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.

Blog
  • Storytelling and Digital-Age Civics: First Sessions As Seen from the MAPP Situation Room

    by Henry Jenkins


    The following post was written by my Civic Paths research team, including Liana Gamber-Thompson,  Sam Close, and Raffi Sarkissian.
    Last Tuesday, the Media, Activism and Participatory Politics (MAPP) team here at USC kicked off our webinar series on Storytelling and Digital-Age Civics in partnership with Youth Radio, Connected Learning, and the Media Arts + Practice Division at USC’s School of Cinematic Arts. This webinar series examines the role of storytelling as a practice that bridges cultural and civic/political engagement, particularly in the context of digital spaces. The webinars bring together participants from different groups which have been innovative at using storytelling for their civic and political goals. The webinars, co-hosted with Youth Radio, have gotten off to a great start, spurring some very thought-provoking conversations among a stellar group of diverse participants (Webinar 1 Speakers; Webinar 2 Speakers).
    In addition to the awesome moderators and speakers, a dedicated team of researchers and graduate students affiliated with the MAPP initiative has been holding down the “situation room” , live-tweeting the event and participating in the Livestream chat.* The full recording of each webinar is embedded below.  But, if you don’t have time to watch the whole conversation, the behind the scenes team has included highlights here, often identified through moments we all tweeted at the same time!

    The team hard at work in the “situation room” during Webinar 2
     
    Webinar 1: Finding Your Story
     

    Watch live streaming video from connectedlearningtv at livestream.com
    Watch live streaming video from connectedlearningtv at livestream.com
    The first webinar focused on how participants identify and frame stories that engage their communities. Some highlights include:


    Invisible Children co-founder Jason Russell tells how personal experiences in Uganda opened his eyes to the problem of child soldiers at 9:30 minutes into the video.


    DREAM activist Erick Huerta uses the internet as a “message in a bottle” to reach undocumented youth and other Dreamers; see at 12 minutes into the video.


    See Carol Zou from the public fiber arts collective Yarnbombing LA explain how story helps her group build their internal community.  Panelists explain the benefits of using story in activism from 20 minutes into the video.


    Moderator Derek asks the activists about identifying target audiences in story-based activism at 27 minutes into the video.


    Jason responds to some critiques of his organization’s largely white American audience, pointing out that stories are based on experience: “You write and create what you know and what you experience, and that creation or that story is a direct reflection of the audience that’s going to hear you.”  See at 35 minutes into the video.


    Livestream chat participants pose an interesting question to the panelists: How do you protect your stories, prevent misappropriation, and counter hostile remix? How do you tell your own stories versus others’ stories? See their responses at 38 minutes into the video.


    Starting from 43 minutes into the video, panelists respond to the suggestion that hard facts and data, not stories, create actual change. Monica Mendoza from Youthspeaks argues that “stories are what attracts people to issues” and are “the backbone to a lot of social movements.”


    Hear Matt Howard from Iraq Veterans Against the War talk about how his group made sure mainstream press coverage included both them and their Afghani partners at a protest. At 48 minutes into the video, the activists share more thoughts about how to keep a story on track and negotiate telling the stories of others.


     
    Webinar 2: Making Your Story

    Watch live streaming video from connectedlearningtv at livestream.com
    The second webinar examined how to best give shape to stories for civic purposes. Some highlights include:


    Musical artist Dorian Electra and Tani Ikeda from imMEDIAte Justice Productions share notes on creating projects that use media as a catalyst to engage youth in “boring” issues like economics and health education.  Hear all the panelists describe a project their group has created from 5 minutes into the video.


    “It’s pretty hard to explain to a freshman ‘you’re being segregated.’ It was something so complicated, but when they saw it on a map they saw that it was real.”  High school students Roxana Ayala and Uriel Gonzalez tell their story of using GIS maps to explain de facto segregation to fellow students and community members at 21 minutes into the video.


    At 25 minutes into the video, activists discuss the skills they had to acquire to make stories that matter. For Charlene Carruthers from the Black Youth Project’s BYP100, a key skill is facilitating conversations with people with diverse views and creating a story that touches a diverse group.


    Hear cartoonist Andy Warner describe how he uses story characters to create a call-and-response dynamic with his audience.  From 37 minutes into the video, the activists give advice on how to create narratives and use aesthetics to make stories resonate.


    Ever heard of “cultural acupuncture”?  Lauren Bird from the Harry Potter Alliance explains how it helps her organization create campaigns with wide cultural resonance.  Panelists debate whether stories should be of the moment or meant to stick around from 46 minutes into the video.


    Join us for Webinar 3, “Spreading Your Story,” tomorrow, January 21st at 10:00 am PST and Webinar 4, “Considering Your Story’s Digital Afterlife,” next Tuesday, January 28th at 10:00 am PST. You can watch the webinars live and ask questions via Livestream.  Also join in the conversation on Twitter via #civicpaths and #connectedlearning. There’s sure to be even more interesting insights generated in the weeks to come!
    *The support team includes: Samantha Close (@ButNoCigar), Raffi Sarkissian (@rsark), Karl Menjivar-Baumann (@newclearistbau), Liana Gamber-Thompson (@lianathomp), and Neta Kligler-Vilenchik (@Netakv).
     

  • Rethinking the “Value” of Entertainment Franchises: An Interview with Derek Johnson (Part Three)

    by Henry Jenkins


    In many ways, children’s television (and media more generally) has been the testing ground for franchising strategies. What is it about this genre/market which lends itself to this mode of production? How have children’s franchises represented the merger of logics from multiple industries?
    I argue in the book that, in some ways, the franchising model is an extrapolation of the episodicity of television, where one episode is meant to lead viewers into the next.  In franchising, this just functions across multiple markets and media.  In children’s television specifically, this structure has combined with marketers’ desires to use one media to drive kids’ interest in consumer experiences in another.  That is, of course, how US commercial television approaches all its audiences more broadly.  But television for children has been regulated differently; our concerns about children as a special, protected audience has led to increased activism in an attempt to protect children from this kind of coordinated commercialism.
    I don’t really make this claim so explicitly in the book, but it strikes me now that these regulatory attempts at protection may have helped feed the very franchising strategies that anti-commercialism activists would (and did) decry.  When you had Action for Children’s Television pushing for tighter restrictions on how toy companies could advertise their products on television, and succeeding in getting “program length commercials” like Hot Wheels pulled from the air, companies like Hasbro adapted.  While they couldn’t produce television based directly on their toys, they saw no regulation against advertising comics, so they created a partnership with Marvel Comics to create a GI JOE title that could tie-in with a television program.  They now had not just a TV show, but also a comic, both which would help create visibility for the TV.
    Of course this only created a model for Transformers and other TV-comic-toy partnerships to follow, and it was really the deregulatory atmosphere (and not attempts at greater protection of kids) that weakened the rules and set off the wave of franchising to follow (where the comics intermediary wasn’t so necessary).  And at the same time as we try to protect kids from commercialism, it’s also common to assume kids don’t have well developed sense of taste—so alongside the impulse to protect them, we could shrug and ignore moves toward commercialization as indicative of the poor taste of kids.  But in either case, we tend to look at kids as special or essentially different, and I think that franchising strategies developed in these sectors in specific relationship to that cultural belief.
    Other important factors here, thinking more long term, have to do more with nostalgia. Transformers may have been highly franchised back in its original 1980s incarnation too, but its persistence as a franchise today is tied very heavily to Hasbro’s “transgenerational marketing” strategies whereby adults are encouraged to share their childhood culture with their own children.  (Marvel has just started a similar “Share Your Universe” campaign meant to transfer parent tastes to a new generation of comic readers).  In the long term, focusing on childhood culture now creates the possibility for new iterations in a generation’s time when your original audience procreates.  The reproduction of franchising is in that sense tied to the reproduction of people.
    I should also mention, in terms of creativity, that because we tend to delegitimize the tastes of kids, those working in children’s media sectors aren’t often accorded the greatest status and capital within the industry.  Regardless of what you think about it’s commercial motivations, the franchising of kids’ media led to a lot of experimentation with how you could tell an ongoing, collaborative story, and the familiarization of children with more serialized production strategies in the 1980s must have certainly helped create a literacy for the (far more critically endorsed) serial storytelling we see in some parts of “adult” TV today.  There were a lot of people working in children’s TV who still considered themselves creative and innovative despite wider industrial and popular perceptions, and from an insistence of that may have come a lot of new ideas about how to reach kids—both in a marketing and narrative sense.
    I’m trying to zero in on this question of childhood in my current research, so I find this connection to be worth exploring with more care than I have here.  But I think there’s definitely an important relationship for us to see there.
    Some have seen the franchising system as one more device which American cultural industries use to exert their dominance over the global media imagination, yet you stress the ways that they operate within a transnational context. How might we understand what others have discussed as the transnational exchange of television formats as part of a logic of franchising? What role does localization play within the franchising process?

