April 29, 2011

Piracy: Turning Threats into Profit

At CinemaCon few weeks ago Chris Dodd, former US Senator and current head of the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), called movie theft "perhaps the single biggest threat we face as an industry." The film industry--from studio execs to ticket takers--employs millions, and their jobs are in fact dependent on people going into theaters and paying, sometimes exorbitantly, to see movies.

I love movies, and I don't want to see anyone lose a job, but I have a problem with Dodd's assertion that "movie theft" is the biggest threat to the movie industry. Perhaps the fact that people are choosing to illegally acquire and watch feature films in the comfort of their own homes is partially responsible for the decline in movie attendance, but even if it is, Dodd is missing the point. It's not movie theft that's the problem--it's the opportunities moviegoers have to watch content when, how, and where they want to. People have grown accustomed to getting all kinds of content on-demand, and they're probably not going to change their behavior on moral grounds. Instead of seeing piracy as a threat, we have to learn how to use what we know about file sharing to drive business innovation.

Continue reading "Piracy: Turning Threats into Profit " »

April 26, 2010

Hip Hop Goes Transmedia

Transmedia Entertainment keeps getting more and more buzz these days -- and so over the next handful of installments, I am going to be sharing with you a range of different perspectives on the concept.

Today, I am running the first of two installments showcasing the work of Marguerite de Bourgoing, one of the USC students who took my transmedia entertainment class last fall. de Bourgoing has been developing a grassroots media franchise,, which deploys YouTube and social network sites to showcase the Los Angeles hip hop scene. de Bourgoing represents the Trojan spirit at its best -- a social and cultural entrepreneur who is taking what she's learned as a media maker and deploying it to serve her larger community. de Bourgoing shared some of this work with us during the class and I've wanted her to talk about it for my blog since. In this account which follows, she both shares some of the videos she's been producing and also talks about the way LA Hip Hop artists are using new media to expand the community around their live performances. It's a perspective on transmedia we don't hear very often here and further helps us think about the impact of media convergence on our culture.

Continue reading "Hip Hop Goes Transmedia" »

April 20, 2010

Choose Your Fictions Well

By now, hopefully, you have read Peter Ludlow's account of recent events in Second Life and perhaps have also followed along with the comments and disputes that have surrounded this post. By now, hopefully, you've started to form your own opinion about what happened, why it happened, what it all means, and perhaps, what constitutes the borders between griefing and anti-griefing in this context. The following set of comments were crafted between Ludlow and myself as we reflected on these events and what they may tell us about the interplay between fantasy and politics in virtual worlds. We hope it will provide a springboard for further discussion both on this blog and elsewhere.

Continue reading "Choose Your Fictions Well" »

April 12, 2010

Watching the Watchers: Power and Politics in Second Life

In early 2007, I ran an interview on this blog with Peter Ludlow, who teaches in the Philosophy Department at Northwestern University, and who has emerged as a key observer of how people are interacting within virtual worlds, such as The Sims Online and Second Life. Ludlow, along with his coauthor, Mark Wallace, wrote a book for MIT Press, The Second Life Herald: The Virtual Tabloid Which Witnessed the Dawn of the Metaverse, which I am planning to teach as part of a course I am developing this fall for the USC Journalism school on civic media.

Ludlow emailed me recently with news of some fascinating new developments in Second Life. It was a story which raised such fascinating issues about fantasy and play, about the shifting borders between pro-social and anti-social behavior, about rights and responsibilities, and about the governance of virtual worlds that I felt like I had to share it now. Over the next two installments, I will be sharing Ludlow's account of what's been happening in Second Life, an account which places it in the context of the larger history of virtual worlds. Afterwords, I will share a joint statement which emerged from our conversations together about what this all means.

Continue reading "Watching the Watchers: Power and Politics in Second Life" »

April 5, 2010

Transmedia Generation

Participatory culture is a global phenomenon. Young people all over the world are embracing the expressive and distribution resources of the computer to create and share their own cultural materials with each other. In countries all over the planet, they are mixing together local traditions of folk culture with the now globally accessible forms of digital expression in ways which could not have been imagined by previous generations. And as they do so, educators and parents are starting to recognize these creative communities as sites of informal learning which are transforming the ways these teens see themselves and the world. In every country, it is different. In every country, it is the same.

I was delighted to hear recently from a young scholar, Felipe G. Gil, from Sevilla, Spain, who shared with me some of his thoughts about new media literacy and education. In particular, he wanted me to read this account of his young cousin, whose filmmaking activities he had come to understand in relation to some of my writings. I am delighted to reproduce this blog post, originally written in Spanish, here for my readers in hopes that it may spark other international reactions around these important topics. Gil is justly proud of the range of different kinds of media productions this young man engages with in the course of his everyday life, and has sought ways to place them in a larger context.

Continue reading "Transmedia Generation" »

February 4, 2010

Why Apple Hasn't Revolutionized TV (Yet)

When Steve Jobs announced Apple's iPad last week, talk of revolution was in the air. The jury's still out on whether the iPad will change the publishing industry or even pose a threat to Amazon's popular Kindle e-Reader. (For a great analysis of the iPad, check out this Ad Age article from C3's own Ilya Vedrashko.) We've come to expect an exciting kind of innovation from Apple. Apple doesn't give us the newest technology--there were MP3 players before the iPod and smart phones before the iPhone. Apple's true revolutions come in the form of innovative digital business models. The iTunes store changed the way we think about buying music and the App Store made cell phones into anything a third party developer could imagine and create. As someone who studies and writes about the television industry, I think it's valuable to think about why Apple hasn't been able to similarly revolutionize the television business. Sure, selling shows in the iTunes store has brought in some revenue for TV networks. But if Apple (or any other over-the-top connected device manufacturer) changes TV it will be in spite of--and not because of--the television industry.

Continue reading "Why Apple Hasn't Revolutionized TV (Yet)" »

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" »

March 6, 2009

The Many Lives of The Batman (Revisited): Multiplicity, Anime, and Manga

This is a post Henry wrote for his blog in early February that touches on a number of key issues the Consortium engages with. I thought it might be worth revisiting "The Many Lives of The Batman (Revisited)"

The Many Lives of The Batman (Revisited): Multiplicity, Anime, and Manga
by Henry Jenkins

Writing in 1991, Roberta Pearson and William Uricchio (the co-Director of the Comparative Media Studies Program) used the Batman as an example of the kinds of pressures being exerted on the superhero genre at a moment when older texts were continuing to circulate (and in fact, were recirculated in response to renewed interests in the characters), newer versions operated according to very different ideological and narratalogical principles, a range of auteur creators were being allowed to experiment with the character, and the character was assuming new shapes and forms to reflect the demands of different entertainment sectors and their consumers:

Whereas broad shifts in emphasis had occurred since 1939, these changes had been, for the most part, consecutive and consensual. Now, newly created Batmen, existing simultaneously with the older Batmen of the television series and comic reprints and back issues, all struggled for recognition and a share of the market. But the contradictions amongst them may threaten both the integrity of the commodity form and the coherence of the fans' lived experience of the character necessary to the Batman's continued success.

(See The Many Lives of the Batman: Critical Approaches to a Superhero and His Media)

The superhero comic, they suggest, may not be able to withstand "the tension between, on the one hand, the essential maintenance of a recognizable set of key character components and, on the other hand, the increasingly necessary centrifugal dispersion of those components."

Retrospectively, we can see Pearson and Uricchio as describing a moment of transition from continuity to multiplicity as the governing logic of the superhero comics realm. Rather than fragmenting or confusing the audience, this multiplicity of Batmen helped fans learn to live in a universe where there were diverse, competing images of their favorite characters and indeed, to appreciate the pleasures of seeing familiar fictions transformed in unpredicted ways.

Continue reading "The Many Lives of The Batman (Revisited): Multiplicity, Anime, and Manga" »

February 27, 2009

If It Doesn't Spread, It's Dead (Part Eight): The Value of Spreadable Media

This is part eight of an eight part series. The report was written by Henry Jenkins, Xiaochang Li, Ana Domb Krauskopf With Joshua Green. Our research was funded by the members of the Convergence Culture Consortium, including GSDM Advertising, MTV Networks, and Turner Broadcasting.

Conclusion: The Value of Spreadable Media

So far this white paper has:

  • criticized the vagueness of existing models of "viral media" or "memes"

  • outlined the differences between sticky and spreadable media.

  • identified those factors which have led to the rise of spreadable media

  • shown why spreadable media involves a collaboration between the gift economy and commodity culture.

  • discussed a range of different kinds of communities that are shaping the spread of media

  • pointed towards some properties shared by the most spreadable media content.

In this concluding section, we will return to the core question from the perspective of our clients: Is it a good idea to allow or enable my consumers to spread my brand message or my copyrighted content? We enter this discussion with some modesty. The situation we have described here is in flux. New examples of spreadable content, new business plans, and new policies regarding intellectual property are announced each day and so far, the verdict is still out. There's a lot we do not yet know about spreadable media's benefits and risks from a corporate perspective. In this transitional moment, we advise companies to proceed with caution but fear that those who remain totally outside this space may be running greater risks than those who make at least some modest steps towards embracing spreadability.

Certainly, one can point to some great success stories from companies who have been early to embrace this spreadable model. One such case is the Dove Evolution campaign that was released online with a 75 second clip showing an "ordinary" woman's painful transformation into an "object of desire". The ad boosted sales, received over 5 million views and cost nothing to distribute online. Dove also released another version of the spot on television during the Super bowl. Placing the ad cost the company $2.5 million and it received 2.5 million views. Granted, broadcast television provided them with an opportunity to reach a large number of viewers in a very short period of time, but the online version reached almost twice as many people at a fraction of the cost. One take-away here is that television may remain a stronger venue for "just in time" information, while the slower circulation of information online may ultimately result in much deeper saturation within the culture.

Or consider the success of the Cadbury Gorilla advertisement which we've cited several times already. In 8 weeks the ad received 5 million views, positioning Cadbury to grow 30% above the industry average that same year, increase it's sales by 7% and most importantly, detach itself from the chocolate recall-salmonella scandal that had greatly impacted the company's image in the UK.

Such success stories have inspired other companies to develop so-called "viral" marketing strategies, some of which have succeeded, many of which have not. The decentralized nature of the process, the lack of control over the flow of content means that there are no guarantees that such content will reach their desired market segments or for that matter, that they will circulate anywhere. If you want to guarantee the number of eyeballs which consume your message, nothing is going to replace traditional broadcasting methods anytime soon. Lowering the transaction costs, however, make it possible for companies to minimize their risks in trying out such strategies as an add-on to existing marketing approaches.

So what is spreadable media good for?

  • To generate active commitment from the audience,

  • To empower them and make them an integral part of your product's success,

  • To benefit from online word-of-mouth

  • To reach niche, highly interconnected audiences,

  • but most of all, to communicate with audiences where they already are, and in a way that they value.

Each of these factors suggest that such an approach may yield longer term rather than shorter term benefits:

  • Spreadability may help to expand and intensify consumer awareness of a new and emerging brand or transform their perceptions of an existing brand, re-affirming its central place in their lives.

  • Spreadability may expand the range of potential markets for a brand by introducing it, at low costs and low risks, to niches that previously were not part of its market.

  • Spreadability may intensify consumer loyalty by increasing emotional attachment to the brand or media franchise.

  • Spreadability may expand the shelf life of existing media content by creating new ways of interacting with it (as occurs, say, around the modding of games or the archiving of classic television content on YouTube) and it may even rebuild or reshape the market for a dormant brand, as suggested by Robert Kozinets writing on "retro-brands."

All told, those companies which have the most to gain from this approach are those who have the least to lose from abandoning traditional broadcasting models, those which have:

  • lower promotional budgets

  • who want to reach niche markets

  • who want to distribute so-called "Long Tail" content

  • who want to build strong emotional connections with their consumers.

Those who have the most to lose are those companies which:

  • have well established brand messages

  • have messages that are predictably delivered through broadcast channels

  • who are concerned about a loss of control over their intellectual property

  • who have reason to fear backlash from their consumers.

Even here, remaining outside of the spreadable model altogether may cut them off from younger and more digitally connected consumers who spend less time consuming traditional broadcast content or who are increasingly suspicious of top-down advertising campaigns.

Such considerations intensify when we move from brand messages, which one wants to circulate freely, towards content, which is expected to generate revenue. Right now, spreadability has proven more effective at generating buzz and awareness than as a revenue generator, though this may be changing. Consider, for example, the mobile sector. As many as 20 percent of mobile subscribers are listening to music on their mobile devices (Minney, 2008) with similar increases occurring with other media such as games and video. There is also a strong rise in mobile media sharing, either directly phone-to-phone or pc-to-phone, in either case mobile consumers are already embracing spreadable media by default and companies are discovering that there is money to be made by facilitating their activities.

So far, only a few companies are taking advantage of a potential Mobile Web 2.0, according to Sumit Agarwal, a product manager in Google's mobile division:

We're really at mobile Web 0.5, to be completely honest, the real thing about Web 2.0 is people introducing applications to each other. True viral applications, something sent from one person to another, will absolutely be a big part of mobile. (Salz, 2007)

One such company, MoConDi Ltd. announced in September of 2007 that its Italian based service, MeYou, had reached more than 800,000 registered users. By January 2008, that number had doubled. MeYou is a mobile phone application which supports distribution of a mobile content to end users. These users can then recommend content to additional users and receive credits for doing so. Users receive MMS recommendations which contain a message and download link for the content and a link to install the MeYou application. In this case, they are using the same marketing strategy that launched Hotmail in the 90s.

