Comics and Popular Science: An Interview with Clifford V. Johnson (Part Two)

In your Preface, “Space and time and the relationships between things are at the heart of how comics work: Images (sometimes contained in panels, but not necessarily) arranged in sequence encourage the reader to infer a narrative that involves the sense of time passing, of movement, and so forth. In this sense, fundamentally, comics are physics! Put this way, upon reflection it is stunning that this graphic form has not been used more to talk about physics, and to communicate what’s going on in the fascinating world of physics research.”  What are some of the ways you are taping this insight in your visual storytelling across the book?

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I use it in some fairly obvious ways in some places, like just having characters moving from frame to frame while actually discussing the whole business of movement. In other cases, I get to do much more subtle things with the form. For example, at one point in a conversation two people are discussing ideas from contemporary research about what might happen to space and time inside a black hole. Without going into detail with me just say that space and time can get rather jumbled up inside – maybe even lose their meaning entirely. So one of the ways I show this is by messing with the order in which you conventionally read the comic frames as you are watching the discussion delve into the black hole. I'm deliberately playing there, deliberately inviting confusion in the interior of the black hole in a way intrinsic to the comic form itself.

 

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In other places I have characters talk about the breakdown of space and time entirely, as might happen at the birth of the universe. There, as they talk about this, I completely dissolve the panels containing the characters and the backgrounds. Frankly, I wish that I had realised this connection between subject and form earlier in writing the book. I would have played with it a lot more than I actually do in this book. I almost want to immediately start work on a second volume of dialogues and cast many more contemporary ideas from physics in this form. If I don't do it, I hope others may try.

 

One of the real strengths of this work is your focus on particularized locations for the exchanges. Many dialogic texts in the past have been abstracted from any specific physical space, but your drawings are rich in architectural and geographic information. Why? What do these locations, such as Los Angeles’ Angels Flight, contribute to our experience of your work?

 

Thank you for noticing this! Yes. This is all about being able to show - because I chose this graphic form - that science takes place out there in the world. Everywhere there are people present, science, and conversations about science can take place. It's not just with the experts and it's not just to be left in labs and research centres. From pragmatic perspective, I also have the feeling that readers can get drawn into the book by wondering who and where these people are. I hope they might have fun recognising details of places that may be familiar. The richness you so kindly pointed out is also my weakness by the way. I obsess over details in my drawing. Is one of the reasons why it took me seven years to finish this thing. One of the other reasons is that I was teaching myself more or less from scratch how to draw at the required standard, and how to draw for this medium. It will take a lot more time than I had to also learn the kind of distillation and economy that a true master has. Perhaps I will one day.

 

Larry Gonick's Cartoon History of the Universe has been widely cited as an example of what it might mean to do science through comics.  You adopt a very different approach. Can you say more about the pedagogical choices you made in how to present this material?

 

I have a confession to make. I've never read that book, although I know of its existence, and of course I have a lot of respect for it. I’ve glanced at some pages from it online and so I know enough about it to put in that class of wonderful books out there about science which are essentially illustrated lectures. I did not want to write an illustrated lecture about physics. Obviously, by being a physics professor writing/drawing about physics,  I am still trying to illustrate physics ideas, but I want to get away from the tone (which is not to everyone’s taste) of an expert coming out of the ivory tower and giving the public the benefit of their wisdom. I felt that having the reader eavesdrop on dialogues about science gets the ideas across any different way. And that’s even if some of the people in the dialogues are scientist themselves, as is the case. They're not talking directly at you, and I think that makes a difference. I don't know why. That's probably for my colleagues in the psychology department to tell you.

 

Often, documentary or instructional comics -- Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics comes to mind -- are monologues in which the author represents themselves on the page lecturing us, albeit in a playful way, about the content. Why did you chose to communicate more through character interactions with accompanying notes?

 

McCloud’s book is wonderful. I spoken a bit about the choice to avoid lecturing and use character interactions already, but let me say a bit more about the notes. The great thing about conversations is that they are imperfect. I know that sounds a bit odd, but I like that imperfection. In representing conversations on the page then, I get to visit lots of topics, because conversations seldom stay exactly on track. And that ends up allowing me to show the connectedness of science ideas. You can go off in one direction or another. Inevitably there for that means that, unlike a carefully prepared lecture, a conversation won't stay on topic and is less likely to go very deeply into one particular topic. Instead there are notes at the end of each chapter where I list books for further reading on some of the topics that popped up on the conversation. So the dialogues end up being an invitation to, or maybe a tasting menu of, various ideas. And then the reader can dive in more deeply by getting some of the many wonderful books that other writers and scientists have written.

 

Nick Sousanis, creator of Unflattening, has suggested that thinking through comics about his subject matter fundamentally changed his understanding of his topic. Is the same true for you? What did you learn doing physics through comics?

 

That book is fascinating, by the way. I finally got to reading it this Fall, and I can see that we’d have a lot of ideas to discuss if we met. I hope to meet Nick one day. (I feel bad that I did not cite his work in my book, but it appeared too late, and in any case my notes are mostly pointers to physics texts. I stumbled on it in a bookstore when I was just at the end of finishing the writing and layout of the dialogues, and about to embark on final art. I had to stay away from it, like I did all books at that time so that I could just focus on the coming year of finding time to frantically complete over 200 hundred pages of final art.)

 

But to your question. I would love to give some spicy story in answer to this question where at the end I point to some scientific paper I published that owes its insights to my investigations of comics. Maybe I will one day. But I cannot right now because it did not happen. Nevertheless, I am quite sure that my research is helped, overall, by my work on this book. Many scientists will tell you that the process of finding good ways to explain even the most basic concepts feeds positively into their research. It encourages clarity of thought. Also, sometimes, tackling a research problem is a dialogue with yourself or with your collaborators. You are reviewing what you've already done, sometimes explaining it back to yourself to glimpse a pattern or a theme. So, trying to explain concepts about relativity or the nature of time to non-experts (as I do in the book) can be useful. Also trying to explain a character’s principled  position on some controversial scientific issue, as I do in the book, helps me clarify my own position. I hope that goes some way to answering your question.

 

 

Comics and Popular Science: An Interview with Clifford V. Johnson (Part One)

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Clifford V. Johnson is the first theoretical physicist who I have ever interviewed for my blog. Given the sharp divide that our society constructs between the sciences and the humanities, he may well be the last, but he would be the first to see this gap as tragic, a consequence of the current configuration of disciplines. Johnson, as I have discovered, is deeply committed to helping us recognize the role that science plays in everyday life, a project he pursues actively through his involvement as one of the leaders of the Los Angeles Institute for the Humanities (of which I am also a member), as a consultant on various film and television projects, and now, as the author of a graphic novel, The Dialogues, which is being released this week. We were both on a panel about contemporary graphic storytelling Tara McPherson organized for the USC Sydney Harmon Institute for Polymathic Study and we've continued to bat around ideas about the pedagogical potential of comics ever since.

Here's what I wrote when I was asked to provide a blurb for his new book:

"Two superheroes walk into a natural history museum -- what happens after that will have you thinking and talking for a long time to come. Clifford V. Johnson's The Dialogues joins a select few examples of recent texts, such as Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics, Larry Gonick's Cartoon History of the Universe, Nick Sousanis's Unflattening, Bryan Talbot's Alice in Sunderland, or Joe Sacco's Palestine, which use the affordances of graphic storytelling as pedagogical tools for changing the ways we think about the world around us. Johnson displays a solid grasp of the craft of comics, demonstrating how this medium can be used to represent different understandings of the relationship between time and space, questions central to his native field of physics. He takes advantage of the observational qualities of contemporary graphic novels to explore the place of scientific thinking in our everyday lives." 

To my many readers who care about sequential art, this is a book which should be added to your collection -- Johnson makes good comics, smart comics, beautiful comics, and comics which are doing important work, all at the same time. What more do you want!

In the interviews that follows, we explore more fully what motivated this particular comics and how approaching comics as a theoretical physicist has helped him to discover some interesting formal aspects of this medium.

 

The Dialogues seeks to call attention to everyday conversations about science. Why? What are the stakes for you as a scientist in calling attention to the ways everyday people think about and talk about science?

It goes back a long time, actually. Many people have liked the way I explain scientific concepts to non-experts, and several kept asking me when I was going to write that non-expert level book that people who do a lot of public science explaining usually end up writing. I was stumped for a good answer. I did not feel that the world urgently needed another of those books…not from me anyway. There’s nothing wrong with those books, they are wonderful resources - it just did not feel urgent, and so I carried on with my other work, doing research, and connecting to the public through various other media. Then 18  years ago (!) I had an idea. What was missing from the literature are science books that focus on the reader being able to see themselves as part of the conversation. As part of the joyful, delightful dance that science can be. So the core idea was to make the entire book a series of conversations.  Conversations of a type that any reader may have had, or can be a part of - any time they choose. This takes away some of the tone of the expert telling you what you’re supposed to think, and emphasises participation more. The engagement with science should not be left to the experts - its open to all kinds of people.

 

What do you want your readers to learn about science over the course of these exchanges? I am struck by the ways you seek to demystify aspects of the scientific process, including the role of theory, equations, and experimentation.

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That participatory aspect is core, for sure. Conversations about science by random people out there in the world really do happen - I hear them a lot on the subway, or in cafes, and so I wanted to highlight those and celebrate them. So the book becomes a bit of an invitation to everyone to join in. But then I can show so many other things that typically just get left out of books about science: The ordinariness of the settings in which such conversations can take place, the variety of types of people involved, and indeed the main tools, like equations and technical diagrams, that editors usually tell you to leave out for fear of scaring away the audience. I also get to emphasise (sometimes in microcosm) the dialogue between theoretical work and the experimental work needed to connect it with reality. In one story, two kids theorize about a cooking process and devise an experiment to test their ideas. The experiment is designed well enough to sharply distinguish between two perfectly good theories.  This might not seem to be connected to fancy ideas about multiverses and quantum entanglement and other buzz-words people come to contemporary science books for… but that process is core to science.

 

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Why did comics emerge as the best way to share these conversations with your readers? What has been your relationship with comics as a medium?

 

I said earlier that I had the idea to do dialogues about 18 years ago, but the idea for it to be a comic came years later. There was a visual component in the original idea, yes, but it was mostly to show at the end of each story a bit of what might have got scribbled during the conversation. As though you’d eavesdropped in a cafe, they’d left, and you picked up a scrap of paper they’d written on. Well, years went by and I’d occasionally take the idea off the shelf, tinker with it, and then put it back. But I still did not start on the book. Then around 2006 or so I realised that every time I tinkered the visual component grew. I wanted to show more of the things they’d scribbled… Maybe the order in which the scribbling happened. Then I wanted to show who was having the conversations. Maybe that would engage the reader - we’re social animals, so we tend to be pulled into things that way. Then I thought it would be nice to show that these are happening in everyday circumstances. Cafés, sure, but also trains, buses, museums, on the street, in the home. And then it hit me - the visuals had entirely eaten the prose aspect of the book. What I was working on was a non-fiction graphic novel about science. I realised that there was really nothing out there like it, and then I just had to make it and get it out there into the world. It marked a return to the medium for me. I’d read superhero comics a lot as a kid, and into my early college years, and I was always interested in the art, but not at the level I would become later, for this project. In the early 90s I’d almost fully put them aside for various reasons. I’d dip in from time to time, but did not really become a regular reader again. But around the time the book ideas properly crystallized into a graphic book, I returned to reading the form, discovering that a lot of wonderful expansions into storytelling in a wide range of subjects had happened, and I began to consume many examples. By 2010 I took a sabbatical semester and devoted it to (secretly) studying the form in earnest to learn if I could do it, teaching myself art and other production techniques and so forth from books and lots of trial and error.

Clifford V. Johnson is a professor in the Physics and Astronomy Department at the University of Southern CaliforniaHere's how he describes his research on his home page: "My research (as a member of the Theory Group) focuses on the development of theoretical tools for the description of the basic fabric of Nature. The tools and ideas often have applications in other areas of physics (and mathematics) too - unexpected connections are part of the fun of research! Ultimately I (and the international community of which I am a part) am trying to understand and describe the origin, past, present and future of the Universe. This involves trying to describe its fundamental constituents (and their interactions), as well as the Universe as a dynamical object in its own right. I mainly work on (super)string theory, gravity, gauge theory and M-theory right now, which lead me to think about things like space-time, quantum mechanics, black holes, the big bang, extra dimensions, quarks, gluons, and so forth. See the research page for more, or look on my blog under the "research" category (here). I spend a lot of time talking about science with members of the public in various venues, from public talks and appearances, various intersections with the arts and media (you might catch me on TV and web shows like The Universe, Big History, or Fail Lab), to just chatting with someone on the subway. I love helping artists, filmmakers, writers, and other shapers of our culture include science in their work in some way. Check out my blog for more about those things, and occasional upcoming events. Get in touch if you are interested in having me appear at an event, or if I can help you with the science in your artistic endeavour."

Revisiting the Concept of "Sharing": An Interview with Nicholas John (Part Three)

 

 

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How might we think about the social mandate to share in today’s culture in relation to ongoing concerns about the loss of or disrespect for notions of privacy? What relationship do you see between sharing and privacy?

 

Online sharing would certainly seem to present quite a challenge to privacy: the more we share, the more Facebook et al. know about us. So on the face of it, sharing and privacy stand in opposition to one another. However, there are interesting parallels between them which lead me to see them not necessarily as subsisting in a zero-sum game but rather as giving different expression to a kind of self that took shape during the 20th century.

If I may oversimplify somewhat, the modern right to privacy, as formulated by Warren and Brandeis at the end of the 19th century, emerged in response to modern technologies of representation and reproduction, specifically, the use of photographs in newspapers. The right to privacy has as its object the discrete individual. On one account, privacy is necessary so that the individual may make authentic decisions (for whom to vote, or what to purchase).

Paradoxically, the contemporary injunction to share (as a type of communication) also addresses the discrete individual who expresses her authentic individuality by making it public. In their work on reality TV, Andrejevic and others have shown how self-exposure and its subsequent scrutiny are taken as a guarantor of truth, and I see sharing on social media as an extension of this. Of course, I’m aware that many social media users feel that others are not being authentic in their self-representation, but the rhetoric of sharing on these platforms, and especially Facebook, is all about connecting with others and being your most authentic self. (It has been interesting in this regard to follow Mark Zuckerberg’s comments about apps for anonymous communication, which also claim to offer users the opportunity to be their most authentic self.) Moreover, there are sanctions against not sharing. For instance, refusal to use Facebook can be perceived as deviant; and if we think about interpersonal relationships outside of social media, it seem obvious to me that you will not be able to sustain a romantic relationship without talking about your emotions.

Perhaps the term that points to failure in managing these seemingly competing demands – to share and for privacy – is “oversharing”. This is when we are given too much information, when the boundary between the public and the private – which is always shifting and negotiable – leaves too much in the public sphere. When we accuse someone of oversharing, we are not only saying that we did not want to know that, but that they should not have wanted to tell us in the first place, that they should have had a better sense of their own privacy.
 

Which term has more moral and emotional weight in our culture -- sharing or piracy?

I haven’t studied the metaphor of piracy per se, though it clearly is a meaningful cultural resource for those more deeply involved in the community (that is, it may not be a term that resonates with everyone downloading the Game of Thrones finale, but it is important to the people who contribute to the file sharing forums I analyzed). The metaphor of piracy is, I think, seen as more subversive among the file-sharers I studied. It’s more edgy than sharing, though one does come across “sharing is caring” slogans and images in members-only file-sharing sites too.

In terms of our broader culture, I think I’ve nailed my colors to the mast pretty strongly here: after all, the book is called The Age of Sharing. I think that the term, sharing, is an extremely powerful term today, both morally and emotionally. Part of the evidence for this is actually provided by people who strenuously oppose its application to practices that they say are “not really sharing”. Sharing, for them, needs to be protected from appropriation by commercial entities (among others).
 

Your conclusion stresses the unfulfilled promises of the concept of “sharing” in contemporary culture, which is often used to mystify far more traditional kinds of economic relationships. But we could turn this around and say the persistence of the concept of “sharing” across the various contexts you discuss suggests an ongoing desire, amid large chunks of the western world, for an alternative set of economic and social arrangements that does not look like capitalism. Can we deconstruct the abuse of the concept of sharing while keeping alive the radical potential of these shared social values? As you ask, “if the promise is extinguished, what are we to do?” (155)

 

What are we to do? I wish I had an answer.

Were I asked to present a blueprint for the Good Society, I have no doubt that it would include sharing: my good citizens would share resources; relationships would be built on openness and honesty. But in fact this blueprint says a great deal about my cultural circumstances; perhaps more than the desirability or attainability of this Good Society. There certainly is an ongoing desire in large chunks of the western world for an alternative to capitalism – an important wing of the so-called sharing economy is trying to present such an alternative – but our ability to imagine this alternative is defined, or at least shaped, by our present-day culture. I certainly think this is the case when we imagine a past in which people shared and drew inspiration from that past, and I think this is what Benjamin was intimating with his notion of an ur-past, a mythological past of harmony. With the help of anthropologists, in the book I argue that our conceptualizations of hunter-gatherer societies as grounded in sharing are anachronistic and misplaced. We imagine a better past (and future) from our place in the present. How could we do otherwise?

It is from this perspective that I refrain from talking about the abuse of the concept of sharing. Culturally speaking, the concept and its “abuse” have common roots. I suppose this is another way of saying that we cannot get outside the system. This isn’t to say we should critique the system (whatever we perceive that as being), but it is to suggest that arguing about whether this or that is “really” sharing isn’t going to get us very far. If there is a problem with certain parts of the “sharing economy” it isn’t that it is called “sharing”, it is that people’s labor is being exploited.

Nicholas John is a Lecturer at the Department of Communication and Journalism, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem. His research interests include technology and society, the internet, social media, sharing, and unfriending. He is the author of the award-winning book, The Age of Sharing. This book offers an innovative approach to sharing in social media, specifically by linking it to sharing in other social spheres, namely, consumption and intimate interpersonal relations. The book won the Best Book award from the Israel Communication Association, and the Nancy Baym Book Award from the Association of Internet Researchers. Nicholas is also interested in disconnectivity, which he sees as a neglected aspect of digital culture. In particular, he is fascinated by Facebook unfriending, particularly when it is politically motivated. He sees unfriending as a new political and social gesture that we know very little about. His teaching looks at the complex interrelations between technology and society.

Revisiting the Concept of "Sharing": An Interview with Nicholas John (Part Two)

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To what degree was sharing part of the early hacker and counter-culture ethos which shaped our understanding of cyberspace? To what degree might it have emerged from the science and technology culture of research institutions such as MIT and Caltech which also placed a value on the open exchange of information?

 

It was absolutely part of the early hacker culture, and indeed of early computing culture. However, I find claims that the internet, or cyberspace, has always been about sharing to suffer from the same anachronism as claims that prehistorical hunter-gatherer societies were about sharing. This is because I’m interested in the use of the word, and the word did not come to represent the internet until the mid-2000s. The key text on the counter-culture’s role in the cultural signification of the internet is Fred Turner’s From Counterculture to Cyberculture. What I find worthy of note is that nowhere in the book does he talk about sharing as value of the internet; nor, incidentally, does Howard Rheingold in The Virtual Community. Today we understand cyberspace in terms of sharing, but we did not thus understand it even as recently as the early 2000s.

The second part of this question is, in my reading, an empirical question, which one would answer by looking through the archives of those institutions. Did they talk about sharing? Is that how the open exchange of information was discussed? I don’t know, but it could be interesting to look into that.

