique and transformative work. This video is meant to be a starting place and jumping off point. More context, resources, and topics to consider are provided below.

You can also download “Conversations on Digital Voice” resources and videos here.


Alexandra Margolin is the Project Manager for the Mellon Funded Digital Humanities Initiative at the Claremont Colleges. She comes from a background in Ethnic Studies, non-profit project management, and grassroots media production having spent the last 6 years working on non-profit and higher education grants. Prior to joining Claremont’s Digital Humanities team, Alex served as the Program Specialist for the Media Activism & Participatory Politics (MAPP) project at USC which examined participatory models of youth activism and was responsible for the project’s outward facing programming with activists and educators. She received her B.A. in history from Pitzer College and an M.A. in Asian American Studies from UCLA. Her research interests include: social constructions of multiraciality through foodways, social justice learning, and alternative modes of storytelling.

Gabriel Peters-Lazaro is an assistant professor of the practice of cinematic arts in the Division of Media Arts + Practice at the USC School of Cinematic Arts where he researches, designs and produces digital media for innovative learning. As a member of the Media, Activism and Participatory Politics (MAPP) project he works to develop participatory media resources and curricula to support new forms of civic education and engagement for young people. He helped create The Junior AV Club, a participatory action research project exploring mindful media making and sharing as powerful practices of early childhood learning. He teaches graduate and undergraduate courses on digital media tools and tactics, digital studies and new media for social change. He received his B.A. in Film Studies from UC Berkeley, completed his M.F.A in Film Directing and Production at UCLA and is a Ph.D. candidate in Media Arts + Practice.

Sangita Shresthova is the Director of the MacArthur funded Henry Jenkins’ Media, Activism & Participatory Politics (MAPP) project based at the University of Southern California. MAPP focuses on civic participation in the digital age and includes research, educator outreach, and partnerships with community groups and media organizations, and companies. Sangita’s own scholarly work focuses on the intersections among popular culture, performance, new media, politics, and globalization. She holds a Ph.D. from UCLA’s Department of World Arts and Cultures and MSc. degrees from MIT and LSE. Her book on Bollywood dance and globalization (Is It All About Hips?) was published by SAGE Publications in 2011. Drawing on her background in Indian dance and new media, she is also the founder of Bollynatyam’s Global Bollywood Dance Project. Her more recent research has focused on issues of storytelling and surveillance among American Muslim youth and the achievements and challenges faced by Invisible Children pre-and-post Kony2012. She is also one of the authors on By Any Media Necessary: The New Activism of Youth, a forthcoming book that will be published by NYU Press.

Categories: Blog

By Any Media Necessary (Part One): The Book Companion as Multimodal Scholarship

March 29, 2016 - 12:06pm

Later this month, New York University Press will release my newest book, By Any Media Necessary: The New Youth Activism. This book reflects seven plus years of field work which I have conducted with Sangita Shresthova, my research director, and our Media, Activism, and Participatory Politics research team. This work has been funded by the MacArthur Foundation as part of their ongoing support for Digital Media and Learning and in particular, as an outgrowth of the multi-disciplinary, multi-university research network on Youth and Participatory Politics (headed by Joseph Kahne, Mills College).  Our research team interviewed more than 200 young activists as well as monitored their media strategies, seeking to better understand the mechanisms by which these groups tapped the existing skills and interests of young people and helped them channel these resources and literacies towards civic ends.  Here’s the official description for the book:

There is a widespread perception that the foundations of American democracy are dysfunctional, public trust in core institutions is eroding, and little is likely to emerge from traditional politics that will shift those conditions. Youth are often seen as emblematic of this crisis—frequently represented as uninterested in political life, ill-informed about current-affairs, and unwilling to register and vote. By Any Media Necessary offers a profoundly different picture of contemporary American youth. Young men and women are tapping into the potential of new forms of communication such as social media platforms, spreadable videos and memes, remixing the language of popular culture, and seeking to bring about political change—by any media necessary. In a series of case studies covering a diverse range of organizations, networks, and movements involving young people in the political process—from the Harry Potter Alliance which fights for human rights in the name of the popular fantasy franchise to immigration rights advocates using superheroes to dramatize their struggles—By Any Media Necessary examines the civic imagination at work. Before the world can change, people need the ability to imagine what alternatives might look like and identify paths by which change can be achieved. Exploring new forms of political activities and identities emerging from the practice of participatory culture, By Any Media Necessary reveals how these shifts in communication have unleashed a new political dynamism in American youth.

Each of the book’s co-authors — which include beyond myself and Shresthova, Liana Gamber-Thompson, Neta Kligler-Vilenchik, and Arely Zimmerman  — took ownership of one or more specific case study of youth activists at work. Our exemplars include Invisible Children’s Kony 2012 campaign, the Harry Potter Alliance and the Nerdfighters, The DREAMer movement, Students for Liberty, and a range of projects within the American Muslim community. But the overarching themes of the book emerged from many years of intense discussions amongst the writers, including the core theoretical frame I helped to provide in the opening and closing chapters. We’ve already received some great responses to the book:


“A far reaching book that explores the many different digital strategies and platforms young people use to have their voices heard and their political agendas advanced. The case studies at the heart of this book are powerful,  telling the story of how young people across demographic categories are using digital media to engage in a new form of politics—Participatory Politics—that is destined to significantly shape  civic life for years to come.”

—Cathy J. Cohen,  author of Democracy Remixed: Black Youth and the Future of American Politics

“Fantasy is not an escape from our world; it’s an invitation to go deeper into it. The most relevant book of our era, it will undoubtedly inspire you and those you love to join the millions of people who are transforming our world: by any media necessary.”

—Andrew Slack, creator/co-founder of the Harry Potter Alliance


“A much-needed narration of political agency that tackles its many contradictions head-on, without losing sight of nuance. The book’s case studies, rich in detail, are wonderful invitations to think more and better about the role of empathy, care, ethics, empowerment, and participation in our contemporary political realities.”

—Nico Carpentier, Uppsala University, Sweden

“Understanding the connections between practices of media consumption and enduring civic engagement is one of the most exciting challenges that cultural studies currently faces. For over a decade, Henry Jenkins has been exploring this issue, and now he and an excellent team of co-authors offer the most searching examination of this question for a US context that we have.  An inspiring and enlivening book, this is a definite must read!”

—Nick Couldry, London School of Economics and Political Science


As we’ve prepared the book for publication, we’ve also developed some additional online resources which educators and activists might use to foster discussions around its core themes of transmedia activism, the civic imagination, and digital citizenship. Over the next few installments of this blog, I will be sharing with you reports from members of our larger research team, describing how these resources were developed and how we have been working in partnership with several core educational networks — the National Writing Project and the National Association of Media Literacy Educators — to test these approaches with educators. I am hoping you will check out our online site,  byanymedia.org, and consider how you might make use of these materials in your own context.

The Book Companion as Multmodal Scholarship

by Yomna Elsayed

As a book about new forms of political activism that have emerged from the practices of participatory cultures in the past few decades, By Any Media Necessary approaches publishing in a way that addresses the multimodality of each case study, from web pages and social media to remixes and videos. The role of the online book companion is to extend the dimensionality of every chapter with a chapter summary and its accompanying audio-visual content. Hence, print chapters should be read concurrently with their companion chapter to get a more holistic understanding of the type of activist practices discussed and referenced in the case studies.

The hybrid design, with both digital and print components, and the choice of Scalar as a platform, is a reflection of the authors’ appreciation of the digital scholarship tradition lead by Tara McPherson and Steve Anderson. In the book companion, the multi-modal artefacts are given center stage while the summary text is used to provide the context of the audio-visual content. Multimodality, Tara McPherson notes, helps scholars “understand their arguments and their objects of study differently” by experiencing the argument “in a more immersive and sensory-rich space” (McPherson 2009).

While mostly amateurish, the value of showcasing digital artefacts, such as confessional videos, or campaign ads around which action was organized, is not to highlight the videos themselves as much as it is to highlight the practices they facilitate. These media objects also signal a shifting relationship between consumers and media products, and a networked mode of visual expression .

The book companion path is composed of seven pages. Each page revolves around one of the book chapters, providing a summary of key ideas and concepts as well as any referenced audio-visual content in the print version. It also connects with the groups/organizations path, media library and the glossary to provide readers with new pathways to follow the argument in a non-linear fashion. The intent of non-linearity is to explore new relationships and new research questions that “are not necessarily based on the structure of a linear argument” 1. The book companion can be accessed through the main menu at byanymedia.org.



McPherson, T. (2009). Media Studies and the Digital humanities. Cinema Journal 48 (2), pp. 119-123

Yomna Elsayed is a PhD student at the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. She is a research assistant for the MAPP project. Her research interests include the cultural productions and manifestations surrounding social change in the Arab World and Egypt in specific. She is also interested in online technologies and how they are appropriated by youth to overcome cultural and political barriers, and to engage in a process of public will formation at a time of social conflict.

Categories: Blog

Reading Hellboy: An Interview with Scott Bukatman (Part Two)

March 24, 2016 - 8:10am

You evocatively but fleetingly describe comics as “little utopias of disorder.” What do you mean by that phrase? I can see this phrase evoking a tradition of visually dense comics representations, running from Outcault to Kurtzman/Elder, and going back to Hogarth and other pre-comics graphic artists, even to the splash pages of Jack Kirby. But it relates oddly to Mignola, whose work seems so precise, so disciplined, and as you suggest later, so static. So walk us through the tensions you see at play in Hellboy stylistically.

Yes, I introduced that “little utopias” thing in my last book, The Poetics of Slumberland: Animated Spirits and the Animating Spirit, where I indeed deployed it with reference to early comics and the “chicken fat” of Will Elder’s work. It’s much more evident in that context. But I continue, in Hellboy’s World, to explore is the “subversive” power of images and what Walter Benjamin referred to as “riotous” colors.

Comic books have ever been far from true respectability, even in this age of graphic novels and superhero films. They presented (and present) avenues of escape for many kids, adolescents, and adults.

Mignola’s work has the precision that you describe, but Hellboy is still proudly a COMIC BOOK, with all the “BOOM” sound effects that that implies. It’s aimed at a sophisticated comics reader, but proudly retains more than enough of that original, primordial punch, that utopic, disruptive power.

This is why I emphasize what I call the “monstrousness” of comics — their marginality within our culture gives them a sneaky irresistibility that Jules Feiffer honored in his recent memoir, and that creators like Feiffer, Harvey Kurtzman and R. Crumb fully recognized.

I couldn’t resist bringing in the marginalia of medieval illuminated manuscripts, images that often commented ironically on the “official” text. My colleagues in art history were surprised that I was so interested in illuminated manuscripts, but really I was interested in the scholarship — Michael Camille and Martha Rust write about these objects in terms that speak very clearly to the ways that comics work. Camille’s writing on the “monstrous” helped me to recognize that Hellboy is a monster, but so is the Hellboy comic.

Your focus on world-building in Hellboy seems at once familiar given the wide-spread use of worlds as a concept in our field at the moment. But then it becomes clear that you are breaking with a concept of world that emerges from Tolkien’s focus on secondary creation to focus on one which emerges from Eric Hayor’s On Literary Worlds. What do you see as the key differences between these approaches and what do you see as the advantages of drawing on Hayot? In what ways do you need to go beyond Hayor’s notion of the literary to account for world-building in comics?

I’m indebted to Hillary Chute for steering me to Hayot’s work in her (then) anonymous reader’s report on the Hellboy’s World manuscript. It was a game-changer for me. I’d been focussed on what you call “secondary creation” in thinking about the world of Hellboy — the cast of characters, the cosmology, the look-and-feel of the comics, but Hayot’s emphasis on the necessary intersections of our world with a literary world, and the ways that those intersections are articulated helped open up new ways of understanding Hellboy.

Hayot emphasized internal cohesions, meanings that emerge within the network of the book’s language (an allusion here and another one there), the broader network that could encompass a book’s relation to its larger genre, or the world that emerges over the course of a series, or even to literature itself. Hayot also emphasizes the extent to which aspects of the world go unarticulated, and the ways that texts encourage or discourage questions about such “off-camera” elements.

To put it way more briefly, On Literary Worlds helped me to grapple with levels of “worldedness” that would have otherwise eluded me. I actually had little trouble applying his work to comics — other parts of his book were less relevant to me, but not because they were inappropriate to writing about comics.

You introduce here the concepts of Chromophobia and Chromophilia. Why do some people fear colors and others embrace them? Why do we lack a conceptual vocabulary for discussing the roles which color plays in popular art forms like comics, even as the potentials of comics as a medium have often been shaped by their expanding capacity to reproduce color with more and more nuance? To what degree is our ability to write meaningfully about color as scholars shaped by own printing processes and the fact that the press allowed you numerous color illustrations?

What great questions. Before turning to comics, we could note just how little writing there is on color in cinema studies. The canonical Film Art: An Introduction by Bordwell and Thompson lacks any dedicated exploration on color (and this is a book that places everything in some kind of taxonomy), and even the index entries are minimal. There are two areas where studies of film’s aesthetics and affect continually fall short: color and performance. And when they are taken up, it’s often through the lens of semiotics: the “meaning” of color in a symbolic system, for example, or the “star” as a signifying system.

I think we lack vocabularies for dealing with both of these with any precision, but it may be that they’re simply ineffable and resistant to quantification and even description. David Batchelor’s book Chromophobia does a wonderful job of detailing western culture’s and art history’s resistance to color, which is frequently aligned with the childish, the primitive, the Other. I wonder whether the suspect place of comics in American culture has something to do with all that color (“All in Color for a Dime”). Images are already suspect — add some saturated color and the sensory/sensual experience threatens to overwhelm rationality and control.

But I very much like your point about the dearth of color reproductions in books on film and comics —  you just cannot illustrate a discussion of Black Narcissus with a black and white image. And Mike Mignola is composing black and white art but with specific uses of color firmly in mind. I could not imagine writing anything significant about Hellboy’s aesthetic without foregrounding the work of Dave Stewart (one of the great colorists in comics, for the Mignola-verse and elsewhere).

I had a publisher interested in Hellboy’s World, but without any color images, so I had to look elsewhere. Mary Francis at University of California Press fully understood the need for vibrant (and accurate) color, but I was floored at the press’s willingness to give me 70 color images spread throughout the book rather than stuck in a separate section. Frankly, I think the physical object of Hellboy’s World raises the bar on what scholarship on comics should look like, and I’m hugely indebted to the designers.

I’m delighted, by the way, to see that Hillary Chute’s new book, Disaster Drawn: Visual Witness, Comics, and Documentary Form, is super-careful about reproduction, including color comics pages presented in color. Will books like these, and publishers willing to produce them, change comics scholarship? There’s still too much writing on comics that doesn’t effectively deal with images, so a full consideration of color might remain the province of a few aesthetes like myself. I hope not!

When we’re discussing the need for color images as well as plentiful images, I have to stress how lucky it was that the comic that most compelled me to write was a creator-owned property. From the start, when Mignola quickly granted permission to reprint a couple of images in my initial Critical Inquiry essay, to the book, where he not only raised no objection to my using ever more of his work (including on my book cover) but had the folks at Dark Horse Comics send me high-resolution files of every single one, his cooperation made the work of this book possible.

Had I been writing about a corporate-owned character, my image options would have been far more limited, and would have affected the direction of the book. This is a huge problem for comics studies and I unintentionally dodged a bullet there. I can say that, without question, this book wouldn’t have existed without my ability to illustrate it effectively. Oh, and Mignola sat down for lunch and conversation with me one afternoon, which didn’t hurt either.

You are attentive throughout the book to the materiality of comics as a printed and bound format, an issue that interests me very much also in my own current book project. To what degree is our awareness of the materiality of comics shifting as we move from the disposable form of the floppy towards a more durable format associated with today’s graphic novel? And to what degree has, say, the size and nature of the page, as a physical surface, shaped our experience of reading comics going back to the early newspaper strips you discussed in your Slumberland book? 

I was amazed at the dearth of literature that really dealt with the materiality of the book as an object. Phenomenologies of reading by people like Wolfgang Iser are really effective at exploring the ways that texts address and position their readers, but the actual object in one’s hands receives scant attention. Georges Poulet goes so far as to claim that the material book disappears once one begins to read it. Um, no.

And it seemed to me that comics have an emphatic materiality of their own through which the broader materiality of the book can be brought to light. Comics images have an indisputable presence on the page that printed words don’t. Different editions of A Tale of Two Cities will use different fonts, but this is considered a pretty immaterial difference — a difference without a distinction — whereas the comics page  bears, in addition to its symbolic signs, an iconic and even an indexical presence. We read comics, but we also look at them in ways that we don’t look at blocks of text.

It’s a big claim, but I think that consideration of the comic book (and the illustrated children’s book) can foreground aspects of the process of reading more broadly, even as they also have their own unique pleasures. And I do think that my awareness of this comes with the explosion of lustrous comics publications, from elaborate book-objects by Chris Ware to full-scale reprints of Little Nemo in Slumberland.

Comics have an undeniable material presence in my life and on my straining bookshelves, and much of my own engagement with comics is inseparable from my engagement with those particular books. The Hellboy bug bit me when I saw Mignola’s art in the Library Edition reprints from Dark Horse Comics. Final thought: I actually read a lot of comics on my iPad, and enjoy them just fine, but some things demand something more… physical.

Does the emergence of web comics render the idea of print an option rather than a feature of comics and thus invite contemporary graphic artists to really wallow in the pleasures of the printed object?

I really like this question, and I think there’s something to it, but I wouldn’t want to reduce this to a technologically determinist argument. I think Ware’s dedication to the book speaks to something more fundamental in him, though a lament for the “decline” of print might well be a part of his motivation by now.

 Scott Bukatman is a cultural theorist and Professor of Film and Media Studies at Stanford University. His work examines how popular forms (film, comics) and genres (science fiction, musicals, superhero narratives) mediate between new technologies and human perceptual and bodily experience, and explores phenomenologies of viewing and reading. His books include Terminal Identity: The Virtual Subject in Postmodern Science Fiction, the British Film Institute monograph on Blade Runner; the essay collection Matters of Gravity: Special Effects and Supermen in the 20th CenturyThe Poetics of Slumberland: Animated Spirits and the Animating Spirit (University of California Press), and the forthcoming Hellboy’s World: Comics and Other Monsters on the Margins (University of California Press). His work has appeared in, among other places, Camera Obscura, October, and Critical Inquiry.

Categories: Blog

Reading Hellboy: An Interview with Scott Bukatman (Part One)

March 22, 2016 - 7:47am

I’ve been watching Scott Bukatman grow as a scholar for several decades now — from his first writings about science fiction film, television, and literature (Terminal Identity) through his early writing about Superheroes and comics (Matters of Gravity) to his explorations of early comics and animation (The Poetics of Slumberland). I’ve long admired him as a scholar who can write about a broad range of media genres and practices, as an art historian who moves across high and low, as an original voice who brings a fresh and compelling perspective to everything he writes about, and as someone whose work is consistently witty and fun to read. So, I came into his newest book, Hellboy’s World: Comics and Other Monsters on the Margins, with high expectations, but page by page, he surpassed them.

We’ve long been traveling along parallel paths — representing different roots (he combines the formal with the phenomenological, I combine the formal with cultural studies, at least when we are both writing about the popular arts), but I learned something new on every page here, as he offers us a rich way into the comics of Mike Mignola, which among other things, thinks about the pleasures of reading words and pictures, the expressive use of color, the process of world-building, the relationship of comics to sculpture, and the expressive/emotive potential of color. All of which make this much more than a monograph about a single author and his work — Hellboy’s World is really a manifesto for a different kind of comics studies.

This two-part interview will give you only a taste of the riches that await you there.

Much as you describe yourself in the book’s opening, I am someone who has dabbled around the edges with Hellboy, reading some issues, but not figuring out how or why to dig deeper. You obviously like him well enough to write a book about Hellboy, so give me a rec. Why should we read him and why should we read a book about him?

Well, I had read some of the early stories, but never realized that a significant cosmology was unfolding in Hellboy and its later spin-off titles, BPRD in particular. I saw Hellboy as aesthetically lovely but narratively limited — I just couldn’t have been more wrong about that (I also hated Bowie when I was in high school. Unbelievable.)

The work is narratively complex, and in many ways it flies against the trends of the past few decades of superhero comics. Dialog is used sparingly so that the images and pages have room to breathe, characters’ backstories are presented briefly but affectingly, the Mignola-verse encompasses a satisfyingly coherent range of visual and narrative styles…

And as I dug into the beautiful, large-scale Library Editions of the Hellboy comics, I found more and more to think about and want to write about: Mignola’s aesthetic and approach to the page, the shared universe he and his collaborators were building, the intersection of Hellboy et al with other genres and worlds — all of these were compelling, but what really did the trick was looking at the Hellboy films and finding them so wanting. The Hellboy films helped me think about what comics were, and what were the specific pleasures about reading them. Mignola’s work came to epitomize comics for me.

You’ve been doing comic studies longer than most of us. How would you characterize the status of this field? What has it meant to you to be studying comics in the context of an art history department? Clearly it comes through when you write here about Rodin or Goya but…

I’m not so great at these “state of the field” questions, but I’m excited that comics studies has become an emergent field. There are still no comics studies jobs in the world, but more departments (like my own) are willing to entertain comics offerings with increasing regularity.

The field is still far too content-driven — many scholars come from lit departments, and all too often the words are taken to be the thing itself. I’m happier when folks remember that comics are words and images that exist in a complicated equilibrium. I also think there’s too much emphasis on identity politics, but that makes perfect sense when you look at graduate students and junior faculty who must demonstrate their seriousness of purpose while studying comics.

I often find a big disconnect between the ways younger scholars write about comics (critical distance!) and how they talk about them (fanboys/girls!) — I’d like to see that gap close, have scholars simply own their love of them comics.

As for working in an art department — I think I have become much more engaged with non-moving images after nearly two decades in an art department (I come from film studies), and enjoy engaging with them — it certainly allows me to privilege the aesthetic experiences that comics provide.

