Hot Spot 5: By Any Media Necessary


Henry Jenkins introducing “By Any Media Necessary,” the Spring 2014 Civic Paths Hotspot Vimeo.

Hot Spot Overview: “By Any Media Necessary”

By Liana Gamber-Thompson 

How do we foster a civic imagination? That’s the question Professor Henry Jenkins asks us to consider in his video intro. Of course, there is no one answer to that question. That’s why we’ve kept the topic broad for this Hot Spot, our semesterly collection of mini-blog posts organized around themes that cut across the diverse interests of participants in our research group.

We’re calling this collection of posts “By Any Media Necessary” because it gets at the myriad ways that social and political change happen in the age of digital media. Henry explains:

At the heart of the phrase “By Any Media Necessary” we’re building upon Malcolm X’s famous phrase “by any means necessary,” but we’re saying today change will come, not through a single media platform, but by the ability to coordinate your message across many different channels, to reach many different publics with multiple messages, all serving some shared vision of what political change needs to be.

In that spirit, we invite you to explore the multiplicity with us through this collection of posts that touches on many interpretations of what it means to effect change “by any media necessary.”

First, Andrew Schrock draws parallels to previous generations of “ethical engineers” to describe how “civic hackers” attempt to bring about institutional change through community-based work and technological production. He argues that civic hacking serves as a mode of political participation closer to civic engagement than hacker cultures aligned with activism or software production.

Diana Lee looks at the recent “I, Too, Am Harvard” Tumblr campaign to shed light on the ways young people are using online spaces and new media platforms to take a stand against their everyday lived experiences of racism as well as institutionalized structures of inequality.

Kari Storla examines how survivors of rape are using a variety of media forms to talk about their experiences of sexual assault and to communicate about a subject matter that is often rendered invisible in public discourse and cultural representations. She considers how humor is employed to open up conversations about rape and rape culture.

Neta Kligler-Vilenchik provides her account of a recent workshop, “Think Critically, Act Creatively,” at the 2014 Digital Media and Learning conference. She draws on her experiences to think about how tapping into our civic imaginations and engaging in acts of “critical utopianism” can broaden our conceptions of what’s possible for social change.

Raffi Sarkissian shares several case studies of queer activism and shows us how the web is just one arena in which queer-identified and LGBT youth are exerting their voice and garnering visibility. He looks at both on and offline strategies used in contemporary queer activism, urging us to look at the variety of ways LGBT youth are asserting their influence.

Lastly, Yomna Elsayed describes the shifting nature of popular representations of American Muslims, examining their reception both within and without the Muslim community. From the appearance of a veiled Muslim woman in a Super Bowl Coca-Cola ad, to one Muslim woman’s attempt to normalize her experiences as a “Muslim Hipster,” she describes how such representations, however fraught, continue to broaden the national conversation about Muslims in America.

We hope this collection inspires you to think critically about what a kind of activism that relies on “any media necessary” might look like in 2014. As always, we welcome your thoughts and feedback in the comments section because we believe you can’t have a theory of change unless it’s also constantly growing and evolving.


“Think Critically, Act Creatively”: A workshop on civic imagination

(Part of the Hot Spot series “By Any Media Necessary”)

By Neta Kligler-Vilenchik


“Mind=blown” – this is the way that @n0anch0r, one of the participants in the “Think Critically, Act Creatively” workshop at the Digital Media & Learning (DML) Conference in Boston, described his experience. @n0anch0r wasn’t alone. @laurenthebird tweeted:


As a not-completely-objective, but still external, observer, I can only agree with their judgment. In my years of attending academic conferences, I have never seen people so enthusiastic and excited. Who would have thought what a kick a group of community organizers, educators, and academics investigating digital media would get from imagining the world in 2044, writing a scenario set in that world, and performing it in under one minute?

The “Think Critically, Act Creatively” workshop was devised by my colleagues Sangita Shresthova and Gabe Peters-Lazaro of the Media, Activism and Participatory Politics project, in collaboration with Susu Attar and Ilse Escobar, community partners, artists, and activists. The conceptualization of this workshop derives from our multi-year examination of diverse youth-driven communities which translate socially and culturally-based affinities into civic and political engagement. Groups like The Harry Potter Alliance, Nerdfighters, DREAM Activists, Libertarian Youth, and American Muslim youth, have all taught us important lessons on the role of cultural appropriation, storytelling and remixing, deploying metaphors from popular culture, and drawing on strong social ties. The workshop is an attempt to translate some of these lessons into a format that can be used in both in-school and out-of-school contexts, to reach a wide variety of youth. The goal of the workshop is to imagine a future world in which social inequality can be solved, as a way of sparking youth’s civic imagination. So far, versions of the workshop have been piloted with participants in the Muslim Youth Group Leadership Academy and with the CDF Freedom School. At DML, this was the team’s first attempt to bring the workshop to a variety of educators and academics and get their reactions (with the added challenge of conducting a workshop planned for several days over 90 minutes!). My role as supporter and live-tweeter enabled me to observe the process and share not only my impressions, but those of other participants through their tweets.