MeYou has implemented a hybrid model between the sticky and spreadable models, between content distribution and marketing. As such, users will receive certain content directly from MeYou or from their friends for free, but other content requires for direct payment. Users can still share such by sending the application for which the receiver has to then purchase the activation code. This model is particularly successful with games where after the applications are activated, users can play against each other, creating strong social incentives to expand its reach. MeYou works mostly with ringtones, images, videos, animations and games. Through its parent company, MoConDi generate mobile branded content and distribution strategies for other businesses. According to MeYou's public information 60% of users purchase content and 64% of users send recommendations with 24% of recommendations resulting in purchases.

We might contrast the relative success which MoConDi has enjoyed through enfranchising its consumers to spread content with the backlash which has come as a result of the tendency of major media companies to brand grassroots circulation as "piracy." For quite some time, Sony-BMG and all other music majors have opted for issuing take-down notices when content to which they hold rights to is posted on YouTube. It now seems that Sony-BMG is finding a way to move away from that prohibitionist model and is embracing a profit sharing, win-win philosophy based on building stronger collaborations with their fans. They have opted for inserting a link to the content's original site on the video post and eliminating its capacity to be embedded. So, on one end they've limited the spread of their content in favor of increasing the stickiness of their own site. But they also are allowing fans to share music and YouTube to make a profit. In the process, Sony-BMG is increasing the traffic to and visibility of its official sites, but most importantly, the company is no longer treating fans and potential consumers as criminals.

Such an approach is spreading across other industries and throughout other mediums. Peer-to-peer technologies have dealt with a bad reputation for years -- since the days of the Napster trials, P2P's original idea, to enable user share big files, has been demonized. The entertainment industry has pegged it as a tool for piracy. And recently, ISPs have blamed it for clogging their networks. Nevertheless P2P is the perfect example to illustrate some of the models of resource-lite, user-led, pull distribution that benefit from a spreadable mentality. Here company and user/distributors are building a completely new relationship where the company trusts the user with the safekeeping of its content. In spite of the bad reputation and lack of control, the same entertainment industry that one day attacked it, has now found, both in the bit torrent technology and in P2P, a powerful ally. NBC is working with Pando Networks, a P2P content-delivery-technology company, to revamp its NBC Direct service (Weprin, 2008). BBC and Showtime, amongst others, are now working with the bit torrent distribution platform Vuze. And Fox, Lions Gate and MTV are all working with the original BitTorrent company.

Media scholar Mark Pesce (2005) argues that many mainstream British and American television series are enjoying commercial success in international markets because -- and not in spite of -- their massive online circulations. Pesce argues that illegal downloads helped to promote the content, closing the temporal gap between domestic and foreign distribution, and increasing consumer interest. Pesce argues that what he calls Hyperdistribution is here to stay.

The clock can't be turned back, BitTorrent can't be un-invented. We have to deal with the world as it is, not as we'd like it to be. In the new, "flat world," where any programme produced anywhere in the world is immediately available everywhere in the world, the only sustainable edge comes from entrepreneurship and innovation.

Pesce's plea for innovation is made that more urgent by the fact that, according to a study performed in 17 countries, 29% of active technology users regularly write comments and blogs, 27% share free music and 28% access social networking sites.

Clearly, a significant portion of the public is embracing those technologies and cultural practices which support spreadable media. They want to play active roles in helping to shape the flow of media within their own social communities. This is part of what Charlene Li and Josh Bernoff are calling the "groundswell", which is being fueled by the combined force of "people's desires to connect, new interactive technologies and online economics". They describe the groundswell as a movement that can't be stopped but must be joined in order to retain currency. It has changed the power relation between companies and consumers, and, in embracing the groundswell and the spreadable media model, companies are also redefining their relationships and their sense of self. This is might be a painful process, but at the end there will be more to be gained than lost. By ceding this power to its consumers companies are loosing much of the control over their distribution, but they are gaining the value of each user's personal ties.

We may not yet have reached the point where "If it doesn't spread, it's dead," but that time is coming and companies need to be rethinking their business models now in anticipation of these shifts which will even more fundamentally alter the media landscape.


Minney, Jaimee (2008). "M:Metrics Reports Growth in Mobile Music Adoption" m:metrics

Pesce, Mark. (2005). "Piracy is Good? How Battlestar Galactica killed Broadcast TV", Mindjack, May 13.

Salz, Peggy Anne (2006). "Mobile Web 2.0 May Be Too Ambitious, Let's Call It Mobile 0.5" MocoNews

Weprin, Alex (2008) "NBC Revamping Fledgling NBC Direct with Pando Networks Deal", Broadcasting &
, February 27.

Whew! That's it folks! This is very much a work in progress -- a sketch for a book we are just starting to write. There will be many more dimensions of the argument, not to mention concrete examples, developed in the book, so stay tuned. It's been fun watching news of "spreadable media" get spread by the Twitter community and more recently through the Blogosphere. We are just starting to get substantive responses after watching a first round of "look heres" which were designed to direct people's attention to this discussion as some place where something interesting was happening. I do hope you've found it interesting and I'm very much looking forward to seeing what you make from these ideas. As our model suggests, you will continue to talk about bits and pieces of these posts if they generate worth for you in your social interactions or if they create value in your professional life. You in turn will generate both value and worth for us -- in terms of generating new insights as you talk about and apply these concepts and in terms of expanding the community of people who are talking about these ideas and thus broadening the market for the book when it appears. We've done our bit here, so I hope I can count on you to do yours. :-)

February 25, 2009

If It Doesn't Spread, It's Dead (Part Seven): Aesthetic and Structural Strategies

This is part seven of an eight part series. The report was written by Henry Jenkins, Xiaochang Li, Ana Domb Krauskopf With Joshua Green. Our research was funded by the members of the Convergence Culture Consortium, including GSDM Advertising, MTV Networks, and Turner Broadcasting.

Spreadability: Aesthetic and Structural Strategies

Cadbury's "Gorilla" spot -- an ad featuring nothing but a life-size Cadbury-purple Gorilla belting out the drumline to Phil Collins classic "Something in the Air Tonight" -- didn't spread just because it was "producerly." It was also incredibly amusing. There is still truth in the notion that good, compelling content remains a crucial factor in the spreadability media. If a "producerly" openness is required in order for content to be adopted into the gift economy, not all gifts are equally valuable, and thus not all content is equally spreadable. Producerly engagement encourages individuals to take on content as their own and invest their own identity in it, making it a potential tool of communication. But, in thinking back to what we outlined as some of the key motivations for spreading content, we must remember that in order to become spreadable, the content has to be able to create worth. In other words, openness and an abundance of meanings and uses may make some advertising material a potential gift, but it has to be able to communicate something that is socially meaningful before someone will give it.

If one looks at the videos that have spread most successfully, a clear pattern begins to emerge: a lot of them, like "Gorilla," are really, really funny. The success of humor should come as no surprise -- we intuitively understand that sharing funny anecdotes or cracking jokes that everyone gets is an easy way to build camaraderie and put people at ease in formal situations. Conversely, making a joke that people don't understand is a fast way to inject awkwardness into any situation and induce a sense of alienation in those left out of the punch-line. Anthropologist Mary Douglas (1991) has noted the very thin line which separates a joke from an insult: a joke expresses something the community is ready to hear; an insult expresses something it doesn't want to talk about. The act of recognizing a joke is an act of exchanging judgments about the world and thus the spread of jokes can strengthen social ties.

Humor, therefore, has the ability to define "insiders" and "outsiders" within a community: insiders may take pleasure in making fun of outsiders. Consider how jokes form around rivalries between colleges or companies: MIT folks don't really imagine that folks at Harvard are foolish but making Harvard jokes signals that we are all part of the same community and close ranks against those "up the river." But tell the joke in the wrong time or place and we can damage social relations, insulting those we sought to include, alienate those we sought to bring close to us. Humor, thus, is not simply a matter of taste: it is a vehicle by which we articulate and validate our tastes.

If we look more closely at the spread of videos, we can identify two extremely popular forms -- parody (often in partnership with certain elements of nostalgia, usually ironic) and humor that uses absurdity or shock/surprise. To be clear, these categories are by no means mutually exclusive, and successful videos quite frequently use a blend of both for added effect. Cadbury's "Gorilla" is a prime instance in which parody, nostalgia, and absurdity are blended in order to create an provocative and spreadable ad. To be fair, parody in general always has elements of absurdity, since its humor relies on the intrusion of unexpected elements into an "normal" or common situation. In "Gorilla," however, the dominant form at work is absurdity. This is established from the very beginning, by starting with a close-up of the gorilla, and pulling out to reveal the drum kit. The opening moment is one of surprise, emphasized with a sudden rise in the music, upending our expectations of what we would see following a series of shots of a gorilla's face. The strangeness of the set-up itself becomes the punch line, rather than forcing any complex interpretations or outside references as is more common in direct parodies.

The video is primarily funny because it asks us to confront the limits of our expectations. The implicit parody elements present are used to keep the absurdity within the bounds of comprehension, however. It is not purely surreal, but rather references a number of clichés and cultural touchstones. The way the gorilla drums, for instance, is a familiar exaggeration of drummers, and Phil Collins in particular, getting swept up into the music. The gorilla, too, is incredibly realistic looking and the opening close-ups are reminiscent enough of nature programs that several users on YouTube commented that they mistook it for an animal rights advertisement until the drumming began. The surprise comes from overturning certain expectations of normality precisely because it is able to set up and evoke them in the first place. The good-natured irreverence exhibited through absurdity and parody in this instance is central to what makes a video spreadable. In enacting reversals and disruptions of standard patterns, the "Gorilla" video poses a sort of abstract challenge to formality and authority. In effect, its informality gives users permission to transgress the audience/producer boundary, to adopt and adapt the content for their own purposes. In other words, if the advertisers don't take themselves too seriously, it invites users to get in on the fun as well.

This worked beautifully for Cadbury, resulting in a slew of remixes and mash-ups that helped promote the original and turn Cadbury into a sort of cultural benchmark in its own right. One user interpreted the video to be melodramatic and "cheesy," and thus created a response called "A glass and a half full of cheesiness" which redid the video using the over-the-top 80s ballad "Total Eclipse of the Heart." Another remix plays up the fact that the drummer is a gorilla, using "Welcome to the Jungle." Still more use artists ranging from Nirvana to 50 cent, the latter song not even having much by way of a traditional drum beat. Further spoofs went on to re-shoot the video with other unexpected drummers, from a tiny stuffed monkey, which plays off the fake primate aspect, to a model in her bra, which does a riff off of the strap line "a glass and a half full of joy," replacing it with "two cups full of joy." Both by depriving the video of a specific message and engaging forms that are primed for participation, "Gorilla" serves as an exemplar of a "producerly" text that spreads as more and more people have a go at remaking it for their own comic effects. Its absurdity creates gaps "wide enough for whole new texts to be produced in them" (Fiske, 1989, p.104).

Parody's Promises and Perils
Another thing that "Gorilla" does well is provide different levels of engagement -- the video works whether or not you get the Phil Collins references. However, this is not always the case with humor. The strength of parody as spreadable media is the fact that it is a predominantly participatory form. That is to say, for something to be recognizable as parody requires certain cultural knowledge on the part of the viewer. This is precisely what makes parody valuable for spread -- it can express shared frameworks of reference within a community and, especially when it plays on nostalgic references, a shared history as well, thus marking those inside as those who "get" the joke. But as we mentioned briefly, this has the potential to alienate as well, and unless advertisers want the spread of their content to be siloed exclusively within small niches, they must be careful to build different levels of "insider" knowledge.

Two instances of well-executed parodies are the efforts by Coca-Cola and Toyota in addressing the gaming community, a large, but undeniably specialized interest group.

With the rise of advertising interest in immersive online worlds, such as Second Life, and the increasing visibility of enormous, global networks of online gamers, big trans-national corporations have started to take notice. Following it's now legendary Chinese World of Warcraft commercial, Coke launched another video game parody/homage during the Super Bowl. Though it premiered on "traditional" media, Coke quickly posted the spot onto YouTube, where it now has over 2.2 million views and nearly 2,000 comments (this, of course, doesn't even count repostings by other users). The spoof features a game-world that references the popular Grand Theft Auto -- grimy, crime-ridden streets, and a rough, swaggering male protagonist -- but when the protagonist has a Coke, the entire game experiences a dramatic reversal. The protagonist slams down exact change on the counter, behind which the store clerk stands rigid, with his hands raised, as if he's being held up. The protagonist drags a blond yuppie, complete with a sweater tied around his shoulders, out of his convertible only to give him a Coke and share a toast. He puts out fires as he strolls on the streets, recovers purses for grannies, gives money to the homeless, and stuffs a passer-by into a convertible full of scantily clad babes. His good deeds attract supporters until he's leading a full-blown parade down the street, complete with helicopters. Every step along the way, every cliché of the crime game gets transformed into an act of giving and joy. Police cars running into fire hydrants, by instance, result into two perfect half-arches of water that creates rainbows.

Though the message is almost painfully sincere, the spot works because of the combination of a broad message (turn bad things good by giving back, part of their "" campaign) and very specific details about the game world it was parodying. The narrative works whether or not the viewer knows anything about Grand Theft Auto, but if the countless mentions of the game in the YouTube comments were any indication, the fact that it spoofed the popular game inspired many to help spread the word. Those who "got" the video game elements, especially the more subtle ones like the fact that the character is able to pull a seemingly endless supply of random objects out of nowhere, were able to share and discuss their knowledge, as well as make further "in" jokes ("I hope you enjoyed this sneak peek of Grand Theft Auto: San Francisco").

