January 29, 2010

New Office

We're still unpacking, but we've finally moved across the MIT campus (by a few buildings' widths) into the old MIT Media Lab.

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If you'd like to update your old contact information, you can now find us at:

Convergence Culture Consortium
Comparative Media Studies
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
77 Massachusetts Avenue Building E15-324
Cambridge, MA 02139-4307

(Our phone number and email address are still the same!)

January 27, 2010

Prof. Jenkins at Sundance Film Festival 2010

Prof. Jenkins will be participating in the following panel at the Sundance Film Festival 2010 in Park City, Utah:

Net Evolution: What Will the Next Internet Be?

Often referred to as Web 3.0, the Internet is set to make its next great leap. Driven by cloud computing, mobile alternatives, semantic technology, and search functionality, the Internet is transforming from a network of information to one of knowledge and services--with ubiquitous digital content permeating every aspect of our lives. But what will these changes mean for the creative community? Will content ownership and distribution transform itself, or simply disappear? Moderated by Wendy Levy of the Bay Area Video Coalition.

Panelists: Henry Jenkins (provost professor, USC Annenberg and the School of Cinematic Arts); Saul Hansell (programming director, AOL's Seed.com); Srini Vasan (chief executive officer, iDistribute), Peter Nicks (filmmaker, The Waiting Room);, Takaaki Okada (Pentagram Design), and Jason Klein (Special Ops Media).


Three Awesome Events: Transmedia/Hollywood, Free Culture X, and ROFLcon 2

Transmedia, Hollywood: S/Telling the Story


Continue reading "Three Awesome Events: Transmedia/Hollywood, Free Culture X, and ROFLcon 2" »

January 26, 2010

3 Lessons Conan, Leno, and NBC Taught Me

After lots of press coverage and a very heated (and often uncomfortable) public debate, Conan O'Brien hosted his last episode of The Tonight Show on Friday, January 22.

As the clip below shows, O'Brien bowed-out gracefully, despite earlier snarkiness directed at NBC.

Ultimately, both Conan and Leno were hurting NBC's bottom line. Conan was the lowest rated host in Tonight Show history and his tenure marked the first time the show was ever on track to lose money.

Leno's 10 pm show hurt NBC too, but at the affiliate rather than the national level. Local news is the bread and butter of affiliates and with the low-rated Leno as a lead-in many 11 pm newscasts were hemorrhaging viewers. No doubt the poor lead-in from local news also hurt Conan's ratings.

NBC made a huge mistake putting Leno at 10/9c and their huge mistake has taught us three huge lessons about the television business.

Continue reading "3 Lessons Conan, Leno, and NBC Taught Me" »

January 25, 2010

And We're Back

Apologies for the void in articles last week. The C3 team has been busy with research and prepping for our move (with the Comparative Media Studies department) to a new office space in the (old) MIT Media Lab.

Look forward to a handful of new articles starting tomorrow. In the meantime, please enjoy (in Josh Green-esque fashion) this video of a piano-playing dog:

January 15, 2010

Zuckerberg's Privacy Dispute: A Need for Comparative Social Network Analysis

If the Google v. China incident didn't steal all of your attention, you may have come across a short interview by Michael Arrington with Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg (8 January), a few minutes of which deals with privacy on Facebook and across the social Web.

Watch the interview above, but the relevant content begins at 2:30 and ends at 4:00.

After the interview, many blogs went into a frenzy, proclaiming that Zuckerberg had declared privacy over and done with (eg., Facebook's Zuckerberg Says The Age of Privacy is Over, ReadWriteWeb). In two sentences, these were Zuckerberg's remarks:

People have really gotten comfortable not only sharing more information and different kinds, but more openly and with more people. That social norm is just something that has evolved over time.

As a general statement, we might declare 2000-2009 the decade of the social Web, in which a large sum of the general population entered the online space (versus the '90s and previous, which catered more toward computer scientists, specialized academics, and niche early adopters). With a new generation of users, then, the social Web defined the progress of the evolution of Internet culture: that is, how people interact with and are mediated by the technological infrastructure to produce or consume culture.

