Transnational Dimensions of Spreadable Media | MIT Center for Civic Media

Transnational Dimensions of Spreadable Media

Liveblog of the MiT8 panel on Transnational Dimensions of Spreadable Media moderated by Sam Ford. Notes with Rodrigo Davies and others.

Nancy Baym, Music Without Borders: Globalization and its Contents

Nancy introduces two current, competing frames of music consumers: Pirates vs Customers. We ask, are musicians getting paid enough? But the question frames musicians as producers, as manufacturers.

How do musicians understand their interactions and relationships with their audiences? How have social media affected these things? What is the broader system of values into which money fits?

Nancy's focus here is on internationalism. She interviewed musicians from many genres:
Singer / songwriter, Indie, Rock, Pop, Electronica, Punk, Alt Country, Jazz, Desi, Reggae, New Classical, Ambient, Ska, Slash Death Metal, etc., and from many countries: US, Canada, UK, Sweden, Norway, Spain, Australia, Germany. Examples of interviewees include members of UB40 and Camper Van Beethoven, Lloyd Cole, and Billy Bragg.

Nancy is interested in to two key, interrelated ideas: 1) Travel is part of identity, and 2) Crossnational audiences and arts discover each other.

Artists discover they have followings in countries where they didn’t realize people were following them, e.g. someone from Iran signing up to a Western musician's email list.

Artists find they have international audiences and they also connect to other artists. Mark Kelly from Marillion said he hears from with fans asking on his band's list why they never tour North America. They ended up raising $60,000 to tour in 1996, probably the first example of fan funding. Nacho Vega said he has huge audiences in Mexico and Argentina because of illegal downloads. He has no label support in those countries.

International touring is easier now too. MySpace was huge for exchanging gigs, e.g. bands would offer to open for each other, sleep on each others’ couches. Booking agents would use MySpace to connect artists and ask them to come play gigs. Fans travel too, and it’s become easier to fans to find out about and get tickets for international gigs.

Travel also provides non-monetary rewards. Nacho said one of the best things about making music is knowing people from other places.

Richie Hawtin said that travel is one of the great parts of being a musician. He now has great friends in Japan. He and others are making friends internationally through a shared connection to music, through the resonance of the emotional aspects of music.

It's not always simple though. Sivert Hoyem said he has fans in lots of places, but doesn’t have enough in any one place to perform for them; there’s still a critical mass problem. Additionally, you can’t go into every country with the same marketing plan. You need local people to help with that.

Henry Jenkins, The 'Mothership' Goes Up the Amazon: What Does "Transmedia" Mean for Brazil?

Henry wants to walk through the globalization of media and what happens to them along the way; says he’d like to challenge what is an American-centric discussion.

He starts by going through the history of the transmedia concept. First mention was in Marsha Kinder's Playing with Power (1991): “transmedia supersystems... [that] position consumers as powerful players while disavowing commercial manipulation.” She was using the concept to talk about characters who travel across platforms, e.g. Mario Brothers, who had recognisability across platforms.

A decade later, Jenkins applied this concept to transmedia storytelling (in Convergence Culture). After the Futures of Entertainment conference in 2011, Brian Clark wrote a Facebook note entitled "Reclaiming Transmedia Storyteller" that described an East Coast versus West Coast school of media.

It only makes sense if you put the US at the center of the narrative, other parts of the world don’t follow the same models. But we can start from the premise that there’s something local in the way that transmedia works, and we need more categories.

Japan - Media Mix

  • Manga-driven
  • Anime, Games, Live Performance, collectibles
  • Otaku culture
  • Character-focused
  • Pokemon Yu-gi-O
  • Studio Ghibli
  • Commercial logic is shared with the US transmedia

West Coast School - Mothership

  • Hollywood films, network television
  • Based on a logic of Eextension, subordination, and second screen
  • Aimed at fans, the logic is engagement
  • World-building that supports long-term storytelling
  • The Matrix / Heros, Lost, Ghost Whisperer, Smallville are better illustrations of this mothership model
  • The key companies are Starlite Runner, Miranda

East Coast School - ARG

  • Madison Avenue, Music, Publishing
  • Lots of texts, more or less equal, all integrated
  • Logic of participation: driven by games, fans being actively involved
  • Plotwise, the focus is on conspiracy and game play
  • Its origins might be The Blair Witch Project, The Beast, The 39 Clues (published by Scholastic)
  • Key companies are Lance Weiller, Campfire, Fourth Wall: some of these are West Coast now, some are East Coast

Some companies worth both on East and West Coast but they still observe competing logics.