Even beyond the different levels of gaming knowledge, there is yet another layer of cultural references -- the song used in the spot, 'You Give A Little', is from 1976 musical called Bugsy Malone, itself a parody of cinema representations of 1930s gangsters. In the comments, fans of the film lobbied to see the musical released on DVD and responded to one another, declaring their alliance to that particular fan group.

Yet another recent success was the Toyota World of Warcraft commercial. What made this one different from the previous spot (which, for all its infamy, did not reach nearly the same level of online circulation) or even the Grand Theft Auto spoof, is that it not only utilizes details and aesthetics of World of Warcraft, but refers to a very specific event in the online gaming culture's history. The 30-second spot features a group of warriors standing around planning and arming for an attack, when all of a sudden one of them goes rogue, transforms into a truck, and goes rushing off into battle.

This is a direct reference to the Leeroy Jenkins incident that became so widespread as a cultural reference that it was featured as a question on Jeopardy. Within the World of Warcraft community, the Leeroy Jenkins incident was so well-known that an add-on was created so players could "invoke the power of Leeroy Jenkins" and a play a sound-clip from the original battle video. The key to this parody was how it managed to remain faithful to the cultural cues of the game and the incident -- the deadpan, matter-of-fact voices of the players, the crazy, over-the-top aggro yelling of the "Leeroy" character, who at one point utters one of the lines from the original Leeroy Jenkins video.

There is also an additional layer of self-reflexivity, when one of the World of Warcraft players responds with an exasperated "No way. There's no trucks in Worlds of Warcraft!" All of these things work as winking invitations to those involved in World of Warcraft to get in on the joke, and as over-the-top as it is, the spot is never more over-the-top than the original, carefully avoiding coming off as a mockery. Companies must be careful, however, that in trying to address a wider audience with different levels of shared cultural knowledge that they do not make the parody itself so broad and lacking in culturally specific details that the spoof comes across as mocking, lazy, or disingenuous.

Additionally, it should be noted that the form alone will not do all the work. Take, for instance, the Mini Cooper film series "Hammer & Coop," which, despite being designed to "go viral" as a parody of 70s and 80s cop shows (Starsky & Hutch and Knight Rider), got no where near the attention of the most successful spreadable media. Despite some impressive numbers boasted by the advertising firm behind the series, the YouTube view numbers flatten out in the tens of thousands, instead of millions. As a parody, it lacked a clear interest community due to the broadness of execution. While it parodied the general aesthetic and the dominant tropes of the 70s and 80s cop genre, it failed to draw clear attention to any specifics, and in fact relied on references to other parodies of the genre at times by making the protagonist resemble Ben Stiller's character from the recent Starsky & Hutch remake. Though by no means a failure, the video's limited circulation when compared with the Coke, Cadbury, and Toyota ads, suggests that it is not only the parody form, but the quality and subtlety of execution that matters.

Information Seeking

Another characteristic of popular "viral" content is some level of ambiguity or confusion that encourages people to seek out further information. This act encourages the sharing of content as people enlist their network to help with the problem solving, an act typically known as "collective intelligence" or "crowd sourcing." In Convergence Culture, Henry Jenkins (2006) argues that a successful media franchise is not only a cultural attractor, drawing like minded people together to form an audience, but also a cultural activator, giving that community something to do. Figuring out such spots offer many different communities something to do and thus a reason to continue to engage with its content. Often, these spots force us to look twice because we can't believe, or understand, what it is we are seeing. We need to verify their authenticity, intent, or simply figure out how it was accomplished.

The Cadbury Gorilla spot, for instance, did this to a certain extent, with some discussion surrounding just who was in the Gorilla suit -- Phil Collins himself was cited as a possibility -- and, to a lesser extent, whether or not the Gorilla was real. The VW Polo also engaged this kind of participation , provoking questions of whether or not the ad was "real" or in any way affiliated with Volkswagen. With Volkswagen's denial of any connection to the commercial, people became wrapped up in a search for the origins of the ad, locating information on the creators, the director, and even the budget as clues to whether or not it was a publicity stunt.

Yet another interesting instance of this logic is the "homemade" Ford Mondeo "Desire" video. The ad itself is a whimsical, if somewhat ambiguous, television spot composed of a series of still and near-still shots of cars lifting off the streets of London attached to colorful bunches of helium balloons. The video was uploaded to YouTube and received a few hundred thousand hits, a decent, if unremarkable, showing. What makes the Ford Mondeo case so interesting is that almost six months after the original ad went up on YouTube, a video appeared of two guys from New Zealand tying balloons to a car until it lifted off. The video, posted by a user by the name of homeschooled2, claimed to be a "homemade" version of the Ford ad. It received far greater viral circulation than the original, clocking in over a million YouTube views and thousands of comments, as well as news media coverage, as people tried to prove whether or not what happened the video was physically possible.

Two days after the initial "homemade" video went up, homeschooled2 posted a couple of "making of" follow-up videos that showed that the video was made with aid of a crane and some clever digital editing effects, with acknowledgment of help from the "team from Ford" in the video description. Leaving the nature and extent of Ford's involvement ambiguous, the "making of" videos forced us to consider whether Ford had orchestrated the whole thing, making the original ad with the addition of a viral campaign in mind. Many of the comments surrounding the "homemade" ad were focused on determining whether it was "for real." Even after the follow-up videos that revealed both the crane and the Ford involvement were posted, clearly linked from the original, discussion continued along these lines, suggesting that it was not the answer to the question of authenticity that was the point, but the process of questioning. What is finally at stake is not knowing, but seeking answers. The "homemade" video thus spread by opening itself to this search for authenticity.

This search for authenticity, origins, or purpose can be seen as yet another way of actively constructing the meaning of content, another type of gap that encourages producerly engagement. Here, it is the process of uncovering the "truth" that is more important that what is found. Whether the VW ad is proven to be an intentional stunt or an accidental leak, whether Ford had planned the "homemade" ad from the beginning or not, whether it really is Phil Collins in the gorilla suit, the debate, allows individuals to create and justify their interpretations by asserting control over what information they have about the ad.

Unfinished Content
In all of the previous examples, the "gaps" are in the meaning of the content, whether due to general ambiguity within or hidden information surrounding the ad. Burger King's Subservient Chicken interactive video site, launched in 2004, literally engaged users in the creation of the video's content. Visitors to the site saw a video window with a man in a chicken suit standing in a room. Below, there is a text input box with the words "Get chicken just the way you like it. Type command here." Once a command is typed, it triggers a video of the man in the chicken suit performing the command. There are nearly 300 different clips in all, each set to respond to a variety of similar commands ranging from "jump" to "lay egg" to "moonwalk." Commands that the chicken doesn't understand might result in a clip expressing confusion or boredom, while commands deemed inappropriate, such as those that are sexually explicit, result in a clip of the chicken wagging his finger in disapproval. All of the video clips fit within an amateur video aesthetic, with a single, low resolution camera, pointing head on not unlike a webcam mounted atop a computer.

Unlike other so-called "interactive" video campaigns, such as the Guinness domino website in which a user solves a series of puzzles to reveal parts of the finished video, the Subservient Chicken site creates a more dynamic interaction, engaging the user in a process of actually creating the video. The site does nothing until a command has been entered. That is, the particular video (or series of clips) that is viewed, the actual output, is controlled and triggered entirely by the user. Whereas the Guinness campaign is a matter of engaging with content that is only retrieved interactively, giving up control to the participant only at the level of access, Subservient Chicken gives up control at the level of creation. Though the videos are pre-made, the content itself fundamentally incomplete. Not only is there no meaning, but there is also no action, no finished content until the user enters a command. Thus, by creating a partial work, an archive of incomplete, component parts, the Subservient Chicken campaign offered the user agency that went beyond just access and choice, but tangible participation in the work's creation.

Subservient Chicken becomes producerly by explicitly engaging the user in the creative process. It also triggers an information-gathering urge, much like the Mondeo or VW Polo ads. Users debate how its mechanism works as much as they reinterpreted its meaning or questioned its authenticity. Gamers often seek to test the limits of a game to see how much actual control and agency they can exert. Here, users wanted to push against the limits of the ad to see what flaws they could locate in its execution. Websites soon appeared when catalogued the various commands and their responses. People worked together to test the limits of application and in the process, spread the video to other interested parties, trying to expand the ranks of the puzzle solvers. According to Axel Bruns (2007), some of the key characteristics of "produsage" -- the "hybrid, user-and-producer position" occupied by participants in user-led spaces such as Wikipedia and YouTube -- include that content is "continually under development" and highly collaborative. Working together, they hoped to outsmart the original producers or at least figure out how it all worked and thereby "beat the system."

Nostalgia and Community

Earlier, we noted that commodity culture and the gift economy operate on the basis of very different sets of fantasy. We turn towards commodity culture when we seek to express our individuality, when we want to break free of social constraints, when we want to enjoy opportunities for upward mobility or shift our status and identity. The fantasies which shape the gift economy have more to do with social connectivity and especially with reaffirming existing values and preserving and promoting cultural traditions. The fantasies of a commodity culture are those of transformation while those of a gift economy are often deeply nostalgic.

When materials move from one sphere to the other, they often get reworked to reflect the values and fantasies associated with their current context. Jenkins (1992), for example, argues fan media production and circulation often centers around themes of romance, friendship, and community. These values shape the decisions fans make at every level, starting with the choice of films and television programs which seem to offer the best opportunities to explore these concepts. When fans rework program content through vidding (a genre of fan music videos) or fan fiction, they tend to draw attention to those situations where such relationships are most vividly expressed. A fan music video for Heroes, for example, centers around moments when two or more of the characters are interacting, even though the structure of the original program kept these characters apart for the better part of a season. The selected music further emphasizes the social bonds within the community and the emotional links these characters feel towards each other.

These themes surface most often in fan made media because, consciously or not, these works allow fans to explore the nature of the social bonds and emotional commitments that draw them together as a subculture. Fan-made media is media that is shared with others with common passions and often its exchange can be understood as a marker of friendship or at least sisterhood. In some cases, fans produces stories or videos to give to other fans explicitly as gifts. But in many other cases, they understand their works as a contribution to the ongoing life of their community. The community tends to nurture writers and artists, seeing each member as potentially making a creative contribution, but they value more strongly those whose works reflect the core themes of fan culture more generally.

Other content which is commonly "spread" within the gift economy has an explicitly nostalgic tone. For many baby boomers, there is enormous pleasure in watching older commercials or segments from children's programs of their childhood. This is a generation which is using eBay to repurchase all the old toys, comics, collector cards, and other stuff that their parents threw away when they went to college. The exchange of these retro or nostalgic texts helps to spark the exchange of memories, which are often bound up to personal and collective histories of consumption and spectatorship. Robert Kozinets (Brown, Kozinets, and Sherry, 2003) has explored how such "retromarketing" practices have helped to revitalized older brands, giving them greater currency in the contemporary marketplace. As Kozinets and his collaborators explain:

Long abandoned brands, such as Aladdin (lunchboxes), Beemans (gum) and Chuck Taylors (shoes), have been adroitly reanimated and successfully relaunched. Ancient commercials are being re-broadcast (Ovaltine, Alka-Seltzer) or brilliantly updated (Britney Spears sings "Come Alive" for Pepsi). On the Internet, sites devoted to marketing a variety of retro merchandise--from candy ( to fabric (, games ( to home furnishings ( popped up. Retro styling is de rigueur in countless product categories, ranging from cameras and colognes to telephones and trainers. Even automobiles and detergents, long the apotheosis of marketing's new-and-improved, washes-whiter, we-have-the-technology worldview, are getting in on the retroactive act, as the success of the Chrysler P.T Cruiser and Color Protection Tide daily remind us.

In many cases, the release of these retro products sparks enormous conversation wherever there are consumers old enough to have fond memories of their hay day. In other cases, online discussions of long retired brands has led to a greater appreciation of their potential within parent companies, as in the case of Quaker Oats' Quisp cereal, which had been introduced in 1965, entered the popular imagination thanks to an inventive ad campaign created by Rocky and Bullwinkle's Jay Ward and Bill Scott, and finally disappeared from national circulation in 1977, though it remained available in some regions of the country. Internet discussions and eBay transactions sparked growing consumer awareness of the brand, helping to pave the way for more aggressive marketing effort by Quaker, including the development and online sale of a gourmet sized package of the crunchy sugary cereal.

While online fans contest the authenticity of the re-issued product, they also share personal memories of their childhood enjoyment of the product and in the process, spread the news of its reissue to others in their social circles. In discussing the values which shape successful retro-brands, Kozinets and colleagues describe something very close to the animating fantasies of the gift economy:

Utopianism is perhaps the hallmark of the retro-brand. The brand must be capable of mobilizing an Elysian vision, of engendering a longing for an idealized past that is satisfied through consumption....Solidarity is an important unifying quality of the retro-brand. Whether as extreme as a cargo cult or as moderate as fictive kinship, the brand must inspire among its users the sense of belonging to a community.


Brown, Stephen, Robert V. Kozinets, and John F. Sherry, Jr. (2003). "Sell Me the Old, Old Story: Retromarketing Management and the Art of Brand Revival," Journal of Consumer Behavior, June, 2. pp.85-98.
Bruns, Axel (2007) "Produsage, Generation C, and Their Effects on the Democratic Process", paper presented at Media in Transitions 5: Creativity, Ownership, and Collaboration in the Digital Age, April 27-29, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA USA.
Douglas, Mary (1991) "Jokes," in Rethinking Popular Culture, Chandra Mukerji and Michael Schudson (eds.). Berkeley: University of California Press, pp.291-311.
Fiske, John. (1989) Understanding Popular Culture. London: Routledge.
Jenkins, Henry (1992). Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Culture. New York: Routledge.
Jenkins, Henry (2006). Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide. New York: New York University Press.