As I have mentioned before (Practical Geographies: Understanding How Cultural Practices Shape Social Media Usage), the Web Ecology Project has aimed to study the mediated space between users and platforms. We have achieved certain results by analyzing publicly available data over social networks (eg., Twitter, FriendFeed, etc.), while also scraping information from networks with privacy settings (therefore, we could only access that information available in our personal networks).

But the problem here is not a conflict over data for research. Nor is it a battle over keeping information away from companies. Rather it is a basic issue of providing the user with the ability to shape the platform according to his or her own preferences. It just so happens that the idea of social network produsage is commencing with the issue of privacy.

While the comfort level of general Internet users sharing information certainly has increased since 2000 (remember when most people were worrisome about using their credits cards on Amazon?), I am hesitant to agree with Zuckerberg's statement that users wish to share personal information more freely (in terms of volume and number of recipients). Certainly it's easy to see that the concept of spreading information across various networks has become a frequent practice. However, I would argue that users are currently more conscious about which information they share than at the beginning of the decade.

However, I will also argue that a user's understanding of and relationship to information depends heavily on how the user understands and relates to the platform which he or she uses. On one side of the spectrum, Facebook operates with user profiles which are interconnected with other profiles to create networks of "friends." Information can be "shared" when accounts intersect across friend networks. On the opposite end, a website like Craigslist.org thrives in user anonymity, where no user networks exist and where no personal information is shared between users (on the website, in theory, of course). In fact, it's positively "old-fashioned," as a Wired article puts it (Why Craigslist Is Such a Mess). "It relies on email and the telephone in an era of SMS and social networks. It sticks to traceless transactions in an industry that makes its living collecting data from every touch."

Of course, these two websites flourish based on the assumed necessity of sharing information. Contrastingly, OKCupid, the popular web-savvy dating site, allows users to set privacy preferences from account creation. As a dating website, users are probably more in-tuned to exactly what details they share about themselves. But OKCupid's matching algorithm -- which suggests other users to contact or avoid -- specifically utilizes shared information to make the matches (ie. the more questions you answer about yourself, the better the match).

Ultimately, the difficulty in debating about privacy is that each platform requires its own analysis. To understand the larger picture, therefore, more studies of cross-network analysis are sorely needed. The Web Ecology Project had attempted a study in the past, but we hit a wall: it was confusing to compare social networks without creating equivalency between different features on each network. danah boyd has written a few analyses, but they tend to share similar traits (eg., her study of status updates focuses on the two most similar networks, Facebook and Twitter: Some thoughts on Twitter vs. Facebook Status Updates).

In the end, we also have to remain conscious of the evolution of the social Web. When Facebook was only available to college students, users tended to share a lot of information and friend arbitrary people. But as Facebook has opened up to all users, these trends have significantly decreased, and it is common to even delete information before going to a job interview or censoring your profile before friending a family member. If Facebook's ultimate direction is toward open information practices on all ends, users will adapt to share less information, or at least similar amounts with smarter strategies in mind.

January 14, 2010

China: The First Geographical Walled Garden and What It Means for the Future of the Internet

It's hard to ignore all of the discourse that has occurred online in the past few days regarding Google's un-censorship in China. If you don't know the basics of the situation, take a look at the recent New York Times article (Google, Citing Cyber Attack, Threatens to Exit China) or simply read through the post that started this conversation over at Google's blog (A new approach to China). You can also look at the Twitter trending hashtag #GoogleCN here, which is sure to provide a lot of quick commentary and updated links.

Law professor Jonathan Zittrain explains that Google's website has been censored from access in China in the past, before Google agreed to set up its Google.cn address and filter content. However, as Zittrain also points out, most users attempt to circumvent filtering through anonymity networks and proxy servers.

Not that Google.cn has been used frequently in the past. Search competitor Baidu.com currently owns more than a 60% share of the market, perhaps because the website's search results tap into and reflect local Chinese culture much better than Google's algorithm. Whether or not Baidu finds the most relevant information, though, might not matter, as according to Rebecca MacKinnon's personal experience, Google.cn might actually censor less information.

