Infrastructures to think with

World Wide Web at Breakfast

For most of the internet’s history, the difference between a service (e-mail) and service provider (Hotmail) has been fairly clear. If you don’t like Hotmail for some reason, you don’t have to opt-out of e-mail altogether. Instead, you can create a new account with a different service provider and send a mass message to all of your friends. Once you’re certain that everyone has your new address, it’s curtains for Hotmail.

The recent turn toward highly-integrated, centralized “platforms” like Facebook and YouTube has muddied this picture. There is no gateway nor common protocol for exchanging friend requests between Facebook and Google+ like there is between Hotmail and Gmail. If I post a video to Vimeo or, it isn’t going to show up in a search on YouTube. In a break from tradition, these service providers and the services they provide are tightly interwoven and difficult to pull apart.

The turn away from transparency leaves researchers with some tricky new challenges. First, what is meant by the term “platform” exactly and how is it different from a service provider? Second, how do we study these spaces if we can’t parse out the provider from the service?

YouTube embed error message

Last year, Tarleton Gillespie examined the strategic use of the term “platform” by YouTube to appeal simultaneously to multiple audiences with different needs and values. Users, advertisers, professional media producers, and government regulators each understand the term “platform” to mean something different: a populist forum, two-sided market, commercial channel, or impartial carrier. As long as “platform” retains this ambiguity, it affords YouTube and others an advantage in both the marketplace and regulatory arena. They can benefit financially from popular media practices like vidding while at the same time avoiding responsibility for protecting participatory cultures from spurious copyright claims.

Though these service providers have proven themselves unreliable stewards of popular discourse, their “platforms” are nevertheless powerful tools to enable, circulate, and augment participatory culture civics. To better understand this tension between popular use and commercial interest, we need to extract the service from the service provider, an analytical practice that Susan Leigh Star and Geoffrey Bowker called “infrastructural inversion.” Rather than look only at the content of tweets, YouTube videos, and Facebook statuses, we need to find ways to access the tangle of technologies and institutions that undergird these phenomena.

From the outside, the infrastructures of highly-integrated services like Twitter or Facebook are almost totally obscured. Users and researchers can only guess at the internal structures of these “black boxes” by poking at the box – either with a web browser or through the public API – and examining what comes out. (For a fine example, see Scott Smitelli’s systematic analysis of YouTube’s copyright filters from 2009.) But inductive exploration of black boxes is a slow, unreliable process with no guarantee that the infrastructure will remain stable from moment to moment. Time and again, service providers alter their infrastructure with little to no warning, causing headaches for the developers and users that rely on them.

Another way to study infrastructure is by building it. Matt Ratto offers the term “critical making” to describe reflexive technology projects that engage both the symbolic and material aspects of media in society. Critical making asks us to imagine how existing infrastructures might be altered, improved, or replaced. For a small scale example, the image below is a mockup of what a YouTube page might look like if all of the metadata and user commentary were preserved after a video is removed for copyright violation. (Currently, this information is also removed when the video is taken down.)

Mockup of an improved page for disabled YouTube videos (complete)

But critical making can occur at much larger scales as well. YouTube enables users to store, share, sort, comment on, respond to, and search for digital video. Numerous infrastructures might make this same set of verbs available. Miro Community uses free and open source software to build YouTube-like infrastructures for schools, local media, and other small civic organizations. Downloading their code and producing our own video infrastructure might yield a new perspective with which to examine YouTube itself. This approach is not about building an alternative to YouTube; it’s about focusing critical attention on infrastructure. What features would we want? What could we do with Miro Community that we can’t do with YouTube? What seems easy to implement and what seems difficult?

In 2010, a project called “Diaspora” raised $200,000 from 6,479 individual donors on Kickstarter to build a decentralized social network site with strong privacy controls. A year later, it has not attracted the volume of users that would make it the “Facebook-killer” some early supporters hoped it would be. But in a recent blog post titled, “We are making a difference” Diaspora’s founders point to features first publicly available in their 2010 alpha launch that are now implemented by Google+ and Facebook. Regardless of Diaspora’s future as a social network site, its mere existence contributed to shaping the infrastructures of more highly-capitalized, highly-visible social network sites.

Like Miro Community, Diaspora’s code is also freely available. Last winter, Sarah Mei changed the code so that users are asked to input their gender via an open text field rather than a drop-down menu (see above). This change means that users are not limited to a set of canned choices (“male” or “female”) but are free to identify however they wish. By building a feature of her ideal social network site in code, Mei crafted an experience for thousands of Diaspora users that calls into question the gendered assumptions embedded in most social network profiles.

Star wrote that infrastructure appears most readily when it breaks down. In our short study of the Living Room Rock Gods, for example, the importance of their messageboard infrastructure came to light only after their YouTube network was dismantled by copyright takedowns. Unfortunately, not every community will survive the devastating break downs that can happen when they depend on on private infrastructure. All of the organizations we’ve written about on this blog rely in one way or another on centralized “platforms” such as Vimeo, YouTube, Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter. But how many are “disaster ready” should their preferred platform go down?

Critical making enables researchers to imagine and realize alternative infrastructures before disaster finds their fields of study. We cannot know what is happening inside of a “black box” like YouTube but building and playing with imitations, mockups, and experiments can provoke new ways of thinking and asking that draw attention to the crucial role of infrastructure in public discourse and civic engagement.

Creativity, collaboration, and pro-social activities in Hackerspaces

For pro-social efforts to be successful, we need creative environments to develop innovative solutions to pressing problems. Steven Johnson’s statement that “a good idea is a network” is supported by a wealth of research on the social nature of creativity, particularly that of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. The ideal of the solo genius, toiling away in obscurity only to emerge with a brilliant invention that is immediately received and popularized, is mostly a myth. Ideas are more likely to grow when they are encouraged to collide with other ideas. The question of how to “think better” becomes about the culture and practices of certain spaces and communities.