The workshop started with an icebreaker that enabled participants to immediately create media. Using Mixbit, an app for video creation, each participant was recorded expressing their one-word response to a one-word provocation. Having barely stepped into the room, participants could already see themselves on the screen along with other participants.

Participants were already excited about this format:

In the description of the rationale of the workshop—a world-building exercise, in which you imagine a world and find the story in it—I was particularly struck by the words of Susu Attar: “Don’t be limited by the imagination of who you are”. The first group activity was to collectively imagine the world in 2044, which is a world without borders. We brainstormed what such a world might look like, in terms of government, communication, or agriculture. Some of the ideas included: flying shoes, apparition, universal translators, intimate relationships with robots, and downloadable food.

Next, workshop participants were divided into small groups of around five to six participants. Each group was to come up with a narrative that was set in our imaginary 2044. The groups received some creative constraints: the story should include a main character, some conflict, a pivotal moment of how this situation came to be, and a resolution. Gabe talked about the importance of creative constraints in enabling productive creativity.

After ten minutes of writing their narratives, the groups received new instructions: their stories should be performed, in any way, in under one minute. Susu explained: particularly for youth, performance helps them to break out of their shells, and say things they might not otherwise. Plus, it cracks everyone up!

And crack everyone up they did! The groups’ performances were imaginative, thought-provoking, and funny. Above all, everyone was having a blast.



After the groups’ performances, we discussed how principles of improvisational theatre are useful in thinking about digital citizenship. This was also the time for participants to share their impressions of the workshop. Quite surprisingly for the context of a conference on digital media, several participants shared how liberating it felt to put their devices aside and to connect with each other on an interpersonal level. Another participant shared the excitement his group felt – like a bunch of kids – and pondered on how impactful creativity can be. Many of the educators and organizers in the room were already devising ways of bringing this activity “to the youth back home”.

In the wrap-up to the workshop, Henry Jenkins linked us back to the idea of the civic imagination. The workshop, he explained, is an exercise in critical utopianism – imagining what the world could be like, examining where we are now, and then devising the steps that take us from here to there.

As for me, I can only thank the workshop organizers and all the participants for such an electrifying experience. #DML 2044, coming soon to a youth space near you!

And… long live the Lasagna Revolution!


 …Check out all tweets coming out of the workshop – #DML2044…



It Gets Local: Varied Approaches to Queer Youth Activism

(Part of the Hot Spot series “By Any Media Necessary”

By Raffi Sarkissian

Queer visibility in the media has come a long way. LGBT rights awareness and activism also seems to be on a fluctuating but steady climb to increasing education, acceptance, and inclusion. While much of these changes can be attributed to an increasingly connected and networked world online, the work being done to bring communities together is also paralleled by the local activism, offline spaces, and lived experiences and circumstances of LGBTQ lives, particularly queer youth.

LGBT and queer-identified individuals have a strong history with the web. Usually among the first to jump on new media and technology, sexual minorities gravitate toward safe and discreet spaces for communication. During times of minimal to invisible media exposure, when the risks of being out in one’s offline world were too high, particularly for queer youth, the web offered those with access a means to connect, to come out, to create, to congregate, and even organize for social and political activism.[1]

While message boards, online journals, social media, and YouTube had become vital spaces for queer youth to assert their voice, it wasn’t until a string of gay teen suicides in September 2010 made national headlines that the lives of queer youth suddenly became more visible and more vulnerable. Due to the reactionary It Gets Better Project, there was a heightened focus on the well-being of at-risk queer youth and some concerted efforts to address the issues of bullying and institutional homophobia. 5_raffi6Yet, much of this discourse did not involve queer youth. In fact, among the critiques of the It Gets Better Project was that youth voices were invoked but largely invisible, especially in the videos that gained the most mainstream media traction (celebrities, politicians, and corporations all “speaking to” queer youth). These well-intentioned messages of hope nonetheless implicated a gap – between relating to being a queer or ostracized teen and offering themselves as proof that it gets better. As many quickly took the project to task, questions surfaced about the now, about current circumstances of queer youth, about education, change, and activism. Where were the voices of queer youth?[2]

Whereas the affordances of online resources and community play a vital role in issues pertaining to queer youth voice and advocacy, my preliminary research has revealed that the local and offline worlds are still places where queer youth are doing a great deal of organizing. Some of these mobilized groups use media and technology as tools (not goals) among their other resources to bring about change and affect the condition of queer lives on the ground. For the remainder of this post, I want to highlight a few of these queer youth-led local organizations that are doing grassroots mobilizing and open a conversation about varying uses of media and communication. Finally, I will come back to It Gets Better and the work of its offshoot project It Gets Better Tour, which is now a traveling stage show, reaching out and engaging with queer youth in local cities across the country.