The pressing issue, therefore, is whether or not Google's potential withdrawal from China will make a profound (or, really, any) impact on the local Chinese Internet culture. As the Wall Street Journal pointed out on Tuesday (12 January), even though a large majority of English-speaking users voted that they wanted Google.cn to remain in China, a majority of Chinese-speaking users wanted the company to leave:

At last look on WSJ.com, the main, English-language Web site, 80%, or 361 votes, said a resounding Yes. However, on Chinese.WSJ.com, the Chinese-language version, asked the same question in Chinese, 72% of a total 934 voters said No. The number of votes, just a couple hours of the announcement, was well above what similar questions have drawn in the past, and was growing.

Conversely, since Google is not just a search provider, but offers its many services to Chinese users, many people are upset about losing access to their data (link in Chinese).

The Blawgdog blog marks out the current websites that are already blocked in China:

  • Facebook.com: blocked.
  • Youtube.com: blocked;
  • Yahoo.com: it's Chinese website yahoo.cn has been acquired by Alibaba, a Chinese company;
  • Windows Live, still can be accessed in China, but some blogs are blocked.
  • Wikipedia: blocked.
  • Blogger.com: blocked several times.
  • Baidu.com
  • MSN.com: still can be accessed from China.
  • Yahoo.jp: still can be accessed from China
  • QQ.com: China's top IM provider and the top news website now.
  • Google.co.in: Google India, it will be blocked because Google's search engine is uniformed.
  • Twitter: blocked.
  • Myspace: blocked sometime;
  • Google.cn: It will die soon if Google keeps its promise.
  • sina.com.cn
  • Google.de: will also be blocked soon.
  • Amazon.com: Some of it's S3 Servers in America is blocked; it's Chinese version still works.
  • Wordpress.com: has been blocked for a long time.
  • Microsoft.com: it is alive.

  • More blocked website not in the top 20 include but not limit to discuss.com.hk (the largest BBS in Hong Kong), www.mingpaonews.com (the most reliable newspaper in Hong Kong), xanga.com, mitbbs.com (the biggest Chinese forum out of China), flickr.com, etc. Yes,  flickr. So one may know why yahoo sold its Chinese site. The fact is: for each new application that can not be controlled by the Chinese gov, if the operator does not restrict itself, it will be blocked. This is surely not an environment that Google can endure.

    Now, that this article points out that "if the operator does not restrict itself, it will be blocked," China is creating a politically-induced walled garden. Just like literal walled gardens, which are service providers that control content on their platform and restrict access to other platforms, the Chinese government is creating a national walled garden by slowly carving off websites that don't agree with the government's political philosophies.

    Of course, I have written before (Practical Geographies: Understanding How Cultural Practices Shape Social Media Usage)about how the Internet really isn't a linguistically-unified structure anyway, and the Google-China split will re-enforce the language divide. But as the Blawgdog also explains, while it would be detrimental to the general idea of the Internet as a unified structure if the Chinese Internet and English Internet split, the fact that non-skilled users will not be able to access any information they wish (skilled users though will continue to bypass restrictions, re: Zittrain above).

    A further division between skilled and amateur users of the Internet would throw Internet culture in China into further chaos, which might affect how citizens deal with and understand human rights, political activism, and communication policies. Thus, Google's split from China marks the first major instance of the direct political influence on digital appropriation. If the Chinese government continues to restrict access to certain websites, digital appropriation will move in two directions, resulting in either a highly-educated, unified user base or a split between current users and the next generation that are mediated by walled garden tactics.

    The Chinese government has already issued a response: "China's Internet is open," said Jiang Yu, a foreign ministry spokeswoman. "China welcomes international Internet enterprises to conduct business in China according to law." While "open" seems to describe if businesses can operate within the digital space, it appears that the government is not willing to bend on the censorship issue. And if Chinese netizens must learn to operate within this policed Internet ecosystem, then we may see a lot of interesting user innovation (with probable violent consequences) in the near future.

    January 11, 2010

    Fandom, Participatory Culture, and Web 2.0 -- A Syllabus

    I'm back at my desk after what was far too short a break! MIT gave us all of January off to focus on our own research as well as to participate in their Independent Activities Period. USC's semester starts, gulp, today, so my rhythms felt all wrong through late December and early January. But here we are -- once more into the breech.

