Keyword Post #8

As Christopher Kelty shows us, participation is no easy concept to come to terms with, partly because it’s hard to talk about and discover what comprises fair and equal participation. We might attribute this difficulty to the “schizoid” nature of the concept:

“On the one hand, it wants to signal the concerns with agency, autonomy, decision making, and involvement that are most central to the second sense. . .voice, agenda setting, democracy, deliberation, action. On the other hand, it also wants to signal the primary meaning of the term: to become-collective, to become an instance of a collective, not just one individual among others. . . .” (236)

With this push-and-pull of belonging/standing aside in individuality, both a system and its members are in a constant state of flux, giving power dynamics an instability that makes foundation-needing notions, including fairness and equality, difficult to handle.

We can see this even in systems that appear simple on the surface. Take the case of one of TLC’s popular reality programs, My Big Fat Fabulous Life (MBFFL). The creator of the show, Whitney Way Thore, encourages participation from her fans, engaging them on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook, giving them a glimpse of her life outside of the show and allowing them to feel a greater sense of connection through interaction. What’s interesting*, though, is how tightly controlled are the ideas that can find expression.


In fact, the ability to assert either individual agency or belonging comes down to whether the dominant narrative/controlling idea is being upheld; everyone comes together to maintain approved ideas but must break away before making points that run counter to those that are dominant. In this way, participation as “belonging” is a way to legitimize a personal experience or view by first okaying it through the group and then, only secondarily, letting the experience have its own arena. The individual experience, the personal agency, can then be used to entrench the group dynamic and sense of belonging.

In the case of MBFFL, new group dynamics are strictly disallowed, because they disrupt the dominant ideas that Thore wishes to uphold. Anyone who wants to express belonging by participating in common beliefs may do so; those who forward anything counter are, ironically, shamed, having their participation framed as an attack on the show, Thore, or her viewers.

Participation, then, is power, when you control who is allowed to participate, what they’re allowed to say, and how others are allowed to or should react to counter-ideas. In the case of the MBFFL community, you gain participatory power by conforming, which is equated with belonging. If you wish to speak against the dominant ideas, you’re a non-comformist and denied participation. Kelty notes that “Participation is not always open to everyone—because not everyone belongs; participation is not inclusion” (237). When speaking about a reality television show, the stakes are probably fairly low. Yes, the fat acceptance movement has consequences and the potential to change minds and norms; however, what happens when this type of participation moves beyond media or fandom and into deeper realms of the political? Again, as Kelty notes, this is a thorny issue and one that is beleaguered with opposites and blind spots. We must consider, though, the reasons for making participation fair and equal, no matter how difficult this may be.

*I could not care less what people look like, whom they date, what pronouns they prefer, etc., etc. I am, however, interested in the way battles are fought.

Works Cited:

Kelty, Christopher. “Participation.” Digital Keywords, edited by Benjamin Peters, Princeton University Press, 2016, pp. 227-241.


Keyword Post #7

Same Same But Different

Archive and database might look fairly similar on the surface. Both contain information and some type of structural system or interface that allows for accessing that information. We need both for wrangling today’s (and tomorrow’s) unprecedented level of digital media. But these similarities mask a few complex differences and interactions going on under the surface. We might see these areas as concerned with cultivation, transparency, opportunity, and gatekeeping.


It wouldn’t be inaccurate to think of a database as wild or without a guiding force; it’s the sum total of all contributions, no matter where they came from or who put them there. An archive, on the other hand, has an element of cultivation. Someone conscientiously decided that a group of objects belonged together for some reason: to commemorate, to preserve, to enlighten, etc. There is inclusivity in the former, forethought and exemption in the latter. This means there’s a lot at stake in an archive; Harris, describing Patrick Leary’s work, reminds us that “whatever does not end up in a digital archive, represented as cyber- and hypertext, will not, in the future, be studied, remembered, valorized, and canonized” (47). If everything is in a database, but we don’t know a thing is there, will it be remembered the way archived materials will be?