Queer Youth Space

5_raffi2Highlighting the challenges of finding safe local queer spaces that are not bars or clubs (inaccessible to under 18 and 21 youth), Queer Youth Space (QYS) emerged as a goal, a community, and an ideal when hundreds of youth in Seattle, Washington came together in 2010 to address the issues and needs of queer youth. After two years of searching, QYS found and claimed their spot at 911 E. Pike Street, Capital Hill in Seattle.[3]  Their mission, however, was never confined to physical boundaries. While not a medium in the traditional audiovisual sense, space operates here as both a place and an idea and is constitutive of and constituted in expression and activism. As expressed on the group’s facebook page:

“This project is now and will forever be a rebellion, an uprising, a mutiny… As “queer” exists beyond all boundaries, so do we. Our pace is a kind of space that lies not so much within narrow physical confines, such as a building or a room, but rather wherever and whenever we claim space for ourselves and for the people around us. It follows us wherever we go, it manifests itself wherever we are.”

While the need for an actual physical space for coming together is self-evident in the group’s activities over the years, the above statement reveals that for this group of teens, space operates beyond the physical – and beyond the virtual for that matter – and is taken up, much like the feminist credo, “the personal is political,” when and where queers assert themselves.

Out Now

5_raffi5According to their website, Out Now originated in 1995 – well before the prominence of web 2.0 and political organizing online – as a weekly support group for LGBT youth from the larger Springfield, MA area. Since then, Out Now has grown into a non-profit with an advisory board, staff, and a growing list of campaigns and programs aimed at the local community. Among their activities, Out Now hosts a weekly poetry/spoken word workshop (Breathing Fire, Spitting Verse) for youth (under 22 years of age) that seeks to “empower LGBTQA to harness the power of words and the power of their own voices to engage with their experiences, to heal, to define and reclaim their identities, thus speaking themselves into existence.” Much like space in the previous group, voice and speech here are the operative tools used to assert their identities, a sense of queer activism for many youth. Out Now also puts on “Our Liberation!,” an interactive performance workshop that utilizes Theater of the Oppressed techniques that engage both actors and spectators working together to find ways of combating realities of peer abuse, violence, and harassment.


BreakOUT is a New Orleans-based youth organization focused on ending the criminalization of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and questioning youth in an effort to establish safety and justice in New Orleans. They use a combination of offline and online social media tactics to counter discrimination, particularly NOPD’s abusive treatment of queer youth of color. On-the-ground efforts include community education training and campaigns (#KnowYourRights), building coalition through attending conferences, and mobilizing with allied organizations and campaigns (such as Congress of Day Laborers andOrleans Parish Prison Reform Coalition). They also use online and social media outlets to spread knowledge and bring focused attention to the problems facing queer youth in New Orleans. Check out their video for the “We Deserve Better” campaigns below and their successful campaign to bring actress (Orange is the New Black) and transgender activist Laverne Fox for a visit.


It Gets Better Tour

Finally, I want to come back to the It Gets Better Tour, a collaborative project put together by the Gay Men’s Chorus of Los Angeles, Speak Theater Arts, and It Gets Better. This incarnation takes ideas, themes, and responses to the online video phenomenon and incorporates them into a traveling stage show and community outreach program with stops in cities from Ogden, Utah to Houston, Texas, Whitewater, Wisconsin and many more. Written and directed by Liesel Reinhart, the It Gets Better Tour blends music, theater, and multimedia for an original production that addresses issues related to the lives and experiences of queer youth. In addition to the performance, each tour stop includes several days of meeting and workshopping with the local community, high schools, and colleges, engaging with and learning from youth. While this project was not conceived and implemented by youth, it is worth noting that the tour is certainly a step towards building dialogue and coalition between adults and youth by moving beyond distant messages of hope and engaging with youth at the local level. The end-product of these stops yet again reveal the power inherent in mobilized and empowered youth (like collaborating with Lawrence, Kansas middle school kids to produce this PSA). Check out a full log of their first tour stop in Iowa City, Iowa here.

The unifying medium for this iteration of the It Gets Better Project is undeniably its incorporation of music and performance. Song resonates affectively and becomes a way not only to speak to but more importantly work with youth. Like space, voice, and more strategic organizing, it becomes yet but another form of media that is used for outreach, community, and social and political action. Media here is not invoked as the traditional mass communication channels we more often associate it with, but a means for communication nonetheless. The brief cases provided in this post have not been aimed at diminishing the role and uses of traditional or online media as ways to affect change, but trying to broaden the scope of the tools at our disposal, and more particularly, the ways queer youth are participating in social and political activism. As these cases reveal, queer youth are not silent and are not passive; often they are proactive. Just because all their efforts don’t live online does not mean they are invisible. These groups demonstrate that the web and technology are among the many tools at their disposal to organize, mobilize, or simply assert their identities.

I urge readers to add, expand, and complicate this post by sharing (in the comments below) more ways queer youth are using media to assert their identities, to build communities, to combat violence and discrimination, and to affect change.