    Today, I am going to be teaching the first session of a graduate seminar on "Fandom, Participatory Culture, and Web 2.0," and so I wanted to share the syllabus with my readers here, given the level of unexpected interest I received when I posted my syllabi last fall for the Transmedia Storytelling and Entertainment and New Media Literacies classes. I am in a very happy place right now with my teaching -- starting over at USC is freeing me to form new kinds of classes which grow more from my own research interests rather than the institutional needs of sustaining an under-staffed program. I am thus developing classes around key concepts in my own work which are allowing me to introduce myself and my thinking to this new community. Surprisingly, given how central the study of fans has been to the trajectory of my research from graduate school forward, this is the first time I have ever taught a full class around this topic.

    There are many ways you could conceptualize such a subject. A key choice I faced was between a course on fan culture, which would be centrally about what fans do and think, and a course in fan studies, which would map the emergence of and influence of a new academic field focused on the study of fandom and other forms of participatory culture. On the undergraduate level, I would have taken the first approach but on the graduate level, I opted for the second -- trying to map the evolution of a field of research centered around the study of fan communities and showing how it has spoken to a broader range of debates in media and cultural studies over the past two decades. As you will see, teaching a course right now, I found it impossible to separate out the discussion of fan culture from contemporary debates about web 2.0 and so I made that problematic, contradictory, and evolving relationship a key theme for the students to investigate. Do not misunderstand me -- I am not assuming an easy match between the three terms in my title. The shifting relations between those three terms is a central concern in the class.

    I think it speaks to the richness of the space of fan research that I have included as many works as I have and I still feel inadequate because it is easy to identify gaps and omissions here -- key writers (many of them friends, some of them readers of this blog) that I could not include. Some of the topics I am focusing on are over-crowded with research and some are just emerging. I opted to cover a broader range of topics rather than focusing only on works which are canonical to the space of fan studies. All I can say is that I am sorry about the gaps but rest assured that this other work will surface in class discussion and no doubt play key roles in student papers.

    I am hoping that in publishing this syllabus here, I can introduce some of the lesser known texts here (as well as the overall framework) to others teaching classes in this area and to researchers around the world who often write me trying to identify work on fan cultures. I'd love to hear from either groups here and happy to share more of what you are doing. Regular readers may anticipate more posts this semester in the fan studies space, just as last term saw more posts on transmedia topics.

    Syllabus follows after the jump!

    Continue reading "Fandom, Participatory Culture, and Web 2.0 -- A Syllabus" »

    January 8, 2010

    Three Converging Presentations: Digital Migrants, Western Otaku, and Our Google-ized World

    At the end of the autumn semester, the Comparative Media Studies department hosted a set of colloquia called Comparative Media Insights. Three of these presentations focused heavily on digital culture and fit neatly into our interests here at the Consortium, so I want to share them (especially since I'm sure all of you are still recovering from the holiday and wouldn't mind a couple intellectual, mid-day breaks).

    The first talk is by Lisa Nakamura, a professor at the University of Illinois, Urbana Champaign. Her presentation, entitled Race, Rights, and Virtual Worlds: Digital Games as Spaces of Labor Migration, focuses on digital migrants, workers who labor in virtual worlds for other virtual world users. A lot of the work is done across transnational networks, such as gold farming in World of Warcraft performed by laborers in China for users in the United States. Lisa argues that in relation to these workers a type of "transnational working class" is being created, and she wishes to point out that these communities of workers provide a different perspective to the cosmopolitan, global, or converged Internet.

    You can listen to a podcast of Lisa Nakamura's talk by clicking here or using the embedded player below:

    As ICT's become available to new groups of users, notably those from the global South, new social formations of virtual labor, race, nation, and gender are being born. And if virtual world users' claims to citizenship and sovereignty within them are to be taken seriously, so too must the question of "gray collar" or semi-legal virtual laborers and their social relations and cultural identity in these spaces. Just as labor migrants around the globe struggle to access a sense of belonging in alien territories, so too do virtual laborers, many of whom are East and South Asian, confront hostility and xenophobia in popular gaming worlds and virtual "workshops" such as World of Warcraft and Amazon's Mechanical Turk. Do these users have the right to have rights? This presentation considers the affective investments and cultural identities of these workers within the virtual worlds where they labor.