February 20, 2009

If It Doesn't Spread, It's Dead (Part Five): Communities of Users

This is part five of an eight part series. The report was written by Henry Jenkins, Xiaochang Li, Ana Domb Krauskopf With Joshua Green. Our research was funded by the members of the Convergence Culture Consortium, including GSDM Advertising, MTV Networks, and Turner Broadcasting.

Communities of Users

Rethinking the Individual Consumer
So, does it make sense any more to speak about media audiences or for that matter, consumers in this brave new world of spreadable media? Probably not. Witness the profusion of new terms which seek to describe "those people formerly known as the audience." (Rosen, 2006) Some call them (us, really) "loyals," (Jenkins 2006) stressing the value of consumer commitment in an era of channel zapping. Some are calling them "media-actives," (Frank 2004 stressing a generational shift with young people expecting greater opportunities to reshape media content than their parents did. Some are calling them "prosumers," (Toffler 1980) suggesting that as consumers produce and circulate media, they are blurring the line between amateur and professional. Some are calling them "inspirational consumers" (Roberts 2005), "connectors" or "influencers," suggesting that some people play a more active role than others in shaping media flows.

Recently Facebook was struggling with definitions such as these. In an aim to separate the users from the businesses, Facebook created a new profile category called 'pages'. When relating with a business' page, instead of becoming a friend, in usual Facebook fashion, the user becomes a fan. Six months after Facebook launched this new category, the terms are already starting to become murkier, and now in the users profile it no longer says "Jane is a fan of" but "Jane's Pages", the term is more open yet also more ambiguous. Andrew Lockhart, at the Thinking Interactive blog, suggests that companies might want to allow the user to define what type of relationship they want to have, between, for instance, fan, advocate, friend, coworker. Such a move would also give businesses a better understanding of how these users want to engage with them. Sometimes we just want to buy things which are adequate to the purposes we want to use them for but not so vital to our sense of ourselves that we want to proclaim them to other people. The Facebook interface offered too limited a range of options for expressing our diverse affiliations with brands. Even where consumers actively seek to spread your content or advocate for your brand, they want to do it on their own terms and may be very particular about the kind of language they use to describe this relationship.

For some time now it was thought that the way to insure this success was by reaching the so-called "influencers", this term comes from Malcom Gladwell's (2000) book The Tipping Point. As Gladwell puts it, "What we are really saying is that in a given process or system, some people matter more than others." Gladwell's "influencer" model has become almost an article of faith in most discussions of viral media. The most widely quoted example is the comeback made by Hush Puppies shoes, according to Gladwell, due to their adoption by specific Williamsburg tastemakers. He bases his theory on Stanley Milgram's 'Six Degrees of Separation' study, where 160 Nebraskans were instructed to send a letter to a particular stockbroker in Boston by giving it to someone they thought was socially closer to that person. As is now widely known, it took roughly 6 people for each letter to reach its destination. When Gladwell analyzed the study he discovered that it was the same three friends of the stockbroker who provided the final link, and this is where the "influencers" theory comes from, determining that certain connectors are more important than others.

For the past seven years, network-theory scientist Duncan Watts (Dodds, Muhammad and Watts, 2003) has been studying these results and running other experiments of his own. After testing Miligram's theory with 61,000 people he confirmed the average length of the chain was in fact six links, but he did not find any evidence of "influencers". There were as many chances for a message to get passed by a "super-connected" person than by an average one. Messages move through society from one weakly connected individual to another. So the question now becomes, not how to reach the influencers, but how do individuals choose to behave in a networked society and what kinds of social structures best support the spread of content.

Yochai Benkler (2007) argues:

Human beings are and always have been diversely motivated beings. We act instrumentally, but also noninstrumentally. We act for material gain, but also for psychological well-being and gratification and social connectedness.
This seemingly simple statement further more complicates the idea of a networked society and hinders attempts to predict the way communities of users will act. On the other hand, this more nuanced vision allows us to have a deeper understanding of the diverse online behaviors. For instance, there are countless explanation for why people might join a particular social network or make the decisions they do when they come there.

According to Benkler, this shift into a networked information culture does improves the practical capacities of individuals in that:

  1. It improves their capacity to do for and by themselves.

  2. It enhances their capacity to do more in loose commonality with others.

  3. It improves the capacity of individuals to do more in formal organizations that operate outside the market sphere.

It is because of these empowered individuals, their new capacities, and their desire for social interactions that spreadable media is possible. If the technology was available, but society hadn't undergone any cultural changes, we would still be operating exclusively under a sticky model. Benkler has observed that this new society gives "individuals a significantly greater role in authoring their own lives, by enabling them to perceive a broader range of possibilities and by providing them a richer baseline against which to measure the choices they in fact make."

Consumers are choosing to be part of participatory culture in diverse and fluid ways. Forrester Research has developed a useful taxonomy of the types of participation that occur in networked environments; it starts with the most passive users and finishes with the most active participants that publish their own content at least once a month. It's important to note that while this ladder helps us visualize a complex process, users don't necessarily adhere permanently to these roles, and more than likely, behave in different manners within different communities. Moreover, seeing it as depicting a process of ever more intense engagement with media content may mask the degree to which it also describes an economy, with each rung of the ladder performing tasks which are needed to support those below and sometimes above them. So, even some one who is a lurker may provide a sense of empowerment to contributors by expanding the scale of the community and thus motivating them to put more effort into their work. Someone who is a critic may create value for creators but so may someone who collects what the creators create. And the interplay between these different kinds of cultural participants creates opportunities for communication to take place and thus for content to be transmitted.

Rethinking Communities

Such communities are also quite diverse in themselves. In fact, games scholar James Paul Gee (2004) has defined some of these groups as "affinity spaces," affinity that is, for a common endeavor. He argues that the romantic notions of community do not apply here as engaging with one another is a secondary objective, if it exists at all, in some cases, though it may be a primary objective in others. Gee is interested in the kinds of informal learning which takes place in the cultures of gamers, for example, which depend heavily on the sharing of knowledge towards common if sometimes contradictory goals. Such "affinity spaces" can provide greater motivation for the production and circulation of information, may offer a "hothouse" context where new ideas may emerge, may offer motivation for people to intensify their participation. We form non-exclusive relationships to these kinds of "affinity spaces": we may have multiple interests and thus we may engage with multiple different "affinity spaces" in the course of any given day. Older notions of community often started from assumptions of exclusive memberships, whereas this focus on social mobility and multiple commitments helps us to understand how content might spread quickly between different "affinity spaces" as members trade information from one site to another. Not all "affinity spaces" operate according to the same social dynamics. Lara Lee, from Jump Associates, has offered a promising typography for thinking about the social structures of different kinds of communities:

  • Pools: Here people have loose associations with each other, but a strong association with a common endeavor or with the values of the community. Most brand communities are pools, so are most political organizations.

  • Webs: Webs are organized through individual social connections, so the ties with each member are stronger and they operate in decentralized manner.

  • Hubs: In a Hub, individuals form loose social associations around a central figure, as in the case of fan clubs. Hubs may form around brands but they are more likely to form around dynamic figures who embody the values of their company -- a figure like Microsoft's Bill Gates, say, or Virgin's Richard Branson. Such strategies only work when there is a clear connection between the brand's values and the personality of this central figure.

Each of these social structures may be valuable from the point of view of a brand or a media franchise. Hubs are most likely to be influenced through dominant figures, whereas the other two may be shaped by any member. Media content which supports shared activities is most apt to circulate through pools, while that which sustains social connections is most apt to be valued within webs.

Lee's taxonomy seek to understand what motivates our membership in particular kinds of shared social spaces. Others have sought to explain the different barriers to entry which shape alternative kinds of communities:

  • Open: These spaces do not require any registration in order to participate. Users can leave anonymous posts, as is the case on some kinds of blogs or online forums. However, without some form of reputation system, the possibility of engaging in a common endeavor is more limited, resulting in short lived communal experiences. Members feel little or no strong emotional ties to such communities which they enter and exit on a whim. They may move through many such social spaces in the course of a single session online.

  • Free registration: This is the most common way of implementing a space for a community exchange, it's present in the majority of social networks (the ones that operate by outside selection are the exception) and most blogs and message boards. This model has given sites like Amazon the necessary data to customize itself to its community's and individual user's needs. It's in these open and free communities where the spread of media is possible and successful.

  • Purchase: These spaces function within the logic of a sticky model. They operate under the assumption that once you buy your way in, you will stay in. Evidently most of the content within these spaces is proprietary and its spread is limited. The transmission of desired content beyond its borders poses a threat to its subscription model, though closing off that content from wider circulation often makes it harder for potentially interested consumers to determine the value of what it has to offer. These spaces tend to be hubs with very little interaction between the users and it is this lack of strong social ties which has led to growing skepticism about so-called corporate communities.

  • Outside Selection: These are closed spaces with gatekeeper. Their value is in their exclusivity and specificity, but due to their closed off nature, they don't encourage the spread of media, although they might generate buzz.

Although we've used the concept brand communities a couple of times, it's important to reiterate that communities aren't created, they are courted. Most brands will need to court a range of different communities and travel across pools, webs, and hubs if they want to reach the full range of desired consumers. To achieve that, they must embrace what filmmaker Lance Weiler calls "The Scattershot Approach." The idea is to be available for your users in whichever way and every way they deem appropriate, be it through a web site, widget, RSS feed or embeddable video, making the process of finding and communicating with you as easy and enjoyable as possible. That may be the strongest incentive for shifting from a sticky paradigm, which often is a one-size-fits-all model, towards a spreadable paradigm, which allows consumers with diverse interests to retrofit your content to serve their local needs and interest. Your job is to make it available to them in a form where they can deploy it and often to provide them with the tools or widgets required to make it accessible to others within their communities.


Benkler, Yochai (2007). The Wealth of Networks: How Social Networks Transform Markets and Freedom. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Dodds, Peter Sheridan, Muhammad, Roby and Watts, Duncan J. (2003) "An Experimental Study of Search in Global Social Networks." Science, 301(8), pp. 827-829.

Domb, Ana. (2008) "Bringing Awesome to Self-Distribution," Convergence Culture Consortium Blog,

Frank, Betsy (2004). "Changing Media, Changing Audiences." Remarks at the MIT Communication Forum, Cambridge, MA. April 1.

Gee, James (2004). Situated Language and Learning: A Critique of Traditional Schooling. New York: Routledge.

Gladwell, Malcolm (2000) The Tipping Point: How Little Things can make a Big Difference. Boston: Little Brown.

Jenkins, Henry (2006). Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide. New York: New York University Press.

Lee, Lara. (2007) "Lara Lee on brand Community Pioneer Harley-Davidson." Boston University.

Lockhart, Andrew (2008). "The 9 Types of Brand Community Expanded." Thinking Interactive.

Roberts, Kevin (2005). Lovemarks: The Future Beyond Brands. New York:Powerhouse.

Rosen, Jay (2006). "The People Formerly Known as the Audience." PressThink, June 27.

Toffler, Alvin (1980). The Third Wave. New York: Morrow.

February 18, 2009

If It Doesn't Spread, It's Dead (Part Four): Thinking Through the Gift Economy

This is part four of an eight part series. The report was written by Henry Jenkins, Xiaochang Li, Ana Domb Krauskopf With Joshua Green. Our research was funded by the members of the Convergence Culture Consortium, including GSDM Advertising, MTV Networks, and Turner Broadcasting.

Lewis Hyde: Thinking Through the Gift Economy

Lewis Hyde's The Gift: Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property (1983) represents perhaps the best guide on the ways that gift economies operate within the modern world. For that reason, we want to walk through some of his basic claims about the relations between commodity culture and the gift economy.

In a commodity culture, goods are traded as wages for labor or are purchased directly. Neither transaction shapes the circulation of materials within a gift economy
: "A gift is a thing we do not get by our own efforts. We cannot buy it; we cannot acquire it through an act of will. It is bestowed upon us." (p.xvi). Gifts depend on altruistic motivations; they circulate through acts of generosity and reciprocity. Their exchange is governed by social norms rather than contractual relations.

The circulation of gifts is socially rather than economically motivated
: "Unlike the sale of a commodity, the giving of a gift tends to establish a relationship between the parties involved." Furthermore "when gifts circulate within a group, their commerce leaves a series of interconnected relationships in its wake, and a kind of decentralized cohesiveness emerges." (p.xx) The circulation of goods is not simply symbolic of the social relations between participants; it helps to constitute them. Hyde identifies three core obligations which are shared among those who participate in a gift economy: "the obligation to give, the obligation to accept, and the obligation to reciprocate." (p.xxi) Each of these acts help to break down boundaries between participants, reflecting a commitment to good relations and mutual welfare.

Gift economies are relatively dynamic in terms of the fluid circulation of goods while commodity cultures are relatively dynamic in terms of the fluid social relations between participants. As Hyde explains, a "clean" trade within a commodity culture "leaves people unconnected," (p.29) since it involves no future obligation between the buyer and seller. Under such conditions, "wealth will lose its motions and gather in isolated pools....Property is plagued by entropy and wealth can become scarce even as it increases." (p.29) The commodity, he suggests, moves towards wherever there is a profit to be made, while a gift moves "towards an empty space," towards resolving conflicts or expanding the social network. (p.29) By contrast, he writes, "To convert an idea into a commodity means, broadly speaking, to establish a boundary of some sort so that the idea cannot move from person to person without a toll or fee. Its benefit or usefulness must then be reckoned and paid for before it is allowed to cross the boundary." (p.105) In so far as the new media ecology depends on spreadability, it needs to embrace the fluidity of exchange which enables a gift economy rather than the stasis that emerges from commodity culture.