[1] For more on queer users’ uptake of web resources and technology, check out Larry Gross’s article, “Gideon Who Will be 25 in the Year 2012: Growing Up Gay Today” in the International Journal of Communication (2007) ; also check out Christopher Pullen and Margaret Cooper’s edited volume on LGBT Identity and Online New Media for a variety of chapters on LGBT uses of the Internet and Youtube (Routledge: New York, 2010).

 [2] This is not to say that there weren’t queer youth who were engaged and active in these issues. In addition to cases in the post, youth-led campaigns like Make It Better and Reteaching Gender and Sexuality offered some albeit less visible counter-balance to the apparent absence of queer youth voices in the mainstream media. And, of course, GSA Network has long been a vital resource for connecting and empowering queer youth in California and increasingly across the nation.

[3] As of March 2014, the facebook page for QYS revealed that they will be moving out of their current space and on the search for another.



Coke-Flavored Diversity and Veiled Hipsters

(Part of the Hot Spot series “By Any Media Necessary”

By Yomna Elsayed

This year, Coca Cola aired a 60 second ad during the Super Bowl stirring a controversy that extended far beyond the football game. The commercial ostensibly celebrated America’s diversity in the different languages of American immigrants and featured — to the surprise of many Muslims including myself — a fleeting image of a veiled Muslim woman. 5_yomna1But, perhaps it was the intermingling of neo-liberal for-profit corporate goals with the social cause of acceptance and celebration of diversity that sat uneasy with me, at least until the uproar started. Ironically, the ad that was supposed to celebrate America’s diversity ended up showing the not-so-tolerant side of white conservative America, whereby “America the Beautiful” can and must only be sung in English. That was the time when I decided suppress my anti-corporate cynical take on it. I decided not to speak about it because, irrespective of the double barreled tactics of the company, I do desire a change in media representation of Muslim minorities even if it is a fleeting corporate sponsored representation!

This was not the first time that Muslim inclusion in an ad campaign causes such an uproar. Recently, a company selling anti-snoring products featured a real US-soldier and his face-veiled Muslim wife as an unlikely couple kept together by the anti-snoring product. The ad was described by some as offensive and an insult to the military. Another uproar started when a video titled “Mipsterz: Muslim Hipsters” went viral on the internet. Co-producer Layla Shaikley relates: “I was sick of telling ‘my story.’ Every time I did, I was contending with Islamphobes and terrorists alike, who had equally hijacked the popular narrative about Muslims. So I tried to [do] something else: creative action.” According to Shaikley, the video featured a couple dozen Muslim women in veils “showcasing their fashion sensibilities and having a good time. Whether biking, laughing, or just hanging out, the people in the video were asked to be themselves when they were not shot candidly”. The subjects in the video ranged from “an Olympian fencer to a Harvard Dental School student to an attorney” to herself.


Unsurprisingly, Mipsterz too sparked debate, but not only among the American mainstream who were the main target of the video, but also among the Muslim community itself. According to Shaikley, who was surprised by the uproar, “[r]eactions ranged from awesome to objectifying, from liberating to professionally hot, from saying we were proudly American to accusing us of stripping ourselves of authentic Eastern substance, from inclusive to fat-shaming, from shattering stereotypes to perpetuating new ones.” The video was criticized for representing only a sub-section of Muslim women, for focusing on fashion and a Western lifestyle, and for not representing all socioeconomic classes (Shaikley, 2014, Chaudry, 2014). The questions of who represents what and how were raised by the same under-represented Muslim minority complaining of lack of representation. According to Rabia Chaudry, the video was accused of being “too American!” The work was not merely received as a subjective work of art – as a personal story of the lives of some Muslim women “somewhere in America” – but was overburdened with the onus of representing Islam, Muslims and Muslim women from every racial and socioeconomic class (Chaudry, 2014).

However, the question remains as to how effective such ads and videos are in changing long-held convictions and attitudes? Aren’t they merely a superficial representations that would collapse at the first remembrance of the September 11th events —in which Muslims and Christians alike were victims to a terrorist mentality capable of turning any religious text into war-sanctioning decrees? Is TV representation enough to alter a status quo or is it a mere reflection of that status quo? Can we say that the media representation of African Americans changed attitudes about racism in society? According to a Topos Partnership report on black males’ media representations, “[d]espite the widely held idea that racism has become socially unacceptable, large percentages of the population harbor very traditional prejudiced views in which Black males tend more than non-blacks toward violence, criminality, irresponsibility, hypersexuality, and so on” (p. 31). So, on whose shoulders lay the responsibility of altering the status quo?

