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Monthly Archives: March 2013

The media studies blogosphere blew up March 13-15 over the Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign to produce a movie based on 2004-7 TV show Veronica Mars. I’m a little late to the party because I had a March 18 blog post in the works already, but here I am now, with a hat tip once again to Suzanne Scott, who has a way with naming even in three-sentence blog prefaces and gave me “fan-ancing.”

I am, as many are, troubled by the Veronica Mars Kickstarter campaign. I will also, as many have done, preface the analysis of my concern with a statement that I really like the show. I am late on that as well, having just finished the first season via Netflix, but I get why people are willing to throw money at there being more of it.

The reward on movies has always been privatized—that’s what some people are pointing out as why the Kicksterter campaign is not a problem, as with Jason Mittell’s comment in his post Veronica Mars and Exchanges of Value Revisited that “we’re basically just pre-buying merchandise, DVDs, or experiences. How is that unethical?” However, socializing the risk of producing a large-scale film is new. And it’s symptomatic. And it’s probably not going away.

I’m not the only one to speak the language of risk. Bethan Jones, in her Fan Exploitation, Kickstarter and Veronica Mars, noted that this is a situation where “the risk and reward seem reversed, with all the risk — i.e., the initial investment — falling on the fans, and all the reward going to Warner Bros.”

Luke Pebler’s post My Gigantic Issue With the Veronica Mars Kickstarter similarly objected to risk being shifted off of industry: “They’re large, for-profit companies with access to vast capital.  On a certain level the studio’s raison d’etre is to bear financial risk, to float millions of dollars of this year’s box office money to make next year’s movies.”

But I want to make a larger argument about what the VM Kickstarter gestures toward. The socialization of risk in conjunction with private reward has become increasingly visible after the burst of the housing bubble. While I am not an expert in economics to say when risk actually started to be broadly socialized, the recent economic downturn produced a conversation about it, at least in the circles I run in.

During the bubble, some people made money hand-over-fist doing risky things, and when it fell apart large institutions were dubbed “too big to fail” (and, as petitions from progressive organizations in my inbox have complained recently, “too big to jail”) and bailed out. Now, I understand that just letting the economy implode and not taking action would have been worse, but why not bail out regular people instead? I am not aware of any non-activist conversations about spending the same money at the bottom instead, and I know it would have been a political nonstarter.

So, big financial institutions got bailed out, and that was expensive, and lots of people lost jobs and homes and the tax base shrank, such that the federal government is short on cash (well, shorter than usual since the Bush tax cuts and unfunded wars), which has, predictably, led to calls for cutting spending, by which the financial conservatives mean the social safety net. Bailouts at the top, but austerity at the bottom.

And the VM Kickstarter, as an example where average people are asked to take responsibility to pay for large institutions’ tabs, absolutely participates in this austerity logic of socialized risk and private reward. It is symptomatic of the way we have come to think about financial relationships between regular people and the structures of capital.

Interestingly, it’s also indicative of the logic of financialization. As Pebler points out, “huge conglomerates ought to be able to take small risks with lower-budget stuff, because they’re so rich they don’t care.  What’s $2mil to Time-Warner’s bottom line?  But, of course, they don’t.  Instead we’re getting the opposite: the studio exploiting a loophole in order to shift (some part of) these risks onto their fans.” Why is that? Because no amount of profit is ever enough in a financialized system and any cost that can be cut must be to keep shareholders happy.

And because of the Kickstarter campaign’s participation in the hegemonic economic thinking of the contemporary moment, I think it’s just the tip of the iceberg. I agree with Pebler’s assessment that “this campaign has stepped boldly over a line that established content creators have been edging towards on Kickstarter for some time, and I predict it will end up being a tipping point.”

On the other hand, though I do tend to be pessimistic, there is some tiny chance that this will open up a conversation about how it is we want our media to be produced. Richard Lawson of The Atlantic Wire wrote, “I guess my ire is really directed at the famous and semi-famous people who, rather than hustle around town drumming up the money from proper backers and investors and then hoping money from their fans will roll in, just make some cutesy video instead and figure their work done,” and it got me thinking: Who says that large-scale capital is the only “proper” backing structure for media production? Why can’t regular people become proper backers? monello

As Mike Monello tweeted:

The potential to cut out the middleman and let fans and creative workers come together to make things they both love is very appealing for everyone (except studios). As Jones notes, “donating towards the funding of a film instead of buying a ticket after its release also raises interesting [questions] about the extent to which the film will be moulded by what fans want,” and I’d wager that hope of having shaping power is part of the motivation for donation.

