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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Design Principles for Participatory Politics

June 12, 2015 - 8:42am

The following design principles were developed for the MacArthur Foundation’s Youth and Participatory Politics Network by a committee consisting of Danielle Allen, Lissa Soep, and Jennifer Earl. We share them here as an extension of my interview with Allen.

Design Principles for Participatory Politics 
Are you a digital change-maker? Do you want to be? Do you want to help someone else get there?

Sixties activists insisted, the personal is political. Change-makers in the digital age get that idea, and one-up it with another rallying cry: the political is social and cultural.

Your platforms and digital strategies need to make this principle count, so that you, your peers, and your audiences engage each other, and the allies you all want, in high-quality, equitable, and effective participation in digital-age civics, activism, and politics. What’s more, you need digital environments that actively support the secure development of your identities as participants in public spheres, so your civic and political engagement today doesn’t harm or haunt you later.

Thinking that through comes first.

Top Ten Questions for Change-Makers Using Digital Platforms to Promote Participatory Politics

Whether you’re creating your first Facebook page to support a cause you care about, or seeking to engage your friends, associates, and even strangers in a new platform aimed to achieve civic ends, these ten questions will help frame your decisions. Use them to shape your strategy and to check whether you’re doing everything in your power to achieve maximum impact. These principles have been developed on the basis of national research (by the MacArthur Foundation research network on youth and participatory politics) on experiences and structures that support young people’s agency with respect to matters of public concern.

Why does it matter to me? Start with the experiences and interests you and your friends already can’t get enough of, and connect that engagement to civic and political themes. Popular culture fandom, for example, is a great source to harness. Overall, you and your peers know a lot about a lot, and you’ve got all sorts of authentic ways to bring your friends on board. Use that expertise to build traction for your cause by finding unexpected alignments. And take the time to figure out why your passion matters to you.
What it can look like: IMAGINE BETTER PROJECT

A project of the Harry Potter Alliance that taps enthusiasm for popular culture and applies fandom energy toward social change. By appropriating storylines, characters, and iconography from popular narratives, fans “turn the fictions they love into the world they imagine.”

How much should I share? Take heed: real names can help foster better dialogues, but they can also put people at risk and discourage taking positions or acting on controversial issues. Consider how much you should share. Which part of your persona do you want to see live online? Can you keep your offline and online selves separate? If so, how? Or do you have to expect them to merge? Which features of your offline responsibilities and roles should limit what you do online? Help your community consider how different audiences may react to their posts and how a post might impact them years down the road. Give them choices about how much to disclose, and make it possible for them to change their minds.
What it can look like: Global Voices

Global Voices is a community of writers and analysts from around the world who contribute, largely on a volunteer basis, to a news site that publishes under-reported stories on topics ranging from digital rights and activism to religion, labor, and LGBTQ rights. There is an option for authors to contribute anonymously if their safety is at stake, and the site provides specific guidelines for how to maintain anonymity when publishing online.

How do I make it about more than myself? How can you and your community take it from “I” to “we”? Help your users think of themselves as part of something bigger. Can you expand the network of engagement for yourself and your users by actively rewarding authenticity, accuracy, truth-telling, and bridge-building across social divides?

Marshall Ganz’s organizing theory invites people into a movement as individuals, where they are asked to share their stories and connection to the cause. Then, the strategy helps them see their shared collective interests with others in the movement before introducing them to the fierce urgency of acting now. This principle is the bedrock of numerous campaigns since Obama for America popularized the model in the 2008 presidential election. Participants are asked to become part of something major and give more of themselves as a result.

Where do we start? Go where your peers go. Can you make use of spaces where you and your friends and associates already gather to connect and pursue shared interests? (Hint: for right now at least, text and mobile are key). Perhaps you’re interested in building a stand-alone platform? Think twice before you do. A custom platform is easier for opponents to hack and probably harder for your friends to use, than a common mainstream, commercial platform. But remember that existing platforms have their own cultures, which you’ll need to consider and fit into.
What it can look like: #CANCELCOLBERT

Hashtag activist Suey Park used Twitter to create the #cancelcolbert hashtag in the wake of an ill-considered tweet from the Colbert show. As the hashtag trended it generated widespread conversations about race and racism in the U.S. According to Wikipedia, “Colbert’s offending tweet was later deleted,” and “Colbert deleted the Comedy Central-run account on his show,” directing “people to follow his personal account.”

How can we make it easy and engaging? Remember that some engagement is better than none, and think early and often about your target audience. How can you engineer an array of entry-points and pathways to participation for your community? Where are the opportunities for light-touch engagement that is potentially powerful in itself and also a possible gateway into deeper involvement? Make acting easy, so your users can co-produce your civic and political engagement.
What it can look like: DO SOMETHING

DoSomething’s creative campaigns invite teens to take part in a variety of ways, and almost all of the campaigns revolve around a teen’s group of friends. For example, The ‘Fed Up’ campaign invites teens to upload photos of their cafeteria’s school lunch program to begin an investigation about the food it contains. Students can rate photos ‘eat it’ or ‘toss it’, and are simultaneously provided with better-lunch advocacy materials.

How do we get wisdom from crowds? Invite investigation and critique. Create openings for your friends, associates, and even strangers to dig into, verify, challenge, and contribute to the knowledge-base you provide, and stay open to evolving purposes. Don’t act like you know the whole story. Because you don’t. There is wisdom in crowds.
What it can look like: REDDIT

We aren’t as deferential to political elites and institutions as earlier generations used to be, and that can be a good thing. Campaigns have responded to this shift by seeking engagement in new ways. Reddit, an evolution on the venerable web discussion board, has emerged as a space where citizens can jointly examine and expose issues of public concern, in some cases powering investigations that rise to national and international prominence. Not without controversy or risk (as evident when Reddit ID’ed the wrong suspects in the Boston marathon bombing), the platform nevertheless is an important model for how to spark and sustain collective inquiry through a digital platform.

How do we handle the downside of crowds? Be prepared for people to say and do things you don’t like in your shared space. Do you know how you would respond? Is your platform or digital strategy being overtaken by a sub-group of users? How can you keep the nastiness out of crowds? Do you need moderators? Algorithms? Special functions? The goal is to keep your community open and democratic, and that also means protecting it from those who misuse that freedom and opportunity.
What it can look like: #IFTHEYGUNNEDMEDOWN

This campaign fostered a powerful critique of media bias in the coverage of young black people who are shot and killed by police. Black Twitter users began posting two side-by-side photos of themselves, asking the question, which would the media publish “if they gunned me down?” It didn’t take long for the meme to morph, as other Twitter users appropriated the hashtag to post trivializing images (e.g., of their pets), or photo pairings that mocked the campaign’s intent. Still, those detractors were largely drowned out, and months later, the media bias critique is the lasting legacy of this campaign.

Does raising our voices count as civic and political action? Raising awareness is key. Changing what people care about already makes a difference, and just getting your views into the public conversation is meaningful. Making the invisible visible is already an important civic and political action and a form of activism. Are you also trying to drive change beyond visibility? You’ll need that raised awareness to elevate civic and political engagement over time.

The Queer Undocumented Immigrant Project organizes the LGBTQ undocumented community along with allies through advocacy campaigns, leadership development, and toolkits and resources. The No More Closets campaign calls upon “undocuqueers” to come out through videos in order to raise visibility about and fight for the dignity and empowerment of both communities.

How do we get from voice to change? Is your goal is to convert voice to influence over policies, institutions, or concrete practices? If so, you’ll need to move beyond raising awareness to mobilize specific actions on the basis of the attention you manage to get. How can you get traction—real change in concrete practices, institutions, and policies? The research shows that this often comes from a mix of digital and face-to-face organizing. But it’s also possible to achieve influence with online-only tactics. Make sure you know what your targets are, and what changes you want to see. Then you can figure out whether building numbers online and taking aim at your target’s reputation, or criss-crossing the line into hybrid online-offline efforts makes more sense.
What it can look like: NO MORE STEUBENVILLES

After high school football players sexually assaulted a teenage girl in Steubenville, Ohio, two young people–one an athlete, the other an activist–launched a change.org petition that was signed by almost 68,000 individuals. The goal: to get the National Federation of High School Associations to offer sexual violence prevention training to the almost 100,000 high school coaches that organization works with. In 2013, the association agreed to partner with seven sexual violence organizations to develop and implement those trainings.

How can we find allies? It makes sense to call on institutional power holders like established organizations or influential individuals who can support your interests. Gaining influence requires building alliances with people who control decisions over policies and institutions. But it can be hard to reach people in power. What’s more, how can you engage with power players in a way that benefits your cause and also empowers you? The answer often involves connecting with allies who can provide mentorship and broker on your behalf, being creative in your methods, and seeking elites in a variety of places–sometimes beyond the usual suspects.
What it can look like: STUDENTS FOR LIBERTY (SFL)

Founded and led by students, SFL is a network of pro-liberty organizations and individuals from diverse locations and backgrounds. It is not a top down, chapter based, or membership organization. However, SFL works with some of the most influential think tanks and policy-makers in D.C., offering young libertarians a range of opportunities to meet with political movers and shakers at both campus events and national conferences. Sometimes making it to events is hard, though, so SFL affiliates of all ages often rely on their own social networks like Twitter to gain face time with like-minded individuals and political elites alike. Regardless of whether it’s online or in person, when young people build allies and tap into the political establishment through their involvement with SFL, it often means working with groups and individuals on both sides of the aisle.

What the Principles Get You

Based on the research of the Youth and Participatory Politics research network, when you use these ten principles to frame your decisions and shape your strategies, you are well positioned to achieve four important outcomes: Engagement, Quality and Equity, Effectiveness, and Security.

Engagement in participatory politics = you and your friends are drawn in and pursue more opportunities to exercise your agency in civic spheres, using your platform to do so.

People are “engaged” when they lose track of the time they spend participating in an activity; when they describe the activity as important to them; when they are driven to share what they’re up to; and when they invite others to participate in the activity as well.

High quality and equitable participatory politics = you and your friends do authentic, accurate, connected civic work with your platform, no matter who you are; you also look out for chances to spread participatory opportunities to those for whom they are hard to come by.

High-quality platforms are broadly accessible and foster norms of accuracy, authenticity, equity, and openness to social diversity. You can’t have quality without equity.

Effective participatory politics = your platform’s activities make the difference your community seeks.

Participation is efficacious when participants can point to something that has changed on account of their efforts—for instance, someone’s opinion or attitude; a decision-maker’s choice; a law or policy; the attentiveness of the media to an issue.

Secure identity management in participatory politics = your users—to the extent possible—determine the boundaries and public visibility of their participation in your platform, and they plan for the digital afterlife of their choices.

Contrary to the usual understanding, secure identity management is not only about managing pseudonyms, aliases, and privacy and security settings but also about preserving psychological integrity in the face of the challenges presented by digitally-enabled participation: the collision of our separate social networks (for instance, a gay teen who participates in gay rights initiatives online but hides that activity in the face-to-face rural setting in which she lives); the unpredictable repercussions of speech and action in digital environment; the dangers that come with public exposure.

This is my final post for the 2014-2015 academic year. I am going to take time off over the summer and get things going again sometime in late August or early September.

Categories: Blog

From Voice to Influence: An Interview with Political Philosopher Danielle Allen (Part Three)

June 10, 2015 - 2:10pm

In your introduction, you signaled the ways that a tension between advocacy and deliberation shadowed the development of this book. Can you explain how this tension surfaced within the disciplinary partnerships you describe and in what ways you or others involved in the book resolved this friction?

The disagreement between those who thought that advocacy should be at the core of civic agency and those who thought that deliberation should have that role ran all the way through our several years of working on this project. I don’t think the initial views on this subject were disciplinary so much as connected to whether each scholar’s body of work was more oriented toward study of those in the mainstream or to study of those on the margins.

Over the course of the project, both views came to shift. Most impoartantly, I think, we came to see that the ethical framework that governs civic agency and life in the public sphere is not singular but plural. There is not one, unitary regulative ideal that can help us know how to participate politically; there are several and they are relevant to different situational contexts.

Consequently, our conversation led us, I think, to a place where the successful exercise of civic agency must be understood as also being closely connected to a capacity for judgment about when disinterested deliberation, interested advocacy, or passionate prophesy is the right tool to deploy in the pursuit of a just democracy.

Another disagreement you flag amongst the contributors to this book hinges on the potentials and limits of commercially owned platforms for civic purposes. I know you have been digging deeply into the design of platforms for civic speech. What new insights have you gained through that project?

Working with colleagues, I set off to try to develop design principles for those who wish to build platforms to support civic agency. As we worked, we became convinced by arguments, like Ethan Zuckerman’s in this book, that a lot of good civic and political engagement can and should occur through already existing, often commercial platforms. These are harder for governments to shut down without cost.

So we modified our approach to develop guidelines that might cross contexts and be applicable regardless of whether someone is building a stand-alone platform or trying to use a battery of existing tools, whether those are commercially supplied or the creation of groups like MIT’s Civic Media Lab.

We focus a lot on trying to unify three kinds of thinking: first, about securing one’s identity offline and online (and we mean this in the broadly psychological sense, not in the sense of password security); second, about understanding how to pull the different kinds of levers that are available; and third, about understanding how to develop and deploy ethical orientations that are compatible with the pursuit of healthy egalitarian participatory democracies.

We managed to boil down our core ideas on these three subjects to ten basic principles for civic agency in the digital media landscape. We will be running the guidelines as a post following the completion of this interview.

This book is very much focused on what is changing in the media and political landscape, yet I know you are someone who often goes back to classical texts to understand some of the core principles of democracy. What do you see as the persistent value of such documents, whether the writings of ancient Athens or the Declaration of Independence, for informing how we respond to the challenges of the current moment?

The ancients feel a million miles away from us. For many I think the Declaration of Independence from our own political tradition also feels a million miles away. And yet there are resources in both.

The ancient Athenians were among the first to become self-conscious about the concept of a public sphere. For them, the public sphere was just their city or, in Greek, their polis, and we of course get the word “politics” from this. Although they cared a lot about their formal public spaces–the assembly, the courtroom, the public markets, they did trace the channels of discourse in all their diversity and studied rhetoric intensely.

That study drew out the value of rational dispassionate deiberation but paid as much attention to what I have been calling adversarial and prophetic rhetoric. The ancients had a far more capacious sense of the range of legitimate and necessary political discourse than most of us have today. I think we can learn a lot from that.

As to the Declaration of Independence, I think its most important contribution is its celebration of civic agency, which it both exhibits and provides a profound defense of. Civic agents are as likely to make mistakes as not; the civic action exemplified by the Declaration includes its share of mistakes, most notably in relation to women, slaves, and native Americans. But the Declaration also expresses its own fallibility.

The end of its most important sentence, the second sentence, expresses a theory of revolution and enjoins civic agents, who judge their governments wanting, to try again. They write: “Whenever a government becomes destructive of these ends [of securing our rights], it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it and to etablish new government, laying its foundation on such principle and organizing its power in such form, as to them shall seem *most likely* to effect their safety and happiness.”

From generation to generation, we the people have the job of evaluating our government and, where necessary, altering it in the directions that seem *most likely* to us to effect collective well-being. In other words, the best we can do is to make probablistic judgments about what will be best for all of us. We will fail, and those who come after us will have to try again.

Danielle Allen is UPS Foundation Professor of Social Science at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey. In July 2015 she will move to Harvard to take up the Directorship of the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics and professorships in Harvard’s Department of Government and Graduate School of Education. She is a political theorist who has published broadly in democratic theory, political sociology, and the history of political thought. Widely known for her work on justice and citizenship in both ancient Athens and modern America, Allen is the author of The World of Prometheus: the Politics of Punishing in Democratic Athens (2000), Talking to Strangers: Anxieties of Citizenship since Brown vs. the Board of Education (2004), Why Plato Wrote (2010), and Our Declaration: A Reading of the Declaration of Independence in Defense of Equality (Norton/Liveright Books, June 2014). She is the co-editor of the award- winning Education, Justice, and Democracy (2013, with Rob Reich) and From Voice to Influence: Understanding Citizenship in the Digital Age (2015, with Jennifer Light). She is a Chair of the Mellon Foundation Board, past Chair of the Pulitzer Prize Board, and a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and American Philosophical Society.


Categories: Blog

From Voice to Influence: An Interview with Political Philosopher Danielle Allen (Part Two)

June 8, 2015 - 7:18am

A key debate in this book centers around the relative values of what Howard Gardner described as “disinterestedness” and what you discuss in terms of “rooted cosmopolitanism.” Both seem to be shifts away from the positionally we have come to associated with identity politics. Yet, arguing on behalf of our own communities has gained new urgency in the wake of Ferguson. So, how might we reconcile that urgent need to protect our own interests with the other kinds of civic virtues that you and your contributors discuss?

Disinterestedness, rooted cosmopolitanism, identity politics, and the urgent need to argue on behalf of our own communities in the wake of Ferguson. How do these things relate to each other? This question leads perfectly into the terrain of the sorts of ethical framworks that need to be developed once one recognizes that not only deliberative but also adversarial and prophetic forms of speech are legitimate in the public sphere and beyond that, not only legitimate but necessary.

What you see in the book in the chapters on disinterestedness by Howard Gardner and on rooted cosmopolitanism by Agnel Parham ad myself is an effort to start the work of figuring out ethical frameworks for “egalitarian participatory democracy.” While most of the contributors to the volume start from a recognition of the improtance of arguing on behalf of one’s own community (because no one else is going to do it!), Howard wanted to push back on us, to make the case that there is something worthwhile and that should be preserved in the disinterested stance, even as we go forward with political paradigms that embrace identity based advocacy (whether adversarial or prophetic).

This was a hard conversation for all of us, as these two postions were both passionately held, and perhaps also disinterestedly, although of course it’s harder to tell on the latter point. I came to agree with Howard but also to think that the important point about disinterestedness is that it is the right regulative ideal for certain roles and for certain times and places.

The ethical questions for me are both how to know what those times and places are and how to know what the ethical parameters are for the legitimate deployment of a disinterested stance. Let me sketch those briefly, and some of the parameters for adversarial and prophetic modes of engagement. This may help you have more of a sense of how the ethics of egalitarian participatory democracy in fact require a pluralistic sense of the array of regulative ideals that should guide the just deployment of civic agency.

Those who adopt a disinterested role in the appropriate contexts also need practices of testing and counteracting self-interest; they need practices for testing claims of universality made about chosen outcomes or direction; and they need to routinely consume high-quality information on wide array of issues, not only those in regard to which they have a direct interest.

For those who will adopt a prophetic or advocacy stance, and seek to achieve equitable forms of efficacy, the developmental burdens of civic agency involve a need to develop clarity about interests and goals, understanding of the “levers of change” in any given society; skill at “frame-shifting,” or changing the terms of the discourse and agenda; and ethical parameters for means/ends reasoning.

For those who dwell primarily in the adversarial domain, the skills of the two other domains are both relevant, and in addition, there is a need to understand the parameters of “fair fighting,” an ethical topic that the literature of sports has probably done the most to develop.

The focus of this book is on the political lives of youth. I know this was a bit of a shift in your own thinking, since your previous work was not especially youth-focused. What did you learn by adopting this frame? What do you think gets missed if we distinguish between youth and other kinds of political agents?

From the point of view of political theory, the focus on youth was incredibly salutary, and not one we come to so easily on our own in my home discipline. The first great benefit of a youth-focus is that it forces once to confront the nature of political experience for those who are not fully enfranchised. Youth can’t yet vote or they can’t yet run for office and so on. And yet many youth are impressively, political, even if they wouldn’t use that word for themselves.

As with Dreamers and transnational activists, youth political experience is hard to see within the framework of traditional public sphere theory. Once one can see youth political agency and engagement, that is, their civic agency, one comes to realize that they are filling an incredibly important discovery function for the polity as a whole. Youth are often pointing to the importance of issues–like incarceration, food politics, sexual assault, and fluid sexualities–that haven’t made it on to the radar for older people and yet are also defining our socio-political landscape.

So the group of authors in my volume mostly turned to the study of youth in a pretty instrumental way, recognizing that the opportunities and challenges presented by digital and social media had made greater inroads into youth culture than for older cohorts. Yet we realized that our substantive gains were substantial and went far beyond an opportunity to refine our understanding of the impact of technology.

Youth just are part of the story of the political life of any given nation, and of the globe. Understanding their civic agency should take place alongside studies of the civic agency of older adults. And the payoff will be a richer understanding of the big socio-poitical problems confronting all of us.

A key concept running through the book is civic agency, which at some places you link to the notion of citizenship. Yet, your book also accounts civic agency on the parts of those who have been denied some or all of the rights associated with citizenship, whether the DREAMers who are fighting to be accepted as citizens or black youth who have often been victims of voter suppression efforts. So, what can we say about the ways civic agency can be exercised by those who lack the full rights of citizenship?

One of the important things that has emerged with the development of new technolgoies and social media is that it is now easier to pull important levers outside of political institutions: through the targeting of decision-makers in civil society and the corporate world; through social movements that can put pressure on political leaders; and though efforts to change culture and social norms.

While political institutions and the legislative agenda are still fundamentally important, the balance of power has shifted some between the political realm and other realms. Big changes can be developed through civil society.

These tools are available to those without formal membership status in a given polity. Those without the status of citizens have a range of vulnerabilities and exposures that others don’t have and they have to make hard choices about how to negotiate them. But their indivdiual vulnerabiltiy can be counterbalanced by impressive forms of collective and social power. Again, Cristina Beltran’s chapter provides a remarkable exploration of that vulnerability as well as of the forms of empowerment used to counterbalance it.

Danielle Allen is UPS Foundation Professor of Social Science at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey. In July 2015 she will move to Harvard to take up the Directorship of the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics and professorships in Harvard’s Department of Government and Graduate School of Education. She is a political theorist who has published broadly in democratic theory, political sociology, and the history of political thought. Widely known for her work on justice and citizenship in both ancient Athens and modern America, Allen is the author of The World of Prometheus: the Politics of Punishing in Democratic Athens (2000), Talking to Strangers: Anxieties of Citizenship since Brown vs. the Board of Education (2004), Why Plato Wrote (2010), and Our Declaration: A Reading of the Declaration of Independence in Defense of Equality (Norton/Liveright Books, June 2014). She is the co-editor of the award- winning Education, Justice, and Democracy (2013, with Rob Reich) and From Voice to Influence: Understanding Citizenship in the Digital Age (2015, with Jennifer Light). She is a Chair of the Mellon Foundation Board, past Chair of the Pulitzer Prize Board, and a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and American Philosophical Society.

Categories: Blog

From Voice to Influence: An Interview with Political Philosopher Danielle Allen (Part One)

June 5, 2015 - 7:07am

Not long ago, I was asked to blurb an exciting new book, From Voice to Influence: Citizenship in a Digital Age (Edited by Danielle Allen and Jennifer S. Light). Here’s what I had to say:

“From #blacklivesmatter to the DREAMer movement, from Occupy Wall Street to the Arab Spring, recent social movements have raised questions about how networked participation and civic expression are shaping what counts as politics in the 21st century. From Voice to Influence assembles a multidisciplinary mix of key thinkers to ask hard questions about the shifting nature of the public sphere, the values of deliberation and expression, the continued importance of disinterestedness and cosmopolitanism, the nature of civic agency, and the impact of new technologies of media production and circulation. Each contribution here is original, provocative, thoughtful, and grounded, and each helps us to understand more fully what it means to come of age as a civic agent in today’s media landscape.”