Hackerspaces are local hotspots of creativity and technical expertise connected through the Internet to over a thousand similar collectives worldwide. Members and strangers alike share tools and ideas on technical and artistic projects as diverse as sewing, metalwork, software engineering, and biochemistry. They “mess around” via tinkering, which Richard Sennett in The Craftsman defines as “a mode of knowledge production that involves the hand, the use of tools, and mentoring relationships among people in close physical proximity” (p. 177). These spaces are generally open for anybody with a genuine curiosity for working on projects they are passionate about. The community of hackerspaces can be described as a loose collective of supportive, similarly-minded individuals that eschew top-down structure, employ peer learning, and love a challenge. As Resistor founder Nick Bilton put it in a Wired article “It’s almost a fight club for nerds.”

In a practical sense, members of Hackerspaces are taking part in collaborative consumption: the sharing of resources and ideas for mutual benefit. This ethic of sharing can be seen more broadly in the increasing reliance on service-based models, whether physically-proximate, like Zipcar, or virtual, like “cloud computing” or open-source software. Members I’ve spoken with often describe their visceral rejection of consumer goods they cannot modify or fix. These feelings harken back to the days of Heathkits, and a feeling that Americans have fallen into a general malaise about taking pride in manufacturing. To them, picking up a soldering iron is itself a kind of political statement. It’s a rejection of what Zittrain’s imagined as one possible future for the Internet: a death of innovation via companies that produce goods that are opaque and disposable.

The idea for a physical space for collaborative learning through hands-on activities is hardly new, and can be traced to ideas as familiar as shop class in high school. In The Craftsman, Richard Sennett makes two compelling arguments. First, he uses working with the hands to make the point that skills “begin as bodily practices” (p. 10). Second, that technical understanding first develops through the powers of imagination. Anne Balsamo, in Designing Culture, describes how ideas for possibilities of technology begin in the imagination. To look for the roots of hackerspaces and their potential for learning through doing means considering how people think about the potential of these spaces through historical lenses.

Recent examinations of the constitution of community and the dynamics of group life in online communities have touched on both pragmatic and cultural dimensions. Christian Pentzold examined the mailing lists of Wikipedia to see how they imagine constructing community, finding a strong ethical dimension. Mathieu O’Neil’s under-appreciated Cyber Chiefs details the various way that leaders and practices arise in tribalistic communities such as dailykos and (and in knowledge-sharing communities as egalitarian as Wikipedia, leaders emerge). Wherever people congregate, meaningful practices and group dynamics emerge. It’s these types of studies that inspire me to ask: how are Hackerspaces – as blended online/offline collectives for knowledge-sharing and creativity – models for informal learning, and how are they putting energies towards pro-social causes?

Hackerspaces don’t have a single history, but many possible histories, depending on who you ask. “Old-school” hackers from the MIT model railroad club contributed the idea that you are only as good as your last creative fix, or “hack.” The shadow of 2600 looms large, and there is still heavy overlap with their monthly meetings. Another historical lineage looks away from technical realms and into the fantastic, where people create machines and conduct performances that echoed the anarchist, anti-establishment tendencies of Dadism. Survival research laboratories, Burning Man, and the Cacophony Society are all modern equivalents that offered alternative spaces for playing with futuristic possibilities and creativity.

The strongest recent inspiration for hackerspaces came from Germany. Jens Ohlig and Lars Weiler, co-founders of the Chaos Computer Club, presented “design patterns” for hackerspaces at their 2007 summer camp. It heavily influenced Nick Farr and other founders of American hackerspaces, and was successively circulated as a PDF. Ohlig and Weiler identified infrastructure as of primary importance to fostering creativity: “Facilities come first. Once you have that, people will come up with the most amazing projects [sic] you didn’t think about in the first place.” Populate the space with equipment, add a comfortable lounge space, charge monthly fees (anywhere from $15 – $200), and try to attract people who understand the hacker ethics of tinkering, respect knowledge, and enjoy friendly competition. To this day, most Hackerspaces pick Tuesday nights as a weekly meeting time, because it’s recommended in the PDF: “Since all days are equally bad, just pick Tuesday.”

One case study for how Hackerspaces have engaged with DIY technology around pro-social activities is the activity surrounding measuring radiation levels in Japan. The March 11 Japan earthquake and tsunami resulted in widespread damage, particularly to the Fukushima reactor, whose cooling system failed and began to leak radiation. The government was cagey about releasing information about radiation levels. They were also criticized for not conducting localized enough readings on air and soil samples, and for using instruments that weren’t sensitive enough to alpha and beta radiation. In response, the Tokyo Hackerspace came up with the idea of putting together DIY geiger counters. Initially they employed surplus cold war-era parts, but later refined them to use commonly-available Arduino microcontrollers. They have now held multiple workshops and hosted guides on how to construct your own geiger counter. The Hackerspace partnered with Safecast, which raised over $36,000 through Kickstarter in May. The open data network created by Safenet for measuring radiation was populated with readings taken on DIY geiger counters created by Hackerspaces, resulting in data sets of crowdsourced radiation readings that can be seen in visualizations here.

One final note about the future of Hackerspaces: they need to be places of blended online/offline learning, and should take advantage of current opportunities for engaging with the public through existing venues. A recent blog post posed the question, “are hackerspaces the libraries of the future?” What I took this to mean is that, although the question of access is still a vital one, libraries are becoming less about the need to have a repository of knowledge. They are, however, uniquely situated; they exist outside of the traditional educational system, unite different ages of individuals, and exist throughout the world. Librarians are also natural curators. We should take a lesson from hackerspaces and think of ways to tinker with existing infrastructure and roles that might mesh with the new dynamics and roles in blended online/offline communities.

Online Participatory Cultures, Pirate Parties, and Youth Unemployment: Indicators of a Communication Gap?

One of our core foci at Civic Paths is the question of how civic engagement through online participatory cultures relates to ‘traditional’ forms of engagement, namely political activism within the democratic system, mediated by one’s affiliation with a particular political party. All three of our case studies (The Harry Potter Alliance, Invisible Children, and DREAM activists) are inherently youth driven, and even though each of them has clear political and non-political goals, they do not explicitly align themselves with any particular political direction, let alone any party. It is a new form of engagement, one that centers on causes, specific visions or dreams of a better world, and the sharing of particular media content. Claims of a political apathy amongst youths have existed since decades; however, based on our studies and observations, it seems more likely that the nature of political and civic activism has changed, and like so many other social practices, refuses to be confined to traditional if democratic hierarchical structures much longer.

Pirate Parties International

Pirate Parties International has 40 affiliated Pirate Parties around the world.

At the same time, other new forms of civic engagement and activism emerge. These are also unconventional, such as the Pirate Parties in countries around the world. The Pirate Parties, actual national parties in 40 countries and are affiliated to their umbrella organization Pirate Parties International (PPI). Unlike mainstream political parties, the Pirate Parties have an agenda focused only on matters related to the Internet and information technology, such as improving personal privacy online, decreasing governmental control over information technologies and information retention, and reforming copyright laws to comply with the demands of the new media age. While I couldn’t find any statistics on the Pirate Parties’ member or voter demographics worldwide, I did find several election reports from Germany. So far, the German Pirate Party has not been able to make it into the national parliament (Germany requires a party to receive at least 5% of votes in order to receive seats in parliament), but on a local and state level, the German Pirate Party has been increasingly successful, getting seats on larger city councils such as Aachen and getting close to the 5% requirement in state parliaments. What is more important, however, is that if broken down by age group, the Pirate Party is in fact able to garner at least 5% amongst voters aged 18 to 34. What ultimately stops them from reaching parliament, however, are the remaining voters, aged 35+ who tend to stick with mainstream political parties.

Finally, youth unemployment throughout the world is increasing rapidly. Some countries, such as Italy, Greece, and Spain are facing youth unemployment rates of up to 45% – despite overall high education levels. And while both the UK and the US have rates that are lower – 20% and 18.1% respectively – they are still too high, no doubt. Sociologists frequently warn about the long-term effects of this trend, but so far only ex-prime minister of the UK, Gordon Brown picked up on the issue and called upon the G20 leaders to finally take action and to call an emergency G20 summit.

These are three different trends that have one thing in common: The relationship between youth and politics, today. For one, as our case studies show, youths aren’t politically apathetic. They are engaged, but in ways that differ from traditional understandings of politics. Like in so many cases nowadays, young people avoid gate keepers (in this case, political parties) and decide to take action directly and to the cause they are concerned about. Secondly, it may be that ‘traditional’ politics are not fast enough (or willing enough) to keep up with what young people care about. In Germany, no other party but the Pirate Party even mentions the regulation/de-regulation of the Internet and information technologies in their programs. However, new media and the legislation surrounding it are an integral part of everyone’s life today, not to mention teenagers and young adults, and so it is not surprising that the Pirate Party can easily muster support from the ranks of the young people.

A Sketch from the Economist

A sketch from The Economist highlighting the communication gap, and some of the underlying causes for the unrests in the UK.

The same goes for youth unemployment. The issue is burning – literally, in the UK. When the Economic Crisis hit back in 2008, the ones that felt it most right away weren’t the youths around the world. I remember being asked by a friend of my father’s why “us youths” weren’t out on the street protesting against the banks terrible practices that brought us into this mess. I told him it was because for us, nothing much changed; we were all students, at high school or at university, and we didn’t have any money that the banks could have gambled away. Little did I know that for the young people, the long-term consequences would almost be worse, in the form of extremely slow and over-saturated labor markets.

What all of this boils down to, then, is a growing communication gap between the different generations in our modern societies. New media technologies have changed the ways in which political activism takes place, and facilitated non-traditional forms of engagement that do not require political party systems. However, NMTs cannot be made solely responsible; the root of this trend is a lot deeper. If youths around the world feel the need to find new ways to get involved and to take ‘politics’ into their own hand, isn’t this a signal that there must be something the ‘traditional’ system fails to offer to them? As our case studies show, and examples like the German Gamers’ response to a discriminating TV portrayal, young people communicate, organize, and take action in different ways than their parents and grandparents. If they don’t vote it doesn’t mean they don’t care, but that they feel that their political system doesn’t offer solutions or actions. Instead of voting for a party and waiting for it to take action, many youths today prefer to go out to do it themselves.

It would be easy to use this blog post as a loud accusation towards ‘all those ignorant politicians,’ but I do not believe that making accusations is the right thing to do in this case. The times are changing rapidly, and it is hard to keep up for both young and old. So instead, I would like to urge politicians and the older generations to stop and to listen for a moment, so that in future, the communication gap between the generations does not grow much further, but that we can all find ourselves on the same playing field, talking to and with each other, just like we’re supposed to in a functioning democratic society.


Putting down our Superpoke Pets

Why Us Google?

Last Friday, players of Superpoke Pets learned that Google plans to finally “retire” the game after winding it down over the past few weeks. Hundreds turned to a comment thread on Techcrunch to register their anger, sadness, and frustration at the decision.

I can't even get to sleep now I am so upset. I know it is just a game.. but this was a game I loved above all others I have ever played... :c ( This stinks!

this is the most hateful thing you could have done. millions of us on on this game. most people have disabilities and this is what they have. we have developed friendships. alot of people have spent tons on money on here. are you going to give them that back? but most of all you are taking away something that we have poured our heart and souls in. I have been on this game for over 3 years. I have some truly awesome people that I look forward to speaking to every day. I will drop all my google emails, change my servers and have over 3000 people on my yahoo account that will be more than happy to help me spread the word that google doesn't care about the people that put faith in them. does google kick dogs and steal candy from babies too?

Meanwhile, regular Techcrunch readers – many of whom currently work or aspire to work in social media – dismissed the concerns of the SPP players with comments ranging in tone from the smug and snarky to the downright hostile:

Favorite part of this post? The Farmville moms trolling TC.

I've spent Alot of MONEY on Superpoke Pets...personally i'd never admit to that.. lol.

I'm glad they killed it. People can stop playing stupid games and focus on more productive work.

Superpoke Pets is multiplayer online game that combines Tamagochi-like pet care mechanics with an open-ended scrapbooking system, opportunities for socializing with other players, and special contests, puzzles, and rewards. Most players join the game through Facebook but it is also accessible through MySpace or through the game’s homepage. Readers of this blog may know it for its brightly-colored relief efforts following the natural disasters in Haiti and Japan. Although it was developed and released by Slide in 2008, Superpoke Pets became a Google product in 2010 amid a flurry of excitement about social games like Farmville and Mafia Wars.

Compared to the tremendous scale, user adoption, revenue flow, and cultural impact of Zynga’s properties, Superpoke Pets is an uncontroversial failure. In Slide’s own words, it never “caught on as we originally hoped.” But these are not the metrics used by Superpoke Pets’ devoted players, many of whom are home-bound due to illness or disability:

This is not just a game! The other players are FAMILY!!

The unceremonious “deadpooling” of Superpoke Pets is one more example of a private organization providing space for community and creativity without taking responsibility for the continued stewardship of the public culture that flourishes there. To date, the tragi-heroic efforts of the Archive Team have saved an unknown percentage of digital materials imperiled by the closing of Friendster and Geocities, but these are preservation strategies – they cannot provide a new home for a living community.

Superpoke Pets players will soon be displaced from their preferred platform. Some will reunite on Facebook – perhaps as an outcome of their protest efforts – but many other social bonds will be permanently broken.

Why Us Google?

Despite these unfortunate consequences, this is not a clean-cut case of Google “doing evil.” As the Techcrunch reporting explains, the closure of Superpoke Pets is but one effect of a larger corporate restructuring. Without a technical and bureaucratic infrastructure to support it, there may simply be no servers or employees to keep SPP up and running. Absent the unlikely possibility that the game could be disentangled from Google and run as a non-profit player co-operative, it was inevitable from the start that the game would one day be put to rest. Should players be held responsible for planning accordingly? Were they foolish for choosing to explore, make friends, and commit the fruit of their creative labor to a doomed platform? Should they have closely read Slide’s (lengthy) Terms of Use before creating their accounts?

Alyssa's pet in its habitat

All servers crash, all businesses fold, and all social web services will one day disappear. The character of internet entropy is not “if” but “when.”

At this point, the available examples of services going offline are largely limited to corporations who have gotten it wrong but the ending of MMORPG Tabula Rasa provides an instructive exception.

Running of out money and unable to sustain the game, the development team at Destination Games designed a spectacular final scenario in which the world is destroyed according to its internal narrative logics – evil aliens overwhelm the resistance once and for all. They encouraged players to log in to the game and actively participate in its final moments. This arrangement gave dedicated players an opportunity to role-play up to the very last moment. One character might die valiantly attempting to forestall the inevitable while another hangs back to chat with friends as the carnage unfolds. Those present on the final day reported feeling “strangely moved” by the experience. It was world-appropriate and player-approved.


An apocalyptic invasion of killer aliens would be a strange conclusion to the sunny Superpoke Pets, but its dedicated players deserve a meaningful closing ceremony of their own. On a petition to Save Superpoke Pets circulating since June, players emphasize the time and care they’ve invested in the development and decoration of their pets’ habitats. Rather than flip the switch, bringing the world to an abrupt stop, Google should use this information as a starting point for designing a respectful end to the SPP world. How different would players feel if Google offered to host and promote a memorial scrapbook of all the lost pets and habitats on Picasa?

HPA on YouTube

Many of the organizations we discuss on this blog depend on services like YouTube and Facebook for outreach and mobilization. In the moment, these platforms may seem invicible but the experience of Superpoke Pets players highlights their fundamental instability. What will happen when they are no longer profitable, outpaced by newer technologies, or sold to different owners?

Start-up culture, as the name implies, is all about a company’s early stages. There is a lengthy glossary of terms to describe a new service’s first steps – “stealth mode”, “private testing”, “public beta” – but almost nothing is said about their middle-age and retirement. What if equal attention were dedicated to designing meaningful, respectful end-of-life scenarios?

What would happen to the web if users started to demand that services outline a “twilight mode” or “deceleration strategy” before they agreed to sign up?

German Gamers Use Shared Media Culture to Bring About TV Investigation

For the last two days I’ve been following a very interesting and most of all rapid form of civic engagement amongst the gamer community in Germany. I first heard about it from my brother back home, who is a gamer and sent me a link to a video that sparked a tremendous outrage online, particularly on YouTube. The content of the video is a short “news report” on the gamescom (game convention and exhibition in Cologne last weekend) from the current affairs show ‘explosiv’ on RTL, one of the two leading German broadcast TV stations (German cable is virtually non-existent). In the report gamers are portrayed as a bunch of male, alcoholic and crazed weirdoes who have a terrible body hygiene and no romantic relationships.

You can find a subtitled version here:
(I hope this video hasn’t been taken down when you are accessing it; banning YouTube videos has been RTL’s crisis strategy, it seems).

First shown on air last Friday, August 19th, the video immediately
went viral amongst gamers, and when leading gamer and YouTuber Rainer
Schauder came back from gamescom Tuesday this week (August 23rd) and
finally saw the video himself, he took to his YouTube channel (link in German) to not
rant against the TV station (like so many other gamers had at first),
but to encourage all other gamers to go to (link in German),
Germany’s official TV complaints website, and to launch a formal
complaint against RTL and the ‘explosiv’ report.



Rainer Schauder calls upon the gamer community to stop ranting and take 'real' action against RTL



Schauder explicitly asked his viewers to abstain from any derogatory remarks against RTL or the video, and to clearly and objectively explain in the complaint comment section how this report discriminates against gamers and breaches several broadcasting laws and codes of ethics. Schauder uploaded this video at 4am on Wednesday (August 24th) morning (EST+1 /
German time).

According to a second (link in German) video Schauder uploaded about 12 hours later, even he himself would never have imagined the immense and immediate response to his video, which of course also went viral. Thousands of gamers all over Germany took first to the TV complaint website to lodge their official complaints, and then created their own (link in German) YouTube videos sharing their objective and to-the-point messages they used in the complaint comment section. Many went so far as to cite broadcast laws and regulations in detail (chapter and paragraph numbers). By 9am on Thursday morning (August 25th), had broken down several times due to its extreme website traffic, and a total of 6.500 complaints (link in German) had been submitted. At the moment the website is back up again, with a request to not submit any more RTL/’explosiv’- related complaints as the Complaints Commission is already looking into it. In addition, a video (link in German) has surfaced on several YouTube pages and website that claims to be an official message from the hacker group Anonymous, with a threat to take RTL down due to its sensationalist practices that lack any journalistic integrity (this is not the first time RTL’s ‘news programs’ have been questionable). However, it has been questioned whether this video is real (i.e. indeed authored by Anonymous).

While RTL and the show ‘explosive’ have a website, Facebook pages, and Twitter accounts, it took until noon on Thursday, August 24th 2011, that RTL issued an official apology, as a press release and as a video on their website. The producer of the show also posted on the gamescom facebook page saying that the report was meant to be comedic and ironic, and that he apologizes “should he have insulted the feelings of anyone.”

However, it seems that these apologies aren’t enough for the gamers – and I cannot blame them. The wording of the apologies is formulaic and insincere at best, and so the gamers are demanding a broadcast apology with an actual effort on RTL’s behalf to show the diversity amongst the gamer community and to eliminate the prejudices the producers established in their original report. It is late Thursday evening in Germany now, so I’m waiting to see what will happen tomorrow, but I think this whole situation is an excellent example how youths can use their shared media culture to organize quickly and efficiently, and to
bring about real-life and even actual legal action.


Update (Aug 25 2011, PM): Rainer Schauder just uploaded his “final” video for his cause, thanking the gamers for taking such great action and asking them to now stop complaining and the let Complaints Commissioners do their job. He also doesn’t want anyone to keep ranting about RTL and particularly doesn’t want them to continue to throw swear-words at the station and its show. Lastly, he makes it clear that he doesn’t want to be seen as a ‘Michael Moore’ of the gamer community, and just wants to continue living his normal life.

Update (Aug 26 2011, AM): The Complaints Commission decided (link in German) that RTL’s ‘explosiv’ report did not violate any rules and regulations of German broadcasting and was protected by freedom of expression/opinion, but did agree that the nature and tone of the program was “irksome” and that the outrage surrounding it as well as RTL’s apology were justified. The gamers’ reaction was one of acceptance with underlying contentment; even if RTL is not facing any legal consequences, it seems that the gamers are happy to have a) shown RTL (and the entire country) that they are a large societal group to be reckoned with, and to have b) seen that they are in fact capable to quickly organize themselves to take effective action. I for my part will be interested to see whether this self-organization will continue, given that the gaming community in Germany is still facing many prejudices and scape-goating, particularly when it comes to violence among youths.



Imagine Better Opens at the Close

Fan art by ShadowKunoiciAsh

In Deathly Hallows, the last book of the Harry Potter series, the phrase “I open at the close” is inscribed onto a golden snitch, Dumbledore’s inheritance to Harry. Not knowing throughout the book how to open this mysterious object, Harry [spoiler alert!] finally realizes that it will open only when he is about to face his own death.

Given this quite sinister plot connection, it is perhaps surprising that “open at the close” came to be the unofficial theme of LeakyCon 2011, this year’s Harry Potter fan convention. At LeakyCon, the phrase held several meanings. “Open at the close” was the name of the event in which conference attendees could, for the second time, enter the Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal’s Island of Adventure for a special night-time celebration, when the park would open — only for the fans – as it closes for all other guests (see Henry Jenkins’ accounts from last year’s event).

But “open at the close” was also used in a wider sense. As both mainstream media and popular conversations wondered what will happen to the Harry Potter phenomena as the last of the movies was released, for the fans gathered in the conference halls this question carried deep personal meaning. As fans were breathlessly preparing towards their special fan screening of Deathly Hallows: Part 2 (6 hours before the official midnight release!), many talked about ‘the end of an era’. “I can’t believe there will be no more midnight screenings”, fans said to each other, mirroring – perhaps more palely—many of the sensations that have been voiced before, as the last of the books had come out. If those fans from a few years back consoled themselves that they still had the movies to look forward to, the fandom now has latched onto Pottermore, J.K. Rowling’s new online project, as the new lifeline. As Henry has discussed a few weeks ago, Pottermore is not free of potential controversy, and yet at LeakyCon, it was embraced by fans as a source supplying more valuable canonic information around Harry Potter, and was hailed as the pathway for a new generation of fans to enter the series. The sequenced order in which the digital versions of the Harry Potter books will come out was already exciting fans as an opportunity to have more countdowns on fan websites, and fans were eagerly awaiting the possibility of being the first to join the new site. The phrase “open at the close” thus served, at least metaphorically, for the fans to assure each other that this is not really the end of an era. Instead, it is the beginning of a new phase for Harry Potter fandom, one that will rely more heavily on fan production and fan creativity to keep the fire burning, and, in addition, one that excitedly looks forward towards Pottermore.

Yet “open at the close” was also used at LeakyCon in another context: as part of the press conference launching the new organization “Imagine Better”, which was described as “the future of the Harry Potter Alliance”. Regular readers of this blog will probably be familiar with the Harry Potter Alliance, a key case study for our USC-based research team Civic Paths, which explores continuities between participatory culture and young people’s engagement within civic life. The Harry Potter Alliance (HPA) has played an important role in shaping our understanding of how such processes may function. Creating metaphors between the Harry Potter narratives and real-life issues, as well as tapping into the structures of Harry Potter fandom, the HPA has succeeded in reaching over 100,000 young people, encouraging them to channel their love of the text and their connection to other fans around them towards civic-minded action in the real world. More on our work about the HPA can be read here and here.

The HPA was also what had led me to LeakyCon–my first experience at a fan conference. For almost two years now, I have been following the HPA as part of our Civic Paths research, interviewing members about their experiences with the organization and attending their public events. LeakyCon, as a mecca for Harry Potter fans, garnered an impressive presence of HPA members as well—the organization boasted 37 volunteer members in brand new staff T-shirts, and an impressive repertoire of HPA programming, including hands-on sessions like “how to open an HPA chapter” and “all about the crisis climate horcrux”. When examining the HPA as a civic organization, however, getting to know the Harry Potter fan community is a key component. The assertion that the organization’s success thrives on the energies of the fandom, which had been expressed in many interviews before, could not be clearer than at LeakyCon.

There are good reasons to try to understand the “magic formula” behind the HPA. In addition to the organization’s tangible achievements (raising $123,000 for Haiti in two weeks, donating 87,000 books to local and international communities, collecting 15,000 signatures on a petition for fair trade chocolate, achieving first place at the Chase Community Giving Competition to receive a $250,000 grant), it has received national media coverage as well as academic interest. The idea behind the launch of the new organization “Imagine Better” is to take the approach that has proven successful for the HPA – connecting fans around story worlds they love to create real world change – and to apply that to collaborations with other fandoms. This is a segment from the press release at LeakyCon, at which Andrew Slack, founder of the HPA,  officially launches Imagine Better:


Strategically timed, the HPA chose the release date of Deathly Hallows 2 to launch Imagine Better. An activist in heart, as well as a man of symbols, Andrew Slack reminded audiences that July 14 is the date of Bastille Day, while the Imagine Better website was—also symbolically—launched on the 4th of July. From a more pragmatic point of view, the launch date secured some interest from mainstream and niche media outlets, who were looking for Harry Potter-related stories to cover around the movie release. The idea behind Imagine Better, however, has been looming in the head of Andrew Slack for several years now. In fact, as Slack revealed at LeakyCon, this had been his original idea when he envisioned linking narratives with activism: “taking a bottom-up approach to love to stories and the art, and connecting it to the world”. In contrast to the strong links that the HPA has made so far to a specific canon, as well as their embeddedness within a specific fan community, Imagine Better seeks to tap into the shared ground of all kinds of fans, aggregating their respective energies towards shared social action.

Leading towards this new organization were almost 2 years of research conducted by young HPA members. The volunteer “fandom team” received the task of searching and cataloguing other fandoms online, as well as identifying potential contact points within these fandoms. This legwork has enabled Imagine Better to list over 20 fan communities in its list of collaborators, including fan communities around popular books, shows and movies, as well as you-tube celebrities and young adult authors.

This list, however, is still open-ended. At Leakycon, conference attendees had the chance to imagine Imagine Better together with its founders. In a break-out session devoted to the new organization, 35 LeakyCon attendees brainstormed possible fandoms they would want to collaborate with. In addition to the usual suspects, this brainstorming brought up surprising directions such as Sparklife, a community of regular users of Sparknotes. The group then focused on three fan communities: Glee, Hunger Games, and Doctor Who, and made a list of real-world issues that could be raised in conjunction with these texts. They then broke out into small groups, discussing potential campaigns the HPA could hold in conjunction with these other fan communities. The group discussing possible collaborations with ‘Gleeks’ (fans of Glee) thought of campaigns ranging from issues of LGBTQ rights and bullying to fighting ableism (discrimination towards persons with physical disability).

Collaboration with other fan communities is a natural step for many HPA members. In our conversations with members we often hear long lists of texts they are passionate about, starting with Harry Potter, but moving on to a variety of genres and media (recurrent favorites are Doctor Who, the Hunger Games, Star Trek and more. The relationship with Twilight is a bit more contested). Many HPA members also identify as ‘nerdfighters’ – followers of the vlogbrothers John and Hank Green. In Textual Poachers, Henry builds on De Certeau’s notion of readers as nomads to describe fans as being similarly nomadic: “always in movement, ‘not here or there’, not constrained by permanent property ownership but rather constantly advancing upon another text, appropriating new materials”. Imagine Better seems to build on this idea of fan as nomads, whose passion may be directed towards any greatly told story, rather than towards a particular narrative. Moreover, it builds on the shared characteristics, and potentially shared identity, that fans (of different texts) may have with each other. Slack expresses this when he announces at the press conference that Imagine Better is going “to start with the most popular piece of fiction in human history and to go beyond that because, who here loves stories beyond Harry Potter? We all do. And we’re going to continue to love Harry Potter and continue to love other stories and continue to love being engaged as heroes in the story of our world. This is our launch, as we open at the close.” Here, “open at the close” takes on added meaning. It may refer to the end of the canon, but it is also preparation towards a possible decline, or at least decrease, of Harry Potter fandom.

Yet at LeakyCon – the gathering of hardcore Harry Potter fans, let’s not forget – this statement receives a slightly reserved reaction. As fans are spending the whole convention assuring each other that the fandom is alive and kicking, not everyone seems ready to quickly shed off the ‘HP’ part of the HPA, and stick only with the ‘Alliance’. While Imagine Better is aiming to speak to the shared identity of “fans”, or to the fan as nomad, many in the room may align themselves more as “fans of Harry Potter” (see John Edward Campbell’s recent discussion of this notion). For them, their mode of engagement may be seen not as a fixed identity, but rather a relationship towards a particular text. Part of this may stem from the fact that to many, Harry Potter is a first experience within fandom, that hasn’t necessarily (or perhaps, not yet) crossed into a more generalized fan identity.

It seems that the HPA is aware of this potential tension, as the launch of Imagine Better happens parallel to continuing action of the HPA, and not as a new organization replacing it, as was previously suggested to us in our conversations with staff members. An important part in this decision may have been fan perceptions climbing bottom-up: With most of its staff being volunteer members and with its vast variety of participatory forums, the HPA as an organization has extremely close contact with its member base. The general consensus within Harry Potter fandom that it is alive and kicking, thank you very much (strongly aided by the announcement of Pottermore), may have been a contributing factor to launch Imagine Better as an additional venture, rather than a replacement of the HPA.

As Slack reminded us at LeakyCon, few people – within the fandom and outside of it – had believed that the HPA would succeed as a civic organization. But it has. Imagine Better now takes on the next leap. Its attempt to apply a similar formula to other fan communities offers us a fascinating test case on the intersections between fandom and civic engagement. We are excitedly following it as it “opens at the close”.

Bringing the guilty part to justice: How Facebook, the scouts and one frustrated sister drove youth mobilization in Israel

Our work in the Civic Paths team touches on different ways in which participatory culture is linked to realms of civic engagement, particularly for young people. The following story, which has occupied the Israeli media last month, is an intriguing case study both for some questions our team has previously examined (what is the power of storytelling in mobilization?) and aspects we haven’t previously interrogated  (how can “traditional” youth movements fit in “new” efforts of mobilization?).

[Read more…]

A ‘Big Bang’ – and Participatory Fans are now on your TV Screens

It’s been a while now since geeks have made the sudden and rapid evolution from social outcasts to trendsetters. They’re amongst the coolest people out there at the moment, causing sales of large, geek-style glasses to increase and kids to explore their ‘nerdy’ sides in hopes of being the next Mark Zuckerberg or Bill Gates.

Mark Zuckerberg, one of the people that made geek cool, was named Time's Person of the Year 2010

But it’s not just geeks that have all of a sudden become it. Engaged fans have become cool, too. Fan participation has become cool. What used to be seen as the behavior of a confused* minority group that may or may not have lost touch with reality* – this same behavior all of a sudden has become hip.


Don’t believe me? Consider this:

1. Three out of five protagonists of How I Met Your Mother are seen at a Star Wars convention at least once – in addition to countless die-hard Star Wars references between Ted, Marshall, and Barney (to the extent that they consider ANY woman unsuitable to marry Ted if she doesn’t love Star Wars as much as he does, and Barney gets into countless fights with Robin and Lily over the life-sized Stormtrooper he has in his living room).


Lily (Darth Vader), Ted (Luke Skywalker), and Marshall (Chewbacca) from 'How I Met Your Mother' at a Star Wars Con


2. Similarly, The Big Bang Theory is full of references to Star Trek and Star Wars, as well as to various comics such as the Marvel series (their collector’s editions are all over the walls in Sheldon’s bedroom, for example), and the show includes scenes at fan conventions or the entire gang dressing up in matching fan outfits.

Rajesh, Leonard, Howard, and Sheldon from 'The Big Bang Theory' all inadvertently dress up the same on Halloween as Flash (from one of their favorite comic series)

3. And even the cases of Harry Potter and Twilight, where both book signings and film premieres consistently prompt thousands of fans to show up in full-on costumes, often camping outside venues several nights before the events to get the best spot in the queue or in front of the stage. And rather than being ridiculed, the news media join into the craze, counting down the hours until a new release with the fans and joining into the debate of whether Harry Potter is a craze or a classic.


What’s important here is not the fact that all of these fans exist on television, but the way they are being portrayed in the media. Yes, devoted fans have always existed, and so have fan crazes like the ones surrounding Twilight and Harry Potter. What’s new, however, is that devoted fans are no longer framed as a crazed minority, some weirdoes who are trying to escape from reality. They are portrayed as cool, sometimes funny, but increasingly normal. But where does all of this come from? How did participatory fans all of a sudden make it into some of the most successful TV shows?


One reason could be that TV producers have discovered the continuous source of revenue participatory fans can provide. Unlike ‘everyday’ fans that only follow a film or television series for some time before turning to something else, engaged fans stay with their chosen show(s) and film(s) over years, if not decades and even their life. Maybe studio bosses and producers have come to realize that this devotion means additional income from media content that is long past its original airing and its zenith, and so they may now try to engage participatory fandom by showing it on-screen in the first place and in a positive manner at that.


Or maybe it’s all for fun and ridicule. Both How I Met Your Mother and The Big Bang Theory feature relatively geeky main characters, and their devotion to fandoms like Star Trek, Star Wars, and Marvel Comics is often the cause for humor and comedy. However, the positive and amiable depiction of these characters’ fan dedication suggests otherwise. Fan references and fan commitments may be comedic at times, but they always also highlight the importance of a fandom in a characters’ life, and what’s more, the way his/her fandom bonds a protagonist to his/her friends and significant others.


Which leads me to my third possible reason: Maybe the general public has begun to accept and respect participatory fans. Maybe they have seen engaged fans’ continued and lasting commitment to their fandoms, have realized that they are not just following some form of extreme craze, and that they actually (surprise, surprise!) get a lot more out of their fan objects than mere escapism. And maybe they started to think that in a time where we are trying to let anyone live in a way that makes them happy, regardless of social backgrounds, sexual orientation, and religious affiliation, for example, participatory fans could be allowed just the same – without being derided or made fun of, but with being accepted and respected.


As a hopeless optimist and idealist, I’d like to think that it is mainly reason three – increased general tolerance and respect. If this is not the case, then I’m still ok with any of the other reasons, as long as participatory fans continue to get their screen time, and do so in a good light.



*I’m not exaggerating here. These words actually came up in conversations with countless non-participatory fans throughout the last ten years of my life.


Making the Case for Fan Fiction

At dinner last night with my screenwriter friend, I got into a discussion of the value of fan fiction, prompted by a comment I had made that indicated that I was fan of the Showtime show, The L Word, and that I read The L Word fan fiction. My friend stated that she could not fathom someone being so obsessed with a TV show as to take the characters and expand on their world and explore their lives.

“These people who are spending so much time and energy on fictitious characters and situations should spend that time and energy cultivating their real life relationships. Only people who are dissatisfied with their lives would spend that much on fan fiction, and reading about people who aren’t even real,” she argued. She was making the argument that people who read fan fiction are “nerds,” which I don’t completely disagree with. However, she was discounting the very real emotional attachment that people have to the characters and their stories, which also discounts the values of having a space in which narratives and storytelling are explored around common interests in order to form a participatory community.

So I replied, “But you, who are a screenwriter, should know better than anyone the process of getting into a fictitious character’s head in order to explore issues and stories through an emotional narrative plot line.” I was flabbergasted that she could not see how people would get emotionally attached to fictitious characters and would want to treat them like real people when, through the process of writing a screenplay, a screenwriter treats these characters like real people in order to portray them and make them feel as real as possible.

“Filmmaking is a business. People spend years and years on films so they can get paid. People spend tons of time writing fan fiction, but never get paid!” She did have a point, a broader topic, perhaps, of how art and creativity has become commodified, standardized with rules of conventions for what will sell. Her argument also touches upon ideas of gift economy and digital labor. Indeed, The L Word Fan Fiction site is completely free. People give freely of their own time to write stories, and others give of their time to comment and give feedback. I countered my friend’s argument, “What, then, do you think of people who make webisodes and short films on YouTube? The value in fan fiction seems to lie in the formation of community. The value of these communities lie perhaps not in economic capital. The Internet has enabled a platform on which people from geographically disparate areas can gather and form a community based on a common interest, with similar levels of obsession for that interest. Perhaps its value lies in the accumulation of social capital through participating in this community.”

Or something like that. I’m paraphrasing in quotations here.

There seemed to be two points here. On one hand, we were talking about real life versus fictitious life, and the time and energy invested in exploring fictitious worlds. My friend seemed to think that unless one is getting paid for their fantasy explorations, such explorations and expansions of pre-existing worlds are not legitimate uses of one’s life and one’s time, and that one must only partake in these communities because one’s real life sucks. This leads to the other point – the point about community in fan fiction, and the very real emotional investments people have in characters and their stories. Walt Fisher, through the narrative paradigm, talks about the “cognitive significance of aesthetic communication lies in its ability to manifest knowledge, truth or reality, to enrich understanding of self, other, or the world.” (Fisher, 1989, 13) Human truth or reality includes emotions and feeling. Fiction writing, being a form of aesthetic communication, ties itself to these human emotions, rendering them real through the narrative storytelling process.

In fan fiction, writers use familiar characters, popularized on television shows, as a means by which to explore deeper narrative plots and emotional entanglements, mostly for entertainment, but through a narration, and through sharing the narration, and interacting with others, a community is formed. Sometimes the community, like The L Word fan fiction community, are built around members of marginalized social groups (in this case, lesbians and queer women), giving people a space in which they can explore or affirm their identity among people who understand. Some of these people are geographically located in areas where being not heterosexual is not ok. Fan communities, then, provide them with a space filled with people who are like them and who will not stigmatize them for who they are or what they enjoy as entertainment. In a community of obsessors, no one is one.

Fan fiction and fanvidding (wherein people use actual clips from TV shows and remix and re-edit them to tell a narrative), have long been considered stigmatized. As my friend stated, it has a reputation for being the socializing grounds for people who don’t have lives offline. An L Word fan fiction writer with whom I’ve had conversations keeps her fan fiction writing from her family. Similarly, a maker of L Word fan videos with whom I have corresponded, keeps her fanvidding life behind closed doors. One is conventionally known only by one’s username on fan fiction sites. Perhaps in the case of the L Word, there is the added stigma of dealing with homosexuality in the stories, in a time and world in which being gay or lesbian, or queer, is still stigmatized, or at the very least, marginalized.

The L Word fan fiction seems to have a double-whammy effect in terms of its marginalization. First, it’s fan fiction. Second, it’s fan fiction based on a show filled primarily with members of a marginalized social group (lesbians).

When Showtime’s TV series, The L Word, first aired in 2004, it was hailed, on one hand, as a “groundbreaking” show which had a cast and plots centered around lesbians and their lives, and on the other, as a squandered opportunity, stereotypically Hollywood with their skinny portrayals of characters, that does injustice to the lesbian community as a whole. ( Shortly after the inception of the show, fan fiction communities sprung up on the Internet with stories revolving around the characters in The L Word, many addressing the unsatisfactory handlings of the canon storyline as seen on Showtime. The most popular of these is a site that is aptly named “The L Word Fan Fiction” ( One of the more popular coupling on the site is Bette and Tina, a canonical couple who, in the canon storyline, had started out as a committed couple, and, after six years of twists and turns, end up back together. Many people on fan fiction sites see them as the epitome of love. Throughout the six canonical TV seasons, there are a few moments or events that happen that I call “points of trauma.” For the Bette and Tina relationship, there are about 3-5 major ones. I’ve noticed that many fan fiction stories revolve around explaining these points of trauma, expanding on the characters’ actions and thoughts, sometimes to the point of psychoanalysis, and using re-narration and re-telling of the canonical story, and taking it in different directions, as a healing process – to heal both the characters, and the writers, who, being fans with real emotional investments in these fictitious characters, experienced the trauma as well.

I will be talking about these points of trauma in more specificity in a future blog post, as well as the interconnectedness and cross-references of the stories within the fan fiction community.

Just One of the Low Millions?


Zombies are, for me at least, a rich subgenre of horror that allows us to explore a host of issues that deal with issues of politics, economics, and class. Even scholars who are only vaguely familiar with the topic can often cite the cultural critiques latent within George Romero’s Dead trilogy.

Over the past two years, our group has bandied about different concepts that deal with pop culture and the political, with mention of terms like “movements,” “groups,” and “masses” calling to mind the ways in which issues of power and powerlessness manifest in the zombie genre. Although we can talk about the larger ways in which horror intersects with notions of power, zombies, out of all the monstrosities, provide a more direct understanding of the relationship between individuals/communities and minorities/majorities.

In particular, I am curious about the ways in which zombies are being reinterpreted in modern culture:  employed in the 1930s as symbols of colonialism, resurrected in the 1960s to showcase the ills of consumer culture, and tweaked in the 2000s to evidence fears surrounding biological agents, zombies have always been, in some ways, representative of a fear of being subsumed by the masses. And yet the rise in zombie subculture seems to have split in recent years:  although we continue to preoccupy ourselves with surviving the impending zombie apocalypse (hint:  take up parkour), we also seemingly exhibit an increased desire to become zombies through events like zombie walks/crawls. Moreover, looking to online spaces—which are, in their own ways, very much about communities—we also glimpse a thriving group of individuals who choose to play as zombies in various forms.

What does all of this mean for the ways that we consider ourselves in relation to the communities around us?


Although groups like Invisible Children seem quite distinctly different from zombies, I wonder about how individuals in both organizations negotiate their identity as members of a highly-visible subculture that, most likely represents a national minority, might at times be a majority in local societal contexts. Moreover, in both situations, we have (primarily) young people who toe the line between belonging to a group and maintaining a sense of individuality within the mass—or maybe members do not fear being “swallowed up” by the group at all.

The more that I learn about how zombie culture is being enacted and embodied in real world practices, the more that I think about how lessons for political action can be extracted and utilized. But then again, zombies have always been about politics.

Chris Tokuhama studies popular culture, youth, Suburban/Gothic Horror, and media as a graduate student in the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at the University of Southern California while balancing a full-time job in the Office of College Admission. Primarily interested in modern mythologies and narrative structures, Chris has often reimagined the Scarecrow as a zombie. Comments, questions, and Starbucks gift cards can be sent to tokuhama [at] usc [dot] edu.