Why has sharing become the prefered language for talking about what we do when we participate on social media? What other potential frames might we consider for thinking about these activities?

There are three main reasons for this. The first sees “sharing” as emerging organically from the field of computing, where it has long been a term in use (as I mentioned earlier in relation to time sharing).

The second is that the term, sharing, covers so much. It refers to both the distributive and communicative aspects of sharing, and it incorporates a wide range of other terms that might be used in describing social media activities, such as “express yourself”, “post”, “connect”, “socialize”.

The third reason is that “sharing” has such positive connotations, encapsulated in the phrase, “sharing is caring”.

Taken together, these reasons point to a term that is both an organic part of the world of computing, and that has been leveraged by social network sites’ PR people. If you look at the front pages of the major SNSs over the first decade of the century (something I have done so that you don’t have to), you can see the word “sharing” becoming more widespread over that time, but particularly between 2005-2007. Facebook played an important role in this. They adopted the concept of “sharing” in 2006, which seems to have pushed other companies to present themselves in that terminology too.

This suggests that the term, sharing, came relatively late to digital culture, which begs the question, what other frames were used prior to that point?

One significant frame was that of “gifting”, but I see “gifting” and “sharing” as quite different. First, I would note that “gifting” and “sharing” are different in that the former was a theoretical concept used by scholars to describe activities they were witnessing (making music files available to others on Napster; creating websites), while sharing became the term used by social network sites to describe participation on them. So actually “gifting” wasn’t the term used by participants, but rather by observers.

Be that as it may, gifting refers to the distribution of goods, even if they are immaterial goods. Sharing refers both to the distribution of goods and to a form of interpersonal communication. Because sharing as a type of communication implies honestly, openness, authenticity, and more, it is far wider than the notion of “gifting”. To say that someone is sharing is to suggest that they are giving something of themselves. More than gifting does, it implies caring, perhaps even altruism.

 

The phrase, “the sharing economy,” has been applied to everything from Uber to Wikipedia. How can we make meaningful distinctions between the different forms of “sharing” involved here and the ways what gets shared does or does not become part of a larger “economy”?

 

There have been plenty of attempts to make this distinction. Lessig talks about me-regarding and thee-regarding economies, and about thin and thick sharing economies; Belk talks about sharing in and sharing out, and also about sharing versus pseudo-sharing; in a slightly different context Haythornwaite talks about crowds and communities. There have also been other efforts to shift the terminology, perhaps most notably Hillary Clinton’s promotion of the term “gig economy”.

I think, though, that the horse has bolted, and that the term “sharing economy” is here to stay. More than that, I think that the very word “sharing” may get another layer added to it. When attending a sharing economy meet up in Manhattan, one of the panelists spoke of different models – sharing for free, and sharing for money. None of those in attendance objected to this (perhaps they were being polite), which raises the possibility that “sharing” will also come to mean something like “using an app to rent out possessions”. If this happens, does that mean that there will be no more sharing (the “good” kind) in the world? I don’t think so, but I’ll save my thoughts on this for the final question.
 

You discuss sharing in the context of a therapeutic discourse, which links it to notions of individual wellness and social health. Yet, could we also see the concept at work in political movements, like the feminist consciousness raising sessions of the 1960s or the giving of testimony in a range of social movements across the 20th century? This political notion of sharing involved recognizing commonalities in social experiences as the basis for framing larger critiques of the current order.

I don’t feel particularly qualified to comment on the feminist movement of the 1960s or the giving of testimony in other contexts. What I can say is that in these contexts it seems that the authentic individual experience is given voice. By hearing others’ voices, one may feel empowered – it’s not just me! – and by giving voice one may also feel empowered – this is who I truly am! These instances, then, seem to belong as much to the therapeutic discourse, which extends far beyond the therapist’s clinic.

I would add here that my investigations into the origins of the therapeutic sense of “sharing” lead back to an evangelical group that was active in the US in the 1920s and ‘30s. Called the Oxford Group (no relation to the university), its key practice was as follows: members would sit together in someone’s parlor or drawing room and take it in turns to publically confess their sins. This practice was called “sharing”. Two alcoholic members of the Oxford Group adapted this practice to allow other alcoholics to talk about their experiences in a non-judgmental setting. This became Alcoholics Anonymous (where participants are famously thanked for sharing), which, to the best of my knowledge, is where the ideas of sharing adopted by countless other groups and organizations – some of them more psychologically oriented, and some of them more political – were institutionalized.
 

Nicholas John is a Lecturer at the Department of Communication and Journalism, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem. His research interests include technology and society, the internet, social media, sharing, and unfriending. He is the author of the award-winning book, The Age of Sharing. This book offers an innovative approach to sharing in social media, specifically by linking it to sharing in other social spheres, namely, consumption and intimate interpersonal relations. The book won the Best Book award from the Israel Communication Association, and the Nancy Baym Book Award from the Association of Internet Researchers. Nicholas is also interested in disconnectivity, which he sees as a neglected aspect of digital culture. In particular, he is fascinated by Facebook unfriending, particularly when it is politically motivated. He sees unfriending as a new political and social gesture that we know very little about. His teaching looks at the complex interrelations between technology and society.

Revisiting the Concept of "Sharing": An Interview with Nicholas John (Part One)

Today, I want to share with my readers an interview with the author of a smart new book, The Age of Sharing -- well, I wanted to share it with you, but Nicholas John does such a great job in this book of drilling into and complicating my understanding of the very concept of sharing that I am now not certain that's what I want to do after all. I will post it. You may recirculate it. But should we call this sharing?

The central project here is to understand how the meaning of sharing has shifted over time, the ways the term has been dematerialized (no longer about material relations) and made to stand in for all kinds of social interactions, the ways the term has become central to our understanding of the digital age and yet it continues to mean somewhat different things to producers and consumers in an era of social media. I learned a lot in this book about the history of sharing as a concept and a set of practices, and it sets us on a path to a more nuanced deployment of the term as we talk about what it is we are doing with each other in an era of spreadable media content. 

I hope this interview captures your interest so that you will pick up a copy of the book for yourself.

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You write, “When we -- English-speakers in western societies -- hear talk about sharing today, we understand the concept differently from both our grandparents and their grandparents.” (20) How so? Can you characterize what the term, sharing, meant in each of these periods?

Obviously the answer may depend somewhat on how old the reader is, but what I’m getting at here is that new layers of meaning have been added to the word, sharing, giving it its current set of connotations and meanings. (Of course, today’s constellation of meanings is just as unstable as any set of meanings in the past.) Today, obviously, sharing refers to digital participation. I have called sharing the constitutive activity of social media to highlight how it has become the key word for describing our online participation. It covers the whole range of digital activities: updating statuses, uploading videos, sending messages, posting pictures – all these are called sharing. More than this, though, a crucial aspect of the meaning of sharing today is its sense of fairness and caring, which are tightly linked to sharing as a specific type of talk about our emotions. This association of sharing with rainbow colors and intimacy is new – when my 92-year-old grandmother was a young woman, this sense of sharing would not have been accessible to her. In the 1940s and ‘50s, she would not have come across the idea that “sharing is caring”. Needless to say, none of the digital implications of sharing would have been available to her either.

She would, though, have understood sharing as a kind of talk about emotions. This had been emerging particularly since the 1930s as part of the secularization of romantic relations, especially those between husband and wife.

My grandmother’s grandmother, living around the turn of the previous century, would not have understood sharing to be a type of talk at all. The metaphor of sharing one’s troubles would have been accessible, and obviously one shared one’s troubles by talking about them, but the talk itself was not called sharing. We can understand this best by going further back in time, to the 16th century, when sharing meant dividing – this is the pre-metaphorical sense of sharing. Consider the similarity between the words “sharing” and “shearing”: this is no coincidence; “to share” used to mean (and sometimes still means) “to divide”. In fact, the old English word from which “sharing” evolved, namely, scearu, had two meanings. One referred to the groin, that part of the body where the trunk of the body divides into two legs; the other referred to a monk’s tonsure, where his hair had been sheared off. Sharing one’s troubles, then, meant dividing them in two, and giving a portion to your collocutor, thereby reducing your burden. The metaphor here is still physical. It wasn’t until the 1900s that the word sharing started being used to refer to the talk itself, taking another step away from the rather material, pre-metaphorical sense of the word.

Looking back over how the concept of sharing has changed over the last 100 years or so, I would say that it has added layers of meaning that take it further away from its material sense of sharing as dividing. This has included the institutionalization of sharing as a type of talk, and also the notion of sharing as morally desirable, exemplified, for instance, in the way parents (especially American parents) teach their children to share nicely.

As I read you, part of what has taken place has been the dematerialization of the concept of sharing -- from an early emphasis on cutting into parts or cutting off -- to the contemporary sense where the exchange of information also often involves the exchange of feelings and may play an active role in shaping the social ties between parties. How do you explain these shifts over time?

Yes, the concept of sharing has been dematerialized. This is a useful way of thinking about it. But we should remember that the development of many metaphors is about dematerialization, or perhaps even more specifically, decorporealization, as so many metaphors – including sharing – have their origins in the body.

I think that there are two broad paths to the current meanings of sharing. One is related to shifting conceptualizations of the self throughout the 20th century. Perhaps it might be more accurate to say that it is related to the emergence of the specific idea of the self that we have today. This is a self with a coherent core, that is accessible to us through talk, and conveyable to others through talk. This is the Freudian, therapeutic self. The emergence of this sense of self is concurrent with secularization and urbanization, and what T.J. Jackson Lears calls a thinning of life and a consequent “quest for self-realization”. This is the path by which sharing, as a type of communication, becomes related to authenticity, self-understanding, and the basis for the conduct of intimate relationships.

The other path remains closer to the pre-metaphorical sense of sharing as dividing, and can be traced through the brief history of computing. When time-sharing was invented, and named, it was a technology that divided up a computer’s computational capacities among multiple users; the computer’s time was being dividing up and allocated to different users. Later, disc sharing was developed. Here, the “sharing” part of the term referred to the fact that the disc was shared by more than one user; it was held in common. Likewise the idea of file sharing, at least in its first instantiation: file sharing meant making a file accessible to others (not duplicating and distributing it, as most people understand it today).

The conjunction of these two paths came surprisingly recently, not much earlier than 2005, in fact. This is when social network sites recruited the concept of sharing to describe and promote what we do there. Some of this was no doubt opportunistic, harnessing their businesses to the pro-social implications of sharing; some of this was organic, as for computer scientists the idea of sharing files, images, and so on, was already common currency, though lacking in a normative dimension. 

Your references here to the Care Bears is a good reminder that those of us coming of age in western society are taught to share our toys, our feelings, at an early age. When we use sharing in relation to other practices -- for example, in the phrase, “the sharing economy” -- we tap something very primal. Some authors you reference go so far as to assert that sharing is a fundamental aspect of human nature -- hardwired into our very being -- but we are often required to unlearn those sharing impulses to operate within competitive capitalism and its struggle over resources. How might this reliance on a concept so bound up with childhood development render us blind to hidden agendas at play within the “sharing economy”?

 

The terminology around the sharing economy has been under scrutiny for a while, and my position on this is not a simple one to lay out. To be sure, there are companies within what is called the “sharing economy” that want potential customers to associate certain values with them (the values of sharing) while operating according to the logic of capitalism. To be sure, there are exploitative practices afoot within the “sharing economy”, and they must be criticized and rooted out. Also, it cannot be denied that the word, sharing, is an important weapon in the marketers’ arsenal. Accordingly, one could, if one wanted, compile a list of practices that are compatible with sharing, and a list of practices that are not. Then, one could confidently say whether a certain service is “really” about sharing or not. For instance, one might want to argue that if money changes hands, there is no sharing going on.

This, though, is not my approach. Partly this is because language is dynamic and I do not find it useful to say that this or that practice is “really” sharing, which is to reify words (in other words, my approach is a pragmatic one). For instance, I have not read a critique of sharecropping (where the tenant pays the landowner by giving him a share of the crop) that says it is not really sharing.

More than that, though, I think that the proof of the pudding is in the eating. What I hope the book shows is that there is much to be gained from pushing beyond the question of whether practices are “really” sharing. I try to historicize and culturally contextualize our present concept of what sharing “really” is, and I think an outcome of this is the realization that uses of the word, sharing, that are critiqued for not “really” referring to sharing, and those very critiques themselves, have common cultural origins. In other words, when I read that something is not really sharing because it involves money and is not an authentic type of communication, say, I recall that the type of authentic communication that we call sharing emerged, and was called sharing, as part of the formation of a self that was suited for modern, capitalist society. The word, sharing, today has a distinct set of meanings that quite simply was not enacted previously when the word was used. Thus, in the book I argue at some length that to apply the word “sharing” to prehistoric hunter-gatherer societies is to be anachronistic.

Nicholas John is a Lecturer at the Department of Communication and Journalism, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem. His research interests include technology and society, the internet, social media, sharing, and unfriending. He is the author of the award-winning book, The Age of Sharing. This book offers an innovative approach to sharing in social media, specifically by linking it to sharing in other social spheres, namely, consumption and intimate interpersonal relations. The book won the Best Book award from the Israel Communication Association, and the Nancy Baym Book Award from the Association of Internet Researchers. Nicholas is also interested in disconnectivity, which he sees as a neglected aspect of digital culture. In particular, he is fascinated by Facebook unfriending, particularly when it is politically motivated. He sees unfriending as a new political and social gesture that we know very little about. His teaching looks at the complex interrelations between technology and society.

 

What Do You Mean By "Culture Jamming"?: An Interview with Moritz Fink and Marilyn DeLaure (Part Two)

The case studies in the book also help us to map some other kinds of borders, as culture jamming rhetoric and practices are absorbed by Madison Avenue on the one hand and the art world on the other. The tendency is to read such examples primarily as a form of co-optation, but are there also ways that these border-crossing help to spread countercultural messages to new publics?

Definitely so, yes. Co-optation is certainly the buzz word here. The ad world makes use of culture jamming practices because they are rhetorically powerful. At the same time, some talented designers who work on Madison Avenue moonlight for organizations like Adbusters; so, if there ever existed a firm boundary between the subcultural domain of culture jamming and the media industry, it’s not there anymore. Yet this doesn’t necessarily need to be negative. Think of the Truth campaign by professional ad agency Crispin Porter + Bogusky. Michael Serazio’s chapter in our book describes how traditional anti-smoking campaigns often failed to move their target audiences, because they only strengthened the attraction of that which is forbidden. So CP+B took an alternative route by using the rebellious feeling of culture jamming tactics in its Truth campaign—for instance, by dumping a thousand body bags outside a tobacco company’s headquarters.

Moritz, your contribution here comes out of your larger project of providing a cultural-history context for thinking about The Simpsons. What does this particular example teach us about what happens as countercultural practices enter the commercial mainstream? Can The Simpsons still be subversive if it gets produced and marketed by Fox? Or is it another example of “the conquest of cool”?

You’re pointing to the old dilemma, Henry ;-) Can a cultural phenomenon as commercially successful as The Simpsons be at once a commodity, and thus subject to the logics of capitalism, and still be considered subversive? Well, in contrast to “the conquest of cool” argument which echoes the Frankfurt School’s cultural skepticism, I would argue it can. Subversion isn’t exclusive to productions operating below the radar of mainstream culture, especially at a time when we see how mainstream culture seeks to integrate virtually everything that connotes subcultural appeal. I’d say that what counts is the effect a certain cultural artifact has. So, yes, The Simpsons is definitely another example of neoliberalism’s cashing in on the cool, but, on the other hand, within its unusually long history, the show has had so many moments where it has torpedoed the dominant capitalist culture, albeit in the form of media representations. There is one episode where the show depicts a “Sprawl Mart” store to satirize the consumer culture and labor conditions disseminated by big box stores such as WalMart; in another instance, The Simpsons has humorously critiqued the plastering of public space with Starbucks coffee shops. The show’s viewers understand this as subversion and appreciate this element of the series. My favorite example here is when The Simpsons featured the social media platform Facebook on the series in 2010—at a time when the show became quite edgeless, Simpsons fan-critic Charlie Sweatpants complained about how uncritical this representation was. He found their show lacked in subversive intensity, a quality he and many other Simpsons fans previously found to be there.

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Marilyn, one of your contributions was to interview or otherwise solicit responses from some of the artists and activists currently practicing in this space. How useful did these practitioners find the theory of culture jamming for explaining what they are doing through their work?

I sought out the interviews, work and commentary by these artists and activists to help flesh out and illustrate the concept of culture jamming, rather than the other way around.  Most of the people I talked to have a long history of developing their artistic practices, and whether they explicitly conceived of themselves as “culture jammers” didn’t matter that much to me.  Some saw themselves primarily as pranksters, others as artists, political activists, or alternative community builders.  We believed that including the voices of artist-activists in our collection—in addition to those of academic theorists and critics—would offer valuable insights to our readers on the range of practices that we consider culture jamming.

Some critics have argued that culture jammers substitute a symbolic or semiotic polics for actual efforts to change the world. How valid do you think this criticism is? Are there examples where culture jamming has, in fact, led into more immediate forms of social action and political change? What might we learn from those examples?

Ascertaining the immediate effects of activism is a thorny affair.  While there may be some value to the warnings abou semiotic play (including “clicktivism”) substituting for political action, several of our authors explore ways that participatory culture jamming can form a sort of on-ramp to other forms of activism.  Furthermore, as Rebecca Solnit explains in this recent piece,  we can’t know precisely what effects any kind of protest action or intervention will have on future movement work.  Take, for instance, Occupy Wall Street, which was initially sparked by a call from Adbusters, but was then taken up by organizers in New York City and later around the world.  Some argue that OWS failed, because it didn’t issue clear demands, or change laws, or elect any candidates.  And yet, as Jack Bratich explains in his chapter, OWS was a powerful meme generator, and it left us with lasting terminology (“We are the 99%” and “Wall Street vs. Main Street”) that has informed public discourse in the US since. OWS also created or strengthened community ties that were later activated, such as the “Occupy Sandy” citizen relief efforts in the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy in 2012.

Moritz Fink is a freelance media scholar and author. He holds a doctoral degree in American Studies from the University of Munich, and has published on contemporary media culture, popular satire, and representations of the grotesque. His most recent book is the co-edited volume Culture Jamming: Activism and the Art of Cultural Resistance (NYU Press, 2017).

Marilyn DeLaure is an Associate Professor of Communication Studies at the University of San Francisco. She has published essays on dance, civil rights rhetoric, and environmental activism, and is co-editor of Culture Jamming: Activism and the Art of Cultural Resistance (NYU Press, 2017).

 

What Do You Mean By "Culture Jamming"?": An Interview with Moritz Fink and Marilyn DeLaure (Part One)

The term, Culture Jamming, has been around for several decades now, decades of dramatic change in the media environment and in the political sphere. Does the term still have use value in an era of podcasts, blogs, viral media,  memes, and social networking sites? Does the term mean what it once did now that the goal is no longer simply to block the flow of dominant media, but rather to reshape the flow, as grassroots media producers command more influence and attention than ever before?

This is the question which motivated Moritz Fink and Marilyn DeLaure as they set out to produce a new anthology, Culture Jamming: Activism and the Art of Cultural Resistance. What they came back with is pretty compelling -- a collection of essays by some of today's top thinkers about media politics and social change, a series of case studies and interviews with activists and artists who are reshaping the media environment with their disruptive tactics and compelling visions of alternative social orders.