The trouble with representations lies in the fact that they will never be immaculate and will never please everyone. They are usually subjective cross-sections of the lives of those who could afford to tell their stories through monetary or technical resources. Nonetheless, they are necessary in enabling underrepresented minorities to enter into a nation’s stream of consciousness. What is common between most cases of discrimination and stereotyping (at least in their beginnings) is that they are simply not talked about. The silence is what perpetuates isolated incidents into phenomena. These videos, on the other hand, force issues of silent discrimination and stereotyping into discussion. They materialize isolated incoherent debates or complaints into shared objects that we can agree with or criticize. When a debate ensues, individuals are driven to question the reasons for why they hold certain beliefs, to question the reason for their silence and whether they should be silent anymore. They may even be tempted to produce their own versions and represent their stories the way they see them. Perhaps the story is more spiritual and less hip than Mipsterz’ fashionable headscarves and skateboards. What is important is that the debate goes on, by any means necessary. I say this with complete faith as I glance over my precious red Coke bottle that I unwittingly purchased while humming America!


Layla Shaikley. The Surprising Lessons of the ‘Muslim Hipsters’ Backlash. The Atlantic (March 13th, 2014).

Rabia Chaudry. Somewhere on the Internet Muslim Women are being Shamed. altmuslim (December, 3rd, 2013)



Hotspot 4 – Astroturfing

Grass, Plastic, and Authenticity


Grass is an interesting plant. When you look at a lawn from above, it looks simply like a very thick cluster of individual plants. But when you get down to the roots, you realize grass is actually a very complex network. This sophisticated root system makes grass a very hardy plant, able to withstand grazing, mowing and getting forever trampled underfoot while still continuing to grow. It’s not surprising, then, that we use the metaphor “grassroots” to refer to movements that arise from networks of people who, working together, can share resources to reach a common goal.

“Astroturfing” flips this metaphor on its head. Unlike an organic network of nodes that grow from the ground up, astroturf is a single, homogenous sheet of plastic that is laid over the ground. It is inauthentic grass, made to look like the “real thing” while at the same time supplanting or even suffocating the real thing beneath it.

This Hot Spot will take us through some various considerations of astroturf to explore what it is we mean when we label something as such. Kari discusses how transparency differentiates representative organizations and astroturf ones, especially in the world of politics and advocacy. Andrew considers recent corporate and governmental attempts to create astroturf hacking events. Xam writes a piece of advice for astroturf groups looking to use the Internet, using a Hong Kong group as an example, while Yomna takes us to Egypt to have a closer look at the movements that have shaken the country over the last few years, and blurred lines there between grassroots and astroturf. Sam asks us why we even care about the distinction at all, arguing that maybe the issue of astroturf is actually distracting us from more important concerns.

These posts are just some brief attempts to explore the importance (or not) of authenticity in movements. Here we begin to answer some questions, and provoke many others. We hope these first steps inspire others to contribute their thoughts and experiences on astroturf and the many overt and covert ways it is changing civic society.

– Michelle C Forelle

[1] Mowing the Astroturf, by Kari Storla

[2] Turf Wars: What is a Civic Hacker, by Andrew Schrock

[3] Astroturfing 101, by Xam Chan

[4] Regime Activism, by Yomna Elsayed

[5] Getting to the Dirt, by Samantha Close

* HOTSPOT PHILOSOPHY: These collections of mini-blog posts — “hot spots” — are organized around themes that cut across the diverse interests of participants in our research group. They’re about the things we love to talk about. And, like our in-person conversations, they play with ideas at the intersection of participatory culture, civic engagement, and new media. Our rules for the hotspot are these: No one gets to spend a million hours wordsmithing — these are idea starters, not finishers — and posts shouldn’t be a whole lot longer than five hundred words. Check out our first hotspot intro to read more about the thought process behind these mini-blog posts.

Civic Kickstarters

If you’ve ever wished for a trebuchet that could fire erasers at the cubicles across the aisle–or wished you had the capital to mass produce the one you made in your garage, crowdfunding wants to talk to you. The basic idea behind crowdsourcing, as coined by Jeff Howe in a 2006 article for WIRED, is that a large task can be accomplished by parceling it out among a “network of people in the form of an open call.” Crowdfunding modifies this idea by making the “large task” the production budget of a project. People who answer the call for participation in crowdfunding, called backers, contribute small to large amounts of money so the crowd can collectively raise the needed sum. Yet, “crowds” are, ironically, probably the wrong way to think about what’s happening with crowdfunding in general and its most visible offspring,  Rather, Daren Brabham, in his definitive book Crowdsourcing, links crowdfunding success to online communities, calling them “fertile sources of innovation and genius.”

To understand how all of this works, we need to meet Kickstarter. hosts projects and campaigns by independent creators, organizing project pitches and facilitating payments. They also lay down rules for what kinds of things can be pitched. Backing typically takes place over a month, overt charities are not allowed, and projects must have a finite endpoint: producing an iSomething accessory, printing a comic book, or turning an abandoned house in New Orleans into a ball pit. Many types of goals and endeavors are therefore collapsed together as projects. Project backers are kept appraised of a project’s progress, consulted for key decisions, and get an exclusive channel to communicate with project creators through the Kickstarter site. Project creators become more committed to a project that they know has generated interest. This process is closer to co-creation, where  fans and producers come together with interest and enthusiasm around a shared culture.