You begin the book by evoking Walter Benjamin and he hovers over your text as a key influence. So, what does Benjamin have to contribute to contemporary comics studies? To what degree does Benjamin inspire the persistent focus on the reader’s experience — what you call “the adventure of reading” — across your book?

Yes, my book begins with a long passage from Benjamin where he evokes the experience of a child reading, and it’s writing that just sings to me as a reader, a reader of comics, and a scholar. I’m forced to admit that, much as I love comics, it was cinema (which emerged at the same time that comics became a mass medium) that became the medium of the 20th century. Within a few decades of its invention, there was already an amazing literature exploring the implications of cinema’s particular mode of address, its place in the modern world, even its potential to epitomize the modern world.

Comics did not (and pretty much do not) generate the same kind of philosophical rumination. Cinema is more profound in its address to the body and to perception, its reshaping of our experience of space and time, and in its immersive hold.

So I decided to take another tack, to try to understand what special purchase reading comics could have upon us (or me, at least). We call people who engage with comics “readers,” and in this evolving transmedial landscape I’m really interested in what it is we do when we read comics. What makes it a unique experience? What was it about reading Hellboy that did not survive the transition to film?

And Benjamin’s early writings on book collecting, illustrated children’s books, color, and reading emerged for me as hugely relevant to the consuming pleasures of reading comics. Our engagement with comics constitutes a more intimate experience than with cinema, and it  foregrounds the ways that we read. In many ways, it returns us to, and builds upon, our childhood experience of picture books, and to our early experience of books as precious objects in our lives and our imaginations.

So, where Stan Brakhage tried to recapture what he called the “adventure of perception” in his filmmaking, I’m suggesting that comics offer up an “adventure of reading.” Not all comics do this, nor do all readers. But it’s there, and it’s significant.

Scott Bukatman is a cultural theorist and Professor of Film and Media Studies at Stanford University. His work examines how popular forms (film, comics) and genres (science fiction, musicals, superhero narratives) mediate between new technologies and human perceptual and bodily experience, and explores phenomenologies of viewing and reading. His books include Terminal Identity: The Virtual Subject in Postmodern Science Fiction, the British Film Institute monograph on Blade Runner; the essay collection Matters of Gravity: Special Effects and Supermen in the 20th CenturyThe Poetics of Slumberland: Animated Spirits and the Animating Spirit (University of California Press), and the forthcoming Hellboy’s World: Comics and Other Monsters on the Margins (University of California Press). His work has appeared in, among other places, Camera Obscura, October, and Critical Inquiry.
Categories: Blog

Syllabi as Cultural Artifacts: MIT’s Introduction to Media Studies (Part Four)

March 17, 2016 - 9:15am

What follows are Sasha Costanza-Chock’s reflections on teaching the most recent iteration of this class:

Sasha Costanza-Chock:

I feel honored to be part of this conversation! Reading everyone’s comments on the evolution of CMS100 provides such rich insight into the evolution of our field(s) as a whole; the unique institutional birth, struggles, and rise of CMS/W within MIT; broader transformations in our media system and in the paradigms that shape our understanding of media; and our own personal/political pathways as media scholars, makers, and activists. I taught the most recent instance of the course, in the fall of 2015; my syllabus is here (http://bit.ly/cms100-2015).

This is my fifth year as a faculty member at MIT, but it was my first time teaching CMS.100. I really enjoyed reworking the syllabus and teaching the course, not least because it was the largest group of MIT undergrads I’ve had the chance to work with so far. They did amazing work last semester! Reflecting on my approach to the course in the context of this conversation about its history, I’ve organized my thoughts into continuities with the past, transformation in the present, and opportunities for the future.  


Still hands-on. I worked hard to minimize lectures and incorporate hands-on learning activities and workshops throughout the semester. I really wanted students to explore key concepts through making.

Over the course of the term, they shared media objects with one another and created their own collaborative Media History Timeline; conducted a mini-autoethnography during a 24-hour media fast; analyzed front-page newspaper attention using PageOneX; explored web-based remix tools like NewsJack, deconstructed and remixed ads; and produced an open-format final project that included a written component, but for those who preferred, could also include a media-making activity.

The hands-on workshops aren’t stand-alone; they’re tied to readings and discussions of key texts and serve to reinforce the diverse methodologies that media scholars employ (historical research, qualitative and/or quantitative textual analysis, interviews and ethnography, political economy, critical theory, and so on).  

For example, early in the semester there’s a hands-on workshop where we use the PageOneX tool (http://bit.ly/pageonex-draft-2015) to explore front page newspaper attention to media events; after that students write short papers around an analysis they conduct using the tool. This is after reading about the history of systematic content analysis as a subfield of media studies, including Chomsky & Herman’s well known polemic but also tracing ‘column-inch’ metrics of newspaper attention back over a hundred years. Several of the students chose to create visualizations of news attention to recent social movements. Their short PageOneX papers are here, with an example visualization by a student (below) of how Ferguson coverage shifted over time from framings of ‘unrest’ to ‘police brutality’ to ‘racism’:


Front page newspaper coverage of Ferguson over time

“In the above graphs (data compiled by [a PageOneX user]), blue corresponds with discussion of the events in Ferguson directly, purple indicates columns about police brutality, and green is general discussion of racism.” — From A CMS100 student paper


Still comparative across methods, theoretical frameworks, platforms, time, geography, still no canon. This seems to have been consistent in all iterations of the course. Although we all come from somewhat different intellectual trajectories, happily it seems like none of us have tried to insist on a single canonical set of texts for orienting students to media studies. How could we?

Although it does seem that the course content drifts back and forth between versions of ‘media studies’ that are rooted in literature, then branch out steadily to encompass other platforms, and those that begin from an ‘always already’ heterodoxy of theory & methods mobilized into the shared study of media as texts, objects, platforms, infrastructure, and in all the other ways described in this thread.


A shift towards civic media. I’m biased, because this is my wheelhouse, but I do think there’s been recent increased attention (both scholarly and popular) to the relationship between media and social change. In part, I believe this is because of the recent global cycle of struggles that kicked off with the Arab Spring, inspired Occupy, and now percolates through the steady pressure of #BlackLivesMatter. Students’ experience of the media ecology now includes the regular eruption of social movements into networked consciousness, through hashtag activism, transmedia mobilization, and transformative media organizing.

My version of the course includes a sustained, semester-long conversation about these dynamics. This includes classic approaches like public sphere theory, Nancy Fraser’s critiques of Habermas, a unit on civil disobedience in the information age that moves from Thoreau through Critical Art Ensemble and to Gabriella Coleman on Anonymous, as well as a discussion of networked social movements that draws from the Occupy Research network study of movement media practices.

I’m not arguing that all media studies can, or should, focus on activism, but I do see (and advocate for) a shift to recenter questions of the relationship between media and movements, civic engagement, and social transformation as fundamental to our field. Students are inheriting a world in crisis, and as educators we do have a responsibility to connect them to the many threads in media theory & practice that they can use to find possible pathways forward.



Connection with MIT’s history. Rereading this conversation and thinking more about the history of contributions to media in both theory and practice that have emerged from MIT, the next time I teach this class I’ll work harder to incorporate those contributions. Shannon, Bush, Chomsky, Leacock, Turkle … although I did manage to bring in Jenkins during spring 2015, both in the readings on convergence and in the flesh

A full reframing through the lenses of race, gender and gender identity, class, sexual orientation, disability, intersectionality. Although some of this happened, I feel like my first version of CMS.100 still suffered from a bit of ‘let’s do race this week, gender next week, class the next’ and so on. Much as in other domains, there’s a generational sea change in the ways that folks think about, research, and organize around a truly liberatory transformation of the media system, and it has largely to do with intersectional praxis rooted in Black feminist thought.

I feel like media studies as field(s), and CMS.100 as an introduction, needs to be remixed through that lens. I’ve tried to move in that direction, and I’m not sure exactly what it will end up looking like. I imagine it won’t be a process with an end point, but rather a steady ongoing re-evaluation of the key texts, writers, and makers across multiple dimensions of media studies.
Department-level intentionality about the work this course will do. Finally, I took a quick peek at the Spring 2016 version of the course, as taught by John Picker; here’s the list of textbooks. At the moment the syllabus seems to swing around pretty wildly based on the instructor that semester. I’m not sure that’s been an intentional decision, it may be more of an artifact of the recent institutional shift where CMS has gone from ad-hoc program to CMS/W as a department, a series of faculty hires, a still-pending review of our undergraduate and graduate curriculum by the Curriculum Committee, and so on. However, there’s plenty to be said for this approach, it allows flexibility and autonomy and diverse interpretations of what an introduction to our ‘field’ might mean. And as we’ve seen through this brief archaeology of CMS.100, there are literally endless possibilities!

Sasha Costanza-Chock is a scholar and media maker who works in the interrelated areas of social movements and information and communication technologies; participatory technology design and community based participatory research; and the transnational movement for media justice and communication rights, including comunicación populár. He holds a Ph.D. from the Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism at the University of Southern California, where he was a Postdoctoral Research Associate. He is also a Fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University. While living in Los Angeles, he worked on a variety of civic media projects with community-based organizations, including the award-winning VozMob.net platform. More information about Sasha’s work can be found at schock.cc.

Categories: Blog

Syllabi as Cultural Artifacts: MIT’s Introduction to Media Studies (Part Three)

March 15, 2016 - 9:01am

We reached out to everyone who has taught MIT’s Introduction to Media Studies through the years and we received responses from a few, describing their versions of the class:

Fox Harrell

My version is based in initially challenging their preconceptions that media forms are a matter of continuous progress over time. I also challenge them to reconsider any hierarchies they have that places one media form above another. So, we challenge great divide theories between orality and literacy and technological determinism. They complete a quick one-week project, relating this theory to practice (and allowing me to assess their interests, theoretical engagement, and production abilities).

There are then three units. First unit: they engage in comparative study of different media forms (e.g., the still image, the moving image, remix culture, and so on). Second unit: the interplay of media production and media consumption (communities and technological literacies). Third unit: how we represent ourselves in media (social identity and media).

The class has them building systems as a means of theorizing, writing theory to understand why and how media systems are used and built, and relating all of the topics to their own interests. A central feature is student facilitations during each class where they relate readings to topics of their own interests. I do an immense amount of offline scaffolding in that process, with write-ups due well ahead of presentations and ample back and forth feedback to ensure that their interests are tightly integrated with the core concepts from the readings. The students like this a lot and it makes it lively. They always say the course is challenging and they find it one of their most valuable experiences.

I pioneered the course before coming to MIT and adapted it to an introductory rather than upper division experience. So, it has a different lineage with its own pedigree of iterative improvement, but I think a lot of synergies with the CMS ethos. The different notions of comparativity on the CMS site as of when you were here resonates with me. So, I’ll leave it to you to relate my take to any notion of evolution of the field, but rather emphasize here the notion of complimentary perspectives that I find with others who have taught it.

I just mean that my version is based on my own take on media studies, including my interdisciplinary academic background, approach to theory and practice, etc. I developed the syllabus from a course I designed and refined over the years when I was at another institution.

This is in contrast to the course that Flourish taught, for example, because she was trained as a CMS graduate student — that’s an example of what I consider the CMS lineage. Similarly, other versions may have built more upon prior iterations of the CMS.100 course.

Flourish Klink

To be honest to me the primary goal of this class was to teach freshmen how to get out of a literature focused analysis mode and think about other ways of engaging with texts. This stemmed from the fact that it was a “writing intensive class,” so there were a lot of requirements that had to be fulfilled through essays. To me, though, that’s the foundational premise of media studies—that texts can be approached in lots of ways, and that finding insights about them and about their audiences doesn’t necessarily proceed from literary analysis (or not solely from literary analysis).

In practice, a lot of the strides students made were in improving their writing skills. The class also served as a first introduction to lots of thinkers in media studies—almost a survey course. (I’m sure lots of them got left out.) The hope was that students would take CMS 100 and be excited about some of the concepts, then follow those later in more intensive classes also offered by CMS, or just read more by the authors they were assigned in class. Who knows if it worked..

Fox Harrell is a researcher exploring the relationship between imaginative cognition and computation. His research involves developing new forms of computational narrative, gaming, social media, and related digital media based in computer science, cognitive science, and digital media arts. The National Science Foundation has recognized Harrell with an NSF CAREER Award for his project “Computing for Advanced Identity Representation.” Harrell holds a Ph.D. in Computer Science and Cognitive Science from the University of California, San Diego. His other degrees include a Master’s degree in Interactive Telecommunication from New York University, and a B.F.A. in Art, B.S. in Logic and Computation (each with highest honors), and minor in Computer Science at Carnegie Mellon University. He has worked as an interactive television producer and as a game designer. His recent book is Phantasmal Media: An Approach to Imagination, Computation, and Expression (MIT Press, 2013).

Flourish Klink was educated at Reed College (BA Religion ’08) and MIT (SM Comparative Media Studies ’10). As a teenager she co-founded FictionAlley.org and helped to run the first Harry Potter fan conference (as well as many others in the same conference series). Later, she was a partner in The Alchemists Transmedia Storytelling Co. and a producer on the hit HULU teen telenovela East Los High. Today, she is a partner in Chaotic Good Studios, a franchise planning company, and co-hosts the podcast Fansplaining. She also has taught classes at MIT, including Introduction to Media Studies and Fans & Fan Culture.
Categories: Blog

Syllabi as Cultural Artifacts: MIT’s Introduction to Media Studies (Part Two)

March 10, 2016 - 11:47am
Martin Roberts:

 Some of what follows is quite anecdotal but you guys are just triggering too many synapses (“HASS-D courses” gave me a Proustian moment).

Henry, you do a great job here of sketching in the larger institutional context out of which the course emerged, the constraints it was working under, and how it set out to make a virtue out of necessity from them. In so doing, it did provide a great sampler of the interdisciplinary work on media going on at MIT at the time outside the Media Lab itself at the time, with only Glorianna Davenport’s lecture on the Interactive Cinema group originating from there.

The main thing that seems lacking in retrospect, allowing for the context at the time, was a unit on digital activism and the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which as you know in the ensuing decades has developed into a major field around all the work on Creative Commons – Siva Vaidhyanathan, Lawrence Lessig, et al. I recall that at the time Mike Fischer was teaching a course in STS called Ethics and Law on the Electronic Frontier, but am not sure why we didn’t invite him – perhaps because of the need to recruit Humanities/Literature faculty to the media cause, and the fact that Napster hadn’t happened yet and the piracy/intellectual property debate was still limited to the culture-jamming domain (Negativland). Little did we know then that only a few years later mp3 would make us all pirates…

Among several memories from my own lectures, one of the most interesting was the Culture Jamming one, during which a smart-ass student at the back of the class who’d plugged his laptop into an Ethernet port (no wifi then) started sending me live Zephyr messages (MIT’s instant messaging system) which kept popping up on the computer screen projected behind me—both a witty illustration both of culture-jamming itself and what we can now recognize as a primitive form of Live Tweeting.

Chris, I was part of the “dissident” group you mention for a few years, which was my main conduit to the Lab. For reasons I never quite understood, it was called the Narrative Intelligence group, and I believe was started by Amy Bruckman when she was working on her educational project MOOse Crossing. It also included some of the more interdisciplinary grad students at the lab who were interested in more humanistic approaches to media, whether in terms of narrative or “theory”: it was there that I met, in addition to Amy, Dave Tamés, Warren Sack, and Flavia Sparacino among others.

As you point out, the ML at the time behaved like it owned the term “media”, and the seminar was also attended by some who subscribed to the view of the upper echelons – I remember one student dismissing Chris Marker’s La Jetée that I’d just screened as “a slideshow”. Overall, though, the seminar was in retrospect one of the key interfaces between the ML and Humanities and was a great way to hear about upcoming events – I got to see Toshio Iwai presenting his new electronic instrument the Tenori-on there in the mid-90s, for example.  The other main interface, as you’ll recall, was the Communications Forum, where I invited Julian Dibbell and Randy Farmer (of Habitat) to a panel to discuss virtual communities and governance after Julian’s piece on LambdaMOO in the Village Voice.

CK: Remarkably for a class at MIT—we didn’t touch on hacking or the MIT subcultures of hacking at all. . . . Nonetheless the fact that Adbusters, the EFF, plunderphonics, EBN and negativland were part of the class at the time is a kind of triumph.

Yes in retrospect that was kind of amazing. This points to one of the major cultural shifts between 97 and today, which is the transformation of the figure of the hacker from the “Revenge of the Nerds” stereotype into almost a folk-hero figure. We did touch on it with the culture-jammers but could never have anticipated that hacking would turn into a lifestyle on the one hand (the lifehacker movement) and political activism on the other (Anonymous). In any contemporary iteration of the course, it would be interesting to trace that genealogy from 80s/90s-era hacker culture (zines like 2600, Processed World) to its contemporary mutations. Hacker Mutations. I like that.

CK: the german media theory/media history schools have become much more de rigeur than they were in 1997.  When we were teaching that class, reading Kittler felt like discovering a gold mine. Now it’s either old hat or canonical, but the Germans themselves have gone from Mediengeschicte and Medienwissenschaft to Kulturtechnik and Media Archaeology to hybridizing ANT and media theory (Akteur-Medien-Theorie) to god knows what else…  I teach some of this stuff but I don’t think most people (in the US) see it as central.

I remember us being quite dismissive of Kittler at the time, particularly his writings about code and software. I haven’t really followed his work since, but the concept of discourse networks still seems useful. Media Archaeology I think should be part of any contemporary curriculum. I still don’t know enough about Actor-Network Theory to know where/whether it would fit in – what do you think and what would be essential readings there?

CK: in anthropology and STS the undisputed keyword for this is “infrastructure”—which in ’97 was something I remember talking about with people but which there was no literature about.  Now I can’t imagine teaching the class without it being focused on platforms/infrastructure.

Definitely. I think Lisa Parks has been in the forefront of the media infrastructures movement since her book on satellites – the new anthology she co-edited with Nicole Starosielski, Signal Traffic, is a good place to start. I’m reading Nicole Starosielski’s book The Undersea Network right now, which is pretty interesting. It would be easy to see the infrastructures approach, perhaps, as a new form of technological determinism, but as I understand it the reverse is true: the point is that all media/communication technologies are themselves embedded within and shaped by geopolitical, social, economic, cultural, and discursive forces and conditions at particular historical moments – look at the relation of satellites and the first transatlantic broadcasts to the cold war and the Arab-Israeli conflict in ’67.

CK: Lastly there was a lot of Tamagotchi that year. There was also a lot of Bill Mitchell.

Bill was a wonderful man and I still miss him. His subtitle to E-Topia – “Urban Life, Jim—But Not As We Know It” remains one of my favorite subtitles and ST pop-culture refs of all time. I still have my old Tamagotchi somewhere: in 1997 I was showing TV clips about it in my intro to French culture class. Now of course we have this, aka Sherry Turkle’s worst nightmare (skip the ad):

Henry Jenkins:

I was certainly surprised that we did not make more of the MIT context — whether understood in terms of the hacking culture or in terms of the larger debates surrounding new media at MIT in those years. Such topics would become increasingly central to the work of the Comparative Media Studies Program through the years, and so retrospectively, I tend to read them onto this earlier period.

We faced so many questions about why a media studies program belonged at MIT that we ended up incorporating a larger history of media research at MIT into our introductory subjects. Keep in mind that one of the major meeting spaces at MIT is named after Vannevar Bush (whose essay, “As We May Think,” is now widely credited as a key influence on the early development of the web) and that the top faculty prize is named after Doc Edgerton (who is today best known for his work on strobe photography). There was the rich legacy of Building 20 which was built as a temporary base for radar research during WWII and subsequently became the building where the MIT Model Railroad Club developed “Spacewars”, one of the first computer games; the place where much cybernetics research took place; the long-time office for Noam Chomsky and Janet Murray, etc. And this is not to speak to the long history of artistic experimentation in photography and filmmaking (Ricky Leacock, for example) which has been part of the MIT environment. Many of these strands eventually got integrated into our teaching, though I have no idea how they filtered down into the Introduction to Media Studies class.

As for the narrative intelligence reading group, I was part of the founding group there. It was created by Marc Davis and Mike Travers though Amy Bruckman was one of the founding members and eventually took over the group The name reflected the interests in narrative theory and artificial intelligence, though rarely did we talk about the meeting point between the two.  It met once a week in the basement of the Media Lab, where students and faculty read through emerging digital theory together, shared reports on new media developments, and otherwise talked through the intersections between humanistic research and technological development.

The group of people who participated in those discussions was extraordinary. It had a huge impact on my own thinking, since I had just got an email account at the time I started going to those meetings. Gradually, as time demands on an assistant professor increased, I stopped coming, so I had no idea that Martin had participated in the group at a later stage.  In many ways, they were a model for what Comparative Media Studies became.

When we launched our first graduate class, we did not yet have any students of our own so all of the participants came from the Media Lab or STS. But the Lab leadership never valued such exchanges, and subsequent generations of MAS students were less interested in this kind of theory, less interested in grounding their work in actual communities, etc., and I became more and more disenchanted with what the Lab had become, which may be why there was so little crossover by the time we launched that class. Mike and Marc published an account of the group’s history which I found online — http://www.cs.cmu.edu/afs/cs/user/michaelm/www/nidocs/DavisTravers.pdf There have now been several books published on the topic of narrativ intelligence, which is starting to be recognized as its own subfield.

One of the things that amused me looking at the syllabus was that Martin gave a lecture about “reality television,” which at the time really was focused on programs like Cops. This was prior to the debuts of Survivor or Big Brother, which set today’s reality television phenomenon into motion. It was at the time a way of introducing some themes about surveillance as entertainment, but juxtaposed here with a lecture about propaganda, it was a way of asking questions about media power.