In a gift economy, 'status', 'prestige' or 'esteem' take the place of cash renumeration' as the primary drivers of cultural production and social transaction.
Of course, even within a commodity culture, the production of cultural goods is rarely motivated entirely by profit. Artists also seek recognition for what they create; they seek to influence the culture; they seek to build reputations; they seek to express personal meanings. Only a complex set of negotiations within creative industries allow artist to serve both sets of goals at the same time. As Mark Deuze (2006) notes, anxieties about the free circulation of their output within a participatory culture are motivated both by a sense of losing artistic control and by the perceived economic threat to their livelihood.

Conversely, we seem to be seeing a series of misrecognitions between Web 2.0 companies and consumers as the companies misunderstand what motivates participation. On the one hand, consumers increasingly resent the ways that companies transform their labors of love into commodities which can be bought and sold for revenue. There is a growing recognition that profiting on freely given creative labor poses ethical challenges which are in the long run socially damaging to both the companies and the communities involved. On the other hand, many participants are frustrated when companies offer them financial compensations which are at odds with their understanding of the social transactions which are facilitated through the exchange of gifts. Fan communities, for example, have long-standing social taboos against "exploiting" other fans for personal gain, wanting to share their creative goods outside of commodity relations, rather than seeking rewards for what they produce. C3 research affiliate Abigail Derecho argues that the gift economy has gendered implications, with women traditionally associated with crafts in a gift economy and men associated with art within a commodity culture. Hyde would support this argument, suggesting that salaries tend to be lower within those professions which have historically been associated with the gift economy, not simply because they attract more women but also because they provide other kinds of social compensation.

Hyde sees commodity culture and the gift economy as alternative systems for measuring the merits of a transaction. He writes, "A commodity has value... A gift has worth." (p.78) By value, here, Hyde primarily means "exchange value," that is, the rate at which goods and services can be exchanged for money. Such exchanges are "measurable" and "quantifiable" because there are agreed upon measurements of value. By "worth," he means those qualities we associate with things that "you can't put a price on." Sometimes, we refer to what he is calling "worth" as sentimental value. It is not an estimate of what the thing costs but rather what it means to us. Worth is thus variable even among those who participate within the same community, even among those in the same family, hence the complex negotiations which occur around possessions when a beloved member of a family passes away. Worth can not be measured, though it can be negotiated, but in doing so, we have to take claims about worth at face value, since they have to do with internal emotional states.

Commodity culture and the gift economy are animated by different fantasies, which in turn shape the kinds of meanings which are going to be produced and transmitted around the exchange of goods. Hyde writes, "Because of the bonding power of gifts and the detached nature of commodity exchange, gifts have become associated with community and with being obliged to others, while commodities are associated with alienation and freedom" (p. 86). The values which shape exchanges in a commodity culture have to do with personal expression, freedom, social mobility, the escape from constraints and limitations, the enabling of new "possibilities". We sometimes refer to such fantasies as escapism or social experimentation; they are closely associated with the patterns of "transformation" and "plentitude" which Grant McCracken has documented. The fantasies which animate the exchange of gifts are often nostalgic, having to do with the reassertion of traditional values, the strengthening of social ties, the acceptance of mutual obligations, and the comfort of operating within familiar social patterns.

Because the exchange of goods within a gift economy brings with it social expectations, not all gifts can be accepted. In that sense, there are goods and services which literally can not be given away, because even in the absence of an explicit value proposition, consumers are wary of hidden obligations, unstated motives, or hidden interests which come smuggled inside the gift, much like the classic myth of the Trojan Horse. Hyde describes some circumstances where gifts are inappropriate: "On the simplest level, we are wary of gifts in any situation that calls for reckoning and discrimination....A gift, no matter how well intentioned, deflects objective judgement" (p.92). Even traditional societies, then, distinguish between gifts which facilitate generalized good will and bribes which are designed to distort or corrupt process of judgment. At the same time, the translation of gifts into commodities can be socially damaging. Hyde writes:

We do not deal in commodities when we wish to initiate or preserve ties of affection....Emotional connection tends to preclude quantitative evaluation....When a decision involves something that clearly cannot be priced, we refrain from submitting our actions to the calculus of cost-benefit analysis (p.85).

Both sets of category confusions represent potential pitfalls for companies seeking to negotiate the boundaries between commodity culture and the gift economy. That said, Hyde does believe it is possible for there to be valued and meaningful transactions between these two social systems:

The boundary can be permeable....Put generally, within certain limits what has been given us as a gift may be sold in the marketplace and what has been earned in the marketplace may be given as gift. Within certain limits, gift wealth can be rationalized and market wealth can be eroticized (p.357-358).

Hyde's use of the word, "erotic" here is especially evocative, meant to refer to the ways that the exchange of goods gains emotional intensity as it mediates between two or more participants. If "diamonds are a girl's best friend," as the old song goes, it is both because they have extreme value within a commodity culture and because they are emotionally meaningful within a gift economy.

We might understand spreadable media as content which passes between the commodity culture and the gift economy. Each of the above contrasts between the two social systems are helpful in understanding what kinds of terms might best facilitate exchanges between them. Each also helps us to identify historic sites of conflict or misunderstandings between the diversely motivated agents involved in the flow of content across the current mediascape. Many of these contradictions surfaced in the controversy which surrounded the launch of FanLib, a Web 2.0 company which sought to capitalize on the circulation of fan fiction. Fan fiction had been a part of the gift economy of the web for more than a decade, representing a cultural practice which dated back to Star Trek fandom in the 1960s. Seeing their stories as a "labor of love" which was designed to be shared with the community of others who shared their interests, fans have reluctantly charged money to recoup the costs of printing zines but there was a strong prohibition against any attempts to profit financially from the exchange of stories.

Some fans welcomed the emergence of digital distribution because it lowered the costs of sharing stories and thus pulled fan fiction fully into the gift economy. There was also a perception that the absence of financial profit helped to protect fans from prosecution for what might otherwise have been seen as an attempt to capitalize on the original producer's intellectual property. FanLib, however, sought to pull the production and circulation of fan fiction more fully into the commodity culture: they wanted to monetize on the traffic that fan stories drew to their sites, a step which provoked strong backlash from those most committed to fandom's gift economy. They showed little grasp of what motivated the activities of the gift economy: at various times, they sought to compensate fans either through a share of the revenue or through giving them access to the media producers, neither of which reflected the system of status and reputation which had emerged within fandom.

The threat that fan fiction might be commoditized motivated some fans to create the Organization of Transformative Works, which would, among other things, create an alternative web portal for distributing fan created works totally outside of commercial imperatives. Yet, despite the controversy, FanLib did attract a significant number of contributors. C3 researcher Xiaochang Li (2007) discovered that many of those posting on the site did not feel strong ties to the existing fan community and did not understand their cultural production in terms of "gifts" to fellow fans. These fans did not see a conflict between what motivated their creative expression and the logic of a commodity culture. That said, it was not clear that such fans were as valuable to FanLib or the rights holders because they were less "connected" to the larger fan community, were less likely therefore to draw other fans to the site or to help expand the potential markets for the series being depicted.

Value, Worth and the Transfer of Meaning

For a good to move from commodity culture to a gift economy, there has to be some point where value gets transformed into worth, where what has a price becomes priceless, where economic investment gives way to sentimental investment. If we do not understand how this occurs, we probably cannot understand what motivates consumers to "spread" advertising and other media content within their social networks. When people pass along branded content, they are not doing so as paid employees motivated by economic gain; they are doing so as members of social communities involved in activities which are meaningful to them on either an individual or social level. Symbolic goods stop circulating when they take on such economic value that there is no longer an incentive to give them to someone else or where their exchange fails to serve social goals within a particular community. In other words, symbolic goods cease their movement when they assume too much value or too little worth.

In Culture and Consumption, Grant McCracken (1988) brought together anthropological and marketing literature to offer an account of the way "meaning transfer" shapes the circulation of goods. McCracken starts from the premise that the circulation of goods is accompanied by the circulation of meaning: "Meaning is constantly flowing to and from its several locations in the social world, aided by the collective and individual efforts of designers, producers, advertisers, and consumers." Both designers and advertisers draw on meanings already in the culture around them as they seek to construct offerings that will be valued by their potential consumers. Advertising, as seen by McCracken, helps to move both the products and the cultural claims being made about the products into the life world of consumers. Once consumers have purchased the goods and bought into the symbolic meanings that surround them, they perform a series of rituals which are designed to integrate both goods and meanings into their everyday social experiences. In a later revision of this argument, McCracken (2005b) writes "Consumers turn to their goods not only as bundles of utility with which to serve functions and satisfy needs but also as bundles of meaning with which to fashion who they are and the world in which they live." (p.102)

McCracken (1988) identifies four different kinds of consumer rituals which help us to adapt acquired goods into symbolic resources:

  • Exchange Rituals -- McCracken suggests that when we select a gift for someone else, we do so with an awareness of what makes this gift meaningful. A lover giving a gift seeks to symbolize something of their emotional investment in the relationship -- think about the difference between white and red roses, for example. A parent giving a gift to a child seeks to express and embody some of their hopes for the kind of person that the child will become -- think of the whole line of "Baby Einstein" products for example.
  • Possession Rituals -- McCracken argues that consumers spend a great deal of time asserting their claim on goods which enter their lives from the outside. We like to "perform" our ownership of those goods through "cleaning, discussing, comparing, reflecting, showing off and even photographing many...possessions." At a higher level, he describes a process of "personalization" where goods are altered to better express the personality of their owners.
  • Grooming Rituals -- McCracken claims that for some goods, meaning is perishable and certain practices need to be repeated in order to extract value and meaning from them. These practices often center around either practices of personal grooming or the grooming of the goods themselves.
  • Divestment Rituals -- For McCracken, these rituals need to be performed when goods change hands -- first, to exorcise the imprint of the previous owner so that they may be more fully one's own and then later, to strip aside any emotional investments we have made into goods which we now must dispose or "regift" to others.

Each of these claims may be useful in thinking about how symbolic goods -- such as spreadable media content -- functions in the new world of social networks. But to do so, we need to recognize some core differences. First, for McCracken (1988), goods are "an opportunity to make culture material" (p.88). That is, goods attach symbolic meanings to physical objects. To draw on a now tired but useful distinction, goods are atoms. Yet, the kind of cultural goods we are discussing throughout this white paper are much more often virtual rather than physical, bytes and not atoms. They may still render visible the often implicit assumptions through which we organize our culture: "The consumer system supplies individuals with the cultural materials to realize their various and changing ideas of what it is to be a man or a woman, middle-aged or elderly, a parent, a citizen, or a professional" (p.88). We can see the widgets on our profile pages, the links on our blogs, the refinements on our avatars, as doing a similar kind of social work -- as giving expressive form to our values and performing certain kinds of social identities.

It matters, though, that material goods are limited: they can only exist in one place at one time and to give them to someone else is to give them up yourself. Virtual goods, however, can be shared because they can be infinitely replicated. I can have my "cupcake" on Facebook and eat it too, or more importantly, I can share it with you without having to give it up myself. It is clear that personalization may play as strong if not a stronger role in such a system -- as a means of distinguishing between countless copies of the same cultural good. Yet, we may have to spend less time with divestment rituals because the good we receive is no longer a good taken from the hands of another.

For McCracken (1988), there remains something arbitrary about the assignment of particular meanings to particular goods, with advertisers involved in a series of competing bids for interpretation. Yet in the case of spreadable meaning, what we are circulating is often not the material good but the advertisement itself. It is involved in the exchange of meaning from its conception, though the meanings may change through the process of consumption just as goods may be altered, repurposed, or redeployed by consumers through the processes of possession, grooming, and divestment rituals.

Second, for all of his reliance on anthropological theory, McCracken (1988) holds onto the idea of consumers as individuals who are motivated by personal desires and goals, "engaged in an ongoing enterprise of self-creation," rather than as parts of larger social networks and cultural communities. Indeed, his account of consumption in the North American context stresses all of the ways that identity is optional -- that we choose which social categories are operative and which are irrelevant to our presentation of ourselves. Going back to Hyde (1983), then, the fantasies he sees expressed through consumer goods are those we associate with commodity culture -- those having to do with freedom and individuality -- rather than those of the gift economy-- having to do with tradition and social cohesion.

As we think about why we pass along media content, though, we need to recognize that we are both expressive individuals and social beings, that we seek both to personalize content and to share it with others. We might understand how this process plays out by thinking about the ways social networks change the process of taste-making and gate-keeping which McCracken describes in this essay's discussion of fashion. For McCracken, what counts as fashion gets defined rhetorically through journalists who "serve as gatekeepers of a sort, reviewing aesthetic, social and cultural innovations as these first appear." These professional gatekeepers "winnow" down selections before these options even reach the population of early adopters. In a social network, however, this power of evaluation and "winnowing" is dispersed. Each member potentially assumes the role of grassroots intermediary, contributing to a collective process which evaluates and ranks cultural goods and thus speeds or retards their circulation.


Deuze, Mark (2006). "Media Work and Institutional Logics," Deuzeblog, July 18.

Hyde, Lewis. (1983). The Gift: Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property. New York: Vintage.

McCracken, Grant (1986). Culture and Consumption. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

February 13, 2009

If It Doesn't Spread, It's Dead (Part Two): Sticky and Spreadable -- Two Paradigms

This is part two of an eight part series. The report was written by Henry Jenkins, Xiaochang Li, Ana Domb Krauskopf With Joshua Green. Our research was funded by the members of the Convergence Culture Consortium, including GSDM Advertising, MTV Networks, and Turner Broadcasting.