    I’m not sure I want to suggest that franchises are not in fact such a device, but it is more complicated than that critique usually allows.  Television formats, as I mentioned earlier, allow television to travel in localized ways, where instead of the US sending completed episodes of Friends to every nation on earth, the idea for shows like Big Brother are traded amongst different television markets to be remade and localized to suit specific cultures.
    One of the most interesting things about the format market is that the dominance of the US is far less clear, with companies like Endemol from the Netherlands having become big players in the market for localizable concepts.  Of course, that doesn’t mean the old import/export market is dead—NBC’s The Office was formatted from the BBC version, as were series in many other nations, yet in international television sales, the American version is still able to find a global market, playing alongside the other localized versions that do not travel as freely (including the British original).  Formatting allows us to have Law & Order in many different incarnations travel through the global market, but also to develop localized offerings like Law & Order: UK.
    But while American power persists amid formatting and in other kinds of franchising more broadly, I think that the processes by which formatted local uses are incorporated into the system challenges our ability to talk about franchising in terms of purely national origins.  In the television format, the innovations introduced locally can often become a part of the overall formula to be fed back into all the other contexts in which it is used.
    In that sense, the formats sold by Endemol are not specifically of “Dutch” origin, but over time become the product of a transnational exchange of culture.  This is what I see in the global exchange of properties like Transformers that operate at a level beyond the single television format.  Given the complex history of exchange and shared innovation of a concept between toy companies and television producers in Japan, the US, and elsewhere, it feels over-simplistic to say that Transformers is either a Japanese or an American property.  I think we understand that franchise much more effectively if we see it as the product of these more complex relations and exchanges between transnational industries. And that might help us better understand globalization more generally.

    I was struck by your use of the term, “enfranchisement,” in your closing chapters to describe consumer relations to media properties and your insistence on a more “ambivalent” account of what it means to be a fan of some of these series.  You write, “In the end, we have to ask not just how end users might occupy the spaces of cultural production once controlled by media industry, but also how those media industries might occupy the spaces of play and creative labor in which users participate.” What do you see as a way forward for cultural theory in response to these contradictions and ambivalences? Is it possible for us to acknowledge the grounds gained and lost through these negotiations without coming across as wishy-washy and indecisive?

    I suppose that the way forward I hoped to find in that passage was one where were could recognize the agency of consumers and their participation in cultural production while at the same time recognizing how that pleasurable, playful participation can function as a part of industrial economies. I’m taking cues there from a number of inspirations, from your own work to that of Marc Andrejevic.  What I hoped to accomplish on a theoretical level with this idea of enfranchisement, however, was not just to recognize the role of consumers’ playful, pleasurable participation in industry, but to start thinking by implication about the work of professionals too as a form of collaborative participation both playful and uneasy (where the ideas about design and world-sharing can often turn us).
    In the shift to thinking about “participatory culture” that your own work helped inspire, the focus of participation often remains on the audience.  By considering the identities and subjective uses of media by audiences in relation to industrial production, I think that my hope was that we could equally conceptualize the work of professionals and amateurs as “participatory,” as a way of using the media with pleasures and forms of engagement tied to their identities and communities as participators as well as the institutions that give them license to engage in these practices (extending of course the important work that John Caldwell, Vicki Mayer, and so many others have already done to connect production, labor, and identity).  One way forward for cultural theory, therefore, might be to continue to deconstruct hierarchies of production and consumption (as much as I feel continued, focused attention on production is a significant priority) and to focus on how creativity and participation more broadly turn on relations of power that manifest through identity, meaning, labor and other vectors of cultural struggle.
    I don’t think that risks wishy-washiness or indecision, so much as it is asking for a paradigm shift, where we stop thinking about industry work cultures and amateur participation as all that different, and instead look at both production and consumption together as sites where identities and meanings form in relation to the participation structured by relations and institutions of power.  Instead of juxtaposing industry and audience or production and consumption, we might think about them more in terms of their commonalities.

    How do you see Amazon’s new Kindle Worlds program in relation to the contradictions about audience “enfranchisement” that you describe in your closing chapter? It is not, strictly speaking, “free labor,” since fan authors are paid royalties based on their contributions, yet it also represents potentially an extension of corporate control over audience fantasies since writers need to work within prescribed rules and boundaries and be granted authorization before they can contribute their stories to this program. Does this make fans part of the “world-sharing” process you describe here?

     Exactly—it’s not free labor, but it is enfranchised labor, where the participation and labor of these users comes under the terms of the contract of the Terms of Service of End-User License Agreement to which one must consent to participate.  Fans would absolutely become implicated in the world-sharing process with which I am concerned.  Much like any licensee, these fans would, as sanctioned contributors to the franchise, become subject to the same kind of stringent approvals and conditions described by MJ Clarke in his book Transmedia Television.  That might seem counterintuitive given that we probably imagine Amazon playing a pretty heavy intermediary role between fans and rightsholders—but Clarke reminds us how rare it is for professional licensed creators to communicate directly with license holders either.
    The collaboration behind this kind of licensed enfranchisement is not based in significant communication, so much as taking up a prescribed role within a shared economy of creation.  Given the restrictions that the Content Worlds contributors will face, I would expect participants to adopt many of the same world-sharing strategies that any professional licensed creator would.  Expect plenty of continuity-mining.  Again, I think this helps us to try to think around some of our binaries between production and consumption, or professional and and amateur, in that we can think about similar subject positions, identifications, and negotiations of creativity, participation, and convergence operating across both sets of terms.
     

    You end the book with this provocative sentence, “it is at the point where collaboration stops, however, that new alternatives might emerge.” Do you have any sense of what those “new alternatives” might look like? Is cultural production possible without collaboration – in the multiple senses you are using the word here?
     
    My intention in talking about collaboration in that chapter was to consider it both in the creative sense of shared effort, and in the political sense of complicity with an occupying regime.  In that final sentence imagining an end to collaboration, I may have been leaning slightly more toward that latter sense of the term, given that collective participation may be not just political advantageous, but also, as your question and much of the book itself suggests, inherent to cultural production more generally (even something as seemly authority-driven and corporately-controlled as media franchising).
    You’re right that it is difficult to imagined cultural production without the social dimensions of exchanges and sharing we’re been discussing.  But what I think I was getting at speaks to the way in which I understand collaboration in relation to franchising more generally; I’m not insisting that these things are collaborative in the sense that franchise participants all get together and have open conversations about how to make a shared work—in fact, I think this is very much the opposite of what happens given the cultural and economic obstacles to that kind of cooperation.
    Again, the collaboration that I see happening here is one where people who do the work of cultural production, professionals and amateurs alike, enter into a shared economy of creation by taking up one of many specific positions within an industrial set of relations.  The “end” of collaboration I’m talking about then is one in which those roles are perhaps not accepted so easily, and the terms of participating as a “user” or “sharer” of something like a franchise get renegotiated (both economically and in the sense of how we identify with and in relation to that cultural work).
    I’m not sure that’s a very specific answer, but I’m imagining possibilities where we start to challenge the system that tells us who does and does not have the right to participate in culture in what prescribed ways.  If nothing else, this could be a refusal to abide the roles that EULAs and licensing contracts give us in making sense of our productive contributions to popular culture. The end of collaboration, in this sense, would be a form of cultural production where the users of culture are active in determining what their roles might be, where enfranchisement leads not just to agency participation in a set creative relations, but the reimagination of what those relations are.

    Derek Johnson is Assistant Professor of Media and Cultural Studies at the University of Wisconsin – Madison.  He is the author of Media Franchising: Creative License and Collaboration in the Culture Industries (NYU Press, 2013), as well as the co-editor of A Companion to Media Authorship (Wiley-Blackwell, 2013) and Making Media Work: Cultures of Management in the Media Industries (NYU Press, forthcoming 2014).  His research focuses in the media industries, looking at how cultures of production negotiate creativity, convergence, and collaboration.  Most recently he has started working on a new single-authored book project focusing on children’s media industries and the way in which producer identities cohere in relation to ideas about age, taste, and the child audience.  He has published several journal articles and chapters on the subject of Marvel Comics and their cross-media practices, and in his forthcoming publications, he has critiqued the industry strategies behind the HerUniverse web shop as well as the racial logics behind LEGO’s licensed film and comic minifigures.