Canada, UK, EU - Public Sector
(N.B. -- Many differences between these places, still developing the model)

  • Have a public service ethic: funding often comes from government sources
  • Web, film, television
  • Art, Culture, Education, Social Change
  • Nonfiction / documentary
  • Conspiracy for Good, Love Letters for the Future
  • The Netherlands-based Submarine Channel may be emblematic of this

Brazil - Hybrid Model

  • Developing a model that may spread rapidly around Latin America but not fully developed yet
  • State Funding: RIO Film (city-owned company), does co-production with US producers
  • There’s a popular aesthetic: a drive not towards arts cinema, but towards popular cinema
  • State of Rio Funding: “Audio visual project in which content is developed, complementary, in multiple media, in order to explore and …”
  • One of the largest cable companies in the world: Rede Globo, telenovelo producers
  • Vida De Empreguette: group that spreads from a telenovela into live performance
  • Country with a strong traditional of elaborate storytelling like magic realism, multiple media forms that lends itself well to transmedia storytelling
  • Culture of grass-roots production - carnival, tecnobrega (e.g. Ana Domb’s CMS thesis) [pdf], graffiti, street art, sand sculpture
  • We don’t have to think of digital as central to transmedia
  • Crowdfunding pioneers in Brazil: Queremos!

Brazil also has a history of subsidizing public service announcement that serves as a model of underwriting a broader spectrum of media, e.g. Tin Gods, Babel Hostel.

Aswin Punathambekar, On Murderous and Other Kinds of Rage: Mapping Participatory Culture in Digital India"

Aswin shifts the panel's focus towards the political context of spreadability. He's interested in growing body of middle-class publics, e.g. techies getting onto the streets, Ana Hazare’s anti-corruption movement.

Aswin plays “Kolaveri Di,” part of a Tamil film released on YouTube in Nov 2011, which spreads via social media by the actor Dhanush and other actors in the film. Lyrics were a mix of Tamil and English.

Hashtag #kolaveri becomes a meme on Twitter: Lots of remixes popped up -- chipmunks, Hitler, Arabic versions -- and were circulated.

Punjabi man in New Delhi slaps Sharad Pawar, a Union Minister for Agriculture. Video recoded by a guard and sent to news channels. The same Punjabi man took the video and set it to the music of Kolaveri Di as a political statement.

Aswin makes four observations on cultural politics in digital India:

1. Cultural Politics of Regional Identities: Digital Vernaculars?
There is a new ability to move from a regional context into a national one. For a song to make that crossover in a place where the Bollywood / Hindi-North hegemony is so strong is surprising. There’s a strain of misogyny in Tamil film making (and that you can hear through the song) that fell off as the song scaled to the national level.

2. Cultural Politics of Participation
Even before the film was in the public domain, a John Doe order was filed on behalf of the producers, naming 5 pirates even before the media was pirated to preempt piracy and pirate media sites. Legal excess happens despite it was the same person who was being encouraged to share the video and comment on it; also surprising given the rich history of fan culture in Tamil India. Many politicians are former actors / filmmakers, and have mobilized their fan bases to get elected.

3. Cultural Politics of News
Digital spreadability is reconfiguring news practices. It unsettles agenda-setting role of TV news, by making political news, and more broadly, public political discourse, e.g. Zizi Papacharissi’s notion of an affective news stream [pdf].