The book is another outgrowth from the work of the Youth and Participatory Politics Network, a multidisciplinary rout of scholars, helmed by Joe Kahne from Mills College, and funded by the MacArthur Foundation, which is seeking to better understand the political lives of contemporary American young people.  I have gotten to know this book’s co-editor, Danielle Allen, through her involvement in this research collaboration, which has also informed the development of my team’s forthcoming By Any Media Necessary book.

Allen is a political philosopher who moves fluidly from attending to insights from Classical Philosophy and the work of America’s founding fathers (she just published a short but wonderful book looking at the continuing impact of the Declaration of Independence ) to responses to contemporary civil rights movements. She recently published a smart op-ed piece for the Washington Post, which dealt with the protests in Baltimore and another with fellow YPP network member Cathy Cohen on “the new civil rights movement”. She is perhaps best known for her book, Talking to Strangers: Anxieties of Citizenship Since Brown v. Board of Education, which offers some reflections on the nature of “political friendship” across racial lines and gives us some core insights about what it might mean to be an effective and ethical ally in today’s struggles over racial justice. As a political philosopher, she is surprisingly and consistently attentive to media or channels of communication, from the role of news photography in the civil rights movement (Talking to Strangers) to the role of text (Why Plato Wrote) and print (Our Declaration), so there’s much here that people in my home field should be engaging with.

All of this is to say that Allen is wickedly smart, a generous collaborator, someone whose insights I have come to trust on a great many of the most pressing issues of our time. You will get a taste of her thinking in her responses to the interview questions below.

Let’s start with the book’s title, “From Voice to Influence.” How are you and your contributors defining the core terms, “voice” and “influence” here? To what degree has the rise of networked communication shifted expectations about the relationship between the two? What are some of the core challenges that we need to confront before the expressive capacities of everyday citizens is effectively translated into greater influence over public affairs?

Voice was the easy concept for us. It captures any human effort at self-expression. In that regard, it’s metaphorical. Sometimes people express their voice by doing things like die-in’s in city streets. One can be completely quiet, marching in a silent protest, and still be expressing voice. Human beings are remarkably inventive as communicators, and we really intend the concept of voice to capture the role range of human communication.

While there is probably an infinity of different types of human communication, any speech act is connected in some fashion to a speaker. The relationship between a speech act and the authentic, autonomous self of the speaker is extremely complex. Not every speech act is as directly expressive of something authentic. Nonetheless, we’re throwing the whole kit and caboodle in under the concept of “voice” and then trying to see how to sort out the different types of voice.

Influence was the hard concept. The rise of digital media and social media have brought an explosion of “voice” in the public sphere–communications from ordinary people about whatever it is they feel like communicating about that are easily accessible to all of us. There has been a lazy assumption in a lot of commentary about the impact of new media on politics that more voice in itself changes political life and is a good thing.

We thought that assessing that view required more clarity about when expressions of voice are “influential” and when they are not, that is, more clarity about when they make a difference beyond the existential experience of the speaker. This required us to think about the relationship between communicative actions on the part of a speaker and the different levers that can be pulled to change socio-political institutions or broadly impactful socio-political forms.

We came to distinguish between forms of influence that operate mainly on specific communities of discourse (a neighborhood, a social media network, etc.) and those forms of influence that operate on the level of a whole polity. To achieve an understanding of influence, we had to look at how speech acts can pull levers within political institutions, in relationship to the many organizations of civil society and the corporate world, through the work of social movements, and by effecting cultural change. The chapter by Archon Fung and Jennifer Shkabatur toes a terrific job of anatomizing how particular speech acts come to be influential in one, or several, of those domains.

The rise of networked communications has, indeed, as you say, shifted expectations about the relationship between voice and influence, but we think those shifts in expectation are themselves likely to be subject to evolution. In the early stages of the digital media transformation, voice was pretty loosely assumed to translate straightforwardly into influence.

This idea was captured by the notion that gatekeepers were being overthrown everywhere. The thought was that without gatekeepers controlling what got into the media or on the legislative agenda, anyone could immediately have a direct impact on our collective life.

But this soon gave way to greater realism. The dramatic increase in the volume of participation in digital and social media means that many voices are just drowned out. As Ethan Zuckerman points out in his chapter, there is a finite quantity of human attention, so securing attention share becomes a challenge. And influence requires attention share.

In this context, of course, the opportunity is ripe for a re-emergence of gate-keepers who gain their authority by helping people know where to focus their attention in a very chaotic media landscape. Take Facebook and its rules for participation as an example of a new gatekeeper. Jennifer Light does a great job of showing how, historically, historical revolutions in communciations technology that are experienced initially as liberatory have a way of being coopted by traditional power holders.

We think there’s a lot of room in media studies for developing a more refined understanding of the relationship between voice and influence, by studying why one speech act joins the discursive flows that move the waterwheels of socio-political change and why other speech acts don’t. And we think scholars ought to be paying attention to where gatekeepers are re-emerging, both in order to understand that re-emergence and to seek paths along which we can preserve the liberatory force of that initial moment of transformation.


You describe the book as “making technology the backdrop rather than the subject of analysis,” This is an important distinction. What becomes the foreground, then, of your analysis of contemporary political participation?

The foreground of our analysis of contemporary political participation is what we call civic agency. Civic agency consists of the effort to deploy voice for the sake of influence. Between voice and influence there exist a whole host of activities: from organizing to civic engagement, from symbolic protest to running for political office, and so on.

In earlier work, some of the contributors in this volume were in the habit of talking using the concept of “citizenship” to capture this idea. Citizenship is, of course, an old concept from the Latin word for city and for members of a city. While in contemporary politics we have come to focus on the concept of “citizenship” as a legal category of membership, in an older tradition of political thought that membership category was closely connected to an idea that the best way for each person to protect his or her own safety and well being was to exercise political power. There is a sense of responsibility and duty connected to the concept of citizenship, but also an element of empowerment.

As we’ve been working on this project, though, we’ve come to see the importance of separating the concept of legal membership in a given political unit from the more fundamental idea of the capacity of human beings to contribute to shaping the world in which they live with others. We settled on using the phrase, “civic agency,” to designate this capacity.

We consider it fundamental for thinking about politics in a world where there are no longer any territorial zones outside of nation states, yet it is still possible for some people to be “stateless,” to have no formal membership in any state, despite habitating on one or another actual piece of ground. Cristina Beltran’s chapter on Dreamactivism is really important on focusing on the civic agency of undocumented youth.

Equally important is the fact that political problems and the effects of political action do not track the geographical boundaries of states but frequently exceeed them; consequently, transnational activism is of great importance in our contemporary world. My chapter with Angel Parham takes up some of the issues that emerge in that context.

The concept of “civic agency” permits us to do a better job of tracking the efforts of people–from across the full diversity of possible formal statuses–to help steer the world in which we live. Technology is the backdrop to this story of civic agency because, as I have suggested above, civic agency starts with voice or communication. The exercise of civic agency traces the arc from voice to influence, through a variety of mediating practices. Anything that changes the fundamental methods of and opportunities for communication will have an impact on civic agency. We start and finish with civic agency in order to re-situate thought about media technology within the context of at least one of the “human things” that it has emerged to enable.


Your book proposes a reconceptualization of the public sphere, from one focused on physical geography to one focused around patterns of circulation. What do you see as the benefits of this reworking of the classic public sphere model?

Ultimately, it is impossible to separate flows from space. Flow, after all, is about the temporalities of movements through spaces. Yet I think the question of which metaphorical lens one uses as one’s starting point for thinking about public spheres has a meaningful impact on what one is able to see.

Spatial models of the public sphere, as in Habermas’ early work, tend to end up focusing on a bunch of formal political spaces–assemblies, legislative halls, courtrooms–or on architecturally salient adjacent spaces, for instance coffee houses, that are in some sense directly connected to those spaces of forrmal political institutions because the same group of peoplel functions in both.

The trouble with this is that the architecture of our public spaces has exclusions built into it, which are then carried over into the analysis. Habermas has, of course, been routinely criticized for prioritizing the communicative experiences in the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries of white bourgeois men.

If one seeks instead to figure out who is talking to who, when, and how–in other words simply to find flows–one finds spaces that weren’t previously visible–for instance, the black churches of the Civil Rights movement–but one also finds networks of communication that never become grounded in a single space–for instance, the flows of discourse linking Beltran’s Dreamers again or the flows linking the hip hop community. Tommie Shelby’s chapter on hip hop as dissent is just fantastic.

In other words, I think the “flow” metaphor just helps one see a lot more politically meaningful discourse than one would otherwise spot. And then by bringing a broader field of discourse into consideration for public sphere theory, the flow metaphor forces us to re-consider just how different types of discourse do or do not support legitimate public action.

The Habermasian picture ends up focusing excessively on deliberative modes of speech or rhetoric. The broader picture requires us to see the value in prophetic speech (think MLK, Jr. or Occupy Wall Street or Black Lives Matter) and also in adversarial forms of discourse (think of the strategies used by the Industrial Areas Foundation organizers to hold public officials to account; on this subject, Jeff Stout’s book, Blessed Are the Organized, is excellent). Recognizing that prophetic and adversarial forms of speech are necessary and legitimate modes of public sphere discourse introduces a further challenge: one needs to develop ethical frameworks for their use. And this work, too, takes us beyond the ethics of deliberative democracy. In place of that, the shift to flows supports work toward developing ethical frameworks for “egalitarian particpatory democracy.’

Danielle Allen is UPS Foundation Professor of Social Science at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey. In July 2015 she will move to Harvard to take up the Directorship of the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics and professorships in Harvard’s Department of Government and Graduate School of Education. She is a political theorist who has published broadly in democratic theory, political sociology, and the history of political thought. Widely known for her work on justice and citizenship in both ancient Athens and modern America, Allen is the author of The World of Prometheus: the Politics of Punishing in Democratic Athens (2000), Talking to Strangers: Anxieties of Citizenship since Brown vs. the Board of Education (2004), Why Plato Wrote (2010), and Our Declaration: A Reading of the Declaration of Independence in Defense of Equality (Norton/Liveright Books, June 2014). She is the co-editor of the award- winning Education, Justice, and Democracy (2013, with Rob Reich) and From Voice to Influence: Understanding Citizenship in the Digital Age (2015, with Jennifer Light). She is a Chair of the Mellon Foundation Board, past Chair of the Pulitzer Prize Board, and a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and American Philosophical Society.

Categories: Blog

On Transmedia and Transformative Media Organizing: An Interview with MIT’s Sasha Costanza-Chock (Part Three)

June 4, 2015 - 1:47pm

What parallels do you see between the immigrant rights movement activities you discuss here and the way that transmedia organizing is being deployed right now in the growing struggle against racialized police violence in the United States? Are there lessons which these movements might draw from each other?

Absolutely. In fact, these movements are deeply intertwined, even as it remains important to recognize the specificity of anti-Black police violence. #BlackLivesMatter calls on all of us to do the work of centering anti-Black violence.

And yet the immigrant rights movement, especially as it has developed during the last decade, is no longer (if it ever was) primarily a movement about assimilation to the American Dream. We’re talking in the context of a ballooning detention and deportation system that, under Obama alone, has rounded up and deported over two million people. TWO MILLION PEOPLE. The deportation system includes detention facilities (prisons) that are built and managed by the same private, for-profit corporations that build and manage prisons and jails across the country (see Detention Watch Network for the latest research on this system). In California, Ruthie Gilmore has written about the rise of the “Golden Gulag” and a carceral state that uses prisons as a mechanism of racial control. Michelle Alexander has written about the “New Jim Crow,” and the post- civil rights movement drug war policies that have been used to systematically disenfranchise millions of African-Americans through deeply racist policies, policing, unequal sentencing, and so on.

So the policing, detention, deportation, and disproportionate murder of primarily but by no means exclusively Brown people, enacted through immigration policy, DHS, ICE, and the detention/deportation system, is deeply linked to the policing, detention, warehousing, and murder of disproportionately, but by no means exclusively, Black people through
the so-called drug war. Some activists call this the “Crimmigration” system. Harsha Walia puts it in transnational context and calls it “Border Imperialism,” and notes that it’s the continuation of centuries of settler colonialism.

The increased militancy of the immigrant rights movement combined with the uprisings of #BlackLivesMatter have brought us to an important critical moment of rupture in the glossy facade of multicultural, neoliberal, info capitalism.

This rupture is filled with the brilliant symbols, bodies, ideas, stories, demands, and dreams of people who have been long excluded, invisibilized, and oppressed. People of Color, Black people specifically, Queer and Trans* women of color, UndocuQueer people, are using media both new and old to create community, gain visibility, speak truth to power, and to articulate new identities and new intersectional social movements.

It’s a moment of incredible pain and rage, but also a moment of great hope and possibility.

To be realistic, it’s still possible that the primary outcome of the energy generated by #BlackLivesMatter will be more money for police forces to purchase new equipment (body cameras), which is not going to do much to truly advance racial justice and the structural dismantling of white supremacy in the United States. There’s a question here: are we
going to be able to use this moment to come to terms with just how deep anti-Blackness runs as a foundational force in our society?

The immigrant rights movement has been internally split between those who advocate for an assimilationist narrative that involves primarily articulating demands for inclusion in (white, straight, capitalist, patriarchal, militarist) United States society, and those who are bringing an intersectional analysis to their organizing processes, strategies, goals, narratives, and demands. The second approach has been gaining ground, as the first failed to win anything.

Education Not Deportation (END) campaigns, for example, directly link the immigrant rights movement to the broader movement against the growing prison system, and do so in ways that are fueled by direct action, have concrete impacts on real people’s lives, and are also highly mediated events that bridge social media, live streaming, and often receive print and broadcast coverage in both Spanish and English language mass media.

It would be interesting to see something similar to END emerge from the prison abolition movement – highly publicized direct actions, made visible through both social and mass media, focused on liberating specific incarcerated individuals. But the thing is that certain voices  within the immigrant rights movement are always saying ‘we’re not
criminals. We just want to assimilate. Stop treating us like terrorists and criminals.’ While it’s possible to deeply disagree with the framing but still admit that it has the potential to win gains for large segments of non-Black immigrant communities, this is pretty much a losing strategy for Black people, since for hundreds of years the mass
media system has been training us all to see all Black people as criminals.

But respectability politics will probably always continue.

You note that half of the royalties from the book’s sales go to the Mobile Voices Project. Can you tell us more about this project and the ways that it helps to address some of the issues your book has identified?

VozMob is an incredible experience in popular education, participatory research and design, and community organizing, centered around amplifying the voices of immigrant workers in Los Angeles by appropriating mobile phones for popular communication. It began around 2007, and the project is still going strong in 2015. I urge readers to visit the project site, where there are now thousands of posts from day laborers, household workers, students, and other folks from the community around the Institute of Popular Education of Southern California (IDEPSCA). You can also read more about the participatory research and design process that produced the project in the book chapter that was coauthored by the project participants, including community members, organizers, university based researchers, and designers. The chapter is titled “Mobile Voices,” (coauthored with 12 members of the VozMob project), it can be found in Minna Aslama and Phil Napoli (eds.), Communications Research in Action: Scholar-Activist Collaborations for a Democratic Public Sphere. Bronx, NY: Fordham University Press, 2010. (A preprint version is here).

The VozMob Drupal Distribution is the free/libre open source software that powers VozMob.net, and its features have been developed through participatory design. This same code now powers the hosted mobile platform called Vojo.co . So far, it has been localized, including all interactive voice menu elements, in English, Brazilian
Portuguese, and Spanish. It’s been used by migrant workers in Mexico to report recruitment fraud , by Afro-Brazilian teens from a fishing village in Salvador, Brazil to report environmental damage from a chemical spill, in Hong Kong by participants in the Umbrella Movement to record songs and poems from the streets, among many other projects. It
has been used in Los Angeles, Boston, New York City, Detroit, and locations across the United States. It powers the Tribeca award-winning participatory documentary project Sandy Storyline, which documents people’s experiences surviving Hurricane Sandy and the subsequent recovery efforts.

The VozMob code has been useful to such a wide range of groups because it was developed hand in hand with a user community whose experience of communication technology is similar to that of the majority of human beings (cheap cell phones, poor, sporadic internet access), but whose needs, ideas, and stories are rarely considered by a system of
technology design that is centered on what’s profitable. That system is run by mostly white (and Asian) middle class cishet men in the 1/3rd world who have been socialized into a startup culture that sadly reproduces some of the worst of heteropatriarchy, capitalism, and white supremacy. I’m not saying developers are bad guys, I’m saying the
structure of technology development militates towards making potentially profitable apps for a small, relatively homogenous sliver of the global population. VozMob is an important counterexample. VozMob is looking for
a new round of financial support and volunteers, get in touch with them on twitter at @vozmob!

My next book, which I’m in the process of writing now, is going to be focused on exactly these questions of design and social justice. Who gets to design technologies? Who are they designed for? Who benefits the most from the design process as it’s currently structured? What do already existing alternative models of technology design look like, and
how can we scale them, how can we make radically inclusive design the norm? We’ve been exploring these questions in courses like the Civic Media Co-Design Studio at MIT, event spaces like the Future Design Lab at the Allied Media Conference , and in community-led projects at Research Action Design. This work feels incredibly urgent to me right now, and I hope that folks who are interested in these questions will get in touch! hmu: @schock.

Thank you so much Henry!

Sasha Costanza-Chock is Associate Professor of Civic Media at MIT. He’s a scholar, activist, and media-maker who works on co-design and media justice. Sasha is Co-Principal Investigator at the MIT Center for Civic Media , creator of the MIT Codesign Studio and a Faculty Associate at the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard Law School. His book Out of the Shadows, Into the Streets: Transmedia Organizing and the Immigrant Rights Movement was published by the MIT Press, 2014. Sasha is a board member of Allied Media Projects, a Detroit-based nonprofit that cultivates media strategies for a more just, creative, and collaborative world. He’s also a worker/owner at Research Action Design, a worker-owned cooperative that uses community-led research, transformative media organizing, technology development, and collaborative design to build the power of grassroots social movements.


Categories: Blog

On Transmedia and Transformative Media Organizing: An Interview with MIT’s Sasha Costanza-Chock (Part Two)

June 1, 2015 - 7:55am

You structure the book around the concept of “transmedia organizing.” How are you defining this term? How does it relate to the forms of transmedia storytelling, entertainment, and branding that have surfaced in recent years?

To be honest, over the past year the framing I use has shifted from “transmedia organizing” to “transformative media organizing,” largely because of my involvement in the research, skill-share, and design
process of the Transformative Media Organizing project. Our definition of transformative media organizing is as follows:

“Transformative media organizing is a liberatory approach to integrating media, communications, and cultural work into movement building. It lies at the place where media justice and transformative organizing overlap. Transformative media organizers begin with an intersectional analysis of linked systems of race, class, gender, sexuality, ability, and other axes of identity. We seek to do media work that develops the critical consciousness and leadership of those who take part in the media-making process; create media in ways that are deeply accountable to the movement base; invite our communities to participate in media production; create media strategically across platforms, and root our work in community action.”

More about this model can be found here  and a summary of our findings about how LGBTQ and Two-Spirit organizations in the US are using media in their organizing work is here.

But to answer your original question, my thoughts about the definition,history, and relationship of transmedia organizing to transmedia storytelling are best expressed in the following excerpt from the book (pages 47-50):

The term “transmedia organizing” is a mash-up of the concept of transmedia storytelling, as elaborated by media studies scholars, and ideas from social movement studies. In the early 1990s the scholar Marsha Kinder developed the idea of transmedia intertextuality to refer to the flow of branded and gendered commodities across television,
films, and toys. Kinder was interested in stories and brands that unfolded across platforms, and took care to analyze them in the context of broader systemic transformation of the media industries. She focused especially on the deregulation of children’s television during the Reagan years. Throughout the 1970s, Action for Children’s Television, a grassroots nonprofit organization with 20,000 members, organized for higher-quality children’s TV and against advertising within children’s programming, with some success. However, by the early 1980s both the Federal Communications Commission and the National Association of Broadcasters were pushing aggressively to abandon limits on advertising to children and product-based programming. It was during this shift that Kinder conducted a series of media ethnographies with children. She was interested in better understanding young people’s relationships to franchises such as Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, which children experienced across platforms as a comic magazine, an animated TV series, a line of toys, a video game, and so on. She found that cross-platform stories and branded commodities not only increased both toy and ad sales but also produced highly gendered consumer subjectivity in children.

In 2003, Henry Jenkins [that’s you! ] reworked the concept for an era of horizontally integrated transnational media conglomerates, and defined transmedia storytelling as follows:

“Transmedia storytelling represents a process where integral elements of a fiction get dispersed systematically across multiple delivery channels for the purpose of creating a unified and coordinated entertainment experience. Ideally, each medium makes its own unique contribution to the unfolding of the story.”

He went on to articulate the key points of transmedia storytelling in the context of a converged media system. Chief among them are the following: transmedia storytelling is the ideal form for media conglomerates to circulate their franchises across platforms; transmedia storytelling involves “world building” rather than closed plots and individual characters; it involves multiple entry points for varied audience segments; it requires co-creation and collaboration by different divisions of a company; it provides roles for readers to take on in their daily lives; it is open to participation by fans; and it is “ the ideal aesthetic form for an era of collective intelligence.”

In the decade since Jenkins’s 2003 explanation of these key elements, the media industries have increasingly adopted transmedia storytelling as a core strategy. The term transmedia is now regularly used to describe the work of professional producers who create cross-platform stories with participatory media components. Individuals, consultancies, and firms, initially small boutique shops but increasingly also units within larger media companies, have positioned themselves as transmedia producers. In 2010 the Producers Guild of America announced the inclusion of “transmedia producer” in the Guild’s Producers Code of Credits for the first time. More recently, institutions such as the Sundance Institute and the Tribeca Film Festival have begun to recognize, fund, curate, and promote transmedia projects.

In 2009 the media strategist Lina Srivastava proposed that activists and media artists might apply the ideas of transmedia storytelling to social change, through what she termed transmedia activism:

“There is a real and distinct opportunity for activists to influence action and raise cause awareness by distributing content through a multi platform approach, particularly in which people participate in media creation.” (see Lina’s blog).

Several firms now explicitly describe themselves as working on transmedia activism. In 2008 the Mexican film star Gael Garcia Bernal and the director Marc Silver (with Srivastava as a strategy consultant) launched the transmedia activism production company Resist Network.

New examples of transmedia storytelling for social change emerge on a regular basis. Many of these projects are honest attempts to translate the lessons of transmedia storytelling from entertainment and advertising into strategies that could be used for activism and advocacy. Others seem more ambiguous, as transmedia producers who primarily work with corporate clients identify opportunities to win contracts with social issue filmmakers, nonprofit organizations, and NGOs. In any case, by 2013 there were several high-profile, professionally produced transmedia campaigns focused specifically on immigrant rights. Jose Antonio Vargas’s project Define American, Laurene Powell Jobs – backed (and Davis Guggenheim – produced) film The Dream is Now, and the Silicon Valley campaign FWD.us (spearheaded by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg) are probably the three best known, and I return to them in chapter 7.