Although a Kickstarter campaign invitation is open to anyone browsing the web, it takes a relatively small number of people to make a project successful: all funds donated (minus Kickstarter’s 5% fee) go to the project creator rather than being funneled through a foundation, production company, PayPal, or other edifice of red tape.  Kickstarter’s “crowd,” then, is more often an activation of a community or subculture than a random assortment of people on the virtual street. Once we re-frame Kickstarter as invoking community interests rather than those of a faceless crowd, we can start to more clearly think through how crowdfunding works. argues strongly that they are not a store and designs their policies and site to avoid the appearance of being an online storefront. These are obviously muddy waters, particularly as one of Kickstarter’s most notable additions to the traditional investment funding model is a system of “backer rewards.”  These rewards vary tremendously from material to immaterial to symbolic to somewhere in-between, and are set up by project creators to thank backers who contribute different tiers of money.  Rewards can become an unexpected burden for project creators, who deliver them later than expected over 75% the time. The best rewards are intrinsically linked to the project at hand, rather than being unrelated additions that create unnecessary work rather than deepening the excitement among backers and commitment by creators.

Veronica Mars Kickstarter

Veronica Mars Kickstarter

The one particularly dedicated fan who found $10,000 to donate to Rob Thomas’ Veronica Mars Movie campaign, for example, will get a small speaking role in the film.  The more modest $10 donation level (selected by a less modest 8,423 people) receive a smaller reward (a digital copy of the film’s shooting script), but one that is still tied to the making of the movie.  The Veronica Mars campaign raised the most money of any project, ever, on Kickstarter and ignited both controversy and a lot of useful debate about the crowdfunding model. Today’s hotspot* features Civic Paths members diving into the fray and continuing the crowdfunding conversation.

One theme across posts is to follow the money:  Where is it coming from?  Where is it going?  How does it get there?  Why does it go?  Kickstarter projects complicate a simple dichotomy of commercial goals vs. creative endeavors, which were previously compartmentalized and personalized by such terms as “fans” and “producers.” According to Samantha Close, Kickstarter lays bare tensions that were always there in the entertainment industry but hidden by layers of production and distribution. Liana Gamber Thompson unpacks the implications of the new Donald Trump-branded site, Fund Anything. In true Trump style, it’s an extreme caricature of crowdfunding where anything goes, from medical procedures to a party for kids displaced by Hurricane Sandy. Its emergence provokes difficult questions about what gets funded and why in the larger crowdfunding world. Despite the prominence of project hosting sites like Kickstarter, all crowdfunding also requires the backing of a payment system.  As Lana Swartz reveals, these systems can have politics of their own, resulting in funds being frozen, reducing trust in crowdfunding platforms, and frustrating all participants.

Spreadability, discussion, and debate that bridges communities is another theme of interest. Unlike Surowiecki’s Wisdom of Crowds, where the number of jellybeans in a bowl can be most accurately estimated by taking an average across a large number of observers, there isn’t necessarily a best solution to find in crowdfunding. Rather, projects spark conversations and debates that take place elsewhere, often necessarily as Kickstarter has a fairly strict moderation policy on the site’s discussion sections that, for example, frowns on negative comments. Kevin Driscoll connects projects focusing on saving media with the politics of preservation, noting how debates about stuff are also difficult conversations about what should be archived, how, and by whom. Mike Ananny questions how crowdfunding is being incorporated into news.  It troubles existing dynamics of journalism that evolved to promote the spread of meaningful information at the same time as some have taken the cue to openly and explicitly focus on underserved communities. Benjamin Stokes makes the point that feelings of community affiliation are imagined as well as geographically-proximate.  Thus, online projects can also directly impact offline civic well-being. However, both Stokes and Ananny point out that there remain significant participation gaps on Kickstarter that affect how networks of privilege are connected to isolated communities, exacerbating the politics of financial support. Andrew Schrock provides examples of success stories in the spread of Hacker and Maker Spaces (HMSs) that act as centers for informal learning and creativity in geographically-situated communities. These democratically-run collective organizations buck the stereotype of HMSs being confined to western male geeks more interested in picking locks than helping others.

Kickstarter’s popularity has brought with it significant controversies and legitimate questions of who gets to contribute, how, to what, and who really benefits in the end. We hope that with careful consideration crowdfunding can be viewed as and truly become a way to connect backers and creators more closely over tables (made of robotically sculpted Zen sand or not) that are meaningful to all parties involved. Crowdfunded projects can drive awareness and, even in their imperfection, spark conversations about what needs doing across various communities. These emergent debates are vital for us to have in this moment of economic transition and cultural shift.

Enjoy, and we welcome your comments.