Levels of transparency

We think we can see into an archive quite clearly, but in reality, a whole host of opaque dividers are in the way. The tool, the archivist, the occasion for or drive to archival, and where/how the archive is housed stand between a clear overview/picture of the archive and the user. Databases, however, may have more viewing freedom built in because they often happen more organically and democratically. It probably wouldn’t be wise, though, to think of a database as without layers; as Azuma notes, for instance, the otaku database has strata: “The surface outer layer of otaku culture is covered with simulacra, or derivative works. But in the deep inner layer lies the database of settings and characters, and further down, the database of moe-elements” (58). In either case, reaching the levels or clearing hurdles to clarity, users must put some kind of effort in if they are to understand the system that stands in front of them.

Opportunities for remixes/derivations/creations

Because the archive is already in a preserved state, it already has some sort of narrative, which means that it could be harder to forge new works from or remix. An archive might function as inspiration, but in order to use the contained materials to make derivative works, a user would have to remove (or work around) the overarching narrative that’s already there. A database, though, doesn’t have a grand narrative, so it’s ready to be remixed and played with. There isn’t as much standing in the way. Of course, this doesn’t mean that a database will form a narrative or that users will even desire that it do so, as Manovich notes: “However, if the user simply accesses different elements, one after another, in a usually random order, there is no reason to assume that these elements will form a narrative at all” (228). Depending on the importance one assigns not just to narrative but to new, fresh narrative, these varying remix potentials could be seen as either benefits or drawbacks.


The term for those who keep archives sounds somewhat lofty: archivist. They take time to learn how to archive, to preserve; they need an understanding of history, of how parts fit together. Database entrances and remixes don’t demand nearly so much from participants. Anyone who watches some Star Trek episodes, for example, can become a creator (whether sanctioned or not) in the media property’s realm. Critics might make claims about the quality of the participant/creator’s work, but these may be of no consequence to creators and those who view their works. Archival is usually not so casually entered into, however, since an archive presents more obstacles to remixing and shuffling.

As archives and databases continue to grow, and new forms of media rise and fall in popularity, we will see more complications between archive and database. These complications are probably no bad thing, however, since they provide us with multiple ways of capturing and understanding information. Since the control of information is a form of power, we will need to continually pay close attention to how archives and databases interact to hold and make accessible our knowledge.

Works Cited:

Azuma, Hiroki. Otaku: Japan’s Database Animals. Translated by Jonathan E. Abel and Shion Kono, University of Minnesota Press, 2009.

Harris, Katherine D. “Archive.” Digital Keywords, edited by Benjamin Peters, Princeton University Press, 2016, pp. 45-53.

Manovich, Lev. The Language of New Media. MIT Press, 2002.

Blog Post #8

Database structures can be problematic simply because, on the surface, they might be seen as chaotic, disorganized, and if you make a small leap, inefficient or useless, at least regarding narrative. Azuma, however, begins to put some of the meaning back in database; although it doesn’t have a grand narrative, its meaning and use is ultimately highly flexible because it more easily responds to what the user is looking for/needs/expects/contributes. In a positive way, this gives us an abundance of meanings since there are more opportunities for fruitful connections. Sort of like Legos — if you have many sets, you can make more things — even those sorts of things that no one has made before. If you have only one set and an insistence on following the instructions that came with it, you’re always going to get the same thing, and so is everyone else.


Derivative works, then, might be seen as contributing to this flexibility because they increase the pool of information in the database for others to enjoy and remix. To extend the metaphor, a derivative work would add a new set of Legos. In fact, narrative universes might be seen as needing the derivative. Azuma writes: “In otaku culture ruled by narrative consumption, products have no independent value; they are judged by the quality of the database in the background. . . .consumers, once they are able to possess the settings, can produce any number of derivative works that differ from the originals” (33). Derivatives are natural because each subject interacts with the database in its own unique manner, and postmodern subjects are perfectly able to understand the difference between the subjective outer layer where they are remixing/working and the deep inner layer that contains all of the “settings and small narratives” of the narrative world.


So, we see an affirmation of the subject. Because the deep inner layer doesn’t have a big narrative meaning until the subject gives it one, this layer, the foundation of the database, can be said not to exist. There is potential, but like the tree falling in the woods, it doesn’t coalesce as a mode of expression until someone is there to experience it; whereas with a grand narrative, we might assume that it carries on regardless of whether someone is aware of its existence.