I am excited by the growing interest in transmedia storytelling for social change among media professionals. However, in this book the term transmedia organizing does not center on the emerging professionalization of transmedia strategy, whether for entertainment, advertising, or activism. Instead of carefully managed media initiatives, I primarily emphasize organic, bottom-up processes. More broadly, I suggest that social movements have always engaged in transmedia organizing, and the process has become more visible as key aspects of movement media-making come online. This is not to suggest that nothing new is taking place. However, I believe that the recent emphasis on technological transformation is misplaced, to the degree that it blinds us to a comprehensive analysis of social movement media practices. In addition, while movements do already engage in transmedia organizing, they can be more effective if they are intentional about this approach. To that end, I suggest the following definition:

“Transmedia organizing includes the creation of a narrative of social transformation across multiple media platforms, involving the movement’s base in participatory media making, and linking attention directly to concrete opportunities for action. Effective transmedia organizing is also accountable to the needs of the movement’s base.”

I contend that transmedia organizing involves the construction of social movement identity, beyond individual campaign messaging; it requires co-creation and collaboration across multiple social movement groups; it provides roles and actions for movement participants to take on in their daily life; it is open to participation by the social base of the movement; and it is the key strategic media form for social movements in the current media ecology. While the end goal of corporate transmedia storytelling is to generate profits, the end goal of transmedia organizing is to strengthen social movement identity, win political and economic victories, and transform the consciousness of broader publics. Effective transmedia organizing also includes accountability mechanisms so that the narrative and the actions it promotes remain grounded in the experience and needs of the social movement’s base.

The full chapter, and book, can be downloaded for free.

Sasha Costanza-Chock is Associate Professor of Civic Media at MIT. He’s a scholar, activist, and media-maker who works on co-design and media justice. Sasha is Co-Principal Investigator at the MIT Center for Civic Media , creator of the MIT Codesign Studio and a Faculty Associate at the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard Law School. His book Out of the Shadows, Into the Streets: Transmedia Organizing and the Immigrant Rights Movement was published by the MIT Press, 2014. Sasha is a board member of Allied Media Projects, a Detroit-based nonprofit that cultivates media strategies for a more just, creative, and collaborative world. He’s also a worker/owner at Research Action Design, a worker-owned cooperative that uses community-led research, transformative media organizing, technology development, and collaborative design to build the power of grassroots social movements.

Categories: Blog

On Transmedia and Transformative Politics: An Interview with MIT’s Sasha Costanza-Chock (Part One)

May 29, 2015 - 6:35am

I have had a chance to get to know Sasha Costanza-Chock through the years — first as a PhD candidate at USC Annenberg, finishing up his degree as I was arriving here, and now, more recently, as a faculty member at the MIT Comparative Media Studies Program, where he has been active in the Center for Civic Media. I have developed enormous respect for Costanza-Chock’s skills as a scholar and commitment as an activist. He is someone whose work contributes much to our understanding of emerging forms of political activism, which he has variously characterized as  Transmedia or Transformative Mobilization.

His earliest work centered around the immigrant rights movement in Los Angles and has culminated in Out of the Shadows, Into the Streets: Transmedia Organizing and the Immigrant Rights Movement,  published earlier this year by MIT Press. More recently, he has expanded his focus to deal with the Occupy movement and even more recently, to do work on GLBT activism.

Costanza-Chock’s work is deeply grounded in the life of the communities he is researching — we might think of his approach as being as much about collaboration, researching with, as it is investigating, researching about, and in this interview, he has much to say about the ethical principles he thinks should govern academic researchers doing work on and with oppressed peoples. I was lucky enough to have been able to read his original dissertation and we drew extensively on his work for the section on activism in Spreadable Media and it has been an important influence on our thinking as we developed By Any Media Necessary, my team’s forthcoming book on contemporary youth and the civic imagination.

I was delighted, then, when he agreed to do this interview, and even more pleased when I read his substantive, thoughtful, and challenging responses to my questions. You are in for a treat.

You describe this project as emerging from a process of participatory research. In this case, what shape did this participatory research take? How would you characterize your relationship to the movements you discuss here?

Thank you so much for inviting me to your blog! I really appreciate the opportunity. I should start by making clear that while I’m informed by Participatory Action Research (PAR) as a research stance, Out of the Shadows, Into the Streets! isn’t itself a participatory research project. I say that because the research agenda and questions that the book addresses are mine, as are the instruments, the analytical process, the conclusions and recommendations. The questions I explore in the book, about the relationship between social movements and the rapidly changing media ecology, are not questions that first and foremost came from the immigrant rights movement groups I worked with and researched.

In PAR, joint inquiry centers the research agenda of the community. The community partner defines the area of investigation, and, if there is an outside researcher at all, they work together to develop the research questions, choose methods, develop instruments, collect observations, and analyze the findings together, in order to inform the next stage of action. This is the iterative cycle of reflection and action, built around situated and contingent knowledge, that Dewey talked about as joint inquiry, and that Freire described in terms of praxis.

That said, during the time I worked on the book (2006-2014), I did take part in a number of participatory research and participatory design processes with immigrant rights organizations. For example, while I was a doctoral student at USC Anneberg I had the good fortune to take Sandra Ball-Rokeach’s course on engaged scholarship (Comm 653, Research,
Practice, and Social Change), a course that she co-teaches with Barbara Osborn from the Liberty Hill Foundation. That course provided a crucial space for me to learn about the underpinnings, history, theory, and challenges of engaged research, while working closely with the Garment Worker Center to co-develop the Radio Tijera project.

Radio Tijera was an audio production workshop, pirate radio station, and CD series that mixed popular music with personal stories, history, and know your rights PSAs. It was produced by garment workers from the Garment Worker Center in LA’s Fashion District, with support from simmi gandi, Amanda Garces, and myself. Audio pieces from Radio Tijeras are still available online.

It was participatory design that felt really grounded in the needs of the community and the organization: hundreds of the CDs we produced were handed out and passed from person to person in the garment sweatshops in downtown LA, where many people listen to music all day, in part because in some shops they are told by the boss that they’re not
allowed to talk to one another. The CDs (we called them Discos Volantes, a Spanish language double pun on ‘Discs,’ ‘Flyers,’ as in an event flyer, and ‘Flying Saucers’) were used as an organizing tool to bring a number of new workers into the orbit of GWC, where they got involved in struggles for higher wages, safer working conditions, and human dignity in the garment industry. Steve Anderson from the Institute for Multimedia Literacy and the Cinema school also guided an independent study with me that gave me space to do community based multimedia work.

And while at Annenberg I had the chance to work with the Mobile Voices project, with all of the folks from the Institute of Popular Education of Southern California (IDEPSCA) and the team from USC, led by Francois Bar, which used participatory research and design to build the award-winning VozMob project . All of this work, and other participatory research, design, and media-making projects that I describe in more detail in the book, informed my understanding of the immigrant rights movement, grounded my research in real world experience as an active ally, and helped me build trust and credibility with many of the immigrant rights activists I later interviewed.

But I’m emphasizing that the book itself is not PAR, because it seems like a lot of researchers from the academy pay lip service to participatory research (and participatory design). Many are honestly excited by the idea, and that’s an important shift that should be supported. Unfortunately, there’s also sometimes a tendency to run a workshop or two with a community based partner and start calling the process participatory.

In the worst cases, this can actually end up masking an extractive process, where knowledge, ideas, design possibilities, and so on are generated by community members, whose ‘participation’ is limited to particular stages of the process (for example, brainstorming or taking part in a design charette). Participation in this mode produces ‘raw materials’ that are taken away by outside researchers and designers to be reworked and synthesized in ways that generate benefits (publications, products, attribution for concepts, and so on) that accrue primarily to the research or design professionals. The extractive process is usually not intentional (although occasionally it is, that’s another conversation), but it does do damage, not least in terms of the time and energy it takes up from people with scarce resources.

Happily, that’s the worst case There is also a growing community of people who are working to advance strong, grounded, meaningful approaches to participatory research in a wide range of fields. For example, the UCLA Labor Center  does an incredible job at this, as does the Public Science Project at CUNY. There are vibrant spaces outside of the academy, such as the Research Justice track at the Allied Media Conference, that are hubs for community based researchers. My partner Chris Schweidler has been working with this network for years, and is now developing and sharing concrete tools for participatory research through the worker-owned cooperative Research Action Design (RAD), of which I’m proud to be a founding member and worker/owner.

You suggest you want to move us beyond current debates about social movements and social media. What do you think partisans in those debates get wrong and what does your book offer as an alternative?

If I had to boil it down I’d say there are at least three places where most of the current debates go wrong. The ‘offline/online’ distinction, the ‘clicktivism’ conversation, and the technocentrism of most analysis of social movements and ICTs. There’s also the failure to focus on the transformative power of media making in a social movement context, where one of the most important outcomes is that people, through making media, become personally, deeply transformed in the process.

As for the first point, the ‘online/offline’ debate seems to be finally (if slowly) dying. As the net becomes fully integrated into everyday life, and as internet enabled mobile devices become more widespread, it’s become increasingly clear that people who participate in social movements do so both ‘offline’ and ‘online,’ and don’t tend to think about their own participation in these terms at all. If you care about something, and take part in a social movement, you aren’t sitting there as you share something on social media ‘Oh, now I’m an online activist!’ When you go to a ‘face to face’ rally or protest action, you’re not thinking ‘I’m taking part in offline social movement activity!’ You’re probably taking pictures at the ‘offline’ action and sharing them via social media, or sending SMS to friends about it. Since I’m a fan of grounded theory that draws from, reflects, and is useful to the ways people think about their own activity, I’ve never thought the online/offline debates were very interesting.

More recently, analyses of survey data are increasingly supportive of the idea that the distinction doesn’t hold much water. Most (but not all!) people who are politically active are active both ‘online’ and ‘off,’ (whatever ‘offline’ means for most people today). I’m not articulating this well; I’d recommend Paulo Gerbaudo’s excellent book Tweets and the Streets for a more lucid breakdown of the point.

For a counterargument, check out Oser, Hooghe, and Marien, 2013, who review the 2008 Pew data that was analyzed by Schlozman et al in 2010; they use latent class factor analysis of 5 offline and 5 online measures of political participation, and find that there are clusters of people who are politically active both online and offline, a cluster of people who are politically active just offline (they don’t have much internet access), and a (majority) cluster of people who aren’t politically active at all (online or offline). They do identify a small cluster who are more politically active according to online measures than offline measures, and they take that finding to imply that there is indeed a useful distinction between online and offline activists.

However, I read their findings to primarily indicate that most people are politically active or they’re not, both online and off, unless they don’t have much internet access. Hirzalla and Zoonen find that for young people, distinguishing between online/offline may not make much sense (Hirzalla, F and Van Zoonen, EA (2011). “Beyond the Online/Offline Divide: How Youth’s Online and Offline Civic Activities Converge”, Social Science Computer Review, online first December 4, Social Science Computer Review, 29(4), pp.481-498.)

Gibson and Cantijoch (2013) draw similar conclusions from a factor analysis of a 2010 UK survey with 18 questions about online and offline political participation (Rachel Gibson and Marta Cantijoch. “Conceptualizing and measuring participation in the age of the internet: Is online political engagement really different to offline?” Journal of Politics 75, no. 3(2013) : 707-716. eScholarID:178410 | DOI:10.1017/S0022381613000431).  Here I’m summarizing a longer discussion of this literature in soon-to-be-published work by Benjamin Bowyer and Joseph Kahn.

For the second point, I also think we can move beyond the so-called ‘clicktivism’ or ‘slacktivism’ question, most famously raised by Malcolm Gladwell, of whether the internet weakens social movements because it allows people to think they have done something meaningful with a mouse click. This mistaken debate is easily sidestepped by talking to a few real world organizers and activists, who learned quickly and early on about the ladder of engagement, where your job is to connect with people who take a small action (say, clicking ‘share’), find the subset of those people who are willing to take a slightly larger action, then identify the subset of those people who might be interested in
themselves becoming organizers, and so on. The more sophisticated version of this argument is about whether people are now abandoning social movement organizations and political parties, which had staying power, in favor of networked activism, which can move quickly but is often a ‘flash in the pan.’

That’s interesting. If it’s true that people are abandoning deeper engagement in political, civic, and social movement activity, and focusing primarily on networked forms of participation, then for the most part, institutional actors just need to learn how to weather the storm – not a good outcome for democracy. On the other hand, how do we reconcile the argument that people no longer want to participate in ‘real world’ organizations, with the continued mushrooming of those organizations? Just look at figures for the long term growth in the number and size of 501(c)3s over time, for example (there are around 250,000 in the US, according to the Urban Institute.

It’s also arguable that we’re entering a ‘golden age’ of movement activity, where people participate in networked activism, get politicized quickly, and later join the ever more diverse array of movement organizations, where they connect and stay for the long haul of institutional change.

How about the question about whether ICTs make social movements ‘more participatory?’ To me, in this frame technology adoption is conflated with forms of democratic participation. In other words, an alternate hypothesis might run as follows: there are strong or weak, top down or bottom up, institutional or participatory, forms of democracy. Any particular institution, organization, or network may be evaluated along these lines, independently of the communication technologies that are popular (widespread) at a given moment. It still seems to me to be an
understudied question: what, if any, is the relationship between the dominant forms of technology and the strength or weakness of participation in democratic institutions?

For one thing, some indicators of democratic participation (voting rates, for example) imply that widespread adoption of the internet produce a steady decline in democratic participation, although I believe that’s correlation, not causation. In fact the height of democratic participation may have been during the age when newspapers and radio (top down, broadcast, one way, for the most part, although not entirely) were dominant!

For another, we now know that networked ICTs are quite excellent tools for top down communicative processes, like political parties, corporations, or military organizations. For example, the Obama campaign’s masterful use of the net and social media incorporated participatory elements, but was ultimately a top down show that was shut down as soon as he won the election.

More broadly, I just don’t know why there is so much writing that is platform-centric. This goes as follows: pick a platform, then study whether activists are using it for something. Then, when you find that they are, write about how the affordances of the platform are so enabling for a new generation of activists. Really?

To me, it makes so much more sense to start with social movements. Start with the activists. Pick a movement, connect with it, engage with it, and then ask questions about how the activists, organizers, and everyday people in that movement are using media and ICTs. What do people do with these tools? They use them to create and circulate narratives, ideas, proposals, and demands, to invite and incite, to get people out in the streets and onto the net, to build the power of their movement.

Real world social movements aren’t platform specific. They aren’t making a ‘Twitter Revolution.’ They’re using any media necessary. They’re engaged in transmedia organizing.

Sasha Costanza-Chock is Associate Professor of Civic Media at MIT. He’s a scholar, activist, and media-maker who works on co-design and media justice. Sasha is Co-Principal Investigator at the MIT Center for Civic Media, creator of the MIT Codesign Studio, and a Faculty Associate at the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard Law School. His book Out of the Shadows, Into the Streets: Transmedia Organizing and the Immigrant Rights Movement was published by the MIT Press, 2014. Sasha is a board member of Allied Media Projects, a Detroit-based nonprofit that cultivates media strategies for a more just, creative, and collaborative world. He’s also a worker/owner at Research Action Design, a worker-owned cooperative that uses community-led research, transformative media organizing, technology development, and collaborative design to build the power of grassroots social movements.

Categories: Blog

Connected Learning through Minecraft: An Interview with the Three Co-Founders of Connected Camps (Part Two)

May 27, 2015 - 9:55am

I’ve definitely seen a lot of interest in Minecraft in education, but is there any evidence for its value as an educational environment?

Mimi: We are still in the early days of educators experimenting with Minecraft, so you aren’t going to see the kind of robust outcomes-centered work that are characteristic of more established subjects and methods. On top of this, the open-ended and malleable nature of Minecraft as an educational tool and environment works against standardized, content-centered programs that are easier to test and measure.

Educators have used Minecraft in such a wide variety of ways, ranging from teaching specific social science or math topics, to coding, to offering it as an open ended sandbox for play and problem solving. In fact, there is considerable debate within the educator community about the best uses of Minecraft. These debates mirror the longstanding schisms between content and skills centered approaches and more progressive, learner centered approaches in education. So the differences run much deeper than Minecraft itself.

What this means is that we can look to the existing evidence base for learning outcomes, even though the research on Minecraft specifically is still limited. As you probably gleaned, our Minecraft program sits in the social constructivist and learner-centered camp, and is grounded in the model of connected learning that has been developed over the past decade by a network of researchers, designers, and educators, many of whom have been associated with the MacArthur foundation funded Digital Media and Learning Initiative.

My earlier work as part of the Digital Youth Study and the current work of the Connected Learning Research Network, which I chair, has amassed a large body of evidence that has guided our approach. Henry, your work on participatory culture and new media literacy is also a cornerstone of this work.

In a nutshell, the research points to the profound impact of learning that is centered on collaborative creation, and is connected to young people’s genuine interests. When we give kids the opportunity to develop friendships and connect with experts while building and problem solving together, we have found time and time again that the experience is transformative. Not only do they retain specific content and skills better, but they also acquire higher-order skills like problem solving, teamwork, and literacy.

They also develop meaningful and lasting relationships that help them find their place in the world, and can be tied to concrete opportunities. For example, kids who were part of last summer’s servers have formed lasting friendships and stay in touch. And even though our summer camp hasn’t even started yet, we’ve already found job opportunities for some of our counselors.

These are just small examples of the much broader evidence base for how these kind of connected learning programs make a difference in kids’ lives. For anybody interested in learning more, the case studies of learning in youth affinity networks from our research network, or the resources at the Connected Learning Alliance provide a wealth of additional reading material!


All of your work in education so far has been in the research and non-profit sector. Why did you decide to cross over to the for profit sector? Have you gotten any criticism about running an educational program as a for-profit tech startup?

Katie: I was drawn to this project because of the unique model it afforded: a social venture (Connected Camps is a California-based benefit corporation) partnering with a non-profit, founded by people with deep experience in research and mission-driven startups. Any one of those sectors has inherent limitations but in combination there is a real possibility for innovation not only in content or product, but in sustainability models and the reach and impact the work can have.

Tara: My background is in building software platforms so my immediate thought is scale. When you run a locally based, mission focused nonprofit like the LA Makerspace, there are limitations. Working in the digital space, you don’t have those barriers and running as a for profit with a social mission offers Connected Camps the ability to raise the capital that we need to scale globally but keep us grounded in our mission to provide kids with the resources and support they need to learn and level up through their interests.

There are a lot of examples of organizations that start a non profit arm so they can focus on a mission that isn’t profit driven. As a benefit corp we are starting at ground zero with this approach and we have received a lot of positive feedback from startups that are also socially driven and interested in the same model. I think that we are going to see more and more benefit corporations starting up, especially by socially focused Generation Z who go out of their way to purchase products and services from businesses that they know are helping to create a better world.

Mimi: Even in the few months since we’ve launched the new company, I’ve learned so much about what an entrepreneurial and startup mindset can bring to the table. As Tara mentions, locating the work in a for-profit has enabled us to tap different kinds of funding sources and vehicles.

Unlike a grant or a contract, an investment isn’t oriented to a pre-defined product or outcome, but is a bet on the success and sustainability of a team and company. It gives us more flexibility to iterate, test, and pivot when needed.There is a not-insignificant contingent of the tech sector who embraces progressive goals and and would like to improve education, but who are skeptical that traditional non-profit organizations and vehicles can achieve these aims. I see an opportunity for socially minded edtech ventures to tap into both the culture and capital of the tech sector.

A tech startup is relentless about focus on providing value to people and offering what can spread and eventually be sustainable. I’ve found it interesting how important the research and evidence-based orientation is, and that part feels both familiar and different. Connected Camps is  evidence-driven in that it is grounded in decades of primary research and more recent design research. But what’s different from my work in the academy is that it is also evidence and market accountable. We can’t afford to develop offerings that people aren’t going to take up, and the marketplace provides immediate feedback if something isn’t understandable or valuable to the people we are seeking to serve.

The relentless focus on traction and sustainability can of course have its downside too, which is why Connected Camps is a b-corp and why Summer of Minecraft is a co-venture with a nonprofit. We are lucky to have tech investors and advisors who are committed to the social mission as well as the sustainability of the company.

I’m sure as our work gets more visibility, and hopefully more traction, we will need to navigate thorny tensions between the culture and values of the various communities we are bridging through this work. For example, we are working with public libraries and schools to provide opportunities for free for kids who don’t have the resources to play Minecraft from home, while also serving families through our paid subscriptions who have abundant tech resource and are used to paying much more for summer camps. This is about the tensions between nonprofit and for profit educational programs, as well as tensions between the commerce and the more community and volunteer-based orientations in participatory culture and gaming. For example, we have already gotten some pushback from people in the Minecraft world about charging for access to our servers.

The bottom line is that I feel every child deserves to have connected learning experiences, and online programs like ours provide a unique opportunity to spread these opportunities at a low cost to families in all walks of life. I feel we should use all of the resources, communities, and tools at our disposal to accomplish this, and that includes networked participatory culture, the traditional non-profit sector, corporations, as well as the tech startup scene. This latest venture is consistent with my prior work in being an effort to achieve the longstanding goals of progressive education with the tools of our times.

Mimi Ito, Ph.D., is Professor in Residence and MacArthur Foundation Chair in Digital Media and Learning at UC Irvine. She also serves as Research Director of the Digital Media and Learning Research Hub and as Chair of the Connected Learning Research Network.

Katie Salen Tekinbaş is a Professor in the College of Computing and Digital Media at DePaul University. She co-founded Institute of Play. She also led the team that founded Quest to Learn and helped found CICS ChicagoQuest.

Tara Brown is a technologist and entrepreneur. She co-founded LA Makerspace. She is the Technology Director at the Digital Media and Learning Research Hub. She has contributed as an Artist-in-Residence at MuseumsQuartier in Vienna and a Hacker-in-Residence at Sparkfun Electronics.


Categories: Blog

Connected Learning through Minecraft: An Interview with the Three Co-Founders of Connected Camps

May 25, 2015 - 9:53am

A few weeks ago, I featured a thoughtful post on Minecraft and its relationship to “transmedia learning,” written by Barry Joseph, the Associate Director of Digital Learning at The American Museum of Natural History. Joseph’s analysis generated enormous interest from my readers, and for good reason, since there has been growing educational activity around Minecraft over the past few years and we are reaching the point where we can speak with some confidence about the payoffs in terms of fostering a learning culture. Over the next few posts, I want to drill deeper into some of that research and share more about the ways Minecraft has become a key site for thinking about connected learning.

Mimi Ito, Katie Salen Tekinbaş and Tara Brown are long time fellow travelers games and learning field and the movement for connected learning. This spring, they launched a new benefit corporation, Connected Camps, dedicated to building social and connected online learning environments for kids. Their startup’s first project, which is being produced in collaboration with Katie’s nonprofit, Institute of Play, is an online Minecraft summer camp. (For those interested, I have just finished a book length conversation with Mimi Ito and danah boyd, Participatory Culture in a Networked Era: A Conversation on Youth, Learning, Commerce, and Politics, due out from Polity later this year.)

I’ve asked them to share some of the background and thinking behind this new venture, and what prompted them to launch a tech startup.


You don’t often see a tech startup being launched by three women. How did that come about?

Tara: Connected Camps is the evolution of years of collective work around supporting kids in learning through their passionate interests. I founded the community focused nonprofit, LA Makerspace, where interest-driven learning and mentoring are key to its success. A few years ago I learned about Mimi’s research on connected learning and how effective a model it is for kids to learn and it was very validating to find out that learning outside the classroom is just as important as inside the classroom. We decided to work on an online mentor matching project together based on StarCraft at UC Irvine Digital Media Learning Research Hub and that’s when I met Katie and all the amazing work that she does with kids and gaming. I think individually we each saw how interest in games based learning was growing and that there was a real opportunity to bring our expertise to an area that has a lot of passion behind it but was still a very open field for innovation and entrepreneurism.