    Lisa Nakamura is the Director of the Asian American Studies Program, Professor in the Institute of Communication Research and Media Studies Program and Professor of Asian American Studies at the University of Illinois, Urbana Champaign. She is the author of Digitizing Race: Visual Cultures of the Internet (University of Minnesota Press, 2007), Cybertypes: Race, Ethnicity, and Identity on the Internet (Routledge, 2002) and a co-editor of Race in Cyberspace (Routledge, 2000). She has published articles in Critical Studies in Media Communication, PMLA, Cinema Journal, The Women's Review of Books, Camera Obscura, and the Iowa Journal of Cultural Studies. She is editing a collection with Peter Chow-White entitled Digital Race: An Anthology (Routledge, forthcoming) and is working on a new monograph on Massively Multiplayer Online Role playing games, the transnational racialized labor, and avatarial capital in a "postracial" world.

    The second presentation is given by Mia Consalvo, a professor at Ohio University and also a visiting professor at MIT. Her talk, Western Otaku: Games Crossing Cultures, examines digital games -- particularly MMORPGs -- as spaces of transnational cultural exchange, places of hybridity formed by cross-cultural contact. She is particularly interested in the relationship between Japanese and American gamers, both in how the industry impacts transnational reception and in how players interact with each other across languages.

    Mia's talk comes in convenient video podcast form below:

    But you can also listen to the audio-only version of the podcast here:

    Or download it!

    From Nintendo's first Famicom system, Japanese consoles and videogames have played a central role in the development and expansion of the digital game industry. Players globally have consumed and enjoyed Japanese games for many reasons, and in a variety of contexts. This study examines one particular subset of videogame players, for whom the consumption of Japanese videogames in particular is of great value, in addition to their related activities consuming anime and manga from Japan. Through in-depth interviews with such players, this study investigates how transnation fandom operates in the realm of videogame culture, and how a particular group of videogames players interprets their gameplay experience in terms of a global, if hybrid, industry.

    Mia Consalvo is a visiting associate professor in the Comparative Media Studies program at MIT. She is the author of Cheating: Gaining Advantage in Videogames and is co-editor of the forthcoming Blackwell Handbook of Internet Studies.

    The final presentation (and my favorite of the bunch) is given by Siva Vaidhyanathan, a professor at the University of Virginia. He talks about The Googlization of Everything, a point in the convergence of real and digital culture by one company: Google. Phrased in one of William Uricchio's questions during the Q&A, in its attempt to "informationize" the world, Google has had to face "the pushback of culture." As I wrote earlier this week, Siva argues that on top of being its users, we act as Google's product. Our concerns over privacy (Google Maps' problems photographing Japan), property (Google Book Search scanning), and pride (transforming ourselves into Google's "data") therefore conflict with our understanding of ourselves as the customer versus the product.

    Listen to his podcast below, or download it here.

    Google seems omniscient, omnipotent, and omnipresent. It also claims to be benevolent. It's no surprise that we hold the company to almost deific levels of awe and respect. But what are we really gaining and losing by inviting Google to be the lens through which we view the world? This talk will describe Siva Vaidhyanathan's own apostasy and suggest ways we might live better with Google once we see it as a mere company rather than as a force for good and enlightenment in the world.

    Siva Vaidhyanathan, cultural historian and media scholar, is currently associate professor of media studies and law at the University of Virginia.

    January 5, 2010

    Industry Innovation, User Loyalty, and a Phone to Rule Them All: Google and the Nexus One


    For the past two years, rumors have been swirling around the Internet regarding a potential attempt by Google to compete in the cell phone industry. Today, the monolithic company has entered the ring with its new product, the Nexus One smartphone superphone. You can read more about the new phone by visiting Gizmodo's succinct coverage page.

    I spent a good portion of the afternoon today watching a live feed of Google's official presentation of the Nexus One. The phone is certainly faster, prettier, and boasts a number of new features, but I hesitate to agree with its manufacturers that the Nexus One -- "the Google phone" -- would be the smartphone to blow away the competition. The Google representatives at the event continued to emphasize the vibrant ecosystem that exists between Google, its phone application producers, and its app-store customers, but it's really nothing new considering Google's first venture into the phone sector with the company's application of its Android operating system to the HTC Dream (commonly known as the G1).