Taking this view does complicate ideas about what “author” and “creators” are or do, however. If we are continually pulling from a database, then everything, in a way, can be seen as a copy. What does it mean to be original when you’ve grabbed all of your materials from chunks that already exist? Is creation the act of ordering or of fabricating the bits that are stuck together? Who created the house, the bricklayer or the mason who made the bricks? It wouldn’t be a house if the bricks weren’t ordered into the shape as such, but it also wouldn’t be a house if the materials didn’t support this format, and in fact, there’s more brick than mortar in the structure.

Consumption, too, is problematic, although it might be less so than authorship. Later otaku, for instance, are comfortable with not having a grand narrative and are thus able to consume the database without any tension related to forcing a fiction into the narrative’s “empty” space. Azuma writes: “Compared with the 1980s otaku, those of the 1990s generally adhered to the data and facts of the fictional worlds and were altogether unconcerned with a meaning and message that might have been communicated” (36). We must still ask questions related to where consumption ends and authorship begins, but following Azuma, we can see that postmodern characteristics have made it fairly easy to consume the database, even as “fractured” as it is.

Works Cited:

Azuma, Hiroki. Otaku: Japan’s Database Animals. Translated by Jonathan E. Abel and Shion Kono, University of Minnesota Press, 2009.

Concept Analysis #2

Participating in the Apocalypse

Framing Participation

Participation seems like it should be easy to describe: you do something to join in, contribute, and you’re participating. According to Jenkins, Ford, and Green in Spreadable Media, however, participation, and its relation to consumption, is becoming more and more complicated, since audiences now have the means and skills not only to ingest media but also to change, contribute, and share those entertainments they love. The authors offer a range of competing frameworks that might explain how participation might be understood in our participatory media environment: “lurking versus legitimate peripheral participation; resistance versus participation; audiences versus publics; participation versus collaboration; hearing versus listening; [and] consumers versus co-creators” (155). In order to expand on just how complicated participation has become, I’d like to consider the fandom surrounding The Walking Dead (TWD) and a couple of these most salient frameworks, since fans of this series, passionate and opinionated, might be said to exemplify a few of these rubrics quite well.


Lurking versus Legitimate Peripheral Participation

Audience members who are visible, who engage noticeably through creation and discussion, are considered to be the ones adding the most to a fandom or website; they are also considered to be a small portion of a user base or community. Traditionally, inactive members (lurkers), who make up the largest portion of the base, are viewed as not offering as much (if anything at all). This view becomes complicated when we consider that levels of engagement vary and are not an “on/off” binary; that audience members contribute to a greater or lesser degree in various parts of a community; and that even lurking contributes something, even though it’s seen as passive: “From this perspective, a ‘lurker’ provides value to people sharing commentary or producing multimedia content by expanding the audience and potentially motivating their work, while critics and curators generate value for those who are creating material and perhaps for one another” (Jenkins et al.157).

Although it’s difficult to see TWD lurkers, it is possible to detect their presence. YouTube measures views, giving us an idea about the popularity of TWD fan vids, for instance. Music videos featuring popular songs, character quotes, and show scenes are a particular favorite. Consider one titled “Darryl Dixon/Numb” that was posted in Dec. 2015: it has over 312,000 views. All of these viewers have most likely not posted vids of their own, yet viewing drives “active” members to continue to create these tributes.

Resistance versus Participation

As Jenkins et al. point out, we “are resistant to something: that is we are organized in opposition to a dominant power. We participate in something, that is, participation is organized in and through social collectivities and connectivities” (163; emphasis in original). While the push from companies and media properties to turn audiences from resistance to participation is not without benefits, we must be aware that enjoyment and collaboration are not all of what’s at stake; producers and companies are also seeking greater acceptance of a brand or show, which in turn equals bigger profits. Participation has become more than just a way to show appreciation for a show or product, in other words — it’s a tool companies can manipulate in hopes of gaining an ever-wider audiences and larger benefits: “the notion of audience ‘activity’ and ‘sovereignty’ has been absorbed into Web 2.0 business models, requiring us to develop a more refined vocabulary for thinking about the reality of power relations between companies and their audiences” (Jenkins et al. 165).

Thanks to this emphasis on being brand loyalty and a visible part of a community, some fans probably feel the pressure to invest in TWD fan gear, which will show their commitment to participating in the community. And they certainly have no dearth of options when it comes to choosing fan goods; in fact, the number of licensed and unlicensed products are staggering, from t-shirts to coffee mugs to knitting patterns. Participation, here, means buying items, which may or may not be a good thing depending on what’s inside your wallet.