In terms of us being women, that’s just an awesome benefit, it wasn’t forced. If you pay attention to startup news there are a lot of stories written about female founders and how they are still a minority and don’t get the support that they need from the startup community. What’s fortunate for the three of us is that we are already part of the communities that we are serving because of our individual expertise in the education and technology spaces and together we are a trifecta of tech, research and practice that you rarely see in any tech startup let alone an education focused tech startup.

Katie: The three of us have collaborated off and on over the years both through my work at Institute of Play and as a design researcher and professor focused on the space of games and learning. Mimi and I had worked on several connected learning case studies focused on LittleBigPlanet and Starcraft; I connected with Tara years ago around a project with a big fashion company that was looking to develop an online design curriculum and mentorship program. When interests are aligned and there is a shared goal around doing innovative work to support kids in developing their passions and interests around design and technology, collaboration in a natural outgrowth. Plus Mimi and Tara are two of the smartest, coolest, hardest-working people I know–who wouldn’t want to work with them! The fact that we’re all women in tech may seem unusual to some, but to us it is just normal. It is the work we love to do.

When Mimi and Tara started talking about scaling the Minecraft camp pilots they had been running, we started talking about how Institute of Play might become a core partner in the venture. There was a need for curriculum design and mentor training support for the camp, and the Institute was interested in expanding the work it had been doing with young people around Minecraft, design and coding. Once we looked into how the two organizations could collaborate, it just seemed to make a lot of sense.

Mimi: Tara and Katie have both had experience in the startup space since they’ve been part of starting new nonprofits and companies. This is my first startup, and I’m learning a ton from my two co-founders. The three of us all embrace a spirit of entrepreneurism that is characteristic of the startup and commercial sector, as well as an appreciation for the social and educational agendas that are most often associated with the public and nonprofit sector. This new startup is an effort to build something that leverages the strength of both of these orientations.

Katie and I are both non-traditional academics in that we’ve tied our work to collaborations with a wide range of commercial and nonprofit partners outside of the academy. So this project felt just right for us. I have a very clear memory of sitting down at a family dinner with Tara many years ago when she was considering leaving the tech world to get a doctorate so that she could pursue more of her interests in the research and social good side of things. I somehow managed to convince her to collaborate on some early design research that could serve education while also growing organically out of her strengths as a tech entrepreneur. And that was the start of this adventure.

Why did you choose to focus on Minecraft?

Katie: Minecraft was one of the first games the middle school students we were working with at Quest to Learn demanded be part of their curriculum. It started informally as a club—we helped the school set up a server and two Institute of Play game designers (Claudio Midolo and Brendon Trombley), who were embedded in the school as part of our work with teachers there, supported the kids who joined. Soon teachers in the school started stopping by the club, as the kids were talking non-stop about all the amazing things they were doing in the game.

Activities like building structures that required players to understand geometric concepts and physics; building interactive objects with switches and triggers that sounded a lot like computer programming. And then there were the stories of how the kids were collaborating and having to deal with interpersonal conflicts that came up as they were learning how to negotiate sharing a common space and resources on the multiplayer server. The teachers were intrigued—the student accounts sounded a lot like super engaged, good learning.

From there things grew. Some of the teachers started using Minecraft in their classrooms and soon the game was being used across a number of grades in the school. This story is not unique–many schools and educators from around the country have been using Minecraft with their students. When thinking about a core platform for Connected Camps, the fact that there was already buy-in from both kids and educators really helped. We know kids love the game. The fact that many educators do too, expanded the radius of possibility of what could be done with the camp and the impact it could have.

Tara: It’s hard to ignore the phenomenon of Minecraft. You have to be hiding under a rock to not notice almost every 10 year old in America talking about it. Even kids who don’t play Minecraft watch players on YouTube.

Last summer, my team at the Connected Learning Alliance ran an online camp pilot under Pursuitery. Our experiment was simple – we wanted to test whether kids would participate in a purely online summer camp. The camps included Scratch, a visual programming language out of MIT, Phonar Nation, a photography course developed by Jonathan Worth, Mozilla Webmaker, a platform to learn how to design webpages and remix media and Minecraft. We had different levels of engagement in each camp but the one camp that stood out the most in terms of engagement was Minecraft.

Minecraft had a lot of the tools we needed to communicate with the kids already built into the community and the game including the chat feature and Twitch.tv. It’s a game that appeals to a broad category of interests and skill levels — you can build, craft, program, socialize, learn survival skills and more. The parents of the campers were involved and assisted in resolving conflicts. Some of the kids from that pilot are still playing with each other today — they hail from Japan, Switzerland, Canada, the US and more. It’s really exciting to see how their friendship has developed and how they have created their own in-game challenges over this past year.

Mimi: The popularity of Minecraft represents an unprecedented opportunity for those of us who value interest-driven and production-centered learning. It’s the first time we have the most popular game of our time be centered on construction and design.

My dissertation work back in the late nineties at Stanford was a cultural history of “edutainment” software that emerged in the eighties. Most titles tracked along established genres and market segments, either focused on education and school subjects, or on entertainment which was mostly about exploration and fun. I was most intrigued, however by titles in what I called the “construction” category.

The Sims games were the commercially successful titles in this category, though there were other interesting titles out of Lucas Learning and the MIT Media Lab. What’s different about Minecraft today is it is the first time this kind of construction title has been a truly dominant player in the commercial marketplace. It’s also important that it has been embraced by teachers, parents, as well as kids. For the first time, I feel there is a massively scaled platform that we can build learning experiences around that truly spans the genres of entertainment and education.


The popularity of Minecraft means a lot of educators and summer camps have embraced it. What makes your effort different?

Tara: Our philosophy around how we approach learning involves kids feeling empowered to take the lead, but in order for that to happen we have found that you need a framework and a starting point so that there is some structure in ultimately what can look like chaos from the outside.

Challenges are a great way to spark the ignition and get the campers working towards a goal. Ours are open ended enough that we don’t constrain where their interests take them. For example, our first challenge is to build a base camp. It may sound simple, but in Minecraft everyone likes to have a place that is uniquely theirs and represents their in-game identity so this is where creativity and spatial skills are used. It’s also a great way to start learning digital citizenship and social skills – such as asking for help when you need it and not to encroach on other’s creations without permission – aka griefing!

We spend a lot of time thinking about how to moderate appropriately. There’s a balance between making sure everyone is having a fantastic time and interacting positively and allowing that learning to occur naturally in the community. We have opted to moderate through a combination of server plugins to mitigate griefing and other negative behavior and real camp counselors to provide positive examples.

Katie: To me, the biggest value add of Summer of Minecraft is the access the campers have to the cohort of high school mods and college counselors that staff our multiplayer servers. We recruited the mods and counselors based on their passion for the game, their expertise with it, and their interest and ability to support young people in leveling up in building, designing and coding. It is a unique model.

The counselor program provides volunteer opportunities for high school students, who receive service learning credit, and gives college students a paid opportunity to share their expertise with others in an environment they are crazy about. More importantly, the program gives the campers a set of role models to look to and learn from over the summer.

We know how powerful camp can be for kids when they “find their people”, making connections with both peers and mentors who share their passion and interests. And the presence of the mods and counselors ensures that the servers are moderated and safe, and that kids will always have someone to connect with when they are in need of support or a little inspiration.

Mimi Ito, Ph.D., is Professor in Residence and MacArthur Foundation Chair in Digital Media and Learning at UC Irvine. She also serves as Research Director of the Digital Media and Learning Research Hub and as Chair of the Connected Learning Research Network.

Katie Salen Tekinbaş is a Professor in the College of Computing and Digital Media at DePaul University. She co-founded Institute of Play. She also led the team that founded Quest to Learn and helped found CICS ChicagoQuest.

Tara Brown is a technologist and entrepreneur. She co-founded LA Makerspace. She is the Technology Director at the Digital Media and Learning Research Hub. She has contributed as an Artist-in-Residence at MuseumsQuartier in Vienna and a Hacker-in-Residence at Sparkfun Electronics.

Categories: Blog

Videos from Transforming Hollywood 6: Alternative Realities, Worldbuilding, and Immersive Entertainment

May 22, 2015 - 9:46am

Transforming Hollywood, previously called Transmedia Hollywood, is a conference which I organized each year in collaboration with UCLA’s Denise Mann. Our goal is to bring together academics, activists, artists, and industry leaders to reflect on some of the core trends impacting the entertainment industry today. This year, our focus was on Alternative Realities, World Building and Immersive Entertainment.

We were very proud of the results — a day long discussion that included demos and reflections on cutting edge technologies and considerations of how these tools are being used by not only mainstream commercial media makers (from the design of the forthcoming Avatar theme park attraction at Disney to the promotional work being done for Game of Thrones),  but also by alternative media-makers who want to call attention to cutting edge social issues or experiment with new artistic experiences. We also featured reflections on the historical evolution of immersive media practices, from the 19th century panorama or the dawn of world-building in the arts, through post-war experimentations in the “Democratic Surround.”  We wanted to cut through the hype about virtual reality and dig deep into how these technologies might allow us to see the world more clearly, and we wanted to spend the day thinking about the core desire for escapism and the counter-forces against it, as they play themselves out here in Hollywood. We got great responses from all of the participants and attendees about the ways the themes of this year’s event jelled into something really special.

Today, thanks to the rapid work of David McKenna, we are able to share with you the videos of the conference.  Help us spread the word.

TH6 Introduction & Panel 1- Prototype the Planet: How and Why Expansive and Immersive Worlds Are Taking Over Our Imagination from UCLA Film & TV on Vimeo.

Prototype the Planet: How and Why Expansive and Immersive Worlds Are Taking Over Our Collective Imagination Moderated by Henry Jenkins, USC

From roots in aesthetic philosophy (Nelson Goodman) and science fiction/fantasy writing (J.R.R. Tolkien), the concept of world-building has become a core concept across many design fields in the 21st century an aesthetic response to the complexities of a multidisciplinary and networked society, a means of creating content that serves the demands of transmedia entertainment. Both the brainstorming process of world-building and the worlds that emerge from that process have become sources of entertainment and education in their own right. In this opening panel, we are bringing together some key thinkers who will share with us their thoughts about:
Why world-building has gained such interest at the current moment?
What are some of the ways that world-building is being deployed for entertainment and education purposes at the moment?
What processes best support the design and development of multimedia worlds?
What they see as some of the most powerful examples of media worlds today?
What’s new about today’s fascination with world-building and how it relates to older models of speculative fiction?
And what connections do they see between world-building and the emergence of immersive and expansive media environments?
Michael Saler, author of As If: Modern Enchantment and the Literary Prehistory of Virtual Reality, professor at UC-Davis
Brenda Romero, UC Santa Cruz MS Games & Playable Media, Program Director
Ann Pendleton-Jullian, architect, professor, Ohio State University/Georgetown University
Alex Rivera, director, Sleep Dealers

TH6 Panel 2 – Brand New Vistas: VR & AR Create New Frontiers in Art and Promotion from UCLA Film & TV on Vimeo.

Brand New Vistas: VR & AR Create New Frontiers in Art and Promotion Moderated by Denise Mann, UCLA

Imagine stepping into a rickety elevator, feeling a bracing, cold wind against your neck as you are whisked 700 feet straight up a steep incline. You walk along the edge, glancing down at the abyss below, only to realize that flaming arrows are whizzing past your face. Welcome to Game of Thrones’ “Ascend the Wall” Oculus Rift experience, created by Relevant, Framestore, and the HBO marketers. A new generation of cutting edge digital artists—Felix & Paul Studios, Kite & Lightning—and innovative marketing firms—Havas and Relevant—are eager to use VR and AR to immerse participants in vivid, arresting, and sometimes nausea-inducing experiential universes. But who is going to pay for these experiments? Notably, advertisers are stepping up in record numbers, eager to give consumers an exciting new way to engage with their often mundane consumer products or services. High-end automobile manufacturers, such as Mercedes Benz, Jaguar, and BMW, invite consumers to test-drive the latest in luxury design using VR gear from the comfort of their home or office. Not sure if you want to go to Melbourne? Why not use social media to order up a virtual tourist guide and enjoy the sights and sounds of Queen Victoria Market, the Art Centre, or a sunny beach? As one pundit writes, “The promise of virtual reality has always been enormous. Put on these goggles, go nowhere, and be transported anywhere. It’s the same escapism peddled by drugs, alcohol, sex, and art — throw off the shackles of the mundane through a metaphysical transportation to an altered state.” But what if the tech, content, and brand industries see these smart technologies, sophisticated algorithms, and immersive fun as yet another means to track consumer preferences from the cradle to the grave?

Ian Cleary, VP of Ideation and Innovation, Relevant
Ikrima Elhassan, Co-founder, Kite & Lightning
Erkki Huhtamo, Professor, UCLA; Media Archaelogist, Historian and Exhibition Curator
Jez Jowett, Global Head of Creative Technology, Havas Media Group
Kamal Sinclair, Co-Director, New Frontier (Lab Programs), Sundance Institute

TH6 Panel 3 – Hip Deep in Knowledge: Virtual Museums, Immersive Journalism, and Scientific Vistas from UCLA Film & TV on Vimeo.

Hip Deep in Knowledge: Virtual Museums, Immersive Journalism, and Scientific Vistas Moderated by Robert Hernandez, USC

Our capacity to imagine — and create — alternative worlds, often in highly immersive detail, is now being harnessed as a means of storytelling and conveying knowledge across a range of different institutions and practices. Journalists can create experiences for their readers that they could not — or perhaps would not want to — experience directly. Museums have been testing new media tools and platforms as they seek to share curated experiences with their patrons. Scientists are using wide-screen projection, among other tech, to take students into the outer limits of space, educators are using simulations to help students think about real world systems, and activists are using augmented reality approaches to get people to see their communities from different perspectives. Panelists will share cutting edge research and experimentation in immersive journalism and virtual learning, inviting us to imagine new potential uses of these technologies to expand how we understand the world around us.
Nonny De La Pena, Immersive Journalist
Scott Fisher, Associate Dean of research, Professor &Founding Chair, Interactive Media Division, Director Mobile and Environmental Media Lab, USC Cinema School
Alison Griffiths, Professor, Baruch College, author of Shivers Down your Spine: Cinema, Museums, and the Immersive View
Kate McCullum, Vice President of Creative Projects, Vortex Immersive Media
BC “Heavy” Biermann, re+public labs

TH6 Panel 4 – There’s Art all Around Us: The Aesthetics of Immersive Experiences from UCLA Film & TV on Vimeo.

There’s Art all Around Us: The Aesthetics of Immersive Experiences

Moderated by Jeff Burke, UCLA

Exploring immersion via the new technologies of an era has long been a part of the avant-garde in theater, film, architecture, and other art forms. The panelists will share their ideas about what contemporary innovations by artists and technologists operating at the boundaries of commercial entertainment may herald for the future of immersive storytelling.Key questions for the participants include:

What are new ways to create (fictional) overlays on everyday life (e.g., Project Tango, Hololens).
What do these changes mean for world-building based storytelling?
What will be the ongoing evolution of the film and television screen as each moves towards a mobile, context-sensitive, and personalized media surface?
What will these new screens, contexts, and surfaces mean for storytellers?
What are the implications of having the authorship of story and code increasingly paired in the creation of immersive experiences?
And, finally, what next directions for immersion are suggested by direct interfaces between technology and the human body?

Ana Serrano, Chief Digital Officer, Canadian Film Centre.
Sara Thacher, Creative Lead, Walt Disney Imagineering Research and Development; previously experience designer for The Jejune Institute
Barry Threw, Director of Software, Obscura Digital
Fred Turner, Associate Professor of Communication, Stanford University

TH6 – A Conversation with Jon Landau from UCLA Film & TV on Vimeo.

A Conversation with Jon Landau

At the close of Transforming Hollywood 6, UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television lecturer Tom Nunan, an executive producer of the Academy Award-winning film, Crash, will speak with Academy Award-winning producer Jon Landau. They will cover subjects ranging from virtual production and intellectual property expansion strategies to Landau’s groundbreaking work with filmmaker James Cameron and how it has influenced other technological advances in VR.

Immersive Hollywood from MA+P @ USC on Vimeo.

Last but certainly not least, here’s a great montage of Hollywood’s representations of immersive entertainment, curated by USC’s own Steve Anderson. If you saw, and liked, the segment on man/machine interfaces he created for our Cyberpunk conference, then you know this video is not to be missed.


Categories: Blog

I Am Majid: A Case Study of the Iranian Green Movement

May 21, 2015 - 9:45am


I Am Majid: A Case Study of the Iranian Green Movement

Amin Ansari


The Greens’ Art project is a repository of user-generated content produced and circulated during the pre- and post-election crisis period in Iran (2009-2011). The materials produced within the context of protests, being simple appropriated artworks or blog posts, initiated innumerable human networks in a politically suppressed situation, in both online and offline spaces. The Calendar section of this website enables visitors to find works associated with significant events of the Green Movement. Some of these gained global attention and some of them just circulated domestically. One of the most important cases in this project is the campaign “I AM Majid” which was born and drastically expanded in online sphere.

Born in 1986, Majid Tavakoli began his political activities as a university student. What brings his name to the realm of political activism in Iran is mostly his rich contribution to the Student Movement of Iran over an eight year period. His active engagement and uncompromising commitment during this period, although endangering his life, made him the symbol and “the honor of the Student Movement” (CHRR 2012). He was first arrested in 2006 and “spent 15 months in jail … on charges of insulting religion and the country’s leadership in student publications” (BBC 2009). Then, what brought him to news headlines again was his speech (Clip.1) at Amirkabir University of Technology on the first Student Day after the controversial Presidential Election of 2009.

Clip 1. Majid Tavakoli’s speech in the Student Day (2009).

After this impressive and provocative speech he was arrested by the security forces and brutally beaten by them in front of eyewitnesses (ICFHRII 2010). It is worth mentioning that more than 200 protesters were arrested on the Student Day protests across the country. The admin of the blog ‘Homylafayette Iran News in English’ provides a great list of videos of this day’s protests recorded by citizens in different cities of Iran. Later, after an unjust trial, Tavakoli “was convicted of several offenses, including participating in an illegal gathering, propaganda against the system and insulting officials” and consequently sentenced to more than eight years in prison (AI n.d.). Also, it was reported that he was kept in solidarity confinement for about five months in 2010 (ICFHRII 2010).

Figure 1. An appropriation of one of Majid’s photos, a collage of hundreds of pieces of papers. (RFERL 2013)

Like other critical moments of the Green Movement, user-generated content (Fig.1) related to Tavakoli -produced by artists and online activists – were disseminated through the internet. Angry posts against the government conquered social media channels such as Facebook and Twitter. People wanted him and other arrested protesters freed. Paintings and posters, illustrations and video clips all were utilized by activists to make people aware of Tavakoli’s story and to show protesters’ solidarity with him to the government. In the following poster (Fig.2) for example is written: “We will never forget you … We are speaking in the heart of oppression. We shout out, strengthened by our beliefs. We stand alongside each other … Majid Tavakoli, the dignity of the student movement” (Homylafayette 2010). As can be seen the colors green and black, which refer to sorrow and sadness in Iranian culture, and barbed wire (a signifier of prison) are mixed with his picture to deliver the message behind it.

Figure 2. We will never forget you, an illustration for Majid Tavakoli.

What distinguishes Majid from other political prisoners, however, is what happened to him after his arrest. On 8th of December, one day after the Student Day protests, the pro-government news agencies, Fars News and Raja News, published some photos (Fig.3) of Majid with these headlines: “The Images of the Main Leader of Rioters of Amirkabir University in Women’s Clothing” and “The Images of Amirkabir University’s Hero in Women’s Clothing Are Released” (FarsNews 2009; RajaNews 2009). They claimed that he was escaping after his speech trying to evade security forces by dressing like this. As was vastly said it somehow displayed the government’s “vindictiveness and contempt for women” (Tait 2009):

He had makeup … was dressed like veiled women, putting on manto, muqni’ah and chador. Although, he had a purse with him to guarantee his escape, he was unsuccessful and arrested by security forces. (FarsNews 2009)

Figure 3. These photos from Raja News show Majid in Islamic chador and headscarf.

People’s posts and comments show that most of them believed that Majid was forced to wear that clothing and found the government’s act unacceptable and disgusting. Even on Raja news’ website one can find the following comments under Majid’s photos:

– It’s clear that he is forced to sit in front of the camera. When do you want to stop fooling us?

– I did not have any doubt in his courage. Your disgusting behaviour just added more value to him… (RajaNews 2009)

What the authorities did with Tavakoli was soon answered by artists and activists. The number of posts related to him rose markedly. Inside and outside Iran people were trying to show their solidarity with him. Different pages in social media have supported him until now (such as Facebook pages ‘Majid Tavakoli’, ‘Free Majid Tavakoli’ and ‘Free Majid Tavakkoli Immediately’).

Amongst various campaigns that supported Tavakoli in this period, “I Am Majid” is the most significant one. This campaign is also known as “We Are All Majid” or “Veiled Men”. I found two figurers as the initiators of this campaign during my investigations: Arash Ashourinia, a professional photographer in Tehran and Masih Alinejad, a prominent exiled journalist. Ashourinia asked his male Facebook friends to send him their veiled picture (Fig.4). In his post (dated back to December 9, 2009) he reminds the readers the way the government treated Majid and says: “they wanted to put pressure on the Student Movement and the green Iranians. In the same time they are discriminating our women. To prove our solidarity with Majid Tavakoli, and to say ‘NO’ to compulsory hijab … to prove that we are together send your photos to the following address.” He provided his readers with this email, rousari@gmail.com, which in ‘rousari’ means headscarf. In the same day (9 Dec), Masih Alinejad posted a similar invitation on his personal website. In this post she criticizes the government’s act against Tavakoli and says: “imagine if a part of our male protesters … wear headscarf. What would the government’s news agencies do if they see a huge population is laughing at their act?”

Figure 4. A visual instruction for people to take their photos. (Ashourinia 2009)

The reaction of people to these calls was unexpected. Iranian men across the world published their pictures depicting themselves with scarf, chador or muqni’ah. Just a few days after the Student Day images and videos of veiled men conquered social media atmosphere. On December 12, Ashourinia published his designed posters (Fig.5) on Facebook which in hundreds of the received images were used. On the Persian version is written: “Majid Tavakoli Was Multiplied, Not Humiliated.”

Figure 5. More than 300 Majids, a poster by Arash Ashourinia.

People’s reactions to the “I Am Majid” campaign were not limited to photos. As usual, various sorts of artworks were produced and circulated by people. There is a page on the Greens’ Art website dedicated to ‘Veiled Men’ that demonstrates some of the produced works including performances (e.g. I Am Majid performed in Stockholm), video clips (e.g. We Are All Majid) and graphic designs (Fig.6).

Figure 6. Some of the artworks related to “I Am Majid” campaign.

The following video (Clip.2) was uploaded on December 9, 2009, two days after Tavakoli’s arrest. By combining photos, graphics, background music and a verbal presentation the creator(s) of this work tried to deliver the real story of Tavakoli’s arrest to its viewers while the government’s media were trying to sell their manipulated story. This clip is subtitled into English to be consumable for non-Iranians.