Full disclosure: I contributed an essay for the book about the "Not in Harry's Name" campaign and the Harry Potter Alliance more generally.

The topic could not be better timed, it turns out, as we are all looking for new forms of resistance to oppressive and reactionary governments around the world. I have already made this book assigned reading in my seminar on Participatory Politics and the Civic Imagination this spring, and I suspect others will want to consider it as they are making plans for teaching next semester. To help you commit to such an assignment, I am going to be running a two part interview with its editors which explores many of the book's key themes and debates. Enjoy!

 

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Mark Dery’s “Culture Jamming: Hacking, Slashing and Sniping in the Empire of Signs”, which you reprint at the start of your collection, was first published in 1993 in a very different context, both in terms of the political moment and the media landscape. What led you to believe that now was a good time to reconsider and, arguably, reclaim the culture jamming concept?

The concept of culture jamming emerged in the late 1980s as a reaction against what felt at the time like an overwhelming flow of media imagery turning us into passive consumers. This notion, of course, recalls the alarmist voices of the Frankfurt School, whose thinkers stressed the manipulative power of what they called the “culture industries”—mass media as an instrument of capitalism that must be resisted. With the digital revolution, more and more people became aware how multilayered and heterogeneous the media landscape really was, which has bolstered emphasis on the democratic potential of the media, old and new. Yet, at the same time, it is a truism that we are bombarded with media messages, day by day, hour by hour, second by second, even though we increasingly find ourselves to be players (some more active, some less) in the media spheres in which we are situated.

So, to come back to your question, why now? While the term “culture jamming” may have largely fallen into disuse since the late 1990s, the practices have certainly persisted and evolved with the rise of new communication technologies and the ever-growing impact of media content. Furthermore, as several examples in our book demonstrate—the case of Shepard Fairey’s HOPE poster promoting Barack Obama, or Pussy Riot’s protest performances against Putin—culture jamming has now broadened its scope beyond parody ads and altered billboards. Culture jamming tactics are being used not only to contest consumer culture, but also to intervene in politics and social movements. As Naomi Klein argues in her recent book No Is Not Enough: Resisting Trump’s Shock Politics and Winning the World We Need, Donald Trump represents the apotheosis of branding merged with politics. So in that respect, we need culture jamming now more than ever.

 

Should we understand culture jamming as a vocabulary of tactics or as an underlying theory of media power and social change? How might we think about the relationship between the two?

We see culture jamming as a collection of tactics, as well as a critical attitude and participatory, creative form of activism. Some of these tactics are associated with practices of cultural resistance, such as textual poaching or semiotic appropriation and resignification. In addition, culture jamming provides more specific terminology suggestive of the concept’s distinct artful as well as bellicose impetus: “détournement,” a  French term which evokes the act of turning culture back upon itself, through the appropriation and creative reworking of signs; “subvertisement” which refers to the artistic subversion of advertisements; “semiotic guerilla,” “semiotic jujutsu,” and “meme warfare,” all of which underline the David-versus-Goliath mentality inherent to the concept. Another important element of culture jamming is humor: aping, mocking, parodying, satirizing … in George Orwell’s words, “every joke is a tiny revolution.” Culture jamming is protest art informed by various artistic traditions like Dada, modernist pop art, graffiti, punk rock; there is a performative dimension of culture jamming, too, apparent in forms like pranking, hoaxing, street theater, or flash mobs.

As you know, I have expressed some skepticism that the underlying assumptions of the culture jamming concept, which stresses people standing outside the operations of mass media and seeking to disrupt its operations, clog the works, block the signs, jam the channels, etc., makes sense given the greater access many have today to the means of cultural production and circulation. How might the introduction of social media force us to at minimal reassess what we mean by culture jamming?

When I (Moritz) began the project several years ago, I seemed to misunderstand culture jamming as a form of playing with culture. Interestingly enough, as I moved forward, I not only came to learn the term’s original critical meaning, but also discovered that I shared this “misunderstanding” with several other scholars. My initial understanding of culture jamming as akin to musical jamming, or “playing with”—which Mark Levine’s chapter echoes—offers a necessary supplement to the negative blocking view. In the book, we make the argument that, while culture jamming is an expression of resisting the dominant culture, it is also playful and participatory, as many jammers blur the lines of authorship, and thus invite imitation and participation.

So, yes, citizens are no longer outside the sites of cultural production—social media situates us to be producers as well as consumers of media content. On the other hand, though, social media platforms like Facebook or Twitter demand to be constantly fed. So, jamming today might not always involve clogging or blocking media channels, in the classic sense of throwing a wrench into the machine, but may instead manifest as a creative coopting and subversive remaking of media content. For example, in our book’s Introduction, we highlight an example of “brandjacking,” where an activist group launched the fake PR initiative #AskChevron to draw attention to the environmental damage the Chevron corporation has done in Ecuador. The feedback was enormous, and people (intentionally or not) participated in the jam, posting tweets like “Are you the devil?” or “Can you tell me which country I should bribe & dump my toxins in?”

What relationship do you see between "memes" as the term is currently understood as a new media practice and the concept of culture jamming? Do "memes" offer us new opportunities to "highjack signs" and increase the visibility of alternative messages? Or has meme-making become such a mundane part of our social media landscape that it no longer has a disruptive or subversive impact?

Memes themselves—as spreadable bits of mediated culture—are neither inherently subversive nor inherently mundane. We have innumerable LOLcats, but also PepperSprayCop, NotABugSplat, ICan’tBreathe, and TinyTrump.  To us, “meme” signals a certain form: an image, word, or idea that is easily altered and repurposed and spread.  Yes, memes can achieve high levels of visibility and rapid, widespread reach … but as for their potential to disrupt or subvert, that depends on the specific content and context.

Dery described culture jamming as an “elastic category,” but as with many such broad terms, the more examples we attach to this term, the harder it becomes to define. Do we have a sense of what these various examples of culture jamming have in common? Is it possible to define what isn’t culture jamming?

In our book’s Introduction, we define the modus operandi of culture jamming, in effect explaining what culture jamming is by mapping what it does. We name eight key characteristics that define culture jamming: it appropriates, operates serially, and is artful, playful, (often) anonymous, participatory, political, and transgressive.

Of course it’s possible to find things that are NOT culture jamming: objects and texts and practices that reproduce dominant power structures and fuel consumer capitalism, that discourage participation and foreclose critique. But definition is an interpretive act, and so context matters greatly in each particular instance.

One of the more impressive dimensions of your collection is the attempt to expand the concept of culture jamming into other national contexts, including, for example, the international Occupy movement or the Arab Spring movements. As we do so, these questions of context would seem to matter all the more, though, as we shift from contexts where free market capitalism reigns to situations where what is being resisted are various forms of state power. Can we use the same conceptual models to talk about both situations?

Interestingly, we have found that forms of culture jamming emerge in tandem with the expansion of communication technologies and spread of global capital. Think of the Arab Spring, which would not have unfolded the way it did without Facebook and mobile phones. Or the protest actions of the Russian feminist punk band Pussy Riot, which reached a broad audience through YouTube. Of course, we have forms of state power here that are different from what we would define as Western democracy, but as people around the world are increasingly sharing the same media culture, concepts of media theory become applicable, at least in part, to various national or political contexts.

Moritz Fink is a freelance media scholar and author. He holds a doctoral degree in American Studies from the University of Munich, and has published on contemporary media culture, popular satire, and representations of the grotesque. His most recent book is the co-edited volume Culture Jamming: Activism and the Art of Cultural Resistance (NYU Press, 2017).

 

Marilyn DeLaure is an Associate Professor of Communication Studies at the University of San Francisco. She has published essays on dance, civil rights rhetoric, and environmental activism, and is co-editor of Culture Jamming: Activism and the Art of Cultural Resistance (NYU Press, 2017).

Teens, Teachers and Mobile Tech: An Interview with Antero Garcia (Part Three)

Many books on education stress success stories, but you are frank throughout about moments of failure or friction in your pedagogical practice. If you could relive your time in that school, what would you change?

 

I made a lot of mistakes throughout this study and I try to detail them in the book in as much as I think that is useful for other researchers. I detail in my next answer a bit more about the technology-driven assumptions and mistakes I made. However, I actually think the thing I’d want to change is the scope of Ask Anansi. Often, when I talk with teachers about the Black Cloud, Ask Anansi, and other game-related activities I’ve done in my classroom, I hear both bewilderment and amusement at what transpired. Talking spiders, scavenger hunts, students out of the classroom running amuck: it feels like too much to try to accomplish and looks unanchored from standards-aligned classroom instruction. I have gotten both literal and proverbial pats on the head for this work: this game is nice and all but I wouldn’t be able to do this in my classroom and--even if I could--it wouldn’t fit within my school’s pacing plans. And to that, I say balderdash.

 

I wish I had worked with other teachers to implement an ARG like Ask Anansi across an entire department or grade level to highlight that this work isn’t just possible but that it is fun, intellectually engaging and--in some cases--civically transformative. My recent work with teachers at a game-design school has been pushing on how to sustain powerful and gameful approaches to learning and teaching.

 

You situate your success using mobile technologies in a specific classroom setting with what is now seen as the systemic failure of the LA Unified School District’s billion dollar initiative to incorporate ipads into their teaching. What do we learn by comparing these two examples?

 

Well, the short answer is that we both screwed up. Expanding: we both screwed up in similar ways by trying to blindly reinforce adult power with tools that are inherently about democratized participation and engagement. As my colleague Thomas Philip and I wrote shortly after the LAUSD debacle, no one should have been surprised by the fact that students hacked their devices and used them in ways adults didn’t intend. (What surprised us was that it took days instead of hours.) Similarly as an eager doctoral student ready to dive head-first into my own research, I ignored the tacit knowledge I’d known as a teacher for years: students are way, way smarter than school systems tend to give them credit for. Just as teachers are good at enacting what school is supposed to look and feel like, students too, participate in the dance of doing school without necessarily gaining a whole lot of useful stuff in the process. This is a shame and my use of technology in this study was--initially-complicit in such a cyclical process.

 

For those that haven’t read the book, I should explain that I tried to control what apps and media students could put on the mobile devices they used in my classroom. It didn’t work. In the matter of a day, students joyfully played games and listened to their own curated music on the devices I provided them. And this is a good thing. In other research, Thomas Philip and I have seen how mobile devices that lack the social ties and meaning of students’ own phones cease to be very useful and, in one example, mainly stayed in students’ lockers to avoid getting damaged. Devices that lack the personal value we typically place on our own mobile devices become more burdensome than educationally expansive. I know this is a lesson I learned quickly and point to my mistakes throughout the work. Districts like LAUSD are still trying to find student-proof ways to track, limit, filter, and control what students do on these devices and with whom. Again, these digital walls, gates, and mandates occlude how we interact in the real world beyond schools and I can hear an implicit shame on you echoing from educational forbearers like John Dewey. At the risk of sounding like a broken record, if we are going to integrate mobile devices into classroom instruction (and I hesitantly think we should), we need to do so in ways that mirror what we hope students should be able to do once the graduate from our schools.

 

 

You describe some of your students as being steadfast about not wanting to read, even though they possess core literacy skills. What might these students teach us about the need to rethink what we mean by“reading” or “literacy” in the school context?

 

On of the most memorable exchanges for me during the study is an exchange I write about where a student describes to his classmates how listening to an audiobook is “like reading.” This student that I call Solomon highlights how small shifts in the consumption and production in texts pushes on the expectations of students and teachers alike. In this case, students are used to listening to audio via mobile devices passively--music while talking with peers or engaged in other activities. By highlighting that audiobooks require the same kinds of active reading strategies as traditional forms of reading, Solomon helps illustrate that there’s a little of the “old” in new and digital literacies today. On the one hand, when we talk about literacies in schools and point to fancy devices like tablets, netbooks, and laptops, we need to recognize that the vast majority of the work done on these devices is often replicating traditional forms of literacies: the word document is a shinier version of a pad of paper, the internet a more expansive version of the class encyclopedia, etc. That’s not to say that things aren’t different--there are affordances to writing on an internet-enabled device that is capable of embedding GIFs and publishing for the entire world to consume. However, while I agree with the premise of this question that such advances mean helping educators, parents, and students rethink what we mean by “literacy,” I also imagine a call for thinking more innovatively about what media production and reading could look like in schools.

 

I spend a lot of my time perusing (or fuming at) my twitter feed. For better or worse, it is a persistent space that I look at and participate in. As a singular example, how would student writing, understanding of spatial geography, or statistical analysis shift if the premise that civic participation today means students should have a grasp of how a tool like Twitter functions? As an English teacher, I’ve been fascinated with the idea of thinking about the messiness of interaction in hashtags like #BlackLivesMatter as an emerging and participatory form of literature. Again, Henry, your work has underscored my thinking here and points to new literacy shifts. As an additional pedagogical reminder within this example, discussions of, within, and around a platform like Twitter would also have to include an acknowledgment of how such tools are implicitly guiding participation within capitalist practices; a critical media literacy stance toward new reading and writing practices would require educators to also work alongside students to unpack how tools from Twitter to classroom textbooks to the corporate devices students use in schools are tied to neoliberal aspects of power and authority.

 

I offer this example of Twitter to highlight how instruction could shift to imagine what teaching for participation in a contemporary society could look like. Many friends and colleagues have been exploring what new digital practices mean in terms of student and teacher identities, and I recognize that these are huge opportunities for further reimagining literacy engagement and literature today.

 

You are engaging with the connected learning paradigm here to think about learning ecologies. Where do you see the biggest disconnects in education today and what might we do about them?

 

 

The structures of school have been rooted in place for quite some time. As much as we see continual shifts in policies related to education, these are tweaking a system that’s been in place long before the advent of asynchronous online social networks and peer-supported and interest-driven production. Before going on, I want to be clear: the contested policies at the federal, state, and local level around assessment, evaluation, and measurement of student knowledge and teacher effectiveness are important; there are clear ideological feuds tied to capitalism, race, class, and assumptions about what American education means today. Further, the continual encroachment of charter schools within the landscape of public education (Los Angeles being a significant terrain on which such changes are taking place) are a threat to the role of public education and to teachers as a labor force. When I say that schools and their structural components need to change it is not without acknowledging that the policies and laborers within these systems are within their own, precarious space at the moment.

 

So, in light of the recognitions above, I think schools are due to change in form and in purpose. They haven’t exhibited much malleability lately and that’s in large part because the ingrained assumption of what a school does, what it looks like, how we organize within it, and how we measure success are part of generations of public consciousness and storytelling. When we talk about the possibilities of connected learning in public education, the focus on students often occluded the kinds of constraints that are typically shackling their enactment in schools. In Teaching in the Connected Learning Classroom, my co-editors and I (in partnership with the National Writing Project), tried to highlight the innovation of teachers and what is already happening in schools. However, to make such shifts more than piecemeal efforts of pedagogical valor, I think the work of teacher educators and collaboration between LEAs, management, and labor need to transpire. I do think the recent work of “research-practice partnerships” could speak to one pathway forward but I also think that empirical work on the role of connected learning in teacher education could help bridge the needs of schools.

Antero Garcia is an Assistant Professor in the Graduate School of Education at Stanford University where he studies how technology and gaming shape youth learning, literacy practices, and civic identities. Prior to completing his Ph.D., Antero was an English teacher at a public high school in South Central Los Angeles. His two most recent research studies explore learning and literacies in tabletop roleplaying games like Dungeons & Dragons and how participatory culture shifts classroom relationships and instruction. Based on his research, Antero co-designed the Critical Design and Gaming School--a public high school in South Central Los Angeles. Antero’s research has appeared in numerous journals including The Harvard Educational Review, Teachers College Record, and Teaching and Teacher Education. His most recent book--Good Reception: Teens, Teachers, and Mobile Media in a Los Angeles High School—is an ethnographic look at technology and gaming in an urban high school. Some of his other books explore critical research methodologies (Doing Youth Participatory Action Research: Transforming Inquiry with Researchers, Educators, and Students--with Nicole Mirra and Ernest Morrell), techniques for shifting English language arts pedagogy (Pose, Wobble, Flow: A Culturally Proactive Approach to Literacy Instruction with Cindy O'Donnell-Allen), and changes in the consumption of young adult literature (Critical Foundations in Young Adult Literature: Challenging Genres). Antero received his Ph.D. in the Urban Schooling division of the Graduate School of Education and Information Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles.

 

Teachers, Teens and Mobile Tech: An Interview with Antero Garcia (Part Two)

You have much to say about the different conceptions of time shaping the way teachers and students respond to mobile technologies at school. How do they differ and what factors have led to this gap in understanding? What are the implications of this gap for the ways we think about bringing mobile technologies into pedagogical practice?

 

I think how we understand the purpose of “school time” is most one of the most out of sync aspects of public education in the U.S. today. Simply put, students and teachers have different assumptions about what time means and how it is used in schools, during class time, and during breaks like passing periods and lunch. The traditional adult assumption (and one that I held for too long) is that--during class time--students should be solely working on class activities. Yes, these activities may include increasingly complex digital resources. However, these are still largely about specific kinds of practices and a relationship with technology that is oriented toward entirely academic purposes. As bluntly as I can, I want to be clear: this is not how adults function in today’s workplace. Even as I respond to these questions, my phone prods me for attention. I confess that I may have taken a peek or two at my Twitter feed and at my email inbox. Social relationships are pervasive and aren’t relegated to the time I punch the proverbial work clock.

 

Let’s acknowledge that the few instances where adults do not regularly check-in with their phones while working are usually service-level jobs that barely provide a living wage for employees. In our practices in implementing these kinds of policies there are two things that are alarming: we are training students to adhere to working-class kinds of employment practices and we are stifling a culture that more fully reflects how other workplace environments function; school technology policies--as innocuous as they may seem--reinforce the historical, systemic inequalities that the genie in the previous question just can’t fix.

 

Let’s also be clear that, at the heart of this decision around mobile use policies in schools is control. The power of teachers is threatened by the disruptive practices of mobile technologies. Instead of moving toward new pedagogies, classroom orientations, and instructional practices, we have locked down how we treat classrooms and train teachers: we double-down on enforceable and punitive policies rather than move alongside of the rest of the changing world. All of this is a reminder that schools operate from an industrial, factory model. We have bells governing the end of one shift and the beginning of the next, we separate learning into discrete, disconnected units, and we structure the school physical and social space to silence voice and individuality. Technology policies only further entrench us in the Learning to Labor practices that Willis describes more than thirty years ago.

 

 

Many of the youth pushed back at the idea that they might share contact with teachers through their normal social networking tools. Where does that resistance come from and how might teachers respect those views when designing activities that deploy social media at school?

 

As educators and researchers, we tend to talk about it as student resistance--we get to do that from an adult perspective of these issues of power in schools. For students, though, while their actions may indeed be resisting the desires and demands of authorities, these are issues of trust. Simply put, have teachers and school structures done enough relationship building, empathy-support, and listening for students to choose to engage socially with teachers? Particularly in schools focused on high stakes test results and district wide expansion of charter schools that have the latest snake-oil-like pitch of a better path forward, the time for relationships--online or face-to-face--simply doesn’t exist often enough.