  • [Peer economy] The home stretch!

    by hiDenise


    The radio silence is over; the last time I posted specifically for the Civic blog was fall 2013. I'm not continuing onto a Ph.D. after June, so before I leave my post as an academic who researches the peer economy, I'm going to report what I'm seeing and sensing as I see and sense it.
    20-20! Get it?! This will also be the last semester of bad puns.
    To keep myself accountable, here's a smattering of what I'll dive into this semester:
    The peer economy business model is built on an inventory that is inherently inefficient (there's a limit to how much you can optimize human performance, and both physical constraints and social values play into that). This means that the ability to scale inventory is lopsided; companies can onboard more providers, but providers can only improve efficacy to an extent, and then they are at risk of having to hustle. Company survival and growth is predicated on market forces, so how do businesses:
    walk the precarious line of growing their operations while also covering their providers needs,
    figure out how to grow wealth for both the company and providers
    preserve and honor their "inventory's" humanity?
    I will detail the similarities between peer economy providers and domestic workers as excluded and vulnerable workforces. I will also highlight some of the domestic workers movement's successful tactics and approaches that apply to provider advocacy.
    I will present a case study that teases out the thin line between an independent contractor and a misclassified employee, and whether to approach this case as a precedent. Peer economy providers file taxes under a 1099 status, and technically as independent contractors, they must have a certain degree of discretion in completing services. If not, then companies that manage very actively are at risk of having misclassified employees, which has its own consequences.
    The recent sector buzz is about how similar peer-to-peer marketplaces are to co-ops and could give rise to unions. I will page through each of these possibilities and then suggest that more fitting models for comparison are actually franchiser-franchisee models and the open source movement.
    Given the rise of new work models and their effects on geographic populations, I will suggest how to practically plan workforce development programs and curricula.
    Besides operating licenses, how do regulations and policies hamper peer economy providers? Stumbling blocks include intellectual property and materials regulation.
    This January, I have been leading focus group research with Peers.org, currently the only organization in the sector dedicated to provider advocacy. These needs assessments will show us unacknowledged needs and gaps for peer economy providers. My February is devoted to data processing, and I will share some of the findings through my Civic outpost.
    I will propose the concept of data philanthropy, where private companies and city departments could collaborate to address operational pain points and fill in urban planning gaps. The data that peer economy companies collect have a latent civic capacity (using Nick Grossman's term). City departments lament how operations burn up capacity, so what is an untaxing framework to matchmake city pain points with peer economy data resources? I’ll be collaborating with some very thoughtful go-getters on what this could look like.
    I’ll also share other ruminations that are too far off in the data future and sector maturity to plumb now (take note if you’re in need of thesis or dissertation ideas). One that I’m especially curious about stems from how the U.S. social welfare system has mostly been supplemented by corporations till the early 1980s, when there was a mass corporate migration away from defined benefits, comprehensive pensions, and human capital investment in employees. Europe, on the other hand, has strong social welfare states, some of which are overburdened. Do European peer economy providers in countries with strong federal social welfare feel more economically secure and freer in pursuing peer economy opportunities? Since European denizens don’t have to worry as much about social welfare coverage, does that help build the professional legitimacy of the peer economy?
    I want to at least call out the GDP spector lurking on the edges of market sizing and economic impact. Despite lots of economic literature reviewing its inadequacies as well as addendums and proposals for new standards, GDP seems to have an undying role in valuing American productivity.
    What are effective data collection questions that organizations such as the Bureau of Labor Statistics could deploy to get a fuller and nuanced understanding of what meaningful compensation looks like? This would be on top of the tunnel vision focus on professional income.
    Part of the urgency I feel comes from the logistics of completing a thesis: I must have a laser focus to do justice to at least one major issue in my research area, and the narrowed scope also brings it together as a coherent document. My research question is: What do providers need in order to have a meaningful and sustained work lifestyle in the peer economy? Several of the listed topics are part of my thesis output, but that won't come till the end of May, and it'll be written to meet academic requirements. It's much more important to get this info out while it's fresh.
    Second, it's impossible not to think deeply and research all of the other issues on the fringe of that scope, and I've been swimming around in this for two years now. Since the thesis is not the place to deposit all of the knowledges, my Civic outpost will become that repository.
    Denise's thesispeer economysharing economypeer to peer marketplacesp2presearchlabordecision-makingeducationgovernmentlocal communitiesnetworkstechnology solutions

  • Rethinking the “Value” of Entertainment Franchises: An Interview with Derek Johnson (Part Two)

    by Henry Jenkins


     
    What do you see as the limits of the concept of transmedia storytelling for accounting for the range of different production practices you discuss in the book?
     It’s often very appropriate to talk about franchising in terms of transmedia storytelling, but as I understood the concept in my reading of your work in Convergence Culture, I felt that transmedia storytelling represented a kind of aesthetically ideal case of franchising, where every element is designed to work together in a coordinated, coherent, integral way, without elements that seem unimportant to an overarching story.  Often, a way to do this is to ensure that your franchise is being guided by a strong authorial, editorial, or managerial vision.  I may be reading what you originally wrote a bit strictly, and I really love how you have since extended the concept to account for a greater range of multiplicity—where one-off interpretations and “what if?” spins on the franchise still make an integral contribution to the whole through their unique take on the formula.  I’m not always sure that creation under a centralized vision is the most interesting or ideal, so I think that acknowledging the pleasures of multiplicity and divergent interpretations really enhances our understanding of transmedia storytelling.
    But where I think transmedia storytelling cannot fully account for the full range of franchising is in the inherent messiness of franchising and its push away from integrated forms of collaboration.  I think that all transmedia storytelling is a form of franchising, but not all franchising manages to count as transmedia storytelling.  The industrial relationships of franchising across boundaries of corporation, media form, and production community lead to a resistance to the kind of collaborative creativity transmedia storytelling implies.  For many in the industry who have embraced the idea of transmedia storytelling, I feel that franchising is the “bad” object they want to move away from.  I think franchising is very much with us still, and I’m interested in it a little more because I want to understand the persistent tensions and struggles and unevenness that the ideal of transmedia storytelling often seems to want to move away from.
     
    I have often seen Marvel celebrated as an example of the successful and creative management of a franchise. What do you think Marvel has done that has won over fans, even as it has also been commercially successful? How do you see the new SHIELD television series fitting within the history of Marvel media production you trace within the book?
    This speaks not just to the world of comics, but also the world of film, television, and video games that Marvel has colonized over the last fifteen years (where I see its success touted most often in a comparative sense against the failure of competitor DC in similarly trying to build franchises around its characters, Batman excepted).  Coming back again to the idea of authority, I think the way that Marvel has won over fans in this effort over the last five or six years in particular is based in some part in reaffirming the idea of centralized control and authorship against the multiple authorship of franchising (similar to the transmedia storytelling ideal vs. franchising bad object described above).
    The Marvel case study in my book actually stops at the moment that Marvel starts to move away from licensing Hollywood studios to produce Marvel films, as has been the case in the 20th Century Fox X-Men and Sony Spider-Man series.  But in a parallel article in Cinema Journal, I explored this new moment where Marvel starts to self-finance and self-produce its own films, starting with Iron Man and of course leadings to last years’ The Avengers.  This involved a shift in the way Marvel executives talked about the company, the (gendered) identities of its talent, and its relationship with Hollywood; Marvel singled itself out as the only entity that truly had the experience and expertise to deal with these characters.
    What was needed, this suggested, was not the licensing-based franchise model they had been relying upon, but a more centralized form of creativity where the ideas remained under the control of the entity that originated them.  This was a more authority-driven idea that connected with common sense notion about creativity—of course Marvel would do a better job making Marvel movies.  Of course 20th Century Fox would be less desirable than the originator.
    I’m not trying to identity who does and doesn’t make more objectively good comic book films, so much as illustrate how the celebration of Marvel (and the much-repeated suggestion from fans that Marvel try to buy back X-Men and Spider-Man rights from its old studio partners) is in some ways tied to our continued investment in the idea that “real” or “the best” creativity lies with the originator, not the licensee or franchisee.  Marvel’s success, then, lies beyond the screen in tapping into our continued investment in creative authority.
    Agents of SHIELD though represents an even newer moment.  With Avengers already planned as the culmination of a multi-year production sequence before Disney purchased Marvel in 2009, I think we’d have to be careful about characterizing the build-up to that 2012 film as truly indicative of how Marvel operates under Disney.  Agents of SHIELD is perhaps one of the first high profile projects to come more fully out of the new relationship with Disney, and its subsidiary, ABC.
    One of the big fan concerns about the Disney deal was what this would mean for Marvel’s autonomy, and Marvel is now in the position of needing to assert that autonomy in the face of not just Disney, but also the TV network.  At the same time, you have producers like Joss Whedon working to create as much distance as proximity to the familiar success of the film, suggesting that the series will have a different, more everyday focus and that recognizable superheroes won’t be doing cameos every week.  Much of this is about managing fan expectations, I’m sure, but I also feel some dimension of it must be about assuring audiences that this project has a creative raison d’etre of its own, as well as an executive independence.
     
