In what ways do you approach the possibility of pursuing knowledge transfer between the media industries and academia?
Over the past several decades, those of us living in the developed world have been in the midst of a phase of dramatic, rapid, and prolonged change, much of which has been ascribed to the invention and dispersion of digital and mobile technologies. These changes have impacted all aspects of our lives and thus have implications across all disciplines and institutions. But since most of these changes have centered around shifts in communication platforms and practices, these changes have been most dramatically felt within programs which center on media and communications.
As the society around us copes with these changes, our expertise is gaining new value and visibility, and we either rise to those challenges or we demonstrate ourselves to be of limited value to our students and society at large. For us to confront this situation, we need to engage in conversation with others who are also confronting dramatic media change – among them, thought leaders in industry, government, policy advocacy and activism, the arts, and journalism.
For many of us coming from the humanities, these new relationships may be uncomfortable and uncertain: our fields since the 1960s have defined themselves in opposition to dominant institutions, rather than existing in conversation with them, and we may see the only possible terms of such a relationship as those of co-optation and subservience. What I advocate, however, is that we expand the concept of being a public intellectual to include engaging in and facilitating important conversations with other key institutions, often as a means of helping to shape and influence the changes that are taking place.
We might think of engaging with industry in terms similar to the way we discuss policy work in relation to government or political parties. In those countries where this is a strong tradition in cultural studies, academics engage in important conversations with policy-makers with whom they do not always – indeed, rarely – fully agree, but because they want to influence issues that matter to them. As academics, we can be advocates for under-served populations or for the public at large, only if we agree to engage in conversations with those who shape the policies and practices that impact their lives. It is hard to speak truth to power if you are not speaking to power, and in the case of the digital, especially in a Neoliberal era, those decisions are more apt to be made by companies than by governments.
Beyond this, the reality is that there are not going to be enough academic jobs in the future for the students we are pumping through our graduate programs; they are going to need to seek work elsewhere and we either help prepare them for that work or we fail them. I think if we want to make a difference, we need to prepare them for potential work in industry, while helping them to see this work in terms of the theoretical and political commitments we have long fostered through our scholarship and teaching. We have to prepare them to make a difference in those contexts where they are going to be working: that does not mean our graduate programs become trade schools, but it does mean we help them to think through what it would mean to apply our theories to real world contexts where they might be working, and giving them a bigger picture of the media changes that are going to impact their future careers.
To me, all of these factors point to the need for new relationships between academia and industry, including those which involve knowledge sharing and co-production as well as those which involve placing students inside corporate spaces for internships.
What do you think the media industries can contribute to scholarly media studies today and vice versa?
This flow of knowledge and information should not be one directional. We have things to learn from as well as to teach industry. For example, at MIT, I helped to establish the Futures of Entertainment conferences, which brought together key thinkers for industry, academia, policy, and journalism, for extended discussions of key trends and developments in the creative industries. Over time, these conferences developed a core constituency that got to know each other outside of normal work contexts, developed a shared vocabulary and a shared set of convictions which they brought to the projects they undertook. This FOE community asked hard, thoughtful questions, challenging projects which they felt did not reflect a more empowered conception of consumer relations, for example, and these exchanges have been spread widely – through the video recordings which are posted on the web, through Twitter responses and through new partnerships which developed amongst people who participated at our events.
Since I moved to USC, we have also added a west coast event, originally Transmedia Hollywood, later Transforming Hollywood, which has supported similar kinds of exchanges. For example, it is clear that the concept of engagement has a strong grip on the ways the entertainment industry is making decisions, displacing the idea of appointment based viewing with models which count on the consumer to seek out content. For academics writing about the media landscape, it is important that we understand how the industry is thinking about engagement, which effects programming, distribution, and branding strategies. The insights that emerge from these conversations have helped to shape academic writing on connected viewing, fan engagement, and transmedia entertainment, and have allowed academic writing to better keep pace with the changes taking place in a networked culture. For industry insiders, the fact that there is a well-established academic field focused on critically understanding fans and fan culture has been a revelation, and one which has helped them reform their practices to be more respectful of the traditions, norms, and values associated with fandom.
Can you talk about the processes involved in the ‘take-up’ of academic concepts as practices within the media industries?