 

Tied to issues of trust, we should probably also think about the meaning of mobile devices in schools today. We still tend to call them “phones” even though the vast majority of what we do on them isn’t tied to this function and--as ex-Galaxie 500 member Damien Krukowski recently wrote and discussed on a podcast series--the sounds of talk and feelings of personalization has diminished in today’s digital infrastructure. I would encourage your readers to look at their own phone right now. What case is it in? What pictures are displayed on it? How do the apps on the main screen speak to your orientation in the world? These are personal devices that support personalized activities. In schools they offer a portal to one of the few spaces closed off from the power and demands of adults. Asking students to sully such sacrosanct space is a big ask if we aren’t willing to change the other structures in schools around these relationships. In your own work and that of you and your Participatory Culture in a Networked Era co-authors, you have pointed to the fact that, on one hand these are personal devices and they often are leveraged in systems of “networked privacy.” On the other hand, students use their devices to perform publicly for their peers aspects of their identity. From ringtones to cases to content loaded on screens, what is seen and heard via mobile devices reflects the identities of their uses.

 

As a result of the issues of trust above, I’ve lately been encouraging teachers to start thinking about devices as ways to get to trust and engagement. I have teachers play Game of Phones to highlight an easily adaptable, commercial example. The purpose isn’t to use phone for accessing new, digital spaces or producing increasingly complex multimodal artifacts. Instead, these devices are for sharing identity, embracing multiple identities.

 

Many express concern that bringing mobile technologies into the classroom will result in greater distraction and that it is better to keep schools a media-free zone. How do you respond to those critiques?

 

In thinking about kids’ attention being pulled from classes to their devices, the inner cynic in me wonders what kids are distracted from. We have come a long way from seeing schools as drab spaces of intense work. Wonder, imagination, and even fun are posed frequently in popular media as aspects of how good schools succeed. And so, when we talk about media devices distracting kids, we need to look critically at if the materiality of schools is worthy to demand the attention of a generation of students that have many, many other ways to learn, interact, and socialize.

 

At the same time, there are elitist private schools that do embrace the media-free schooling utopias you suggest. Here, in the Silicon Valley, many of the wealthiest tech families send their children to schools that are “unplugged” from the media saturation that chimes for their children's attention. Such models mean we have to question whose children have the luxury of attending such a model and what kinds of home and after-school structures support these in-school practices. This points to the participation gap that you and your research team have written about.

 

Finally, as I mentioned earlier, we need to remember that we don’t live in media-free zones. I increasingly believe that schools offer one of the places for students to actually learn authentic and real-world ways of utilizing their mobile devices in social environments. All of the multimodal composition stuff that kids do in classrooms is great, sure. However, just as valid and more often denied, the skills kids learn about how to deal with what is shared in online spaces (as explored in Carrie James’s Disconnected), how to utilize digital tools for mobile forms of activism, and how to meaningfully integrate (or not) the lives we live in online environments into our day-to-day interactions. If not in schools, where do kids learn (and get meaningful support) in how to be on and with their mobile devices? Teachers and teacher educators are not being prepared for this shift in responsibility and this has, increasingly, been a space of continuing research for me.

 

As a brief, related note: In work since completing Good Reception, I have been studying non-digital forms of tabletop gaming, including a two-year ethnographic study of tabletop roleplaying game communities that play games like Dungeons & Dragons in gaming stores and cafes. Though there are several factors that led me into this nerdier sub-sector of educational research, one of the key reasons is that educational research on technology and gaming too often ignores the sociocultural aspects that surround these tools and practices. At the same time that Gamergate has violently harmed women, people of color, and the LGBTQ community in videogame spaces, educational research has been boasting about the advances and possibilities of the medium. I am interested, then, in thinking about the civic lessons and responsibilities that can be found in how we support and guide student thinking with technologies in schools.

 

 

Your key case study in the book centers around the development of Ask Ansi as a classroom experience -- in effect, an alternate reality game -- which you felt dramatically increased some of your students’ engagement with learning. Why? What factors led to its success?

 

The story of Ask Anansi starts a decade ago with how I found my way into the DML community. Collaborating with now good friend and recent co-author, Greg Niemeyer, we created an alternate reality game (ARG) for students in my class several years before Ask Anansi. That game, The Black Cloud, proposed that the pollution in Los Angeles had grown sentience and was communicating with my first period class via Twitter (then a very new platform). Through measuring air quality around their community, students took on new identities as storytellers and citizen scientists. Though we had an abundance of resources for this game (and the technology is currently being used to measure air quality via Google Street View cars), I was interested in how to replicate the possibilities of learning and identity that emerged in this game even with less resources.

 

With a different premise and different intended outcomes, I designed Ask Anansi as an ARG for my 9th grade students (I share the design document and key principles in the game’s DIY design in several appendices in Good Reception). This game, like much of the ARG design I have engaged in, speaks to how ARGs can lead to radical transformation. Greg and I write about this in the conclusion to our edited collection of ARG scholarship.

 

One of the key factors of success to an ARG like Ask Anansi is an intentional focus on the kinds of identities and feelings that the game is expected to foster. If students are exploring issues of inequality and playing with ideas of social transformation, we push on the boundaries of what Johan Huizinga refers to as the “magic circle” that inscribes “play,” in order to consider what identities and practices are taken outside of games and into the real world.

 

Often, teachers assume that games-based learning means digital-games, but in this case, Ask Ansi was a game played in physical space but that led students to think more deeply about both the physical and digital worlds they inhabited. Can you say about more about the underlying assumptions about technology that shaped this project?

 

The point of giving devices out to students and playing an ARG was never about the technology. Instead, by looking at points in school structures that could be adjusted, this was a study in how things like technology and play can transform the meaning, value, and opportunities of schooling. As the final chapters of the book highlight, the bigger outcomes of the study weren’t simply about improving academics or doing fancy things on expensive devices. Instead, relationships were what were most transformed during the time of this study. If we stop assuming technology will fix schools, its shortcomings in doing so won’t seem so problematic. That is: just like we don’t assume giving every student in school a set of pencils and paper makes them better learners, we shouldn’t assume a Chromebook, iPad, or any other commercial product will do so either. Instead, we should recognize that pencils enable certain kinds of learning practices, as do mobile technologies. At the end of the day leveraging these practices (and transforming schools) is going to be about transforming the relationships between students, teachers, and their broader community. No technological advance is going to magically fix relationships, trust, or power in schools. Once we can take this previous sentence for granted we can probably make better collective decisions about instruction, school funding, and the structures of

 

Antero Garcia is an Assistant Professor in the Graduate School of Education at Stanford University where he studies how technology and gaming shape youth learning, literacy practices, and civic identities. Prior to completing his Ph.D., Antero was an English teacher at a public high school in South Central Los Angeles. His two most recent research studies explore learning and literacies in tabletop roleplaying games like Dungeons & Dragons and how participatory culture shifts classroom relationships and instruction. Based on his research, Antero co-designed the Critical Design and Gaming School--a public high school in South Central Los Angeles. Antero’s research has appeared in numerous journals including The Harvard Educational Review, Teachers College Record, and Teaching and Teacher Education. His most recent book--Good Reception: Teens, Teachers, and Mobile Media in a Los Angeles High School—is an ethnographic look at technology and gaming in an urban high school. Some of his other books explore critical research methodologies (Doing Youth Participatory Action Research: Transforming Inquiry with Researchers, Educators, and Students--with Nicole Mirra and Ernest Morrell), techniques for shifting English language arts pedagogy (Pose, Wobble, Flow: A Culturally Proactive Approach to Literacy Instruction with Cindy O'Donnell-Allen), and changes in the consumption of young adult literature (Critical Foundations in Young Adult Literature: Challenging Genres). Antero received his Ph.D. in the Urban Schooling division of the Graduate School of Education and Information Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles.

Teens, Teachers, and Mobile Tech: An Interview with Antero Garcia (Part One)

Antero Garcia's new book, Good Reception: Teens, Teachers, and Mobile Media in a Los Angeles High School, drops next week, and it can't come soon enough as far as I am concerned. I have been watching Garcia emerge as an important voice on participatory culture and learning for almost a decade now. He has been a consistent participant at the Digital Media and Learning Conferences. When I first met him, he was still a classroom teacher in the trenches of the Los Angeles Unified School System, sharing some of his day to day experiences with youth, the educational establishment, and in particular, the challenges of doing meaningful experimentation and innovation in such a bureaucratic space. His new book shares those war stories -- it is a grand mix of hope about the future and bracing accounts of obstacles to achieving a more connected learning environment.

Asked to provide a blurb for the book, here is what I wrote: "A rising star in the Digital Media and Learning realm and a gifted storyteller, Antero Garcia combines an embeded perspective as a classroom teacher into the challenges and opportunities of bringing mobile media into the public schools with a theoretically sophisticated grasp of contemporary pedagogical theories (Connected Learning, the New London Group, games-based education, and Paulo Freire, among others). This book could not be more timely or more urgent as schools confront a growing disconnect between their normal practices and the ways youth are processing the world around them.”

I have known for sometime I wanted to interview him for this blog and the new book offered a perfect opportunity to do so. Over the next few installments, you will get a sense of his pedagogical philosophy, his experiments in bring ARGS into public schools, and his sense of the limits of our current thinking about technology in the classroom. Enjoy!

antero.jpg

 

For me, one of the real strengths of this book is the perspective you bring as a classroom teacher who worked in South Central Los Angeles. Can you share with us how those experiences shaped the perspective you adopted in Good Reception?

Henry, first of all thank you for the kind support and intellectual leadership in the field over the years. The work described in Good Reception simply wouldn’t have been possible without the kind of guidance around the possibilities of participatory culture you’ve been describing on this blog, in your published work, and in forums like the DML conferences. Thank you.

The school at the heart of Good Reception, which I call South Central High School (SCHS), was my professional teaching home for eight years. Like many of my teaching colleagues that went through the UCLA Teacher Education Program, I was intentional about rooting myself in a specific school and its community for my career. Long before the events described in Good Reception, I’d spent countless hours working alongside students, teachers, and parents in this community. At the same time, I’d been growing increasingly frustrated with the lack of support for teachers as intellectuals, leaders, and transformative agents in the LA public schooling system. A bit dewy (Dewey?!)-eyed, I recognize. In centering educational equity in the work and friendships while at SCHS

This preamble actually gets to the heart of how I ended up in a doctoral program and conducting the dissertation research that would ultimately find its way into the pages of Good Reception. One year, the principal at the school at the time (one of eight I would work with) announced he had completed his doctorate and the shift from addressing him as “Mister” to “Doctor” was a sudden and intense one. As a teacher--particularly if I was called into his office with my union representative for various challenges--the title change was one to further elucidate who wields power in schools. In what was--in retrospect--a foolhardy decision, I ended up enrolling in a doctoral program in order to increase the social capital of teachers in my school. Of course, I didn’t realize this decision would professionalize me into a different set of interests related to research and advocacy at the higher education level.

 

Related to the story about, part of my push in describing my experiences at SCHS is to disrupt the traditional assumptions about what “urban” schools look like and the kinds of stereotypes associated with our students. The true challenges that persist in this school space--dropout rates, localized contexts of violence, lack of vital resources like groceries, healthcare, and jobs--are entirely systemic; the generations of willful neglect that have let spaces like SCHS languish does not mean that the students in these schools are any less brilliant or willing to engage in the transformative and democratic purposes of schooling. If anything, as I talk about later in our conversation and in my book, teachers, administrators, and school policies get in the way of the innovative learning principles and ideas of the students at these schools.

 

 

Running throughout the book is an argument about how the school environment destroys trust between adults and youth and often destroys any active sense of agency on the part of learners. If a Genie gave you three wishes to transform the school environment, what would you change and why?

genie.jpg

 

I’m going to start small and go loftier. One year, as teachers were asked to sign off on a school grant proposal that we had little opportunity to provide actual input, we discussed the limitations of throwing money and resources at bigger issues.

 

LAUSD’s failed iPad initiative is probably one of the clearest, recent examples of this. On the afternoon that we brainstormed what money could do, one teacher--Linda--proposed an idea that stays with me today. Simply put: fix P.E. At SCHS, the P.E. classes--filled primarily with 9th and 10th graders (students most statistically least likely to finish high school)--were overcrowded and under-supervised. For security purposes, students were locked each period within an area of dilapidated basketball courts and the school’s gymnasiums, a chain link fence separating them from the rest of the school. It wasn’t uncommon for P.E. teachers to have upwards of 80-100 students in each class and for the locked-gate of the P.E. area to act as a way for students to regularly skip other classes and remain hidden in the masses of other students crowded in the area. With the same dollars that would be used for professional development interventions, purchasing SMARTboards, or other product and service-oriented acquisitions, Linda pointed out that finding funding to, say, triple the number of P.E. teachers at the school could fundamentally transform the school’s culture and outcomes. There are caveats, of course, to such dreaming. However, if ours is a Genie that could summon a handful of teachers in an area that is often overlooked, I could imagine it would make lasting cultural changes.

 

My second Genie wish is simple and based on work I’ve seen transform school culture. At the Schools for Community Action--a set of small public schools I co-founded and describe in the conclusion to Good Reception--a wall-to-wall support plan that implements a Restorative Justice approach to supporting student healing, classroom management, and community support is thriving. Though there are growing studies and support for Restorative Justice, its emphasis on acknowledging and healing wrongdoing is an approach that fundamentally shifts student, teacher, and administrative relationships at the school. It is hard work (and even I wonder about the capacities of a genie!), but it is work that I would love to see more fully and authentically integrated right now. (As a brief note, I am wary of widespread district implementation of any program; as Restorative Justice grows in popularity, I wouldn't be surprised to see it watered down and shift in meaning and value in different contexts.)

 

Finally and acknowledging that this would have to be a powerful genie(!), I think it is necessary to spotlight and make visible the systemic issues of inequality that plague schools like SCHS. There is no simple fix to racial, class-based, language-specific, or geographic forms inequality that are inextricably linked to the power issues that affect contemporary understanding of academic achievement in U.S. schools. There are, though, a lot of bad attempts at band-aid fixes for these issues. In just a couple of chapters of my book, for example, I point to poorly-thought-through attempts by SCHS administration to address these topics through implementing school uniforms, new hall passes, changing bell schedules, and tardy-line policies. Without addressing the root causes of how schools for historically marginalized students are designed to fail, such surface level approaches do little more than signal that well-meaning adults tried. If a genie could center these inequities in the eyes of the public and in the policy-making decisions at local and national levels, I think we could (slowly) start making sounder decisions.

Antero Garcia is an Assistant Professor in the Graduate School of Education at Stanford University where he studies how technology and gaming shape youth learning, literacy practices, and civic identities. Prior to completing his Ph.D., Antero was an English teacher at a public high school in South Central Los Angeles. His two most recent research studies explore learning and literacies in tabletop roleplaying games like Dungeons & Dragons and how participatory culture shifts classroom relationships and instruction. Based on his research, Antero co-designed the Critical Design and Gaming School--a public high school in South Central Los Angeles. Antero’s research has appeared in numerous journals including The Harvard Educational Review, Teachers College Record, and Teaching and Teacher Education. His most recent book--Good Reception: Teens, Teachers, and Mobile Media in a Los Angeles High School—is an ethnographic look at technology and gaming in an urban high school. Some of his other books explore critical research methodologies (Doing Youth Participatory Action Research: Transforming Inquiry with Researchers, Educators, and Students--with Nicole Mirra and Ernest Morrell), techniques for shifting English language arts pedagogy (Pose, Wobble, Flow: A Culturally Proactive Approach to Literacy Instruction with Cindy O'Donnell-Allen), and changes in the consumption of young adult literature (Critical Foundations in Young Adult Literature: Challenging Genres). Antero received his Ph.D. in the Urban Schooling division of the Graduate School of Education and Information Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles.

Remixing Gender Through Popular Media: An Interview with Jonathan McIntosh (Part Three)

You celebrate Steven Universe for offering a more positive role model for young boys. What is it doing that seems distinctive and progressive to you?

 

When I first saw Steven Universe on Cartoon Network, I was pleasantly surprised by its subversive themes and plotlines. A lot has been written about the show’s progressive values, and rightly so; it centers powerful women and contains relatively unambiguous positive depictions of queer relationships. Last year I produced two videos focusing on something that gets a little less attention: the downright revolutionary ways men and boys are represented.

 

One of those video essays explores Steven’s superpowers. This is an adventure show about a boy with superpowers derived from an interstellar gemstone, which he uses to summon a magical shield. It’s rare to see a boy hero given a largely defensive weapon instead of an offensive one. Indeed Steven’s main contributions to his superhero team are shielding, protecting and healing his teammates. Those are all traits traditionally associated for women in fantasy fiction. But beyond that I argue Steven has an additional less obvious superpower which is even more fundamental to his character and to the show’s values. And that’s Steven’s empathy, which plays a critical role in de-escalation and conflict resolution throughout the series. Again that’s something exceptionally rare to see with boy heroes in these kinds of narratives.

 

My other Steven Universe video essay focuses on emotional expression. In Hollywood men are typically not shown expressing vulnerable emotions, at least not outside of a very narrow set of traumatic circumstances, like when a loved one dies. Steven Universe doesn’t play by those rules, on that show men are regularly depicted as expressing a wide rage of vulnerable emotions in response to all kinds of social situations.

 

Whenever I talk about emotional expression in male characters, I make a point of emphasizing the “expression” part. Most male characters are, of course, written to have feelings and emotions on some level. It’s not uncommon for male heroes to harbor a deep-seated inner pain. However, that pain is usually left unspoken. We as audiences are meant to understand that male heroes experience intense feelings, but that turmoil is framed as something they must keep hidden. They’re very rarely shown openly communicating or vocalizing their vulnerable feelings. The emotions that men on the big screen are allowed to express are anger and rage. And those emotions are typically closely aligned with acts of violent revenge which are framed as a form of vigilante justice. Needless to say, this is the very definition of emotionally unhealthy.

 

Steven Universe is the exact opposite. As I mentioned, the show is absolutely packed with men and boys who are open and vocal about expressing their emotions. So for example, everyone in on the show cries. Men and boys are shown crying in most episodes, and more importantly, these tears are never presented as a sign of weakness. In fact, tears serve to communicate an impressively wide range of emotions, from joy to concern, from despair to pride, from frustration to love.

 

Steven and his father Greg are also not afraid of being physically affectionate with those around them, and not just when it comes to family or romantic partners either. Steven openly admits to being afraid, and he is never shamed for expressing that fear. Unlike many other coming-of-age stories about boy heroes, Steven’s growth does not hinge on learning to “conquer his fear.” Instead Steven learns that fear is a natural and useful emotion, something he should listen to, in order to help keep himself and those he cares about safe. All of this is exceptionally rare for television. It’s especially notable given that Steven Universe is an animated series aimed at younger audiences.

 

To what degree are the myths of masculinity you discuss inherited unconsciously as part of the genre formulas passed down from earlier generations of media makers? To what degree is masculinity being reimagined and reasserted today in equally destructive terms?

 

Certainly there are a whole bunch of regressive ideas about masculinity baked into many long-running traditions in genre fiction. Hollywood's current rush to remake and reboot franchises from decades past has meant we’ve seen images of aggressive manhood reproduced in uncritical ways. Over the past decade superhero movies have taken over the box office. That genre in particular lends itself to portrayals of manhood where physical intimidation, violence, and vengeance are framed as effective and heroic forms of conflict resolution for men. Incidentally that goes for both small interpersonal conflicts as well as larger intergalactic conflicts. We’ve also seen some entertainment that I’d categorize as being part of a conservative backlash against progressive or feminist gains. I already mentioned that some popular gaming franchises are especially guilty in this regard. Recent films by directors like Michael Bay, Zack Snyder, and Peter Berg would also fit into this category since many of their productions tend to unapologetically celebrate aggressive versions of hypermasculinity.

 

On the whole though, I do think a lot of Hollywood writers and media makers are much more aware of the potentially harmful conventions and clichés in their work these days. Unfortunately the relatively high level of media literacy on the production side hasn’t translated into much in the way of new or subversive storylines for male characters. What we get instead is an enormous amount of lampshading.

 

Lampshading is a writer's trick wherein media makers deliberately call attention to a dissonant, clichéd, or stereotypical aspect of their own production within the text itself. It’s basically a wink in the direction of the audience. Lampshading is often used as a way for media makers to acknowledge troubling or toxic gender representations in their production but then continue to uncritically indulge in those depictions. Lampshaded dialogue can make writers seem clever, self-aware, and even self-critical, while still largely sticking to Hollywood traditions. This then tends to make a piece of media seem more progressive or subversive than it really is.

 

My latest video essay, The Adorkable Misogyny of the Big Bang Theory, details how ironic lampshading is employed in comedies and sitcoms as a way to let nerdy “nice guys” off the hook for a wide range of creepy behaviors. But lampshading is increasingly used in dramas as well. It’s one of Joss Whedon's favorite writing techniques; he’ll often write humorous lines of dialogue to point out macho behaviors in his male characters, only to then have them keep engaging in those same behaviors. So for example there’s a scene in Avengers: Age of Ultron in which the male heroes take turns trying to lift Thor’s hammer. The witty writing acknowledges that these men are involved in what amounts to an extended “dick measuring” contest over who is the stronger superhero. There’s even a line where Black Widow makes fun of them all for it. In another Marvel movie from different directors, Captain America: Civil War, Black Widow asks point blank if the male hero really wants to “punch his way out” of a difficult situation. But again even though the problem is explicitly acknowledged in the text, nothing fundamentally changes in terms of how those male characters are depicted; they still solve the majority of their problems by punching other men in the face.

 

So I’d argue that while many Hollywood writers are on some level aware that toxic and violent masculinity is an issue, they either have no alternative or they don’t really believe it’s a big enough deal to take seriously-- preferring instead to acknowledge the issue and then double down on the same old formulas. The end result of all these forms of replication is the same: a market flooded with images of violent macho manhood, some done with a wink to the audience, but precious few representations that directly challenge the hypermasculine ideals of manhood.

 

So while the clichés of genre traditions are more readily acknowledge today, I’d argue that media makers are still trapped. However, it’s not that difficult to become unstuck. It just requires a willingness to defy audience expectations. I will say that there are a few exceptions to the rule where filmmakers do embrace atypical and empathetic versions of heroic masculinity. I recently made a video essay about the Harry Potter spin-off, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, in which I posit that the protagonist, Newt Scamander, is a welcome subversion of traditional male action-adventure heroes.

 

If you had the attention of people working in genre entertainment today (and I am sure you do), what would you most want them to learn from watching your videos?

 

First and foremost that their work isn’t just entertainment; media can have enormous impacts on people’s belief structures, worldview, attitudes, and sometimes behaviors. In various times and places around the world the role of storyteller has been a sacred and revered position because their job includes the responsibility of passing on lessons, values, and cultural identity to a younger generation. Media makers are the most influential storytellers of today and, like it or not, there is a lot of power that comes with that job.

 

And it’s possible to do things differently even within the confines of a major studio production. The Martian, for example, was a widely successful, thrilling, edge-of-your-seat blockbuster, and one that remarkably contains absolutely no images of men solving problems with violence. All conflicts are solved through the use of science, cooperation, and human ingenuity.

As I mentioned above, another successful movie with an unconventional male hero is Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. Newt performs a refreshingly atypical form of masculinity. He’s sincere, nurturing, empathetic and sensitive. And, crucially, that sensitivity is framed as a strength rather than a weakness.

 

It may sound cliché to say that “with great power comes great responsibility,” but it’s true, and it’s especially true when it comes to Hollywood. Media makers have a responsibility to be careful and intentional about the messages and values embedded in their stories. If producers and filmmakers are willing to take the risk of showing emotionally vulnerable, communicative, empathetic versions of leading manhood, I think they’ll find a large audience out there that is hungry for those alternative depictions of manhood.

Jonathan McIntosh is a media critic, remix artist, and video essayist. He has been remixing mass media narratives for critical and educational purposes since before the invention of YouTube. He serves on the advisory board of New Media Rights, a non-profit organization working to protect the rights of digital media makers. His current project, The Pop Culture Detective Agency, is a series of long-form video essays exploring the intersections of politics, masculinity, and entertainment. 

Remixing Gender Through Popular Culture: An Interview with Jonathan McIntosh (Part Two)

As we turn to your current project, let me ask a question that is the title of one of your videos. What is toxic masculinity and what should we as a society being doing to reign in this particular noxious set of attitudes? Why might educational videos represent one appropriate response to this problem?

 

Toxic masculinity is an important term but it’s often mischaracterized or at least misunderstood in conversation, especially outside of academic settings. The video you’re referring to is my attempt to clarify the meaning of the term and hopefully spark more constructive conversations.

 

As I said in my video on the topic, Toxic masculinity refers to a particular set of harmful actions and cultural practices. It’s marked by things like emotional detachment and hyper-competitiveness. It’s connected to the sexual objectification of women, as well as other predatory sexual behaviors, and it’s also linked very closely with aggression, intimidation, and violence.

 

It’s important to note that “toxic masculinity” is not a condemnation of men or manhood in general. There is nothing toxic about being a man, but some men act in toxic ways. In other words, toxic masculinity is not something that men are, but rather it’s something that some men do. Which means that, we as men, can choose not to participate in that toxic behavior and instead choose other more empathetic, cooperative, compassionate forms of manhood.

 

In terms of why educational videos like mine are useful, the hope is that they can help get us on the same page. It’s very hard, if not impossible, to have these difficult conversations when critical words are terms are so widely misunderstood or misrepresented.

 

Let me ask another blunt and straight forward question. Why should we care what kinds of representation of masculinity run through popular culture? Shouldn’t we be more concerned with actual male behavior in everyday life rather than the masculinity of wizards and stormtroopers?

 

I believe we should be concerned with both. The truth is that personal expressions of masculinity and media representations of manhood are not separate and distinct; they’re deeply interconnected. Media and culture have a cyclical relationship; media influences culture and, conversely, culture influences media. Obviously that doesn’t mean we’re all mindlessly mimicking what we see on television, but one thing media is very good at doing is shaping our worldview. One of my favorite feminist theorists, bell hooks, connects the dots succinctly, she says: "Popular culture is where the pedagogy is, it's where the learning is happening.” She’s right. Our cultural ideas about what it means to be a man are heavily influenced by entertainment. Of course schools, families, and religious and political institutions all play important roles, but for better or worse mass media has become one of the primary areas where our cultural ideals of manhood are shaped and reaffirmed. This is why I believe it’s critical for us to interrogate what those Stormtroopers and Wizards are teaching us about masculinity.

 

All media has embedded messages and values whether producers and filmmakers intend to include them or not. When it comes to myths about manhood, some of the most common ideas we see infused in entertainment often pass under the radar because they reflect current cultural norms. These include myths like: men are naturally aggressive and violent; men who express vulnerability are weak; manhood is earned through physical competition and conquest; men’s sexist behavior is biologically driven. These messages are limiting and harmful for a whole host of reasons, not least of which because they reinforce the false notion that toxic behaviors, practices, and attitudes are normal, natural, and even inevitable for men. The reality, of course, is that men are capable of transformation. This is why we need media that models alternative formulations of masculinity in which men are shown openly communicating their feelings and vulnerabilities, practicing de-escalation tactics, and embracing empathetic responses to conflicts and challenges.

 

Media changes us -- sometimes for better, sometimes for worse. It has incredible power to alter our perceptions, shape our worldview, and transform our identities. Media can trap us in old ways of thinking or open up exciting new social possibilities. My long-form video essays are focused on challenging media that does the former and elevating media that does the latter.

 

Today, the phrase -- men’s movement -- has often been co-opted into a misogynistic backlash against “political correctness” in general and feminism in particular, making it harder to speak as a male ally of feminism. How would you characterize the perspective you bring to these videos? What works provide you with the intellectual framework you draw upon in this work?

 

As I mentioned above, my work is very much influenced by feminist writers like bell hooks. Back in 1984, hooks boldly advocated for a feminism that included men. Her second book “Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center” includes this passage which has stuck with me and provided a framework for my own work on masculinity. She notes, "Men are not exploited or oppressed by sexism, but there are ways in which they suffer as a result of it." Her point about how the social system of patriarchy both privileges men while simultaneously harming us by robbing us of our humanity is a foundational one for my Pop Culture Detective Agency project. Hooks expands on this perspective in her excellent book The Will to Change: Men, Masculinity, and Love. That book is, incidentally, the first thing I always recommend to guys who are just beginning their journey into what feminism means for men. I find it both critical and inspiring that hooks calls for men to be held accountable while still remaining deeply compassionate to our struggles as men.

 

Another important influence for me has been the work of Sociologist Allan G. Johnson who wrote a book called Unraveling Our Patriarchal Legacy. I’ve found his insights about how social systems and individuals are interconnected (neither exists without the other) to be particularly helpful in my research and criticism. R.W. Connell’s academic writings on Masculinities is also very useful for my work. She argues that there are many types and formulations of masculinity, all of which exist within a hierarchy of “masculinities.”

 

As you eluded to in your question, my perspective is fundamentally different from those who call themselves “Men’s Rights Activists” or MRAs. There are now hundreds of men with shockingly popular YouTube channels and social media followings who proport to care about men’s issues. Unfortunately most of them are indeed coming from a decidedly reactionary place which oozes hatred for feminism and is steeped in a palpable resentment of women. These guys are openly advocating for a return to the hypermasculine male supremacist values of decades past. They’re upset that our culture is slowly evolving in terms of gender and they’re determined to resist this social progress. The dark irony is that many of the things MRAs point to as being problems for men in our society, (suicide rates, combat deaths, life expectancy, etc.) are not a result of feminism or “discrimination against men” but are instead a byproduct of the social system of patriarchy. Instead of working to find real solutions to these issues (which would require a measure of self-criticism and self-transformation) MRAs are hell-bent on blaming feminism in particular and women in general. In many ways my video essays are a direct response to the popularity of the poisonous MRA prospective. My hope is that by compassionately addressing the emotional harm men and boys face as a result of patriarchal pressures in our culture, I can reach some of the guys who are hurting and perhaps keep some from joining reactionary movements.

Remixing Gender Through Popular Media: An Interview with Jonathan McIntosh

I have been following the work of political remix artist Jonathan McIntosh for some years now. We discussed his Buffy vs. Edward and Right Wing Talk Radio Duck projects in By Any Media Necessary: The New Youth Activists. We reconnected recently when he participated in a workshop of artists, activists, and educators hosted by my Civic Imagination research project, and he shared with me the really exciting work he is doing as part of the Pop Culture Detective Agency series on YouTube. I wanted to direct more attention to the ways he is using his remix skills to question the construction of gender and sexuality -- in particular, toxic forms of masculinity -- in various forms of popular culture. These videos are ideal resources for Media Literacy education and they make effective use of a range of fannish texts in the process. Over the next few installments, he is going to share the background of this project and in each post, I am going to be sharing some of his works.

“Buffy vs. Edward” helped to establish your reputation as a remix video producer. In some ways, it looks forward to the focus on pop culture and masculinity which has been central to your newest videos. So, can you share some of the thinking behind this now classic video? What motivated this video? What does it suggest about the relationship of your work to fandom and popular culture more generally? What core political commitments informed this work?

 

When I saw the first Twilight film back in 2008, I was struck by its unmistakably regressive messages about gender. I also notice that much of the disdain for this movie online was directed at the character of Bella rather than that of Edward. In general female characters in entertainment tend to draw more criticism than male characters do. Often this is because of a combination of sexism and the poor representation of women in a male-dominated media industry. Though in the case of Twilight, the critical focus on Bella’s romances seemed especially misguided because Edward is the one depicted engaging in unambiguous stalkerish behavior.

 

Domestic violence and abuse prevention organizations publish lists of “red flags” to help people identify warning signs in their romantic relationships.  Even a casual look at those lists reveals that Edward engages in many “red flag” behaviors over the course of the four Twilight books and subsequent movies in the series. These “red flags” include things like extreme jealousy, disregard for personal boundaries, threats of violence, and isolating someone from their friends or family. These controlling behaviors are part of a dangerous and toxic form of masculinity that is often celebrated in entertainment.

 

When I began constructing my remix video comparing Twilight’s conservative gender framing of vampire lore to the more progressive messages embedded in the Buffy the Vampire Slayer television show, I made a point of focusing my visual argument on critiquing Edward’s behavior. To that end, I removed Bella entirely from the remix and replaced her with footage of Buffy. All of the Buffy clips I used were deliberately chosen to make it appear she was directly responding to Edward’s abusive behavior.

 

My hope with that remix was to re-shape and re-focus online conversations away from Bella’s “lack of personality” or “indecisiveness” and back onto Edward’s words and actions. Once I released Buffy vs Edward on YouTube in 2009, I was excited to see that the mashup accomplished that goal. All across the internet, from the LA Times to Edward fan forums, I started seeing nuanced conversations pop up about Edward’s abusive behaviors.

 

All of my critical video work uses pop culture as a lens through which I can engage in sociopolitical discussions with fans and general audiences who may not be as familiar with academic theory or texts. My projects are, at their core, critical investigations of the ways entertainment creates meaning in our shared culture.

 

“Right Wing Talk Radio Duck” brought the political dimensions of your remix practice into much sharper focus and you found yourself responding to some fairly powerful critics within the conservative media sphere. In some ways, you were mapping the emergence of the alt right ethos that would bring Donald Trump to power. What do you see when you look back on that video and its reception today?

 

My Right Wing Radio Duck remix video was meant as a critique of Glenn Beck in particular and reactionary right-wing talk radio in general. But more than that, I wanted to focus on how right-wing demagogues exploit real working class concerns by scapegoating immigrants and people of color. Many Americans were understandably angry about the bailout of corporate banks after the mortgage crisis of 2007, which left huge subsections of the working poor and middle class out in the cold. Glenn Beck and his ilk preyed on and twisted the very real frustration many Americans were feeling about that economic catastrophe.

 

I wanted to unequivocally condemn Glenn Beck’s racist fear-mongering, but I didn’t want to completely demonize all of his listeners. My goal was to have viewers of my remix come away with a better understanding of why some working folks might be taken in by Tea Party-like rhetoric. It’s a bit of a difficult and delicate argument to try to make in any format but it’s especially challenging with remix video because you’re so often limited by the source material. That’s why I chose Donald Duck as the lens through which to make my critique. Donald seemed especially appropriate for remixing because he was originally created by Disney to represent a frustrated down-on-their-luck Depression-era "everyman.” Donald is a hot-headed character. He’s easily duped. He’s almost always wrong, but critically he’s not entirely unsympathetic. In short, he’s not a villain. I constructed the remix carefully so we see Donald lose his job, have his house foreclosed on, and then in desperation turn to right-wing radio for answers, only to be driven into a panicked nightmare by racist fearmongering. In my remix Donald eventually figures out that he’s been hoodwinked by right-wing voices that don’t really care about him or his struggles.

 

In terms of the reaction to the remix, I was accused by Beck himself of being part of a union/communist plot funded by Obama to undermine the values of American capitalism. It was ludicrous but it would have been a lot funnier if it didn’t inspire his listeners to start threatening me online. During his heyday on Fox News, Glenn Beck turned out to be a harbinger of things to come. His potent mixture of “tough guy” rhetoric, racist fearmongering, faux populism and conspiracy theories was nearly identical to what we saw in Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign.

 

You ended up working with Anita Sarkeesian at Feminist Frequency, where you would have seen fairly directly the #gamergate crowd at work. How did those experiences shape your current Pop Culture Detective project?

 

My experiences while working with Feminist Frequency were definitely a catalyst for the creation of my crowdfunded video series. As you mentioned, I worked as producer and co-writer on the first season of the Tropes vs Women in Video Games project. During my 4 years at that job, I became one of gamergate’s favorite male targets.

 

Gamergate, for those who are unfamiliar, was a coordinated hate and harassment campaign mostly targeting women involved in video game development and criticism. This online crusade was reactionary in nature and rooted in a particularly virulent strain of anti-feminism. I should note that since I’m a straight white guy, the type of online abuse I faced was decidedly different (and less intense) than what women endured. Abuse directed at women is often of a sexual nature and includes obsessive stalking and specific threats of intimate violence. When men are harassed online it usually follows an established pattern of attempted emasculation. Alongside a spade of threats, I was accused of “not being a real man,” of being “too sensitive”, of being controlled by women, and of course of being gay. Essentially I was seen as a traitor to my gender. All this because of my role in critiquing the demeaning and overtly sexualized ways in which female characters are often represented in video games.

 

The daily insults and abuse hurled at me over social media made it clear that gamergate had as much to do with cultural ideas about hyper-masculinity as it did with women in gaming. Indeed the two concepts are deeply interconnected. It very quickly became clear to me that the angry young men involved in gamergate saw themselves as protecting video games from the influence of women because they viewed their hobby as one of the “last bastions” of macho manhood.

 

The gamergate response is perhaps not all that surprising. At every point in history when steps toward equality are won, those gains are met with a reactionary backlash. So for example, Old West pulp stories saw a surge in popularity which coincided with the rise of movements for women’s suffrage. Men’s Adventure magazines of the 1940s to 1960s were in large part a reaction to gains made by women (and people of color) in the aftermath of WWII. These types of testosterone-infused pulp adventure stories served as a form of “equality escapism” (as I like to call it) for men angered by a changing reality. They offered men a way to retreat to a place where men could engage in regressive power fantasies rooted in white male supremacy. These were narratives where men got to be rugged individualists who dispensed justice from the barrel of a gun (and where those men were rewarded with women). These were fantasy worlds in which men’s violence and men’s chauvinism were presented as ideal formulations of masculinity.

 

I’d argue that this same type of macho manhood is mirrored and celebrated in many modern video games. For decades mainstream video games have leaned on macho power fantasies as a way to appeal to a young straight male demographic. Entitlement to women and women’s bodies (and other sexist conventions like the damsel in distress) played a large part in the type of male fantasies major gaming companies were selling. In the years leading up to gamergate, however, we saw some sectors of the gaming industry very slowly begin taking some steps towards creating better representations of women in their products. A large cross section of angry young men falsely believe that even modest progress towards gender equality in their favorite entertainment media is something that diminishes them, their power, and their masculinity.

 

Over and over again, men involved in gamergate would say they were defending their fantasy worlds from “political correctness” and “diversity.” They felt some types of video games were important to their identity as men because those games provided them a safe space where “men could be real men again.” And they feared that women’s input into video games would “feminize” gaming and therefore take away their hyper-masculine fantasy worlds.

 

The celebration of and idealization of macho, violent, and toxic forms of masculinity has always been closely linked to reactionary right-wing politics, and it’s an especially potent part of the ideology of hate groups. After gamergate and the rise of Trump, it seemed a important time to start a video series that critically deconstructed toxic representations of manhood in entertainment. That is what my project, The Pop Culture Detective Agency, is all about.

Jonathan McIntosh is a media critic, remix artist, and video essayist. He has been remixing mass media narratives for critical and educational purposes since before the invention of YouTube. He serves on the advisory board of New Media Rights, a non-profit organization working to protect the rights of digital media makers. His current project, The Pop Culture Detective Agency, is a series of long-form video essays exploring the intersections of politics, masculinity, and entertainment. 

 

Digital Media and Learning 2017: A Conversation about Politics and Youth

Last week was the 8th and final Digital Media and Learning Conference, hosted by the University of California-Irvine. Starting next year, the conference will be morphing into the Connected Learning conference, which will alternate years between MIT and Irvine, and which involves the collaboration of multiple research networks -- among them, Games, Learning and Society and the Sandbox Summit. I was proud to have been asked to help organize the very first of the Digital Media and Learning conferences shortly after I arrived at USC eight years ago. We started out with a focus on issues of diversity and learning with Craig Watkins and Sonia Livingstone as our keynote speakers. It was amazing to take time to see how much more diverse and inclusive the current conference was. DML has worked because it brought together educational researchers, teachers, librarians, after school program coordinators, youth media producers, policy makers, and many others in a space which encourages active exchanges between theory and practice.

This year's keynote events centered around youth and politics. danah boyd's opening remarks posed an appocalyptic vision of the darker side of the web, describing the ways that some of the disruptive communication and information practices associated with troll culture, have grown in strength and influence in recent years and now pose a serious threat to the state of American democracy. Her remarks were critically important to those of us who care about participatory culture, politics, and learning, forcing us to confront the negative consequences of some of our choices about the media environment. She ends with a call to action, describing many of us in the room as on the front lines of a larger struggle that will define what kind of society we will inhabit. She does not offer many answers and at times, the questions she raises can feel overwhelming. I talked to people afterwords who left this talk with their heads reeling.

 

My instructions as moderator for the closing plenary session was to bring back some hope. I was honored to share the podium with Esra'a Al-Shafei, a young internet activist who spoke about her experiences fighting for human rights and social justice in the Gulf. Her courage, determination, and creativity inspired everyone who heard this conversation, as she described her entry into the digital realm, spoke about being censored by her government at 16, explained the role which humor, music, games, and other cultural practices played in allowing her community to maintain their struggle. These are stories we need to hear as Americans, because there is so much we can learn from activists working in the Arab world and elsewhere about how to use these platforms and practices to change the world. 

I strongly recommend my regular readers to watch both of these programs, starting with danah boyd and ending with Esra'a Al-Shafei, so that you can have the full emotional experience we felt at DML this year.

 

What the Filk...?: An Interview with Sally Childs-Helton (Part Three)

Wizard Rock and Nerdcore are two different genres of fan music that sought to distinguish themselves from filk and which stressed performances rather than group sings as the primary mode of presentation. How has the filk community responded to these developments?

 

harry_potters.jpg

Some filkers, especially younger ones, are aware of and enjoy wizard rock (often called wrock, here represented by Harry and the Potters) and nerdcore and its franchise-oriented cousins (Trek rock, Dr. Who rock, Rocking Jay, etc.), while some are vaguely aware of the existence of this music but don’t actively seek it out.  Some nerdcore and franchise-oriented rock tunes do show up in the filk room as “found filk,” so filkers become aware this way.  One geek/nerd musician who is especially popular in the filk community is Jonathan Coulton, and several filk dealers carry his music, though he has no real affiliation with the community.  “Code Monkey” and “Re: Your Brains” (performed here at the PAX gaming festival) are highly popular.  Filkers have been writing about geek and nerd topics and media franchise characters for years, so it’s no surprise that when nerdcore, wrock, etc., began developing that some of the tunes would become “found filk.”

 

Nerdcore, wrock, etc. come out of a popular music model, most often rock, which differentiates them from filk, with its folk-based model (though rock has been in filk for a very long time).  These niche audience musics are often performed by professional and semi-professional bands or artists, and some of these musicians make most of their living playing music (which cannot be said of filkers, or professional musicians when wearing their filk hats).  Geek/Nerdcore musicians often perform on the indie band circuits and have large online followings.  Many of the franchise-oriented bands (wrock, Trek rock, etc.) perform at the larger commercial media cons and occasionally at fan-run SF/F cons.  Niche musicians may also have local and regional followings and perform in bars and clubs.  So the venues in which these geek/nerd/media musicians perform are not conducive to the filk room format so vital to filk, though geek/nerd/media and filk communities all sing along at concerts, as do fans at rock concerts.  Some filkers who are semi-professional or professional occasionally perform concerts at commercial cons, but there is no filk programming (workshops and panels) and no filk room for group sings.

 

One way that filk has attempted to engage younger musicians has been by inviting geek/nerd and media franchise musicians to perform at filk conventions.  In some cases, the groups have come in, performed, and left, treating it like any other gig.  In other cases, they have come, performed, and stayed to join the evening filk circles and other programming, and later become members of the community.  Some of the geek/nerd/franchise groups look at filkers as amateurs while others recognize like-minded musicians.  I had an interesting exchange with members of a Trek band at a convention where my band was a guest of honor.  We finished our concert, and were tearing down while the Trek band was setting up.  They said they really enjoyed our set and I said we were looking forward to theirs.  When I invited them to return for open filking later that night, I was told in no uncertain terms that they were not filkers, the implication being that they were “real” musicians and filkers were not.

 

Filkers are more aware of the geek/nerd/media franchise music community now than they were 5 or so years ago simply because filkers bring the music in as “found filk,” filk cons are inviting these musicians to perform, and their music is readily available online.  Filkers who are active in wider fandom are also attending commercial cons and hearing these groups in concert.  Concerts have been an important part of filk cons and some general SF/F cons for years, and these allow especially the more polished musicians to showcase their materials.  But the filk circle is still at the core of the filk community and culture.  The relationship between the filk and geek/nerd/franchise music communities continues to be defined, but I think it’s accurate to say that the filk community knows a lot more now about geek/nerd/franchise music than that community and its audiences know about filk.  Even though filk is considered by some as the grandmother of geek and nerd musics, the filk community exists at non-commercial, fan-run cons, and even though filk music is easily available online, filkers really don’t promote themselves beyond the community.  Filkers deeply value making music together in small groups more than they value winning large audiences and selling product.  Part of this may also be generational, which I’ll address later.    

 

 How has filk taken advantage of new systems of distribution, such as video-sharing on Youtube and Vimeo, musical downloads on i-Tunes, or podcasting?

 

Filkers, like many SF/F fans, were online from the beginning of the internet and today they inhabit every form of social media and use every contemporary form of music distribution.  Like many fen, they are early adopters and serious tech geeks.  Even though CDs are still selling well, many filkers are also releasing albums as downloads, though there is some discussion in the community about how much longer the CD platform will remain financially viable since most filkers hope to at least recoup the money they have put into an album.  Some are crowd-funding projects through KickStarter and similar platforms.  Others are offering live online concerts, and there are plenty of videos on YouTube and Vimeo, though they can be surprisingly hard to find only using “filk” as a search term.  Several filkers have professional sound studios in their homes and are releasing very high-quality albums.  Podcasts are available, and even SF/F publishers like Baen have done podcasts featuring filk and filkers.  As mentioned earlier, it seems that filkers use their command of technology to share music with the community; if other people find it, that’s wonderful, but the main motivation is to share the music rather than make a living from it.  I have heard from several Millennial filkers that they came across filk first through online performances, but again it was only by happenstance.

 

Some filkers have tried to reproduce the environment of the filk room using Skype and other real-time conferencing formats, but they have not been satisfactory.  The time lag is still too great to Skype someone into a house filk and be able to sing along or interact in ways expected in the filk room.  During my research several people noted how wonderful it would be if Skype-style technology could get fast enough to let filkers at a distance create a virtual filk room.  Online concerts have been more successful because people have different expectations; the performer knows he or she will hear laughter or applause a bit later than expected.  Technology exists that can let musicians at a distance perform together, but it takes computers beyond consumer-level product.  It’s going to be interesting to see what happens when this technology is supported by consumer-quality computers and other technology so that filkers will be able to hold “virtual filks” with greater success.     

 

Your scholarly writing documents what you describe as the generational politics of filk. What did you discover?

 

I think I’d call it more generational preferences and enculturation than politics.  Baby Boomers and to some extent Gen-Xers value their filk face-to-face, and are more likely to enjoy folk music, folk rock, and “classic” rock.  Millennials prefer newer genres of popular music, and are perfectly comfortable living much of their social lives online.  One Millennial child of Baby Boomer filkers said she didn’t enjoy the filk room because it was like walking into space that belonged to her parents’ generation.  The music wasn’t to her taste, many of the references in the songs--and jokes or remarks made between songs--were generationally specific, and things just moved slowly.  Her expectations as a Millennial were not being met, and she felt that she was invading space that was not generationally her own.  She didn’t feel unwelcome, but it simply wasn’t attractive and there were things she’d rather be doing with friends her own age.  When asked what music activities Millennials might enjoy most, she replied that maybe having a room set up where people could just come and jam and create together would be attractive.  My article “Folk Music in a Digital Age: The Importance of Face-to-Face Community Values in Filk Music,” published in the Journal of Fandom Studies, goes into more depth on this topic.  

 

Is there a risk that filk may die out as a cultural practice within fandom?

 

It depends on how you define “die out,” and “fandom.”  Filk is certainly evolving and changing, and it has changed dramatically from the early days of SF/F fans singing folk song revival songs at cons.  It has changed since it was documented almost 25 years ago in Textual Poachers.  It also depends on the parameters you put around fandom.  The biggest split I see is between fan-run cons and commercial cons, and how that has changed fannish music culture.  Unless commercial and franchise-based cons start making space for face-to-face fan-made music beyond concerts performed by professional and semi-professional musicians, then filk as we know it today may well disappear as Baby Boomers and Gen-Xers age out.  I say this because traditional filk circles are closely tied to fan-run cons, and these cons are starting to feel the pressure of staying viable as Baby Boomers age out of fandom and younger generations gravitate toward commercial cons.  So the “natural habitat” of the filker is becoming endangered, much like the natural habitat of some wild flora and fauna that is endangered by urban sprawl.  Then again, many species of flora and fauna have learned to live in suburban and even urban areas.  To carry this metaphor further, for a number of years now the symbol of filk has been the dandelion—it grows everywhere and keeps sprouting back up.

 

So I’m never going to say that filk, as it is currently practiced, may die out.  There are hints that people of all generations are starting to get tired of living so much of their lives online, and that they are finding the joys of face-to-face activities again.  There is technology on the horizon that may help filkers engage in virtual filk rooms that feel more genuinely like “the real thing.”  And filk, like all things, is going to keep evolving to meet the needs and tastes of each new generation.  It may be that as Boomers and Gen-Xers age out, the filk room will disappear and that fannish music will be identified as indie nerd and geek rock, performed at commercial cons.  Or individuals might write music that is very much like filk, and offer it up through YouTube or as live online concerts.  Or younger generations may decide that they want the experience of making and enjoying music in a face-to-face environment, where everybody contributes, and the filk room will enjoy a rebirth, though in a different incarnation.  Instead of a filk circle where everybody takes turns with other people supporting, it may be more like a musical “maker space” where people can jam and co-write lyrics and melodies and co-create arrangements.    

 

One thing I’d like to examine more broadly are activities (fannish or not) that people can pursue as individuals versus those that must be pursued in face-to-face groups, and how the balance between these activities is changing generationally.  Such research can be expanded to activities people can engage in through face-to-face groups versus online groups.  This will tell us a lot about how interests in various fannish creative activities is changing, and about filk as it is currently practiced and possible future directions.

 

 

What might be some steps that could be taken to revitalize filk for this next generation of fans?

 

We do have Millennials coming into filk, but there are many fewer of them than we would like.  The draw for them is the face-to-face community and the support they get as young creative people.  Millennials have told me that most of their peers have no idea filk exists because they go to larger commercial cons like GenCon where there is no filk.  But now that so much filk is available online, I think some Millennials are finding it and thinking it’s just more geek/nerd music, and they have no idea this music has been around for over 70 years and has an international community.  The Millennials who find filk now tend to be singer/songwriters, and already have “retro” sensibilities.  And they appreciate the support and sense of community they don’t find at the large commercial cons, where they may enjoy listening to geek/nerd groups, but there is no place for them to share their creativity.  It’s very easy for cosplayers to go to a commercial con and display their creativity by wearing a hall costume, but the lone singer/songwriter has no audience there.

 

We can continue to revitalize filk by making it easier for these young, lone singer/songwriters to find us online, and to encourage them to come join the community.  Some of them are going to be comfortable there, and some are going to feel like they’ve just entered a roomful of people old enough to be their parents or grandparents.  But when there are younger faces, they will be more likely to feel like they belong.  Some filk cons and general fan-run cons have been inviting younger performers to do concerts, sometimes as guests of honor, further signaling to younger generations that filk welcomes them, and is capable of change.  As more and more fans of all ages go to large commercial cons, it can’t hurt to ask for filk rooms, or even a concert room where more polished filkers can offer themed concerts (Dr. Who tunes, Star Wars songs, tunes about gaming).  Some filkers and cons are already doing this, but we need to do more to help the younger generations of fandom realize that there is a whole huge body of music out there they might enjoy.   

Sally Childs-Helton, Ph.D., is an ethnomusicologist, percussionist, and archivist; she holds the rank of Professor at Butler University.  Away from university duties, she is active as a musician and facilitator who conducts drumming and improvisation workshops; performs with her husband Barry, eclectic Celtic band Wild Mercy, and the Thin Air improvising quartet; and accompanies choruses, dance, and theater.  She has been active in the filk community since 1984, was inducted into the Filk Hall of Fame in 2003, and has won several Pegasus Awards for Excellence in Filking.  Her current music research interests include musical fandoms, generational aspects of fandoms, and artistic sign language as musical expression. 

 

 

What the Filk...?: An Interview with Sally Childs-Helton (Part Two)

You are a veteran filk performer and composer, yet you’ve only recently started incorporating this knowledge and experience into your scholarship. Why have you kept these two aspects of your life separate for so long and what’s changed now?

 

When I was doing my M.A. and Ph.D. in ethnomusicology and folklore in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the general thinking was that researchers should not study their own cultures or subcultures because it created a lack of objectivity; researchers could miss vital things because they took them for granted, even though it was acknowledged that it also gave a person greater access to deeper understanding.  We were encouraged to study instead cultures or subcultures that were different from our own to ensure greater objectivity.  So part of my reticence came from the professional philosophy that existed when I was doing my graduate work. 

 

The more personal reason boiled down to professional ethics and integrity.  My husband and I did not enter the filk community as researchers but as members and practitioners.  As we were embraced by the filk community, I didn’t want people to think that I was there with the purpose of doing research or using them in any way.  We were starting to meet and make good friends from all over the U.S. and elsewhere around the world, and I was not willing to taint these relationships with any misunderstanding about why I was participating in the community.  The filk community is a very special and supportive place where people can grow as musicians and people.  The filk circle, in particular, is for many filkers almost sacred space where you come with good intentions, to offer the best you have, to help make a high-quality creative environment for everyone, and to offer support. 

 

I came into filk already a full-blown musician and performer at a time when many filkers were beginning or intermediate-level players.  For people who are at the beginning of their musical journeys, the filk room must be a safe place.  I was not willing to create even a whiff of an appearance that I would be breaking the trust of the filk circle in any way.  Less experienced musicians take huge personal risks every time they perform; it takes a lot of courage, especially for people who have had a lifetime of being told they aren’t musical or they aren’t creative.  As we first entered the community, I was also doing a lot of accompanying in therapeutic environments, in particular accompanying a dance and movement therapy class.  I quickly recognized the therapeutic aspects of the filk room, though it is much more than that.  So my professional integrity stopped me from actively studying filk, thought I will admit it was impossible to turn off my ethnomusicologist’s brain that was analyzing what I was seeing and hearing.  You hear about social scientists who “go native;” I ended up doing the opposite, being a native who “went academic.”  In 2003 my husband and I were inducted into the Filk Hall of Fame.  We didn’t realize we were to give speeches, so we spoke extemporaneously.  The speeches were recorded and transcribed as “This is My Tribe”, which documents our relationship with the filk community, and why I was so reticent to do anything to break the community’s trust.

 

What motivated me to start writing about filk was an invitation to submit a paper for a special issue on music for the Journal of Fandom Studies.  I had been reading in popular culture and fandom studies all along, and was aware that fandom studies considers it a strength to conduct research as an insider; indeed, the idea of the “acafan” has been around for quite some while.  I’ve been in the filk community for over 30 years now and people know me as a mentor and supporter who often does workshops on various aspects of musicianship at cons.  I’ve earned the community’s trust and it knows how much I value it.  Over the past years the larger filk community has had a continuing discussion about how to attract younger generations, Millennials in particular, and what to do about the graying of filkdom as Baby Boomers are starting to age out.  The time seemed right for me to contribute both to fandom studies and to the filk community by conducting research on filk almost 25 years after your documentation of filk in Textual Poachers (for which I was an informant).  I let the community know what I was doing through online forums and at cons, and filkers who responded to my questionnaire and who gave me interviews were eager to participate.  So far I have only received positive comments about my research, and I intend to continue it with the community’s support.  There is much more to be said about research from the insider’s and outsider’s point-of-view, but I felt I finally reached a point where using my academic skills to study filk would be useful to the community, and I could do it without breaking its trust.        

 

I wrote in Textual Poachers that filk might start to change in character as certain artists began to record and sell their music and in the process, developing songs that require specific kinds of musical skills to perform. Two decades later, has this turned out to be the case?

 

Musicians in filk today are on a continuum from neos who are just beginning to play through amateurs to people who play professionally and semi-professionally.  I think the crux of your question deals with the then-perceived threat that more professional players would run beginners and amateurs out of filk.  Filk has changed by expanding to include high-level players, and it’s the heart and spirit of the community that allows beginners who can barely play three chords to perform in the same room and be given the same respect and support as musicians who regularly gig.  Filk is about so much more than the music—it’s about the community, and about creating an environment where everybody can grow as a creative being.  It’s like the music is the excuse we use to find like-minded souls who will help us grow.

 

Filk began as amateur music, and that element is still very much present, especially when you consider the meaning of amateur—someone who loves something.  As more experienced musicians joined the community, there have been times when the community felt that perhaps these players might not leave room for the less experienced, but this hasn’t come to pass.  The experienced musicians who value the community have stayed and helped to support others to grow; experienced players who dismissed less advanced musicians self-selected out of the filk circle.  My husband and I were (to the best of our knowledge) the first to release a professional studio-recorded filk tape (i.e., not recorded by a filk cottage industry studio) and some people thought we had upped the ante too much.  But many others expressed appreciation and we obviously didn’t get kicked out of the community.

 

So today you still hear neos, pros, and everybody in between in the filk circle.  The filk cottage industry and the great improvement in the quality of home recording equipment has meant that anybody who wants to release an album can.  Some albums are very homespun, while others are polished and professional and sell in other markets, but they all sell.  Some people enjoy high-quality studio albums because it allows the musician to fully express his or her musical vision.  Other people prefer to hear their filk live in the filk room or in concert, and if they listen to recorded filk, they prefer recordings of live music.  So yes—improved recording equipment and the presence of professional musicians has changed filk to some extent, but parts of it have also stayed the same.  It’s changed through expansion, so what was there when Textual Poachers was written is still there; new things (high-quality musicianship, better recording technology) have just been added.  The very high quality of professional musicianship and recording going on in filk today is best represented by long-standing filkers Jeff and Maya Bohnhoff and their Star Wars parody (which they wrote, performed, and recorded) of Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapodsy,” “Midichlorian Rhapsody.”

Sally Childs-Helton, Ph.D., is an ethnomusicologist, percussionist, and archivist; she holds the rank of Professor at Butler University.  Away from university duties, she is active as a musician and facilitator who conducts drumming and improvisation workshops; performs with her husband Barry, eclectic Celtic band Wild Mercy, and the Thin Air improvising quartet; and accompanies choruses, dance, and theater.  She has been active in the filk community since 1984, was inducted into the Filk Hall of Fame in 2003, and has won several Pegasus Awards for Excellence in Filking.  Her current music research interests include musical fandoms, generational aspects of fandoms, and artistic sign language as musical expression. 

 

What the Filk?: An Interview with Sally Childs-Helton (Part One)

This is the third in an ongoing series of interviews running across this year showcasing new and emerging work in fandom and fandom studies. I figured it was time to bring this blog back to its roots.

 

Sally and Barry Childs-Helton, filkers

Sally and Barry Childs-Helton, filkers

 

In my 1992 book, Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Culture, I wrote about three primarily modes of fan expression -- fan fiction, vidding, and filking. Of the three, the least research has been done to date, at least in fandom studies, about filking or for that matter, other genres of fan music such as Wizard Rock and Nerdcore. I gather that the concept of participatory culture is being taken up in various ways among researchers working on music education. I was thus surprised last year when I received an email from Sally Childs-Helton, one of the many filkers I corresponded with several decades ago when I was pulling together that chapter. She shared with me an article she had recently published about the contemporary filking scene for The Journal of Fandom Studies, and shared with me some reflections on how she was picking up her analysis where mine left off:

I used your chapter in Textual Poachers as my jumping-off point to see where filk has gone in the intervening years, and specifically to see what impact internet culture has had on the tradition.  I didn’t set out specifically to look at generational changes, but this came out strongly as a theme in my fieldwork and secondary research.  As one of your informants for the filk chapter, it also made sense for me to start there, and because there has been almost no work done on filk in 20+ years. Your chapter was published just as online culture was starting to take off.  I feel like my article documents filk at another transitional point, when Boomers are starting to age out of filk and Millennials are moving to other forms of geek and nerd music that do not value face-to-face interaction in the same way.  It was extremely useful for me personally and professionally to do this research because I deal with participatory media in higher education on a daily basis.  There are younger scholars doing excellent research on the relationships that Millennials have to geek and nerd and other fannish musics, and I look forward to reading their work.  It’s also spurred me on to do continued research about filk because the tradition offers a lot of insight into generational changes in preferences regarding how music is created and consumed, as well as the interplay of online and face-to-face communities.

Coming out of that correspondence, I wanted to share with my readers some of her insights about filk then and now and about why as someone who has been performing filk for most of her life she is just now integrating it into her professional life as an ethnomusicologist.

Filk is often described as the “folk music” of the fan community. In what ways is this an accurate or inaccurate description?

 

Filk, as it is now practiced, grew out of the simultaneous growth of the Folk Music Revival and science fiction and fantasy conventions (SF/F cons) in the 1950s and 1960s, though there was earlier informal singing done from song sheets (in the style of college song sing-alongs) at the earliest cons.  Science fiction fans who were also folk music fans began bringing their guitars to SF/F cons and sharing folk music with each other.  Soon folk tunes sprouted fannish lyrics, often parodic in nature.  As filk grew, people began writing original words and music, and filk began to spread beyond the original genre of folk music into all popular music genres.  So filk’s foundation is in the Folk Music Revival, though it has grown beyond the folk genre to include almost every popular music form and other genres as well.  Still, many filk songs are folk-based, or rely heavily on the structure of folk songs so they may be easily learned so everyone can participate. 

 

It is also a folk music in that it was traditionally shared (and still is today) in small, face-to-face groups.  Filkers most value the filk circle, in which everyone is welcome to perform, with the expectation that the main performer be joined (especially on choruses) by everyone in the room, while other people may add other instrumental parts, shtick (often choreographed hand or body movements), and even dancing.  Performers take turns leading songs, but the line between performer and audience is often eradicated, creating a communal music event.

 

Further, filk is a folk music in that it was traditionally spread by word-of-mouth or orally/aurally, with people learning songs from each other.  Early filkers also wrote down song texts in notebooks and recorded performances on cassette recorders to more easily learn songs.  Filk fanzines were created to spread filk lyrics, lyric books (often called filk hymnals) were printed and sold, and small press filk studios began releasing live recordings of music performed at cons in filk rooms, and later studio-produced recordings of individual filkers.  Now filkers share everything online using all forms of social media, but many still keep paper notebooks of songs, or have transferred them to tablet music software for ease of transport and access.  So filk began being shared, like all folk music, aurally and orally.  This is still happening, long after the advent of very inexpensive recording equipment, a cottage industry of filk recordings, and the many forms of sharing offered by the internet.

 

Early SF/F fandom was very much a folk activity in that it was face-to-face activity in small groups.  Cons were run by the fans themselves.  Filk still exists at almost exclusively fan-run cons, both general SF/F cons and filk cons.  As commercial cons developed around franchises (e.g. Star Trek, Dr. Who), there was no room for filk, though room was made for other fannish activities created during the earliest days of fandom, including costuming (now called cosplay), and in costume contests and hall costuming.  The role of music at these commercial cons has taken on a more commercial direction with the development of geek and nerd music (more on this later).  So filk is a folk activity in that it almost exclusively exists today at fan-run SF/F cons and is rarely found at commercial cons.

 

Can you describe the context(s) where filk music is most often performed? As scholars are more and more interested in what conditions may encourage cultural and social participation, what lessons might we take away from the structures that sustain the filk sing as a space of participatory music making?

 

As mentioned above, the traditional and most valued venue for filk music is in the filk room.  In the early days, this was often any empty hotel space a small group of proto-filkers could commandeer, including service hallways, stairwells, unlocked function rooms, and even service elevators.  Filkers began asking for their own programming space at cons, and the contemporary filk room was born.  Filkers often inhabit these rooms all night long, singing until breakfast.  When the group gets too large, or the music in the room takes a topical or mood turn some people don’t like, they simply leave and find another room or an empty hallway and continue singing.

 

As filk grew it began attracting more and more musicians, including professional and semi-professional players.  These people were soon asked to do concerts at general fan-run cons, and now most fan-run general and filk cons have programming tracks dedicated to filk concerts.  It is also common for filkers to provide the “half-time” entertainment during masquerade contests while the judges are out deliberating.  These concerts opened up the idea of filk to fans who have other fannish interests—gaming, costuming, literature, manga, anime, movie and TV shows, art, etc.—and even though these fans do not often enter a filk room, they provide enthusiastic audiences for filk performers.  Interestingly, many of the participatory behaviors found in the filk room carry over into the concert venue, and audience members are expected to sing along on choruses, engage in shtick, and dance.  There is more of a performer/audience divide, but still there is a participatory atmosphere.  Granted, audiences sing along and dance at rock concerts as well, providing a participatory element, but in the filk room the level of participation often crosses into real-time group co-creation.

 

Filking is also found at house filks in areas where there are enough filkers for people to gather occasionally to share music and community.  These have much in common with all forms of music house parties across many genres and around the world where people gather to share music, friendship, and food and drink.  We forget that until well into the 20th century all music was heard live because recorded music formats and radio and TV did not exist or were unaffordable by most.  There are places in the world yet today where this is the case.  There are also house concerts where someone will host a local or regional filker, or one passing through town.  Often admission is charged, or the hat is passed, to help pay the musician and to offset the costs of travel and hosting the musician.  House concerts are now common performance venues for indie musicians; for the cousins of filkers, geek and nerd musicians; and for other musicians with niche audiences.

 

As mentioned, filkers most value face-to-face venues for music making because it allows for full community participation that cannot yet be recreated online.  Yet filkers are also doing live concerts online and posting performances to YouTube.  There is still a strong market for small press filk recordings (CDs are still selling well), and more filkers are making their music available as downloads either for free or for sale.  While most filkers prefer their music live, these online and recorded media formats are considered better than not hearing filk music at all.

 

I have been pondering why cosplay, another form of fan creativity from the earliest days of SF/F fandom, has gone so mainstream that it is highly popular at fan-run and commercial cons; the SYFY channel even created the show Cosplay Mêlée.  Filk, on the other hand, will never see a TV show called Filk-Off.  The reason, I believe, is context.  While both costume and song creation can happen in private, both need audiences to appreciate the product.  Cosplayers can exhibit their creations by simply walking around the halls of a con, whereas filkers need dedicated space conducive to performing and auditing music.  Granted, I have seen mini-concerts set up near registration tables at cons to entertain people waiting in line.  But a crowded hotel hallway is no place for a lone filker to perform so that his or her music can be appreciated.  Thus the filk room and concert hall remain the idealized spaces and structures for participatory music making.           

 

Filk can be described as a subcultural practice, but some are arguing that many fannish and nerdish pursuits have become absolutely mainstream. Does fandom still need to define its identity as a community through developing distinctive forms of music and other creative expression?

 

Many scholars studying fandoms say everybody’s a fan of something (Go Cubs!).  With popular and social medias now so deeply entwined in people’s daily lives, I would agree that fannish and nerdish activities have become mainstream (witness the popularity of TV shows like Big Bang Theory, which celebrate nerd culture).  You can walk into any big box store and walk out with everything from t-shirts to guitars to duct tape to women’s underwear adorned with current popular media characters.  So in this way fannish culture has become totally normalized and commercialized.

 

But I believe this normalization has been an even greater motivation for people to continue creating their own distinctive and unique—not mass-produced—creative expressions based in the characters and stories they find most meaningful.  From the beginning of popular culture people have been finding ways to interact at a very personal level with fictional worlds, characters, and stories that resonate with them.  In the late 1800s people were writing music based on Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories.  Fans of early science fiction pulp magazines wrote fan fiction.  Grade school students remade the first Indiana Jones movie using consumer-grade video cameras.  So fans have been “poaching” for a very long time, and aren’t likely to stop.  There is a huge difference in the person who buys a cheap Darth Vader costume to wear to a Halloween party and the fan who spends his senior year of high school hand-building a costume and working an after-school job to afford the materials.

 

For me, this illustrates that there are distinct levels of fandom and commitment and engagement, as well as a need (or not) for creative expression.  Some fans are happy to attend a screening of Rogue One wearing a t-shirt they bought, while others have spent months creating a costume.  Some people will discuss the movie at the water cooler the next day, while others will write fan fiction or filk songs, or create paintings.  So some fans interact with a text mostly as consumers, while others interact at a very personal and creative level.  I’m not saying that the person who buys the t-shirt isn’t creative—she or he may be a master chef or woodworker—but that some fans will engage in deeply creative activities because a certain world or character or story is personally meaningful.  For some people, buying the t-shirt isn’t personally or creatively satisfying.  It’s the difference between a commercially produced and a self-made item.  It’s also the difference between the old fannish camps that still exist today and are labeled as the FIAWOLers (Fandom is a Way of Life) and the FIJAGDH faction (Fandom is Just a Goddamned Hobby).

 

I believe that certain people in SF/F fandom (almost always FIAWOLers) need to define their personal identities through activities specifically in community with other like-minded people.  They may be costumers, filkers, LARPers, gamers, fan fiction writers, etc., and they most often form communities both face-to-face and online.  The strongest communities seem to have a large face-to-face component, though the online activities of the community are important binders between face-to-face events.  It is easier for practitioners of some forms of fannish creativity to form satisfying communities online, like fan fiction writers, who can easily share and receive feedback quickly and broadly.  Other fannish activities are easier to appreciate in person.  For example, cosplayers want to see a costume up close, feel the material, see how it was constructed, and watch it move on the wearer.  This is impossible to do online.  The aesthetics of filk make it another community that needs to come together in person from time to time.

 

For some people, the opportunities for having their creative output appreciated are strongest in a particular fandom.  For example, my singer/songwriter husband had been writing intricate songs with dense and highly literate lyrics for years before we found SF/F fandom and filking.  He had been performing in coffee houses and other singer/songwriter venues, and the lyrics were going right over almost everyone’s heads.  The first time he performed in a filk circle every person got it, and there were mutterings of “Who IS this guy?  Where did he come from?”  Clearly, he had found his audience, the people who immediately understood and appreciated his music, even when it was not overtly on science fiction themes.

 

I believe most people need to express themselves creatively in some way, be it playing music, creating art, writing, cooking, styling hair, writing code, doing surgery, restoring historic homes, or the myriad ways in which human beings are creative.  We all need to find a community that appreciates our creativity, and for some people it’s the SF/F community.  Fandom doesn’t need to express itself through distinctive forms of music and other creative expressions, but individual people DO need to express themselves, and various fannish subcultures provide them with an appreciative and supportive community.    

 

Filk is an expansive category both musically and in terms of its content, so who determines whether a particular song constitutes filk and is appropriate to sing at such a gathering?

 

On the whole, filkers are an incredibly democratic, open-minded, and kind group, so the most common definition of filk is “anything you hear in a filk room.”  Often the lyrics have to do with SF/F and technological topics, but there are just as many lyrics that do not.  I’ve heard songs on topics as dissimilar as having a miscarriage to the contents of the singer’s kitchen junk drawer.  The simple answer to what determines if it’s filk or not is context and intent.  My favorite example is David Bowie’s tune “Space Oddity.”  Bowie never wrote it with the intention of it being filk; I doubt the man ever heard the word.  When astronaut Chris Hadfield performed “Space Oddity” from the International Space Station in 2013, he was certainly not performing it as filk.  But when it’s performed by a filker in the filk room or in a filk concert, it’s filk of a particular sort—found filk.  Many tunes from the geek and nerd music genre are also performed in the filk room and are considered filk in that context. 

 

Some professional and semi-professional musicians who also filk will do the same tunes during bar or coffee house gigs that they do in the filk room.  For example, the filk standard “Black Davie’s Ride” (performed here at a filk convention) is often performed by filkers who also play Celtic and Renaissance fair venues, where audiences hear a classic highwayman song.  When it’s performed in a filk setting, the context is much richer because listeners know the songwriter, that she passed away much too young, and they remember her and her other filk songs.  The context and intent are totally different at a Celtic fair versus the filk room. 

 

You are a veteran filk performer and composer, yet you’ve only recently started incorporating this knowledge and experience into your scholarship. Why have you kept these two aspects of your life separate for so long and what’s changed now?

 

When I was doing my M.A. and Ph.D. in ethnomusicology and folklore in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the general thinking was that researchers should not study their own cultures or subcultures because it created a lack of objectivity; researchers could miss vital things because they took them for granted, even though it was acknowledged that it also gave a person greater access to deeper understanding.  We were encouraged to study instead cultures or subcultures that were different from our own to ensure greater objectivity.  So part of my reticence came from the professional philosophy that existed when I was doing my graduate work. 

 

The more personal reason boiled down to professional ethics and integrity.  My husband and I did not enter the filk community as researchers but as members and practitioners.  As we were embraced by the filk community, I didn’t want people to think that I was there with the purpose of doing research or using them in any way.  We were starting to meet and make good friends from all over the U.S. and elsewhere around the world, and I was not willing to taint these relationships with any misunderstanding about why I was participating in the community.  The filk community is a very special and supportive place where people can grow as musicians and people.  The filk circle, in particular, is for many filkers almost sacred space where you come with good intentions, to offer the best you have, to help make a high-quality creative environment for everyone, and to offer support. 

 

I came into filk already a full-blown musician and performer at a time when many filkers were beginning or intermediate-level players.  For people who are at the beginning of their musical journeys, the filk room must be a safe place.  I was not willing to create even a whiff of an appearance that I would be breaking the trust of the filk circle in any way.  Less experienced musicians take huge personal risks every time they perform; it takes a lot of courage, especially for people who have had a lifetime of being told they aren’t musical or they aren’t creative.  As we first entered the community, I was also doing a lot of accompanying in therapeutic environments, in particular accompanying a dance and movement therapy class.  I quickly recognized the therapeutic aspects of the filk room, though it is much more than that.  So my professional integrity stopped me from actively studying filk, thought I will admit it was impossible to turn off my ethnomusicologist’s brain that was analyzing what I was seeing and hearing.  You hear about social scientists who “go native;” I ended up doing the opposite, being a native who “went academic.”  In 2003 my husband and I were inducted into the Filk Hall of Fame.  We didn’t realize we were to give speeches, so we spoke extemporaneously.  The speeches were recorded and transcribed as "This is My Tribe," which documents our relationship with the filk community, and why I was so reticent to do anything to break the community’s trust.

 

What motivated me to start writing about filk was an invitation to submit a paper for a special issue on music for the Journal of Fandom Studies.  I had been reading in popular culture and fandom studies all along, and was aware that fandom studies considers it a strength to conduct research as an insider; indeed, the idea of the “acafan” has been around for quite some while.  I’ve been in the filk community for over 30 years now and people know me as a mentor and supporter who often does workshops on various aspects of musicianship at cons.  I’ve earned the community’s trust and it knows how much I value it.  Over the past years the larger filk community has had a continuing discussion about how to attract younger generations, Millennials in particular, and what to do about the graying of filkdom as Baby Boomers are starting to age out.  The time seemed right for me to contribute both to fandom studies and to the filk community by conducting research on filk almost 25 years after your documentation of filk in Textual Poachers (for which I was an informant).  I let the community know what I was doing through online forums and at cons, and filkers who responded to my questionnaire and who gave me interviews were eager to participate.  So far I have only received positive comments about my research, and I intend to continue it with the community’s support.  There is much more to be said about research from the insider’s and outsider’s point-of-view, but I felt I finally reached a point where using my academic skills to study filk would be useful to the community, and I could do it without breaking its trust.        

 

Sally Childs-Helton, Ph.D., is an ethnomusicologist, percussionist, and archivist; she holds the rank of Professor at Butler University.  Away from university duties, she is active as a musician and facilitator who conducts drumming and improvisation workshops; performs with her husband Barry, eclectic Celtic band Wild Mercy, and the Thin Air improvising quartet; and accompanies choruses, dance, and theater.  She has been active in the filk community since 1984, was inducted into the Filk Hall of Fame in 2003, and has won several Pegasus Awards for Excellence in Filking.  Her current music research interests include musical fandoms, generational aspects of fandoms, and artistic sign language as musical expression.

How Young Activists Use Social Media for Social Change: A Transnational Perspective

I wrote this blog post for DML Central and it is being reposted here with their permission. 

Nabela Noor, a young American Muslim Youtube personality, was born of Bangladeshi parents and had developed a large following based on her make-up tutorials and fashion advice. Frustrated by what she saw as Islamaphobic discourse in American society, intensified by Donald Trump’s candidacy for president, she recorded and shared with her followers a powerful statement, “Dear America.”

 

Speaking directly to the camera, the 22 year old describes herself as “an American through and through” who is also a Muslim, shared the ways her schoolmates responded differently to her after 9/11, and discussed the chilling climate her family members faced as they went about their normal lives.

Sangita Shresthova, the research director for our USC-based Civic Paths group, encountered Noor’s story while writing an account of the political lives of American Muslim youths, who she suggests in our book, By Any Media Necessary: The New Youth Activism, are always already soaked in politics in post-9/11 America. They can choose to speak up or remain silent, but political meanings are going to be made of their lives either way. In Noor’s case, she had developed her voice by participating in a community of practice. One might argue that her work was always political insofar as providing beauty tips for brown women calls into question what counts as beauty in our culture. She had a platform and an audience. But, with this video, she learned to turn her voice toward participation in a larger political movement. One can see the transformation occur within the video itself — she starts out a little hesitant but by the end, she speaks with conviction and the video’s circulation brought it to the attention of a diverse set of audiences, many of whom learned new ways of thinking by watching her tell her own story to the camera.