The lecture I most recall giving in the class was the one on the history of radio as a medium. Radio is still a medium that rarely gets discussed by media scholars (despite the impact of Michele Hilmes and the students she trained), but can be enormously informative in terms of its evolution over time. So, the lecture began with the early technological experiments, discussed the participatory buzz around early radio and the ways FCC policies helped to direct it towards more commercial networks, explored the aesthetics of radio drama and comedy and the ways they informed the early history of television, considered how the introduction of FM impacted the history of Rock’N’Roll and the ways this was tied to the shift from shellac to vinyl records, the people’s radio movement of the 1960s and its legacies in talk radio, and finally, the emergence of web-based radio (not yet podcasting). Today, I still draw on chunks of this lecture in my own introductory class, especially the ways that radio initially promised to be a much more participatory platform than it has ended up being and yet there remain various traces of that earlier history — including HAM radio, Podcasting, low-rez radio, and to some degree, talk radio.

Chris Kelty:

A few further thoughts on 21L015 1997 edition, looking back over well-preserved emails and the mostly scorched landscape that is my memory.

I was trying to remember how familiar/unfamiliar the class seemed to me at the time.  I had come out of UC Santa Cruz as an undergrad, with a literature degree (and a lot of Math and some History of Consciousness, go figure), so the literary/cultural studies focus dominated my horizon in a certain way.  So I think the class felt familiar, maybe a departure, but certainly something that seemed like a natural evolution out of and away from the way media was being treated in literary studies and its departments.  I had no real contact with communications in its classical form prior to this class, so that part, ironically seemed like the new part to me (McLuhan! Media Reform!).  Which is just a way of saying that I think the class was as much an expression of the evolution of literary/cultural studies in the 1990s as it was a foundational media studies class.

 I didn’t really experience it as programmatic in the way I’m sure Henry did, which was my prerogative as a PhD student from a different department.  But it was certainly, for me, far cooler and more intellectually satisfying than most of what I had to take in STS (the core courses there still emphasized a pretty boring Plato to Nato history of science, and I believe I was reading “Steamships on Western Rivers” and TAing a course on Darwin the year before).  So from the STS department at the time, Henry’s class seemed much more like what I wanted STS to become.  If I were 15 years younger I would undoubtedly have applied to CMS instead of STS.

But really, it was the design of the course, with it’s labs and movies and exercises of all sorts was amazing for me. I don’t think I’d experienced much beyond the standard readings + essays + discussion mode before Henry’s class. So now, like being bitten by a werewolf, every full moon I create a new course inspired by 21L015 that is much more ambitous than I have the capacity for, and tries to use all manner of games, technologies, creative assignments, etc.  I fail a lot, but I think it was 21L015 that showed me how much fun teaching a class can be.

We took so much grief from the undergrads at MIT for the website.  One student, after detailing all its flaws said “Overall, the web site makes a poor substitution for a well organized course information handout.” (a sentiment I increasingly think represents the future, not the past).  But not all the students were iike that—many were as unfamilair with the technology as we were and/or enthusiastic about its possibilities.  I imagine that hasn’t changed all that much at MIT.

The course reader cost $112.50. We encouraged students to make their own copy since it cost less to do so than to buy it.  I only mention this since I have spent the intervening 15 years fighting an open access copyright battle that I was only dimly aware of at the time (James Boyles Shamans, Software and Spleens was published that year, or the year before)…  At the time, there really were no “pdfs” or digital versions of reading, everything was photocoopied or books to buy, and the absurd cost was a function of the copyright clearances.   

These days if I can’t find a legal or illegal copy to give the students in my classes, I often skip the reading (although this is driven mostly by my sense of justice at a large public university where students are already being gouged by the textbook industry) unless I think its really important.  Even more generally, I find that giving students access to various media that they might manipulate (such as remixing youtube videos or even just playing a bit of music in class) requires me to break some law or find some illicit technological solution—or encourage students to do the same.  Pedagogy has obviously changed in good and bad ways since 1997.

One of my favorite emails:


From: Henry Jenkins

Subject: Some terms for exam


“The Medium is the Message”

Larry Flynt

Commodity Aesthetic

Amateur Radio


Consensus Narrative

Cultural Imperialism

“The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”

Digital Photography

Oedipus as Detective

Leni Refienstahl (check spelling?)

Propaganda vs. Survalence

Manuscript Culture

Plato’s Arguments Against Theatre

Acting Vs. Performance

“Cinema of Attractions”

The Encyclopedic and Procedural Properties

The Freed Unit

Warner Communications Inc.

Culture Jamming



Bonus points for people who immediately know what the Freed Unit is (I had to look it up, obviously my 1950s musical cred just went out the window).  I also like the “check spelling” note… and I’m not sure what “survalence” is, but I think my next book will be about it

All teasing aside, the list is a good indicator not just of what the class was about but what we thought were good examples of culture to work with in order to communicate the theory to the kids.  I think it’s hard to overestimate the pleasure we all got out of blurring the high/low culture line at that time… Martin and Henry were both, in different ways, impishly excited about confronting the students with the unfamiliar.

I’d be interested to hear from others who taught the class how self-evident a list like this looks for media studies today, vs. how odd (or old) it feels.  Incidentally, There’s also a great note in which Henry talks about how to use a cereal box to explain Adorno’s commodity aesthetic.

Henry Jenkins:

Yes, today, we have much better spell-checkers on our computers, though I still have a hard time spelling that word for some reason. :-


Christopher M. Kelty is an associate professor at the University of California, Los Angeles. He has a joint appointment at ISG and in the department of Information Studies. His research focuses on the cultural significance of information technology, especially in science and engineering.  He is the author of Two Bits: The Cultural Significance of Free Software (Duke University Press, 2008), as well as numerous articles on open source and free software, including its impact on education, nanotechnology, the life sciences, and issues of peer review and research process in the sciences and in the humanities.

Martin Roberts studies the relationship between subcultures, globalization, and digital media, and has taught courses on global subcultures at The New School and NYU. His publications include articles on global documentary film, world music, and the J-pop genre Shibuya-kei. His current research focuses on subcultures organized around digital gaming and electronic music, including 8-bit or chipmusic, iOS music, and the revival of modular synthesizers. His article on the black MIDI subculture and Japanese dankmaku (bullet-hell) games will be published by G|A|M|E journal in 2016. He currently teaches digital media and culture at Emerson College and Dartmouth College.


Categories: Blog

Syllabi as Cultural Artifacts: MIT’s Introduction to Media Studies (Part One)

March 8, 2016 - 6:45am

Last fall, I spent a portion of my academic leave in Cambridge, MA. I was a visiting scholar at Microsoft Research New England’s Social Media Lab, where I was able to spend time with Mary Gray, Nancy Baym, Tartleton Gillespie, Nick Seaver, Lana Swartz,  Kevin Driscoll, Sarah Brayne, Andrea Alarcon, and many other amazing thinkers (all of whom I miss as I am writing this). I want to be clear that I was not back at MIT, but the Microsoft offices are right across the street from the outer edge of the MIT campus, and I had a great view of Senior House, the Media Lab, and Building 14 (where my office was for 20 years) out the window. I thought of myself either working with my back to MIT or looking down on the Institute, but either way, it gave me a certain pleasure.

But it also meant that I spent time hanging out with various old friends and colleagues affiliated with MIT and even, gasp, Harvard. At a cocktail party hosted by William Uricchio, I got into a conversation about teaching with Sasha Costanza-Chock about an undergraduate course he was teaching, which turned out to be Introduction to Media Studies. I had helped to develop this class with Martin Roberts in 1997, and it had been one of the first steps we made towards developing the framework for the Comparative Media Studies program.

Later that same week, I had lunch with Martin Roberts, who happened to be passing through town, and we had so much fun recalling our experiences together developing and teaching the class, including memories of Chris Kelty, now a distinguished faculty member at UCLA, who was our first TA for Intro. From these conversations, we came up with the idea of publishing through this blog some reflections on how this core class, central to the undergraduate experience of Comparative Media Studies at MIT, evolved over time.

As media scholars, we often explore other kinds of texts in relations to the times in which they originated, in response to various institutional imperatives and constraints, and especially how they evolve over time in response to new audiences and their demands. But we rarely look at our own teaching practices through this same lens — why do we make the choices we do, what agendas do courses serve, what do we miss even as we are trying to capture the key aspects of a phenomenon. MIT’s Introduction to Media Studies offers us a rich text to consider in this way — given its location and given its ambitions — but I would encourage others to trace through the archeologies of the key courses at their institutions.

In this segment, I am sharing a conversation between Chris Kelty, Martin Roberts, and myself. Later, I will share some reflections by the current instructor, Sasha Costanza-Chock, and along the way, I will share a few thoughts from a few of the folks who have taught the class in the intervening years.

Here are a few links to help you follow the discussion (assembled and with commentary from Martin Roberts)

The original syllabus, faithfully preserved for future media archaeologists (i.e. us) in digital amber:


Minimalist late-90s hand-coded HTML design by yours truly – thank you very much.

My lecture page is here:


Even the BBS is still intact:


Here is Sasha’s most recent version of the syllabus


So, let the conversation begin. (By the way, we would love to hear thoughts and reflections from any of the students who took the class or from others who have taught it through the years. If I receive any, I will republish them here along with these other materials).

Martin Roberts

The first thing that strikes me is how the very language that we use to talk about digital and network technologies has shifted: consider, for example, how laughably antiquated anything with the prefix cyber- now sounds, even though at the time terms like cyberspace, cyberpunk, or cyberculture made you sound like the academic equivalent of William Gibson.

Much the same is true of interactive and, to a lesser extent perhaps, virtual: does anyone still use the term virtual communities anymore? Why would that be? Given that the term historically applies to text-based (MUD/MOO) communities rather than graphics-based ones from Second Life to WOW etc., it’s worth considering why the term seems to have dropped out of use, or at least been displaced by the unpronounceable MMORPG (as in, you can’t actually say it as you can “MUD”).

Other terms  like Web 2.0 have come and gone in the meantime. Today, of course we live in the world of  the cloud, platforms, and participatory culture, but if the earlier examples are anything to go by, this world seems destined in its turn to have faded into the past by the time we hit the singularity (I believe the current ETA is 2029).

From Hypertext to Transmedia

One interesting example of the shift I was talking about is in the domain of narrative. In the ‘97 course, as I recall, the discussion of narrative in digital environments was still pretty rudimentary, and largely monopolized by the George Landau school of hypertext and lots of refs to Borges’ garden of forking paths and postmodernist fiction trickery (Cortázar, Calvino et al.). Now the word on everyone’s lips is transmedia – referring to narratives that extend across multiple platforms, in turn producing new kinds of guided “user flow”- again very different from Raymond Williams’ sequential (and I would argue, largely obsolete) early-70s concept.

From Text to Object?

One last point: other than narrative, I would suggest that today the very concept of the media “text” has become problematic in ways that it didn’t seem so in ‘97. Yet we continue to work with the notion that media studies’ basic unit of study is the media “text”, even though the boundaries of that text have become increasingly difficult to define. Here’s an example I used in a class last year: try defining The Lord of the Rings as a “media text”. Of course, we have the original novels themselves as the ur-text (although even then the idea of a clearly-bounded text became problematic, with all the appendices, sequels/prequels etc.). Now, consider this LOTR-themed Air New Zealand flight-safety video:


Is this part of the Lord of the Rings as a “media text”? I would say absolutely, but as you can see, that text has now expanded to include the entire cinematic cycle of Peter Jackson movies and, even more improbably, the nation of New Zealand itself. And this is just the tip of the iceberg – it’s easy to see that LOTR today is a “transmedia” narrative, but it is so in many more ways than may be apparent. Let’s not even mention Doctor Who… ^_^

So the question then would be, if the very concept of the media “text” as the unit of analysis is increasingly problematic today, in terms of identifying where it begins and ends, then what is to replace it? My answer would be that text is now being displaced by object as a central analytical unit – I’m thinking of the platform studies series, 3D action figures of Guy Debord, Lego adaptations of Minecraft, Minecraft adaptations of everything. I also wonder whether the concept of transcoding might be a useful counterpart to transmedia to refer to the increasingly porous boundaries between digital and material objects.

The arguably obsolescence of the “text” paradigm in media theory can be radicalized further by extending it to the viability/utility of the very term medium itself today as an analytical category, in contrast to the increasingly ubiquitous platform (it’s revealing, if depressing, that my students typically use the two terms interchangeably). This question is of course an even larger one than the one about the status of the media text.

With hindsight, I would say that one of the problems with the course in 1997 was that its analytical horizons were still very much defined by literary theory – notably, of course, the ubiquitous notion of the “text” – even at a time when literary theory had for some time been in the process of debunking it. (It’s a little like the earlier irony of the Cahiers du Cinéma critics coming up with the theory of the auteur at pretty much the time Roland Barthes was declaring the “death” of the auteur.)

The Afterlife of Virtual

One key term I’ve mentioned but haven’t discussed is the notion of the “virtual” – again, big in the mid-90s, today not so much. But still we have the latest generation of VR technologies starting with the Oculus Rift, which is slowly inching closer to the fantasy of the early 90s. As you know, the term “augmented reality” was big a couple of years back but my sense is that this is also already sounding dated.

Anyway, hope these thoughts help to start the ball rolling; I’ll doubtless have more to say later when I’ve looked through the ’97 syllabus in more details. Chris? Any thoughts on commodified dissent, recursive publics, or actor-network theory (ANT)? What would be indispensable in any contemporary iteration of the ’97 course?

Chris Kelty

The first thing to say is that the ’97 class was the first in which I gave a lecture I wrote myself— I don’t know if I ever properly thanked Henry and Martin for letting me do that, but my cup runneth over: so thanks to both of you!

I have no idea why I chose the media concentration stuff—or whether you guys encouraged it, but it certainly led me down a very interesting path.  I wonder how I would do that lecture today? I think the “transmedia” stuff that Henry is on to represents a major change in the industry… and the debates about race in Hollywood are so much more present today… but really much of what I said in ’97 probably could still be said today, sadly.

– the ’97 class had a classic Walter Ong/Jack Goody feel to it in some ways: from Cave Painting to Photography to Radio-TV-Film to Internet.   I wonder whether that is a still a standard starting point?

For me, the work of folks like Lisa Gitelman (When Old Media Were New) has become the de facto way of introducing the historical component of my class, and nothing like the grand historical narratives of Goody or Ong.  

Indeed, thinking internationally, the German media theory/media history schools have become much more de rigueur than they were in 1997.  When we were teaching that class, reading Kittler felt like discovering a gold mine. Now it’s either old hat or canonical, but the Germans themselves have gone from Mediengeschicte and Medienwissenschaft to Kulturtechnik and Media Archaeology to hybridizing ANT and media theory (Akteur-Medien-Theorie) to god knows what else…  I teach some of this stuff but I don’t think most people (in the US) see it as central.

Predictably my classes derived from the ‘97 experience (which I tend to call “intro to software and networks” or “intro to the internet,” instead of media) focus on intellectual property, the politics of software, standards and hacking, and the rise of new social movements.  I was particularly enthused to revisit the ‘culture-jamming’ and intellectual property aspects of the ’97 class—I probably owe a much larger debt to Martin for clueing me into this stuff than I ever realized <tips hat again>.  At Rice I ended up teaching a class with a classicist (Scott McGill) that was called “Piracy across the Ages” which was full of much of the same material, complemented by ancient mashups (Centos) and accusations of plagiary by Seneca and Virgil.  Scott went on to write a whole book about plagiarism in the ancient world.

Remarkably for a class at MIT—we didn’t touch on hacking or the MIT subcultures of hacking at all.  I think I was only just discovering them at that point, so it’s not shameful or anything, but nonetheless, Stewart Brand and Stephen Levy were all over it 15 years earlier—but it was not something that media studies or STS took as central.  The only person in our orbit who would have really cared about it was Sherry Turkle, and she was on to other things.  Nonetheless the fact that Adbusters, the EFF, plunderphonics, EBN and Negativland were part of the class at the time is a kind of triumph.

A propos of Martin’s message, platforms have since become key to be sure, both in the Montfort/Bogost sense but also in terms of the actual political economy (e.g. Tarleton Gillespie’s diagnosis) of things like YouTube/Facebook as “platforms” instead of sites, media or texts—in anthropology and STS the undisputed keyword for this is “infrastructure”—which in ’97 was something I remember talking about with people but which there was no literature about.  Now I can’t imagine teaching the class without it being focused on platforms/infrastructure.

An obvious addendum here is the rise of “digital humanities” and its discontents, which I find totally baffling, since it feels on the one hand like substandard technological skills, and on the other substandard theoretical sophistication (not high praise, I realise, but I’m not attacking it, I just don’t understand where its momentum came from).  I don’t teach this stuff, and wonder how much of it has crept into the CMS curriculum, or Annenberg, or elsewhere— but I am “officially” a digital humanities faculty member at UCLA.

Lastly there was a lot of Tamagotchi that year. There was also a lot of Bill Mitchell.   I’m just saying.

Henry Jenkins

I want to step back and reflect a bit about the institutional context that this course came out of. Keep in mind that this was the first step, curricular-wise, in terms of paving the way for the launch of the Comparative Media Studies Program just a few years later.

That program took shape in the particular context of humanities at MIT: the reality of the situation was that we were trying to create a master’s program which would tap the knowledge and expertise of a range of faculty who came from traditional humanities fields, with little to no chance of hiring people who were specifically trained in media studies. So, we needed a definition of media studies that was humanistic to its core and expansive in its understanding of what constituted media.

In many ways, the design of that syllabus was rhetorical — addressed as much to the faculty who were going to be guest speakers as it was to the students being introduced to the field of media studies for the first time. They needed to grasp the role they could play in something bigger and they had to understand what the stakes for them were in contributing to the growth of that field. We had already been involved in a series of multidisciplinary conversations designed to identify common ground and common themes that might bring the faculty together. This class was designed to embody some of those common themes in practice. This is why it is so reliant on guest speakers and why it is perhaps as text-heavy as it is.

For this to work, we needed to enlarge the canvas, which is why there’s some reliance on “grand narratives,” such as orality and literacy or cave paintings. We were staking out a claim for an approach to media that would be comparative across a range of axis — across different media systems, across different historical periods, across disciplines, across theory and practice, and across academia and the larger public sphere.

So, first, what I see when I look at this syllabus is the goal of expanding the period covered by media studies. Cinema Studies at the time was barely reaching back prior to 1895 (and even those first few decades were still being contested, as notions of “pre-cinema” or “primitive cinema” were giving way to “cinema of attractions” and a bit later, “media archeology.”) So, going back to earlier moments, such as the emergence of written language or the introduction of the printing press, to think about the processes of media change would have been innovative. I recall experimenting with bringing in Pauline Maier, a historian of the American Revolution, to think about committees of correspondence as early examples of networked communications — a move not fully understood by anyone involved but part of an exploration of how we might engage with a broader historical scope.  

You are almost certainly right that Gitelman’s approach would probably be how we would approach some of these same topics now, but there are losses as well as gains in shifting towards that model.  I drew on Gitelman in my introduction to Convergence Culture, which I ended up writing just a few years later.

More recent versions of introduction to media studies class often narrow their scope to focus too much on the current moment of digital media and do not pay enough attention to how we got here, to forms of communication that shaped human history on a broader scale. I would argue that the best way to combat digital exceptionalist or technological deterministic arguments is precisely to read the “digital revolution” in relation to earlier moments when the communication infrastructure underwent profound change.

There would have been a push for each of those speakers to bring these older moments into conversation with contemporary media practices: so I recall incorporating Spaulding Grey’s Swimming to Cambodia into our consideration of the shift from orality to literacy, so we could see how some of the same rhetorical structures and performance practices persisted in the work of contemporary storytellers.

This broader conception of media becomes all the more important if we are thinking now in terms of “transmedia” or “convergence”-based models of the contemporary media landscape. As we do so, we need to be able to think about print culture (including comics, missing here to my regret), theater and other forms of live performance (including bardic orality), and of course, cinema and television, alongside digital media. The cave painting — as a multimodal experience, which combined visual images, live performance, and new evidence suggests, a strong awareness of the sonic — seems like an ideal place to start thinking about what it means to tell a story through a range of different media and their affordances. This gets lost when we focus too precisely on the digital moment, which means that we rarely go much before World War II.

The focus on the literary and thus, texts here also emerges from another institutional factor. The first time this class was taught, it was a subject in the Literature Section, and the faculty there were somewhat reluctant to see us add an introductory level subject, which pulled so far away from what they saw as the core of their field. We did not yet have any academic unit which would allow this class to be identified as a media studies class: so, one of the defining traits of the newer syllabi for me is that it is now CMS 100 and that CMS is now part of its own academic unit at MIT.

This version of the class was so successful at redefining people’s understandings of media studies that there was a certain amount of trauma at extracting it from the Literature curriculum when the time came for us to do so, in part because they still wanted those high enrollment numbers, even though some of the same people had balked at creating the class in the first place. And Literature at MIT has since embraced a much more inclusive definition of the literary that starts to sound rather a lot like what this course tried to achieve:


Literature at MIT embraces an expansive vision of literary study. We are linked by a common interest in problems of narrative, aesthetics, genre, and media, but our curriculum explores a broad array of written, oral, and visual forms, ranging from the ancient world to the 21st century. We teach poetry, drama, and prose fiction, and also film, television, comics, memoirs, and folk music. We represent a variety of methodologies but share a common dedication to close reading and historical reflection. We are interested in both the established masterpieces and the most recent cultural productions of the digital age.

The class was also seeking to position itself as a HASS-D subject — that is, as part of the distribution of courses in the core Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences curriculum, as something that students could take to meet the General Education requirements of MIT, and this also pushed us to make our peace with a broader, more humanistic tradition.

So, some of what seems conservative to Martin and Chris today have to do with the politics of how you introduce a new subject into the curriculum, but I also want to caution people from assuming that an approach too grounded in the present, too focused on the digital, too dismissive of the role of history or of these older frames for thinking about media and communication, are necessarily the right way to go.