Participation versus Collaboration

Of course, a company or media property’s coopting of audience efforts can also lead to other effects. Sometimes, audience members become positioned inside communities not to resist or accept, but to collaborate, in the hopes of encouraging change and redirecting the aims of the community and its “mother” company. By working from the “inside” and acting as contributing members and, in a way, decision-makers, audience-member-collaborators can drive a brand/media property’s actions into suiting their needs, which ultimately offers them more out of the experience, whether the end goal is social or personal. Do companies always welcome such collaboration? Certainly not, since audience action might run counter to overarching desires or interests; however, “networked participation also forces media companies and brands to be more responsive to their audiences” (Jenkins et al. 175), which is usually in their interests, overall. The company that listens is the one least likely to be called out on Twitter for all to see.

TWD itself has been called out many times, used in service of a range of agendas that the creators may or may not support. Consider just a few article titles: “The Model Minority in the Zombie Apocalypse: Asian-American Manhood on AMC’s The Walking Dead”; “Are We the Walking Dead? Zombie Apocalypse as Liberatory Art”; “The Walking Dead: Late Liberalism and Masculine Subjection in Apocalypse Fictions”; and “’The Walking Dead’ and the Rise of Donald Trump”. Do the creators of the show align with all viewpoints presented in these pieces? Probably not. But collaboratory audience members can take advantage of their familiarity with the show to voice their opinions on subjects that matter to them, which will ultimately influence how others, including the creators, view the work. They have made the show’s fandom a space “where participants can step outside of their fixed roles and engage in meaningful conversations, identifying shared interests, mutual desires, and collective identities” (174).


The frameworks elaborated above should not be seen as the only ways to view TWD fandom specifically or participation in general. It’s easy to place TWD fandom into almost any conception of participatory audienceship, since the number of artifacts created around it offer virtually unlimited exploration and because of its immense popularity. Bearing this in mind, then, how is it possible to choose which is the best view of participation, the one which most fully explains how audiences participate today and how they could have a stronger experience in the future? In short, none are probably better than the other, since all contribute to the success of a media property as spreadable. As Jenkins et al. write:

Through our arguments so far, we hope to have convinced readers that the spread of all forms of media relies as much (or more) on their circulation by the audience as it does on their commercial distribution, that spreadability is determined by processes of social appraisal rather than technical or creative wizardry and on the active participation of engaged audiences.” (196)

Media, and TWD, need a participating audience for their successes, and this leaves room for all types of participation, from lurking to collaborating to offering critiques. Although this means that both audiences and producers need to expand (perhaps painfully) their definition of the word, the benefits, including greater connection and enjoyment, make the growing process beneficial in the end.

Works Cited:

Jenkins, Henry, et al. Spreadable Media: Creating Value and Meaning in a Networked Culture. New York University Press, 2013.

Blog Post #7

Smackdown: Arrested Development versus The Office

If we wanted to envision some symbols of drillability and forensic fandom, it wouldn’t be too difficult: a drill, a magnifying glass, a shovel, a scalpel. That’s because these forms of audience participation are all about unearthing every hidden detail, looking for the minutest of connections, and examining characters and intentions both prominent and obscure. A media property, to a forensic fandom, is a nut just waiting to be cracked. One example given by the authors of Spreadable Media is that of Lost, a show that “gains much of its complexity because of the layers of meaning packed into a single episode” (136).

A spreadable text, on the other hand, is about making connections among many parts, although not necessarily those types that are hidden or require deep combing or making analyses. The symbols would be somewhat different: a patchwork quilt or a tapestry, perhaps. Here, Jenkins et al. give the example of soap operas, which “provide a storytelling universe substantially larger than the show itself, offering almost infinite material for fan discussions and debates—and thus ensuring ‘spreadable’ content across fan networks” (132).