4. Cultural politics of the ‘New Middle Class’
The relationship between the state and the middle class is being re-mediated, Particularly in techie centres like Bangalore and New Delhi's outer areas, there’s a lot of talk about political apathy. Lots of people have moved back from Silicon Valley or Europe and are trying to establish civic engagement using a US/UK model. The appropriation of murderous song by techies in an anti-corruption movement suggests how the state has become a part of the subtle textures of everyday life.

Ethan Zuckerman, Gangnam Style, Azonto and the Cosmopolitan Remix

Ethan is Looking at ways that music video and parody remix allows media to cross culture over the internet. He starts with Psy's "Gangnam Style" and explicitly does not want to make the case that Psy makes a good introduction to K-Pop or Korean culture (see instead Jea Kim’s “What the Hecks is Gangnam Style?”).

Parodies typically fall into two camps: playing with the figure or playing with the ground. An example of playing with the figure is Gangnam Style remade shot by shot starring a Western gunman. Klingon Style is probably the best in this space.

Ethan is more interested in examples of changing the ground, where the song is the same, but the location is different. He shows Zigi's "Ghana Style". The video captures the same corners of Accra that Psy captures in Gangnam Style; these are the everyday sides of the city that are becoming very rapidly a high status area. Zigi is a political science student as well as a leading rapper, who is making a statement by offering a completely different rap on top of the music.

The paradigm of this type of parody is probably best embedded in Jay-Z and Alicia Keys's "Empire State of Mind": I’m X, I’m in Y, and I’ll be Z forever. Ethan highly recommends we watch M-J Delaney's "Newport State of Mind". And you can watch 55 others collected by Urlesque.

Ethan also points out that there is something else happening in Zigi's video: the dance and dance meme culture. The dance in the video is Azonto, a global craze in certain underground dance scenes. With Diplo or MIA trying to mine what’s going on in global culture, Azonto dancers and musicians are acutely aware of how these memes work and spread and are active about using the meida. There is Azonto-Versity on YouTube, showing people how to do the dance, conveying how it’s a work dance, taking everyday motions and turning them into dance. You can watch David Vujanic, a Serbian who in White Boy Azonto" shows his formidable skills in Azonto on the streets of NYC. The assertion is not just that Accra is a player in the global scene, but that it has culture that you would want to share

We then turn our attention to Ai Wei Wei's "Grass Mud Horse Style" parody video, which Molly Sauter told Ethan it was the "most depressing Gangnam Style you will ever see." Ai Wei Wei never leaves his compound, wears handcuffs while doing the dance. Grass Mud Horse is a dirty pun used to talk about censorship in China. As such, this is a type of protest video.

Ethan shows another more direct example from Henan. "Dig Grave Style" (see Global Voices backgrounder). The video starts with a toy bulldozer moves earth across screen, then human bodies emerge from earth, and march downtown and dance Gangnam Style. It turns out to be a protest against real estate development that is exhuming graves in a town to make way for farm land.

Picking up the form of gangnam style is an attempt to insert your message into national/international media. For the Henan youth, using the hook of an international media is a way to talk about a land use issue. Ethan suggests, that if you don’t like his talk, you might stage a sit-in, an occupation, or a march, which are all accepted scripts of protest -- we know what to do in these circumstances. These international video memes can serve as similar scripts.

Ethan's final example is the Harlem Shake. He shows a video from the Lycee Menzah in Tunis (originally uploaded February 23, 2013). It features lots of guys in full dishdasha dancing next to others with their shifts off to highlight the debate in Tunisia about whether they will become a more conservative (Islamist) style state or not. Harlem Shake works because everyone knows how to do it, and it really pisses the government off -- it’s become the main (quickest) form of protest in Tunisia right now (see piece on Think Africa Press)

Final takeaway: geographic "container memes" act as scripts for activism, in which the localization aspect allows personalization and ownership. The music video form is acting as the "script" for activism (easily understood and replicable forms that can be communicated and performed quickly).


Ian Condry: When we analyze the Harlem Shake, we are analyzing the thing. But lots of things look like it, and most of those similar looking things don’t go anywhere. How do we study/think about the gap or openness that allows for a media to spread?
- Aswin: These scripts allow for a kind of sociability; it brings together publics in a way that people from different backgrounds can come together.
- Henry: It's less about the text and more about what the text allows people to say through the circulation of that text. We need to look at media producers' the abilities to localize and interpret the text for their own purposes, and how different groups can claim ownership and create narratives they can perform through the text.
- Ethan: A lot of my work is tracking the spread of political memes. The case study model means we focus on the successful ones. It’s tricky because we are always going to pull the best cases that we have for the phenomena we are seeing.

Alfred Hermida: When we see the videos, how far does that shape the discourse in mainstream media, how they reframe the issues for the public?
- Ethan: I think this can have a significant impact. People are using social media as a proxy for public opinion. Example of Binders Full of Women is a media hook for journalists to go after a certain depiction of Mitt Romney. Journalists function as a pack too.

Louise: What didn’t become Gangnam Style? Can we look into examples that we’ve come across of failures or local spreading?
- Ethan: Argument I’m having with Yochai Benkler about SOPA/PIPA media analysis showing that cultural production at a grassroots level was able to defeat a bill. Ethan asks if that is our only example? There are probably 1000s of other examples using the same media and playing by the same rules and were not successful. Maybe we don’t know what we are talking about? Maybe our generalizations from Kony2012 and SOPA/PIPA are simply wrong.

Thomas Poell: Should we think about the in-between space that do spread but in very circumscribed localities? Example is Thomas's work looking at Tunisian activists working in French and Arabic to reach particular audiences.
- Henry: I’ve been as guilty as anyone in elevating examples of memes that spread rapidly to large numbers. But it would be useful to look at things that max out at 100,000 but permeate a particular audience.
- Ethan: Might also be a good way to document a network that can be activated later for activism or other purposes.

Jim Paradis: I'm interested in spreadability as it cuts across the public/private divide.
- Henry: If we look at high schools that have performed Gangnam Style parodies where everyone participates in this hyperlocal experience. They are connected to something that’s already public and use people and ideas that are embedded in a private space, then put it on YouTube -- this really blurs the idea of public/private.
- Nancy: I don’t think about publics and moving in-between them, rather I think about it as the individual having an affective moment of connection with someone else out there. Sociability is a very private experience. And we can think about these moments of intimacy interaction as existing in a public, but they have interpersonal ramifications first and foremost. We spend too much time thinking of the public aspects as the more important stuff. Media studies looking at texts in particular has been bad at this, ignoring the personal aspect.
Kiri ???: The potential for re-performance using newly accessible media tools.
- Ethan: Wayne Marshall did a wonderful piece on the Jerk dance style spreading out of LA, merged with Dominican Denbo style, which is traceable through mobile-phone made YouTube videos. We can say this is just people clawing into their 15 minutes of fame. But it’s actually something that happens through what seems like a very thin medium.

Rodrigo Davies: Cultural production creating a space for engagement, perhaps fleeting. Friend is involved in anti-Franco movement in Spain -- he says it was that he was 17 and they were listening to the coolest music. How about the role of cultural production in activism?
- Henry: 1930s, goal of the left was to insert political messages through middle-brow texts -- musicals, etc. 1980s, culture jamming was about disrupting or hijacking the signal. Now, it’s about inserting oneself into a larger media practice/movement. We often act that this is a unique moment of culture and politics blurring together.

Q: Public media seems like it’s now targeting the personal more?
- Henry: Tension between network publics and corporate media production. Need more dialogue between critical and cultural frames.

Q: For Nancy, What is the emotional labor difference between musicians and fans. I had a student who was on a street team for a band and ended up mediating personal messages between fans and the band.
- Nancy: It’s really hard for musicians. Some have their phone numbers out there and receive texts everyday sometimes from the same people. Fans throw their emotional stuff at you. Musicians want to be nice and responsive. Some fans look to these musicians to be their therapists. This affective management has always had a place in music but now it’s continuous. Musicians don’t have the ability to physical remove themselves from those situations. Demands a completely different skill set from these musicians. No reason to think they will be good at it. Exacerbated by neo-liberal contemporary pressure to engage on social media and sell records.