Clip 2. How Majid Tavakoli Arrested? by Iran’s Freedom of Expression community.

Non-Iranian supporters of the Green Movement also joined the campaign and showed their solidarity with Tavakoli (Clip.3).

Clip 3. Non-Iranian supporters of Majid Tavakoli show their solidarity.

The huge contribution of people to the Veiled Men campaign and the volume of generated content by activists and ordinary people made the major media, including the non-Iranian ones to pick up the stories related to the campaign. The Guardian (Golsorkhi 2009), the Huffington Post (Novin 2010), BBC (BBC 2009) and Amnesty International (AI n.d.) are among the media and international institutions that covered Majid’s story. These reports guaranteed that what happened to Majid was not only heard about inside Iran.

Calling it ‘I Am Majid’, ‘We Are all Majid’ or ‘Veiled Men’, this campaign was totally constructed and progressed by first, the Iranian users of digital media and then their international allies. We witnessed a range of user-generated content produced in this campaign. Among them, I can mention blog posts, social media posts, artworks, and etc. People inside and outside Iran made meaningful conversations around Tavakoli’s case through the interrupted, censored and highly controlled internet in Iran. These conversations along with the circulated materials established an alternative and distributed medium for protesters and those who wanted to be in touch with the ongoing realities at the time.


AI, Student Activist Jailed for Speaking Out. Amnesty International. Available at: http://www.amnestyusa.org/our-work/cases/iran-majid-tavakkoli?id=1181062 [Accessed September 9, 2014].

BBC, 2009. Iranian Men Don Hijabs in Protest at Student’s Arrest. BBC. Available at: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/middle_east/8409778.stm [Accessed September 9, 2014].

CHRR, 2012. Mother of Majid Tavakoli: For 3 years I have waited in hopes of seeing my Majid. Committee of Human Rights Reporters. Available at: http://www.chrr.biz/spip.php?article19511 [Accessed September 9, 2014].

FarsNews, 2009. The Images of the Main Leader of Rioters of Amir Kabir University in Women’s Clothing. Fars News. Available at: http://www.farsnews.com/newstext.php?nn=8809171089 [Accessed September 11, 2014].

Golsorkhi, M., 2009. Iranian Men in Hijab. The Guardian. Available at: http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/belief/2009/dec/16/men-hijab-majid-tavakoli [Accessed September 11, 2014].

Homylafayette, 2010. Student Day Scrapbook. homylafayette Iran News in English. Available at: http://homylafayette.blogspot.com.au/2010/12/student-day-scrapbook-7-december-2010.html [Accessed September 9, 2014].

ICFHRII, 2010. Majid Tavakoli: Four Months in Detention Without Access to Lawyer or Visit With Family. International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran. Available at: http://www.iranhumanrights.org/2010/04/majid-tavakol-four-months-in-detention-without-access-to-lawyer-and-visitation-with-family/ [Accessed September 11, 2014].

Novin, N., 2010. A Veiled Movement for Women’s Rights Sweeps Iran. The Huffington Post. Available at: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/nasim-novin/a-veiled-movement-for-wom_b_397605.html [Accessed September 11, 2014].

RajaNews, 2009. The Images of Amir Kabir University’s Hero in Women’s Clothing Are Released. Raja News. Available at: http://www.rajanews.com/news/25568 [Accessed September 11, 2014].

RFERL, 2013. Iranian Student Activist Granted Prison Leave. Radio Free Europe Radio Liberty. Available at: http://www.rferl.org/content/iran-tavakoli-rights/25143877.html [Accessed September 9, 2014].

Tait, R., 2009. Iran Regime Depicts Male Student in Chador as Shaming Tactic. Available at: http://www.theguardian.com/world/2009/dec/11/iran-regime-male-student-chador [Accessed September 11, 2014].

Amin Ansari holds a bachelor’s degree in Software Engineering and a Master of Dramatic Literature. Following his interest in multidisciplinary fields of study, he is doing his PhD at the Screen and Media department at Flinders University, with a particular focus on the engagement of art and digital media with activism and politics. He is the founder and curator of Greens’ Art website, the most comprehensive online archive and exhibition of artworks related to the Green Movement of Iran. Also, as a published author, he has been writing stories and plays for the past 13 years. He has published five books in Iran, Germany and the UK including three novels (Waltzing with Dark Waters, Hunt, and I [Is] Sad in His Absence) and two novellas (They Know Nothing of Heaven and Seven Years of Solitude) – all in Persian.

Categories: Blog

Greens’ Art: The Green Movement’s Digital Hertiage

May 20, 2015 - 8:02am

As most of my regular readers know, I monitor closely developments in participatory culture, learning, and politics around the globe, and as a consequence, I regularly receive letters from readers asking for advice or sharing projects they are working on in this space. I try to showcase international projects which I think have real merit or substance, whenever the opportunity arises. Not long ago, I heard from Amin Ansari, currently doing his PhD at the Screen and Media department at Flinders University, about an archive he is developing around protest art that emerged around the Green Revolution in Iran, and I instantly knew I wanted to share some of this material through this blog. So, you will get a taste of this remarkable set of resources over the next two posts. For those who are interested in what I had to say about these political developments, closer to the time, check out this material posted on the Spreadable Media website.


Greens’ Art: The Green Movement’s Digital Heritage

Amin Ansari

The Greens’ Art archive and online exhibition was established to provide an online representation of the protest artworks produced during the crisis after the controversial 2009 Presidential election of Iran. The collected works include both born-digital works and works that were created in non-digital formats but subsequently documented and digitally distributed. The Greens’ Art project drew upon some already extant collections (on YouTube, or personal weblogs for instance) and their associated documentation. The act of collection for this project decontextualized works from their place on the web and then re-contextualized them on the website.

On 12 June 2009, the Islamic Republic of Iran held its 10th presidential election in which four candidates competed for the position. Announcing Mahmood Ahmadinejad as the winner of the election confirmed him for another four years and provoked the dissatisfied voters who initiated protests across the country. Both popular and critical opinion held that the election was a fraud and the regime hijacked it. Out of these protests, the Green Movement of Iran was born. The post-election conflict brought considerable turmoil, militarized reactions of the government to protests along with the death and imprisonment of a large number of citizens. This movement, however, was not formed only by the voters who supported the reformist candidates at this specific election. A range of existing social and political movements (e.g. the Student Movement of Iran, Women’s Movement) came together with individuals who sought a fundamental change in the structure of the ruling class in Iran.

The Green Movement of Iran is a prominent example of New Social Movements (NSM). The communication scholar, Leah Lievrouw, suggests the following characteristics that make NSMs different from their predecessors: The participants of NSMs consist of “knowledge/information workers, professionals, well-educated [and] creative workers”. They build a collective identity by keeping their independence from “institutional structures” and focusing on constructing and sharing of common subjectivity”. They are constantly engaged with “construction and control of information, symbolic resources, representations of group interests, expertise norms [and] values” – “meaning and symbolic production”. Regarding the action, NSMs work as “anti-hierarchical social networks of interpersonal relations; [featuring] micromobilization…[and a] decentralized, autonomous organizational form.” Actions in NSMs are integrated with the everyday lives of participants. ICTs and media are used in a sophisticated way in these type of movements. For instance, we see “unconventional action repertoires” in these movements and their actions extend over time and space; they continuously realign and reorganize throughout the time (Lievrouw, 2011). While one finds all of these characteristics in the Green Movement, two of them are particularly relevant to this project: first, the fact that the Green activists, as professional, well-educated and creative workers, were extremely engaged with ICTs and digital technologies; and second, they were constantly producing meaning and symbolic products which constructed the Green Movement’s cultural heritage.

The Green Movement’s heritage consists of ephemeral works. By definition ‘ephemera’ is a material “created for a specific, limited purpose, and generally designed to be discarded after use” (SAA, n.d.). Common examples of such materials are tickets, brochures and receipts. In the Green Movement’s case some examples of ephemeral materials are posters, graffiti (Fig.1) or video (Clip.1) clips which were created to deliver an invitation for a specific event or demonstration or to express their creators’ feeling and thoughts about the goings-on.

Clip.1. “Bella ciao, Iran”, an old Italian antifascist song mixed with images of the Green Movement of Iran.

Fig.1. On the left: the poster, “The Freedom’s Dawn”, an invitation for the demonstration of the Student Day. On the right: a picture of the graffiti, “hope”.

These works were created in the moment in concert with the happenings; most of them were not meant to last. There are also other types of works such as performances (Clip.2) — which are ephemeral in their transience — and paintings or sculptures (Fig.3) that were produced in non-digital formats. Although such works have the capacity to last in the non-digital world, when “digitality is an integral feature of modern society” (UNESCO, 2012) their absence in the digital world makes them ephemeral for netizens in practical terms.

Fig.3. On the left: the sculpture, “Neda, Freedom’s Angel,” by Paula B. Slater — created in memory of Neda Agha-Soltan the most well-known martyr of the Green Movement. On the right: the painting, “Neda Was Killed on Tehran’s street,” by an unknown artist.

Clip.2. An installation and performance in New York in support of the Green Movement.

Whilst creators might not have intended their works to endure beyond the immediate time of the protests, it is clear that others saw value in them. Ordinary people, artists, and citizen-journalists first started collecting materials, protecting them from being lost, and also re-circulating them. Small communities and news agencies also participated in archiving and republishing the materials. It is clear that people recognized the importance of keeping the traces of the Movement, despite the risks of doing so. The Greens’ Art project builds on and amplifies the efforts of collectors and amateur archivists by organizing and integrating the available materials and information in a database, to provide a comprehensive resource about the Movement.

Greens’ Art is engaged with three main domains: preservation, archiving and exhibiting. Taking preservation as “the act of keeping from harm, injury, decay, or destruction” (SAA, n.d.), this project protects the material from a range of probable risks including data loss and the absence of legislation. As a comprehensive archive, Greens’ Art catalogues the relevant materials through a combination of “whole domain” and “collaborative” models (Kastellec, 2012). Through the first model the digital/digitized objects were identified through multiple online resources and non-automated harvestings. The digitized works are important to the Green Movement’s digital heritage because in many cases there is no access to originals. Materials have also been deposited by visitors to the project’s website. Finally, Greens’ Art is an online exhibition of the archived materials.

The materials that I gathered and the materials that were contributed by others all had to be checked for accuracy; all had to be organized. I used formal and generic categories to organize the materials. These categories are: documentary video, video clip, animation, short movie, long movie, digital painting, painting, graffiti, poster and illustration, website banner, cartoon, general drawing, lyric, poem, novel, short story, political humour, slogan, music, photo, sculpture, performing art, costumes and accessories.

In addition to genre and form, chronology is another key organizing tool applied to the collection. By creating the Green Movement’s Timeline I wanted to list and demonstrate the artworks which were related to specific dates or events. After several iterations I reached the current limited list of events. In this section of the website users can choose a date from those listed, go to the allocated page, read the description provided and browse different sorts of artworks related to the chosen event. This section offers temporal contextualisation and helps future researchers and ordinary visitors to puzzle out the background stories.

The website of the Greens’ Art project (Fig.4) has five main sections: Artworks, Calendar, Anti-Movement, Artists and Resources. All the information is available in both English and Persian. In the Artworks section visitors can browse all the materials (+3000 items) produced by pro-movement activists and artists. They also can filter the information based on different attributes such as category, artist’s name or relevant event. The Calendar, as was explained before, provides the visitors with a timeline of crucial dates of the Green Movement, and related description and works relevant to each of them. The Anti-Movement section gives the project’s visitors an opportunity to reach a better understanding of the ongoing war between the two sides of the conflict by offering a categorized list of the works (+600 items) that were produced by pro-government artists. The page, Artists, provide the visitors with a list of professional artists who supported the Green Movement with creating protest artworks. Resources, suggest a list of available literature and resources to visitors and provides a context for further investigations.

Fig.4. The home page of the Greens’ Art website (available at: greens-art.net/?lang=en)

The Green Movement can be taken as an open public conversation. Understood in this way, the artworks on the Greens’ Art website represent a collection of user-generated content produced and distributed by protesters from different schools of thought and various social and economic classes. In an era in which “digital technology has become the primary means of knowledge creation and expression” (Webb, 2003), protecting and representing digital heritage is critically important for current and future generations. Greens’ Art, with its dual archival and exhibition aspects is doing this for the Green Movement of Iran. The collection works as a place to both keep the circulated materials safe and their associated memories alive. As Stuckey et al write, “our memories are mediated by our media, forming a dynamic relationship that forms our personal and collective identities” (Stuckey, Swalwell, Ndalianis, & De Vries, 2013). Finally, the website also aims to provide current and future researchers of art, politics and media with a contextualized multimedia resource about this significant contemporary case study.


Kastellec, M. (2012). Practical Limits to the Scope of Digital Preservation. Information Technology and Libraries, 31(2), 63–71. Retrieved from http://goo.gl/lG4xm5

Lievrouw, L. (2011). Alternative and Activist New Media. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Mundy, J., & Burton, J. (2013). Online Exhibitions. Retrieved April 20, 2014, from http://goo.gl/RAu4DS

SAA. (n.d.). Ephemera: Definition. Retrieved July 02, 2014, from http://goo.gl/rMfVYu

Stuckey, H., Swalwell, M., Ndalianis, A., & De Vries, D. (2013). Remembrance of Games Past: The Popular Memory Archive. In Interactive Entertainment. Melbourne: Association for Computer Machinery. Retrieved from http://goo.gl/8UO64b

UNESCO. (2012). The Memory of the World in the Digital Age: Digitization and Preservation. Vancouver: UNESCO. Retrieved from http://www.unesco.org/new/fileadmin/MULTIMEDIA/HQ/CI/CI/pdf/Events/digital_conference_concept_paper_en.pdf

Webb, C. (2003). Guidelines for the Preservation Of Digital Heritage. Retrieved July 02, 2014, from http://unesdoc.unesco.org/images/0013/001300/130071e.pdf

Amin Ansari holds a bachelor’s degree in Software Engineering and a Master of Dramatic Literature. Following his interest in multidisciplinary fields of study, he is doing his PhD at the Screen and Media department at Flinders University, with a particular focus on the engagement of art and digital media with activism and politics. He is the founder and curator of Greens’ Art website, the most comprehensive online archive and exhibition of artworks related to the Green Movement of Iran. Also, as a published author, he has been writing stories and plays for the past 13 years. He has published five books in Iran, Germany and the UK including three novels (Waltzing with Dark Waters, Hunt, and I [Is] Sad in His Absence) and two novellas (They Know Nothing of Heaven and Seven Years of Solitude) – all in Persian.


Categories: Blog

How Do You Teach Survivor?: “Survivor Professor” Max Dawson’s Syllabus

May 18, 2015 - 6:55am

Over the past two posts, I’ve been sharing an interview my son, Charlie Jenkins, has been conducting with Survivor contestant Max Dawson, about what it was like to be an acs-fan who becomes part of a reality television phenomenon. Dawson is one of xx contestants who are competing to get a “second chance,” to be one of ten men and ten women who will have another shot at winning the million dollars next season. The public has a chance to vote here, so if you have heard Max’s story and want to support him, please do so. There are only a few days left and you can vote once each day.

A big part of Max’s story is the idea that he has “taught” Survivor: he is a “teacher of the game,” but of course, much of the public doesn’t really understand what it is we do in media studies and so they imagine he’s helping students acquire skills that they could use to become a reality television contestant. Because of the misunderstandings surrounding the class, we asked Max if we could repost his syllabus here. If nothing else, it might give other media scholars a starting point for thinking about how they might help students understand the place of reality television in contemporary media culture.

RTVF330 Syllabus

Categories: Blog

Survivor Contestant, Embedded Aca-Fan Max Dawson Shares His Experiences (Part Two)

May 15, 2015 - 8:44am

The following is the second part of an interview with Aca-Fan and Survivor contestant Max Dawson conducted by my son, Charlie Jenkins. The text below includes his introduction and conclusion.

A Max Dawson campaign poster made by his fan @robstaboobuzzer



At the end of Part 1 of this interview, Max and I were talking about how Survivor has brought some of the contestants to a dark place this season. I cannot fairly and completely represent all of the points of view involved without going on for several pages and I don’t want to take the spotlight off of our guest Max (who had already been voted off). Read HERE, HERE HERE AND HERE for more details.

Dan, Will and Shirin (early on)


But the short version is, there were two male contestants – Dan Foley, 47, a postal worker from Gorham Maine and Will Simms II, 41, a bartender/singer from Sherman Oaks, California – who were caught on camera saying vicious things to and about a female contestant – Shirin Oskooi, 31, a Yahoo! executive from San Francisco. Shirin was abused by her dad, and sobbed through sharing the story while Will continued to trash talk her. Dan has since alleged that Shirin manipulated everyone out of a need to play the victim and that she said many inciting things which weren’t aired. The gender politics involved have aroused a bloody passion in online fandom, with fans of both genders arguing both sides. While some fans have called this the most unpleasant season in Survivor history, Shirin has been among many who said she was proud that Survivor didn’t shy away from airing the footage.

There is too much to unpack here. But, I want to bring up two things: One is the problem that we as America cannot know everything that happened, much less everything that was in the individuals’ hearts and minds at the time. Yet, we’d have to be numb not to be effected by what we saw. I know what I think. I think Will got pushed to his breaking point by not eating or sleeping well for weeks and he verbally abused Shirin. I think Dan has issues with women and they reflected poorly on him. And I think they got exposed because they did it on television. Yet Max, who knows Dan, Will and Shirin, and whose opinion I respect, has a very different take on it. We saw what we saw, but can we really understand the situation better than Max does?

My other concern is that it’s potentially dangerous for thousands of fans attack Dan, Will and Shirin on social media – in part because these things don’t always stay on social media. Past Big Brother contestants Shelley Moore and Aaryn Gries have reported that their behavior on reality shows led to death threats and their families being harassed at work and school. I asked Max about those issues.

Charlie: You talked earlier that fans had to keep in mind they were watching a heavily constructed narrative which only showed fragments of what happened. Isn’t that potentially a real problem if you’re someone like Will Simms or Dan Foley who is perceived to have made serious transgressions? Is CBS potentially starting a riot?

Max: That’s something I’ve grappled with this entire season. Coming out of my elimination episode I felt pretty bummed out about the way things worked out, but when I compare it to the kind of continual character assassination that people like Dan and Will have withstood over the past few weeks…? It’s tough to watch knowing these people, knowing their families, and knowing what Survivor meant to Dan. He started applying to the show more than 10 years ago, and he drove tens of thousands of miles to open casting calls, trying to get noticed by a casting producer. He finally got on the show and he’s perhaps the greatest example of “be careful what you wish for” in the history of reality television.

Everything that [Dan] said going into [the show] – “You will not forget me” and “I will be a memorable Survivor character” – has proven true but in the worst possible way. He is a memorable character. He will be remembered as being one of the most negatively-edited characters in the history of the show. That’s my nice way of saying that he’s been made to look like a malicious buffoon time and time again. Dan has been around now for 12 episodes, more than 30 days. How their games will end remains to be seen. But the episodes behind them consistently point to the conclusion that they’re mean, stupid, evil, malicious, horrible people. I know that not to be true. It’s very difficult for me to watch. I can’t imagine how difficult it would be for them to watch, and for them to have to withstand the kind of criticism they’re undoubtedly facing.

That’s the kind of strange contract one enters into when one goes on a reality show. You could either come out as a Joseph Anglim – the designated golden boy of this season whose farts don’t smell and who just opens his mouth and shoots rainbows out of it – or you can be these “horrific, evil, misogynistic trolls”. I say that in scare quotes, because I don’t think it’s accurate to say that Joseph is perfect or that Will and Dan are horrible. But when you go on a reality show part of the contract you sign explicitly lays out that you relinquish any right to any say over how you’re portrayed even if that portrayal is harmful or humiliating. And we take that risk.

We take that risk for a number of reasons – some of us because we love this game, we think it’s important, and we think participating in it can be a meaningful, transformative experience; some for the prospect of winning a million dollar, or [the second place prize] $100,000, or however much they walk away with; some for the chance to achieve fame or notoriety, to launch a career off of it. But in any event, it’s a gamble that we all take, and it’s a gamble the majority of contestants lose. I’m not just saying that we lose the game. If we look at a cast like this – Charlie, you can probably do this with me – what is the ratio of people who have had positive portrayals if we look at the aggregate of their episodes versus negative portrayals? I’d say there’s probably a significant majority in the latter category


Charlie: Yeah. There might be 5 people out of 18 who came out on the positive side this season. [NOTE: Looking at the list now I might be willing to go up to 8 of the 18, but different audience members will see it differently.]

Max: I’m sure there are people at Survivor Sucks who do edgic (a fan system for objectively and subjectively analyzing contestant’s edited portrayals) who might be able to actually quantify this for us. But I’d be interested to know whether this proportion has changed over the course of the show’s history. Has Survivor entered into a new era where there’s kind of a mean spiritedness to the edit? I feel like there has been glimpses of this in the past where we’ve seen mean-spirited edits, but I feel like this season has represented a tonal shift from last season, and even more-so from the string of seasons before it. It’s a lot more like a basic cable reality show than it is like a network competition reality show.

Charlie: I think on most seasons there’s usually closer to a half and half ratio of good edits and bad edits (or perhaps just some neutral edits). Some seasons do have a more positive feeling to them overall than other seasons. I think some fans would assume that this production went differently than other productions went. Do you think that this game played out more negatively than other games?

Max: I don’t really have the necessary perspective on the production of past seasons in order to compare it. But I do think you could probably safely say that this season contains a far larger proportion of complex, dynamic personality types. There are few people with passive tendencies who are susceptible to authority of the type we see, for example, on many of the returning player seasons where there are mixed casts (of past champions/All Stars and newbie players.) So, there are obviously the cases of Survivor: Redemption Island and Survivor: South Pacific where two returning players are cast with a group of people who seem to be handpicked for their willingness to subjugate their own self-interest to that of a dynamic leader. We have, in this case, a group of people who almost represent too much personality. People complain, “Where’s the strategy? All we see is character, character, character.” Meanwhile, I’m loving this because that’s exactly the sort of Survivor I enjoy.

Charlie: Me too.

Max: Look at the personalities of some of the early boots. You hardly got a chance to see Lindsey but she’s one of the most engaging, big personalities I’ve ever encountered. She could go toe-to-toe with any Survivor contestant in terms of sheer charisma, magnetism and outrageousness.

Charlie: So with that in mind then, what percentage of the contestants are ultimately going to be happy that they did the show?

Max: You know, that’s a really tough question to answer. I wouldn’t want to speak for my fellow contestants. I’ve had people say to me, though, “I wish I didn’t do it. I wish I had never done this.” That might have just been after a particular episode. That might have just been how he or she felt at that particular moment. Or it might be the takeaway that that individual left the game or their experience of watching the show with.


More Max fan art, this one created by @kaciebot



I know that in my own case, as evidenced by the fact that I’m gearing up to possibly go do it again, I feel incredibly positive about my experience. I feel like someone made a mistake. I feel like never in a million years should you allow a professor who has taught a college class and researched in an academic context about a subject to become a part of that subject. It’s not like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. It’s like somebody left the keys in the car and let me drive off in it. I feel incredibly lucky to have had the experience. I feel incredibly lucky to have a chance to have that experience again.

My positive attitude about the overall experience of being on the show might cloud my ability to appraise whether the other 17 people who participated in it felt the same way.