A final observation about the context from which the class originated: being at MIT, we wanted to create a subject that would have a strong hands-on component, that would give students a chance to make media, or at least, experience different kinds of media. So, this is why you see some of the assignments here that are a bit more applied, and I am happy to see that tradition of applications and experiential learning continues down to the present incarnation of the class.

All of this is to say that as faculty, we can rarely push further in our teaching than our institutions will allow us, that all of our class designs reflect the contexts within which we work, and that these negotiations were especially strongly felt in this case because of the institutional weight being placed on creating the first true media studies class in the humanities at MIT (as opposed to medium specific subjects).

Chris Kelty

Just a small additional context thought:  at the time the presence of the Media Lab had a major confounding effect on what we could claim was “media studies” and also on what it meant to have a hands-on feel.  There was no humanities there, but they nonetheless dominated the concept…

I vaguely remember there being a “dissident” group of media lab people focused on narratology that met under cover of night to discuss “humanistic” things…but the nascent CMS class was really trying to stake out ground in relation to that fact as well as the claims of the humanities. I think that continues today. I’d be interested in what the more recent issues at MIT are, to be sure, but the proliferation of the “media lab” model around the world has set up a force field of confusion that affects media studies everywhere I think…

Christopher M. Kelty is an associate professor at the University of California, Los Angeles. He has a joint appointment at ISG and in the department of Information Studies. His research focuses on the cultural significance of information technology, especially in science and engineering.  He is the author of Two Bits: The Cultural Significance of Free Software (Duke University Press, 2008), as well as numerous articles on open source and free software, including its impact on education, nanotechnology, the life sciences, and issues of peer review and research process in the sciences and in the humanities.  Martin Roberts studies the relationship between subcultures, globalization, and digital media, and has taught courses on global subcultures at The New School and NYU. His publications include articles on global documentary film, world music, and the J-pop genre Shibuya-kei. His current research focuses on subcultures organized around digital gaming and electronic music, including 8-bit or chipmusic, iOS music, and the revival of modular synthesizers. His article on the black MIDI subculture and Japanese dankmaku (bullet-hell) games will be published by G|A|M|E journal in 2016. He currently teaches digital media and culture at Emerson College and Dartmouth College.


Categories: Blog

Unpacking the traveler: Authority and expertise in Lonely Planet and Parts Unknown

March 1, 2016 - 8:15am

The following is the third of a series of blog posts written by the PhD students currently enrolled in my seminar, Public Intellectuals: Theory and Practice.

Unpacking the Traveler: Authority and Expertise in Lonely Planet and Parts Unknown

by Stefanie Z. Demetriades

For many of us, the first recourse when we travel for pleasure is the tourist guidebook. Equipped with a comprehensive guide, we can meticulously plan out a “perfect trip” from start to finish – where to go when and how, what to see, what to eat, and what to avoid – before we ever set foot on foreign ground. Look, for instance, at the best-selling and ubiquitous Lonely Planet destination guides and we find an emphasis on “accurate, practical information” curated by experts that promises that ability to smoothly navigate through a space of difference with maximum autonomy and minimal discomfort or anxiety.

But what are the assumed common-sense standards that such an expert resource is built on? And what are the implications of such an expertise for how we construct a role for ourselves as travelers and how we relate to the places, people, and cultures we encounter?

Lonely Planet guides promise clarity and certainty for maximum autonomy and minimum discomfort

For the most part, the expert authors of these guidebooks are authorities by virtue of their own non-native position. That is to say that, like the reader/hopeful tourist, the authors generally tend to be foreigners, travelers themselves. But they are travelers-plus, more experienced, made expert by virtue of their more frequent and/or more extended stays. As readers we trust them because of this parallel position to us, and we will quite literally follow in their footsteps through sites and sights they have vetted ahead. In this sense, the authority of Lonely Planet is very much the authority of the formalized, outside expert, and the narrative voice of the guide is the voice of this expert – a single guide book may have seven or eight contributing writers, but they are undifferentiated and blended into a single voice, which appears unified and objective.

From this vantage point, the experience of travel is parsed into lists and grids of expert reviews that map out the worth of sites and sights. In a pragmatic calculation of cost (financial and logistic) versus benefit, value is heavily weighted to the exceptional, in the literal sense of the out-of-the-ordinary: festivals and monuments are celebrated destinations in themselves, while everyday experiences are to be passingly enjoyed en route to the primary attractions.

A faceless representation of traditional dress in Lonely Planet Thailand

The “authentic” is the ultimate prize, and is bound up most closely with history as a largely self-contained, static past. The guides may include reviews of nightclubs, resorts, art galleries, and five-star restaurants – but the stamp of “authentic” is reserved primarily for the pastoral, the “simple,” the “old,” and the “forgotten:” In this pragmatic quest we gain clarity and certainty, but the overall effect is to construct an eerily uninhabited, museum-like space of appraisal where personal agency and dynamic interaction haven’t quite made it to the page.

Do we accept this as inevitable product of the genre, or as a necessary compromise of form and function? Or are there possibilities of alternative visions of the tourist in the travel genre?

Enter Anthony Bourdain and Parts Unknown. With its tagline of “Get Hungry. Get Lost.” the CNN travel show hosted by the notoriously grouchy chef, author, and TV personality immediately turns the premise of the travel guide paradigm inside out, promising to embrace everything the guidebooks are designed to guard against.

Unlike the “everything you need to know” thoroughness of the guides, Parts Unknown makes no attempt at offering a comprehensive study of the subject destination, and covering ground certainly does not seem to be a goal in its own right. (Most of the Thailand episode, for instance, takes place in a single night of barhopping in Chiang Mai). A major draw for the show has been its episodes in politically tense and notoriously risky destinations (Iran, Myanmar, Congo), but the show also covers popular getaway destinations and unsettles the exotic, “off-the-map” narrative with destinations familiar to the American audience (Massachusetts, Detroit, New Jersey).

Here Bourdain is not the autonomous guide but the very much dependent traveler, and his local hosts are clearly positioned as the primary sources of authority. “I arrive in this country spectacularly ignorant,” he says in the South Africa episode, “I will leave spectacularly ignorant.” Where popular guidebooks in the vein of Lonely Planet turn on an authority branded as studied expertise, authority in Parts Unknown is personal and subjective. The language of the show is that of the first person – the voices of the local hosts and Bourdain’s own self-reflexive monologues, which serve as the voiceover narration in each episode and are very much personal reflection rather than assured description.


Bourdain’s first-person voiceovers and candidly political personal conversations are characteristic of Parts Unknown

The effect is to anchor knowledge and authority in an individualized context, so that even when generalized statements are made about, for instance, national character, it is not a disembodied, assumed fact but a personal perspective consciously laden with bias and baggage. As Bourdain himself notes in a 2015 interview:

I should be trusted and mistrusted as much as anyone. I’m a guy with a point of view who goes to a place, looks around, comes back and tries to give as honest an account of my experience as I can, but it is my experience.

Bourdain appears – at least in the visible narrative that makes it to the screen – to happily concede autonomy to his local hosts, who whisk him between their personal favorite sights, sounds, and tastes. Occasionally the point will be driven home by the risk of a particular situation – often culinary (a potentially poisonous blowfish dish), sometimes situational (a growing crowd angered by the presence of the cameras). In these cases risk is managed not by independence but rather by increased dependence. “You have to relax. Nothing will happen to you,” says his South African host as Bourdain follows him down the street. “I invited you to have this dish. We are not going to die,” says his Brazilian host, and with a winking nod to a bottle of beer, “that will protect you from the poison.” And Bourdain? “I am confident in this cook I don’t know, and in this man, my host and aficionado of this dish.”

Perhaps as direct result of this emphasis on the authority of lived experience the metrics of value and authenticity are shifted in Parts Unknown. Here the exceptional recedes to becomes a backdrop for the everyday. Monuments and festivals might be glimpsed as part of an edited montage, but faces and conversations get far more airtime. Meaning becomes something that is created and grounded in the practices and experiences of ordinary life rather than abstracted and held apart. Bourdain is explicit in this conscious orientation towards the personal:

Ideally I’m looking to learn what it’s like to live in that country, what people who’ve lived there their whole lives like, what gives them pleasure at 2 o’clock in the morning after they’ve had a few drinks. The details. The typical things. Not the sites, not necessarily the most important things … I go in, I try to talk to people about ordinary thing, and in doing that, they often say extraordinary things back to me.

And if it doesn’t entirely abolish the notion of the authentic, Parts Unknown certainly takes a much more expansive approach to it. The word “authentic” itself is rarely heard, and indeed if it is mentioned it tends to be in a context challenging its relevance, as in the Morocco episode:

You can well imagine the American guy who’s lived in Tangier for 30 years. OK? He comes in and there’s a flat screen TV on the wall, he’s like, what the … You’ve ruined the authenticity and the integrity, but the Moroccan guy at the next table is like, wait a minute, wait a minute, asshole, do you have a flat screen TV at home? I want one, too. What’s wrong with that?

Authenticity is prised away from the tradition/modernity dichotomy that dominates much of the travel genre. History and context are still important, and Bourdain speaks with respectful awe of dishes and traditions that have been passed down for centuries, but history here is integrated into dynamic formations of the present, not a static relic of abstract purity. And so a trip to Libya includes a meal at Uncle Kentucky’s Fried Chicken as well a traditional coffee house and a family barbeque, and meals in South Africa include Iftar with a Muslim family as they break their Ramadan fast as well as an array of dishes from across the African diaspora. Intertwined with tradition, pleasure, and everyday practice, authenticity is not a binary state but an ongoing and creative performance.

So does Parts Unknown truly represent a different logic, or underneath the new packaging do we find the same fundamental assumptions as our travel guides?

Bourdain’s reflexivity does not immunize Parts Unknown from much-needed critique

Parts Unknown is hardly an empty vessel, free of agenda or control. A long preproduction process plots out the logistics of the trips as well as the narrative theme for each episode. Local hosts are carefully selected to match. There is little question that Parts Unknown is no less curated an experience than the “create your perfect trip” promised by Lonely Planet. Likewise, local knowledge and voices are granted more play, but at the center of the show is still a white male in a privileged position who shapes the narrative and presentation. Echoes of exoticism and Orientalism persist – “Once you experience some of the sensory pleasures of the East, your previous life just isn’t adequate anymore,” Bourdain reflects in Chiang Mai. His hosts are predominantly (though not always) male, and “other Others” remain largely invisible, or else a source of half-joking anxiety, as with the ladyboys of Thailand:

So, I woke up in a state of confusion and deep concern after making out with Ernest Borgnine last night. I have spiraled into some identity crisis. Inadvertently making out with Ernest Borgnine, I would like to say. It was very dramatic. I need to go to a strip club and watch a football game, mow the lawn and barbecue all at the same time.

Power asymmetries are also still very much at play, with Bourdain’s privilege of access and resources often thrown into relief as Bourdain is framed as guest rather than client: for all his meals at restaurants and food stalls he is rarely seen paying for anything, and when sharing meals in homes and villages there is a definite discomfort in knowing that, even if there is some kind of compensation, Bourdain as privileged guest is sharing food that is not always in boundless supply for his hosts.

There is plenty of reason to be cautious, therefore, about an uncritical celebration of Parts Unknown as a complete break away from many of the problematic tendencies of the travel genre. But with all that in mind, what is striking about the program is its insistently reflexive subjectivity, so different from the studied objectivity of Lonely Planet. Bourdain consistently expresses a self-awareness and ambivalence of his own position and role as host and traveler, and in conversations with his guides and in his monologue voiceovers he acknowledges both the uncertainty and the genuine discovery of travel, and both the genuine joy and the intense discomfort that can entail.

The very form and style of the show also emphasize subjectivity: editing and directorial styles vary from episode to episode, so that the form and aesthetic choices never quite feel assumed or matter-of-course. The show often adopts a personal point-of-view perspective in the composition and editing of a scene: the picture wavers and distorts as Bourdain gets increasingly inebriated through an all-night bender in Chiang Mai, for instance. So when the lens camera lingers on scantily clad bodies in Brazil as Bourdain comments that “the colors of the city are amazing…the colors of the people are amazing, and the way they move,” this charged representation is so inextricably linked with Bourdain’s own gaze that it nevertheless works to challenge notions of the objective, dispassionate expert observer, reinforcing instead the emotional and subjective position of Bourdain as author-observer-participant.

Is it patently unfair to compare a text-based guidebook and a visual entertainment program? Perhaps. After all, they perform different functions through different mediums; their usefulness, accessibility, and appeal are measured by different metrics. Nor are Lonely Planet and Parts Unknown mutually exclusive competitors – no doubt there is a significant overlap in audience. Nevertheless, to consider these two representations together is to look critically at the assumptions of authority and value that underpin how we imagine and construct ourselves as travelers.

Is Parts Unknown entirely unproblematic from a critical perspective? Of course not. But the show seems to at least begin to unsettle some of the assumptions and commonsense standards of the travel genre with greater attention to local voices and knowledge, and, crucially, with greater recognition of how powerfully and inherently subjective the form really is. If there’s a cautious hope we can eke out of watching the show it’s that the travel genre is not inevitably fated to an endless cycle of reproducing the same patterns and ruts, that there are alternative frames, visions, and logics through which we can imagine ourselves as tourists.


Stefanie Demetriades is a doctoral student at the University of Southern California studying media and communication.

Categories: Blog

Keep Calm and Enjoy the Silence: On the Pains and Pleasures of Doing Research in Egypt

February 25, 2016 - 11:35am

This is one of a series of blog posts created by the students in my PhD seminar, Public Intellectuals: Theory and Practice. Each student was asked to construct a post which shared some core insights from their research.  I will be running them on my blog over the next few weeks.

Keep Calm and Enjoy the Silence:

On the Pains and Pleasures of doing Research in Egypt

By Y. Elsayed

In the fall of 2006, I walked down Tahrir Square alone, after naively showing up to a protest that never took place. All I could muster was a look of silent disdain at the tens of security officers who showed up instead. Perhaps others showed up too, yet walked by when they did not see a crowd. This was one of the many moments when I realized that practicing politics in an oppressive regime required a different understanding of politics and its stakes than what we learned in books; taking part in a protest, for example, was not as simple as showing up to it; it required collective tactics, great flexibility, and organizational support to ensure, if you are caught that someone knows and can campaign for your release.

At the time, I admit to reaching a point, where I thought Egyptians were perpetually subordinate. I did not know, nor could I possibly predict, that four years down the road, this square will be packed with more than a million protesters, and that those walking about their lives disinterestedly would unpredictably display the highest levels of engagement and creativity.

In the Mubarak era protests were heavily secured (courtesy of https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Central_Security_Forces)


In 2009, I left Egypt to join my husband who was doing his PhD at the time in the US. In those six years, a lot has changed not only in Egypt but in the personality of Egyptians themselves My longtime friend, who left Egypt right around the same time in 2008, to pursue a PhD degree in Canada, makes sense of this period by sharing Facebook memories of the last four years: memories, many of us did not have the capacity to make sense of or process at the time (The 18 days, the first referendum, clashes with the military council, Mohammed Mahmoud clashes, Bassem Youssef, parliament elections, the election of Morsi, rise of Islamists, the state crackdown on Ultras, June 30th, the military coup, Rabaa’, then they were too many to keep count). Perhaps sharing those memories and inviting us– confused as we are– to comment, was her way of managing them.

I, on the other hand, resorted to making these events the object of my research, thinking that a researcher’s distance would protect me from being emotionally invested in the political and social turmoil. However, with the intensifying onslaught on dissent, I was deprived of my object of study: the public practices of mobilization and protesting. Traditional means of expression such as protesting and petitioning have mostly been stunted, following the crackdown on Rabaa square (see Amnesty’s Egypt’s darkest day) which resulted in hundreds of victims and injuries, The “Jailed and bailed” scenario for protesting, has been replaced with the far grimmer threat of “disappeared and tortured to death”, not only to protesters but to researchers as well (See End of Research in Egypt? The murder of my friend Giulio Regeni is an attack on academic freedom and AFTE: Banning researchers from entering Egypt threatens academic freedoms). How can I conduct interviews freely when I could be questioned for names of participants, or worse, for speaking in English in public! (See I was arrested for chatting in a Cairo café, and American Arrested for talking about Egypt’s January 25th revolution in English). How can I make claims about Egyptian youth, when I cannot conduct a reliable national survey without being flagged for asking a tad-political questions? The surveying agency itself is scrutinized by state security which reviews surveys, question by question. Even if I manage to get it through, how can I ensure truthful answers by self-censoring respondents? Consequently, my original plan of studying processes of social change was crippled.

Carlos Latuf on Egyptians supporting the military. Courtesy of http://haimbresheeth.com/gaza/wp-content/uploads/2011/11/How-I-love-the-Army.gif




On the personal level, my life and the lives of many Egyptians in and outside of Egypt were affected by the ripples of what was taking place on ground: continually forced to make adjustments not only to travel and study plans but to things as personal and intimate as who we are. It occurred to me that something has altered permanently in Egyptians. They became partly desensitized and at the same time traumatized by the daily blood scenes of state brutality, and state corruption. In their urge to lead a “quasi-normal” life while battling the effects of a declining economy, many, especially the older generation, pushed away these incidents by dehumanizing the victims thereby reducing sympathy for them, or at best remaining apolitical. This lead to polarization in Egyptian society between those who justify violence for the sake of a fictitious sense of security and those who uphold human dignity and aspire for change (the majority of which were youth). Polarization reached a dangerous point where discussion seized between friends and even close family members.

Furthermore, even though I could no longer ask my macro-research questions concerning processes of social change, the questions themselves failed to capture what I was witnessing on a daily basis this Summer, my first time in Cairo since six years: riding the metro, or walking down the streets of down town Cairo and its old districts, listening to people’s side-talks, their jokes, while observing their facial expressions and body language — the daily acts of resistance that are building up for a … movement?

The answer came to me reading James Scott’s (1990) Domination and the Arts of Resistance, all while working as a research assistant for the MAPP project which follows and documents the work of activist groups practicing politics by any media necessary (http://byanymedia.org/works/mapp/index). In his study of peasant, serf and slave cultures, Scott notes that not only does resistance exist, but it can also be studied, just by living and navigating through the right spaces. This is what Scott describes as the study of “infrapolitics”, where in contrast to “the open, declared forms of resistance, which attract most attention”, it is “the disguised, low-profile, undeclared resistance” (p. 198). He calls it the “Hidden transcript”, in contrast to the public transcript: a decorous respect exhibited by subordinates in the presence of authority. This hidden transcript is often disguised in “rumors, gossip, folktales, songs, gestures, jokes and theater of the powerless where critiques of power can be advanced behind the innocuous understandings of their conduct” (Scott, 1990, p. xiii)

Courtesy of http://comicvine.gamespot.com/images/1300-4745808


It occurred to me, that perhaps we are doing social change a disservice by focusing on the moments of the uprising, rather than the cultural build up for this moment. As Hakim Bey (2002) notes, “the vision comes to life in the moment of uprising – but as soon as ‘the Revolution’ triumphs and the State returns, the dream and the ideal are already betrayed” (p. 116). I hence shifted my research from the study of big actors to the study of the daily subjects, whose collectivity formed the millions in Tahrir Square and tipped the scale of power, even if temporarily to the side of youth. I turned to the “analysis of the hidden transcript” which Scott argues, “can tell us something about moments that carry the portent of political breakthroughs” (p. 202-203)

Five years following the 2011 uprisings and the celebration of the role of both social media and activists in mobilizing protesters, social media is still present and so are the actors (though some are in jail or abroad), yet the subjects are missing; they have been alienated by the polarization of political parties, which in turn resulted in a lack of leadership. In this highly charged political atmosphere, social media became of tool of polarization rather than mobilization (See Ghonim’s TED talk on designing social media that drives real change). Ghoneim who optimistically announced that “if you want to free a people, give them the internet” is now resorting to a more balanced view that social media is what people make of it.

At these times of polarization and social conflict, resistance can manifest itself culturally through arts and comedy as important tools in tracing our sources of conflict and deconstructing them without openly challenging strong held beliefs. Hugh Duncan in his Communication and Social Order, insightfully notes that through comedy and “safe disrespect”, we can uncover the ambiguities and contradictions which beset us as we seek to act together”. This ambiguity can extend to all works of art, which not only carry the portent of subversiveness but do so in the safety of ambiguous artistic interpretations, where you can always claim to be passing a joke for example. Mary Douglas in her 1968 essay, notes how jokers “lighten the oppressiveness of a social reality”: a ‘ritual purifier’ performing a cathartic function for both him and society”.

The value of comedy is amplified at times of polarization not only between political parties but within circles of families and friends. A significant part of the political struggle of the Arab Spring is essentially generational, where the older generation generally favors a stable status quo without regards to demands of democracy (see Harrera). In a widely circulated tweet, Hamdy, who has over 30K followers tweeted “Someone tell Sisi, that we can now criticize him in front of our parents and relatives and they would remain silent, a year ago they used to get mad, yell and curse at us”.

Recently, Shady Hussein, a TV anchor for Abla Fahita – a widely watched TV light comedy show– was heavily criticized and threatened for posting a video in which he (independently) distributed Balloons made out of condoms to Egyptian police officers on January 25th of 2016. Ironically, the day was officially celebrated as the “Day of the Police” four years after the revolution and countless victims. In an interview with Shady, he said

January 25th should be the day for the revolution, the Egyptian police pages are filled with threats such ‘as let them go down, we will show them’… Okay we are not going to protest, and we will not chant, for with one bullet they can take us out, but we will stay here to laugh and ridicule you

This was all an indication of how the forms and forums (Windt, Jr., 1972) for practicing politics were changing. And, so the researcher who was stuck with an empty Tahrir Square was granted an infra-googles (to go off Scott’s infrapolitics) by which I could trace out occurrences of everyday resistance, the hidden transcript in people’s mundane lives, their jokes, side-talks, arts and music.