Sticky and Spreadable - Two Paradigms
From Viral to Spreadability
It is not hard to understand why the idea of both memes and the media virus would be attractive to marketers. If the right meme was deployed, theory suggests, it would successfully acquire people, reaching more and more possible consumers as goes. Similarly, Rushkoff's notion of "viral" circulation appeals to advertisers because it allows them to give up control over little more than the specific path of dissemination. In this scenario, they are cast as purposeful agent zeros, unleashing a message that spreads through its own volition, the instructions of replication imbedded in the DNA of the campaign.

But if the rising anxieties over brand equity, appropriation of content, miscommunication, lack of communication, and the ultimate value of viral campaigns is any indication, many advertisers are well aware that this model of "viral" media, which doesn't account for individual or social agency, does not accurately reflect the present media landscape. The idea of the "media virus" breaks down because people are making conscious choices about what media they are passing along and about the forms within which they are circulating it. As we saw in the discussion of the LOLcat meme above, the core message may be manipulated or turned against the original authors as it spreads across the internet. Consumers have shown a remarkable ability to turn advertising slogans and jingles against the companies that originated them. Fans have highjacked popular stories to express profoundly different interpretations than those of their authors.

Metaphors of "viral media" and "memes" emerged during a period of transition in the relationship between consumers and producers: first, this terminology reflected a shift away from the push-based model of the broadcast era towards the pull-based model of the early internet (characterized by talk of "stickiness"); second, the teminology maintained use value as we moved from an era of personalized media towards the increasingly communal practices associated with the rise of social networks and the emergence of what industry guru Tim O'Reilly (2005) identified as "the architecture of participation."

It is somewhat ironic that the idea of the media virus emerged at the same time as a shift towards greater acknowledgment of consumers as participants in meaning making within the networked media space. Shenja van der Graaf, in her 2003 article "Viral Experiences: Do You Trust Your Friends?" maintains "the main feature of viral marketing is that it heavily depends on interconnected peers. Viral Marketing is therefore inherently social" (van der Graaf, 2003, p.8). van der Graaf uses "viral" to describe a condition of movement and distribution of content that is linked to network behavior, and cites participation within a socially networked system as a central requirement of "viral" behavior.

Each step along this process made media companies more dependent upon the active engagement of their consumers and increased the urgency of understanding how and why cultural content circulates. Talk of "memes" and "media viruses" gave a false sense of security at a time when the old attention economy was in flux, resulting in widespread uncertainity about what might motivate consumer "engagement" in this new context. Such terms promised a pseudo-scientific model for thinking about consumer behavior, one which kept power firmly in the hands of media producers. In practice, they simply mystified the process, limiting the industry's ability to understand the complex factors which now shape the creation of value through the circulation of content within these new social networks.

We believe that the confusion wrapped surrounding the concepts of "memes" and "viruses" are not going to be easily resolved. As we have seen, the terms are at once too encompassing and too limiting; they introduce false assumptions about how culture operate; they distort the power relations between producers and consumers at a time when media companies and brands need to learn to respect the increasingly empowered roles which their users are playing in the circulation and production of meaning around their products. Given these limits, these words mislead more than they clarify and need to be retired. To put it bluntly, the viral is not only sick; it's pushing up the daisies.

For that reason, we are proposing an alternative terminology, one which we think allows us to construct a more effective model that might inform future strategies. Rather than speaking about "viral media," we prefer to think of media as spreadable. Spreadability as a concept describes how the properties of the media environment, texts, audiences, and business models work together to enable easy and widespread circulation of mutually meaningful content within a networked culture. Talking about spreadability invites us to ask four basic questions:

  1. What aspects of the contemporary media environment support the spread of media across different communities?

  2. How do consumers create value for themselves and for companies through their spread of media?

  3. What properties of content make it more likely to be spread?

  4. How do companies benefit from the spread of their content?

The concept of "spreadability" preserves much of what was useful about the earlier models -- the idea that the movement of messages from person to person, from community to community, over time increases their effectiveness, and expands their impact. It recognizes the ways that later theorists such as van der Graaf or Knoebel and Lankshear have revised the earliest, relatively static and passive conceptions of "memes" and "viruses" to reflect the realities of the new social web, while suggesting this emerging paradigm is so substantively different from the initial conceptualizations as to require a new terminology. This new "spreadable" model allows us to avoid metaphors of "infection" and "contamination" which over-estimate the power of media companies and underestimate the agency of consumers. In so far as these metaphors distort the actual factors shaping the spread of media content in a networked culture, they result in less than fully effective campaigns. In this emerging model, consumers play an active role in "spreading" content rather than being the passive carriers of viral media: their choices, their investments, their actions determine what gets valued in the new mediascape. Recentering the discussion on choices consumers make, rather than choices media companies make, forces advertising and entertainment companies to pay closer attention to consumer's motivations and thus to design content which better aligns with their interests; it will also allow companies to adopt policies which sustain rather than repress this desire to help circulate relevant material throughout their social networks.

While older models of "memes" and "media viruses" focused attention on how ideas replicate and propagate, a spreadability model assumes that value originates as much through the act of transformation as through direct circulation. Spreadability assumes a world where mass content gets repositioned as it enters into a range of different niche communities. When material is produced according to a one-size-fits-all model, it necessarily imperfectly fits the needs of any given group of consumers. As content spreads, then, it gets remade -- either literally through various forms of sampling and remixing -- or figuratively via its insertion into ongoing conversations and interactions.

Such repurposing doesn't necessarily blunt or distort the goals of the original communicator. Rather, it may allow the message to reach new constituencies where it would otherwise have gone unheard. C3 affiliated researcher Grant McCracken (2005) points towards such a model when he suggests that the word consumer should be replaced by a new term, multiplier, to reflect the fact consumers expand the potential meanings that get attached to a brand by inserting it into a range of unpredicted contexts of use.

There is something in the term that invites us to ask whether the product, brand, innovation, campaign does actually give the "multiplier" anything he can, er, multiply.... Furthermore, "multipiers" also bids us ask, down the road, whether indeed the product, brand, innovation actually produced anything in the world. Did the multipliers multiply it, or is it still just sitting there? Finally, the term multipler may help marketers acknowledge more forthrightly that whether our work is a success is in fact out of our control. All we can do is to invite the multiplier to participate in the construction of the brand by putting it to work for their own purposes in their own world. When we called them "consumers" we could think of our creations as an end game and their responses as an end state. The term "multiplier" or something like it makes it clear that we depend on them to complete the work.
We might compare these brand "multipliers" to "lead users" (Von Hippel, 2006): lead users (Ford, 2006) enable user innovation, helping to find and fix flaws, identify new markets, or model new uses of manufactured goods once they have shipped to market; these "multipliers" perform some of this same work for cultural goods, taking them places and deploying them in ways that would not have been envisioned by the people who produced them. Some of those uses will be tangential to the goals of the media companies; some may generate alternative sources of profit; some may expand the potential audience for entertainment properties or open the brand message to new interpretations and uses.

Consumers in this model are not simply "hosts" or "carriers" of alien ideas, but rather grassroots advocates for materials which are personally and socially meaningful to them. They have filtered out content which they think has little relevance to their community, while focusing attention on material which they think has a special salience in this new context. Spreadability relies on the one true intelligent agent -- the human mind -- to cut through the clutter of a hyper-mediated culture and to facilitate the flow of valuable content across a fragmented marketplace. Under these conditions, media which remains fixed in its location and static in its form fails to generate sufficient public interest and thus drops out of these ongoing conversations.

Spreadable and Sticky -- Two Models of Media Contact

We can understand what we mean by spreadablity by way of a contrast with earlier notions of "stickiness." A review of the top ten hits on Google for "stickiness" offers us a fairly consistent sense of the word's current functional definition. The term "sticky" first and foremost refers to websites which "grab and hold the attention of your visitor" (Meredian, n.d.). Some writers argue that "(customers will) come back and buy more goods, get more advice, and see more ads" (Sanchez, n.d.). Most others measure stickiness in terms of how long the visitor stays on a single visit or how many different pages the visitors looks at in the course of their stay.

Stickiness reflected the assumptions of personalized media: its central unit is the individual consumer. As one writer explains, "Measuring stickiness means that you'll have to track what individuals do, not just mass movements on your site. So you'll have to have them register or place cookies on their computers if you really want to know that much detail." (Nemeth-Johannes, n.d.) And stickiness is associated with pre-structured interactivity rather than open-ended participation with games, quizzes, and polls seen as devices for attracting and holding the interests of consumers.

This emphasis on "stickiness" was closely associated with the ongoing discussion of "push vs. pull" technologies: stickiness reflects anxiety about attracting and holding viewer interest in a world where consumers have to actively seek out the content they desire. Under the stickiness model, value comes either through charging for access to information (through some kind of subscription or service fee), by selling merchandise to consumers through some kind of e-commerce catalog, or by selling the eyeballs of site visitors to some outside party, most often to advertisers.

Sites such as Amazon or eBay represent the triumph of this "stickiness" model -- both sites depend greatly on the return of highly committed and strongly motivated consumers and upon multiple transactions per visit. Yet, even these sites depend on word-of-mouth referrals from satisfied customers, who more often than not discuss their interactions in other contexts, thus helping "spread" the word to potential visitors. As early as 1996 Amazon launched its highly successful affiliate marketing program, which offers designated 'Associates' as much as ten percent in referral fees for purchases made by visitors they helped to attract to retailer's sites. Consumers are encouraged to link their homepages or blogs back to Amazon, providing incentives for them to help increase their community's awareness of the site's products and services.

This program reflects the core insight that different books would be of interest within different communities, that people were more likely to buy books when they were recommended by people they already trusted in other contexts, and that discussion of books emerged organically in the midst of a range of other conversations and interactions. The Associates program, thus, reflects the value which comes in "spreading" one's message across a range of niche communities rather than seeking simply to attract and hold the attention of site visitors.

Put schematically, we might map nine core distinctions between Stickiness and Spreadability:

  1. Stickiness seeks to attract and hold the attention of site visitors; Spreadability seeks to motivate and facilitate the efforts of fans and enthusiasts to "spread" the word.

  2. Stickiness depends on concentrating the attention of all interested parties on a specific site or through a specific channel; spreadability seeks to expand consumer awareness by dispersing the content across many potential points of contact.

  3. Stickiness depends on creating a unified consumer experience as consumers enter into branded spaces; spreadability depends on creating a diversified experience as brands enter into the spaces where people already live and interact.

  4. Stickiness depends on prestructured interactivity to shape visitor experiences; spreadability relies on open-ended participation as diversely motivated but deeply engaged consumers retrofit content to the contours of different niche communities.

  5. Stickiness typically tracks the migrations of individual consumers within a site; Spreadability maps the flow of ideas through social networks.

  6. Under stickiness, a sales force markets to consumers; under spreadability, grassroots intermediaries become advocates for brands.

  7. Stickiness is a logical outgrowth of the shift from broadcasting's push model to the web's pull model; spreadability restores some aspects of the push model through relying on consumers to circulate the content within their own communities.

  8. Under stickiness, producers, marketers, and consumers are separate and distinct roles; spreadability depends on increased collaboration across and even a blurring of the distinction between these roles.

  9. Stickiness depends on a finite number of channels for communicating with consumers; spreadability takes for granted an almost infinite number of often localized and many times temporary networks through which media content circulates.

In short, for media companies to fully grasp the advantages of spreadability, they have to unlearn the lessons of "stickiness," lessons which may be less effective than they once seemed, as a consequence of the next phase of evolution in the media ecology.

Not surprisingly, many sites today struggle to balance between these two competing models, often resulting in disappointment. Consider, for example, the case of Sonific, an early experiment in adopting the spreadable media model within the music industry. In 2006, Sonific offered 'customizable, flexible, Flash-based music widgets' enabling users to stream one or more songs from the Sonific catalog to almost any webpage. Material from Sonfic's catalog could be included in nearly any web-based application -- from modest blogs to social network pages and slideshows. Users could customize playlists and embed music from the catalog into their sites.

Sonfic offered full-length-tracks as free, promotional streams, operating under the "You hear, you like, you buy," rule proposed by UCE Birmingham Professor Andrew Dubber. By early 2008 Sonific had licensed over 200,000 tracks and had 80,000 users, but as of May 1 the service has closed operations citing unworkable licensing with the major record labels.

It seems that the industry's major stakeholders still prefer this turf to remain unlicensed rather than to allow real-life, workable and market-based solutions to emerge by working with new companies such as Sonific. This is not the way forward.
- Sonific's CEO Gerd Leonhard, 2008.

The service's demise is certainly due, in part at least, to the recording industry's resistance to a spreadable model, a model that would actually encourage music fans to distribute content through decentralized networks. The music industry's anxieties about piracy lead them to want to lock down content rather than encouraging consumers to shape its circulation. All of this suggests a moment of transition: old assumptions are going to be hard to displace. For some industries and for some purposes, the sticky model will maintain even as other sectors of the branded entertainment sector are moving towards a more spreadable model. In the short term, we argue that companies need to know what model they are choosing and why.

The focus on spreadable media requires greater attention be paid to the social relations between media producers and consumers. There are significant differences between what motivates consumers to spread content and what motivates producers to seek the circulation of their brands. These differences can be understood in terms of the contrast between commodity culture and the gift economy.