I do feel like there’s a sweet spot, however. To be on the show 14 days – as long as I was – I didn’t have enough skin in the game that my elimination was devastating. When I came out I still had in my mind that image of my life outside the game that – while faint – was still real enough for me to realize that I had great things to go back to. Whereas people who last only a few days or weeks longer become so immersed in the game, so unable to remove themselves from it, so disconnected from the live they have to return to, that their elimination can be devastating because their world has become Survivor.

Charlie: I remember this story Kathy Vavrick O’Brien told in Survivor: Marquesas. She said that after she got voted off and went back to the hotel, she woke up in the middle of the night and she thought she was still in the jungle. She saw stars on the ceiling, and she was kind of hallucinating because she had become so conditioned to living in the wild.

Max: That’s an amazing way of describing the experience I’m getting at – this notion that the unreality of the magic circle actually replaces the reality of the world that exists outside its boundaries. That’s pretty interesting for game theorists and ludologists to contemplate: A game that’s so all-encompassing it replaces reality. I’ve certainly experienced coming across past Survivor contestants who, much like shell-shocked veterans, are still playing the game long after their 39 days are over – still scheming, still looking out for being backstabbed, still looking to backstab people, scrambling, forming alliances, trying to gain an advantage, a hand up, always scanning the surroundings, always in that hyper-vigilant mode. It’s scary.

I feel lucky that I didn’t come out of my experience with that sort of trauma, but I’m about to potentially go back into it and my knowledge of what the cost may be makes it daunting. It doesn’t in any way diminish from my excitement or my commitment to participating again because it is a peak experience. There really is nothing like playing Survivor. But, it is something that you play at a significant toll to your emotional, psychological and physical well-being.

Anyone who thinks they could go play Survivor, come home, bounce back and be the same person they were before is sorely mistaken. You will never be the same person again. You will never be able to relate to your friends, family and loved ones in the same way you did before. You will suddenly find yourself having stronger bonds with a 28 year old pharmaceutical sales person or a directional driller from Texas than you do in your own community because you shared this life-altering experience with them and they can sympathize. They have that same kind of background and experience to draw on even if ostensibly they have nothing in common with you.

Charlie: People who played 15 years ago are still close friends with each other today. Several pairs of them are married. And also, people who played on separate seasons are now best friends or dating. It’s almost a Skull and Bones Club. I don’t even know if ex-athletes of a sport have the same kind of community. Maybe they do.

Max: You’re right. I’ve often talked about it in terms of how many people have been a part of the space program. How many astronauts have there been? It’s a number that’s roughly in the same vicinity as the number of people who have played Survivor. Once you’ve played you become a member of the community. I had the experience of being an honorary member beforehand. Through teaching my class and being active in the Survivor fan community I had the chance to become part of the larger Survivor social scene. It is a family of sorts. When you meet someone who played, regardless of what season they were on, it’s as though you both know the secret handshake. You’re part of that secret society.

I wish it was like the Skull and Bones Club in the sense that being a Survivor castaway opened the corridors of power and led to jobs and investment opportunities. I wish positions on the boards of Fortune 500 companies were suddenly made available to you. It’s more that if you go to certain bars in West Hollywood you might be able to get a better table. But it is fun, and it’s part of the experience we started out this conversation talking about – crossing thresholds, moving from one sphere to another.

It’s pretty cool to play Survivor. It’s pretty cool to have [Season 1 winner] Richard Hatch endorse your candidacy to go back. It’s hard to translate how exciting it is to have that sort of experience. I don’t for a second think that I played a perfect game, a good game or even a passable game my first time. I think I did some things that caught the attention of the producers, and I appreciate it when people like Richard say, “Max wouldn’t be invited back if he didn’t do something great. Maybe we didn’t see that, but somebody did. Either that person was Jeff Probst, or someone told Jeff Probst. But they gave him one of the coveted spots.”

I thought the opportunity to play was a life experience that would only come one time. Now to know that I might have that experience again, and to play with people I’ve been watching this game for ages, it really is……. I hate people who describe experiences as surreal. To go back to the ludology conversation a moment ago, there’s no more magic circle. Survivor and life have sort of bled into one another. I’ve gone from academic to industry to contestant and now those things all blend together.

Now I go to present to one of my clients at a major television network and they say, “Hey, we’re big Survivor fans. We’ve had a Survivor pool for the last 10 seasons. I had you on my fantasy team. I’m so bummed out. But she’s got Carolyn, and he’s got Rodney.” Suddenly I’m the person who has the fan, I’m also in the fan moment because I’m sharing their appreciation for the show, I’m working with them in a professional advisory – a consulting context, and I’m drawing on intellectual paradigms that I was exposed to as an academic. So at this point the different facets of my engagement with popular culture and Survivor have been thrown into a blender, put on high speed mix, and poured out into a goop that looks not unlike one of those disgusting milkshakes Jeff Probst has made with salt water, octopus tentacles, pig eyeballs and cow intestines for a gross food challenge.

Charlie: If you get a chance to play against people you’ve loved on television but haven’t known in real life, what is that going to be like? Is your experience as a fan more relevant now because you’ve seen how the other contestants play? Do you scout them based on their past seasons?

Max: I’ve given absolutely no consideration to scouting the people who are in contention for this season. I know that if I were in fact the wannabe Survivor genius people think I am that I’d be scrutinizing game footage to figure out what people’s tells were. I am not at all focused on other people with the exception of the degree to which they pose a threat to my ability to make the final cast list. I’m approaching it with the mindset that I’m better off in a returning player season, because there can no longer be the same suspicion that I know more than other people. We all know just as much. We’ve all played once. We all know exactly the same things about the game. Granted, I might know more of the silly trivia but that’s not going to help me. In fact, as my first outing proved it could hurt me. Being around a bunch of people who are gamers, who are experienced, who know what’s up and are there to play can only benefit me more than playing with people who are there for a variety of different motivations and who may be more or less compelled to play hard.

Charlie: What is it going to be like to play with people you know in real life?

Max: I think a returning player season is where the real psychological damage can happen in Survivor. [laughs] The idea of being out there with, for example, some of the people from my current cast and having to go against them, backstab them or be backstabbed by them, is terrifying. The same goes for some of the people on the list of nominees who I consider to be friends or quasi-friends. The thought of betraying one of these people is something I don’t like to contemplate, but that I have to because that’s part of the game.

That’s part of the reason why a pregame alliance is so preposterous. With every returning player season rumors circulate that there are summit meetings taken place, and conference calls, and that entire opening moves have been scripted in advance. In most instances that backfired in the face of people who have tried to do that kind of pregame strategizing. What people find more often, I’d think, is that those relationships you had prior to the game can become liabilities as opposed to assets out there. Voting decisions become moral decisions when they might otherwise have just been game decisions. It was very easy for me to vote So Kim out. I’d only known her for three days, and she had essentially threatened me with revealing my big secret in the opening moment of the game. It would have been really hard for me to vote Shirin out. Apparently for Carolyn it wasn’t so hard to vote me or Tyler out, but she’s a different kind of player.

Max’s tribe mate and potential Second Chance competitor Carolyn Rivera


One of the things I learned about myself is that I’m hopelessly loyal. I left the game thinking that I had made a bond with Carolyn that would last 39 days, and that I’d made a bond with Tyler that would resume when we got back on the same tribe, and would result in a long run together. All the while I didn’t know that the two of them planned to eliminate me the first opportunity they got. So, one of my big revelations in the game was that I’m actually a loyal person. [laughs] I laugh because I never would have described myself that way before the game.

Charlie: Everyone says that Survivor is so hard that it brings out your true nature.

Max: Well, yeah! Loyalty is a quality that I consider to be quite admirable and that for one reason or another I didn’t recognize about myself. So the idea of having that loyalty tested or being forced to act in a way that violates these values that are now quite significant to me is scary and simultaneously exciting. It’s part of the uncertainty that we all face going into this scenario.

Charlie: Is it going to be hard for you to vote off people from past seasons that you loved as a fan of the show?

Max: No. Not at all. One thing I can say for certain is that I’ve never been star-struck by a Survivor with one exception: Parvati.

Parvati Shallow, alien

Charlie: I was star struck by Parvati too. She’s a dazzling personality. But I think she would be even if she’d never played. I think that’s just how she is.

Max: Exactly. Being in the presence of Parvati is being in the presence of an alien, someone from another planet, someone who possesses some sort of innate, natural quality. Without her even opening her mouth it flows through her and affects those around her.

Charlie: I believe they’re called social skills.

Max: That’s why she’s asked back, why she won, and why she’s one of – if not the – greatest players to participate in this game. The issue of being star struck could be a concern. Rob Cesternino, a two-time contestant who has made a career for himself podcasting about Survivor and other shows, talks about how when he played in the original Survivor: All Stars season he was star struck to be out there on the beach with people he had watched as a college student, who had inspired him years before. I never feel that way.

I never have felt like Survivor players were special people who belonged to a higher echelon of society than me. I always thought, “I should be one of those people. I should be on this show.” That was confirmed for me when I was introduced to that social circle. They’re the first group of people I’ve met in a long time where I didn’t feel like I had the biggest personality in the room. I’m actually in the middle of the pack. So, I’ve never felt uncomfortable or star struck around other Survivors and I definitely won’t feel that way if I’m out on the beach with them.

Charlie: What do you hope will come out of a second experience playing the game that you didn’t get the first? Would you play differently? Would you express your fandom differently?

Max: I’d like to take the focus off of my fandom. At this point I consider myself to be, yes, a Survivor fan, but also a Survivor player. We’ve all spent enough time talking about my fandom. It’s time to play. I feel like I didn’t really get a chance to play. The 14 days I was there are the worst 14 days of Survivor. They’re the period where you’re doing these intense, physical tribal competitions, where you’re not having food rewards, where you are crowded into a shelter, then crowded into a van or a tent during down time, where there are a lot of people there vying for leadership positions many of whom don’t belong in those roles. I think the game really picks up and becomes the game I love at the merge. That’s where individual qualities manifest and come to the forefront.

The name of the game for the premerge portion of Survivor is, “Don’t screw up, but don’t be too good either.” And in the post merge portion of the game it’s, “Use whatever you have in order to last another three days. And another three days. And another three days.” That’s what excites me – the kind of edge-of-your-seat, improvisational, moment-by-moment gameplay that we’re seeing people like Mike and Carolyn engage in on TV right now. Carolyn surprised a lot of people this past week when she turned on her closest ally and sent him home, but that’s indicative to me of the Tony Vlachos style of play where every three days you look at it as a brand new game. Obviously the three day periods are all building towards the same desired outcome. But, you have new opportunities to rearrange the pieces on the chess board, to work out new moves, new combinations of interactions. And you do it by tapping into those reserves, those qualities that you have hopefully been honing over the course of your life, which you now get to test against fitting competition.


A previous cast gathers on stage for a Reunion Show


Charlie: Last question. You’re going to be sitting on stage during the finale of Survivor: Worlds Apart and they’re going to announce who made the cast of Survivor: Second Chance and who didn’t. If you make it you’ll be escorted out of the theater to travel to Cambodia immediately. Just like that you’ll be gone from your life for the next two months. If you’re not chosen, you’ll go home. What will it be like for you if you make it, and what will it be like if you don’t?

Max: Obviously the excitement of the prospect of leaving to play Survivor in less than two weeks is all-consuming right now. The potential disappointment of finding out that I won’t be is on my mind. But the fact that if that happens the Season 30 Reunion Show will still be followed by a party with some of my closest friends, during which we’ll celebrate a life-defining experience mitigates that disappointment somewhat. The fact that I live in a beautiful place and have the job of my dreams and have a gorgeous summer of Southern California weather and beach days ahead of me, the knowledge that I won’t be in Cambodia during the rainy season being eaten by mosquitos and potentially having my soul eaten alive by Chaos Kass [McQuillen] and Shane Powers and some of the other larger-than-life personalities I expect to see out there, all makes it a little easier.

The hardest thing is having my fate decided on live television. I’ve been on the receiving end of phone calls twice before where Survivor casting has told me, “I’m sorry. It’s just not going to happen this time.” One of those came about three weeks before I was going to leave for Survivor: Caramoan in 2012. One of those came when I’d already sent in my wardrobe, my bags and my passport to potentially back someone up as an alternate on Survivor: Brains vs. Brawn vs. Beauty in 2013. If there had been a camera on me in either of those two moments I would not want to see footage of my dejection. That was after all of the work I’d put in, all of the expectations, all of the tying up of loose ends that goes into getting ready to play Survivor. Now in this instance there’s so much more on the line with the possibility of redemption, a second chance and an opportunity to make good on the mistakes of my first game. To know that that decision will be handed down and my reaction will be captured on live television before a live studio audience? I’m not thrilled by that.

That said, as a television scholar and a Survivor fan I realize that it’s going to make one amazing night of television. In order to be part of this experience and this fraternity we risk humiliation, physical injuries and psychological injuries every time we step out onto the mat. All 32 of us are putting ourselves at risk whether we play or not and that’s part of what makes it so exhilarating.

Vote for Max. I don’t want him to be sad next Wednesday. The ballot is at THIS WEBSITE. You will have to register for a CBS.com account, which I know is a pain in the neck but it’s for a guy to have his dream. Please have your spam email addresses ready. The site will also require you to vote for nine other men to play with Max. For what it’s worth, I’ve been voting for Jeff Varner, Andrew Savage, Shane Powers, Terry Deitz, Stephen Fishbach, Vytas Baskauskus, Spencer Bledsoe, Joe Anglim, Max Dawson and Mike Holloway.

Next Time: Max shares the syllabus for his Survivor class

Categories: Blog

Survivor Contestant, Embedded Aca-Fan Max Dawson Shares His Experiences (Part One)

May 12, 2015 - 6:36am

Ok, there are three things you need to know. First, Neither my wife, Cynthia, nor my son, Charlie, nor myself have ever missed a single episode of Survivor — in the 30 seasons the series has been on the air. (Keep in mind Survivor runs two seasons a year, but still that’s a lot of episodes) Second, Max Dawson is — over those 30 seasons — the first media scholar to ever appear on Survivor, the first person who we knew as a friend and colleague to make it on the show. There have been other Survivor “super-fans” (oh how I hate that phrase!) on the program, but by definition, Max was the first “Aca-Fan” to appear on Survivor. He’s one of us.

And so, third, when he got voted off for freaking out the other contestants with his expansive knowledge and endless enthusiasm for the series, it hit our household hard. And when it was announced last week that Max would be one of 32 former contestants who would be vying for votes to be one of ten men and ten women who would get a second chance on Survivor, my son, Charlie, signed up to be one of his campaign advisors, and I jumped at the chance to use this blog to let the guy tell his story. The Jenkins family is taking its enthusiasm for Survivor TO THE MAX!. I’ve voted every morning since the voting started for Max and a range of other contestants whose game play has brought me much pleasure through the years.

What he has to say here will be interesting to aca-fans regardless of what you’re a fan of because it speaks to something more universal: the opportunity for audiences to go inside their favorite franchises and their struggle to gain the acceptance of their favorite producers, society and their own harshest critics – each other. Max’s insights, his journey from teaching a Northwestern University class on Survivor to being a contestant, will interest media scholars who want to understand more about the culture surrounding reality television. There’s much you would learn about the reality television world by watching how this election unfolds — a contest between people who have been waiting up to 15 years for a second chance to play, and where there are more candidates than in the GOP primary. Rob Has a Podcast, the podcast of preference for the hardcore Survivor fans, has been doing extensive interviews with each candidate as they explain why they deserve a second chance to be on the program. But as a compliment to those sports talk radio style interviews, my son wanted to interview Max as an acs-fan. So, over the next few posts here, you can read the interview Charlie did with Max Dawson and also check out the never-before-published anywhere syllabus for his Survivor class, which should demonstrate his academic street cred.

We are hoping that many acs-fans will want to vote for Max, if only to show the world that we fans are not going to be kicked around this way. Follow this link to the CBS website and vote for Max. The way the election works, you also have to vote for 9 other male candidates. Here are the ones I’ve been voting for: Jeff Varner, Andrew Savage, Shane Powers, Terry Dietz, Stephen Fishback, Vitas Baskauskas, Spencer Bledsoe, Jeremy Collins, and Woo Hwang.

Charlie: Let’s start at the end. You went from teaching a Northwestern University course on Survivor to actually playing the game. What was the best thing that came out of that?

Max: My life over the past few years has been a series of experiences whereby I’ve crossed thresholds that academics rarely get to cross. It’s rare that you get to study a subject and then, at some point, translate that dedicated period of immersion into active involvement. Prior to going on Survivor I transitioned from being a professor to being a consultant and researcher in Los Angeles working directly with networks and studios. In the midst of that change, my involvement with the Survivor casting department, which had sort of fizzled in 2014 after an aborted plan to put me on the show, was rekindled and I went from being a Survivor fan to a Survivor player. So, I have been straddling a number of seemingly-isolated or cordoned-off domains for a while and after the past few years I have begun to realize that the boundaries between them are completely illusory. The opportunities to go back and forth between those worlds are much, much more rich and varied than I had ever anticipated.

Charlie: One of my all-time favorite Survivor scenes was from Survivor: Philippines. Jonathan Penner, a Los Angeles screenwriter, was trying to convince his fellow competitor Lisa Whelchel to work with him in the game, so he asked her to think about what she wanted her story to be on the show. Did she want to be the hero or the follower? What did you think your story was going to be, what do you think your story ended up being, and how do you feel like your story was presented on the air?

Max: When I initially agreed to be a part of Survivor: Worlds Apart, I thought my story was going to be one about a fan living out the ultimate fantasy of being a part of the subject of your fandom – of being able to play the game that you’ve not only enjoyed but that’s become one of the centerpieces of your social community for an extended period of time. Survivor, for me, is more than just a show I watch. It’s started many of the relationships I value. It has introduced me to new people and opened doors for me.

My attitude going into the game was very much influenced by Ian Terry’s experience on Big Brother 14. Ian was a huge Big Brother fan and he went into the game with the objective of relishing every possible experience, good and bad. So early on he volunteered to be a Have-Not [a punishment which requires contestants to take cold showers, sleep with the lights on and subsist off of gruel], and he did so in a way that showed he was enjoying every minute of being in The House.

Now, Ian’s story took on the perfect narrative arc of the fan’s journey from couch to throne, culminating in winning the game he loves – and not only winning, but doing so in spectacular fashion over arguably the greatest reality competition contestant of all time, Dan Gheesling. I thought I could have that kind of experience. At the very least, if I didn’t win in spectacular fashion, I would go into Survivor with the mindset that whatever happened, good or bad, I would have the time of my life. I hoped that my unbridled enthusiasm for Survivor would translate into opportunities for me in the game – that other players would be won over by it, and fans would say, “There’s one of us. There’s a guy who loves the show, who thinks it’s important, and who takes it seriously, but not too seriously.”

When I stepped out onto the beach on Day 1 and [Survivor host] Jeff Probst said, “Welcome to Survivor 30: Worlds Apart, White Collar vs. Blue Collar vs. No Collar”, I realized that my hopes of having any such experience were slim. In the United States in the mid-2010s, what is white collar a synonym for? White collar is a synonym for mendacious, cruel, greedy. It’s a synonym for stuffed shirts. For people who are disembodied, disconnected, soulless. The 1%. I realized I had been assigned to The Villains Tribe, or even worse The Pretensious Assholes Tribe. Looking around at my fellow players I saw a few women in business attire. I saw Joaquin, a young man in the medical sales profession who utterly oozed with that cocky, Wall Street, stereotypical shark aura. And then there was me.

Instead of going into this as a fan with a deep passion for the game, I was going into this as a hyper-intellectual, ineffective, bumbling academic. I looked at The Blue Collars, they were literally wearing flags on their clothing and talking about being the heart and soul of America and I saw Jeff Probst with a shit-eating grin on his face. Then I saw him treat us like we were the 1% and he was in an Occupy protest. I definitely realized that my story was going to be different.

And I wasn’t necessarily dismayed by that. I just knew it was going to require an adjustment. In fact, a lot of the fun times I had playing the game, or recording confessionals (most of which didn’t make it into the show), had to do with me playing up the villainy that I think was being ascribed to the White Collars. I said things like, “We’re the White Collars, the same people who brought you Enron and the subprime mortgage crisis. We robbed your pension and now we’re going to destroy you in this challenge.” And for me, it was fun. As much as Survivor is a reality show it was also an opportunity for me to play and be silly and have fun. That was the story I anticipated when I stood on the beach on Day 1.

The story I actually experienced was a third beast altogether. [My story] ended up being that I was someone who was blinded by their excitement. People asked me if I had a form of Aspergers syndrome because of the way I was portrayed as being more interested in reciting statistics or strange bits of information about the show than in actually playing the game. That was not representative of my experience out there. It was representative of a small sample of the interviews I did, most of which were framed by producers to get me to talk about those things. They were specifically, explicitly asking me questions like, ‘Max, we’re 30 seasons into Survivor and you’ve studied this at the collegiate level. Tell us what your class on Survivor has taught us about the best way to approach a 3-3-1 split.” So everything I was asked, asked me to talk about things on a very technical, historical level that was oriented toward detail and trivia. That was the majority of the footage that made it into the show.

Charlie: Perhaps they played up your encyclopedic knowledge because that was something unique you brought to the series.

Max: Well, it was something unique that I brought, but it was also something that allowed them to construct a narrative that my passion for the game was ultimately blinding, possibly even unhealthy and led to my inability to play.

Charlie: Do you feel like your fandom did play a role in why you got voted off fifth, or was that a construction of the editing?

Max: Unlike many of the professional athletes and celebrities who played Survivor in the modern era, I was recognized instantaneously upon setting foot on the beach. Within five minutes, my tribe mate So Kim came up to me and said, “I know who you are.” She had read about a Survivor professor who might be on his way down to Nicaragua to compete on the 30th installment of the series. [NOTE: Max explained in another interview that someone he knew regrettably leaked the information online.] So, from the get-go I was identified by my fellow cast members as a superfan who had an almost supernatural command over the mechanics of the game and who, as a result, needed to be monitored and could not be trusted.

I have had conversations with some of my fellow tribe members since the game ended – Tyler, for example – who said, “I liked playing with you, but you knew so much about the game that I felt I couldn’t trust you.” And so, the preconceptions that the other contestants had about me certainly hurt my chances in that it led them to regard me as being a potentially dangerous competitor, when that probably did not have much basis in reality. Knowing that the tribe swap should occur around Day 12 is very helpful for my game, but it’s not something that gives me an unfair advantage. It’s just something that helps me psychologically prepare for things. Knowing what kinds of things could happen in a tribe swap, or how the tribes could be broken up, is information that could benefit the whole tribe and yet I was treated like that information gave me some sort of unfair advantage.

In reality, my super fan status ended up playing against me when some of the players I got thrown together with after the tribes were mixed together on Day 11 or 12 started to regard my passion for the game as annoying. As you saw in the edit, my friendship with another superfan on my tribe was off-putting to some members of the tribe. And that was the thing that really startled me. Because many of the people who said that our behavior was annoying self-identified as fans. They told me in our first conversation, “Oh, I’ve been a fan of Survivor since I was a kid!” So, it was a great example of fans arbitrarily designating what the appropriate level of involvement for a fandom is, and not only self-policing that boundary but penalizing people who transgress it – designating them as being weirdos. In most other communities that I frequent these days, that level of passion is a prerequisite, whether it’s a record collecting message board, a Survivor Facebook group, a yoga class –

Charlie: Academia?