The problem, of course, is that shifting the definition of proper funding isn’t really what’s on offer here. It is, as Bertha Chin wrote in her The Veronica Mars Movie: crowdfunding – or fan-funding – at its best?, “a studio film that Warner Bros is essentially too cheap to finance.” Or, in Lawson’s lively prose:

What annoys me is that the campaign’s success might embolden other essentially corporate interests to do the same thing. It’s free money and they pocket all the profit! It’s a great arrangement for them, so why wouldn’t they try it? As charming as the Veronica Mars crew is, some darkness lies behind their big idea. Which is why it might ultimately be better if it fails. There, I said it. Corporate opportunism posing as empowerment of the masses is not something we should encourage.

Lawson picks up on several key points: it’s “essentially corporate interests” who are benefiting even though the face of it is the creator (Rob Thomas) and actor (Kristen Bell) we all so love; ultimately, Warner Brothers “pockets all the profits.” So we need to look hard at “corporate opportunism posing as empowerment of the masses.”

This is not, of course, to paint the contributing VM fans as victims. I am sensitive to Chin’s critique that:

Frustratingly, fan agency always gets left out in arguments which purport concern that fans are being duped by studios and networks. Perhaps, rather than assuming that fans are being duped into donating towards a studio film, thought should be given to implications the success of this campaign might bring to Hollywood’s system; or more importantly, the power fans can wield if they decide a Veronica Mars movie is deserving to be made.

Or Joss Whedon, interviewed in Buzzfeed: “people clearly understood what was happening and just wanted to see more of the thing they love. To give them that opportunity doesn’t feel wrong. If it was a truly wrong move, I don’t think it would have worked. I feel like people would have said, ‘Hey, that’s not fair! That doesn’t count!’”

As Mittell points out, “while I’m giving my money to Warner Bros., I do the same every time I pay my cable bill or buy a ticket to one of their films. But this time I’m getting something more palpable: I’m entering into a commercially-facilitated, serialized one-way relationship with a mass media text and its production crew – which is a pretty good definition of fandom in general.”

These folks have a point. We can’t assume fans are blindly throwing money. This does have structural similarities to other forms of fan activity. Fans aren’t duped.

Or, at least, they aren’t uniquely duped. I do think that the pervasiveness of the logic of socialized risk and privatized reward in the world at large has everything to do with why Kickstarting a large corporation’s product makes any sense at all. It’s why fans participate, but it’s also why the people involved with Veronica Mars are doing it. By and large, this is not something anyone is questioning, about any of the things to which it is applied. But we need to look at the Veronica Mars Kickstarter in exactly that context.

This post is inspired in large part by Suzanne Scott’s post Distanced Learning: SCMS as MOOC (massively open online conference)?, which (amidst a larger argument) described how the Twitter feed (and livestreaming, but really, there was much more Twitter happening) helped her experience #SCMS13 remotely, and Amanda Ann Klein’s post Turning Twitter into Work: Digital Reporting at SCMS 2013, about how tweeting from an “official” account led her to think differently about how she tweeted and view it more as work.

But it’s also inspired by having attended some professionalization workshops at SCMS and reminding myself of my reasons for having a digital media presence in the first place.

In reflecting on her experience as an official Twitter reporter for the @CJatSCMS account (affiliated with SCMS publication Cinema Journal), Klein asked for a reconsideration of academic labor: “what do we count as labor in the world of digital and social media, what is the ‘value’ of that labor, and how do we document it?”

Klein and Scott identified conference tweeting as particular kind of work, with Klein noting that “the pseudo anonymity of the @CJatSCMS account made me less concerned with my personal Twitter brand (i.e., snark) and more concerned with the transmission of information” and Scott expressing a similar sentiment from the other direction, wherein people’s attention to things other than transmission of information made her remote conferencing challenging: “I only experience [sessions’] limited digital residues, often filtered through disciplinary lenses or with an intertextual frame I don’t have direct access to.”