    Where-as others speak of “world-making,” you write extensively here about “world-sharing.” What are some of the challenges of constructing a world that will be “shared” by many industry participants (not to mention diverse fan communities)? Does this phenomenon of “world-sharing” mean that the idea of a transmedia experience as coherent and coordinated is a practical impossibility given the current structure of the entertainment industry?
     
    I think I hinted at this above when comparing transmedia storytelling to franchising, in that there are definitely structural obstacles to making world-sharing happen in a coherent and coordinated way.  When media producers operate within different markets and corporate cultures, or even just in different silos within a single parent company, it is logistically difficult to manage collaboration—which is why companies like Starlight Runner have emerged to perform that labor, and we see new transmedia producer credits for those working to push production past those hurdles.
    What I want to emphasize though is that the obstacles aren’t always structural and/or economic—they are often social and tied to a sense of production culture and identity.  World-sharing in a coherent and coordinated way is a challenge because there is often no economic incentivize to do so.  But it is also a challenge because there is sometimes no creative incentive to do so (in the sense that creativity is a type of identity and not just an aesthetic trait).
    Think about television spin-offs where two or more related series are in production at the same time.  In that case, the shared world makes it possible for characters from one show to pop up on another, but it rarely happens because of both practical scheduling matters and corporate concerns about dilution and confusion of distinct sub-brands.  At the additional level of production culture, however, producers often resist these kinds of stories, identifying one series and set of characters as “theirs”, and others as belonging to another creative community.  So in the 1990s when you had multiple Star Trek series in production under a single franchise manager (Rick Berman), but with each under the pen of a different writing staff, there was a sense of intra-franchise competition, not cooperation.  Each writing staff and crew had duties specific to one part of the shared world, and they often wanted their contributions to be seen as the best, competing for accolades and attention.  So there were occasional crossovers, sure, but producers just as often resisted coordination because each staff wanted to generate its own identity and culture.
    I don’t think that the tensions involved with “world sharing” make transmedia storytelling a practical impossibility, however.  It’s just requires working against these factors, and my own concern is more about the desirability of doing so, the unchallenged privilege we might accord the idea of central authority over sharing, and whether these competing creative visions and tensions may have some alternative value beyond their failure to always produce coherent narratives.
    In the process of discussing “over-design” as an industrial process, you’ve developed what I see as one of the richest account of the production design process within contemporary entertainment. In many ways, contemporary stories are as much constructed by decisions made by art directors and costume designers as they are by decisions made by screenwriters. Yet, our critical discussion of these productions lags behind, often grumbling about products being overly dependent on “special effects” as if these choices could somehow be isolated from the overall experience of the fictional world. To what degree is it important to see these new franchise properties as “designed” rather than “authored?”
    Based on how many times I’ve brought it up already, I think I’d be hard pressed to say that authorship isn’t important, since that idea is often the terrain of struggles over creativity in cultural production.  But the idea of design helps us get past the question of who the author is, and more toward how multiplicity, collaboration, and competing claims to authorship can be supported in creative practices.
    I like the framework of “design” because it points to the creation of a system or context in which other things will happen.  That’s how I see a lot of the creative energies of franchising at work, where the creativity that occurs in one instance becomes the context for creativity in another.  It might be a little easier to see these dynamics when comparing different entries in a franchise—the way in which the new Star Wars films will be produced in relation to the design of those that have already been produced, for example.  But even outside of franchising, design could be a useful framework for reconceptualizing authorship more generally, in that we might think about how the creative work of many different labor categories (from directors to production designers to foley artists) occurs in relation to a shared context for designed for collaborative creation.
     
    Derek Johnson is Assistant Professor of Media and Cultural Studies at the University of Wisconsin – Madison.  He is the author of Media Franchising: Creative License and Collaboration in the Culture Industries (NYU Press, 2013), as well as the co-editor of A Companion to Media Authorship (Wiley-Blackwell, 2013) and Making Media Work: Cultures of Management in the Media Industries (NYU Press, forthcoming 2014).  His research focuses in the media industries, looking at how cultures of production negotiate creativity, convergence, and collaboration.  Most recently he has started working on a new single-authored book project focusing on children’s media industries and the way in which producer identities cohere in relation to ideas about age, taste, and the child audience.  He has published several journal articles and chapters on the subject of Marvel Comics and their cross-media practices, and in his forthcoming publications, he has critiqued the industry strategies behind the HerUniverse web shop as well as the racial logics behind LEGO’s licensed film and comic minifigures.

  • Rethinking the “Value” of Entertainment Franchises: An Interview with Derek Johnson (Part One)

    by Henry Jenkins


    This is another in a series of interviews with the authors whose books have been published as part of the Post-Millenial Pop book series which Karen Tongson and I edit for New York University Press.
    I have followed the career of Derek Johnson since he was an entering Master’s Student. We were foolish enough to have rejected Derek when he applied to be part of one of the first classes accepted into the MIT Comparative Media Studies program — it is not a mistake I would make again, because I now see Johnson as one of the most impressive cultural scholars of his generation. I admire his commitment to test theoretical frameworks against carefully documented case studies and his refusal to take an either-or position in our ongoing debates about structure and agency. He is someone who pays attention to points of negotiation or, his term, “collaboration,” where different participants in the processes of cultural production meet each other with differing stakes and differing degrees of power and control.
    His strengths as a theorist and researcher are aptly demonstrated in his new book, Media Franchising: Creative License and Collaboration in the Culture Industries. The term, “franchises,” has been used loosely in media studies for years, but no one has systematically developed a framework for understanding its historic emergence, its discursive implications, its relationship to other industrial practices, and its consequences for what media content is produced and how it is marketed and consumed. Johnson’s work here is multidisciplinary — including a focus on the management of media systems, archival research and interviews with industry insiders, textual analysis, and audience research, all in the service of understanding the logics shaping contemporary media production. The book makes a vital intervention into ongoing discussions around transmedia storytelling and places a new emphasis upon the role of production design and world-building in the contemporary entertainment industries. I have already incorporated this book in my own teaching and writing, especially his work on “world-sharing” within the Battlestar Galactica and Star Trek universes. His writing is clear and accessible enough to satisfy many undergraduate students and sophisticated and provocative enough to generate heated discussions in graduate seminars, a hard balance to achieve.
    The following interview focuses  on some of  the book’s core concerns, since there is so much there which will be of interest to the various communities that follow this blog. But, you need to know that Johnson is now producing scholarship at an astonishing speed on a broad range of contemporary media practices — from My Little Pony to Lego culture — and topics — including an important new collection on media authorship and another book in the works that deals with the processes and structures of media management. His recent work has especially engaged with issues of gender, sexuality, race, and class, as they relate to the development of children’s entertainment properties.
    As you note, the concept of media franchises involves “a migration to the media industries of market logics from other business sectors.” What can you tell us about how the concept of media franchises emerged and what do you see as the implications of using the same concept to discuss the production of “McDonald’s, Mr. Goodwrench and Chicken Delight” and of Star Trek or Battlestar Galactica?
    There’s at least two levels at which I think it’s important for us to draw this connection between the production of entertainment and these kind of business formats often used in the retail sector.  At the most basic, economic level, a franchise is a business arrangement where one party extends to another party the right to use some kind of idea or intellectual property in a new market.  In the mid 20th-century, McDonald’s and other franchisors increasingly looked to sign a bunch of independent franchisees across the country (and later the world) to extend the corporate footprint with little risk and investment (since the financial burden for operating these new locations fell on the franchisee, who actually paid the franchisor a fee for this right).  This is a very similar arrangement to what we see with media licensing—film rightsholders, for example, extending production responsibilities for video games or comic book tie-ins to third parties who absorb the production costs and risks.
    Of course, media licensing is a practice with a long history predating the post-WWII franchise boom (see Avi Santo’s excellent work for this), so I’m not claiming that this kind of arrangement was fully inspired by McDonald’s and the like.  But I think it’s an important connection to draw because there’s a large literature in organizational communication, business, and other non-media fields that have reflected on the social dynamics of franchising structures.  Retail franchisors and franchisees have not always worked in unison; instead, franchisors are always working to assert their authority over independent outlets they cannot fully control, and franchisees seek to assert their local agency in a larger corporate culture (in a way a bit more complex than George Ritzer’s notion of the “McDonaldization” allows). It’s exactly the kind of question of power and negotiated struggle that I think speaks to cultural studies of the media.
    What I do think is perhaps more “new” is the way this franchise boom in the latter half of the 20th century helped to shape the way in which the production of media entertainment would be increasingly imagined.  Media licensing, and even formatting (in the sense Albert Moran researches, where ideas for TV programs are exchanged between different local markets) were not new to the entertainment media of the 1950s and beyond, but came to be understood through this same “franchise” imaginary.  As Moran tells us, Romper Room was a 1950s children’s television series that was originated in one local television market, and then spawned new productions in others—with the creators having looked to fast food franchising as an alternative model to network distribution.  It is by the late 1980s and early 1990s, of course, that the language of franchising enters common usage for making sense of entertainment media—where we start to understand “franchise” as a commonsense descriptor for things like Star Trek, Batman, and others that cross multiple sites of branded production and consumption.
    I think it’s particularly crucial to understand this connection because the franchising metaphor also shapes our critical orientations to these entertainment brands.
    Calling something a “franchise” is not a neutral declaration: it prompts us to think about the media in the same terms that we think about McDonald’s.  There is a recognition of the industrial basis for that culture and its hyper-commercial, systemic mode of multiplication and maintenance over time.  Often that comes with an implied critique as well, where acknowledging something as a “franchise” product suggests that its existence is based on market calculation more than creative expression.
    When I first offered franchising as a site of analysis at a conference many years back, one colleague advised me to come up with a different term because of the very economically determined, delegitimating connotations it had.  The link between McDonald’s and media in franchising, therefore, is one that makes cultural production meaningful, and it does so in ways that are not always flattering and make it a source of tension and struggle for those involved or invested in that production.  My interest was not to take the economic determination implied by franchising for granted, but to think about how those implicated in and by that term work to negotiate those meanings.
     