    Many of the circulated rumors a few years ago focused on the implementation of the Google Voice service into a Google-produced cell phone, which would allow for free calls (therefore eliminating the necessity of paying for a yearly phone service). Back in March, the New York Times covered the threat of the Voice service in its article, Google's Free Phone Manager Could Threaten a Variety of Services , where Phil Wolff (editor of Skype Journal) states:

    I would consider Google to have the potential to change the rules of the game because of their ability to bring all kinds of people into their new tools from their existing tools.

    The potential for Google to change the rules of an entire industry is what most people expected from the Nexus One. However, Google made little surprises this afternoon, and this absence of novelty seems to have spurred a much different set of questions, away from new features and pricing schemes, in the question-and-answer session after the presentation.

    In the Q&A session, a major concern of the audience centered on the difference between Google as a company and Google as a service. Mario Queiroz stated during the presentation that anyone who visits Google.com is a Google customer. However, Siva Vaidhyanathan argues in his CMS lecture, "The Googlization of Everything" (you can listen to the podcast here) that we are actually Google's users and hence product, instead of the company's customers. We produce information for Google's services and algorithms, while at the same time we interact with Google mainly in a non-monetary relationship (in that we do not spend money on most of Google's services and even in some instances are instead paid).

    The concern of the audience, then, seemed to point out that with the Nexus One, Google is now attempting to act as a retailer. Google makes an effort to argue that they are not the manufacturer of the Google Phone hardware and instead are only the distributor of it. But this relationship between producer, consumer, and distributor is beginning to shape the web ecosystem in a new way.

    The Nexus One's motto, if you visit the Google.com/phone webpage, is "Web meets phone." But I would argue that Google's strategy is instead pushing their phone to meet the Web. If we consider the motto, Google has already put the Web -- especially the Google-mediated Web -- into the G1 and its brethren. So what do I mean by drawing an antithesis with "Phone meets Web"? In the past, Google has made its services and Android system available through cell phone providers' phones. However, with the Nexus One, Google is attempting to push a phone under the guise of the Google brand to encapsulate its existent services. The previous Android-utilizing phones were associated with Google, but were not emphasized as Google-sponsored phones. However, now that Google is marketing the Nexus One as its own product, it is creating a new relationship with the customers who buy the phone. In its most basic form, Google is the producer and its customers are the consumer. But as I mentioned previously, Google is trying to avoid being associated at the phone's makers, thereby identifying the company as the phone's distributor. The company is distancing itself from the product but maintaining a relationship with the phone, hence drawing in Google loyalists or general users that trust in the Google brand.

    This distributor identity has already appeared across the Web in many forms. For example, take Hulu as a case study: Hulu is maintained by a partnership of large television studios, but avoids direct association with those companies (eg., NBC) by sustaining the Hulu name. Therefore, users of Hulu associate the content available on the website with Hulu instead of television networks. Differently, though, Google occupies both spaces: with the Nexus One, it acts as a distributor of the phone, but as a monopolizing company (with the many pre-phone services that people associate with Google) Google still acts as the producer of those services. The problem, therefore, derives from the conflation of Google as both maker and deliverer. This distinction is important, though, because it affects how Google's users/customers/products associate with the company, which subsequently affects user loyalty.

    January 4, 2010

    On Chuck and Carrot Mobs: Mapping the Connections Between Participatory Culture and Public Participation

    One of my proudest moments at the Futures of the Entertainment 4 conference was moderating a session on Transmedia for Social Change, which closed off the first day of the event. This panel brought together a number of people who I have encounter recently through my research on the relations between participatory culture and public participation: Stephen Duncombe - NYU, author of Dream: Re-Imagining Progressive Politics in the Age of Fantasy (The New Press); Andrew Slack - The Harry Potter Alliance; Noessa Higa - Visionaire Media; Lorraine Sammy - Co-creator Racebending; and Jedidiah Jenkins-Director of Public & Media Relations, Invisible Children.

    For many attending this event, their discussion of new forms of activism that have emerged around the borders of transmedia entertainment were particularly eye opening While we were able to draw connections across these various projects, none of the panelists had met before and most did not know what the others were doing. It was exciting to see the shift in tone at the conference as we moved from talking about business plans to talking about human rights and social justice. I wanted to share the video of this session with you here.