This was interesting to me, because I have always seen Twitter, and my blog/website, as work, but I see it as a quite different sort of work than Klein and Scott. I freely, and routinely, admit that I have trouble catching the substance of talks (in fact, I’m so bad at aural processing that I wonder how I ever made it through K-12 and undergrad). Instead, I usually tweet the quippy bits—I can do color commentary, but for the play-by-play you need someone else.

In this sense, I am the problem for someone like Scott, though I did my best to swing into reporter mode for a panel in which she was interested when asked. I probably did not entirely succeed, but I tried.

I am also the problem for an older generation of scholars unfamiliar or uncomfortable with the idea that what they say in one room, in one physical place, might be transmitted globally, as I discovered last spring when my PhD program had a reunion and the keynote speaker found my tweeting distressing (even though I had been tasked by the department chair to livetweet). Klein notes that “in the weeks leading up to the conference, everyone involved with the @CJatSCMS account agreed on a loose set of Best Practices (including requesting permission before tweeting panel/workshop content),” and perhaps I should have followed something similar in that case.

So, if I don’t see my job tweeting at conferences as the work of reporting, what kind of work is it for me? It’s promotional labor for the Mel Stanfill brand, “Bringing Foucault to Fandom since 2006.” I tweet so that people following the conference hashtag might see it and think I have said something of merit—and maybe retweet, and maybe just remember my name if they come across it again. (This can backfire if I say something that upsets the person who sees it, of course.)

This, for me, is the point of social media. It may be a shocking confession since it’s so unusual these days, but I don’t have Facebook. (Though, as response to the formation of a Facebook group as the way to organize the Fan Studies SIG for SCMS showed, I’m part of a committed minority of nonusers. They later added a Google group.)

When people are startled to hear about this abstention, I point out to them that I study digital media and know way too much about Facebook to be on it. That’s partially true, because I’m enough of an anti-capitalist that I’m not in a big hurry to have my personal data and social ties generating any more revenue than I can possibly avoid (with full acknowledgement there’s lots I can’t avoid).

But more than that, my problem with Facebook is its norms of use—one is normatively expected to add everyone one has ever met, bringing high school into contact with family into contact with career in a way that, to me, sounds like a recipe for disaster.

I do, however, use Twitter. I’m not against social media itself, just how Facebook tends to work. I like the way that Twitter has the norm of nonreciprocal following; unlike “friending,” I am not responsible for who I am followed by, only who I follow, such that there can be identity management between spheres.

(Which should not be taken as a critique or a distancing from anyone who happens to follow me that I don’t follow. I haven’t actively done this and I’m also behind on post-SCMS following back. But it’s very comforting to know I could distance myself if I needed to.)

Because of its different relationship to, well, relationships, Twitter can serve as a platform for creating and maintaining my professional identity and visibility, integrated with my website, in a way that Facebook can’t. And I know that LinkedIn exists, but that’s really for a different kind of professionals—let’s be honest.

So that’s what I was doing when tweeting SCMS. I was entirely thrilled to have my Klout score hit the 81st percentile after the conference (it’s declining again now, of course, because I’m not interacting in the same way, but I know that’s how it goes). I was thrilled to get 5x more hits on my blog than my usual good day (and 25x my average day) for my posting of my SCMS presentation, even though that also is not being sustained. These, for me, are the metrics by which my digital media work has been successful.

I have had people express some skepticism that I find time to blog, like it’s a hobby or I’m somehow shirking my “real” work to do it; it is certainly a hobby for some people, but for me it is part of my real work. It’s time I commit to the big picture of my career, to making sure there are lots of (hopefully smart) ideas floating around out there with my name on them. It’s advertising for my intellectual capacity.

It’s also work that helps make sure all the Google results for my name are me. (With quotation marks, they all are. Without, two aren’t. At least when searching from my own computer.)

My Twitter is time I commit daily to keeping track of what scholars I know and respect are doing and maintaining myself as someone they are aware of. Of course, the professionalization workshop reminded me that I have moved away from professionalism on Twitter to some degree and should probably mosey on back, so I’ll be cutting back on observations about the weirdness of life.

