Fan studies: The different and the revisionist

You can’t have PCA without a fan studies panel. Better yet, if you are in anyway interested in fan studies, this is the spot of the week. My first stop was a session titled “Counting and recounting the players in fan culture.”. The three panelists, all from Old Dominion U, discussed fandoms from the perspectives of marketing, transmedia storytelling, and ACA-Fandom.” Of these presentations, I was particularly interested in marketing, and ACA-Fandom.

In terms of marketing, Diane Cooke, from ODU discussed the role of fan communities as marketing tools. This is a fascinating subject for me, as I am most interested in about the intersection between fandoms and corporate cultures. In the textual poachers model, fandom is about establishing a moral economy, which necessarily pits fans and corporate interest. However, I find myself often thinking that it can’t be that simple. Nothing ever is, and this is why I chose to study fans who interact in spaces that are furnished by corporations. Diane Cooke’s presentation addressed a related topic. Based on the work of Peter Morville, she suggested the “Markets are conversations.” Furthermore, the corporate players involved in these conversations are actually tying to be responsive.

Now, that kind of statement would not fly under the transgressive, textual poacher model. “What do you mean corporate players are trying to be responsive? Don’t you realize that whenever they get involved in anything, they wreck it?”

That may be so, but I’m a pragmatist. Fan communities are no longer marginal to the way in which the culture industries operate (BTW… that’s also a Jenkism). Rather, fans are really seen as valuable brand advocates, which is why D. Cooke’s presentation was so engaging for me. Her project was about mapping fan conversations about the release of the Beatles Rock Band game, and it uses a rhizomatic perspective.

Now, if you’re not familiar with rhizomes, or you know them in another context, perhaps, they are a metaphor for complexity. Deleuze and Guattari came up with it, and they used it to explain how we can construct knowledge, and understand complex phenomena. Rhizomes are essentially surface roots, which spread in different directions. The analyst and the critic of culture would be well advised to follow the rhizomes, wherever they may lead. In this sense, rhizomatic theory is different than other philosophical perspectives about knowledge. Rhizomatics is about connections and disruptions, whereas the more traditional way of understanding knowledge is about specialization and deep respect for authority.

What makes rhizomes so well suited for projects that map web-based interaction is precisely this idea of surface, and even unpredictability. In nature, you can’t really predict where a rhizome will go (yes, rhizomes are real. They are actual roots… next time you go to the grocery store and pick up ginger root, you should know that’s a rhizome). In an online environment, you can’t predict what will become a meme, be forgotten, lay dormant and then re-emerge, be taken at face value, or what impact any of it may have. If anything, you can follow a phenomena, and you can map it and describe it, but you can’t expect to fully comprehend it.

“The rhizome is huge, so how can you maintain conversations?” That was one take away from Cooke’s presentation. As she described the process of mapping, you have to be aware of the various stakeholders that are involved in this conversations. You have the official ones, which are essentially the corporations that have incorporated the internet into their marketing efforts (that would be ALL OF THEM), and the consumers, which include fans. Fans will take to the internet, and share information, and official stakeholders are always keeping an eye out.

I don’t mean that in the sense of spying. I mean it in the sense of recognizing the opportunities that fans create for brand extension. In this sense, Cooke described fans in ways reminiscent of Muniz and O’Guinn’s brand communities. They keep up with the developments that pertain the objects of their fandom, and they share information and speculation about these objects.

Cooke’s colleague at Old Dominion University, Danielle Roach, spoke on “Pre-Jenkins ACA-Fandom.” Her work brought in a feminist perspective on ACA-Fandom, by suggesting that feminist scholars who wrote about fandom before Jenkins published textual poachers had been left out of the historiography of fan studies. I wholeheartedly agree with the argument, but I can’t help but wonder if the omission of individuals like Janice Radway is not only due to the declining fortunes of feminism (Roach’s argument), but could also be the result of the ways in which we label and self-identify our work. I mean, did Janice Radway ever say she studied fans?

Still, why aren’t we including much earlier work on fandom as part of the historiography of the discipline? Perhaps is because starting points, or foundational stories if you want, are often arbitrary. However, the ways in which power structures play out and influence academic disciplines should be taken into account. I found that to be Roach’s most valuable contribution, and that was my main take away from her discussion of the historiography of fandom.

Teaching Media Literacy with Googledocs

Today, I tried something new with googledocs. It’s probably not really new, but it was new to me, and I felt like I had discovered it.

Well, I had not, but it was exciting, and it all started with this video.

This spreadsheet was posted in February of 2011. It shows us real-time crowd sourcing. The collaborators are thousands of volunteers. Their task: to translate  hundreds of voice messages coming out of Egypt during the uprisings that pushed out Hosni Mubarak from Arabic into English. These messages were then re-posted as tweets. You can read more about this project, and the Speak2Tweet technology that made it possible here.

What does any of this have to do with my intro to media class?

No, we did not contribute to the spreadsheet. What actually happened is that we used Googledocs to collaborate in the classroom. The topic was advertising, and my students went on a youtube scavenger hunt.

