Media, culture, and politics from an aesthetic-materialist's perspective.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Making Meaning with New Media

How have new media phenomena like YouTube changed the way people interact with so-called "old" media? I'm fascinated by the ways in which Internet- and software-savvy people make and re-make meaning out of "what's presented to them" in media such as radio, television, and film. If, for example, a longstanding assumption in television studies has been the originary "encoding" of meaning by the television production apparatus (studios, corporate sponsors, directors and producers), how does the Internet allow users to not just "decode" televisual meaning but alter the terms by which code as such plays out in multiple media? In other words, after the rise of YouTube, is it possible to even speak of an originary moment of encoding that elicits practices of (audience) decoding? Or is it that YouTubers practice modes of encoding themselves -- ones that might be even more potent, durable, "popular," etc., than their small-screen counterparts?

These questions extend the pathbreaking audience-reception work of scholars like Stuart Hall and Henry Jenkins (who, it should be said, is actively pursuing new media inquiries that relate to his earlier scholarship). But there's also a general cultural awareness that things like YouTube are fundamentally challenging the encoding/decoding model of networked communications. "You" (you users of Wikipedia, YouTube, MySpace, etc.), after all, was Time Magazine's "Person of the Year" for 2006. Much has also been made of the fact that the best clips from Comedy Central's The Daily Show enjoy a "life" on YouTube that lasts well past the show's television broadcasts. And who could forget the Samuel L. Jackson vehicle Snakes on a Plane? It's been said that this movie's trailer, which was widely circulated on the Internet and which featured hilariously farcical dialogue about "motherfuckin'" snakes being on "motherfuckin'" planes, was the primary force behind its relative theatrical success.

Part of the mission of The Paperback Museum is to note the sundry social and cultural consequences that flow from unprecedented user "control" over old media "texts." For it cannot be taken for granted that such "control" is in fact "real," available to everyone, or properly "free" from the hierarchical constraints of old media consumption. Wary child of consumer culture that I am, I cannot fully give myself over to the rhetoric of consumer "choice" in certain realms of new media association. What are we "choosing" when we supposedly seize control over how we consume media? Why is making meaning for "ourselves," with the help of new media technology, such a seductive concept in our day and age? Are there ways in which even that act of personalist meaning-making is being commodified and put into the service of what might be called the "hidden hand" of new media regulation?

Thursday, March 8, 2007

Flights of Football Fantasy

It only seems appropriate to inaugurate this long-overdue project with a brief testament to one of my abiding online passions: Fantasy Football. (That's football football: not American football or Australian rules football but world football, or "soccer.") For if there's any motivational logic behind The Paperback Museum, it's my desire to negotiate and reflect on new media networks as a relative dinosaur with regard to all things Internet among folks of my twentysomething generation. Fantasy Football, then, was simply one of my first "true" online passions -- something I did with frequency and commitment, and something that required higher-than-average Internet literacy.

I have Alvaro Jarrin, friend at Duke University, to thank for that initial spark of interest. About a month before the start of World Cup 2006 in Germany, Alvaro sent me a link to FIFA's official website, where a free online Fantasy Football game was being hosted to millions of users all over the world. Already a devout follower of English Premiership football through the U.S./Canadian Fox Soccer Channel, I jumped at the chance to construct my own "fantasy" team from a pool of "real" players who would be participating in the "real" World Cup. To then have that team pitted against all others the world over, as well as our (Alvaro's and mine) smaller community of friends, delighted me to no end.

In retrospect, my first fantasy team drew liberally from the squads favored to win the World Cup: Brazil, Argentina, Spain, and, to a lesser extent, Germany. FIFA's game, I would later discover, had very liberal rules for selection, imposing no restrictions on which players one could choose save the rule that you could have no more than three players from one country on your squad. (And, of course, the very basic requirement that you had to choose a minimum number of defenders, midfielders, etc.) My team reflected my bias toward English Premiership teams: Lampard (Chelsea), Henry (Arsenal), Cech (Chelsea). But I also threw in a few players whom I had admired from afar, about whose respective leagues I knew less (but still enough to get by): Nedved (Juventus), Ronaldinho (Barcelona), Pauleta (PSG). I guess you could say I took the "European stars" approach to selecting my first fantasy team.

I ended up doing pretty well overall, winning our little group's pool (which included Justin Izzo and Pablo Perez) and finishing in the top ~13,000 out of well over a million users by the end of that now infamous match between France and Italy. My midfield did moderately well throughout, but my defenders and 'keepers were somewhat disappointing. My worst transfer move of the entire tournament was to bring in Switzerland's Alex Frei at the quarterfinal stage, banking on his team winning over the Ukraine. A terrible Swiss side bowed out to the hard-nosed Ukrainians (led by Shevchenko), with Frei making little to no impact and his midfield (especially Barnetta and Cabanas) not being able to string more than three passes together.

The World Cup Fantasy Football experience taught me a lot about how Internet users go about taking (vicarious) pleasure in mass-mediated sporting events. Among other things, online fantasy communities allow users to constitute their own, relatively autonomous sphere of competition -- a competition at once "by (means of)" and "about" information (who's who), knowledge (who is likely to perform well), and network flows (what's the latest news on so-and-so). Even though fantasy leagues preexist the rise of the Internet (a history that has yet to be told by sports scholars), it seemed to me that Internet fantasy leagues extended and intensified the means by which users could participate in the "game."

Soon after the World Cup, I was the one to organize a Fantasy Football pool among friends for the 2006-07 English Premiership campaign, which is still in progress. That competition features old stand-bys Alvaro, Justin, and Pablo as well as new guys Rod Frey and Enver Casimir. Justin overtook me (by one point) for the lead of the group a couple of days ago, but there are still several "Gameweeks" to play. Look for updates on this blog.

Mascots 'R' