Blog Post #12

The End, My Friend

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To be perfectly frank, I didn’t know what to expect going into this course. As a longtime reader, I’ve never been hugely into movies or TV shows. Movies, especially, hold little fun for me because I prefer an immersive experience in a fictional universe and movies are so short. I also don’t like watching a show one episode at a time, spread out over a season. I almost always wait and binge-watch a show obsessively, losing myself in the fictional world in much the same fashion I would a book. This makes me horrible to watch TV with, actually, because I don’t like any talking that will disrupt the suspension of disbelief, and I have been known to make a big to-do of pausing a show while watching it with someone until they get the hint to knock off the commentary. Of course, I do enjoy talking about a show when it’s over, just not during.

So, I didn’t know what to expect, but I feel that I now have a firm foundation in what’s going on in this realm of media studies (as well as a justification for my viewing habits). I understand what’s at stake, to whom the main voices belong, and what sort of vocabulary is under discussion. Now, the question that remains for me is: how will I be able to use this in the future?

I inevitably see myself ending up somewhere at the junction of writing, textiles, and crafts, and perhaps unexpectedly, I see digital media studies as a sort of propelling force along that path. Perhaps this is because arts and crafts are no longer able to remain in only the realm of the physical; the digital component has become huge and unavoidable, and anyone who works in this area must address this fact. Perhaps it’s because my design work has always interestected with narrative and fandom, and digital media studies provides more ways to work in this realm. And perhaps it’s because craft has a social component, as does digital media studies, and the overlap between them is often particularly striking to me. No matter the reason, though, I certainly see how my knowledge in this area (limited though it is) provides me with more lines of inquiry and jumping off points than I previously had.

I’ve enjoyed reading everyone’s postings and having discussion in class meetings, and I hope you’re all able to put the knowledge from this course to good use, too. I have to say that our discussions have also prompted in me a desire to watch a wider range of TV shows or movies and perhaps even check out a few video games! It seems as though all in the class are much more knowledgeable in these areas, and it’s been fun to see what everyone is interested in. I’m definitely having a Netflix week after finals.

Oh, and there is one last thing I’ve learned: Star Trek really and truly is the answer to everything.

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Blog Post #11

Narrative? No Thank You.

In “The Sands of Time: Crafting a Video Game Story,” Jordan Mechner offers a fascinating glimpse into the world of video game creation. He describes the relative importance of various elements and what makes characters memorable, but his various musings about game design are perhaps not the most interesting feature of the work. What’s most appealing is that his conception of narrative and gaming is exactly in line with Azuma’s theories regarding database, narrative, and otaku culture. These striking similarities allow us to draw useful parallels between otaku culture and computer media/gaming at large.

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For example, Mechner essentially describes a database structure with concentric rings, but here, the innermost layer is not that of character traits or chara-moe (as in Azuma) but that of gameplay. Gameplay is made up of the actions that players can perform, such as exploration or combat. The author, in fact, acknowledges this directly when he asserts that most importantly, the gameplay would involve acrobatic exploration, combat, and one “cool, original feature,”; only after these elements were set could the story and characters be created: “The challenge for the writer is to invent a story that will fit this gameplay, making the most of its strengths without highlighting its limitations” (112). From this insight, we begin to see that fans, for the most part, choose a game for the type of gameplay experience they will get and not necessarily because of the game’s linear narrative. Of course, all of the elements, including the story, are important, but those outside the gameplay are not the foundation.

What’s perhaps most intriguing about this similarity in database structure is that the innermost layer of database is interchangeable, and this interchangeability probably speaks greatly to why certain people are drawn to one form of media and not another. Of course, it’s difficult to posit what kinds of people would be drawn to which types of media without making large generalizations that might be unfair, harmful, or exclusive, but overall we might look for trends that could be useful in understanding where a particular media form is going or what it could do to help or hinder in areas of life (the social, for instance, or the industrial).

But to move beyond group mentalities, I think we might also see how the similarities in database structure reinforce Azuma’s animality at the higher level: the inclusive group of all media users. The gameplay database, the character database—they’re ways of making meaning that aren’t about a grand narrative but rather the smaller, random, database-driven narratives that can be personalized to the user. So, in this way, we might find in Mechner’s ideas an endorsement of Azuma, who writes: “To this extent, the functions of moe-elements in otaku culture are not so different from those of Prozac or psychotropic drugs. I believe the same observation can be made of some trends in the entertainment industry, such as Hollywood films and techno music” (94). Here, the game is the palliative for postmodern angst, the playable features providing a sense of purpose that’s rebuilt again and again, endlessly, from the random database.

Perhaps (though media seems to change with rapidity) the more things change — the more they stay the same.

Change

Works Cited:

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

Mechner, Jordan. “The Sands of Time: Crafting a Video Game Story.” Second Person: Role-Playing and Story in Games and Playable MediaHarrigan, Pat and Noah Wardrip-Fruin, editors, The MIT Press, 2010, pp. 111-120.

Blog Post #10

Media studies seems to be in a constant state of needing to deal with Bolter and Grusin’s conception of “remediation,” of which they write:

“It would seem, then, that all mediation is remediation. We are not claiming this as an a priori truth, but rather arguing that at this extended historical moment, all current media function as remediators and that remediation offers us a means of interpreting the work of earlier media, as well.” (55)

In other words, media are in a constant state of informing and changing one other. The authors go on to claim that this does not remove reality; it still exists, there “is no getting rid of the real” (56). The real can, however, be reformed in the ongoing process of remediation.

Paul Booth, in his attempt to fit remediation into current understandings, quibbles with Bolter and Grusin’s conception. His concerns are several: it’s (1) deterministic when it claims not to be, it (2) doesn’t adequately address social and cultural factors, and it (3) forces immediacy and hypermediacy into a position of polar opposition. He uses the logic of mediacy in alternate reality games (ARGs) to work through these issues, eventually coming to a conception that he calls demediation.

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Demediation, put simply, is “a state where the ubiquity of mediation hides that selfsame mediation” (181). Demediation is the state a participant in an ARG enters when their mediated play so mimics reality that there is nothing outside of mediation: “To become completely engulfed in a mediated world. . .is to lose the ability to tell mediation from reality” (187). With this concept, Booth can then answer the concerns he raises about Booth and Grusin’s remediation.

First, the demediated state is one that accepts the entire, enmeshed web of technologies and can also encompass such experiences as flow (186), which means that technology is not remediated in each new generation in a linear fashion as according to Bolter and Grusin. Second, the user experience of an ARG is an important and valued part of the demediated state; in fact, demediation could not be explained without examining users and their forms of participation, concerns which need not be addressed when speaking of remediation. Third, ARGs “mash up” immediacy and hypermediacy, showing them not to be separate sides or drives; rather, they “inhabit an interreal space that has characteristics that can be described as both immersive and as obvious. . . .the ARG highlights the hypermediacy as an immediate experience” (189).

To Booth, then, demediation moves media studies past remediation, past looking at media as iterations of something out there, apart from reality (although able to affect it). Instead, media studies must acknowledge that all is media, whether daily life or game, never examining concepts such as “fans” or “participation” without first acknowledging that “mediation becomes a way of life” (192).

While I’m unsure whether I agree with Booth, I do find an interesting echo in Manovich’s conception of the interactive, of which the latter writes: “In relation to computer-based media, the concept of interactivity is a tautology. Modern HCI is by definition interactive” (55). Just as interactivity is no longer a state that has any difference from non-interactivity (since media can be thought of as always interactive), so does demediation show that the state of non-media doesn’t exist, making mediated living the default. As we march forward with technology and media, which other states will we become unable to enter? Will one of the “public/private” binary be erased? What about choice? Although I don’t pretend to be able to guess, I would assume it’s an important area to continue to study.

Works Cited:

Bolter, Jay David and Richard Grusin. Remediation: Understanding New Media. MIT Press, 2000.

Booth, Paul. Digital Fandom: New Media Studies. Peter Lang Publishing, 2010.

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

Blog Post #9

In Digital Fandom, Booth explores the concept of the database, but unlike Manovich or Azuma, he doesn’t see it as quite so random or far-removed from narrative structure. He refers to it, in fact, as narrative database and credits to it a great reliance on fans and their work. He uses the example of fan-created wikis that explore popular cult shows, such as Heroes and Lost. One might argue that these examples work against his point in no small way, since their orderedness and structure give them the feel more of fan texts than of a database (which wouldn’t necessarily have any kind of order, as explained by Manovich: “As a cultural form, the database represents the world as a list of items, and it refuses to order this list” [225].)

Further, it would probably be fairly easy to argue that Booth isn’t describing a database at all but is instead describing a narrative structure that is supported by a database. As Azuma identifies, there are many layers to a database, each with their own elements and each supporting those above. Booth doesn’t perhaps dig all the way down to the lowest level, doesn’t take the elevator all the way to the basement, so to speak. He instead stays where a user-created database is still essentially a communal narrative experience.

One way he avoids theorizing this bottom, random layer, is by stating that the interaction of story and discourse, or the actual story and the way it’s presented, can now be formed into “a mashed up third form” rewritten by audiences that creates “a new, interactive discourse”; the wiki is “the storehouse of a narrative database” (96-97). He styles the narrative database as the site of this new type of audience interaction, one formed not only by a narrator or story but by the members of the audience themselves. But I think here, we must ask — how is this actually a form of database and not merely one method of audience participation in highly participatory digital media? His argument seems to be entirely founded on a conception of narrative that takes over the database and rewrites it as potentiality of narrative, eventually getting rid of the notion of the database as personal, random, un-orderable. He does this by continually forcing a conception of narrative onto it, even when it’s necessary to twist and turn the definitions of both concepts.

This argument is (to me) unconvincing, as I find that Manovich and Azuma are more persuasive with the idea that a true database does not have to give us a narrative. We can use it to other ends. What Booth is creating is something else entirely, a way to use these same terms as a way to fit one possible way of experiencing the items in a database. Ultimately, it would seem he’s using the term “database” in a much more pedestrian way, as a word for a storehouse of information that supports or becomes part of the narrative rather than a place that’s opposed to narrative as Manovich or Azuma would have it be. He writes, for instance, that “fans indicated a rereading of the Heroes narrative that makes each of these issues important for the cult serial narrative as a whole—as a database” (98). Here, the database is a place (a wiki) that holds information that is already in some sort of order and holds some sort of narrative weight — a far cry from Manovich’s “enemy of narrative.”

Works Cited:

Booth, Paul. Digital Fandom: New Media Studies. Peter Lang Publishing, 2010.

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.

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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.

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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.

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.

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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.

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.

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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.

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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.