The example of transmedia may be the best example to illustrate this process. The word, transmedia, was coined by Marsha Kinder in her book, Playing with Power, where she was writing about characters, such as the Super Mario Brothers, who were being deployed across a range of different media platforms. I had been teaching and reflecting about this concept for many years, but I began to introduce it via a Creative Leaders Program which my faculty had developed in collaboration with Electronic Arts to help their game designers and our students to think more imaginatively about the future of their media. Through these workshops, I got to know game designers such as Neil Young and Danny Bilson, who were exploring new ways that games might interface with films or television programs.
Through other outreach efforts with industry, I learned about the work that Sony was doing to create web-based content for Dawson’s Creek, about the ARG being developed around A.I., about the marketing being done for The Blair Witch Project, about the ways these ideas were being deployed by BMW in the marketing world, and about the plans to extend The Matrix into games, comics, and animation. At one of the EA workshops, a summit between film and games industry leaders, I floated the concept of transmedia storytelling, and it was well received, so I introduced it through a column I wrote for Technology Review, and expanded that article into a chapter in Convergence Culture.
This was academia doing what it does best: offering terms and concepts that had use value and lending intellectual authority to established practices.
Some of the industry leaders, among them, Mark Warshaw, who had participated in the Futures of Entertainment conferences, read the book, and began passing it along to their friends. The book came out just as the Writer’s Guild went out on strike over issues of payment for digital content. The Writer’s Strike specifically centered on whether what writers created for the web was promotion (in which case it was simply work for hire) or storytelling (in which case they should receive residuals), very much the same question that Convergence Culture was asking, so I am told that the book was being passed along the picket lines from one writer to the next. When the strike ended, we saw the emergence of Transmedia departments created on the sets of Heroes, Lost, and other cult shows. This work also provided language for new companies then emerging who sought to consult on the marketing of entertainment properties or advise them on the extensions and management of their fictional worlds and mythologies. This was academia doing what it does best: offering terms and concepts that had use value in conversations that were already taking place elsewhere in the culture and lending intellectual authority to those fighting to change established practices.
Within short order, transmedia became the preferred word to describe these new storytelling practices. Since then, we’ve seen the concept get adopted by all kinds of funding agencies, all over the world, including various culture ministries, as they have sought ways to foster greater use of digital and other media to extend the capacities of filmmakers and television producers. World-wide, there are conferences where artists, industry leaders, academics, policy-makers, debate different models of transmedia storytelling, and share and critique each other’s work. From the start, this has been a space where academics have a vital voice but where there are also core theoretical insights coming from expert practitioners, and where these exchanges have allowed everyone to do better work. These exchanges have not always been without frictions, especially as some find the efforts to refine core concepts tiresome, or where academics sometimes distrust the blurring of commercial and creative interests that shape new production, but there has been enough openness and good will that we have worked through such obstacles to keep the conversation going.
What has been your experience as an academic influencing media policy ?
So far, we’ve focused primarily on the relationship between academics and industry, but I think we need to place those relationships in the broadest possible context. Ultimately, what motivates me is an effort to promote a more participatory culture, one where we dramatically expand who has access to the means of cultural production and circulation, one where we insure widespread access to technologies and skills, and one where we protect the rights of the public to meaningfully participate in the decisions that impact their lives. So far, these are more ideals than realities, but I would argue that we have made significant progress on all of these fronts, at least in the English-speaking world, with an understanding that these trends are being played out in somewhat different terms in different countries depending on their political, cultural, and economic structures.
To achieve these goals, I have been willing to consult, advocate, and engage with many different kinds of institutions who have an impact on these issues or who have resources which might be deployed to foster desired changes. I have consulted with governments; I have worked with foundations and policy think tanks; I have advised educational institutions, from K-12 to higher education, and cultural institutions, such as museums and libraries, and arts-funding agencies; I have worked with activist groups to ensure that we have a better understanding of those practices that can be leveraged to promote social justice.
In my teaching, I try to help my students to develop strategies that will sustain more public-facing work. It starts with the ability to write and speak in a variety of different modes: writing an op-ed or a blog post is different than writing a journal article, speaking to a governmental body is different from speaking to industry or a parents-teacher group. You have to know how to start where your audience is, to identify and address their interests and concerns, to use language which they can understand and which has resonance with them.