–Andrew Schrock and Samantha Close

[1] Why All Kickstarters are Civic Kickstarters, by Samantha Close

[2] Donald Trump and Dollar Bills: Crowdfunding for the Masses, by Liana Gamber Thompson

[3] Getting the Funds from the Crowd: The Politics of Payment Infrastructure, by Lana Swartz

[4] Crowdfunding an Archive: What’s Worth Saving and Who’s Gonna Pay for It?, by Kevin Driscoll

[5] Crowd-Funded Journalism and Dynamics of Visibility, by Mike Ananny

[6] Crowdfunding as Neighborhood Storytelling, by Benjamin Stokes

[7] Kickstarting a Hackerspace, by Andrew Schrock


* HOTSPOT PHILOSOPHY: These collections of mini-blog posts — “hot spots” — are organized around themes that cut across the diverse interests of participants in our research group. They’re about the things we love to talk about. And, like our in-person conversations, they play with ideas at the intersection of participatory culture, civic engagement, and new media. Our rules for the hotspot are these: No one gets to spend a million hours wordsmithing — these are idea starters, not finishers — and posts shouldn’t be a whole lot longer than five hundred words.  Check out our first hotspot intro to read more about the thought process behind these mini-blog posts.

HOT.SPOT 2: Introduction: Election Season Revisited

Hotspot Philosophy

These collections of mini-blog posts — “hot spots” — are organized around themes that cut across the diverse interests of participants in our research group. They’re about the things we love to talk about. And, like our in-person conversations, they play with ideas at the intersection of participatory culture, civic engagement, and new media. Our rules for the hotspot are these: No one gets to spend a million hours wordsmithing — these are idea starters, not finishers — and posts shouldn’t be a whole lot longer than five hundred words.

Election Season Revisited (Inauguration Edition!)

Live-Tweeting Laffs During the 2012 Debates
On the Separation of Cable and State
Obama’s Back Problems
Where Voting Fits In for the “Self-Expressive Citizen”
Nobody 2012
Crowns and Badges

I spent the bulk of Monday tuning in to President Obama’s inauguration and the coverage around it. I admit, no matter who is being sworn in, I’m a sucker for the pageantry, the tradition, and the ceremony of the inauguration. I love seeing the National Mall brimming with enthusiastic, if freezing, faces and studying the interactions of the political rivals, celebrities, and past presidents assembled on the stage. On that day, the campaign season that got President Obama here seemed but a distant memory, the blood, sweat and tears of staffers and volunteers receding into footnotes as the President took his oath over not one, but two historic bibles.

But as President Obama gets back to work, Michelle Obama ships her ruby red inaugural gown off to the National Archives, and the blogosphere descends into a tedious debate over Beyonce’s lip-syncing, the excitement of the inauguration fades. The significance of President Obama’s achievement, however, does not. That’s why, for our second Civic Paths hotspot*, we’ve decided to return our focus to election season and to the range of people and stories that made it such an interesting one.

Kevin [1] and Sam [2] consider the relationship between politics and entertainment during election season, while Raffi [3] dissects some of President Obama’s more perplexing campaign slogans. Neta [4] seeks to understand how the traditional civic act of voting is tied to more self-expressive acts of engagement. Kjerstin [5] also looks at voters, documenting the infectious joy behind many of the tweets of #firsttimevoters, while I [6] examine a group of young non-voters and some of their favorite memes. Lastly, Ben [7] brings us back to where we started—the inauguration—with his account of the symbols and spectacle surrounding it.

We hope these posts will bring some of the more compelling stories from election season back into relief. We also hope this hotspot inspires others to bring their own stories into the conversation because so much has yet to be explored from the 2012 Presidential election and the sometimes wild and woolly days that preceded it.

— Liana Gamber Thompson

*For more on the hotspot philosophy, see our first hotspot on DIY culture.

[1] — Kevin Driscoll, Live-Tweeting Laffs During the 2012 Debates
[2] — Sam Close, On the Separation of Cable and State
[3] — Raffi Sarkissian, Obama’s Back Problems
[4] — Neta Kligler-Vilenchik, Where Voting Fits In for the “Self-Expressive Citizen”
[5] — Kjerstin Thorson, #firsttimevoters
[6] — Liana Gamber Thompson, Nobody 2012
[7] — Ben Stokes, Crowns and Badges

HOT.SPOT: The Dark Side(s) of DIY

Hotspot Philosophy

Welcome to the first of what we hope will be a series of Civic Paths “hotspots.” These collections of mini-blog posts are organized around themes that cut across the diverse interests of participants in our research group. They’re about the things we love to talk about. And, like our in-person conversations, they play with ideas at the intersection of participatory culture, civic engagement, and new media. Our rules for the hotspot are these: No one gets to spend a million hours wordsmithing — these are idea starters, not finishers — and posts shouldn’t be a whole lot longer than five hundred words.

Kicking it off: The Dark Side(s) of DIY

Don’t get me wrong: I love DIY. I muddled through the acquisition of basic sewing skills (thanks, Internet) to make a much-loved, crooked crib skirt for my daughter. My now-husband and I navigated the complexities of his immigration to the U.S. without hiring a lawyer, relying entirely on a discussion board about fiancée visas. Last year, we even put a fountain in our backyard (it was crooked, too).