Ford, Sam, with Henry Jenkins, Grant McCracken, Parmesh Shahani, Ivan Askwith, Geoffrey Long and Ilya Vedrashko (2006). Fanning the Audience's Flames: Ten Ways to Embrace and Cultivate Fan Communities, Report Prepared for the Members of the MIT Convergence Culture Consortium, Cambridge.
Knobel, Michele & Lankshear, Colin (2007). New Literacies: Everyday Practices & Classroom Learning. Open University Press
Leonhard, Gerd. "Sonific Goes Offline on May 1 2008", Sonific.
McCracken, Grant (2005). "'Consumers' or 'Multipliers': A New Language for Marketing?," This Blog Sits At the Intersection of Anthropology and Economics, November 10.
Meredian Design (n.d.) "Make It Sticky, Make 'Em Stay,"
Nemeth-Johannes, Cindy (n.d.) "Making Sticky Websites," The ABCs of Small Business.
O'Reilly, Tim (2005). "What is Web 2.0?," September 30.
Sanchez, Marcos (n.d.) "Eight Ways to Sticky Sites." Fuse.
van der Graaf, Shenja. "Viral Experiences: Do You Trust Your Friends," (author version), in Sandeep Krishnamurthy (ed.). Contemporary Research in E-Marketing, University of Washington. ed.. Pennsylvania: Idea Publishing, pp.166-185
Von Hippel, Eric (2006). Democratizing Innovation. Cambridge: MIT Press.

January 14, 2008

As the World Turns in a Convergence Culture: A Summary, Part VIII: Soap Operas as Brands and Conclusion

Soap Operas as Brands

The phrase "not your mother's soap opera" does not work well for fans in this genre. This phrase may never have been overtly used, but the implication has been in place when the show's history was sacrificed at times to new characters meant to appeal to the target demographic with little connection to a soap opera's past. In most of these cases, though, managing these shows as one would a primetime show and trying to come up with a short-term way to increase viewership among the desired demographic proved to do nothing to curb the downward ratings trend and the continued loss of cultural and financial significance for soap operas. While every other television industry seems to make its name off target marketing and niche audiences according to age/sex demographics, soap operas are in danger when being conceptualized in this way because they are, by their nature, best as a transgenerational narrative. Soap operas may be able to continue thriving in a narrowcasting environment, but the niche audience these shows appeal to may not be able to be broken down so neatly by age/sex.

Continue reading "As the World Turns in a Convergence Culture: A Summary, Part VIII: Soap Operas as Brands and Conclusion" »

As the World Turns in a Convergence Culture: A Summary, Part VII: Quick Fixes and Fan Proselytizers

Quick Fixes

Many long-standing television forms have not completely grasped the idea that one of the most important selling tools they have is exactly what sets them apart from the more ephemeral primetime fare: longevity. This category includes any type of program with deep archives but particularly daytime serial drama. These programs have been on for years, without an end in sight, making them special in a television industry of constant changes and cancellations. The formats of these programs are meant to instill in viewers the sense that, even if the program hits a down time, its longevity and format will cause it to rebound and remain a part of the television landscape for years to come.

Most soap operas today concentrate on finding new viewers by either trying to appeal to casual fans or else stealing viewers from other soap operas, resulting in a dwindling pool of potential audience members as the viewership of the genre as a whole slowly drops. On the other hand, these shows used to have millions more viewers a decade ago and especially two decades ago. Appealing to those prodigal viewers, the "lapsed fans" who have moved away from their soap but would still recognize and perhaps even care about some of the longtime faces of the show--legacy characters--could help bring fans back to these shows, and through the process of transgenerational storytelling, get them interested in newer characters as well.

Continue reading "As the World Turns in a Convergence Culture: A Summary, Part VII: Quick Fixes and Fan Proselytizers" »

As the World Turns in a Convergence Culture: A Summary, Part VI: Product Placement and Transmedia Storytelling

Product Placement and Soap Operas

If soap operas shift to a brand-management strategy that gives greater value to depth of fan engagement and the social activities surrounding the consumption of the official texts of these shows, new revenue sources become more plausible, as I look at in the fourth chapter of my Master's thesis.

The deeper engagement that the immersive story worlds of soap operas encourage also lead to revenue models that value engagement in a way that commercials based on Nielsen ratings do not. While the first forms of product placement can be found in literature, product placement in broadcast was launched simultaneously with commercial radio content, particularly driven by corporate sponsorship that involved prominent product mentions on the air. Nowhere in radio drama was the product more closely married to the show than in the soap opera, however, a genre in which product placement was part of its name.

Continue reading "As the World Turns in a Convergence Culture: A Summary, Part VI: Product Placement and Transmedia Storytelling" »

January 13, 2008

As the World Turns in a Convergence Culture: A Summary, Part V: Utilizing Soap Opera Archives in a Long Tail Economy

Since most American soap operas have been on the air for decades now, these shows have legions of former viewers from previous generations that may not be as interested in the contemporary product but might watch the shows from their past if they could be reached and marketed to and especially if material could be packaged and contextualized in meaningful ways, rather than just airing every episode from the archive in its entirety--especially since many of those episodes no longer exist, especially from the early years. The potential value in this archive leads to a logical business model which directly integrates the available content from the many years in the air.

Using Chris Anderson's concept of the "Long Tail economy," the fifth chapter of my thesis looks at how soap operas could use their history more meaningfully, perhaps as an ancillary revenue source. While ratings today are lower than in previous decades, much of the footage available in that archive aired with higher ratings than the show airing today.

The proliferation of television viewing choices, the rise of women in the workforce, and the O.J. Simpson trial have all contributed to these changes, but the fact remains that most soap operas may have more prodigal children who could potentially be part of a market for this archive content than current viewers. Further, since there is no syndication and no off-season, many of these popular episodes only aired once, never to be seen again, unless a viewer happened to archive the episode and add it to his/her tape collection.

Continue reading "As the World Turns in a Convergence Culture: A Summary, Part V: Utilizing Soap Opera Archives in a Long Tail Economy" »

As the World Turns in a Convergence Culture: A Summary, Part IV: Understanding Online Fan Communities

Online fans are more active than the casual viewer model the Nielsen ratings system is based on, with its focus on impressions without relation to the level of engagement. The shift to balancing quantitative measurements with qualitative ones requires acknowledging and valuing that active engagement, however, as I explain in further detail in the third chapter of my thesis.

Further, many of the "unique" and "niche" aspects of online fan communities actually echo offline modes of engagement with the text as well, albeit on a much larger scale and in published form. These discussion boards can often seem full of noise, especially for the television executive approaching these fan forums with no history in the fan community.

It is important for those exploring the reaction of these fans to be a part of that fan community in an active way and to understand it not as an outsider but as a native. Generally, this means that researchers are best recruited from the fan community rather than trying to become anthropologists studying that community from a distance.

Continue reading "As the World Turns in a Convergence Culture: A Summary, Part IV: Understanding Online Fan Communities" »

As the World Turns in a Convergence Culture: A Summary, Part III: The History of Fan Discussion

Soaps do not exist in a vacuum, and a show's daily texts can only be completely understood in the context of the community of fans surrounding them. Instead of imagining the audience as a passive sea of eyeballs measured through impressions, this approach views soaps as the gathering place for a social network. Acting as dynamic social texts, soap operas are created as much by the audience that debates, critiques, and interprets them than through the production team itself. Here are the various ways fans have interacted with and around soap opera texts through the years, as described in detail in the second chapter of my thesis:

Continue reading "As the World Turns in a Convergence Culture: A Summary, Part III: The History of Fan Discussion" »

January 12, 2008

As the World Turns in a Convergence Culture: A Summary, Part II: The Current State of Soaps

Currently, the soap opera industry is in a state of flux. With Passions moving off NBC, ratings that continue to fall or at best stay even, commentators continue the discussion that has taken place for more than a decade as to the long-term fate of the American soap opera. Reasons for the long-term decline of soaps most often cited include the proliferation of media choices, women moving into the workforce, and the O.J. Simpson case interrupting the daily flow of the soap opera text. However, the inevitability argument posits that nothing can be done to reverse this trend, that soap operas are inevitably on a slowly declining path toward eventual extinction, and also attempts to give a pass to the strategic and creative errors that have expedited or even created many of these negative trends in viewership.

These shows have attempted a series of short-term strategies to gain more viewers specifically in the 18-to-49 female demographic, but this process is often done by focusing on characters within that age demographic as well, ignoring one of the soap opera's strengths--transgenerational storytelling, and particularly transgenerational storytelling that focuses on characters and relationships more than plot progression. In a broad-casting model, soap operas were strengthened by their ability to draw in viewers from multiple generations through texts that examined the relationships in multigenerational families, but the genre has increasingly targeted young adult females at the exclusion of its older viewers and characters as the television industry has become focused on target demographics.

Continue reading "As the World Turns in a Convergence Culture: A Summary, Part II: The Current State of Soaps" »

As the World Turns in a Convergence Culture: A Summary, Part I: Immersive Story Worlds

With my class on soap operas coming up, I recently completed a summary of some of the major points of my thesis work, some of which has appeared here on the C3 blog in the past here and here. A draft of the full thesis is available here. Speaking of the class, a quick thanks to the folks at CBS Soaps: In Depth for featuring it in their latest magazine.

As of this posting, comments have been temporarily turned off, so if you have any response to this summary, feel free to e-mail me directly at Our tech guys tell me comments should be enabled once again later this month.

One of the central ideas of my thesis' posits that soap operas exist as one of few "immersive story worlds" in the media industries, narratives that are developed over time with a large volume of characters and text. Many of the reasons why people are attracted to these narratives deal with the depth and breadth of these stories and the feeling that these narratives are immortal. The first chapter of the thesis posits that only three narrative types exist as exemplars of immersive story worlds, even if many media franchises have some of the characteristics:

  • The DC and Marvel comic book universe
  • Professional wrestling
  • Soap operas

Continue reading "As the World Turns in a Convergence Culture: A Summary, Part I: Immersive Story Worlds" »

September 1, 2007

Theses from C3 Alum (3 of 3): Ilya Vedrashko, Parmesh Shahani, and Aswin Punathambekar

In the previous two posts (here and here), I linked to the work of the four recent graduates of the Program in Comparative Media Studies here at MIT who worked with the Convergence Culture Consortium. In this final post, I want to also link to the thesis work of our other alum, 2006 CMS graduate and former graduate student researcher for C3, Ilya Vedrashko. I also wanted to mention two other C3 affiliates who are CMS alum, former C3 manager Parmesh Shahani, who graduated from the program in 2005, and C3 Consulting Researcher Aswin Punathambekar, who graduated from the program in 2003.

Continue reading "Theses from C3 Alum (3 of 3): Ilya Vedrashko, Parmesh Shahani, and Aswin Punathambekar" »

Theses from C3 Alum (2 of 3): Sam Ford and Geoffrey Long

Earlier today, I wrote about the recent promotion of the availability of the thesis projects from the Program in Comparative Media Studies being available through the CMS Web site here at MIT. Here, I am highlighting the thesis projects of C3 alum that are available in that archive. In this post, I have included the abstracts of both my project and Geoffrey Long's, in-depth case studies of media properties from Procter & Gamble's As the World Turns soap opera and the Jim Henson Company.

Continue reading "Theses from C3 Alum (2 of 3): Sam Ford and Geoffrey Long" »

Theses from C3 Alum (1 of 3): Ivan Askwith and Alec Austin

Recently, Cory Doctorow from Boing Boing wrote about the theses coming out of the Program in Comparative Media Studies here at MIT. Doctorow linked to the CMS site, which includes all the theses written by CMS students this year.

That work includes the work of four alums of the Convergence Culture Consortium: myself, Ivan Askwith, Alec Austin, and Geoffrey Long. It can be found here.

As a result, I thought I would include information on the thesis projects of the those C3 alum, as well as others who have worked with the Consortium in the past. In this post, I'm going to include the abstract for the work of Ivan Askwith and Alec Austin.

Continue reading "Theses from C3 Alum (1 of 3): Ivan Askwith and Alec Austin" »

July 30, 2007

Mick Foley: Pro Wrestling and the Contradictions of a Contemporary American Hero (V of V)


Pro wrestling is an appropriate avenue for researching broader themes in American culture because wrestling allows its fans a close involvement in writing and defining the text. Through the instant feedback available in wrestling shows, fans can directly influence the pacing of a show and can rewrite its meaning. Those viewing televised wrestling can mediate its meaning through their own interpretation of wrestling's often ambiguous messages and through their viewing patterns, around which the shows are written. Promoters and performers alter their fictional characters to change the character's meaning, similar to how musicians such as Prince, Pat Boone, and David Bowie "redefine" themselves for a new generation.

Meanwhile, fans alter fictional characters through their perceptions and interpretations, similar to the ways that another liminal star, Elvis Presley, has been appropriated to represent a variety of American values. As Doss (1999: 259) concludes in her study of Elvis, "Elvis, after all, is an American emblem, and debates and conflicts over who Elvis is and what he means are comparable to the debates and conflicts over what America is and what America means." Rodman (1996: 1) writes that Elvis surfaces "in ways that defy common-sense notions of how dead stars are supposed to behave," popping up not only in for-profit creations but in very personal ways in fans' lives--such as my editor at the Ohio County Times-News newspaper in Hartford, Ky., who jokingly refers to his former "Skinny Elvis" days and his current "Fat Elvis" days, in which Elvis' personal trajectory becomes a metaphor for my editor's own aging and physical change.