    During my introduction to the panel, I referenced the research we've begun to do trying to better understand how engagement with participatory culture, especially with fandom, may be teaching the skills and creating identities which can be applied to campaigns for social change. This project has launched since my move to California and is being conducted jointly with researchers at USC, MIT, and Tufts. What follows is the first of a series of reports on this still new research initiative, written by members of my team. Anna Van Someren, who wrote this first installment, joined the team having already served as the production manager on Project New Media Literacies, and with a background in media production, media literacy instruction, and social activism. Here, she gives an overview of what we are trying to do.

    On Chuck and Carrot Mobs: Mapping the Connections Between Participatory Culture and Public Participation
    by Anna Van Someren

    I was on my 8th (excruciating) rep, struggling with some kind of bowflex-looking machine when my personal trainer asked what I do for work. As usual, I had the fleeting wish that I could say something short and concrete, something like "preschool teacher" or "novelist". Because really, did this woman care any more than the typical dentist who asks such questions with both hands inside your mouth? Could I finally come up with something a little less opaque than "researcher at MIT"? If I did, could I for once muster the self-discipline it takes not to ramble incomprehensibly?

    I tried a new approach, and asked if she had a favorite television show. "Battlestar Galactica!" - her face lit up as she described the Starbuck costume her friend was helping her create for Halloween. "Well, say a Battlestar Galactica fan group became interested in doing some work for social change, work that maybe addresses an issue brought up by the show. The group I'm working with is looking at how people who organize around a story they love, and then decide to take some kind of public action." She seemed genuinely interested, so I continued with more detail during front lunges. I think I may have gotten a bit rambly, but I'll try not to here.

    As readers of this blog know, Henry has moved to LA and is now the Provost's Professor of Communications, Journalism, and Cinematic Art at the University of Southern California. Although he has relinquished his role as principal investigator at MIT's Center for Future Civic Media (funded by the Knight Foundation), his work on participatory culture and civic engagement has spawned a new research project supported in part by the center. This project is bi-coastal; on the east coast we have myself, research advisor Clement Chau and research assistant Flourish Klink. Representing the west coast out at USC with Henry we have research director Sangita Shresthova (CMS alum '03) along with more than a dozen Annenberg School students whose work relates directly to our research interests.

    Our early conversations circled around the skills needed to become involved in public discourse. We discussed emerging forms of engagement, such as the Carrotmob project, which might be considered civic because of its socially beneficial goal of protecting the environment. Carrotmob organizes competitions in which local businesses pledge to make ecological improvements to their practices. The business with the best pledge enjoys an environmentally-motivated flash mob: 'carrotmobbers' receive instructions via blog posts and twitter about where and when to show up and spend.

    The 'Finale & a Footlong' Save Chuck campaign is another recent initiative working to leverage consumer power. In April 2009, organizers mobilized fans of the television show Chuck to buy footlong sandwiches at Subway, a main sponsor, on the night of the show's finale. Fans were instructed to leave a note in the Subway suggestion box mentioning the campaign, and Chuck star Zach Levi described it as "a way for non-Nielson fans to show their love of the show by directly supporting one of Chuck's key advertisers".

    These two projects have entirely different goals, and some might say Save Chuck is a far cry from civic engagement, but it's interesting to note that the skills and strategies being used are so similar. We began to wonder if participants in campaigns like Save Chuck might stand to gain some of the skills and knowledge needed to become active citizens. With so many young people so engaged with popular culture, this potential is critical to understand. In Convergence Culture, Henry describes how popular culture can function as a civic playground, where lower stakes allow for a greater diversity of opinions than tolerated in political arenas. "One way that popular culture can enable a more engaged citizenry is by allowing people to play with power on a microlevel ...popular culture may be preparing the way for a more meaningful public culture."

    Of course, there are differing definitions of what an 'engaged citizenry' looks like. CIRCLE, the Center for Information and Research on Civic Engagement, works with three primary categories: civic activities, electoral activities, and political voice activities. In Civic Life Online, Kate Raynes-Goldie and Luke Walker define civic engagement broadly and simply as "any activity aimed at improving one's community". In his book Bowling Alone, sociologist Robert Putnam considers civic engagement to be on the decline, and bemoans the social ties we've lost now that we spend more time "isolated" in front of the television. Some share his pessimism, worrying that the millennial generation lacks an interest in the workings of government, but it's important to remember that we're not talking about something static or stabilized. In their paper Young Citizens and Civic Learning: Two Paradigms of Citizenship in the Digital Age Lance Bennett, Alison Rank and Christopher Wells remind us that "citizenship is a dynamic social construction that reflects changing social and political conditions."