All of this is work for me, even if it’s not for everyone. It’s unmeasurable and unpaid. As Klein noted, it’s not counted yet in official ways, like for promotion and tenure. And it’s deeply neoliberal as an act of self-management in the interest of getting ahead. But right now, at this point in my career, I don’t make the rules. I’m left playing this game the best way I know how.

ETA: Some people are being told that they’re “forbidden” to view the Prezi. Not sure what’s going on with that, since it is working for me (even in a different browser than is logged in). But, hopefully this link will work. If not, let me know in the comments or on twitter @melstanfill and I’ll try something else!

In lieu of a blog post this week, I’m posting the prezi of the talk I gave on Saturday at the Society for Cinema and Media Studies conference in Chicago, IL, entitled “Between Commodity and Consent: Implications of the Vanishing Distinction between Play and Work in Fandom.” Partially, this is because several people  have requested it, but partially I was at a conference for 5 days and had no time to write a blog! So, here it is:

A couple of caveats:

First, as was noted by an aggressive audience member in the Q&A, the Marx is oversimplified. That was intentional, because I was trying to explain why we don’t talk about labor in fandom, and why fandom doesn’t seem like labor–because the everyday idea about labor is grounded in a set of ideas that don’t seem to apply.

Second, there’s a lot of slippage between fans and viewers in the piece that I didn’t really intend, and I know it’s a problem.

And third, the presentation was intended as a base for me to talk from, so the actual presentation was significantly different. Hopefully the prezi gives you a basic idea anyway.

As Selma, Alabama hosted a commemoration this weekend of the 1965 marches for voting rights, the first of which is known as Bloody Sunday for the violence protesters endured, the US Supreme Court’s conservative majority is probably about to gut the Voting Rights Act and fundamentally undermine the right to vote for lots of people.

The case centers on Section 5 of the Act, which mandates that certain jurisdictions have to clear any changes in their voting laws with the Department of Justice. As The Daily Beast put it, “Section 5’s innovation was to stop the discrimination before it occurs. By forcing jurisdictions—mostly, though not exclusively, in the South—to gain preclearance, the Voting Rights Act stops potentially discriminatory laws from being put into place to begin with.”

The complaint is about singling out those particular places, and as the Washington Post explained, “The Supreme Court’s conservative majority strongly suggested Wednesday that a key portion of the landmark legislation protecting minority voting rights is no longer justified and that the time has come for Southern states to be freed from special federal oversight.” (Incidentally, it’s not just the South: also covered are the states of Alaska and Arizona and counties in South Dakota, New York, Florida, and California, including the one across the river from where I grew up. Full list.)

The way the issue was addressed included some particularly appalling soundbites, as when “Justice Antonin Scalia said Congress’s decision in 2006 to reauthorize the law was a result not of a studied decision but of a ‘phenomenon that is called perpetuation of racial entitlement,’” because apparently the desire to be able to vote makes one “entitled” rather than exercising a guaranteed right (WaPo).

But it’s not totally off-base to argue against it. Just not in the same way.

I think about Section 5 the way I think about a lot of things—affirmative action, hate crime laws, etc—it doesn’t solve the problem it’s supposed to, and in fact defines the problem in a way that makes it harder to solve . . . but we can’t afford not to do anything at all.

I do think that singling those jurisdictions out is a problem. The San Francisco Chronicle noted that “Chief Justice John Roberts, a vocal skeptic of the use of race in all areas of public life, cited a variety of statistics that showed starker racial disparities in some aspects of voting in Massachusetts than in Mississippi.” Though those statistics are probably cherry-picked, he’s right that the South isn’t the only place with an institutional discrimination problem.

I mean, clearly these particular jurisdictions have ended up on the list because they do have a history of obvious institutional racist action that weighs on the present. As Justice Sonia Sotomayor pointed out in the proceedings, “it was a recent violation by a town in Shelby County that led to the current case. ‘Why would we vote in favor of a county whose record is the epitome of what caused the passage of this law to start with?’ she asked” (WaPo).