Continue reading "Mick Foley: Pro Wrestling and the Contradictions of a Contemporary American Hero (V of V)" »

Mick Foley: Pro Wrestling and the Contradictions of a Contemporary American Hero (IV of V)

Gender/Masculinity: Brains vs. Brawn

The criticism of wrestling's narrow definition of manhood and its vilifying of any opposing views of what constitutes manliness has been covered by many critics (i.e., Lincoln 1989, Berger 1990). The critical concern about the effects of such confining representations of masculinity has been waged most broadly by Jhally and Katz (2002), who indict WWE as purveyors of damaging stereotypes and narrow codes of masculine behavior. Jhally and Katz attempt to connect wrestling's definition of gender roles with broad social problems relating to domestic violence. Jenkins (2005: 306-307) refutes these arguments by claiming that by oversimplifying their subjects, such narrow readings of wrestling participate in the very "anti-intellectualism" for which these critics often condemn wrestling. He particularly attacks their unsubstantiated attempts to liken the ignoring of wrestling's ill effects to the ignoring of Adolf Hitler's rise in Germany.

Wrestling has become a battleground for an argument that involves methodology (whether an examination of wrestling content can have only one possible reading), mediation (a singular writing of wrestling shows by Vince McMahon and his writing team or a communal definition of the product mediated by writers, performers, and fans), and gender roles (wrestling as one definition of masculinity or wrestling as a battle among conflicting masculinities). While wrestling glorifies certain aspects of the traditional hero, its treatment of masculinity is more nuanced than a simplistic reading would find. For instance, Jhally and Katz, in their analysis, do not consider the context of scenes they analyze in the overall narrative or whether the person perpetrating a certain action is a hero or a villain. The contradictions in Foley's character and its affirming and denying of traditional masculine attributes are a fitting example for Jenkins' argument of a more layered reading of pro wrestling. A reading of a character such as Foley's in unambiguous terms ignores the importance of his many contradictions.

Continue reading "Mick Foley: Pro Wrestling and the Contradictions of a Contemporary American Hero (IV of V)" »

Mick Foley: Pro Wrestling and the Contradictions of a Contemporary American Hero (III of V)

The Star Image of Mick Foley

Mick Foley's character developed over the course of twenty years in pro wrestling. Following the definition provided by Ellis (1999: 539) of the star as "a performer in a particular medium whose figure enters into subsidiary forms of circulation, and then feeds back into future performances," Foley's star image emerges out of his various fictional personas and the public dissemination of information about his private life that is incorporated into his star image. The image in wrestling is the fictional character depicted on the screen. These fictional characters are usually either heroes or villains, although they may change freely between the two extremes. Pro wrestling thrives on the relationship between these heroes and villains to build toward eventual grudge matches that fans want to see. Wrestling heroes and villains are defined chiefly through their opposition, as a villain can become a hero by engaging in a feud with one even more villainous than he or she. Similarly, a hero can become a villain by coming into conflict with a hero more popular than he or she. In the case of a change, the star image usually only alters slightly, as wrestlers generally retain their same basic characters. The chief difference is their view of the fans, as the hero-turned-villain usually abandons his or her supporters, while the villain-turned-hero embraces the fans he or she once despised.

In pro wrestling, the wrestler is the commodity. As Birrell and Turowetz (1979: 220) point out, then, every appearance is an opportunity to sell his or her character identity. This commodification process likens wrestling to another form of public discourse, politics. For instance, as Roper (2004) analyzes, the selling of President George W. Bush's heroic persona during his "War on Terror" led to the cultivation of a protector-figure to respond to the terrorist attacks on America. Wrestling's connection to political life has often been articulated by former Minnesota Governor Jesse Ventura (2004), who admitted that his understanding of marketing himself as a pro wrestler greatly informed his successful campaign for the governorship in 1998.

Continue reading "Mick Foley: Pro Wrestling and the Contradictions of a Contemporary American Hero (III of V)" »

Mick Foley: Pro Wrestling and the Contradictions of a Contemporary American Hero (II of V)

A growing body of scholarship has formed to analyze professional wrestling; however, this preliminary collection of work into wrestling's close connection with American society, past and present, has only scratched the surface of an art form that provides an inexhaustible wealth of research material. Wrestling is a particularly apt way to study the culture of a particular time and place and an exaggerated visual text that provides many potential avenues to study the hero-making process in American culture. Pro wrestling is liminal, existing both as sport and drama, fact and fiction, all mediated through a web of complex relationships within the larger construct of the promoter, the media, the actors, and the fans. Furthermore, wrestling is a text that draws on a variety of dramatic conventions and a unique blending of "high" and "low" culture, reflecting what Levine (1988) identifies as a contemporary questioning of distinctions between "highbrow" and "lowbrow" in American art.

Wrestling has been examined from a myriad of critical perspectives because of the rich possibilities its complicated narrative structure offers for various disciplines. Barthes (1972: 21) claims that pro wrestling is "a spectacle of excess" involving a symbolic show of suffering and justice through the hero's struggle with the rule-breaking villain. Goffman (1974) further identifies this spectacular element of wrestling's central narrative, the hero's appropriation of rule-breaking to retaliate against an opponent who has broken the agreement of a fair fight between the two. Goffman (1974: 418) claims wrestling's excitement comes through this breaking of the audience's perceived frame of fair play in sports.

Continue reading "Mick Foley: Pro Wrestling and the Contradictions of a Contemporary American Hero (II of V)" »

Mick Foley: Pro Wrestling and the Contradictions of a Contemporary American Hero (I of V)

I am finishing up the final version of an essay about three years in the making, that I actually got accepted for publication in my final days as an undergraduate back at Western Kentucky University. After a few holdups here and there, the piece will be going into a collection edited by Cornel Sandvoss, Michael Real, and Alina Bernstein called Bodies of Discourse: Sport Stars, Globalization, and the Public Sphere. As I am tidying the essay up, I wanted to see if there were any relevant thoughts from C3 readers on the implications "real" characters like those in pro wrestling have on the meaning of masculinity in the modern media.

When professional wrestler Mick Foley won the World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE, formerly WWF) World Heavyweight Title on Monday Night RAW at the end of 1998, he became a heroic character in the realm of pro wrestling, then at its height of popularity on cable television. Many considered Foley an unusual hero. His character blended masculine heroic qualities of tenacity, endurance, and hard work with characteristics not usually seen in the American hero: a need for communal acceptance, a desire for intellectual growth, and an unattractive aesthetic, with Foley's missing teeth, severed ear, unkempt hair, pear-shaped figure, and lack of the muscular definition usually expected in the wrestling hero.

Mick Foley is a paradox, as his character both embraces and defies elements of the traditional masculine hero. This redefinition of the heroic figure in wrestling, according to Dalbir Singh Sehmby (2000: 202), stems from wrestling's complex relationship among fans, promoters, the media, and Foley himself. Sammond (2005) writes that "whether professional wrestling is progressive, transgressive, or regressive (or all these at different moments) depends on how it serves the social goals of its producers, performers, audiences, and its critics." Because of wrestling's participatory nature, allowing fans to directly influence the product, wrestling heroes may perhaps be more indicative of the paradoxes in defining masculinity and American heroism than the heroes created through many other media products. The construction of Foley as hero reveals America's changing and conflicting values regarding its traditions and its definition of masculinity.

Continue reading "Mick Foley: Pro Wrestling and the Contradictions of a Contemporary American Hero (I of V)" »

July 4, 2007

Growing Old Together: Following As the World Turns' Tom Hughes Through the Years, Part VI of VI


To trace the character of Tom Hughes is to trace the trajectory of the American soap opera and, to a degree, American television. The character demonstrates the soap opera genre's use of SORASing and the supercouple and the constant tug at soap storytelling between the three major strands of soap opera plots--family and workplace drama, tackling social issues, and escapist romance fare.

A part of the soap canvas for 45 years now, Tom Hughes is, in a sense, the history of ATWT, and the treatment of his character marks changes in performers, changes in writing staffs, and changes in audience reception and in American society. From tackling divorce to drug culture and Vietnam to living wills and AIDS, Tom's character has been involved with many of the controversies that have defined American public discourse over the past few decades. And for fan communities with lasting memories, his current character serves as a monument to those social changes and plot turns.

Continue reading "Growing Old Together: Following As the World Turns' Tom Hughes Through the Years, Part VI of VI" »

Growing Old Together: Following As the World Turns' Tom Hughes Through the Years, Part V of VI

Tom's Maturity--Scott Holmes Takes the Role

At this point, Scott Holmes took over the role of Tom Hughes. Tom was out of Oakdale for some time in Washington D.C., where he was heavily involved in a massive FBI case that the Oakdale Police Force was also involved in. With Holmes portraying Tom, he returned to Oakdale to put his marriage back together and began working with Margo on the Falcon case. The couple was eventually reunited.

The central character in the defining family of Oakdale, Holmes' Tom once again became a part of several storylines that sought to renew focus on social issues through personal drama, similar to the stories Tom was part of in the late 1960s. This mid-1980s to early-1990s time period is often celebrated by ATWT fans as a glory period of the show, with head writer Douglas Marland blending social relevance into a strong writing emphasis on workspace tension and family drama.

Continue reading "Growing Old Together: Following As the World Turns' Tom Hughes Through the Years, Part V of VI" »

Growing Old Together: Following As the World Turns' Tom Hughes Through the Years, Part IV of VI

Childhood and Adolescence--The SORASing of Tom Hughes

Tom Hughes was immediately a central focus on ATWT because he was born to the central couple of the show at the time, Bob and Lisa. The show's writers recognized that only a minimal amount of storytelling could be accomplished with Tom as a young child.

Therefore, Tom became one of the first victims of SORAS, a disease that now regularly strikes children in soap opera towns. SORAS, which stands for Soap Opera Rapid Aging Syndrome, is a term popularized in the soap opera press and in online fan communities, in response to the trend to age soap opera characters, almost always children, much more rapidly than real time would allow.

The early development of Tommy Hughes is one of the most blatant examples of SORASing, as the character was born in 1961 and, by the end of the decade, was in Vietnam. The character's birth and early existence was largely as a plot device in the dissolution of Bob and Lisa's marriage.

Continue reading "Growing Old Together: Following As the World Turns' Tom Hughes Through the Years, Part IV of VI" »

Growing Old Together: Following As the World Turns' Tom Hughes Through the Years, Part III of VI

Shifting Portrayals: The Many Men Who Are Tom Hughes

One important aspect of daytime television is that characters, even as they become so entwined with their portrayers, are also bigger than those actors. It is quite common in American soap opera for a character to be recast if an actor leaves the show, especially when the character is linked to several others. Because the power of soap operas lies in character relationships rather than plot development, an essential character must stay on the show, whether the actor who portrays him or her does or not. The duration of actors such as Wagner, Fulton, or Hastings is impressive because such long-term performances are relatively rare.

Tom Hughes, excluding his time as a baby, has been portrayed by 13 different actors. Starting in 1963, Tom was old enough to have dialogue on the show and began being portrayed consistently by one child actor at a time. The character was aged more rapidly than real time would allow, and his birth date was revised significantly as the show progressed so that the character would be aged enough to allow for certain stories.

Continue reading "Growing Old Together: Following As the World Turns' Tom Hughes Through the Years, Part III of VI" »

Growing Old Together: Following As the World Turns' Tom Hughes Through the Years, Part II of VI

As the World Turns

However, As the World Turns changed the conception of the television soap opera. Under the supervision of Irna Phillips, one of the "auteurs" of television rarely discussed in "mainstream" accounts of television history, As the World Turns (ATWT) popularized many of what are now considered defining elements of the genre.

The program aired daily for 30 minutes, breaking away from the shorter 15-minute increments of shows like Guiding Light. Slow pacing, an emphasis on dialogue, and the now-stereotyped camera angles were all part of the ATWT conception. For that reason, many soap historians would consider ATWT the most significant soap opera in American television history.

From 1958 until 1978, ATWT was unchallenged as the top rated soap opera, until growing competition in the 1970s unseated it. Throughout its now 50-year run on CBS, ATWT has survived important changes--the switch to color, the conversion from live to taped television in the early 1970s, the shift from 30 minutes to an hour in the late 1970s, and fluctuating ideas about what topics the genre should cover, oscillating from family drama to romantic escapist fare to tackling controversial social issues or some combination of the three.

Today, ATWT remains an award-winning soap, often recognized with writing and production awards at the Daytime Emmy awards. While Guiding Light has phased out many of its long-term characters (most characters considered "veterans" on the show today debuted with Guiding Light in the late 1970s or early 1980s), ATWT has retained not only the greatest number of long-term characters but also many of the actors who have defined those characters.

Continue reading "Growing Old Together: Following As the World Turns' Tom Hughes Through the Years, Part II of VI" »

Growing Old Together: Following As the World Turns' Tom Hughes Through the Years, Part I of VI

Next week, Lee Harrington and I will be presenting the latest in Henry Jenkins' series of discussions about gender and fan studies. Since Lee has been a pioneer in research on soap opera fan communities and since much of my recent focus have been on fans of daytime drama, I wanted to return to a paper that I presented at the Popular Culture Association/American Culture Association's conference here in Boston back in April. It was a great conference, with a followup discussion about the present and future of soaps with a variety of interesting and interested scholars who have written and presented on soaps. I thought I would present the content of that paper, sans the footnotes, as I prepare for next week.

Television is an actor's medium. While budgets and schedules have often given movies a greater mastery of grand visual spectacle than television (a divide between film and television that is growing increasingly thin), the actor has always remained the currency of television fiction. Even today, with television series consistently raising the bar for production values, the actor still holds the most power in connecting with the audience.

The smaller screen of (most) television sets values the close-up, the study of human emotion (and especially the human face), in a way that the grand vistas and elaborate cinematography of most Hollywood films seem to miss. The value placed on the actor and the exploration of character is more suited to the seriality of television as well. While films visit a character's life for a short time, a television series visits characters on a regular basis, over a number of seasons.

Continue reading "Growing Old Together: Following As the World Turns' Tom Hughes Through the Years, Part I of VI" »

Add to Technorati Favorites