    You argue that franchises are not “self-propagating” phenomenon. So, where does agency lie in our discussion of franchises?
    In the people who do the work of that propagation.  I consider franchises not as produced by corporations who own the rights to media properties, but also all the other stakeholders who seek to get something out of the work of expanding production and making more of that cultural product.  This could be the producers hired by major media conglomerates to take the reins of a particular franchise—author figures like Ron Moore (Battlestar Galactica) or JJ Abrams (the recent Star Trek films) or the long line of different comic book authors and editors hired by Marvel or DC to be steward of their ongoing superhero narratives.
    Despite whatever authorship and genius we might recognize in these folks, they are still “for hire” workers with only a very bounded and limited (often contractually temporary) claim to authority in the franchise.  The site of agency could also lie in the less visible below-the-line labor of production designers, musicians, and technicians who are asked to recognize the vast histories and networks of collaboration surrounding a franchise in the course of their work.  And it could also extend to the licensees who are contracted to produce ancillary materials meant to work in some relationship to other products, but produced from a position outside more privileged sites of creativity and subject to the stringent approvals of rightsholders and other authorities.  I also want to locate agency within the consumer as well, as fans and other audiences do a lot of work to help these franchises move across markets and persist over time.
     
    The idea that a popular narrative is a complex mix of commercial and cultural motives has been one of the most long-standing themes in film studies (going back to the auteur theory), so why has it been so hard for some people to accept the idea that “franchise properties” might also be culturally meaningful? In what sense are the properties you study “creative”?
     
    In that there’s a lot at stake in the ability of people working in these contexts to be able to lay claim to the idea of creativity.  On the one level, I definitely acknowledge and am fascinated by the capacity for franchising to support complex storylines, design histories, and capacities for expression.  But on the other, I see “creativity” not as an essential truth but as a status and subjective identity that media producers and workers would claim about themselves (“I am creative; I do creative work”).  Particularly because the hyper-commercial realm of media franchising is so critically delegitimized, I’m particularly interested in how those involved with franchising might position themselves in opposition to that franchising and assert their uniqueness, authority, or vision.
    Think JJ Abrams and not only his choice to replace the old Star Trek continuity with the new one, but also the distance he puts up between himself and the original series (he prefers Star Wars), and his tendency to retroactively disavow ancillary video games (he just claimed to have “dropped out” of producing the 2013 Star Trek video game despite his co-producers’ participation in the development stages, distancing himself from perceptions that it was nothing but a cheap cash grab)
    One of my other favorite examples is how Dirk Benedict, the original Starbuck from the 1970s Battlestar Galactica, attacked the new series by emphasizing its “franchise” status and casting the mass production of franchising as part of a gendered war on masculinity.  The commercialism of franchising raises the stakes for media workers to position themselves as creative and as different from all the others that use the same idea or premise or property toward this ongoing commercial end.  It helps to position one’s self as such if you actually do innovative things, and I think we do see that a lot in media franchising given this imperative for differentiation.
    But sometimes that differentiation comes as much in the identity claims of specific contributors as it does the product itself (and as the case of Benedict and what Suzanne Scott calls the “fanboy auteur” suggest, these franchise identity claims are often explicitly gendered).  As much as franchise products may or may not be indicative of creativity, I see franchising more broadly as a site of struggle over creativity, what it means, and who can claim it in industrial contexts.
    You describe in the book interviews you have done with media industry insiders who want to deflect or disavow the concept of franchising as informing their creative decisions. Why do you think the term produced such discomfort? What alternative models do they draw on to describe their work?
     

    Similar to the above, I think it’s because when you’re talking about creative decisions, the idea of franchising (and all the economically-determined calculation it implies in popular and industry use) calls the potential creativity of those decisions into question.  So what I found were often appeals to reassert creativity—and often singular authorship—in opposition to the idea of franchising.
    While this wasn’t one of my own interviews, Lost is a great example of this, where the conclusion of the series generated all kinds of industry and critical speculation about franchise potential, and the producers repeatedly came out to publically state that they would have none of it and that theirs was “definitive” version of Lost.
    To me that’s what fascinating about franchising—it is both a logic for multiplying media production, but also a meaningful discourse for making sense of and assigning value to that production.  It forces producers to confront the fact that they don’t have creative monopoly in the for-hire work they do for corporations.  It also forces them to position themselves and their work in relation to that of others who come before, after, and in parallel.  That can create contradiction and discomfort around the idea of creativity, which leads to that disavowal.

    Derek Johnson is Assistant Professor of Media and Cultural Studies at the University of Wisconsin – Madison.  He is the author of Media Franchising: Creative License and Collaboration in the Culture Industries (NYU Press, 2013), as well as the co-editor of A Companion to Media Authorship (Wiley-Blackwell, 2013) and Suiting Up: Cultures of Management in the Media Industries (NYU Press, forthcoming 2014).  His research focuses in the media industries, looking at how cultures of production negotiate creativity, convergence, and collaboration.  Most recently he has started working on a new single-authored book project focusing on children’s media industries and the way in which producer identities cohere in relation to ideas about age, taste, and the child audience.  He has published several journal articles and chapters on the subject of Marvel Comics and their cross-media practices, and in his forthcoming publications, he has critiqued the industry strategies behind the HerUniverse web shop as well as the racial logics behind LEGO’s licensed film and comic minifigures.

  • Rest in peace, Teresa Peters

    by Ethan


    I got an email from an old friend today, the sort of mass email we send our friends and colleagues to update each other on our lives and goings on. I didn’t make it past the first line, because he opened his missive by mourning the death of Teresa Peters.
    Teresa was a friend of mine, though we’d lost touch the past couple of years. I knew she had been battling breast cancer, but I didn’t know how gravely ill she was, nor did I know that she passed away on December 16 of last year.
    I got to know Teresa a little more than a decade ago through the globally far-flung, but personally close network of people working on technology for international development in sub-Saharan Africa. I was running Geekcorps, an NGO I’d founded to provide technology training to small businesses in the developing world. Teresa was running Bridges.org, an NGO she’d founded to ensure that ICT (information and communication technology) had real and positive impacts in the lives of people in the developing world. We founded our organizations in the same year, 2000, she in South Africa and me in Ghana, and moved in many of the same circles. We were both named “Global Leaders for Tomorrow” and later “Young Global Leaders” by the World Economic Forum, and worked together to try to navigate the surreal experience that is the WEF’s annual meeting in Davos, trying to explain why the work each of us was doing to the rich and powerful people who populate that event. One year, we shared a flight from Accra to Geneva and roomed on the same floor of a respiratory hospital in Davos, the only accommodations either of us could afford given the fragile budgets of our organizations.
    While most of us working in technology for development were passionate (and often pathological) optimists, Teresa was an optimistic critic. She asked some of the hardest questions the field needed to address and was relentless in demanding answers. Is information technology a shortcut to improved economic and human development? Who was making choices about technology for developing countries? How could developing nations build the talent they would need to make decisions on their own and stop relying on people like Teresa and me? Bridges.org became the world’s leading think tank for skeptical, thoughtful questions about the field, and I approached her with trepidation for help in evaluating the work we were doing with Geekcorps, knowing full well that if she thought our work was ineffective, she’d pull no punches in assessing our work.