Max: – and academia! People tend to be passionately involved in what they do. I look at this historical moment in our popular culture as ones in which fans have been elevated to a position of relative power. Media industries are recognizing fans’ tastes to a degree they never have before. So I came from a world in which fandom is not only acceptable but cool, and for the first time in a long time, I was in a situation where the sort of fandom I engage in was considered transgressive and annoying.

Charlie: Do you feel like the show itself took the same perspective in telling your story? Did the editing portray your fandom as transgressive and annoying?

Max: Well, it’s interesting that on a season touted for having the largest number of hardcore Survivor fans in the show’s history, most of the contestants who have self-identified that way have received very unflattering edits. That’s not to say [unflattering edits] have been exclusively reserved for fans this season. I’d say that the majority of participants in this cast have been on the receiving end of horribly unflattering edits. And I am not going to be the sort of person who says, “It was the edit!” [The person you saw] is me, just like it’s Dan and Will. These are aspects of our personalities that have been highlighted. But I do feel like there has been a consistent message across this season that Survivor fans are poorly equipped to navigate the social dynamics that are so central to the game. Something that I heard so many times, from so many Internet commentators – each of whom thought they were so brilliant – was “I guess those who teach can’t play, eh prof?”

There are 24 hours in a day and if you see 45 seconds of my life in the course of an episode that covers three days you’re going to see a little snippet of what I’ve done. And the snippet you see may be from an interview in which I’ve been encouraged to discuss certain topics by a producer who’s looking to tell the story in a particular way. So, it’s been interesting to me that some of the fans themselves – the people who have the most invested in the show – have been willing to read these edits in a very literal and unforgiving fashion. They’re not all saying, “What was cut? What else went on out there? Why are we seeing this clip?” Instead they’re saying, “Yes, this is Max. This is Dan. This is Shirin. These are the people themselves.”

It’s been frustrating to be the subject of forms of textual engagement that fly in the face of everything that Henry Jenkins talks about in Textual Poachers, or everything John Fiske says about resistant readings. I’ve been shocked by the degree to which some Survivor superfans have been willing to engage in completely complicit readings, where the limited information they see becomes a sacrosanct text and any alternative interpretation is written off.

Charlie: Looking back at your years as a fan before you played, do you feel like you judged the show wrongly or do you think you always viewed the show more forgivingly?

Max: Well, I see many super fans watching with an emphasis on strategy whereas I’ve always primarily been interested in Survivor as some of the most interesting character development and multi-dimensional storytelling in contemporary popular culture. For example, one of my favorite seasons does not feature very advanced gameplay or the kinds of twists and reversals many fans favor. It features a very conventional, good vs. evil, underdog story in which four minority players appear horribly overmatched against a group of eight hulking, imposing, often-quite-unpleasant younger people. The group of four systematically picks them off in a series of improbable victories that bring them together and take them to the final stage of the game. I think of that season as being such an amazing example of so many of the classical tropes that animate stories in any genre. The way in which Survivor takes those tropes and places them in the context of an unscripted program has always been one of the most exciting things about the show for me. So in that respect, I don’t think I saw the show wrongly before. I’ve just been forced to realize how differently I watch the show than other people who have a deep passion for it.

I’ve been on record saying that I love Survivor: Worlds Apart and think it’s one of the greatest seasons of all time. I stand by that, because I think the characters – across the cast of 18 – are pound-for-pound (as Jeff Probst said) some of the biggest, most dynamic personalities the show has ever seen. There aren’t many people in this cast you can put into that category of, “Why did they get on? What do they bring?” Instead, we see first or second boots who are as dynamic and charismatic as some of the greatest contestants of all time. To be a part of a season that’s so stacked in that way made [winning] harder for me, but it also made it more satisfying. What could be worse than going out there with a group of people with static personalities who aren’t interested in playing the game? So, it’s not that I ever assumed my aesthetic criteria was the same as everyone else’s, or believed they should be the same as everyone else’s, but I’ve been forced to come to terms with the fact that what I view as a great Survivor season might for many other fans be a horrible season of Survivor. By the same token, what – for me – makes a great Survivor contestant might, for others, be a terrible Survivor contestant.

Charlie: So, how would you suggest that fans form opinions of contestants if not based on the information that’s on the show? Where do they get information to contextualize the broadcasts and understand more about what happened on location?

Max: That’s a difficult question because Survivor is not true transmedia storytelling. In many instances, watching the [online] Secret Scenes – going outside the core text – ends up providing contradictory evidence that complicates your understanding of the core text. In my fourth episode. I was identified by one of my fellow contestants [finance industry corporate trainer Carolyn Rivera] as a “cult leader.” She says, “He’s dangerous. He’s in your heads. He’s controlling you.” It’s completely out of context because there was nothing that had been shown before which indicated that was the case, and in the following episode I was eliminated not for being a dangerous manipulator but for being a bumbling egghead.

It’s not the Survivor fan’s responsibility to read my exit interviews [in the press], watch the Secret Scenes, and dig through the textual evidence in order to come up with one, complete, true story. It’s more-so that I’d like people to watch with a more open mind and realize that as audience members, they themselves are participants in a process of shaping raw footage into stories that fit narrative archetypes. The serialized story has to build over the course of 13 episodes into a story that supports an outcome which is known to the editors when they create the first episode. It’s essentially as if you’d written the end of a series of novels, you know how it ends, and now you have to go back and write the first installment. The storyline that you thought might have been an interesting component of the first chapter becomes irrelevant to the narrative arc that takes you from the beginning to the end, and as a result, that storyline might be minimized or eliminated. A character who might have played a central role in an early chapter fades away quickly because they don’t have any influence over the ultimate outcome. We need to watch with an open mind and realize we’re seeing the fraction of what went on which proves that the person standing at the end of the game is the one truly deserving recipient of the million dollar prize.

Charlie: What has your relationship been with the other contestants that went through the same experience? People who follow the show have all seen social media photos hashtagged The #Dirty30, which portray you and the rest of the Worlds Apart cast traveling the country together eight months after the game, visiting each other’s hometowns, appearing to be best friends. What is the Dirty 30? Did you form them?

Max:The Dirty 30 is an embarrassingly-named Facebook group that another contestant, [former CAA talent agent] Tyler Fredrickson, formed right after our return from Nicaragua in order to share pictures and stories and just stay in each other’s lives. And the Dirty 30 went from being just a Facebook group to being a hashtag that we could use as a kind of rallying cry, and as a way to pledge our allegiance to one another, and as a statement of unity. One thing that happens over the course of watching a Survivor season in which you’re a participant is that you watch as people around you eagerly anticipate the devolution of your social relationships with your fellow cast members into animosity or even aggression. There are people literally sitting there with popcorn saying, “I can’t wait to see these people start tearing each other apart on Facebook and social media posts, and eviscerate each other in interviews after their exits.”

We went into this – and not all of us, but a few of us in particular – with a mindset that it is appropriate in any season for players to put their egos aside and let the collective and the audience take precedence. We shouldn’t allow the show to be dominated by bickering between the contestants or people airing their personal grievances against others who shared this really special experience. But instead we should celebrate Survivor and do what we can to handle disputes between participates internally instead of allowing those conflicts to spill out into public venues.

So, one of the things we did from the start was set out this precedent that when people are voted off they’re bombed with love. Many of the women have received enormous bouquets of flowers the day of they’re going to be voted off on the show. We check in with people who have been through a traumatic experience and in many instances are forced to see themselves do humiliating things on screen, or hear people say things about them, or relive moments where they were shocked or caught off guard. There isn’t much of an official support network when you play Survivor. You’re pretty much left on your own.

So we, as a group, under the moniker of this preposterous name the Dirty 30, created an official support network. We started calling people a few days before they were going to be voted off [on the television broadcasts] saying, “Hey, what’s up? How do you want to handle these press interviews? What are you going to talk about? There’s going to be some very sensitive subjects. Are you going to get down into the muck and trash people or are you going to take the high road?” And in some cases it’s really been beneficial, because we’ve been able to help people deal with tough things they’ve been going through in a private and discreet way rather than dealing with it under the magnifying lens of the media.

Charlie: I think a lot of viewers have been confused when they see such viciousness on the show and such friendship outside of it. Obviously, the show was filmed eight months before it aired, and the Instagram photos were taken in real time. But it’s still a puzzling contrast from the outside. I guess what you’re telling me is that there have continued to be things you guys worked through together, but they were just handled privately.

Max: Yeah, and I’m not going to say that everything is resolved. There have been a couple of notable instances this season involving a woman named Shirin Oskooi. She’s a Yahoo! executive, Ivy League grad, a very successful person, strong, powerful and willful. She exhibits every quality that I would look for in a friend, a colleague or a partner. But they weren’t necessarily qualities that would come out in the game such that people from diverse backgrounds would appreciate them. Her personality clashes with the other cast members resulted in some of the ugliest, most harrowing scenes we’ve seen in 30 seasons of Survivor – bordering on…. general nastiness that bordered on misogyny and even worse. And it has spilled over into social media from time to time. And sometimes it’s been like a full time second job keeping track of what’s going on and mediating, helping people to gain perspective in a moment where they’re seeing red because they just watched an episode where someone really denigrated them or attacked them viciously to their face or where they’ve just been savaged by an edit, and helping them to see that we’re getting to take part in a once in a lifetime experience and an entertainment franchise as storied as Survivor. That should, itself, be enough to help us transcend some of the challenges of exposing our lives to a reality show.

Charlie: Does the show have a responsibility to intervene where it perceives abuse to be taking place or fights to be departing from the spirit of the game? Or is the show doing everything it should?

Max: I think that the show’s only real responsibility lies in preventing physical violence from occurring amongst the contestants. The issue of emotional violence or psychological abuse is a very real one, but untrained professionals – untrained in psychology – can’t police that. It’s not the same kind of cut-and-dry, black-and-white issue [that physical violence is.] Given some of the things we’ve seen this season there have been larger discussions about what the show’s responsibility is with respect to portraying [emotional violence] on the screen. I think the show has handled it in a very responsible way. I don’t think it’s Survivor’s responsibility to run a PSA, or any sort of legal disclaimer, before or after an episode. I think the best thing the show can do in these situations is to show these episodes in as accurate and minimally edited a way as possible to confront the audience and the contestants themselves with the ugliness that comes out in very trying situations.

Survivor’s appeal for much of the audience – myself included – is the social experiment. How do people behave when all of the trappings of civilization, all of the comforts that allow us to maintain ontological security in our everyday lives have been taken away from us. Some people rise to the occasion. They’re shackled by those trappings, and they rise when they’re removed. I’m thinking of someone like [South Carolina nurse] Cirie Fields from Survivor: Panama, Survivor: Fans vs. Favorites and Survivor: Heroes vs. Villains who had this amazing arc. She had never been in the outdoors. She’d never been away from home and her family. She couldn’t fend for herself. She was essentially a dead woman walking from the moment the game began, and by the end of her first season she ended up surviving herself and her fellow contestants with how competitive and skilled she’d become. Then she went on to surprise many people in the audience in her second game by becoming one of the best to ever play the game.

So we see those moments where people rise, and then we see those moments where people go to the darkest possible place. It’s almost as though their internal monitors have been removed with these social constructs and they’re suddenly able to indulge in behaviors or attitudes that would be completely unacceptable in polite society. The fact that Survivor shows us both of those responses is one of the things that makes it an important TV show – not just as a great example of non-fiction programming or a force in the American television industry but because of the ways in which Survivor has this experimental component to it where it acts as an X-ray, allowing things to come to the surface that might not have otherwise. It forces viewers to confront what lies in many of our hearts and contemplate how we would behave in these situations. Would I rise to the occasion, or would the darkest aspects of my personality come out if I was under duress?

That completes part one of our interview. We plan to post Part 2 on Wednesday when we will talk with Max about his golden opportunity to earn a chance at redemption, how he would feel competing against the iconic characters he grew up a fan of, and how he would face competing against close friends like Shirin who he has spent the past year cultivating relationships with.

For now, please throw your collective support behind Max in the online vote. . We would all appreciate your time and effort. Once again, the site does require you to register for a free CBS.com account the first time you vote (so have your spam-list email addresses ready!) and you must vote for nine other men at the same time.

FWIW I (Charlie) have been voting for Max, Jeff Varner, Andrew Savage, Shane Powers, Stephen Fishbach, Vytas Baskauskas, Spencer Bledsoe, Jeremy Collins, Joe Anglim and Mike Holloway.

Notes on the Cyberpunk Moment

May 11, 2015 - 7:52am

The following is an elaboration of the remarks I made to open the USC Cyberpunk: Past and Future conference. I was speaking from notes, but I have developed those notes a bit more, by popular demand.

For the past twenty plus years, I have been lucky enough to be able to teach courses on science fiction, first at MIT (where science fiction is the literature of choice for faculty and students alike) and now at USC (where geeks are hunted for sport.) I called the most recent version of this course, “Science Fiction AS Media Theory,” which suggests something of the way that I approach the genre.

Too often, the mainstream media treat science fiction as a kind of prophecy, reminding us of those limited number of examples where ideas described in science fiction novels — from the credit card in Looking Backward to the communication satellite in Arthur C. Clarke “came true.” But, I’ve always felt this was the wrong way to think about the kinds of cultural work that science fiction does. Science fiction is less prophecy than intervention: I think of it as kind of popular theory — a way of authors inciting thought in their readers about changes they are observing in their technological and cultural environment, a means of encouraging reflection and if possible, inspiring us to make a different kind of future as we think things through together.

From the start, science fiction’s visions of the future have been bound up with ideas about changes in the media and communication landscape, going back to Hugo Gernsback, often cited as the father of the American science fiction genre, who was a major advocate for amateur radio. In that sense, I want to focus on the ways that the Cyberpunk Moment (basically, the 1980s and early 1990s) can be seen as contributing to some of the core conversations people of that era were having in regard to media and cultural changes brought about by the introduction of new media technologies. Speaking about the Cyberpunk moment ignores the reality that ideas from these writers were not simply of their moment but their influence has now stretched decades beyond their introduction and still matter in terms of how we make sense of the world around us.

The time spans of science fiction shortened across the 20th century, so that the present moment has finally caught up with science fiction. We might go from early science fiction novels which spanned thousands, millions (or to mimic Carl Sagan, “billions and billions”) of years in the future to Max Headroom‘s “20 Minutes in the Future” or William Gibson’s famous claim that “the future is already here — it’s just not evenly distributed.” Given how much Cyberpunks’ near future imagination has shaped our understanding to the present, I titled my blog post announcing this event, “the future started ten minutes ago and you are already late to the party.” Indeed, for anyone who has not engaged with key cyberpunk works, such as the Mirrorshades anthology, Neuromancer, The Shaper/Mechanist books, the Ware series,  Max Headroom, and so much more, you are now some 30 years late and counting.

One of the many reasons why the introduction of Cyberpunk sparked such shock waves through science fiction fandom was a shifted relationship to technology — from the monumental engineering accomplishments which inspired the “sense of wonder” in early generations of writers to the focus on the everyday forms of technology that might have seemed futuristic to past generations but were already starting to be taken for granted by people living in the last decades of the 20th century. Bruce Sterling explains in the Preface to Mirrorshades, in what has been described as the key manifesto of the cyberpunk movement:

“[For early generations of science fiction writers and readers} Science was safely enshrined — and confined — in an ivory tower. The careless technophilia of those days belongs to a vanished, sluggish era, when authority still had a comfortable margin of control. For the cyberpunks, by stark contrast, technology is visceral. It is not the bottled genie of remote Big Science boffins: it is pervasive, utterly intimate. Not outside us, but next to us. Under our skin; often, inside our minds. Technology itself has changed. Not for us the giant steam-snorting wonders of the past: the Hoover Dam, the Empire State Building, the nuclear Power plant. Eighties tech sticks to the skin, responds to the touch: the personal computer, the Sony Walkman, the portable telephone, the soft contact lens.”


Sterling identifies some of the central themes of the early cyberpunk moment — “body invasion, prosthetic limbs, implanted circuitry, cosmetic surgery, genetic alternation. The even more powerful theme of mind invasion: brain-computer interfaces, artificial intelligence, neurochemistry — techniques radically redefining the nature of humanity, the nature of the self.” Add to this notions of gender swapping or designer drugs, also part of how cyberpunk writers imagined a world where we hacked biology, hacked chemistry, hacked psychology, and fundamentally changed who we are or what we thought we thought we were as human beings.

Frederic Jameson read cyberpunk through the lens of postmodernism, arguing that science fiction writers had lost the capacity to imagine a future radically different from the present.  He saw Bladerunner, often cited as a key influence on Cyberpunk, as the exemplar of a new kind of science fiction which was a pastiche of the past, and the cyberpunks often messed around with the past: Rudy Rucker’s contribution to Mirrorshades offered further adventures of Harry Houdini and Sterling and Shiner gave us “Mozart in Mirrorshades,” No wonder that Sterling and Gibson helped to inform Steampunk through their novel, The Difference Engine, or Neil Stephenson gave us neo-victorianism in The Diamond Age.

But I’ve always thought that Jameson was wrong, that cyberpunk’s focus on the near future had nothing to do with an inability to imagine radical difference in the future, but we did not have to go very far into the future to experience radical difference.  The technological changes which were hitting American society were so transformative that we needed our best writers and thinkers to help us make sense of what was happening right then and now. We were in the midst of one of the few great revolutions in human communication capacity. We might point to the shift from orality to literacy, the rise of the printing press, the explosion of modern mass media, and the digital revolution as each in their own way representing major moments of transformation and transition in the media landscape.

And Cyberpunk provided us with the best set of metaphors through which to make sense of the  digital revolution. It is no accident that Gibson’s term, “Cyberspace,” or for that matter, Neil Stephenson’s “Metaverse,” were among the terms to emerge during the 1980s that stuck, that helped us to understand what we were entering into as more and more of us gained access to personal networked computing as a mundane, yes, “intimate” aspect of our everyday lives.

We might see Cyberpunk as involved in a second core transition in the nature of science fiction — from a focus on science and engineering at its technocratic origins to a focus on social sciences and political philosophy in the 1960s and beyond to a focus on popular culture, subcultures, and digital media, in the 1980s. In his Mirrorshades manifesto, Sterling talks about carrying the tools of extrapolation into the realm of everyday life, but everyday life  — the nature of human interactions — was only rarely part of the focus of earlier forms of Science fiction, which was far better at anticipating and debating technological shifts than their impact on our  lives.

At the same time, we might trace science fiction’s movement from a kind of realist (or at least rationalist) speculation in its origins to modernist experimentation in the Dangerous Vision era to this new focus on sensual immersion in the 1980s Cyberpunk movement. Sterling and others compared the descriptive qualities of Cyberpunk to the wall of sound in rock music — something that engulfs and overwhelms us.

Throughout the 1970s and early 1980s, The Birmingham School of cultural studies had described the process of subcultural appropriation and identity formation as driving many forms of contemporary culture and the Cyberpunks took this idea further speculating on future subcultures with various forms of body modifications — Stephenson’s “Gargoyles,” Cadigan’s “Synners,” Shirley’s “glo-worms”, Tom Maddox’s “Snake-Eyes,”  among many others, each seeking to set themselves off from others through the ways they constructed and performed their identities.

The cyberpunks told us to pay attention to the interzones, the liminal spaces where different cultures crossed paths, struggled with each other, and sometimes formed uneasy alliances. Mary Louise Pratt, writing at the same moment, in anthropology, spoke about the arts of the “contact zone,” and describes the arts of the Contact Zone as “autoethnography, transculturation, critique, collaboration, bilingualism, mediation, parody, denuciation, imaginary dialogue, vernacular expression.”  The hybrid texts of cyberpunk illustrated many of these genres in practice.

William Gibson warned us of the semiotic ghosts we might encounter at the place’s where yesterday’s tomorrows meet today’s tomorrows, where pop culture traces across our landscape leave us janus-faced, looking backwards and forwards at the same time, and thus tripping over our shoes. And Gibson reminded us that “The street has its own uses for things”, focusing attention  on bottom-up process of appropriation, remixing, hacking, making, and making do. The old SF hero was the inventor, the scientist, the astronaut, each of which had become by the 1950s, establishment figures bound up with Ike’s Military Industrial complex and Don Draper’s “Mad Men,” both the focus of science fiction parodies in the 1950s by Henry Kutner or Pohl and Kornbluth. The Cyberpunk protagonist was the hacker, the rocker, the cowboy, figures of resistance, rebellion, and independence, each acting on behalf of and from a location of the streets. The Cyberpunk imagination was unambiguously urban and this is one reason why its iconography has been taken up around the world by a range of different minority groups who wanted to speak about their own experiences living within and struggling to survive on the mean streets of the global urban landscape.

What made cyberpunk “punk” was the process of stripping encrusted genre conventions away, going back to the roots, tapping into the raw energy of the genre in its purest forms, and then trying in the process to create new kinds of emotional experiences — the kind of body horror, say, we associate with cyberpunk’s darkest currents. Sterling compared this emerging style of science fiction with punk rock, which makes sense, given the aesthetic and affective shock it was creating at that same cultural moment. Punk and New Wave were what gave the 1980s their particular “structure of feeling.”  And we can think about how groups like Devo, the Police, the Talking Heads or the B-52s might be read as contributing to the cyberpunk movement.

But, today, we might also see cyberpunk as working in parallel with the musical experimentation at the street level which would give rise to hip hop culture. Hip Hop is the other cultural movement of the 1980s which has had the most lasting impact on contemporary culture.And Sterling makes a passing reference to “scratch” music (and the technological manipulation of turntables) in the Mirrorshades manifesto.

Fred Turner’s From Counterculture to Cyberculture has described the ways that the “whole earth movement” and other counter-culture movements of the 1960s informed the early development of digital culture, and we can see these influences via Cyberpunk’s reliance on Rock’N’roll metaphors of the open acknowledgement by writers such as Rudy Rucker on the ways they were informed and influenced by the underground comics and Gonzo journalism of the 1960s. We can see these influences come full circle in something like the Transmetropolitan comic book series, where Spider Jerusalem represents a Hunter S. Thompson figure trying to survive in a cyberpunk realm.

This exploration of popular culture carries over to the language with which the cyberpunks wrote, which often included  extensive use of slang — both real and invented, arcane argots and terms borrowed from Russian or Japanese.  Such writing posed challenges to readers. Cyberpunk dropped the kind of framing devices — the man from our times who awakens in the future, the astronaut who finds himself on an alien world — which helped to bridge between our reality and the imagined alternative. Instead, we are plunged into the heart of a dense fictional world and expected to find our own way. We spend the first few pages lost, overwhelmed by details, unable to sort through the pieces, and then, we start to swim in a more fully realized future than science fiction writers had ever offered us before.

Cyberpunk also relied heavily on a conception of society which was multicultural and at least transnational, if not global. We started to see signs that the American Century was ending, that other cultural forces were starting to reassert themselves and would be more of a presence in the near-term future. We see different cultures bumping up against each other. We see Asian cultures, especially the Japanese, asserting a controlling influence on the world — thus the persistence of the Yakuza and the Triad in cyberpunk. Gibson talks about the Rastafarians; Sterling paid more and more attention to Eastern Europe in the wake of the collapse of communism.  And Pat Cadigan pushed us even deeper into Japanese culture.  There are surprisingly few aliens in Cyberpunk given the history of science fiction as a genre — with difference created through ethnic and subcultural difference, people living beside each other yet coming from different worlds, rather than close encounters of the first, second or third kind.