It was a couple of days following Sisi’s grand opening of a Suez Canal branch, which was touted as a monumental achievement comparable to the digging of the Suez Canal (which itself has a history of slave exploitation). Partly disheartened by the Orwellian public transcript which was jubilant with propaganda songs played in Radios and speakers of metro stations and flags hung in balconies (see Sarah Carr’s President Sisi’s Canal Extravaganza), I began to entertain my old thoughts about Egyptians’ subordination. I decided to escape to the old, partly uncontaminated parts of historic Cairo, Al Ghoureya and Khan El Khalily, to replace the sounds of propaganda with the bustle of Egyptians’ lives. Inhaling an air loaded with the aroma of spices instantly brought back memories of the countless times I prayed in its historical mosque, Al Ghoury. Just two blocks away from the famous Al-Azhar, I preferred to climb up the worn out stone steps of this forgotten mosque to admire its ancient stone walls, its colorful glass and brass chandeliers, but also secretly hoping to catch a glimpse of the hidden transcript in a less official space.

The Inside of Al Ghoury Mosque (Courtesy of http://www.panoramio.com/photo/28101722)

The outside of Al Ghoury Mosque (Courtesy of http://www.panoramio.com/photo/28101722)

After praying, I went down to Khan El Khalily, the narrow alley and touristic attraction famous for its Pharaonic and Islamic art souvenirs. I wanted to purchase some of these souvenirs to bring back with me, but I also wanted to melt in the crowds again, to rub my shoulders against actual struggling Egyptians, and enjoy discussing politics with my mother as we walk down the aromatic alley. Lightly tapping her shoulder so she can go easy in her price bargaining with the already impoverished street vendor trying to sell me a 2$ (15 L.E) piece of jewelry for 5$ (35 L.E), we heard someone yelling, “THE LAUGH OF SISI”

Khan El Khalili (Courtesy of http://egyptianstreets.com/2013/01/09/khan-el-khalili-a-labyrinth-of-narrow-alleys/)

Small Shop owners on the sides of Khan El Khalili (Courtesy of http://egyptianstreets.com/2013/01/09/khan-el-khalili-a-labyrinth-of-narrow-alleys/ )

We turned our heads to see a street vendor passing through the alley while pushing her worn-out newsstand. She was calling at the top of her lungs, with probably the headline of a newspaper she proudly adopted and supplemented with prayers for Sisi’s success in “conquering Egypt’s enemies”. Yet, I could hear too, to my secret happiness, the disgruntled murmurs of the small shop owners and other street vendors, negatively affected by Sisi’s repression and economic policies, as they cursed, and urged her to leave. Now all of a sudden, the request of my affluent aunt to watch the “Sisi extravaganza” on our TV during her visit, no longer upset me that much.

Y. Elsayed is a doctoral student at USC’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. She studies forms of cultural resistance and processes of social change in post-Arab Spring countries; Elsayed particularly focuses on mapping out non-traditional means for practicing politics in non-democratic settings, through the study of youth’s satire, sports fandom, arts and music.

Categories: Blog

Celebrate #BlackHistoryMonth with #28DaysOfBlackCosplay

February 23, 2016 - 8:13am

Across the next few weeks, I will be sharing blog posts written as an assignment for the students in my PhD seminar, Public Intellectuals: Theory and Practice. Each reflects a student’s efforts to find their own voice and share some of their research. Any comments or suggestions would be most welcome, and can be posted publicly here or can be sent to me at hjenkins@usc.edu.

Celebrate #BlackHistoryMonth with #28DaysOfBlackCosplay

by Joan Miller

February and October seem to be the two most fraught months of the year for black geeks. October of 2013, for me, was the first time I ever attempted a cross-racial cosplay. I was a graduate student, living and studying in New York City and excited to be attending New York Comic Con, but filled with anxiety about how my cosplay would be received, would I be singled out and ostracized like many black cosplayers before me?

Despite my fears, I headed to the Jacob K. Javits center dressed as Harleen Quinzel, the woman who later becomes Harley Quinn and went, for the most part, unrecognized (unless my partner, dressed as the Joker’s alter-ego, was standing next to me), a disappointing, but not uncommon reaction to black cosplay of white characters.

Incidentally, I firmly believe every cosplayer has a take on Harley Quinn — her fun-loving quirky attitude and crazy antics make her a great joy to embody, while the simple logo and color scheme of her traditional costume are easy to reproduce and lend themselves to endless variations and reinterpretations, like any good meme should.

The author and partner as Harleen Quinzel and Jack Napier.

Later that October, I encountered another cross-racial cosplay that got a lot more attention than mine. Kira Markelejc, a German cosplay and The Walking Dead fan, followed in the footsteps of many a Halloween party goer and opted to practice blackface in constructing her costume of Michonne a character originated by Danai Gurira. I was impressed by the vitriol and passion in the conversation from both Markelejc’s supporters and critics and couldn’t help but compare my own recent cosplay.

Luckily, I had been casting about for a research topic to focus on in a class on Black Performance taught by the inestimable Dr. Tavia Nyong’o. In working with Dr. Nyong’o to refine and unfold my research on the topic, I discovered the work of Chaka Cumberbatch, well known in geek circles for her cosplay of Sailor Venus of the Sailor Moon transmedia property.

Sailor Venus of the Sailor Moon transmedia property.

In this instance, Cumberbatch presents a version of Venus that is identical to the source texts in every way — except for the color of her skin. This detail was too much for some audience members. Shortly after Cumberbatch posted photos of her cosplay online, she was inundated with racist comments, including epithets like N— Venus” and “Sailor Venus Williams”:

“My nose was too wide, lips were too big, I had a ‘face like a gorilla’ and wasn’t suited for such a cute character, because I am black. My wig was too blonde, my wig wasn’t blonde enough, or, my wig was ghetto because I was making it ghetto, by being black and having it on my head.” (Ibid).

After deleting what she describes as thousands of comments, Cumberbatch decided to respond publicly. Her piece, for xojane.com, rejects the criticism from certain audience members that she should “stick to her range.”

After noting that this restrictive ideal limits plus-sized cosplayers as well, Cumberbatch criticizes the idea of “range” by pointing out the extremely unequal representation of black characters in media and therefore the lack of options for black cosplayers who would be limited to these roles. Her sentiments would be echoed later by numerous advocates for better representation, including Viola Davis after her 2015 Emmy win for How to Get Away with Murder.



Cumberbatch continues to write on race in cosplay for sites including XOJane.comTheMarySue.com and NerdCaliber.com, however, her latest and most visible form of activism is of a more participatory bent.

#28DaysofBlackCosplay is a hashtag movement originally conceived by Cumberbatch in January of 2013. The cosplayer was anticipating the upcoming Black History Month and the slew of racialized comments that were about to hit social media. She laments: “we spend the entire month arguing online with people… October and February are the worst times to be black on the internet” (Black Girl Nerds).

#28DaysofBlackCosplay was an attempt to get out ahead of the wave of negative dialogues and vitriol with an explicit effort to celebrate and appreciate black cosplay. The movement originated on Facebook as a group composed of Cumberbatch’s personal contacts in black cosplay, hastily called to action through emails, tweets and messages. The group came together and shared cosplay photos of themselves with short profiles about who they were and who they were cosplaying. Later Cumberbatch cross-posted some of the photos to Twitter whose users “took it and ran with it” (Ibid).

For Cumberbatch #28DaysofBlackCosplay is about visibility. She says, “I needed to see us represented, and that’s what #28DaysofBlackCosplay is all about, it’s about representation.” Her comments evoke the political philosophy of Jacques Ranciére who states that political speech requires a moment in which the invisible subject has an opportunity to become visible (1999). If we could imagine Rancieré to be speaking of black cosplay he might say that “It makes visible what had no business being seen, and makes heard a discourse where once there was only place for noise…” (30:Ibid).

Certainly, not all cosplay achieves the level of speech that he would call political. In order for speech to be recognized as such, and not noise, it has to be legible to the person hearing it. My Harleen Quinzel cosplay, sadly, didn’t quite achieve politics, since no one knew who I was and thus couldn’t make sense of what I was trying to “say.”

Other cosplays fail politically when they don’t present an opportunity for the invisible subject to become visible. In my research I discussed the phenomenon of “white Katara,” — a popular brown-skinned character who is often cosplayed by white women. White Katara can’t be an example of political speech because instead of increasing visibility for black and brown characters, it forcibly decreases visibility by rewriting a previously brown character as the hegemonic default — white.

However, some cosplays, under the right circumstances and in front of the right audience, do begin to beg the question of “Who gets to be an American?” or, “Who gets to be a hero?”

Also today in #29DaysOfBlackCosplaypic.twitter.com/E9SevXKY72

— Affluenza Jedi (@KendraJames_) February 8, 2016

Above, a young “black girl nerd” or “blerd” and participant of #29DaysofBlackCosplay gives us her rendition of Rey (Daisy Ridley) from Star Wars VII: The Force Awakens. The character of Rey also marks an important moment for representations of women in media. Of the top 10 highest grossing film protagonists, Rey is only the second female. However, she far exceeds the reach of her colleague, Anna (Frozen) in 9th by, A.) being a live-action character intended for general audiences that include the coveted “male 18-24” demographic, and B.) climbing all the way to 3rd place (though she still has time to beat out Jack of Titanic fame and claim 2nd)*. Rey proves that not only can a female protagonist carry a film, she can also bring in box office dollars, exploding the common knowledge that female-led films don’t sell. Notably, the film also expanded black representation in the Star Wars galaxy through the strong supporting performance of John Boyega as Finn, a Stormtrooper who defects to the Rebellion. Boyega’s and Ridley’s performances and roles offer opportunities for speech and visibility.  However, intrepid and courageous cosplayers find opportunities for self-expression and possible political speech through negotiations between their own identities and those of the fictional characters they emulate. Below, Bishop cosplay rejects Batman’s and Robin’s hegemonic whiteness while embracing a love for the character that we might interpret as an embracing of Batman’s core principles of justice, ingenuity and respect for life. In his work, named after the theory it explains, Jose Muñoz might describe this negotiation as a Disidentification.

Because we DONT need to change skin color to show love for our fave heroes #29DaysOfBlackCosplay #BlackHistoryMonth pic.twitter.com/eJslFZNafL — Bishop Cosplay (@DreddedDeuce) February 2, 2016

Muñoz understands disidentification as a way of relating to material where the individual neither fully embraces nor fully rejects it’s ideals. Disidentification exists as a third position in which one neither “ buckles under the pressures of” nor “attempt[s] to break free of” the dominant mode of thought, rather, they:

“… tr[y] to transform a cultural logic from within, always laboring to enact permanent structural change while at the same time valuing the importance of local or everyday struggles of resistance. … To disidentify is to read oneself and one’s own life narrative in a moment, object or subject that is not culturally coded to “connect” with the disidentifying subject” (Ibid: 11-12).

Still other cosplayers operate in different modes. Like any artistic endeavor, cosplay can be a rich field for practicing different forms of self-expression. The Storm cosplayer below maintains iconic links to the source material through her dark skin, and white eyes as well as the black/white/gold color scheme employed in several official versions of the character.

However, Cupcake Ninja incorporates her own details and stylings in the costume — her hairstyle, the steampunk-esque elements — which serve to make it uniquely identifiable and uniquely hers.

The day’s not over yet! More #29DaysOfBlackCosplay with Cupcake Ninja Cosplay! https://t.co/rVzbHvHI7A pic.twitter.com/SZmyPXo6F5

— Chaka by Nature (@princessology) February 9, 2016

Ultimately, black cosplay in general and #29DaysOfBlackCosplay in particular, opens up a space of possibility for the underrepresented fan — the invisible subject — to make themselves visible by negotiating their own identities through creative reinterpretation of a character. When thinking about black cosplay, it’s important to understand its position in the constellation of media available to us, especially when we think about issues of representation. Cosplay can be both the motivation and the call for embracing difference in media and encouraging creators to tell stories about the sorts of people we want to see. One black character in a sea of white faces — whether she be a Nichelle Nichols or a Chaka Cumberbatch — can have a surprising effect on the futures of those who come after (like Whoopi Goldberg, for example). Take the opportunity to celebrate Black History Month and black representation by enjoying, sharing and participating in black cosplay, courtesy of Cumberbatch and #28DaysofBlackCosplay. Starfleet Officer Olevia Chavez@ComicConHouston 2015#29DaysOfBlackCosplay #OpenHailingFrequencies pic.twitter.com/lNo7siV9VQ

— Chuck (@Bitspitter) February 5, 2016

For more on #29DaysOfBlackCosplay or (#28DaysOfBlackCosplay), find the hashtag on Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr and Instagram. Joan can be found at @a_wild_acafan and Chaka Cumberbatch at @princessology.


*In case you’re curious, the rest of the female protagonist cohort in the top 50 highest grossing films are:

  1. Alice of Alice in Wonderland(2010)
  2. Katniss Everdeen of The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (2013)
  3. Joy of Inside Out (2015)
  4. Bella Swann of The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn— Part 2 (2012)

The other 44 films feature male protagonists. That’s 88% male and 12% female.


** This year it’s #29daysofblackcosplay, however, Cumberbatch has stated that she will be checking both hashtags regularly.

Categories: Blog

Who Are Millennial Fans: An Interview with Louisa Stein (Part Three)

February 18, 2016 - 8:33am

You describe Glee as “ideologically uneven,” suggesting some of the contradictory pulls in terms of its commitments to equality, diversity, and community. Often, the rough spots in texts, the contradictions and gaps, are what fans have built upon as they have ideologically reconstructed popular television series. Is this the case with Glee or are these ideological unevennesses reproduced within the fan culture that surrounds the series?

 Yes Glee’s ideological unevenness spurred fandom creation, and yes, Glee’s ideological unevenness gets recreated in fan culture. On the one hand, Glee’s ideological unevenness prompted a wealth of fan response, sometimes in the form of virulent critique or media literacy campaigns like the Glee Equality Project, sometimes in the form of somewhat more subtle critiques via long form fan fictions that seek to right Glee’s ideological wrongs (for example, Sugarkane_01’s “Come Here Boy) or to more substantively engage issues of diversity sidestepped by the series (for example, Herostratic’s “No Objects of Lust.”)

But some of the TV series’ unevenness gets reproduced, and new ideological contradictions get introduced. In Millennial Fandom, I talk about the fan fiction series Steal a Heart, which simultaneously makes up for Glee’s lack of depiction of queer sexual intimacy with long passages describing sexual intimacy for multiple non-straight couples, but at the same time the series arguably reifies Glee’s gay white male focus, and also introduces new celebration of consumerist millennial culture with significant emphasis on Disneyworld as millennial fantasy ideal.

What’s important to me for us to take from this is not only that fandom has the capacity for subversion and critique, but that fan cultures contain and author multitudes. Fan culture is, like Glee, at its core spectacularly uneven; it looks different from every vantage point; it’s always multiple, and it’s always changing, and it’s full of dynamic contradictions.


Much discussion of transmedia has centered around masculine audiences and male-centered narratives, but as you note, transmedia extensions play important roles in relation to these female-centered franchises. How might our understanding of transmedia aesthetics and practices shift if we fully incorporated these productions into our understanding of the concept? 

I want to first coopt this question to talk about an example close to my heart at this moment. So rather than thinking about how transmedia aesthetics and practices could shift, I want to dwell for a moment on how TV practices might shift if TV producers took fully into account the potential of the fandoms for female-centered franchises.

I mentioned above the TV series Supernatural’s ambivalent depictions of female fans over the years. Supernatural is a series that has a dynamic and rich transformative fandom, and the majority of those participating in the fandom are women. Supernatural fans, while expressing love for the series and its characters and potential, have long been critics of its gender and racial politics, and have spoken out at times about how they have felt misrepresented and even attacked by the series and its metatexts, for example, in response to a preview that declared the teenage girl the “ultimate monster.”

Having entered into its 11th season, Supernatural has made more than one unsuccessful attempt at creating a “back door spinoff,” introducing characters and scenarios into an episode that the producers hope would be able to carry their own series. Meanwhile, in recent years the series has introduced several compelling female characters, and a few have even been lucky enough to escape the series’ penchant for killing off its supporting female characters to push forward the narrative arcs of its central male characters.

Supernatural fans have used various transmedia channels—Twitter, Tumblr, Change.org, Thunderclap—to campaign for “the spin off fans want to see,” a series concept they have dubbed Wayward Daughters Academy. They’ve coordinated their efforts with the support of and in conversation with the actors playing the characters involved, and rallied fan support at conventions as well as online. While the fans admit that they may not have the power to “create a spin-off,” they argue that “we do have the potential to send The CW and Supernatural producers a message about their treatment of women and female characters.”

As the Wayward Daughters Academy campaign demonstrates, transmedia fandoms can voice their preferences strongly, sometimes in unison, and sometimes in what may seem like cacophony. But there’s power there, even in the cacophony, and a vision of a future politics of media representation that would move us forward into new audiences, new forms, breaking free of old and outdated representational tropes and production systems.

This brings us to your question about what we might learn from the practices of the transformative fandom for female-oriented franchises. Yes, these transformative fan communities can reveal critical perspectives and activist potential, but more importantly those perspectives exist within a fluid whole that encompasses multiple perspectives and practices, which are at once complementary and contradictory, and which flourish together despite—or even because of—their contradictions.[1]

Much of the previous thought about transmedia production has emphasized the pursuit of harmony, unity, and order, with clear hierarchies for transmedia relationships that wouldn’t threaten narrative coherence, or, more conservatively, that would not threaten the supremacy of the central broadcast media. But in transformative fandom, contradictions thrive and fans thrive on contradictions, or at least on the robustness of the culture that contains and celebrates contradiction.

That is, a culture that celebrates multiplicity and diversity must flourish on the contradictions that will emerge from that multiplicity, and this is a key strength of fandom that could shift, as you put it, our understanding of transmedia aesthetics and practices. Transmedia doesn’t need to be unified and clean; it can ride the waves of multivocal investment and authorship.


You use Misha Collins to illustrate the ways that certain performers are using social media to forge stronger alliances with their transformative audiences, even as they seek to draw them into an even more supportive relationship with the “mother ship” series. Yet, the recent example of Orlando Jones and Sleepy Hollow suggests that the producers and networks do not always value the kinds of relationship building such performers do for a series.  These performer-fans clearly have a different relationship to the core text than the “fan boy auteurs” that Suzanne Scott wrote about a few years ago. Might we also understand them as part of the “powerless elite” as John Tulloch famously described science fiction fans? 

There are echoes of celebrities as a powerless elite in my study of Misha Collins’ on-again-off-again status with the CW, or the fact that Orlando Jones is no longer on Sleepy Hollow. Yet in the bigger picture, I see a shift toward decentered communities of authorship that bridge producer and audience, and celebrity and fan. In these evolving interrelationships there are new forms of power, power to create, to entertain one another, to support one another, to create new media forms, to disrupt, to raise money, to organize, to create new trends, and to chart the directions of future media culture.

Misha Collins is readable as a powerless elite only if we define power as the power of broadcast media. Certainly, part of Collins’ online persona initially involved poking fun at the powerlessness of the perceived elite of celebrity, as he satirically tweeted about his close friendships with various heads of state and referred to his followers as his minions. The humor there lay in the fact that while people saw him as powerful, he was in actuality anything but.

But as Collins’ minions gathered and worked with him and with each other to form the charity organization Random Acts, we saw reflected a truth in fan and celebrity power, a truth that perhaps also lent power and new humor to Collins’ performance. Because together Collins and minions are powerful.

GISHWHES (The Greatest International Scavenger Hunt the World Has Ever Seen) takes this shared power further. The collectivity there, the collective dedication to creating anarchic art and spreading it in “real life” and online, demonstrates the power of the creative collective. Collins and collaborators Miss Jean Louis and others have created in GISHWHES a frame that fosters multiple communities of creativity and social action, with 14,000 participants in 2014. But the power here is not in celebrities as elite or fans as elite, but both together as expansive and diverse collective.

But there’s yet another dynamic here I would point to, more visible in communities built on the microcelebrity of young professionals working to build their careers as creative producers. I can think of no better example than Team StarKid, the theater troupe famous for A Very Potter Musical and sequels as well as Starship and Twisted (among others). While StarKid founder Darren Criss has arguably shed the “micro” side of microcelebrity, for the most part the various stars of StarKid model their own professional journeys to their fans, all of whom (fans and celebrities together) fall under the banner of Team StarKid.

Likewise, web series producers and stars who participate in fan-favored social media experiment with self branding along side fans, many of whom also position themselves creative producers, commercial or otherwise.[2] What’s key for me here is the larger collaborative picture, where stardom is understood (by fans and stars and star-fans) as one potential element of one’s creative production and participation, constructed, produced and reproduced by visible labor. Fandom offers communities of support for that labor and the challenges that may come with it. The power then is in the shared communities of knowledge, practice, and support fostered by celebrities and fans together. 

[1] Karen Hellekson and Kristina Busse describe this shifting contradictory whole of fan authorship as the “fantext,” a concept I’ve found quite compelling and useful over the years. Fan Fiction and Fan Communities in the Age of the Internet (McFarland, 2006), 7.

[2] On fans who cross over into celebrity, I’d recommend Matt Hills’ “Not Just Another Powerless Elite,” in Su Holmes and Sean Redmond’s edited collection Framing Celebrity: New Directions in Celebrity Culture (Routledge, 2006), 101-118.

Louisa Stein is Assistant Professor of Film and Media Culture at Middlebury College. Her work explores audience engagement in transmedia culture, with emphasis on questions of gender and generation. Louisa is author of Millennial Fandom: Television Audiences in the Transmedia Age (University of Iowa Press, 2015). She is also co-editor of Sherlock and Transmedia Fandom (McFarland, 2012) and Teen Television: Programming and Fandom (McFarland, 2008). She has published in a range of journals and edited collections including Cinema Journal and How to Watch Television. Louisa serves as book review editor for the Transformative Works and Cultures and Cinema Journal. You can find Louisa on Twitter at @l_e_s and on Tumblr at http://www.millennialfandom.tumblr.com/.