Although we can see where these two conceptions have salient differences, they do align; since both are ultimately providing a way for audiences to engage with content, they are both forms of participatory practice. As Jenkins et al. put it:

In short, both types of stories provide viable models for engaging particularly dedicated audiences, for creating potentially spreadable material, and for taking a transmedia approach to storytelling—even if they build that engagement in quite different ways. (137)

To look more closely at how these two are different yet similar, it’s helpful to take a look at a couple of examples. The first case, drillability, might be adequately seen through Arrested Development, a sitcom created by Mitchell Hurwitz. The network of shows and media property here is small; the show originally only ran for three seasons for a total of 53 episodes, with Netflix eventually adding a fourth season of 15 episodes – making 68 total. Compared to long-running shows such as Seinfeld or The Simpsons, this number is small indeed.

The show managed to pack unprecedented levels of complexity into its run, however, with some jokes requiring fans to participate in three, four, five or more rewatches to catch. Websites run articles on “jokes you probably missed” in the show, with fans pulling together to share their knowledge in the hopes of finally unpacking every bit, every gag, every tidbit of humor.

On the opposite side of the spectrum is The Office, which ran for nine seasons on NBC for a total of 201 episodes. This doesn’t count the many international iterations of the show, including the original version that aired on the BBC, the webisodes, and even a spin-off movie. Fans, then, have plenty of screen-time with their favorite characters, enough narrative to explore, talk about, and ponder. While the jokes here aren’t as layered, in other words, there is still plenty of conversation and fan enjoyment.


It’s this fan enjoyment that provides the similarity between the two and ultimately what makes each a success, even if it’s due to engagement of a different stripe. As fans react and talk about the show, either by mining for jokes or considering character actions across platforms, the media property gains traction and (hopefully) long-lasting appeal.

Works Cited:

Jenkins, Henry, et al. Spreadable Media: Creating Value and Meaning in a Networked Culture. New York University Press, 2013.

Keyword Post #6

“Go With the Flow,” Indeed

With media being more tangled than ever, it has become hard to clearly demarcate the endings and beginnings of the flow of information as it moves from one medium to another. If Buzzfeed shares an article comprising memes from Instagram and Facebook, is this an instance of journalism or social media? Which platform is considered to be primary, especially when such an article is circulated through both the original and further social media platforms? When Raymond Williams considered “flow” in 1974, he could apply it as “channel-specific”; since this is hardly possible today, what, then, does flow mean?

Sandra Braman offers a few starting points for how to conceptualize flow, as well as a few ideas regarding what’s at stake in this digital keyword. For her, flow should be understood as…

…concerned with the commercial. “Implicit versions of systems-based approaches can be found in research on the flow of content through each stage of the entire production and consumption chain” (120); an example of this type of system might be found in the way coupons and sales impact buyers. Marketing strategies must understand flow as the passing of promotions, vouchers, and flyers through forms and platforms both digital and analog.

…important to user experience. “Vendors and website designers would, and do, seek to maximize user experience of flow to ensure that their goods and services are included in the personal ecologies of as many consumers as they can reach” (125); going back to my previous post, Tom Bihn provides an example of how this “user experience of flow” can be exploited to inject the company’s bags (and lifestyle) into every aspect of a buyer’s sphere of life. This might take the form of posting pictures taken during real-world experiences with the bag to social media that are then shared and talked about on various forums, ultimately being featured on the company’s website, which legitimizes the activity.

…impeded by gatekeeping. “Other concepts long in use are being revisited. . . .[researchers] expand on our understanding of how gatekeeping affects content and information flows when the Internet is involved” (123); the issue of gatekeeping has become both so common and so interesting as to have a fairly active subreddit devoted to it (r/gatekeeping), where it can be seen that nearly any type of information is subject to gatekeeping by someone, somewhere:

…subject to differences whether it’s observed or perceived. “That is, evidence of flow must be both conceptually and operationally distinguished from evidence of perceptions of flow” (122); consider how it is to observe someone else use social media as opposed to how it is to use social media. In the former, you’re not subject to the full force of the flow of information, while in the latter, you’re an active participant.

Of course, flow, as a large concept, has many more facets, but these few suffice to make the point that flow unendingly impacts our entire mediated world, whether we exist as fans, researchers, bored audience members, or any other observer or participant. Although it’s hard to say for certain, Williams would most likely agree with this assessment of how crucial (and complex) flow remains.

Works Cited:

Braman, Sandra. “Flow.” Digital Keywords, edited by Benjamin Peters, Princeton University Press, 2016, pp. 118-131.

Blog Post #6

Where’ve You Bihn All My Life?

Note: This assignment calls for analysis of a media property; however, I rarely watch TV or movies and pay almost no attention to social media related to these. So, instead, I’d like to present an analysis of a company I support. I feel their social media strategies and content production offer rich analytical opportunities.

In 2012, I was listening to a podcast called “Cast On” when the host began talking about a knitting bag. No huge thing, except that I’ve had a particularly fraught relationship with knitting bags and luggage in general. All I’m saying is that you don’t want the stress of checking a bag that’s held together with duct tape and good wishes when you’re flying overseas. My ears perked when the host claimed that all types of bag-related stress—shoddy workmanship, design flaws, poor execution of good ideas—were not present in this bag, the Swift by luggage maker Tom Bihn (TB). I was curious, but truthfully, I thought the host sounded oddly overenthusiastic, so I didn’t pursue it any further.

I can’t pinpoint how many or what type of advertisements or mentions, spontaneous or planned, eventually goaded me into checking out the Tom Bihn website. But before I knew it, I had become enamored with the Swift, which ticks all the boxes of what a knitting bag really should be. Once it had found its way into my shopping cart, then to my house, I was hooked, becoming just as excited about the brand as the host of “Cast On” had been. It’s contagious.

It would be pretty easy to suggest that all of TB’s success is down to their excellent products, but part of the credit must surely go to their media strategies. Locating all of their media goals within the common paradigm of stickiness is tempting, but a closer inspection reveals a tendency toward spreadability, as discussed in Spreadable Media, by Jenkins, Green, and Ford. Certainly, the brains at TB want people to stay on the company’s website and forums, but they also encourage participation through the sharing of pictures, tips, and reviews. They skip what Jenkins et al. refer to as “the easiest way companies have found to conduct business online” by avoiding “‘destination’ viewing [that] often conflicts with both the dynamic browsing experience of individual Internet users and, more importantly, with the circulation of content through the social connections of audience members” (5). Sharing is the norm at TB, in other words, and in this way, the site is not about seeing but about creating an experience with the product.


This method of interaction goes one step further to make brand buyers feel like part owners in the experience and design, entering into the “continuous process of repurposing and recirculating [that] is eroding the perceived divides between production and consumption” (27). If Mr. Bihn designs the bags, users design methods for customizing, using, and living with them; they then create their own media products, which function somewhat as products: these show an individual’s creativity, social positioning, media prowess, design skills, and identity in the luggage and packing community (yes, that’s a thing).

If the company does well at showcasing their products and encouraging spreadability and participation, then they do equally well with customer service, understanding that there is a need to “think not just about how audiences might spread messages about a brand (and content from a brand) but also about how their own corporate presence might ‘spread’ to connect with the messages audiences are circulating about them” (27). This goes further than responding to issues fairly and adequately, although they surely do that. Little touches, such as handwritten post cards included with orders, personalized art on shipped boxes, and conversations through the forums push their audience (buyers) to spread positive messages.


Looking at this model for success, it’s natural to wonder how other companies might follow suit. Perhaps one way TB is able to remain positive and participatory is by remaining somewhat small. As such, it might not be a workable example for how bigger companies or even media properties can interact with fans; although it sidesteps the “deeply ambivalent” feelings of consumers towards participatory corporate culture that Jenkins et al. refer to, it does so by keeping production, social media, and products as consumer-centric. When businesses become overly large, this consumer-centric attitude often buckles under the weight of board members, demands for profit, corporate accountability, and maybe even plain, old-fashioned greed. Creators of media products, too, often have particular troubles in interacting with fans, not only because of size but also because of the drive to protect intellectual and creative property.

As Jenkins et al. note, however, there certain groups who “are strongly motivated to produce and circulate media materials as parts of their ongoing social interactions. . .[including] enthusiasts for particular brands that have become signposts for people’s identities and lifestyles” (29). Perhaps if TB becomes a larger signpost, its fans will continue to share their media materials, leading to a model of success that starts small but obtains big results. True, an expansive size takes away some of the brand’s cachet, since everyone has the product and it’s no longer “special.” In fact, the TB brand has already been subject to some knock-offs, so their aesthetic is entering the mainstream. Perhaps their fair and upstanding business practices will, too.

Works Cited:

Jenkins, Henry, et al. Spreadable Media: Creating Value and Meaning in a Networked Culture. New York University Press, 2013.