The problem with Section 5 is that it defines the problem in a way that makes it harder to solve: It implies that election laws other places don’t need scrutiny for how they disenfranchise people of color. But they do. They desperately do.

The recent spate of Voter ID laws, for example, make voting harder for poor people, and people of color are disproportionately poor. Unimaginable as it may be for the middle class, lots of people live without state-issued ID, because they don’t drive, don’t use checks, don’t have a bank account, etc. Demanding that people get an ID in order to vote is a de facto poll tax.

It may be “just a few dollars,” but for people truly on the edge every penny counts; as eloquently described by John Scalzi, “being poor is six dollars short on the utility bill and no way to close the gap.” That person can’t afford the 20 bucks an ID costs here in Illinois. And the actual fee doesn’t account for work time lost to go to the DMV, since the working poor tend not to have jobs where they have paid time off.

On top of that, the kinds of documents one needs to prove one’s identity aren’t always readily available if your parents were also poor or if you were ever homeless. Not to mention the ways the requirements for replacing documents are self-referential: generally, all of the forms of ID you need to get a Social Security card require a Social Security card to get. So good luck with that.

Moreover, navigating bureaucracy to get any of these forms of ID—or to apply for a hardship exemption on the fee, say—is a middle-class skill that poor folks often don’t have. And even if they do, getting overworked, underpaid, badly treated and generally grumpy bureaucrats to help, well, Scalzi again: “Being poor is people surprised to discover you’re not actually stupid. Being poor is people surprised to discover you’re not actually lazy.” (Read the whole thing. And the additions to the list in the comments. It’s amazing and wrenching.)

This is just one requirement, voter ID, but we can see how it fundamentally undermines the supposedly guaranteed right to vote. Middle-class people of color won’t have problems, which then opponents of laws like Section 5 can then point to as evidence that protections aren’t needed, but they clearly are. Just because suppressing the right to vote doesn’t look like this picture on the right anymore, people argue that it no longer exists, but I’ve just shown how the same problem has taken new form.

The challenge here is that the discrimination is most immediately and clearly on the basis of class, which is currently not a protected category (even though it really should be, but what can you do when the law is fundamentally an essentialist enterprise?). Again, the problem gets defined in a way that makes it harder to solve.

Of course, due to histories of discrimination people of color are disproportionately poor, which means that this has a disproportionate impact on them. There’s a reason that things like poll taxes and literacy tests worked as a way to keep black folks from voting in the South. (And, the history is less well known, but probably Native folks in Alaska and Latinos in Arizona were subject to similar obstacles to land those states on the list.)

Voter ID has both a financial and educational component, so it’s even more efficient. It also seems reasonable and uncontestable because it plays into post-9/11 paranoia and surveillance culture.

But it’s not just being implemented in the South, and neither are any of the other ways voting is being restricted. And again, legally confining the problem to those jurisdictions might make the rest of the country feel better, but it doesn’t improve people’s capacity to vote.

The Washington Post says that

“The symbolic significance of Section 5 could make the court reluctant to strike it down entirely. Instead, the justices could keep the section but declare that the formula used in selecting the covered states is outdated and must be revisited. Proponents of the law say that would effectively doom Section 5, because it would be hard to get a new formula through a partisan and polarized Congress.”

What’s important to realize, though the law doesn’t and can’t, is that the symbolism, the encoding in law of the idea that you can’t change your laws if it’s going to disenfranchise people, acts as a levee against change even in jurisdictions that aren’t directly subject to it. If it goes away, the dam is open for everyone. (Even more than it clearly is now.) This is the same reason that I see a silver lining in hate crime legislation.

Killing Section 5 by asking for a reworking isn’t acceptable to me, obviously, but in a perfect world I would indeed want a reworking, to take into account precisely the ways that the problem of disenfranchisement looks different now and our old modes of protection just don’t work. In fact, though clearly it’s incompatible with judicial and political reality, I’d advocate for extending it to every voting rights change instead.

We hardly know voting rights in any meaningful sense already—the promise of the universal franchise is persistently undermined by an apathetic and uneducated populace, massive advertising expenditures, the talking head class, and the modes of disenfranchisement already built in—but we need this one. Even if it can’t be expanded, we need the line to hold.