Categories: Blog

Millennial Fans: An Interview with Louisa Stein (Part Two)

February 16, 2016 - 10:22am

Many of the shows you write about as Millennial programs are also shows with strong female leads and targeted at female consumers — Friday Night Lights would be a notable exception on your list. So, what happens to the gendering of fandom as we move towards Millennial fan culture? 

Issues of gender permeate millennial culture, fan culture, and the relationship between the two. Masculinizing—or feminizing—fan culture has been one way industry interests tame fandom’s perceived unruliness. Seemingly masculine forms of fandom (and I would emphasize that these areas, like gender itself, are social constructs) have already been categorized as industrially legible and profit friendly. The fanboy stereotype has its share of taboo associations, going all the way back to the “Get a Life” bit on Saturday Night Live that Textual Poachers opens with; but the fanboy position has since been spun into industry heralded narratives of superfans and fanboy auteurs (see Scott, Kohnen), with the lines toward brand support and profit already clearly delineated.[i]

Obsession_inc (and many others citing her) have termed this divide “affirmational fandom,” versus “transformative fandom,” with the latter perceived as more the practice of female consumers who transform media texts into art and fiction, often in so doing significantly changing their meaning. In Millennial Fandom, I actually argue that transformational and affirmational fandom are more deeply intertwined than we might at first assume, but nevertheless, at a discursive level, the distinction helps us to see why and how transformative (perceived “feminine”) practices have been and continue to be treated as suspect, marked as taboo, and policed.


But we know this is beginning to change, as various attempts by industry interests invite fan transformative authorship, if on industrial terms. So we have industry efforts to coopt fan transformational practices like Amazon Kindle Worlds and FanLib; we also see hash tags emblazoned on episodes designed to elicit and shape fan discourses and twitter authorship; likewise, we see TV source text mimicking the form of fan videos. We also see producers (especially digital producers of web series) naming “ships” and their associated fandoms, reposting fan art, and participating in fandom themselves. What this means is that industry interests are now courting and celebrating modes of fan engagement perceived as feminine, and, as a result, new and more nuanced games of co-creation and control begin to play out.

But it goes further than a grudging acceptance that feminine modes of fan production might be woven into profit too. Perceived feminine excesses are also being celebrated for their creative energy as representative of what is new and different about contemporary youth audiences. It’s part of the millennial discursive construct: all seeming threats can be recast as positives.

The potential unruliness of the millennial generation—especially the seemingly more illegible, excessive, feminine practices—are themselves being celebrated and marketed in millennial-directed texts and paratexts, and this means we are given lead female characters like Blair Waldorf, Veronica Mars, Charlie Bradbury (sob) and all five Pretty Little Liars leads, or most recently Clary Fray from Shadowhunters, whose transgressions and excesses are celebrated as strengths. This then means we have a dialogue between fan cultures that celebrate affective transgressions and series/characters (and especially female leads) that do the same.

You describe in some details how ABC Family developed its image as a network, but we’ve recently learned that the network is rebranding itself. Has the moment of millennial television already started to pass, and if so, what will take its place?

Thanks to a timely coincidence I am writing this response on January 12th, the day that ABC Family officially became Freeform. This rebranding not only changes the network’s name, but also its professed target audience. Freeform labels its intended imagined audience not millennials but “Becomers,” what they term a “life stage” rather than a specific generation.

According to various press materials, Becomers span life experience from “first kiss to first kid,” age range 14-34. But just as the millennial category did for ABC family in 2007, Becomers offer an expansive category seeking to unite teens and young adults, this time linking them by their shared processes of “finding themselves” rather than by a shared generational ethos.

ABC Family had to walk a fine line in its 2007 rebranding—it strove to maintain its family friendly and even conservative leaning Disney roots and while also positioning itself as fresh, cutting edge, and tapped into the concerns of contemporary young people. The discourses of social conservatism (what I talk about as “millennial hope”) surrounding millennials became a useful tool in this branding dance. But since then, ABC family has contributed significantly to the alternate depictions of millennials as transgressive, risk taking, and independently-minded (what I call discourses of “millennial noir.”)

The new Freeform/Becomers rebrand sheds the limiting generational discourse and the conservative associations that go with it. According to a press release announcing the rebranding in April 2015, current Becomers (or at least the younger ones) “live on the cutting edge of technology… have never experienced content without a smart phone, streaming, or social media.” In turn, according to another press release in Fall of 2015, Freeform will reach Becomers by encouraging audience interactivity: “Freeform is inspired by the interconnection between content and audience, media and technology, interactive and linear, life stage and life style and the way Becomers interact with all of them.”

Many of these strategies were already in place with ABC Family’s prior address to millennials. The moving away from the term millennials distances ABC Family from both the dated and more conservative dimensions of the brand. The hyped new programming on Freeform leans toward fan-friendly and female-centric representations of diverse experience, such as in The Fosters, Becoming Us, and Shadowhunters.

So all of this is to say that the label millennials has indeed begun to shift and pass (new articles describe millennials parenting tendencies!) and perhaps generational discourse itself is falling temporarily out of fashion, but many of the strategies put in place during the reign of the millennials will persist, if rebranded and somewhat reshaped.

Throughout, you suggest ways that the book, Millennials Rising, has informed industry practice and discourse as it relates to this particular generational cohort. What factors account for the impact this particular book had? Why was it so widely embraced? What have been some of the consequences of this book’s influence?

Millennials Rising not accidentally depicted a vision and definition of millennials that was advertiser and industry friendly and that helped ease concerns and anxieties about the impact of digital technologies and cultural change on media marketing models. Authors of Millennials Rising, William Strauss and Neil Howe were founding partners of LifeCourse Associates, a consulting, publishing and speaking company that “serve(s) companies, government agencies, and non-profit.” This reach across profit and non profit sectors has been felt, as reports from the Pew Research Centers and media companies like ABC Family reified the vision of millennials originally constructed by Strauss and Howe, limited and contradictory as it might have been.

In other words, Strauss and Howe defined the millennial generation in part with industry concerns in mind, and then industry interests glommed on, reified, and reproduced this definition, a self-fulfilling generational prophecy with far reaching impact. To return again to the Freeform example, the impact is still felt, even as ABC Family sheds the term millennial, it still constructs its expansive collapse of teen and young adult markets and spins a hopeful narrative about the power of community built on digital authorship communicating individual experience.

[i] Suzanne Scott, “Who’s Steering the Mothership?: The Role of the Fanboy Auteur in Transmedia Storytelling,” The Routledge Handbook on Participatory Cultures (New York: Routledge, 2013), 43-52; Melanie Kohnen ‘The power of geek’: fandom as gendered commodity at Comic-Con,” Creative Industries Journal, 7:1 (2014), 75-78, DOI: 10.1080/17510694.2014.892295

Louisa Stein is Assistant Professor of Film and Media Culture at Middlebury College. Her work explores audience engagement in transmedia culture, with emphasis on questions of gender and generation. Louisa is author of Millennial Fandom: Television Audiences in the Transmedia Age (University of Iowa Press, 2015). She is also co-editor of Sherlock and Transmedia Fandom (McFarland, 2012) and Teen Television: Programming and Fandom (McFarland, 2008). She has published in a range of journals and edited collections including Cinema Journal and How to Watch Television. Louisa serves as book review editor for the Transformative Works and Cultures and Cinema Journal. You can find Louisa on Twitter at @l_e_s and on Tumblr at http://www.millennialfandom.tumblr.com/.

Categories: Blog

Who Are Millennial Fans?: An Interview with Louisa Stein (Part One)

February 11, 2016 - 8:13am

Louisa Stein is part of a generation of fan researchers who first came to my attention through the 2006 publication of Fan Fictions and Fan Communities in the Age of the Internet which was a groundbreaking collection of essays, one that opened up a range of new theoretical perspectives and introduced many new voices. I have had the pleasure watching Stein’s scholarship take shape over the past decade — including her co-editorship of Sherlock and Transmedia Fandom (with Kristina Busse) and her contributions to the reissue of my own Textual Poachers.

Soft-spoken in person, Stein writes with real passion, as someone who is deeply grounded in the fandoms she discusses through her writing, and as someone whose sense of social justice is shaped by various forms of fan feminisms. She also has been consistently attentive to the ways fandom has changed as it embraces the potentials and works through the challenges of new media and as it struggles to maintain its own identity in the face of various industrial strategies that seek to incorporate and contain its transformative practices.

This past fall, Stein published an important new book — Millenial Fandom: Television Audiences in a Transmedia Age. Here, she discusses young fans of such programs as Gossip Girl, Veronica Mars, Glee, Lizzie Bennett Diaries, Vampire Diaries, Pretty Little Liars, among many other series, and in the process, she expands the critical vocabulary of fandom research — especially as it concerns the shifting relations between producers and consumers in the era of social media. She writes in complex and compelling ways about the “mainstreaming” of fandom and who gets left out when the industry embraces some fans and not others. She doesn’t simply celebrate fandom as a space that transgresses or reimagines the ideologies of these popular fictions, but she also explores how fans reproduce and  in some cases,  deepen the problematic ideological contradictions at the heart of their favorite programs. I am sure that this book is one which will inspire and inform the next generation of fandom research.

We tackle many of these issues in this three part interview with Stein about her book and about some cutting edge issues impacting young fans today.

In many ways, you see the millennial audience as emblematic of the “mainstreaming” of fan culture within a networked culture. You write, “Millennials have made fan practices more socially acceptable by action, word, and image, if not name.” To what degree is this something Millennials have done and to what degree is this something the industry has done as it has constructed millennials as a particular kind of fan?

First, I want to emphasize that I mean millennial as an imagined category, one co-created by industry and (the cultural participants we refer to as) millennials in an ongoing negotiation. Likewise, the depiction of millennials as modified fans is an ongoing joint creation: industry marketing, advertising, network positioning, programming, scheduling, and digital paratexts together construct a vision of millennials as modified fans; but millennials’ (and/or fans’) own performances of self, responses to one another, and collective interactions also shape this picture. Advertising campaigns and paratextual strategies (like officially coordinated hash tags or programming embedded with fan reference) may hail a modified fan position—one that is invested, created, and interactive up to a particular degree and in certain industry-accepted modes. But fans created many of these practices in the first place, and choose when and how to respond to industrial hailing, when to play along the designated lines and when to transgress.

I’ve been thinking recently about the power of fan self representation, the impact of what fans choose to broadcast, so to speak, about their own engagement—what narratives of self and community they (and we, including scholar fans) choose to tell. To me, this set of performances is crucial. Even as fan self-representations may seem to echo industrial discourse, they transcend those too simple portraits.

The notion of “socially-minded millennials,” for example, is a thin industrial construct in comparison to the lived coordination and action of millennial fan campaigns such as the Harry Potter Alliance, Random Acts, The Glee Equality Project, and Wayward Daughters Academy. Likewise, the millennial noir transgressions of Gossip Girl characters in no way encompass the celebration of the excess of emotion in millennial feels culture that flourishes on Tumblr, YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

The mainstreaming of fandom into millennial culture is a chosen stance of fans to represent their modes of engagement as more than only niche and subcultural. Fans choose to post about their fan engagement in the public spaces of Tumblr rather than the locked communities and friends-only journals of the late 1990s and early 2000s. They may perceive these fan spaces as intimate publics, as I’ve written about elsewhere, yet they choose to allow for the possibility of visibility, for a default public culture, albeit one with intimate semi-private pockets. Indeed, the social activism of, for example, what some refer to as Tumblr feminism is part of—or at least deeply connected to—this fan performance of fandom as an expansive mode of engagement with something important to share and spread.

Many have seen the “mainstreaming” of fandom in largely negative terms as a form of co-optation or enclosure, yet throughout the book, there are suggestions that it may also be a positive force for change. In what senses? What is gained and what gets lost as fandom gets greater acceptance, as it moves from a niche or cult phenomenon and into the mainstream?

We can’t and shouldn’t ignore the dimensions and experiences of fandom that have become sidelined, censured, erased, deemed unimportant or inappropriate, or even ridiculed because they do not fall within industrially or culturally approved fannish modes. For example, the increased visibility of fandom has led to a gendered battleground when it comes to representations of fans, seen recently in the whiplash ambivalence of the series Supernatural’s representation of fandom  and female fannish characters. (See also) The mainstreaming of fandom does police and punish certain fans, modes of fan engagement, and modes of fan production, while heralding others.

But at the same time, the mainstreaming of fandom can give visibility and voice to those vital parts of fandom even as they’re being censured. Nowhere was this more evident to me than at the 2013 LeakyCon, which I write about in my book’s conclusion. (I’ve also written about it with Allison McCracken and Lindsey Giggey on Antenna.) At LeakyCon, young millennial fans came together into a supportive multifandom community that they saw as an extension of their online engagement.

I attended one panel that focused on parents of LeakyCon goers. As the parent of a budding fan myself (my daughter just finished reading book 7 of Harry Potter this week!), I was struck by the way parents spoke about how much fandom had meant to their kids, how knowing that there is this larger community of folks that share their concerns of identity and self-expression, articulated through their engagement with media communities, has empowered their children to become authors, creators, community participants, and sometimes community leaders in ways that their parents (many of whom had grown up as fans) could never have imagined for themselves when they were young.

The increased visibility and sense of pride and public-facing community has transformed access to fandom, its breadth, and in turn the tenor of the fan experience. Fandom still can provide an escape from a more constricting daily life, but fandom is no longer necessarily hidden and walled. Instead it infuses fans’ everyday and shapes the communities fans build in “real life” and online or, more to the point, as these categories dissolve.

Louisa Stein is Assistant Professor of Film and Media Culture at Middlebury College. Her work explores audience engagement in transmedia culture, with emphasis on questions of gender and generation. Louisa is author of Millennial Fandom: Television Audiences in the Transmedia Age (University of Iowa Press, 2015). She is also co-editor of Sherlock and Transmedia Fandom (McFarland, 2012) and Teen Television: Programming and Fandom (McFarland, 2008). She has published in a range of journals and edited collections including Cinema Journal and How to Watch Television. Louisa serves as book review editor for the Transformative Works and Cultures and Cinema Journal. You can find Louisa on Twitter at @l_e_s and on Tumblr at http://www.millennialfandom.tumblr.com/.

Categories: Blog

Charting Documentary’s Futures: An Interview with MIT’s William Uricchio (Part Four)

February 9, 2016 - 8:29am

The report’s focus on immersion as a dimension of news and documentary may be new to many readers, despite the New York Time’s recent venture into virtual reality. So, can you share a bit more about the current state of immersive journalism and why you think this is a trend which we should be paying attention to rather than a passing fad? How would you respond to fears that immersion is more a tool for shaping emotional response rather than a resource for fostering reasoned argument? Can news stories be both immersive (and thus framed by a particular vantage point) and objective in the traditional sense of the term?

To answer your last question first, if we take immersive technology in the form of VR to mean 360-degree, 3D imaging systems (there is a lot of slippage in the meanings of both ‘immersive’ and ‘VR”), I actually think that it’s easier to be less subjective, or at least to circumvent the problem of a particular point-of-view common to linear narratives in film, video, words and even traditional photography.

One of its affordances as a medium, and a great advantage or disadvantage depending on one’s goals, is that VR offers a surfeit of information. This makes directing the user’s attention or ‘constructing the gaze’ a difficult task. Indeed, it’s one of the reasons VR storytelling is still in its infancy: how to impose structure and direction, other than to mimic film conventions? In these early days, VR storytelling feels a lot like the first decade of cinematic storytelling, when the conventions from another medium (theater) informed the endeavors of a new medium still finding its feet.

I recently experienced Waves of Grace, a terrific project about an Ebola survivor whose immunity offers a story of hope, made by Gabo Arora and Chris Milk for the UN in collaboration with Vice Media. It’s clear that the makers have a point of view, a story that they want to communicate. And while reader-response theory tells us that viewers can and will make their own meanings from texts, in this case, the viewer has 360 degrees at his disposal, and in my case, I’m pretty sure that I constructed a counter-narrative possibly abusing my freedom to look around, to look ‘behind’ or opposite the makers’ focus, to see things they weren’t talking about and perhaps didn’t want to take up.

More objective? I think the viewer has more options, can look around at what would normally be ‘off-screen space’ in a film or video image, and that means viewers have greater latitude in figuring out not only what they are supposed to look at, but also the larger setting and context.

The bigger issue, according to some research, is that we might be processing these encounters the same way we do real-world experiences, and not the way we process film or photography or words. That is, we might be processing them as experience not representation.

Emile Bruneau’s work in cognitive neuroscience at MIT, for instance, focuses on synaptic plasticity and explores the extent to which VR experiences play out differently than the representational domain we are more familiar with. He’s doing this, among other places, with user experiences of Karim Ben Khalifa’s The Enemy that I mentioned earlier, and it’s very exciting work even if worrying for its larger implications. Emile is coming at it from a conflict resolution perspective, which is terrific; but if his thesis is correct, we need to understand the process much better in order to brace ourselves for the onslaught of other less benevolent appropriations.

I think immersive experiences put a new twist on the old ‘showing-telling’ distinction. Showing is far more difficult to contain than telling, seems more impactful in terms of how it is experienced and remembered, and as Confucius tells us, can be re-told in thousands of words and thus in countless ways. VR takes showing to the next level, not only always presenting us with an excess of information, but in so doing, forcing us to attend to only a small portion of what is available, and giving us that information as experience. I think it would be difficult to argue that it is a tool for reasoned argument – the abstraction of words and numbers is still best for that, with image and sound beginning the slippery slope to affect (I guess that’s what the Reformation was all about!).

But VR can be a great attention-getter, a quick and easy way to create a sense of presence and place. By creating the impression of being somewhere, by giving the viewer the freedom to look up, down and all around, a lot of crucial contextual information can be derived that would, in more limited linear scenarios, require careful selection and plotting, only to wind up giving us the director’s or writer’s point of view.

Immersion can offer a counterweight to indifference. It can lure us into being interested in a topic we might otherwise gloss over, can encourage a search for facts, or a desire to learn. Rational debate, as a mode of discourse, is usually driven by some sort of motive. Immersion can help to create that motive, but – at least until we develop better ways of shaping and directing immersive experiences – it is not, in itself, a mode of discourse.

So with this in mind, I would not dismiss it as a journalistic fad, but rather look to it working in tandem with other media expressions. Ebola Outbreak: A Virtual Journey (Dan Edge, working with TheSecretLocation) uses Google Cardboard, an inexpensive and relatively easy way to reach the public, to create a 3D 360 degree immersive environment tied to Frontline’s Outbreak, a broadcast documentary. This Frontline production is a great example of forward-looking journalism, bound at the hip with documentary of course. It played out across media with partnerships and media manifestations from the New York Times to Youtube, and the immersive app was, in that sense, just another arrow in the quiver of an organization trying to expand and engage its audience while expanding the modalities of getting its story across.

Emphasizing audience engagement poses its own issues, since news organizations have historically distinguished themselves from the commercial drivers that shape the rest of their network’s operations and journalists often resent the push to reach more viewers. At the same time, news organizations have seen their job as informing but not necessarily mobilizing the public, a goal more likely to be associated with documentary producers or activists. So, in what senses should journalists care about engagement?

The 20th Century is rich with embodiments of the journalistic profession, from news hounds, to crusaders, to hard-bitten cynics, to gonzo journalists, each articulating a different set of relations between journalists and their publics as well as their larger institutional bases. And while it’s probably true that many of today’s practitioners hew to notions of independence, integrity and authority that would be familiar to journalists of generations gone by, the increasingly dire conditions facing many American print organizations seems to be encouraging a more public-friendly stance.

I have the impression that many of the journalists who a few years back were forced to include their email address with their bylines and grudgingly cope with tweets, are now more willing to interact with their public and to even track the number of hits their stories are getting.

News organizations, for all of their rhetoric about informing the public, not mobilizing it, also seem to be changing. This seems driven as much by the political polarization of the American public sphere, as by charges from the political right that ‘the media’ is too leftist, as by an outright political agenda on the part of some news organizations and funders (Fox News and Richard Mellon Scaiff’s Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, to name but two). That Fox News trademarked “Fair & Balanced” and “We Report. You Decide” as news slogans is one of the clearest signs that the old platitudes have been transformed into marketing tools, not commitments. Journalism – just like the larger environment it inhabits – is changing.

All that said, I think the engagement issue plays out on a somewhat different dimension. It’s similar to what I said about immersive VR: it can help to generate interest, while making no claims to being a mode of discourse. First, it can indeed support the bottom line by attracting and holding readers and viewers. That’s a double-edged sword, of course, as the annals of Yellow Journalism demonstrate. But the history of Pulitzer’s New York World also shows that an engaged audience will stick with a paper even when the reporting improves! In other words, engagement is independent from journalistic quality in the traditional sense.

Second, engagement can be extensive. It can help to move people from an interest in the reports they read or see to the actual world and civic processes around them. If the journalistic information is solid, then whatever interventions follow will at least have the benefit of being well-informed.

Third, I think the pursuit of engagement has led to some very interesting innovations. Our report discusses Localore and WBEZ-Chicago’s Curious City, a program where the ideas for what should be covered and the ensuing research itself comes from the public. It’s a great example of co-creation, and how it can foster community engagement. In a very different way, the Center for Investigative Reporting’s Off/Page and Storyworks projects are each based on partnerships with non-traditional players (YouthSpeaks, a literary nonprofit, and Tides Theater, respectively) to report news stories in ways that speak to particular communities. And The Oakland Tribune’s Oakland Voices (with sister projects in Sacramento, California, and Jackson, Mississippi) trains local residents to become multi-media storytellers, which extends its range of news coverage and points of view, and enhances community engagement. These developments and more like them are essential steps towards pushing the journalistic form ahead, towards helping it reach publics that it has too long ignored, and towards keeping it in step with the ever-changing needs of its publics.