Alongside the Yakuza, the other destructive force at play in these stories was the multinational conglomerate — the company so large that it can no longer be contained within national borders, which exerts a power  beyond the capacities of governments, that shapes our desires through media manipulations so profoundly that we lose the capacity for democratic self-governance. In Wild Palms, for example, we see the merger of alternative religious movements, such as the Church of Scientology; alternative media practices, such as virtual reality; alternative economic structures, such as horizontally integrated conglomerates; and alternative political structures, including both a world where corporate funding dictates political power and one where libertarian activists challenge centralization.

We might see these conflicts as struggles between the Networks (that is, mass media networks) and the network (that is, the digital networks, where the hacker has the upper hand, where the rebel can plug in, tap information, spread alternative messages, connect with alternative communities, and otherwise, disrupt the flow, block the signal, jam the culture.)  Here, cyberpunk existed alongside real world cultural politics movements, anticipating culture jammers and adjusters, inspiring the anti-globalization movement, and now more recently, the Occupy and Arab Spring movements around the world. Again, the cyberpunks did not simply predict these developments — they helped to create them through their inventions in cultural politics, by providing us with the conceptual tools by which we might theorize the changes taking place around us.

Sterling described Cyberpunk as embodying “the overlapping of worlds that were formally separate: the realm of high tech, and the modern pop underground.”  and Cyberpunk as a cultural influence has been able to surf the waves which surface where-ever those worlds meet.

Despite the best efforts of its core writers to keep creative experimentation alive, the cyberpunk moment became codified into a narrative formula, which has shaped a much broader range of cultural works. Cyberpunk became a set of themes, which have been explored through a range of different means, but which still shape in many ways important strands of contemporary science fiction across all media. And it has been a stylistic influence, a kind of sensibility, which spread rapidly to film, television, comics, music, fashion, and computer games.

To take a simple and familiar example, the Borg on Star Trek: The Next Generation, represented the insertion of a cyberpunk body-machine hybrid into the middle of our culture’s longest running technological utopian fiction, just to see how they would react to each other. In many ways, it is like a reversal of the confrontation Gibson described in “The Gernsback Continuium” where people from the present watch the fading of the inhabitants of the World of Tomorrow we recognize from Amazing Stories, Things to Come, and the 1939 World’s Fair.

And these ideas and images have traveled through inter zones and along contact zones, so cyberpunk’s influence on, say, Japanese manga and anime has been profound and the same could be said on the ways cyberpunk is informing the imaginations of people in Brazil or Eastern Europe,  South Africa or India, who are undergoing rapid technological, cultural, and political changes that resembles in many ways the contrasts and inequalities that Cyberpunk writers foregrounded in their work. And beyond its influence on other artists, writers and readers, cyberpunk, like other science fiction before it,  shaped the imagination of the next generation of designers, entrepreneurs, researchers, artists, and programmers. I can’t tell you how many people at MIT told me they were trying to design and program something that first captured their imagination via a cyberpunk narrative. But, what gets lost in the process is the sense of ambivalence and critique which gave Cyberpunk its edge. It is as if a generation of biologists were inspired by Mary Shelley to go out and reanimate corpses, not because it was a good idea, but because they think it would be cool to enact something from their favorite book.

Our focus today is in understanding the legacies of Cyberpunk not simply as a literary movement but as a movement across media. Our schedule progresses from a panel with some founding figures, already working in a range of different contexts, who helped to define the cyberpunk moment; then we will hear from the next generation — contemporary artists from a range of different media and entertainment fields, who are engaging with, pushing against, working within cyberpunk influences. Then you have a choice between immersing yourself in a series of screenings designed to explore media representations of cyberpunk themes, especially those having to do with the minding between machine and body, or participating in brainstorming sessions, where you can work alongside other creators and storytellers  in thinking about how the cyberpunk genre conventions might be updated to reflect today’s digital media and popular culture. At the end of the day, we will come back together to share what we created and to hear a final rant from Bruce Sterling, who is perhaps the grand master of this distinctive form of spoken word performance.

Categories: Blog

Cyberpunk: Past and Future Event Videos Now Ready

May 8, 2015 - 6:02am

Several weeks ago, The University of Southern California’s Visions and Voices Project and the Annenberg Innovation Lab’s “Geeks Speak” series jointly hosted a day long event focused around the past and future of the Cyberpunk movement. The event was organized by Howard A. Rodman, Scott Fisher, and myself. Today, I am able to share with you some of the video highlights of this event.

The day opened with my remarks concerning the Cyberpunk moment.

Geek Speaks: Cyberpunk – Past and Future – Introduction & Welcome by Henry Jenkins from USC Annenberg Innovation Lab on Vimeo.

My remarks were followed by a panel discussion featuring two key writers from the Mirrorshades group, Bruce Sterling and Rudy Rucker, along with Survival Research Lab’s Mark Pauline and Roger Triling (who edited the Wild Palms Reader), talking about the roots of cyberpunk and its relations to changing ideas about technology in the 1980s.

Geek Speaks: Cyberpunk – Past and Future: The Origins of Cyberpunk Culture from USC Annenberg Innovation Lab on Vimeo.

Rodman moderated a second panel, featuring the next generation of writers and artists, whose work across a range of different media were informed and inspired by the Cyberpunk intervention: John Jennings from the Black Kirby Project, Jordan Mechner from the Prince of Persia games series, Claire L. Evans from YACHT and Motherboard, Alex Rivera, director of Sleep Dealers, and science fiction writer Nalo Hopkinson (Midnight Robber).

Geek Speaks: Cyberpunk – Past and Future: The Legacy of Cyberpunk Culture from USC Annenberg Innovation Lab on Vimeo.

Later in the day, we presented a sequence of clips from key science fiction film and television series from the early 1980s to the present focused around “technologies of cyberpunk” and especially representations of the merger of man and machine. This sequence was curated by my USC colleague Steve Anderson and is reposted here with his permission. Anderson is also curating a series of clips dealing with virtual reality for our Transforming Hollywood conference this friday.

Technologies of Cyberpunk from MA+P @ USC on Vimeo.

Meanwhile, Geoff Long and Jeff Watson ran a world-building/story-design workshop involving a mix of our invited guests and the general public. This next video is the report-backs as the teams pitch their contemporary cyberpunk stories.

Geek Speaks: Cyberpunk – Past and Future: Presentations from Breakout Sessions from USC Annenberg Innovation Lab on Vimeo.

Finally, the event closed with a memorable rant by “the Chairman,” Bruce Sterling, during which he reflected on some of the stylistic and rhetorical choices made by cyberpunk writers and beyond that, considers how he and the other Cyberpunk writers will or will not be remembered in the 22nd Century. Sterling often delivers closing remarks at the South by Southwest conference each year, always an engaging and memorable experience.

Geek Speaks: Cyberpunk – Past and Future: Closing Rant from USC Annenberg Innovation Lab on Vimeo.

Next time, I will share a text-based version of my opening remarks from the conference.

Categories: Blog

How the Extended Marvel Universe (and Other Superhero Stories) Can Enable Political Debates

May 6, 2015 - 8:25am

Last weekend, Avengers 2: The Age of Ultron had the second highest grossing opening weekend of any film in Hollywood history (surpassed only by the original Avengers movie). At the same time, Daredevil was reportedly the most successful new Netflix television series yet, beating out much more buzz-worthy programs like House of Cards and Orange is the New Black. And these are simply two of the many different manifestations of superhero stories across media platforms. While comics overall do not sell especially well in today’s market, the superhero titles continue to dominate that market, with 98 of the top-selling titles each month belonging to that genre (The Walking Dead and Saga are consistently the only non-superhero titles to break into this top tier).

The genre’s commercial success has contributed to its high visibility within contemporary popular culture. It’s also clear that we tend to use the superhero genre to talk about a broad range of other issues. Witness the ways that Avengers 2 has become the focal point for debates about gender in American media, especially centering around the figure of the Black Widow, who was slut-shamed by several cast members, critiqued and defended by various feminist critics, and used on Saturday Night Live to parody the industry’s tendency to write women’s experiences primarily through the rom-com genre.

And this is simply the most prominent of a range of other conversations surrounding female fans and the superhero genre or involving the superhero genre to discuss a range of other issues.

A few months back, I partnered with Fusion to create a video which discussed the ways that Superman had emerged as an important icon of the struggle for immigration reform in the United States.

And working with my civic paths research team, we produced a blog post to accompany the video which explored how the iconography of the superhero genre was being used by a range of different activist movements as a tool to foster the civic imagination.

Today, I want to highlight yet another effort to encourage civic and political reflections around the superhero genre. In this case, I am focusing on a study and reflection guide recently released by the Fandom Forward Project of the Harry Potter Alliance, to encourage conversations about the representation of gender, disability, and political/civic engagement  within the extended Marvel universe. I asked the team that developed this study guide to share with us some of the background on how and why it was developed. Here’s what they shared:

The Fandom Forward Project of the Harry Potter Alliance Chapters Program was created in answer to the many requests from chapters for resources to help them apply the fan activism model to other fandoms their members were excited about. The team started by selecting source materials they thought would have big moments of fandom energy in the upcoming season – movie releases, series premiers or finales, book releases, etc; for this summer,Avengers: Age of Ultron (a part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe) and Paper Towns (the movie adaptation) seemed like the media best suited for our community. Next, a public call for “Fandom Consultants” – experts in the selected fandoms – helped create teams for each fandom, and these teams selected three issues they felt were best represented by the source material.

The Hero Toolkit represents two months of researching sexism, ableism, and political engagement in both our world and the Marvel Cinematic Universe, drawing connections, and brainstorming action items. The goal was to create a document that could be picked up and successfully used by any Marvel fan, whether they have never participated in activism before or they’re a longstanding HPA chapter.

So, below, I am happy to share with you the guide itself, which I hope will find wide use, both as a tool for personal reflection and as a vehicle for various educational and political uses.  The guide was developed by a diverse team of participants identified in its credits, but it was primarily spearheaded by Janae Phillips, the HPA’s Chapters Director, and Auden Granger, a volunteer.

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Advertising Philosopher: An Interview with Faris Yakob (Part Three)

May 4, 2015 - 7:23am

You write a lot about “content” in the book, but I’ve lately been pondering the meaning of the term, content, which according to my dictionary refers to “that which is contained.” Yet, your argument, as well as my own work, suggests that the stuff of media is no longer contained in any meaningful sense of the word. Has the concept of content then outlived its usefulness? Is it forcing us to still hold to old paradigms about how value is created through media?

As an aspirant philosopher, like any undergrad in philosophy 101, we have to spend so much time defining our terms, don’t we? This is only appropriate, because language stresses, fractures, warps and reforms in response to changes in the world around it.

Content is the new solution célèbre in advertising, and most of the time we can’t agree as to what it means. Personally, I feel brand content, as we are using the term, is something created by / for a brand that people choose to consume – as opposed to advertising which we essentially pay people to consume, indirectly.

Is content the content of media? The words are breaking down, or free, from the derivations because digital. Previously media goods were assemblages. A book is a typology of content and expectations and format that delivers it [and an industry that gets one to the other]. So is television. Television is the device, the industry that delivers the content, the content typologies, the cultural associations around it. Then digital unbundled them. So you get linguistic confusion, where you can watch a “television” show online, or what to call shows made by Netflix, which has nothing to do with television, although you can certainly watch it on the screen formerly known as that.

The unbundling also impacts the value creation, or at least monetization. When you control the reception, you can make money through advertising more easily than when you don’t. So new models are growing up around us for content creation and monetization. Content doesn’t seem contained, but even platform agnostic digital content is mediated and consumed through some kind of screen or experience.

Ultimately, brands making things people like is probably a good idea, but fraught with the challenges always faced by media producers. As the screenwriter William Goldman says, no one knows anything about what will work in media. Most films and books and magazines fail to make money. But some become hits.

Let me ask you the provocative question you use to frame one of your chapters — Is all advertising spam? And if so, what should brands be doing differently as a result of this insight?
Essentially, yes. Spam is unsolicited commercial messaging primarily used in reference to emails but by digital extension, advertising can easily fit into the descriptor. So, there are a couple of ways to think about this.

One, we can make it solicited. If, when watching a “television” [see previous answer for the problems with that] program, and we get a choice, to pay to watch ads, then it’s spam no longer because we solicited it. This is really just about reminding consumers that there is value being delivered to them. It’s harder to argue with billboards, unless they contribute to municipal services and improvements. The great adman Howard Gossage went as far as to argue that it was hard to justify their existence at all, which is something the city of Sao Paulo seems to agree with, since they banned all billboards. I think billboards can be some of the most creative spaces, using context, adding value to commutes and so on, but it’s a right to invade the public that we must continually earn.

More broadly, ad blocking options, and the advertising industry’s tendency to double up on exposure and frequency whenever possible have created a situation where people want to skip through or avoid advertising if it’s easy and they remember to do it. The value exchange of content /media /advertising has broken down for many users. So, ultimately, if advertising is to exist in a perfectly controlled digital world, where I have software protecting me, filtering my content choices, making recommendations, and so on, then we need to consider how advertising pays the attention debt it owes to people by adding value.

No doubt we’ll see your house robot come subsidized if you accept add offers being displayed on its screens, as the Amazon Kindle does now.

You argue forcefully across the book that advertising can be a force for good. What do you mean by that? Why do you think advertising is viewed so negatively now and what would need to change for advertising to become a force for good?

Who wants to be a force for evil? I grew up listening to Bill Hicks, who had some quite polarized views of marketing and advertising people. I think he spoke at one of extreme, but advertising is often conflated with “capitalism” perhaps because it’s the most obvious face of it. It grew from propaganda, with all the attendant associations. The attention arms race and increased consumer consumption of media makes advertising seem utterly, annoyingly, ubiquitous.

But advertising is just a tool, the lubricant of the modern day hyper-capitalist machine. The banking sector might be considered a rapacious set of money wrenches to said machine but let’s not get into comparison “at least we aren’t as bad as” arguments. Rather let’s think on what advertising is: a tool, a lever, an attempt to manage mass behavior through perception and creativity. As David Ogilvy once said: Advertising is only evil when it advertises evil things.

I think people feel somewhat bombarded by modern brands and modern branding. In the book I speak about the attention debt that brands create by invaded people’s consciousness unbidden, To rebalance the debt, to create value in consumption, is part of what will help.

I also think advertising – as the more emotionally comfortable of the professional and business advisory services, have a role in helping companies act less like psychopaths. Since the Friedman revolution in corporate strategy – where shareholder value is the only god – companies abandoned their social roles and responsibiliies. A function of this is that they seem manipulative, glib, unwilling to take on social responsibility, unwilling to accept fault, and only willing to engage with people to get what they want. These are hallmarks of psychopathic behavior. And it creeps people out once they realize they are being manipulated. So advertising agencies have a role to help make corporate “people” better rounded citizens – better citizen brands are starting to make waves and money.

You draw a distinction in the book between copying and stealing. You write, “Stealing multiplies meaning, copying does not.” Can you explain the distinction? How might we apply this to the unauthorized production of content around brands by consumers or for that matter, ad-busters?

This is the heart of Genius Steals, the term I took from the quotation supposedly attributed to Picasso: talent imitates, genius steals, that also became the name of our company.

Copying attempts to disguise its derivation, or at least it does now.

Previously all art work was copied, endlessly, iterated, by apprentices learning crafts. Then the Romantics decided creation was a magical act, akin to giving birth, or creating the universe, making man at once woman and god. I find this idea of originality nonsensical.

So when someone sets out to copy an idea it’s plagiarizing, taking something you found and passing it off as your own.

Stealing is copying where you acknowledge and revel in the debt to others. All art is a comment on that which came before. Quotations and remixes don’t hide their sources. Indeed, Modernist poetry and hip hop or pop music built from samples instead challenge the consumer to look back to the sources if they don’t know them.

So stealing multiplies meaning in various ways. It connects things together, like wormholes in culture, pulling separates spaces together. It reaches out to other pieces of culture and deploys them. It builds on things, and invites you to build on them further.

We are working with a start-up called Seenapse that’s turning these ideas about ideas into an inspiration engine. A “Seenapse” is a non-obvious connection created by a human – you can search through these or create your own as you look to extend out into other areas for inspiration.

Warhol, perhaps, mostly famously appropriated everyday symbols of commerce – brands – to create art. There is a great letter from the Campbell’s Soup Co to the artist from 1964 saying they admired his work and would love to send him some soup. That’s the approach I favor. If someone is passing off your trademark to make money by pretending to be you, then fine, cease and desist them. If they are exploring ideas using some of yours, good luck to them, they are multiplying the meanings of your brand in culture.

Faris Yakob is co-founder of Genius Steals, an itinerant strategy and innovation consultancy he started with his wife, Rosie. He is the author of Paid Attention, which come out in April 2015, and a contributing author of Digital State [2013] and What is a Brand? [2015], all published by Kogan Page. He was named one of ten modern day Mad Men by Fast Company but hopes he is less morally bankrupt than the television show characters. Despite living on the road, you can reliably find him on Twitter (@Faris) and on his blog: www.farisyakob.com. For more information on Genius Steals head to www.geniussteals.co

Categories: Blog

Advertising Philosopher: An Interview with Faris Yakob (Part Two)

May 1, 2015 - 6:13am

Later, you make the bold assertion that “all marketing research is wrong.” What do you see as the limits of marketing research and what do you envision as alternative ways of understanding consumer behavior?

Lots of tools or processes in any industry arise based on specific times and ideas and needs —and then get slowly codified into best practices that everyone uses, to the point that no one interrogates them enough. The idea behind market research is important, but often the tools and methodologies used are problematic. For example, any self reported data derived from asking people questions gets filtered through our explanatory fictions, our sense that we are and must rational agents.

But this isn’t the case – and we have tons of scientific studies that back up this thinking: that we tell ourselves stories, even when they aren’t true. Indeed, the research methodologies themselves are subject to this meta-cognitive error – we think we think rationally, so it makes rational sense to ask people why they do what they do and what they will do in the future. But asking people what they will do in future is like asking someone if they are going to go to the gym – their stated responses may not correspond well with their future actions.

I experienced this personally many times. Research comes back with insights into human behavior that feel like common sense. And yet people act in ways that don’t.

This disconnect kept bugging me. I worked on various government social behavior change campaigns and they are notoriously ineffective. Explain to people in a rational way that certain behaviors are obviously bad for them and they will agree and do them anyway. People don’t act rationally or in their own best interests, long term, most of the time.

The emergence of behavioral economics as a new lens helped frame this discussion. Dan Kaheman’s book Thinking Fast & Slow aggressively challenges ideas of rational persuasion as a key driver of behavior change. Yet that model is implicit on most advertising, built on a promise, a “proposition”, and a compellingly articulated set of benefits and differences.

Not to say this this new model has everything right or is the only way to think, but it should certainly be considered and give us pause.

Market researchers have of course always known all of this and skilled researchers use all kinds of methods to work around these issues. From abstraction and projection all the way to looking at actual behavior in the world with actual losses. There are pioneers like BrainJuicer working on new ways of understanding research in group dynamics with decision markets and so on. Large retailers often will trail products or innovations in actual markets, which is far more predictive.

BUT. We still see research being done, often very fast, to support existing ideas, or kill them, which is inherently predictive, despite the success rate of market research AS PREDICTION being laughable low.

You have a very interesting section in the book about the emergence of street artist Banksy. What can advertisers learn from the Banksy phenomenon?

Banksy is an attention hacker like no one else in this generation, a modern day Warhol. All of his work is designed to invite debate, to get into the news, to hack culture. Every stunt, every collection, is differently delivered, wrapped in mystery, laughing at and with society, advertising and the art world.

His concerns almost always reflect concerns of the time, he has clear values and well established viewpoints, he appropriates culture as much as creating it, leveraging old schemas to explain new ideas.

He utilizes technology but never fetishes it.

He manages the almost impossible balancing act of being one of the world’s most commercially successful artists but without any hint of corporate acquiescence or sense that money is a motivator. He easily traverses media, from art, to film, through PR, events, carefully curated digital spaces, protecting his brand by being utterly distinguishable in whatever he does.

It’s hard to imagine a better role model for a marketer, but that of course doesn’t mean it’s easy to steal his genius.

I was surprised that you had relatively little to say about transmedia branding in this book, given how central the concept has been to our conversations through the years. To what degree do you think this concept is still relevant to the ways brands are operating in an era of social media?

This was a conscious choice on my part, for a couple of reasons. Firstly, my IPA thesis focused on transmedia branding was being published in a new book called What is a 21st Century Brand, the same day that Paid Attention was coming out. Secondly, I had become too associated in the industry with your idea. So for practical purposes I chose to not focus on transmedia ideas in this book.

Transmedia thinking has flared up a few times in advertising since we started discussing it on 2007. It sometimes gets sidelined into a simplicity versus complexity discussion. Advertising agencies found that they are built on reduction, or distillation, on shorter utterances. Their creative muscle memory is not in long form cross-platform ideas. So the great case studies of transmedia branding tended to pull from existing worlds, especially games or films. Transmedia branding got conflated with ARG type executions.

That said, I think this is conflation. Transmedia principles, whilst derived from narrative, don’t require it slavishly. At the same time, advertising people increasingly use “storytelling” as a descriptor of what they do, but clearly this is a different sense of the word than traditional narrative. Advertising is a different domain with different requirements. So, the idea that all channels are different, that they function differently and are consumed different, that they interact with each, that people are participatory, all remain vital for today’s brand practitioners.

You sum up a section on engagement with this statement: “Some brands will benefit from developing engaging communication, some from adhering to a low involvement strategy.” What do you see as the benefits of each and how might brands determine in which category they fall?

This is the big question, or at least one of them. It constitutes one of the core strategic communication questions. And, of course, communications can be engaging without precipitating specific engagements from its audience or community. The most appropriate way is to triangulate between user behaviors of the most valuanble audience, the nature of the product and brand, the practicalities of deploying complex ongoing engeagement campaigns versus more traditonal ad campaigns.

To begin with, it got simply bifurcated along “consumer interest” and frequency lines. That is to say, more expensive products have longer buy cycles, people tend to do more research, so ARGs, for example, for cars tend to make more sense, financially and otherwise, that the same level of depth for bubble gum.

But. All companies, I believe, need to prioritize being responsive to their customers wherever the want to communicate, especially in social media. [Apple famously doesn’t use social media for customer support. They do however have stores, free Genius Bars, and Tim Cook has taken on the Jobsian habit of occasionally responding to unsolicited customer emails.]

I believe in the mere exposure effect, I believe low attention processing can be demonstrated to exist and have impact. HOWEVER, the environment is SO cluttered now it’s both difficult and expensive. Billboards are a powerful medium, but when the whole world resembles Times Square, we should perhaps look for other strategies.

Faris Yakob is co-founder of Genius Steals, an itinerant strategy and innovation consultancy he started with his wife, Rosie. He is the author of Paid Attention, which come out in April 2015, and a contributing author of Digital State [2013] and What is a Brand? [2015], all published by Kogan Page. He was named one of ten modern day Mad Men by Fast Company but hopes he is less morally bankrupt than the television show characters. Despite living on the road, you can reliably find him on Twitter (@Faris) and on his blog: www.farisyakob.com. For more information on Genius Steals head to www.geniussteals.co

Categories: Blog