    I admired Teresa for her relentless questioning, for her demands that we challenge our assumptions about technology and about development. I was most challenged by her insistence that we move beyond a world where expertise about the developing world comes from experts outside of the developing world. Teresa worked in Cape Town to build a team of African policy analysts who could ask these same sharp questions about technology and development she asked, informed by local understanding. It was a difficult task, and one the international development community continues to wrestle with. I left Geekcorps in 2004 and the organization folded shortly after; Teresa left Bridges for the Gates Foundation in 2006, leaving Bridges locally led, a testament to her commitment to building a strong, skilled team in South Africa.
    She and I were in touch sporadically during her time at Gates and reconnected in 2010. Teresa had been diagnosed with breast cancer and had returned to Licking County, Ohio to be closer to family and friends, and to fight her disease on her own terms, in her hometown. Only now am I learning that Teresa chose not to fight her cancer with chemotherapy or radiation, but focused on nutrition, exercise and connection to her community. She survived far longer than doctors had predicted and, from what I can tell, had an awesome, loving and full life in the community she loved.
    In 2010, Teresa was starting a new project, a book on evaluating impact, the question she was always most passionate about. I connected her with friends at the Center for Global Development in Washington DC, and we talked about the blessings and challenges of splitting your life between a small, rural community and issues that are global in scale, a challenge I navigate as well from Berkshire County, MA. And then, after a flurry of email, we fell out of touch.
    There’s a tendency to assume that, in this digital age, we won’t lose touch with our friends, at least our digitally-enabled ones. (And Teresa was that – this FAQ from 1995 reminds us that she was working on issues of the internet and accessibility years before most people realized the internet was an interesting place to be.) But Teresa focused her attention and her limited time on her community in her last years. She worked on local environmental issues, opening the Going Green Store in Granville, OH with her partner Michael, and on documenting her approach to cancer through a book titled “A New Kind Of Patient”, which urged people battling chronic conditions to be active and activist patients. I am sorry I didn’t get to experience more of this period of Teresa’s life, but I also sense that this part of Teresa’s life was consciously lived with her remarkable friends and family in Ohio, not with the extended tribe of friends she found all over the world in her globally-focused work.
    I am of an age when I’m starting to lose peers, friends who’ve left us too soon. For those of us who’ve lived our lives, at least in part, online, it’s a particular form of melancholy to ask Google how we’ve touched and changed the world, because the answers are always unsatisfactory. Some of Teresa’s papers remain online (like this examination of “e-Readiness”, one of the core ideas about ICT4D put forth by the World Bank and others in the last decade), but it’s clear that her importance and legacy to those of us who care about technology and development isn’t well reflected by her digital traces. What is clear is that Teresa was embraced, loved and deeply mourned by those she grew up with and chose to close her life with, that for all her connections around the world, she valued the connections to her family, her friends and her community most of all. I think there’s a lesson in Teresa’s life and her choices for those of us who work to change the world locally and globally, in ways big or small.
    I miss you, Teresa, and I am grateful for your example, for your questions, your challenges and your remarkable life. Rest in peace.

    Edmond Gaible’s memories of Teresa
    Teresa’s obituary in the Newark (OH) Advocate
    Teresa’s web site

  • Kansas City Hosts The Biggest Civic Crowdfunding Campaign Ever

    by rodrigodavies


    Today the Kansas City-based non-profit BikeWalkKC launched the biggest civic crowdfunding campaign ever, to extend the bikeshare scheme the group partially crowdfunded in 2012.
    They're running ten $100,000 campaigns for the next 46 days on on Neighbor.ly (also based in KC), one for each of the ten zones of the city in which they're planning to build new stations. The total ask of $1M is, as far as I'm aware, the largest civic project on an online crowdfunding platform to date.

    It's a huge task, but the campaign has already raised $300,000 in matching funds: $200,000 from the Federal Highway Administration and $50,000 each from two Kansas City-based organizations, the Kaufman Foundation and the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. BikeWalkKC will continue to try and raise more big-dollar donations as the campaign progresses. If BikeWalkKC are successful they'll be able to install an additional 15 bike stations, taking the total in the city to 27.
    I'm currently in Kansas City studying the first BikeWalkKC campaign and working on a guide to best practices for non-profits in civic crowdfunding, and it's exciting to get a front-row seat on this one. BikeWalkKC were already on my radar thanks to their 2012 campaign, which raised a total of $419,298. On that occasion most of the funding came from large donations made directly to the platform, while $123,940 was raised via Neighbor.ly.
    Given the even bigger ask this time, it's a smart move to modularize the campaign by zone since residents and businesses in those areas have a direct link to the service they're being asked to support. There's also the possibility of friendly competition between neighborhoods - and perhaps even their local representatives, if council members back the campaign.
    The organization has been advocating for a more walkable city since 2011 and in 2012, after finalizing the plans for the bikeshare scheme were announced and securing the first round of funding secured, the group won a proclamation from the city council to provide bike lanes for the first time and to support the fledgling bikeshare infrastructure. Without BikeWalkKC's campaign -- and especially the installation of the bikeshare scheme -- it seems unlikely these biking improvements would have gained sufficient political traction.
    With the second round of the campaign aiming even higher - for the magic million figure - it's a major test case for whether civic crowdfunding can scale.
    (Cross-posted at rodrigodavies.com)
    civic crowdfundingcrowdfundinggovernment