Nick Couldry has described voice as the process of giving an account of oneself, one’s experiences, one’s perspectives, for the purpose of changing the hearts and minds of others. More and more young people around the world are finding and deploying their voices online though often, they are not heard because adult leaders are looking in the wrong places, do not understand their language, and are not prepared to hear what they have to say.  This confessional video format has proven effective in increasing visibility across a range of recent American social movements, especially the DREAMer movement for undocumented youth, as our book recounts.

Noor’s first attempt to speak out brought her into more direct political engagement: she was invited to ask a question of the Republican presidential candidates during a 2016 debate, she provided critical commentary on Fusion, and she worked on the Bernie Sanders campaign. In the course of our research, we’ve found many such stories as young people have turned to video sharing and social media sites to circulate their own stories and in the process, learned to deploy their voices toward political ends. Not every young person gets heard when they turn the camera on themselves and share their political perspectives with the world, but our research suggests such acts make vital contributions to today’s social change movements — from the DREAMers to Occupy Wall Street, from #blacklivesmatter to the women’s march.

I look forward to telling Noor’s story with Esra’a al Shafei, the Bahraini civil rights activist, when we have a public conversation next week at this year’s Digital Media and Learning conference. When I corresponded with her about this event, she shared some of her own story with me:

“I founded Majal.org in Bahrain as a student twelve years ago under the name Mideast Youth. We focused on advancing the rights of marginalized populations in our region and were largely driven and directed by the perspectives of our youth. As young people working for local social change, it was only natural to adopt and depend on new media to amplify oppressed and underrepresented voices.  We undertook campaigns to free political prisoners, to create self-sustaining protected spaces for LGBTQ Arab youth, encouraged political discourse through music with a platform for regional artists (Mideast Tunes), and more. All of these projects were made possible through the ingenuity of our youth and the most cutting-edge technology available at the time — because we felt that was our only weapon against the injustices we were all experiencing to various degrees daily. The internet offered us with limitless opportunities to advocate for change in our societies, but it was not without its challenges. Censorship and surveillance were huge obstacles, and in the cases of many of our teammates, continue to present immediate hazards. Though our organizational focus has since moved beyond the MENA region and we have since rebranded as Majal, our ethos and methods have remained the same. Our campaigns have real world impact though they are digitally-based, and though we’re a bit older now, we make an effort to view the web with young eyes. We are always on the lookout for the next way to connect with audiences, constantly iterating our platforms and creating more engaging ways to present our work and further our mission.”

 

Like many Americans, I still have much to learn about the conditions she faces in doing activist work in her region and like many Americans, I have stereotypes to overcome if we are to really be able to share lessons learned by young activists working in these two very different contexts. I have been spending more times in recent years trying to better understand Muslims, visiting mosques in India, Lebanon, Indonesia, and the United States, speaking with educators, journalists, activists, and media makers from the Arab world. But I recognize the limits of my own knowledge.

I certainly know that the “Arab Spring” movements were misreported by western media, understood primarily in terms of Twitter and Facebook revolutions, a frame that ignored the real organizing taking place on the grounds and in the streets in these countries. Our romanticization of these digital freedom fighters makes it harder for us to make sense of the conflicting reports we receive about the long-term impact of these social change movements.

I have been working with an Annenberg Ph.D. student, Yomna Elsayed, whose dissertation project focuses on the various ways internet comedy and music keep alive the prospects of change in her home country, Egypt, encouraging young people to remain skeptical of entrenched power and ready to mobilize for revolutionary change when the moment is right.  Esra’a al Shafei has similarly deployed cultural tools in her own effort to promote equality and social justice in her country — a musician herself, she helped to launch MidEast Tunes, a website and app calling attention to politically-engaged musicians from across the Middle East and North Africa.

Around the world, we are finding young people are frustrated with the tools and language of traditional politics, seeking new ways of expressing their desires for change that speak to and for others of their generation. We are finding young people constructing new forms of the civic imagination, using the resources of popular culture to help them articulate what a better future might look like.

Writing for the Huffington Post earlier this year, Esra’a al Shafei offered a few perspectives as a human rights activist directed at those western companies that owned the platforms and tools she and her countryfolk use to challenge their governments:

“As new citizen media from protests and conflicts is uploaded and shared across the web, emerging and existing platforms must prove they are committed to hosting valuable citizen-generated content with attention to its safekeeping and integrity, careful archiving of media in a way that is searchable and accessible, and no monetary cost to promote visibility. Likewise, we as a global community must safeguard and support those who take risks by sharing this evidence, allowing for anonymity and employing enhanced digital security. Only continued innovation geared towards the needs of the communities generating this evidence will ensure citizen media’s full potential for bringing about awareness, action and justice.”

She described the needs for new technologies designed with the needs of global human rights activists at their center, citing her own CrowdVoice.Org, as an example of how crowd-sourcing and crowd-verifying tools can better serve the needs of social movements.

The first wave of excitement about digital politics has passed, maybe even the second wave has bit the dust, and there are many reasons for skepticism, if not cynicism, about whether social media platforms enables users to challenge entrenched authority and change the world. But, it would be a mistake if we denied the reality that social change is happening differently now as a consequence of the generation that has come of age with the web and has experimented with how its platforms and practices might be deployed in struggles for human rights and social justice. The internet may not have changed everything, but it has definitely changed many things about the way politics operates in the 21st century, and youth have been on the front lines of this process.

This is why a conversation like the one we will be having at this year’s DML conference seems so urgent: because we can learn much by looking at the process by which young people, working in different political and cultural contexts around the world, are being introduced into social movements through their cultural participation, the ways they are finding their voice and learning to spread their messages, the ways they are organizing and rallying for change. As young people across the United States are becoming more “woke” to the conditions impacting their lives, we need to consider what social movements around the world can learn from each other — what tools they share, what practices they deploy, what dangers they face, and what motivates their engagement and participation. I will be coming into this exchange with a lot of questions; I am hoping the DML community will bring questions of their own, since above all, we need to listen and learn.

Bringing Fan Fiction Into the Classroom: An Interview with Francesca Coppa (Part Three)

HJ: Often, the claim is made that the power of fan fiction lies in our ability to imagine many different versions of the same characters and situations. For the most part, you stick here with one story per fandom, though some stories do show multiple conceptions of the characters. How might educators help to communicate the importance of this diversity in the classroom?

 

FC:  Oh, you don’t know how it hurt to only pick one story per fandom!  Believe me, I’m fully aware that it’s wrong: as I say in the preface to the book, it’s like eating one Pringle, one Dorito, or one Oreo--and you can’t eat one potato chip unless you’re some kind of monster! It’s why I was biased toward “5 things” stories and others where a multiplicity of interpretation is built in. And then I caved and put together a unit of three Harry Potter stories, figuring that could be a model for teachers and students to emulate if they wanted to. But there’s no way that this book could be anything but the barest scratching of the surface of fic; I’ve tried to be super clear that it is in no way a canon. Ideally this book is seen, as Steph Burt described it in the New Yorker, as an “on-ramp” to fanfiction, not a final destination!

 

HJ:  Fan fiction, as you note, is embedded within the conversations of the fan community, and we often face the challenge as educators that most of our students do not know the source material well enough to really appreciate the transformative uses fans make of it. You provide rich notes in front of each story designed to partially address these concerns, but they remain limitations anytime we bring fan fiction into the classroom. Thoughts?

 

FC:  It’s true; I’ve had the most success teaching fanworks as part of general transmedia courses where I’m also teaching at least some of the source material. So for instance, in my course Sherlock, James, and Harry, my students consider fanworks after exposure to both the textual canon and to professional adaptations: movies, TV shows, video games, etc.  In courses where I don’t have time or it’s not appropriate to teach source texts, I’ve found it useful to take a poll and see what students are actually familiar with: I’m often surprised.  One year, the Sherlock Holmes adaptation that the greatest number of students was familiar with was House--so great, I showed House vids!  I’ve had classes where nobody could identify Severus Snape. This is why I went for the biggest ongoing franchises I could think of: Star Trek, James Bond, Doctor Who, Harry Potter. Game of Thrones is the biggest show in the world right now, but will undergrads know it in a year, or in three? (Keep in mind those students are fourteen now; they’re probably not even allowed to watch it.) But Star Wars is back and is likely to be around for some time!

 

HJ:  Much work on fan fiction has stressed that it provides a space for its mostly female readers and writers to think through issues of gender and sexuality together. There has been growing debate in recent years about how well fan fiction has operated as a space for thinking about race, ethnicity and cultural difference. What do you see as the strengths and limits of fan fiction’s response to the more diverse cast of a franchise like Star Wars, which you use as your concluding example in the book?

 

FC:  It’s great that we’re finally talking more about race and trying to deal with racism in Hollywood and in fandom internally. There are some exciting academic projects on the horizon too, including a special issue of TWC on Fans of Color, Fandoms of Color edited by Gail De Kosnik and andré carrington. I do think that it’s particularly hard to talk about race in fanfiction because, as as genre, fanfiction is so embodied and identificatory and personal, and so often explicitly sexual. Fandom knows that there’s power involved in writing fanfiction: that it’s about taking control of a character and changing them as well as identifying with them. But, as in the theatre, as in transmedia, it’s precisely by having lots of different people engage with and inhabit a character that the character becomes iconic and broadly meaningful. So we need to find a way through. In the case of The Force Awakens, not only did we have the first juggernaut slash pairing of color in Finn/Poe (also called stormpilot), but we also we saw female fans identifying with Finn as a revolutionary figure--as someone who has consciously defied power and resistedboth his own oppression (Finn is basically a slave) and his role as a cog in a machinery that oppresses others (Finn is also a stormtrooper). So Finn’s narrative really spoke to fans in terms of race and gender both and promoted a broad and multivalent fannish identification with him. We see this on display in LullabyKnell’s story, “The Story of Finn,” in which an entire community is radicalized by Finn’s actions: he is a figure of liberation, inspiring an elaborate folk culture (a fandom, really) as well as an underground railroad for other escaping stormtroopers. And finding unusual and delightful points of identification like this is what fandom does best.

Francesca Coppa is Professor of English at Muhlenberg College and a founding member of the Organization for Transformative Works (OTW), the nonprofit which built and runs the Archive of Our Own. She writes in the fields of dramatic literature, performance studies, and fan studies, and is currently writing a book about fan music video. She is a passionate advocate of fair use.

Bringing Fan Fiction Into the Classroom: An Interview with Francesca Coppa (Part Two)

HJ: Your book is organized around specific fandoms but also around distinctive genres of fan fiction writing which cut across fandoms. The status of genres in fan fiction always interest me, since some would argue that genres are commercial categories and sometimes depicted as constraints on the creative process. What insights do you get into how and why genres persist in fandom as a result of your process of mapping the territory to be covered in this book?

 

FC:  Genres are fascinating, I agree! In the case of fandom, I think that genres are a way of naming the things we like and giving new fanfiction writers a structure for reproducing them. So a fan says, I like slash, I like het, I like long, plotty gen; I like bodyswaps; this story is an mpreg crackfic. That naming also helps us sort through the huge wash of fanfiction that’s produced. That said, the AO3’s tagging system has really put all this labelling onto a new level, moving beyond fannish genres to a really granular listing of storytelling ingredients. I’ve talked about AO3’s curated folksonomy with professional librarians and archivists, and Casey Fiesler did a fantastic paper on the AO3as “A Case Study of Feminist HCI and Values in Design,” which describes how our tagging prioritizes inclusivity and user control. In this era of triggers and warnings, fandom is again ahead of the curve: fans don’t just categorize by genre but also create elaborate content labels for fic both as a way of both attracting the readers who’ll want what’s on offer and warning away the ones who don’t (and the AO3 also provides options to conceal this information from those whose first preference is to be surprised.) Most of the genres in the book are well established: crossovers and 5 Things and racebending and a very meta Mary Sue. That said, I had a definite bias toward stories that incorporated multiple interpretations within themselves, so a teacher could draw out that contrast. If I got to do a Fanfiction Reader: Volume II, I’d love to do two or three long stories that have a lot of elaborate worldbuilding: those kinds of stories are sadly absent from this book.

 

HJ:You define fan fiction, in part, as “fiction produced outside the literary marketplace.” How is this aspect of the definition changing as more and more fan fiction writing women are going pro or at least being courted as potential Pro writers following the success of 50 Shades of Grey? Does the commercial interest have implications long term for fan fiction regardless of whether any particular writer does or does not want to stay outside the marketplace?

 

FC: Well, fans have always gone pro, and some fans have always already been pro. What’s new is that more people are willing to admit writing in both worlds. And what we’ve seen is that many working writers also write fic precisely because they want to keep making things outside the marketplace - because it’s fun!  Another new thing is the publication of original work that shares some of fanfiction’s literary values and aims to produce a similar range of emotions: I’m thinking about, say, C.S. Pacat’s Captive Prince trilogy (which are much better books than the 50 Shades books, IMO!) While Kindle Worlds was a scam that fans were rightfully wary of, Amazon’s self-publishing arm has let some fans sell their queer science fiction or werewolf erotica. Literary agents (many themselves fans) are soliciting work from their favorite fan writers. I think that’s all great; I’m 100 percent down with fans also writing for the marketplace if they want to, though realistically most things aren’t going to sell because most things just don’t sell.  

 

That said, I am not in favor of commercializing fanwork itself, whether through Kickstarter or Patreon or whatever; that’s the edge I fear, to be honest. I’m not against it for legal reasons - I think transformative works can be sold in certain contexts; witness this book! - but just because I think it’s bad for fannish art and bad for our culture. Money changes things and people make different things for money. Fandom is a place where people work together for love--but it’s different if at the end one person is cashing a check. It can poison relationships. Just to say: it was important to me with The Fanfiction Reader that all the stories remain online as they’ve always been, free to read. The authors didn’t get paid other than a trib copy; I didn’t get paid, either, and I’m donating the book’s royalties to OTW. So it’s a labor of love all around.

 

HJ: The term, “transformative use,” has really taken roots in fandom over the last decade or so, thanks in part to your work at the Organization for Transformative Works. There are some differences between the legal, academic, and grassroots understanding of this concept. But, at a core level, there’s some interesting friction between long-standing traditions within fandom which measure the value of a story based on how firmly grounded it is in the source text and a newer definition that stress what it changes or transforms as evidence of its creative contribution. How are fan writers today working through these competing pulls on their work?

 

FC:  Well, some fidelity to canon is important because that’s why we care: we read fanfiction because we have a pre-existing relationship to a story and its characters. But transformation is important because that’s the intervention that makes a fanfiction story worth reading: that’s how you fix things in the universe: alter and tailor and extend the story for your needs and those of your readers. So if you don’t recognize the characters, then it’s what slash fans call an “any two guys” story (which is the worst insult!) There’s no investment in the characters. But if you don’t transform the characters and the story, then you’re not satisfying your readers’ needs. You might as well just watch the original movie again, or go read a tie-in novel that colors within clear lines. Remarkably little fic actually replicates the source in terms of style or genre: like, go check out some Sherlock. Almost none of it has Sherlock solving mysteries! Captain America almost never fights supervillains or alien invaders. If you want that, go read a comic book: there’s plenty of that story out there already. We want to see Cap talk to Kim Kardashian at a party. Or  fight for workers’ rights.

 

HJ:  I have struggled a bit with your suggestion that “fan fiction is speculative fiction about characters rather than about the world.” For me, characters are part of how we define worlds, and conversely, for many fan writers, characters are defined in part by how they were shaped by the worlds they inhabit. Sure, we can write AU stories which move characters into different worlds, but these are as often as not about how these character’s lives and personalities would take different forms under different circumstances. Reactions?

 

FC:  Yes, I see what you mean; in some ways it’s a false distinction, in that worlds produce characters and characters produce worlds. For me, though, it’s like what happens in theatre, how a character becomes richer for being embodied by many different actors in different productions. We see something analogous with transmedia characters like Sherlock Holmes, who has been played by so many different people in so many settings. He’s been in World War II, contemporary London, Brooklyn, Harlem, he’s a mouse, he’s in the 22nd century, he’s a Muppet, he’s House--and yet he must still be Sherlock Holmes. The different worlds are typically interesting only to the extent to which they showcase and complicate the character; they’re not typically interesting in themselves, or innovative the way that speculative fiction worlds so often are. Sometimes fandom does invent interesting worlds, which often become tropes: I’m thinking of something like the A/B/O (Alpha/Beta/Omega) stories which invented an entirely new system of gender.  But then the fun is putting your favorite characters into that world and seeing who they are: so if it’s a Supernatural story, who’s the alpha, who’s the beta, who’s the omega?  But the characterization in fanfiction is almost always innovative; say what you like, you typically don’t see fanfiction characters outside of fanfiction. They’re still too unusual for prime time: queer or ace or pregnant or elves or socialists or winged or telepathic or werewolves or into bondage or what have you, even though in life, of course, real people are--all right, fine, not telepathic or winged or werewolves (mostly), but a lot more than the mass media lets us see.  (Even if you want to say that fanfiction characters are feminized, girly - in some undefinable way like girls - well, half the damn world is girls, so I say: bring it. It’s not the same old thing anyway.) And in fanfiction, our characters get even more interesting as we get deeper inside them, which we do because it’s prose and not a more external medium like film, television or theatre. We’re interested not just in a character’s actions and dialogue, but in their innermost thoughts and desires. That’s different than traditional speculative fiction, which tends to focus on confronting the external rules of a world rather than the endless internal landscape of the self. But fans are interested in subtle shadings of character and also in suggesting multiplicities and possibilities within the self. So there’s more than one kind of transformative work going on here, I think!

 

HJ: Real Person Slash was once one of the major taboos within fandom. Many had asked me not to mention the genre in Textual Poachers and I kept that trust. But now, it has become widespread and you even include an example in your collection. How do we account for this change? Are there any remaining taboos amongst fan fiction writers?

 

FC:  Yeah, the boat on Real Person Fic has pretty much sailed, at least for overtly performative celebrities: those who seem to be obviously telling a story about themselves through the entertainment media. It’s still not done to show that kind of work to the celebrities in question, though, and fans resent it when non-fans do it on talk shows to have a bit of a laugh at the celebrity’s (or fandom’s) expense. Right now we’re also having a flare up about darkfic, rapefic, and other genres that depict behaviors that everyone agrees are wrong in real life. Some fans tend to feel that any representation of rape, violence, child abuse etc. is wrong; others feel that writing (and even enjoying) these “problematic” genres can be a way of working through personal traumas; still others feel like you shouldn’t have to profess a history of abuse before writing or enjoying what are clearly fantasy scenarios. I’m anti-censorship and pro caveat lector, but I lived through Tipper Gore and the ‘80s and I don’t think sane people do terrible things because of Judas Priest or the Hydra Trash Party. The AO3 provides tools that help responsible people avoid seeing content that disturbs them. That said, this is an argument that probably has to come up in feminist circles at least once every couple of years, and it’s not a bad thing to have it, I guess, just as a moment of community reflection about speech and art and power and responsibility.

Francesca Coppa is Professor of English at Muhlenberg College and a founding member of the Organization for Transformative Works (OTW), the nonprofit which built and runs the Archive of Our Own. She writes in the fields of dramatic literature, performance studies, and fan studies, and is currently writing a book about fan music video. She is a passionate advocate of fair use.