I have been teaching a session on advertising techniques for a few years now, and I use a hand-out developed by the Media Awareness Network, which describes 15 such techniques. I like it because it is clear, and it gets the job done, at least as far as an introductory course is concerned. Until now, my modus operandi had been to look for suitable examples on my own, but I realize that this sidelines my students. I wanted to put them at the forefront. So, I gave them the handout, asked them to get in groups, and instructed them to find examples. I created a googledoc, and shared it to the entire class. They copied and pasted the urls, and now we have a document that they created, as opposed to something I came up with. Here is the result. Unfortunately, I was unable to create a screencast as the students were compiling their lists (it was sooooooo cool, just to see the document coming together in real time). I will try again later on.

We did have a lively discussion, which went beyond the advertising strategies listed on the handout. This Volkswagen commercial, for example, prompted an exchange about portrayals of “ideal families” on commercial advertising. We detected quite a bit of nostalgia, as this ad reflects an upper middle class household, where only one parent works outside the home.

This ad, on the other hand, initiated another discussion about limits. How far can you go in an ad before you cross a line?

As an instructor, I am beginning to play around with interactivity.  Googledocs certainly allowed us to share insights about content that I would probably have missed, had I been solely relying on my own resources. In fact, I probably would have never come across many of the commercials that my students shared with the class. This is because recall definitely played a role in how my class looked for examples. Indeed, several students selected commercials they remember watching as children, which also provided a good opportunity to talk about what makes commercials stand out.

Los Links: Bing wants you Latino(a) people…

I couldn’t help myself after watching Bing’s latest commercial. It’s a play on telenovelas.

Or is it? in terms of audience appeal, I’ve spent the last three years looking at the appeal of Latinos(as) as a demographic. This argument is one of the cornerstones of my dissertation. However, Ugly Betty is now off the air, and it is a loss in terms of representations of Latinos(as). The one leading character we had is now gone (and I don’t count Sofia Vergara’s character in Modern Family because she’s part of an ensemble show). But I digress. This is more about Bing.

According to Sharon Chan, of the Seattle Sun Times, telenovela spoofs are not new. Ugly Betty, and 30 Rock have done it before. In Ugly Betty, though, the spoofs were always depicted to the public as part of the Latino(a) appeal of the show. The logic for it was that Latinos(as) watch telenovelas, they love them, and they’ll relate to them. Since Ugly Betty was based on a telenovela, the mini-episodes merely accentuated the marketing of the show.

As for 30 Rock, there was no overarching strategy that required the spoof. At least, not in the same way as Ugly Betty. However, 30 Rock is a show within a show, a commentary on the television industry that often uses its NBC-Universal, its parent company, for plot points. NBC-U is also the parent company of Telemundo. The Generalissimo explicitly refers to Telemundo in the episode, and there’s a glimpse of the Telemundo logo at the beginning of the scene. However, Generalissimo also talks about what appeals to Latino(a) women. He is sure that he can “become everything that every Hispanic woman desires.” Apparently it’s an over-the-top guy in a fake military uniform.

Bing has crafted its new advertising campaign out of spoofing popular culture. It has already done the Shining, and now we move on to Latino(a) culture. It’s a funny parody, I’ll admit, but not very original, and not just because two other shows did it. Telenovelas, along with tacos, have become shorthand in attempts to reach out to Latinos(as). Here’s something that Voto Latino did to get the Latino(a) vote out:

So, now we have a Latino non-profit, two television shows, and a major corporation using the same themes? Don’t tell me this isn’t about the Latino(a) audience, at least up to a certain extent. Besides, spoofing telenovelas is fairly safe. Even Latinos(as) do it, so we’re not exactly talking Frito Bandito here.

Or are we? Bing’s parody brings forth three common stereotypes about Latinos(as). The Bandit is this really violent guy, that will erupt without provocation. Alongside this stereotype, theres  the Latin Lover, and the Dark Lady, both of which speak to the hypersexuality of Latino(a) culture (Berg, 2002). These images are recurrent, and have become so familiar as to go unnoticed. Should we expect a fall-out?

Honestly, I don’t think so. The focus of the commercial works in two levels. The first is the obvious references to the telenovela, which, as I said before, even Latinos(as) have mocked. The second is the stereotypes, and I think that will go under the radar, especially in the current climate. Subtly disguised under the telenovela, it can go unnoticed. We’re not talking South Park and Prophet Mohammed here, folks.

As for me… I’m not upset. I may point out the things I noticed in the commercial, but I still got a good laugh out of it. I think this new campaign is working a lot better for me than the “information overload” theme of last year. What I’m really interested in seeing, though, is whether or not they’ll do a part two of this telenovela. If they do so, then I think we would have a better argument for Bing targeting Latinos(as). Plus, since the spot is in Spanish with subtitles, you can use it over at Univision and Telemundo.

How very cost effective indeed. (Microsoft… you sneaky bastard!)