March 12, 2008
If You Saw My Talk at South By Southwest...

On Saturday, Steven Johnson (Everything Bad Is Good for You) and I delivered the opening remarks at the South by Southwest Interactive Conference in Austin, Texas. I originally posted this over on my blog, but I know many C3 readers are interested in conferences like SXSW, so I wanted to share this here as well.

Conference organizers told me that we were heard by around 2000 people, including those in the large auditorium and in various overflow rooms. So, I've got to figure that a certain percentage of those people are going to be visiting this blog for the first time in the next week so I am pulling together a guide to where they can read more about some of the topics we discussed. For the rest of you, you might want to check out this very elaborate chart which was "live drawn" during our discussion and which does a reasonably good job of mapping out some of the core topics.

For those of you who want to learn more about the New Media Literacies, you might want to check out the white paper my team wrote for the MacArthur Foundation which identifies 11 core skills and cultural competencies which we think young people need to acquire to become full participants in this emerging media culture. The MacArthur network has generated a series of books on key topics surrounding digital media and learning which can be downloaded for free.

If you'd like to read more about the politics of fear and the ways it blinds us to what's really going on as young people engage with media, you should consider this blog post and this document which danah boyd and I co-authored in response to the push to regulate school and library access to social network software.

I discussed the concept of collective intelligence in relation to Wikipedia in this post, which is an early draft of an article which will appear soon in The Journal of Media Literacy. For the distinction I raised between "collective intelligence" and "the Wisdom of the crowds," you might read this post which considers how both might be tapped through serious games.

Steven and I chatted a bit on the relative merits of The Wire (which I described as one of the best shows "inside the box") and Lost (which I characterized as one of the best shows "outside the box"). Here's an earlier discussion of Lost in relation to shifts in how we process television content. For a fuller consideration of Lost as a new form of television, you might check out CMS alum Ivan Askwith's Masters Thesis on engagement television. For an interesting take on The Wire, see Jason Mittell's essay here. And of course, Johnson's own Everything Bad is Good For You brought the debate about complexity in popular culture to a much larger public.

I spoke at some length about Harry Potter fandom. These ideas are more fully developed in the "Why Heather Can Write" chapter of my book, Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide. I expanded my thinking on Harry Potter fandom this summer here at the blog. The remarks on Harry Potter were inspired in part by the fact that I appear in a new film (which I still haven't seen), We Are Wizards, which was premiering at the South by Southwest film festival.

I've had several people ask me about what I meant when I suggested that the amount of energy and creativity that surrounds fan culture might be understood, at least in part, in the context of a culture which fails to tap the full intelligence and creative energies of its citizens. I suggested that many of the women I had met in the fan fiction writing community, for example, held jobs, such as those of a librarian, school teacher, nurse, or nanny, which require high level of education for entry but often do not tap that knowledge as regularly as might be ideal. Many of these women use fan fiction as an outlet for their surplus creative energies, as a way of getting recognition for their accomplishments outside of the workplace, and as a means of forming community with others who share the same frustrations and fantasies. The same is true for fans of many other types: they are able to do much more outside of the workplace than they are allowed to do in their jobs. Someone asked me if I had meant women. Well, women are certainly as a group devalued and under-utilized in our society and this may account for why such a large number of them are participating in online communities of all kinds and accomplishing extraordinary things. But the same would be true of many other groups, including a larger number of young men. The point is that we look in the wrong direction when we pathologize fans for finding creative outlets through participatory culture rather than asking why America is not more actively cultivating that intelligence and creativity through every aspect of our society. (None of this is to suggest that fan activities are meaningless in their own right or need to be justified by appealing to more 'serious' values. As I also said during my remarks, humans do not engage in activities that are meaningless. If you think you see people doing things you find meaningless, look again and try to understand what the activities mean for them.)

We talked about the Obama campaign and its relationship to collective intelligence and social networks, a topic that I explored in my blog very recently. From there, we extended to talk about the concept of civic media, a topic which allowed Steve to talk about his new project,, and for me to talk about the work we are doing through the newly launched Center for Future Civic Media at MIT.

In response to a question from the audience, I spoke about the newly created Organization for Transformative Works, a project by and for fans, in response to the commercial exploitation and legal threats surrounding their culture. It's a good example of how we can use the mechanics of participatory culture to exert pressure back on other institutions.

And if you want to hear my conversation last year with danah boyd, you can find it here.

For those of you who are new to this blog, welcome. Explore the backlog of posts. Stick around for more conversations on participatory culture, collective intelligence, and new media literacies.