Engagement is user-centric. Rather than proclaiming from the lofty position of professional authority, it invites involvement, situates relevance, demonstrates the need for further information and consideration.

Alas, the news no longer seems self-evident. Today’s public faces a withering array of choices, a number of which pander shamelessly to their interests. It’s an empowered public, which is not to say an informed one; a public with tools, access, and the means to express and share ideas. These developments are some of the reasons we believe that journalism is moving away from being a straightforward transmitter of information to a redefined position as a convener, curator and shaper of an informed conversation between publics and sources. It’s the difference between a monologue and a dialogue. And today’s public is increasingly part of the conversation.

One of our key bits of advice to journalists is to “begin with the user…”. While we are still in the early days of this new dialogic info-scape, acknowledging that the folks out there in the public are more than mere recipients of whatever journalism organizations cast their way seems like an essential starting point. They are potential partners (Curious City), localizers (Off/Page), people with particular interests and needs that can be reached through a number of the interactive, immersive, and engaging approaches possible with today’s technologies.

If a significant public does its reading and viewing on mobile devices, then we need to think about reaching them there, not simply by squeezing the printed page down to phone screen size, and not simply finding alternate ways to convey that information in small format. We also need to consider users’ desires to navigate information, compare it, share it, and at times, even produce it. We need to find a way to go beyond journalism as information transmission alone, and to think about ways of addressing its ritual dimensions that I mentioned earlier when citing James Carey. And all this while somehow maintaining the reference values that quality journalism represents. No small challenge, but we’ve figured out the quality news and transmission bit, so the next step is to upgrade significantly the role of user in our calculus.

News organizations and documentary producers struggle with the phenomenon of user-generated content. So-called “citizen journalists” are often pit against professional news-gatherers and there’s concerns that grassroots media may not meet the same standards of accuracy and ethics as that produced by professional journalists. Are there good ways for news organizations to collaborate with the public in order to expand their capacities without necessarily sacrificing older standards about quality reporting?

This picks up from the previous question, and it’s the key issue in a change from monologue to dialogue. What do we do with the conversation partner, especially when there are so few productive behavioral precedents available and even fewer ways to guarantee the quality of the conversation? Transitions are always vexed: how much of the old to retain? What of the new will actually stick? And meanwhile, how are we supposed to navigate the uncertain mix of signals?

Recognizable standards and the ability to distinguish fact from fiction are more important than ever, particularly given the ever-growing cacophony of sources and voices enabled by our communication technologies. This is in part a literacy problem, in a world where diversity brings with it multiple and competing truths; and in part a curation problem, where reputation turns on appropriate and timely selection in a very chaotic information environment.

But the stakes are enormous in an environment that offers countless invitations for the public to share, and in sharing, opportunities to build communities of interest and affiliation. These energies can be directed towards civic engagement and informed debate, or they can be siphoned off to support the narrow interests of closed communities. Journalism, at least in my view, should be a social binder.

This is a fast moving area, and there are several approaches to journalistic collaboration with the public to keep an eye on. For starters, there are precedents that we can learn from such as collaborative news networks. A few years back, Anita Chan, wrote her CMS thesis about networks such as Slashdot and Kuro5hin that developed various user-based systems to rank and filter participant-generated stories. Or we might look at the very different curation systems in play with Reddit, The Guardian, the New York Times and other organizations that have sought to embrace user comments and leads. Stay tuned for more on this when Anika Gupta, another CMS student, finishes her thesis later this spring on comments, moderators and news communities in journalism!

Or we might look to a growing number of automated verification tools out there like Scoopshot and CrowdVoice, many developed thanks to the Knight News Challenge. And then there are working partnerships between the public and journalists in the form of The Guardian’s “The Counted” that I mentioned earlier, in which The Guardian’s reporters do the work of verification on information supplied in part by the public.

While the verdict is still out, there’s no denying the role of the public in uploading information on events as they happen, and in commenting on, supplementing and contesting journalistic reports whether in the press or not. In really simplistic terms, on one hand, the public’s contributions can be likened to sensory input, the raw data that something is happening that will quickly make its way to the brain for the dots to be connected. It’s the nervous system at work, with a division of function that makes good use of both nerve ends and cognitive processing.

But on the other hand, public responses to published journalism (I learn a lot by reading The Guardian’s comments sections!) invoke a slightly different analogy. In this case, it’s all at the processing level and similar to the internal debates we can have with ourselves. We reach a conclusion, but then consider the situation from different angles, or factor in different data points. These comments, if a civil tone can reign, go a long way towards improving journalism by offering contrasting views, linking to sources not mentioned in the original, and demonstrating the potentials of an incredibly productive partnership.

How does this report fit within the longer term vision of the Open-Doc Lab? What else might people expect from you in the future?

When I founded the Open Doc Lab, I did so with the idea that the conditions for representation are changing and changing profoundly, and that documentary can benefit immensely from the particular constellation of changes facing us. Near ubiquitous cameras, good networking and software availability, an increasingly media-making public … the elements are in place for a fundamental reworking of the long established balance of power in representation.

But on the other hand, as many of your questions have indicated, there are plenty of tensions with our inherited traditions, plenty of threats to established ways of doing things, and potentially plenty of dangers especially in the shift from the known to the unknown. What do we do about notions of authorship, authorial responsibility, expertise and point of view? What’s the calculus of ethics in participatory documentaries (free labor, libel, privacy incursions, and the rest) and also in interactive ones (where we can potentially confirm world views, not expand them)? How will these new approaches and the technologies fit with established notions of storytelling, engagement and even something as basic as shared textual experiences?

These are not necessarily new questions – games have already posed some of them – but the stakes are arguably different when taking up the representational claims long held as defining for documentary. Of course this is not to say that the concept of documentary is any more stable than the inherited notion of journalism; rather, just like journalism, it is fraught with tensions and contradictions at a moment of change.

So that’s where we come in. The Open Doc Lab is research centric, of course, and these tensions and above all possibilities define our ongoing research agenda. An important component of this research takes the form of our masters students’ theses, where we’ve had some terrific work on data-driven storytelling (Heather Craig), impact assessment (Sean Flynn), live documentary (Julie Fisher), and so on. We’re also interested in extending our findings, of intervening in the ongoing development of documentary as both production and institutional practices, something that Sarah Wolozin, who is the lab’s director, has found endlessly creative ways to achieve.

And by doing this, I’d say that our bottom line intervention targets the larger issue of civic discourse. Our ongoing work with journalism is a good example of how this works. Initially, we thought that digital journalism would offer documentary an incredibly important distribution platform and audience, especially as documentary’s theatrical and broadcast venues continue to melt away. And it does. But actually, it turned out that (digital) journalism could also benefit considerably from the relationship. This turned into conversations with both communities and ultimately the report that Sarah Wolozin, the ODL team, and I prepared with the MacArthur Foundation’s support and that we’ve been talking about in this interview.

We also work with documentarians, journalists, and organizations on a more individual level. Take Frontline, an organization at the pinnacle of American broadcast documentary. David Fanning recognized the changing dynamics of the media landscape and brought in Raney Aronson, now Frontline’s executive producer, to help the series stay ahead of the curve. Raney is a fellow in our lab, and that’s led to some extremely productive conversations between our two organizations.

Or take another example: the widespread participation that is one of the most exciting affordances of the new documentary. We’ve been fortunate to be able to approach this through the work of visiting artists such as Kat Cizek, whom I mentioned earlier in the context of the NFB’s Highrise series (Kat’s work embodies the co-creation methodology, and she is wonderfully articulate about it) and through the projects of MIT colleagues such as Sasha Constanza-Chock, Vivek Bald and Christine Walley – all members of the lab – as well as with our colleagues from MIT’s Center for Civic Media.

Our fellows program has attracted a small and remarkable group of international makers, critics, technologists, and artists (for the people and profiles, see http://opendoclab.mit.edu/category/2014-2015-fellows). It has provided a space to share expertise and even basic things like vocabulary, to explore new technologies, and to brainstorm and incubate projects. Sarah and I would love to be able to share our work with a greater and more diverse array of people, and as well to get it out to communities where it can make a difference, and that means getting some financial legs under the fellows program, which is the task at hand.

One of the great advantages of working at a university is that we have a relatively neutral platform at our disposal (our job is to open up, not monetize). We can bring members of the industry, technologists, artists, festival organizers, advocates and policy makers together to move the field as a whole ahead. Naturally, we take advantage of this setting for convenings large and small. But we also try to move the field and the debate along by building resources.

Sarah Wolozin has been the driving spirit behind Docubase, a curated collection of hundreds of interactive projects. It includes playlists by makers, curators and technologists; a lab, where project documentation and interviews abound; a tool and resource section; and we are building up a beta-testing function for makers who want to get feedback on work in progress. It’s a tremendous resource, and the kind of thing that we will definitely keep doing as part of our commitment to field-building.

Knowledge transmission is also part of our remit – courses, workshops, lectures and the rest. I’m just back from a string of lectures across Eastern Europe as well as England, France, Germany and the Netherlands where these developments are generating ever-more interest. We’re planning to connect the dots between some of our online projects such as Docubase and Moments of Innovation and the interviews that we’ve been recording in order to offer the international public a structured learning environment, or in the language of the day, a MOOC.

As I noted earlier in response to your question about the ‘open’ in the Open Doc Lab, sharing knowledge and resources is central to the lab’s vision. But we also do our best to facilitate this new order of things through a robust set of collaborations and joint projects with Sundance, Tribeca, SXSW, i-Docs and the International Documentary Festival Amsterdam’s DocLab.

To give one example, Sundance’s New Frontier’s Program, Indiewire and our lab joined together for the Creating Critics program to train new critics to write about emerging digital forms in the context of a festival and to show how they relate to cinematic storytelling. It’s been great for our students, the sponsoring partners and the field, so we look forward to ramping this up in the future. We regularly partner with IDFA’s DocLab, whether for projects like Moments of Innovation or for some event or other during their festival in November.

With our base at MIT, technology is another no-brainer. We’re always on the prowl to see how various technologies can be put to the work of representation, how they might open access to a greater array of users. So for example, later this spring, we’ll be holding an event on VR that in part attempts to disambiguate the different technologies behind VR, tease out their implications … and get a sense of what new approaches are just beginning to take shape in MIT’s labs.

Finally – good news – we recently learned that the John T. and Catherine D. MacArthur Foundation has given us a significant grant, allowing us to focus more on our work (and less on fundraising!) for the next few years. And it has the added value of allowing us to continue working with Kathy Im at the Foundation, while redoubling our efforts at all the things I’ve just mentioned!
William Uricchio is founder and principal investigator of the MIT Open Documentary Lab, which explores the frontiers of interactive, immersive and participatory fact-based storytelling. He is also professor of Comparative Media Studies at MIT and professor of Comparative Media History at Utrecht University in the Netherlands. William’s broader research explores the dynamics of new media, at times using a historical lens (old media when they were new, such as 19th Century television) and at times by working with interactive and algorithmically generated media forms (interactive documentaries and games in particular).

William has written extensively on topics ranging from high-culture in a ‘low’ medium (Reframing Culture: The Case of the Vitagraph Quality Films) to Batman across media (The Many Lives of the Batman and its successor, Many More Lives of the Batman, just out with Palgrave and the British Film Institute!!!); from television in Nazi Germany (Die Anfänge des deutschen Fernsehens) to American culture in Europe (We Europeans? Media, Representations, Identity as well as Media Cultures); from panoramas and stereoscopes to the media constellations of the 1898 Sears & Roebuck catalogue; and from media obsolescence to ephemerality.  Guggenheim, Humboldt and Fulbright research fellowships as well as, most recently, the Berlin Prize, have supported his work. William has spent about half of his career outside the US in the Netherlands and as a visiting professor in Sweden, Denmark, Germany (Berlin & Marburg), and China.   See details and more at williamuricchio.com

Categories: Blog

Charting Documentary’s Futures: An Interview with MIT’s William Uricchio (Part Three)

February 4, 2016 - 1:59pm

On the documentary side, the American public has probably never had access to as many different documentaries as they do now — more are playing on television, more are getting theatrical runs, more are playing on the festival circuit, more are available through online platforms. So, how has this context impacted the ways documentary producers work today? How do they stand out in a cluttered environment? They are under increased pressure from funders to demonstrate their impact, but how do they insure impact in such a complicated media environment?

It’s been a curious time for the documentary form. It’s being pushed on one side by the interactive, immersive, location-based forms that our report explores, where the boundaries are being redefined through new technologies, techniques, and empowered users. And on the other side, the traditional linear form is blurring thanks to a broad spectrum of reality television, from Animal Planet’s programming to series such as MythBusters. These predictably formatted programs technically hew to Grierson’s definition, but for the most part seem like extreme dilutions of documentary’s capacity to engage meaningfully with the world.

Meanwhile, there is indeed a lot of excellent linear documentary out there – I’ve been to a couple of remarkable festivals over the past few months – but sad to say, very little of what I’ve seen will ever be seen again, unless it’s at another festival or by very adventurous uses of Netflix. The more socially critical and engaged, the poorer the opportunities for theatrical or televisual distribution … and it’s still early days in terms of the various modalities of internet distribution.

The developments that we’ve been tracking address the ‘attention’ problem in a couple of ways. First, they are in many cases designed for the viewing platforms that seem increasingly dominant: smart phones and tablets, that is, relatively small mobile screens with touch interfaces. In this sense, they are digital native productions, making use of links, user interventions, etc. already well understood from everyday encounters with these technologies. They take the form of a new vernacular, rather than repurposing the older forms of dramatic narrative film, television and the long form story.

Secondly, in a number of cases, they attempt to be immersive. This might take as extreme a form as Karim Ben Khelifa’s The Enemy, which uses Oculus Rift to bring an interview to life; or as simple a form as Question Bridge (Hank Willis Thomas, Kamal Sinclair, Chris Johnson and Bayeté Ross Smith) which lets users follow their interests by controlling the configuration of questions and answers.

Question Bridge: Black Males – Project Trailer from Question Bridge on Vimeo.

And as this suggests, thirdly, a high degree of customization is often possible, as users make decisions about what they want to see, which characters or perspectives they want to follow, or where they want to dive more deeply.

These approaches to attention also, unfortunately, make the lack of attention quite visible. Whereas linear documentaries continue to flow along regardless of whether one is watching, asleep or in the next room making a sandwich, interactives usually stop cold the moment that one has stopped interacting with them. And in a world of data tracking, that is not always good news for interactives. Attention can be more sharply measured, but the metrics regimes between linear and interactive aren’t necessarily compatible.

This gets to your second question: impact. I find this a fraught area in general, and in particular in the case of interactives, where we have tended to extend the logics of assessing fixed linear texts to texts with a very different set of conditions and affordances. There has been a recent spate of impact assessment studies that have essentially (and often unknowingly) worked in parallel with the television industry, where, as Philip Napoli puts it, interest in exposure has been replaced by interest in engagement.

That is, the vast proliferation of program options has weakened the market share of any one program and therefore logics of economic value; and at the very same moment, new and more fine-grained tools are available, encouraging the industry to shift from quantitative to qualitative arguments. Nielsen’s partnership with Twitter, and the importance of social media as a site of ‘engagement’, are all about this shift.

Anyway, in the more refined world of academics and foundations concerned with social change, the same basic shift in thinking is underway. How can we use the new tools available to us (Twitter feeds and Facebook mentions) better to understand engagement, impact and social change?

It’s a fair question, of course, and there are good reasons to ask what kind of impact a documentary had and what we can learn in order to improve down the road. But at the moment, we seem caught up in defaults that largely extend the thinking of the broadcast past and its obsession with comparative metrics and standardization, redoubling it with the data trails users of digital media leave behind. And that, it seems to me, does a great disservice to the affordances of the interactive forms we’ve been investigating.

There is a world of difference between, on one hand, taking a guided tour of a city, where one sits back and listens to an informed and compelling tale, and on the other, wandering through the city on one’s own, where there is much greater latitude in terms of where to direct attention and different requirements for engagement. I’m not (yet) convinced that the latter experience can be measured on the same standardized customer satisfaction form as the former. So while I am by no means adverse to assessment, I guess I’d say that the verdict is still out on best impact assessment practices for the interactive space, though many of my colleagues seem comfortable with tweaking the tools developed for fixed linear experiences and porting them over to interactives.

With support from the Fledgling Fund, the MIT Open Documentary Lab partnered with the Tribeca Film Institute to bring together leading social impact assessment researchers and practitioners to examine how participatory and interactive media can be used to enhance social justice initiatives. The goal of the Media Impact Assessment Working Group was to provide common strategies and frameworks for the measurement and assessment of documentary media-based engagement campaigns – including both long-form films linked to cross-platform campaigns, and interactive, participatory, or non-linear forms of storytelling. As I said, there is a lot of work out there – reports galore – but I think there are still more compelling questions than answers in these early days of interactive, immersive and participatory forms.

Your lab is focused on “open documentaries.” What does this phrase mean to you and what are some examples of how these techniques have been deployed?

Open…. We use this term for a couple of reasons. One important cluster of motives comes from our institutional setting: MIT.

Back in the 1960s and 70s, Ricky Leacock, probably best known for his work with direct cinema, was increasingly involved in developing a film technology that would put the tools of documentary production into everyone’s hands. His work with sound Super 8mm was, we now know, doomed by the soon to emerge technology of portable video, but his endeavor was right on target: how can we take the next step from ‘direct cinema’? how can we empower the documentary subject to take up the means of representation and tell their own story? how can we enable widespread participation in the documentary project, opening up the filmmaker-subject dynamic in important ways?

A second factor is the work of Glorianna Davenport’s group at the Media Lab. Starting in the 1980s, Glorianna and her team developed some remarkably sophisticated interactive platforms – conceptual equivalents of what we are still doing today. The difference was that projects like Elastic Charles involved stacks of computers and laser disks to implement – they were technology intensive in the worst way. But they opened up the user’s ability to explore an issue, to assemble the parts in ways that made sense to them.

A third MIT-related invocation of ‘open’ comes from the legacy of people like Hal Ableson, Gerald Sussman, Richard Stallman and others who were instrumental in founding initiatives such as the free software movement and Creative Commons. With a goal of opening up code and creative work for sharing and creative reiteration, their work helped us to appreciate the importance of opening up the processes, techniques and even tools behind the screen, and of incorporating the principles of sharing and participation into the bones of the documentary project.

Together, Leacock’s participatory technology, Davenport’s interactive texts and Ableson et al’s sharing and learning economy all contributed key elements to our work. Sure, today’s widespread and networked mobile technologies and a tech-savvy population are important, but more important are the underlying principles. Understanding them and fighting the good fight to keep and expand them is essential, especially if we seek to enhance critical engagement and encourage widespread participation in the project of representing and changing the world.

Beyond ‘open’ as an adjective, we also use it as a verb, since our lab’s task is to open debate, to open the documentary form to new participants, to explore the possibilities of new technologies, and to understand the expressive capacities of new textual possibilities. It’s a big agenda, and in part means revisiting documentary’s past to ‘liberate’ it from the film medium (the documentary ethos, we argue in Moments of Innovation , has been around for centuries and taken many different media forms).

And finally, consistent with the spirit of CMS that binds your and my histories together, we do our best to open our lab’s doors and ideas to anyone who might benefit from our work … and at the same time, to be open to and learn from the many different experiences out there in the world.

This all hits documentary in several ways. First, more people than ever before are equipped to make documentaries, to reflect on and give form to their ideas and observations. High definition video cameras are built into most smartphones, and Vine and Youtube upload rates suggest that producing moving images is increasingly the norm. Second, networked distribution enables unprecedented global reach. Third, the tools for designing interactive and participatory texts have never been so accessible, both in the senses of easy and free. And meanwhile, interactivity has been increasingly normalized in our encounters with situated texts, that is, we have become comfortable navigating our way through texts and contexts, effectively constructing our own meta-texts (whether our mobile devices, audio-visual systems, or DVDs). This all adds up to an incentive to think about newly enabled users, new ways of telling stories, and new ways of connecting with one another.

William Uricchio is founder and principal investigator of the MIT Open Documentary Lab, which explores the frontiers of interactive, immersive and participatory fact-based storytelling. He is also professor of Comparative Media Studies at MIT and professor of Comparative Media History at Utrecht University in the Netherlands. William’s broader research explores the dynamics of new media, at times using a historical lens (old media when they were new, such as 19th Century television) and at times by working with interactive and algorithmically generated media forms (interactive documentaries and games in particular).

William has written extensively on topics ranging from high-culture in a ‘low’ medium (Reframing Culture: The Case of the Vitagraph Quality Films) to Batman across media (The Many Lives of the Batman and its successor, Many More Lives of the Batman, just out with Palgrave and the British Film Institute!!!); from television in Nazi Germany (Die Anfänge des deutschen Fernsehens) to American culture in Europe (We Europeans? Media, Representations, Identity as well as Media Cultures); from panoramas and stereoscopes to the media constellations of the 1898 Sears & Roebuck catalogue; and from media obsolescence to ephemerality.  Guggenheim, Humboldt and Fulbright research fellowships as well as, most recently, the Berlin Prize, have supported his work. William has spent about half of his career outside the US in the Netherlands and as a visiting professor in Sweden, Denmark, Germany (Berlin & Marburg), and China.   See details and more at williamuricchio.com


Categories: Blog

Charting Documentary’s Futures: An Interview with MIT’s William Uricchio (Part Two)

February 2, 2016 - 8:43am

You argue that the story should dictate the form, yet many aspects of the form of American journalism — the inverted pyramid for example and the core shape of the lead paragraph — have remain fixed without regard to the story. Some traditional journalists would argue that these formulas allows for quick production of news and for interoperability amongst collaborators. So, how do you make the case to such traditionalists for a broader range of different kinds of news stories?