This focus on accessibility and influence is not about dummying down; it’s about taking ownership over every new term you introduce into the conversation, explaining those things you need to know to follow your argument, and not assuming that everyone comes from the same conceptual background. These values hold for speaking across disciplines within the academic space and they hold for speaking across sectors in the public sphere.
Beyond this, you have to be ready to shed any preconceptions or stereotypes you have about each other; you may disagree or have conflicting interests but you have to be able to work with good faith with the other party; you have to be prepared to compromise or accept partial successes as steps forward within a longer process of bringing about meaningful change. You need to have a strong ethical compass and a clear sense of what you want to accomplish, and you have to keep your eye on the prize, know what you are working for, and avoid being distracted by battles you can’t win or that will distract you from your core goals.
When academics and industry work together, we are lending our credibility to each other, and interesting things can develop under these circumstances.
Let me pass along some core pieces of advice in terms of academic partnerships with industry:
- The academic needs a core ally or sponsor inside each of the member companies where this work is taking place, someone who advocates for funding to support the project, someone who directs attention within the company to the research, and someone who often translates its findings into something the company can act upon. Ideally, this is actually a core group of people, since the turnover in industry is so rapid, or otherwise, your project is going to get orphaned very quickly.
- The academic needs to understand what formats for presenting findings are going to be most effective at reaching the industry audience. Is it a white paper, a power point deck, an executive briefing, a creative leader's training session, a brainstorming meeting with each team, a public talk? For each company, the answer to this may be different, so this is something you need to talk through before starting the project.
- One of the biggest challenges is going to be the temporalities of academia and industry. Sometimes, industry runs faster than academics can keep up with, sometimes industry runs on a hurry up and wait schedule where they lag just as academics get a head of steam. Both sides need to be transparent about what they can and cannot do and when – and still, this is going to be the biggest source of misunderstanding and friction in both directions.
- I've found that industry listens better when they are paying you. They value things in economic terms and they value insights they get when they place economic value on it. Besides, I don't do pro bono work for companies that can pay for my services. I'd rather take a little money from a company and give free services to other groups. I never get rich off of this work, pumping most of what they pay back into student fellowships to support the research, but I also do not wanted to be treated as a cheap resource by companies, if I can help it.
- Never be afraid to speak truth to power. The company is often seeking advice for academics they are not hearing from within their organization and this creates a space where you can pass along critique of what they are doing that they need to hear and that help keep you honest as an academic. Besides, in many cases, you are lending your intellectual support and institutional authority to people around the table who might have been making these arguments all along and are not being heard. When academics and industry work together, we are lending our credibility to each other, and interesting things can develop under these circumstances.
Finally, what do you see as some of the broader emerging developments in media industry studies right now?
We might identify two core strands in this work: the first would be production studies that seeks to better understand the factors that shape decisions within the creative industries or to analyse the mechanisms through which these industries represent themselves to themselves and to the world; while the other would be audience or fandom studies, which seeks to understand how people engage with and through media in the context of their everyday lives.
We might map these two schools broadly in relation to Stuart Hall’s classic “encoding, decoding” model. That is, one helps us to understand how media is produced, the other how media is consumed. But, keep in mind that these roles have blurred considerably in a world where more and more of us have access to expanded communication capacity, where the audience often recreates and recirculates media that matters to them, where the voice of the audience may also shape the way the industry and its products are understood, and where there are new relationships between producers and consumers emerging via social media.
In such a context, the distinctions between production studies and audience studies needs to break down; we need to understand the decisions which are being made on both sides of that classic divide and the ways they influence each other; we need to understand the conflicting motives in a world where most media producers are also fans of the media they produce and where many fans are also producing media which is being consumed by other fans (even if not necessarily in a commercial context.)
This all points towards the need for multiperspectival work. We are not going to be able to understand the industry side of this equation if we are not engaging with industry, but we should be careful about aligning our own interests too closely with industry, because many of the key struggles over democracy and diversity require us to tap into the struggles of popular audiences and grassroots media producers. Academics may be situated to bring all of the parties to the table, as we use the university as a kind of “Switzerland,” a neutral territory, where competing groups can share knowledge, listen to each other’s perspectives, and develop approaches which better serve their multiple, sometimes conflicting, sometimes aligned, interests.