    So how does the dimension of popular culture fit into our understanding of citizenship? Voting, joining a political party, or doing community service are concrete, measurable activities that have long been defined as civic. What does loving a television show have to do with any of this? It's helpful here to consider two opposing views of democracy described by Stephen Coleman in Civic Life Online. Although he's talking specifically about youth e-citizenship here, he offers a useful model, describing the conflict between democracy viewed as "an established and reasonably just system, with which young people should be encouraged to engage" and as "a political as well as cultural aspiration, most likely to be realized through networks in which young people engage with one another". The second view is expansive; it describes a realm where citizens are empowered not only to participate in the public arena, but to shape it. It's a view that does not contain activity within a strictly political sphere, but embraces cultural citizenship. This aligns well with Peter Levine's definition of civic engagement as not only political activism, deliberation, and problem-solving, but also cultural production, or participation in shaping a culture.

    If we want to see how engagement with popular culture can fuel social action, Loraine Sammy and her activities with racebending.com provide a rich case study. Fans of Nickelodeon's Avatar: the Last Airbender animation series were frustrated and disappointed by the casting process for the live-action movie version. Paramount cast the main characters, who are Asian in the original series, with white actors. Avatar fans came together to create the LiveJournal-based Aang Ain't White campaign, which attempted to pressure Paramount with a letter-writing campaign. Loraine, who spoke on the Transmedia for Social Change panel at Futures of Entertainment 4, helped grow Aang Ain't White into the racebending movement, "a coalition and community dedicated to encouraging fair casting practices". She and other participants volunteer their time, talents and skills to advocate on behalf of this cause, which has now reached beyond the Avatar movie and may begin to play a watchdog role in Hollywood.

    There are so many aspects we want to explore about the racebending community, and others like it. It's intriguing to think about how fiction and fantasy can captivate us on an emotional level, providing a narrative structure that can motivate us to seek change in the real world. We're also curious about how individuals develop their identities as citizens - is it possible that participants in the Save Chuck campaign were developing a sense of empowerment and efficacy in the world - exercising their civic muscles, as it were? Our primary interest right now lies with the nature of participatory culture communities, like racebending.

    We consider a participatory culture to be one where:

    1. there are relatively low barriers to artistic expression and civic engagement
    2. there is strong support for creating and sharing one's creations with others
    3. there is some type of informal mentorship whereby what is known by the most experienced is passed along to novices

    4. members believe their contributions matter

    5. members feel some degree of social connection with one another

    How do these characteristics work together to encourage and support civic engagement? To find out, we'll be looking at participatory culture communities engaged in some type of social or public action. We're specifically interested in groups which originally gelled around shared interest in popular culture and then become somehow involved in public discourse. Racebending is an excellent example, and is one of our planned case studies, along with the Harry Potter Alliance, Invisible Children, Browncoats, Anonymous, and possibly the hacktivism inspired by Cory Doctorow's novel Little Brother.

    This winter we'll be conducting interviews with members and founders of these groups, asking questions about their operations, their membership, and their activities. By spring we hope to have a stronger grasp on our research question, how do the characteristics of participatory culture environments support the kinds of social learning, deliberation, debate, and advocacy practices that allow entry into a shared public discourse? In order to share our thoughts and findings in advance of our white paper, we'll be posting updates here. This introduction marks the start of our series, so stay tuned for more from our team, and please share your ideas, critiques, and comments.

    If you know of other groups or projects who are deploying fan culture/popular culture as a springboard for social change, please let us know. We are trying to cast a wide net right now to identify examples which might help us better understand these emerging forms of activism. We are especially interested in examples from outside the United States.

    If you are interested in this discussion of civic engagement and participatory culture, you might also want to check out this video produced by the MacArthur Foundation and showcasing the thinkin of Joe Kahne, who is part of the new research hub MacArthur is creating to think about these issues.

    Joe Kahne on Civic Participation Online and Off from Spotlight on Vimeo.

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