Journalistic form has changed continually over the centuries, some elements sticking and some new ones displacing old. Things like headlines and the inverted pyramid appeared for the reasons you mention, plus enabling readers to orient themselves and, when required, make quick work of the day’s news. They work well and seem to be sticking in the digital environment, arguably a predecessor of the ‘listicle’.

We are witnessing an evolutionary process, but one that is accelerated as much because of a change in the use of media technologies as because of a change in the larger information situation of the user and her attendant expectations. The move from print and broadcast to digital platforms has brought with it many new affordances, and while traditionalists can stick with techniques that have proven effective with the printed page or news clip (rightly arguing that the digital can easily incorporate the page and the clip), digital media technologies – including the small mobile screens that currently loom large in most user experiences – have been put to many other uses that could enhance both journalism and user engagement.

To be honest, I don’t know of any journalistic organizations, no matter how traditional, that have failed in their digital operations to make use of embedded links, or auto-generated links to past stories, or an array of user tracking applications. These have changed the presentation of news and relationship to the user, just as digital processes have changed the workflow within the newsroom. Their impact can be read as subtle or profound, depending on one’s point of view. But even the most traditional journalistic organization is acutely aware of Vice, Buzzfeed and Facebook’s Instant Articles initiative, their fast-growing market share, and appeal to younger readers.

Our report’s conclusion that ‘story dictates form’ simply means that there is no ‘one size fits all’ convention for storytelling. The digital has brought with it an expanded set of approaches, has offered new – and digitally relevant – options. The report says that now that we have more choices, we should use them critically and strategically – not just jump on the bandwagon of the new (or stick fetishistically to the old). A data-rich story might benefit from visualizations and even personalization through interaction; whereas the same techniques would add little to a personal profile. The new is no more a panacea than the old, but it does offer expanded choice.

But at a moment when the media ecosystem is fast changing, with consequences financial, informational, and generational, we need better to understand the affordances of the new. This by no means entails discarding lessons hard won over centuries of journalistic practice, but it also means not necessarily sticking to paper and broadcast-based habits just because they happen to be well established. And particularly as the role of the user continues to grow, journalists and documentary makers need actively to consider the fit of form and content rather than slipping into inherited defaults.

You correctly note that one of the strengths of legacy media is that they have such deep archives of materials that rarely get used. I am often struck by the ways that comedy news media dig deep into news archives to juxtapose current and past statements by political leaders, for example, and thus show contradictions in their positions over time. But even though such context can be very helpful in understanding current events, we rarely see it used by mainstream journalists. Are there good examples of how news organizations are tapping their archives?

The archive issue is a crucial one, both as you note, for giving depth, context and added meaning to a story … but also because it is something of an ‘ace in the hole’ for most legacy organizations. The very fact that these organizations have persisted over time usually means that they have perspective, memory, and archives.

The archive is an asset that results from long-term involvement with a beat, community, or nation, and as such is one of legacy journalism’s key distinguishing features from digital start-ups. Archives offer ways of telling stories that potentially differentiate and give a competitive advantage to legacy journalism organizations. As journalists intensify their efforts to contextualize and explain rather than just report, archives offer low hanging fruit.

Users, for their part, seem increasingly active, using Google or social media to supplement what they read in a given report, getting more information about a place or person or event. And — to make it a trifecta — digital technologies offer solutions for the space constraints that have long plagued print and broadcast journalists and the contradictory demands of readers, some of whom may want a short experience while others want a deep dive.

Wouldn’t it be great to give readers access to the documents referenced or summarized in a story, or to earlier versions of a story, or to see more than one or two images? While not for every user, it allows journalists to have their cake and eat it, too: a tightly formed ‘traditional’ story can be accompanied by in-house resources, accommodating both those users who just want the facts as well as those who want to discover them for themselves. And if we’re right about the move of journalism to become more of a curator of a public conversation, expanded use of the archive offers a terrific transitional tool. All to say, it’s never been easier nor more important to incorporate archival holdings into everyday journalism.

One of our case studies, Kat Cizek’s A Short History of the Highrise – a joint endeavor by Op Docs at The New York Times and the National Film Board of Canada – is a terrific example. Part of Kat and the NFB’s Emmy Award-winning Highrise series of interactive documentaries, A Short History’s partnership with the Times made brilliant use of the Times’ photo morgue to tell the story of man’s many experiments with vertical living. The interface is described as ‘a visual accordion’ allowing the viewer to ‘dig deeper into the project’s themes with additional archival materials, text and miniature games.’ The viewer can simply watch an archive-based video overview, but can also stop the video flow to explore the individual photos, listen to interviews, and even turn the photos over to see the traces of their history at the Times. The project accommodates both casual and serious viewers, makes brilliant use of the largely overlooked photo morgue, and in the process offers an insightful look both into the high-rise and how we (and the Times) have looked at it over the years.

A Short History picked up Emmy, Peabody, and World Press Photo Awards, so it’s an exceptional example. As with many of these early experiments, quite a bit of time and money go into developing a robust and user-friendly interface. But one can imagine that more examples will yield greater efficiencies, whether in the form of re-usable tools or even modifiable templates.

For example, back in 2009, the New York Times used a tool to slide back and forth across two photos taken from an identical position, but years apart. Called “Before and After”, it was used to good effect in a piece called “The Berlin Wall 20 Years Later: A Division Through Time.” The same basic device is still in use, for example in The Guardian’s “The American Civil War Then and Now”, offering an effective way to showcase the photo archive.

Another great example of the creative use of archives and tools comes from The Guardian’s “The Counted”, an ongoing, partially crowd-sourced, interactive report on people killed by police in the US. It’s an archive in the making, a living archive, piling up the sad details case-by-case, day-by-day, and doing something that only an archive can do: contextualizing historically the incidents that seem to happen three or four times a day across America, helping us to see the bigger picture.

Bottom line: archival resources allow today’s fact-based storytellers to harvest the riches of the past, bringing new life, context, and meaning to their findings. And digital media offer journalists the means and space and users the flexibility to make the most of these affordances.

Some of the more interactive elements you describe take time to develop and this means slowing down the pace of news production and taking a long view perspective of social issues. How can we reconcile this with the 24 hours a day news cycle and other factors which are speeding up the production, circulation, and consumption of news?

Temporality is one of the most intriguing dimensions of today’s journalism scene. On one hand, Twitter and other services have reduced the lag between event and report to just about nothing. OK, these aren’t traditional fact-checked reports, but in the aggregate they tend to give a first heads-up about breaking news, and even legacy journalism is making increasing use of tweets in their coverage. On the other, in a world bubbling with reports of all kinds and qualities, the need for context, perspective and plain old pattern recognition has never been greater.

The traditional 24 hour cycle is under siege from both sides: it can’t keep pace with networked digital sources, and has generally left the reflective contextualizing work to occasional investigative and feature stories or to specialized venues such as magazines and programs like Frontline. All to say that the time cycles that have worked for the better part of a century no longer seem to be addressing public needs.

The Guardian was quick to try to redress this, embracing breaking news (even minute-by-minute blog reports of the Republican and Democratic presidential debates or the Academy Awards), carrying on with the traditional 24-hour cycle, and redoubling its feature work. And it’s in this last context that they have carried out much of their interactive work. The verdict is still out on how legacy organizations will deal with this challenge – having it all, Guardian-style – won’t necessarily work for everyone.

The Guardian’s experimental stance has yielded some great innovative work that blurs the divide between immediate and long-term journalism. “The Counted”, that I’ve already mentioned, hews to the 24 hour cycle, but aggregates the daily updates, encouraging readers to look for patterns (age, ethnicity, location, etc.) as the data collects over the course of the year. It harvests the daily news, folds it into a larger context, offers analytic tools, and in the process renders the normally hyper-local into something of national import. In fact, it reveals that many incidents are not reported, or are reported so locally that the rest of the country has no idea of the scale of the problem.

So experiments like these that complicate the familiar temporalities and logics of journalism offer signs that multiple news cycles can intertwine, and actually contribute to one another to deliver a powerful set of insights that would otherwise be missed.

More generally, though, you are right: most interactives are like feature stories, ‘evergreens’ capable of drawing in users well after the initial publication date. And in this, they are particularly good at contextualizing, explaining, and offering multiple points of view.

For the moment, they are labor-intensive, but developers are sharing bits of code and tools among themselves, flexible content management systems  and even templates are beginning to appear, and in general the process is accelerating. Some thought leaders fear that these efficiencies could go too far, that the innovation that has driven new kinds of user experience will reify into rigid one-size-fits-all templates. And indeed, the front office has a habit of thinking about the bottom line and these are still early days in terms of expanded story form. But I mention this simply to say that it’s clear that these efficiencies can and will speed up the process, even though it is essential for leading organizations to continue exploring and building innovative story technologies that work with the platforms most familiar to the public.

William Uricchio is founder and principal investigator of the MIT Open Documentary Lab, which explores the frontiers of interactive, immersive and participatory fact-based storytelling. He is also professor of Comparative Media Studies at MIT and professor of Comparative Media History at Utrecht University in the Netherlands. William’s broader research explores the dynamics of new media, at times using a historical lens (old media when they were new, such as 19th Century television) and at times by working with interactive and algorithmically generated media forms (interactive documentaries and games in particular).

William has written extensively on topics ranging from high-culture in a ‘low’ medium (Reframing Culture: The Case of the Vitagraph Quality Films) to Batman across media (The Many Lives of the Batman and its successor, Many More Lives of the Batman, just out with Palgrave and the British Film Institute!!!); from television in Nazi Germany (Die Anfänge des deutschen Fernsehens) to American culture in Europe (We Europeans? Media, Representations, Identity as well as Media Cultures); from panoramas and stereoscopes to the media constellations of the 1898 Sears & Roebuck catalogue; and from media obsolescence to ephemerality.  Guggenheim, Humboldt and Fulbright research fellowships as well as, most recently, the Berlin Prize, have supported his work. William has spent about half of his career outside the US in the Netherlands and as a visiting professor in Sweden, Denmark, Germany (Berlin & Marburg), and China.   See details and more at williamuricchio.com

Categories: Blog

Charting Documentary’s Futures: An Interview with MIT’s William Uricchio (Part One)

January 28, 2016 - 8:34am

Profile: William Uricchio of MIT’s Open Documentary Lab from Submarine Channel on Vimeo.

For the better part of a decade, William Uricchio and I worked side by side, partners in crime, as we forged the Comparative Media Studies program at MIT. I came to lean heavily on his diplomatic skills, his zen-like temperament, and especially his broad range of knowledge and interests, as between us, we touched every student who came through that masters program. The expansive intellectual rationale of our approach to Comparative Media Studies was as much his as it was mine, especially as he made the case for why we should understand contemporary developments in relation to their historical antecedents and as he made the argument for bringing more transnational perspectives to bear on the processes of media change.

I returned to Cambridge during my academic leave this fall, after being away for most of the past seven years, and it was a chance for me to develop a stronger sense of what the program has become, how it operates today.  What I found was a program that was thriving — fantastic students doing ground-breaking work, a expanding and strong intellectual community, a solid focus on social justice and media change, and a real commitment to research that is going to have impact beyond the academy. Amongst many new research initiatives, there has been the emergence of the Open-Documentary Lab, a vibrant community that has drawn together researchers and documentary producers from around the Boston area who want to explore the future of nonfiction media-making. And the Lab has begun to attract active interest from around the world from people at places like the Canadian Film Board or the BBC who share their interest in understanding how documentary is being reinvented in the context of today’s participatory culture and transmedia production.

Here’s how the lab describes itself on its home page:

“Drawing on MIT’s legacy of media innovation and its deep commitment to open and accessible information, the MIT Open Documentary Lab brings storytellers, technologists, and scholars together to explore new documentary forms with a particular focus on collaborative, interactive, and immersive storytelling. The Lab understands documentary as a project rather than as a genre bound to a particular medium: documentary offers ways of exploring, representing, and critically engaging the world. It explores the potentials of emerging technologies and techniques to enhance the documentary project by including new voices, telling new stories and reaching new publics. A center for documentary research, the Lab offers courses, workshops, a fellows program, public lectures, and conferences; it incubates experimental projects; and it develops tools, resources, reports, and critical discourse. These activities, and the partnerships with artists, journalists, technologists, and media makers that they have enabled, aim to push documentary’s boundaries and deepen the impact and reach of innovative reality-based storytelling. In the spirit of MIT’s open courseware and open source software movements, the Open Documentary Lab is inclusive, collaborative and committed to sharing knowledge, networks, and tools. ‘Open’ in its understanding of documentary’s forms and potentials, the Lab is catalyst, partner and guide to the future of reality-based storytelling.”

This fall, the Lab released an important white paper, “Mapping the Intersection of Two Cultures: Interactive Documentary and Digital Journalism” that MIT’s Open Documentary Lab prepared with the support of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.  Under the supervision of the lab’s Principal investigator, William Uricchio, the team developing this report included Sarah Wolozin, who directs the Open Doc Lab, and Lily Bui, Sean Flynn and Deniz Tortum, who are CMS grad students.

The report is rich in front-line perspectives, describing the behind-the-scenes debates that took place around the production of some of today’s most significant examples of immersive journalism and interactive documentary, and sharing some core insights about best practices for doing such work. The report is visionary in its scope yet it is also deeply grounded in the perspective of documentary producers and journalists, who live in the imperfect and transitional state of the here and now. I believe this report is going to open up some important conversations amongst many people who both fear and embrace the changes that are impacting the closely related worlds of news and documentary. I am therefore happy to have a chance to showcase this significant undertaking here, especially insofar as it has given me yet another chance to interact with my longtime friend and colleague, William Uricchio. What emerged through this interview is something really special to me as William thoughtfully and thoroughly responded to my probing questions, and certainly gives as well as he got throughout this exchange. I am bringing this interview to you in four installments across the next two weeks.

Most recent accounts of the state of journalism in the digital age have emphasized the bad news — describing all of the risks and challenges — but your report also describes some of the new opportunities and the ways that newspapers and other legacy media organizations are restructuring themselves to take advantage of the changing media environment. So, what do you see as some of the opportunities for new kinds of news and documentary production emerging at the present moment?

Yes, lots of doom and gloom out there! It helps to take a more analytical approach to the problems facing quality journalism and that has indeed resulted in finding a number of opportunities that can be of tangible use to legacy organizations at a moment of change.

I’d like to begin by invoking what’s always struck me as one of James Carey’s great insights into how we think about communication. Carey notes that we too often focus only on the transmission of information – and by we, I include academics as well as journalists. And with this narrow focus, we often neglect communication’s ritual dimension. Carey’s notion of ritual entails much more than the habit of reading a newspaper with breakfast or closing-out the evening news broadcast with tomorrow’s weather (yes, no matter how dismal the news, there will be a tomorrow!). Instead he understands ritual as creating shared concepts and habits by drawing on participation, sharing, association, and fellowship.

Facebook and Buzzfeed, while a little erratic on the transmission side, understand this and they and others like them have hard-wired ritual into their systems. And their user-base understands it as well. At a fundamental level, the opportunities for new kinds of journalism and documentary production turn not so much on the availability of new technologies, but rather on the use of those technologies to bring ritual into the picture. In other words, simply putting news content, no matter how good, online with the hope of expanding audience reach and engagement misses the point. Instead, finding ways to enhance user participation, to intensify immersive experiences, and to encourage sharing and community building all help to embrace the ritual dimension noted by Carey. It’s not so much about the de-professionalization of the news (in fact, our study focuses on quality journalism), as it is the expansion of news as a process that includes a community of participants, expanded textual forms, and a reconfigured production pipeline. Participation leads to greater engagement, inclusiveness, relevance … and better-informed communities.

Despite its rock-solid appearance, journalistic convention has transformed over the past several hundred years, and today we face an accelerated rate of change. Whereas for much of the 20th Century, journalism served as a definer of truths, today’s high-connectivity and intensive information flow have enabled new expectations and given journalism a new agenda, helping it to inform the connection between publics and sources, shaping conversations in addition to defining truths.

Our report approaches this shift by looking at concrete examples in recent interactive and immersive documentary and journalism. The past decade has seen some remarkable experimentation in fact-based storytelling (the Open Documentary Lab’s docubase  is the go-to place to see this work), some of which encourages users to explore multiple sides of a given issue, interacting with the material gathered and structured by journalists and documentarians. Our report basically takes a deep dive into lessons-learned and best practices that can be of use as journalism continues to transform.

Whether looking at how individual organizations such as The Guardian or Frontline have responded to these new demands, or looking at collaborations across organizations, or looking at the new workflows and interactions that appear on the individual project level, the report offers case-based insights into the developments that are changing the faces of documentary and journalism.

In some ways, your report is bringing together two forms of media production — journalism and documentary — that have historically been understood as distinct, even though they have both sought to get the public to be more aware and more responsive to urgent social conditions. These two fields often operate according to different professional ideologies and different standards of ethics. Why have they stayed separate for so long and in what ways are we starting to see some convergence between them?

If I had to boil the difference between the journalistic and documentary traditions down to a caricature,  I’d say that since the mid 1920s, journalism has been bound by a commitment to ‘facts’ and documentary by a commitment to ‘truth’. OK – both are slippery words, and the two are not irreconcilable. But an insistence on the ‘facts’ as journalistic fact-checkers define them can sometimes leave a larger truth hanging in the balance; and the pursuit of ‘truth’ can call upon innovative and imaginative strategies that would be nixed by any fact-checker worth her salt.

The distinction between the two is deeply rooted in institutional history, with the several hundred-year-old ‘fourth estate’, as Carlyle called the press, finding a protected niche in places like the US constitution and playing a fundamental role in governance in most cultures. In this context, an insistence upon verifiable data makes sense.

Documentary, by contrast, at least if we stick to the classic telling of the tale, emerged in the film medium in the form of a re-enacted, character-based drama that strove for a greater truth (Flaherty’s 1926 Moana), or what John Grierson later called ‘the creative treatment of actuality’.

Journalism has been long bound by professionalization, certification, codes of behavior and rules; while documentary has thrived as an eclectic intention-based assemblage of experiments (mostly formal), techniques (mostly narrative) and effects (mostly generating insight and empathy). Epistemological differences, institutional differences, media differences … even differences in which part of the academy they are studied … no wonder the two traditions seem to be worlds apart!

As I said, this description is something of a caricature, and these two non-fiction storytelling traditions have at times overlapped, especially in the domain of essayistic journalism or places like Frontline, where documentary makers hew to journalistic rules, and The New York Times, The Guardian and The Economist, all of which have in-house documentary units. But even here, an insistence on fact provides the bottom line for a story to count as journalistic, even if drawing heavily on documentary notions of story, character and engagement.

So what changed, and why do these two forms now seem more open to sharing with one another? The steady shift of users of both forms to mobile, digital platforms; the emergence of interactive and visually immersive forms of telling stories; and the popularity of operations like Facebook, Buzzfeed and Vice, have all put pressure on those who simply wanted to put the printed page, television feed or 16mm film online. Traditional newspaper readership and news viewership, like documentary viewership, are not only declining … but aging. And while troubling from a business perspective, this decline is of far greater concern to the needs of an informed public and the civic process.

True, the just-mentioned digital startups have embraced ‘news’ as part of their remit (and in the process, raided legacy journalistic organizations and made some very impressive hires), and some of them can claim vast communities of young users, but the quality, context and mission of that embrace is neither clear nor consistent. Indeed, the surfeit of information and the poor ratio of signal to noise that we are experiencing ‘out there’ makes the work of the tried and true legacy journalistic operations more important than ever.

It’s here that the new documentary provides a valuable set of assets for the journalistic endeavor, offering ways for it to keep core values while embracing a more user-centric and participatory ethos that makes the most of the new media ecosystem.

Documentary’s relative freedom from institutional constraint has enabled its makers to experiment in ways that are difficult for traditional journalists. Moreover, as journalism becomes more of a curator of information and shaper of conversations, documentary’s demonstrated ability to contextualize and explain through well-chosen instances has proven newly relevant. The interactive documentaries produced to date offer a compendium of approaches, interfaces, user experiences, tools and even strategies for working with crowd-sourced and co-created content all of which journalists can assess, draw from and transform.

So I guess I would say that by finding themselves in the same boat, both journalists and documentarians have discovered commonalities of purpose and technique. Interactive documentary is fast developing a repertoire of techniques that work well in today’s ‘digital first’ and increasingly participatory environment and digital journalism still commands considerable reputation and audience reach.

The dust has not settled, of course, but as we work towards journalism’s and documentary’s next iterations, the one thing that is clear is that they have more in common now than at any other point in their histories. And the best indication of this commonality takes the form of the many interactive features, data-driven stories and even immersive approaches to information organization that have been appearing with increasing regularity on the digital sites of leading journalism organizations.


William Uricchio is founder and principal investigator of the MIT Open Documentary Lab, which explores the frontiers of interactive, immersive and participatory fact-based storytelling. He is also professor of Comparative Media Studies at MIT and professor of Comparative Media History at Utrecht University in the Netherlands. William’s broader research explores the dynamics of new media, at times using a historical lens (old media when they were new, such as 19th Century television) and at times by working with interactive and algorithmically generated media forms (interactive documentaries and games in particular).

William has written extensively on topics ranging from high-culture in a ‘low’ medium (Reframing Culture: The Case of the Vitagraph Quality Films) to Batman across media (The Many Lives of the Batman and its successor, Many More Lives of the Batman, just out with Palgrave and the British Film Institute!!!); from television in Nazi Germany (Die Anfänge des deutschen Fernsehens) to American culture in Europe (We Europeans? Media, Representations, Identity as well as Media Cultures); from panoramas and stereoscopes to the media constellations of the 1898 Sears & Roebuck catalogue; and from media obsolescence to ephemerality.  Guggenheim, Humboldt and Fulbright research fellowships as well as, most recently, the Berlin Prize, have supported his work. William has spent about half of his career outside the US in the Netherlands and as a visiting professor in Sweden, Denmark, Germany (Berlin & Marburg), and China.   See details and more at williamuricchio.com




Categories: Blog