  • “Engage!”: Reflections on My Public Intellectuals Class

    by Henry Jenkins



    The cartoon above was created for the USC Annenberg Agenda, the newly revamped newsletter for the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. Jeremy Rosenberg, the school’s Assistant Dean for Public Affairs and Special Events, commissioned Chandler Wood, an LA-based comics artist, to sit in on several sessions of my Public Intellectuals: Theory and Practice class and capture something of the spirit of our ongoing conversations. Wood was the author of Another LA Story, a comic which ran in the LAWeekly from 2005 to 2011. A storyboard artist and designer of many a commercial and the occasional film (most recently 47 Ronin), he is nearing completion of his first graphic novel, Tonight There’s Gonna Be a Jailbreak, co-authored with Darren Le Gallo. I thought he did a brilliant job in conveying something of the core of the class and capturing some aspects of my personality and persona. This is the first of what the school hopes will be an ongoing series of cartoons focused around some of the innovative teaching within the school.
    If you’ve followed this blog, you already know about this class. You can find the syllabus here. And you may well have seen the series of blog posts my PhD students generated as part of the class activities (running between October 8 and October 28.
    As I look back at my experiences teaching the class last term, I consider it one of my peak intellectual experiences in a classroom. This was an extraordinary group of students, who came from diverse backgrounds in Communication and Cinema Studies, and many of them came to the class with some practical experience at translating their ideas into language which might effectively reach some public beyond the academy. Some already had blogs, some had been journalists, some were already appearing on television interview programs, and some have worked on student radio. But, all of them grew enormously over the course of the semester as a result of paying close attention to issues of writing and self-presentation and especially in being reflective about their own goals and about what their desired public might expect from them. Some were studying and theorizing communication practices that they had not yet applied to their own work, and sometimes, they were struck by the contradictions between what they knew conceptually and what their reflexes were as a scholar in training. By the end, all of them seemed to have grown enormously — it is too easy to say they found their own voice, since most of them had a powerful voice before, but they learned to use their voice more effectively in the service of their personal and professional agendas.
    I was struck by the urgency of the students’ desires to talk through these issues of “professional development” which extended beyond recommendations that grew out of the “publish or perish” tradition. They knew a fair amount about what was involved in submitting conference papers and journal articles, but most of them hoped that there could be more to their professional lives than these scholarly pursuits. Many of them had strong political motives for wanting to speak out to a large public about their research — students working on how to create environmental awareness or shape educational policy or challenge efforts to regulate the content of video games or challenge various forms of privilege and overturn negative stereotypes. Some of them, perhaps most, had creative urges which were not going to be satisfied by producing sometimes deadening academic prose. Some of them wanted to forge strong alliances with nonprofit organizations, governmental agencies, political parties, labor unions, or media production companies, which would allow them to not only study the current media environment, but also to help transform and reshape it. Many of them were struggling with deep ambivalences about whether they wanted to pursue a career in academic life or whether they wanted to make a difference in some other sector. But, they had found it hard to talk about these conflicting goals and ambitions in their other subjects, had found that universities often treat PhD candidates who don’t want to became academics as failures, rather than exploring ways that scholarly skills and knowledge might become resources for a range of other activities.
    I was also struck by how enthusiastic so many of our guest speakers were. I drew extensively on other faculty and researchers in the Annenberg School and elsewhere at USC who had a public-facing dimension to their work. They saw what we were doing in the class as important and they were eager to contribute. They found the class a chance to reflect deeply on their own professional practices. And they spoke frankly about the rewards and risks in pursuing these kinds of opportunities. One thing my students said again and again in their closing reflections on the class was that this approach showed them so many different (sometimes contradictory) models of how they might do work that mattered to a larger public.
    An ongoing debate in the class had to do with the kinds of relationship which might exist between Communication scholars and industry, from some who held industry at arm’s length, to others who had found jobs which allowed them to move fluidly between the two. We talked about the ways that scholarship might make a difference in shaping media companies, and we talked about some of the painful compromises and dead-ends other researchers had encountered trying to do these kinds of interventions.
    Speakers were frank about failures in a way which doesn’t happen very often in the classroom or in our writing, and we heard a lot about what we can learn from our own and others’ mistakes as we are taking meaningful risks in the pursuit of our work. I had colleagues who worried that I was trying to turn all graduate students into public intellectuals, but I think that the class gave students many chances to reflect on what choices are right for them and what is gained and lost by thinking outloud in public. We considered definitions of the public intellectual which involved speaking truth to power, but we concluded that in order to do this, one has to actually speak to power, and that often involves moving out of our comfort zones and dealing with people we don’t know very well or trust very much.
    A key theme running through the class was the power of storytelling. Students heard from several different journalists about how they might translate their ideas for a larger audience, and again and again, it came down to telling compelling stories, often drawn from personal experiences. In doing so, we found ourselves pushing back against a generation of scholars who had been taught to distrust narrative as brushing over contradictions and not challenging established wisdom or reinforcing racist stereotypes and patriarchal pleasures. The challenge, then, was how to hold onto the underlying values which drove those critiques, while finding ways to expand the conversations those critiques grew out of. It is no longer enough to “problematize” existing frameworks unless doing so can also provide tools that can be appreciated and deployed by those who are on the front lines of these struggles.
    We talked a lot about the ways that it is much easier, less risky, for some people to tell their stories than others, and this led to some frank discussions about how race, gender, and sexuality are experienced within — and beyond — academic cultures and I came to admire the good humor and civility with which everyone involved was able to share their experiences and perspectives around these often “touchy” issues. We benefited enormously from having a mix of international students in the group, who again and again forced us to acknowledge that our understanding of what constitutes an intellectual, what constitutes a public, and what we see as a desirable relationship between the two is deeply grounded in cultural traditions and political structures which differ from one national context to the next.
    A key strength of the approach we took was this constant movement between theory and practice: practice understood both in terms of the front-line perspectives of our many guest speakers and in terms of the applied assignments which had students doing blog posts, op-eds, print and radio interviews, and digital humanities projects, all growing out of their own research.
    A key challenge I’ve struggled with has been at what stage in a student’s career such training would be most valuable. On the one hand, those students who took this class in their first term in graduate school felt that it provided them with a strong overview of the full range of opportunities and practices they might want to explore in their career. People talked about  the class as “pulling away the curtain” and helping them to see the actual work that went into becoming a scholar. On the other, some of these incoming students did not yet have a fully developed sense of themselves as a scholar; they did not have perhaps enough research of their own yet to draw upon as they started to do these more public-facing projects.
    Some of the students said that others in their cohort not in the class had joked about this being a course in how to become an academic “rock star.” But, I think by the end of the term, we were all clear that this kind of public facing work occurs at every level of visibility and access. It can involve sharing what you know at a PTA or school board meeting. It can involve work within a hyperlocal community or through an online forum. These many different scales and localities of communication reflect the affordances of a more networked culture, and they force us to move from a world where public intellectuals are superstar scholars, a select few, to one where these activities are a normal part of how many if not most scholars go about their work.
    There’s no question given the success I experienced in this class, and given how meaningful both my students and I found this process, that this subject will become a standard part of my teaching rotation here at USC. I am also hoping that I may inspire more faculties around the world to try teaching a similar kind of class to their students. Annenberg’s Dean, Ernie Wilson, has sparked debate recently about what is required to teach communication scholars how to communicate effectively what our field is about. I suspect that such classes might force all of us — faculty and students — to grapple with the complexities of that issue. My class worked in part because I have such a great group of colleagues here (and at other institutions who joined the class by Skype) who are applying some concept of the public intellectual in their own work. I am lucky to be at an institution which is creative and generous with each other about what constitutes scholarship and which is more open than many schools about the ways new digital platforms and practices might be expanding the arena of public discourse. Annenberg supports experimentation and innovation in ways that more conservative institutions might not.
    But, I believe that teachers at many schools could look around them and find rich and compelling examples in their own backyard of scholars who are doing different kinds of work in part as a response to the expanded range of communication options we confront at the current moment. Each such course would be different, because it needs to be grounded in your own institutional context, but I hope that others will see the value in incorporating this kind of teaching into their school’s curriculum. And if you do so, please share some of your experiences with me and my readers.

  • It’s an App App App App World!

    by Howard Gardner


    In her most recent entry on the Global Search for Education blog, CM Rubin discusses The App Generation with co-authors Howard Gardner and Katie Davis. To learn more, and to read through this informative Q&A, visit the Huffington Post website today. 

  • The Prosumption Presumption

    by Henry Jenkins


     

    There is a growing conversation about the nature of participatory culture (and digital media more generally) in Post-Communist Poland. Late last year, I featured a series of blog posts by Polish scholars looking at various aspects of this phenomenon and before that, I shared a report discussing media-sharing practices there. This week has seen the release of an important new report, Prosumption in the Pop Industry:An Analysis of the Polish Entertainment Industry, issued by the Local Knowledge Foundation, and prepared by Piotr Siuda Radosław Bomba Magdalena Kamińska Grzegorz D. Stunża Anna Szylar Marek Troszyński  and Tomasz Żaglewski.
    As part of their process, the researchers reached out to myself, along with Mark Deuze and George Ritzer, for our insights into what the report calls “prosumption,” and they ran the transcript of our responses at the end of the report. I have sought their permission to share some of my response to their questions here: There’s more from me as well as responses to these questions from Mark and George if you follow this link, where you can read a English language version of the report as a whole.
    I should say at the outset that I am not a big fan of the concept of “prosumption,” which the field has inherited from Alvin Toffler. It assumes a kind of hierarchical relationship where the top level is occupied by the professional and the bottom by the consumer, with the amateur and prosumption layers existing in between. It assumes that the primary goal of amateurs is to gain entry into — or directly influence — the professional sphere of media-makers, and in my experience, this is more true of some fans or some kinds of fans for others. Across my work, I have documented cases where fans seek to actively influence mainstream media content, and others, where fans seek to construct their own culture, for their own purposes, and just want the corporate media to leave them the hell alone. Some of this has to do with their assumptions about whether the producers are apt to “get it right” if they seek to act on the fans’ desires, whether they have a history of being exploited or marginalized by corporate media rather than embraced, whether they see their pleasures as subcultural or dominant, and as such, the idea of prosumption is more apt to be embraced by those in dominant groups (i.e. white male straight Cis middle class etc.) rather than those who find themselves in more subordinate positions. I do not want to close the door entirely — I think there are ways that at least some fans have gained greater influence, there are always new and emerging models which we need to confront with an open mind and a wait-and-see attitude, etc.
    Some of this skepticism comes through in some of my responses here, but I was not asked to directly address the concept of prosumption per se as a way of describing the phenomenon this report discusses. I was much more enthusiastic about the process of fans and producers working together towards shared ends a decade ago when I wrote Convergence Culture, than I am today, after six or seven years of “Web 2.0″ corporate practices, which have just as often sought to strip mine fandom as a source of revenue and labor,than to act in ways that democratize and diversify who gets to participate in our culture. Yet, I think this report, which gives us a glimpse into how these questions are being thought about in industries that emerge in a different cultural, political, and economic context, may be a good moment for some further reflections on the nature of “prosumption” and where we are at in terms of corporate relations with fandom.
    MC: In your opinion, what is the general level of prosumption in the pop culture industry globally? By prosumption, we mean the manner in which the pop cultural industry uses the activities and commitment of a mass culture audience to promote specific brands or franchises.
    HJ: I have not seen anyone offer a quantitative measurement for how much user-generated content is being produced, under what conditions, in which contexts, around which content, etc. I would not, in any case, be the right person to try to address this question from a quantitative point of view. A part of the problem is that prosumption, as you are defining it, is a sliding scale. There are many forms of amateur cultural production in response to mass media fandom which is neither solicited nor valued by corporate rights holders. This is the realm of fan culture as we have historically understood it. There are forms of amateur production which make money only indirectly for corporate interests, such as the way content travels on Facebook, Twitter, and to some degree, YouTube, where the company does not really care what is being produced but simply that their platform is seeing a certain amount of traffic that comes in ways they know how to capitalize on. There are forms of cultural production where user-generated content is curated and harvested, so that the ‘best material’ gets shared with the larger community but the bulk of it ends up on the cutting room floor: this is often true in terms of various design contests around brands. There are forms of cultural production which are semi-commercial and semi-professional: much closer to the original meaning of prosumption. Here, both sides may profit from what is produced and shared: see for example Etsy or Amazon’s Kindle Worlds for two models of what this might look like. To me, these revenue sharing based models are very different from many of the kinds of free labor which have been critiqued by Marxist theorists. So, until we have a better vocabulary for talking about these and a range of other arrangements, I doubt we can come up with anything approaching a definitive answer to your question.