In fact, I venture to say we all love DIY—and are genuinely excited about the role of new media technologies for amplifying the possibilities to make stuff, share stuff, spread stuff and generally participate in public life in a million different ways. But we also believe that DIY (or at least the mythology of DIY) has some dark sides.

Liana [1] and Sam [2] remind us that just because you do it yourself doesn’t mean that what you make will find an audience, or even that what you make will be any good. Kevin [3] considers the often-fraught relationship some DIY practitioners have to potentially dubious funding streams, and Lana [4] points out that the business of DIY can often be the selling of awful. Andrew [5] looks at what happens when crowdfunding goes awry and DIY communities try to mete out justice online. Rhea [6] also examines online communities taking matters into their own hands, highlighting the misunderstandings and mishaps that get created in the process.

Neta [7] and I [8] share an interest in the ways that beliefs about DIY political knowledge—everyone should be a fact checker! Figure out everything for yourself!—may shut down possibilities for political engagement. Mike [9] takes on the contradictions behind the idea of DIY news, and Raffi [10] wonders whether the race to make and spread the pithiest, funniest political nuggets is taking away from other forms of online political talk.

With these posts, we hope to collectively shed light on some of the difficulties that arise from an otherwise celebrated mode of creation and engagement. And while we all love DIY and its range of possibilities for civic life, we think pulling back the curtain to show when it goes wrong is an important step in figuring out how DIY can take us even further in the future.

— Kjerstin Thorson (Assistant Professor of Journalism)

[1] On Finding an Audience, or Why I’m Not a Rock Star, by Liana Gamber Thompson

[2] Producing Poop, by Sam Close

[3] Makerspaces and the Long, Weird History of DIY Hobbyists & Military Funding, by Kevin Driscoll

[4] Blogging and Boycotting in the “Schadenfreude Economy”, by Lana Swartz

[5] Gatekeepers of DIY?, by Andrew Schrock

[6] The Role of Japanese & English-language Online Communities in the Mitsuhiro Ichiki Incident, by Rhea Vichot

[7] DIY Citizenship & Kony 2012 Memes, by Neta Kligler-Vilenchik

[8] Figure It Out for Yourself, by Kjerstin Thorson

[9] Why “DIY News” Could Be a Contradiction in Terms, by Mike Ananny

[10] Memed, Tumbled, & Tweeted, by Raffi Sarkissian

@Civic Paths: Patricia Lange

Patricia Lange, , spoke at Civic Paths this past week. Her talk centered on YouTube vloggers and a genre of video loosely classified as “rants” or “raves”. In particular, Lange talks about youth deployment of the mode of discourse . Beyond viewing these as either ineffectual (as prior research on rants sees them in a negative light, with the ranter as someone who removes themselves from society) or as the video equivalent of “flaming” a messageboard, Lange defines rants as basically taking issue with a problem and argues that there is are positive effects as these types of videos invoke some kinds of polemics.  Lange identifies different genres of rants, focusing on the emotional, problem-centric rant. Lange is particularly interested in rants where people complain about YouTube and her study focuses on analyzing a series of 35 such videos and their comments.

YouTube offers a space for youth to get angry about controversial topics which are difficult to talk about in real-life spaces. These rants often contains rational arguments, which seek to informing others, build solidarity, and perhaps inspire action. Underlying these rants is the notion that things cannot improve without complaining about current conditions, which offers a bridge into thinking about rants as a part of the civic engagement process. Lange left us with a variety of questions, such as:

  • What do we make of serial ranters?
  • How do we define a video as a rant and not
  • What are the differences between YouTube rants versus other kinds of rants, particularly when positioning it as a form of civic engagement?
  • How do we analyze rants across infrastructures?

@Civic Paths: Jane Junn

Civic Paths hosted Jane Junn, Professor of Political Science at USC. Her talk focused on election data, in particular on voter turnout and who specific demographic groups voted for over the last 10 Presidential elections. Junn’s main argument was to advocate for the need to take intersectionality into account when interpreting election data, in particular, her work highlighted the disparities between the voting patterns of white women and women of color. She argues that, while white men tend to vote more Republican and persons of color tend to vote more Democrat, white women tend to move between parties and that movement is, in certain years, enough to swing elections one way or another. Junn argues that the usual analyses of election data seem to report data on women as a group or on persons of color, but not the intersection of the two, even though women of color face a different set of challenges than white women do in society.

Junn argued for several points:

  • We can’t use old models that think about 1960s America without thinking about the changing population.
  • Rather than always comparing to men, the model voter should be women.
  • The key – for Obama: getting minority turnout; for Romney – turnout of white women
  • Categorization matters since group categorization alters the way people think about themselves and systematically alters the group behavior
  • Latinos, not considered a racial group in the census until 1977, play an increasingly larger role in election turnouts
  • A general call for the formation of politically relevant categories
  • There is a need to think about categories intersectionally
  • Categories that have a structural significance, are more interesting analytically than those that are hierarchically ordered