    MC: What are the reasons for the emergence of prosumption in mass culture?
    HJ: Again, to paint in broad sweeps, there was a great deal of grassroots cultural production across human history: it was simply localized or personalized, produced and shared within a geographic community and/or within a localized subculture. Many of these forms of cultural production were pushed from view by the rise of mass culture, but they did not totally disappear. We can trace many examples of participatory culture at any given moment across the 20th century and many struggles to gain greater access to the means of cultural production and circulation. These various local practices provided the initial seeds of today’s prosumption. What happened though is that net- worked communications made these alternative cultural practices more visible; they could be shared easily across geographic boundaries; there were hybrid media spaces where different subcultures could observe and learn from each other; and people with shared interests could find each other. As this wave of participatory culture moved across networked society, then other institutions responded, seeking to channel and commodify participation in the various ways we discussed above. And that is what results in Web 2.0 business models and discussions of user-generated content. The problem with that model is that it defines all of the participants in relation to the tools, platforms, or content producers and not in relation to their collective goals as members of particular kinds of communities of practice.
    MC: How do you expect pop culture prosumption to develop globally?



    HJ: We are seeing examples in most parts of the world at this point, but its spread is uneven, not simply because of limited access to technological affordances, but also for cultural, legal, and political factors, given the ways that collective cultural production is bound up with issues of free expression and democratic citizenship, given that expanding chances to produce and share culture and knowledge can have a destabilizing effect on established hierarchies. But, we do not want to think about this purely in terms of a spread of one dominant participatory culture across the planet, though we can see people interacting at small scales via social media across national boundaries. Ethan Zuckerman’s new book does a convincing job of showing us all of the boundaries and barriers that affect who communicates with whom or who cares about what on the World Wide Web. We are also seeing local traditions of cultural production, say, the samba schools in Rio, assert themselves through digital media, and thus finding new forms of cultural expression and social connection.
    MC: In your opinion, what strategies will be implemented to increase the significance of prosumption in pop culture? What will be the role of the Internet in this process?

     


    HJ: I am less sure I want to increase prosumption as you have defined it above, where it is an extension of the commercial logics of corporate mass media or part of the new emerging logics of Web 2.0. What I want to promote is a more participatory culture where we expand access to the means of production and circulation to more of the population, with access defined here not simply in terms of tools and platforms, but also social and cultural resources. We need to promote a broad array of different models for production and circulation, many of which are not governed by the motives of neoliberal capitalism, some of which follow more closely forms of gift or reputational economies where creativity is motivated by social rather than material rewards.
     
    MC: Pop cultural prosumption is more or less linked to fandom as a life- style. Fans who receive free samples, help to organize conventions, or re- view promotional copies are regarded differently by their community. Their status among other fans changes—they gain popularity and respect and their role as experts becomes more and more important. Have you noticed this phenomenon?



     
    HJ: Yes and no. I think that in the US, fans are often distrustful of those who become more fully imbricated into the commercial system. Forms of prosumption may or may not actually value fan expertise or respect fan traditions. Certainly, there are more casual consumers who feel more comfortable remaining in these corporately policed spaces, but I think it is an open question whether these spaces will ever fully replace more grassroots spaces, which often actively resist corporate motives or question ideologies. Also keep in mind that fandom is only one form of participatory culture and only one of the sets of cultural communities that motivate prosumption. It might be interesting to look at something like Etsy, which certainly attracts some forms of fan production/consumption, but also taps into older crafter traditions that have often de- fined themselves in direct opposition to mass culture.

     


    MC: In the traditional media model, the producers imposed their desires on the audience. What is the situation today and how is it changing? Is there equality between fans and producers? In fact, whose arguments are more important when it comes to conflicts of interests?
    HJ: We are nowhere near ‘equality’ at the present time, but there have been shifts in the relationships between producers and consumers, at least as I observe them in the US. I would hate to universalize this. It has always been the case that producers have sought to control both the distribution and interpretation of their content as much as possible, and fans have often sought to elude that control to pursue their own interests. No one can really control what happens to media content once it reaches the hands of the consumer, but consumers have had difficulty influencing production decisions. This is why John Tulloch described fans as a “powerless elite.” Today, what fans make of the raw materials producers provide them is much more publically visible. More and more people know about fan fiction or are watching fan remix videos, and fans are collectively exerting much stronger pressure on producers to respect their interests as they are making decisions than impact the production. Fans are also involved in the circulation of the content, as more stuff travels through digital social networks, as well as across broadcast networks. As this has happened, producers have started to reappraise their relationships with fans. They initially acted out of fear of losing control. It is now clear they have already lost control in that sense, so they are seeking to court fans. Clearly, they would like to exert as much control as possible, but they are also having to give grounds on many traditional constraints on audience behavior as they are coming to realize that engagement is a key currency in the contemporary media economy.
    MC: How do you evaluate pop culture producers’ tendency to employ fans (i.e., a fan becomes a professional)? Is it a common practice? How will it evolve in the next few years?



    HJ: This is still a minority practice, but it is growing. Of course, in some senses, the line is an arbitrary one. Obviously, most people who produce popular media also consume it, many of them were ‘fans’ in the broadest sense or otherwise why would they enter the industry. But the process of training and recruitment as a professional often involves a reorientation where you are discouraged from seeing the world from the consumer perspective, and recruits often come to see consumers as very strange creatures. What we are seeing is that some producers are consciously bringing some of their most vocal fans ‘into the tent,’ i.e. inviting them to help advise the production on the desires of their community and in return, act as translators back to the worlds they came from. This works only in so far as these ‘fans’ are ‘representative’ of or ‘meaning- fully tied’ to the fan world in the first place. It is not as if fans speak with the same voice; there are all kinds of tensions within fandom and thus, there is a tendency for producers to recruit certain kinds of fans and leave others outside, perhaps even more marginalized than before. Fans make a distinction between affirmational and transforma- tional fans, i.e. fans who celebrate and master the storyworld as it is given to them vs fans who recreate the story materials to better serve their own interests. It is been much easier for producers to absorb affirmational fans than transformational ones, and this has gender implications since the first category is heavily male and the second more heavily female. So, unless the producers develop a deeper understanding of fandom’s own diversity, hierarchy, and traditions, there is a danger that they will over-weigh some fans at the expense of reaching the full range of consumers who are invested in their property.
    MC: Majority of the fans consider their favorite protagonists to be beyond mere characters from a TV series or a graphic story. Rather, they are symbolic figures who inspire and have an opinion about important ethical truths or the contemporary world. Is such a perception deeply rooted among fans or is it becoming stronger, perhaps, due to some new phenomena?


     
    HJ: I would say that stories have always existed as mythical resources through which we ask core questions about ourselves, our values, and our world. We understand this clearly enough when we are talking about folk tales, myths, and legends of the more historic variety, but when we talk about mass culture, the commercial dimensions—the commodity status of the text—can often drown out our appreciation of the symbolic roles such stories play within our culture. There has been a tendency to say that fans are confusing fantasy with reality—and that is almost never the case—or that they are ‘reading too much into’ popular fictions which were made for ‘entertainment purposes,’ and that is also not right. They are using these stories as springboards for important discussions they want to be having about the world, and they are using the characters as symbolic or mythical resources within those exchanges. That is why they want to rewrite or remix them: because they stand for something and they can be used to express ideas collectively that need to be heard. That is why fans are not content simply consuming: they ask questions, they tell stories, and they remix content, to see if they can more fully realize the symbolic potentials they see within this material. They are going to be doing this regardless of the commercial frames you put around that. Some kinds of prosumption practices can build partnerships with fans, while others impose limits and constraints or exploit fan labor in ways that will damage that relationship. Where this happens producers will face backlash from fans or fans will simply route around the constraints to more fully satisfy their goals. Right now, fans are much more sophisticated at navigating through the social media realm than producers are and have a much longer history of thinking about grassroots cultural production and circulation.
     

Pages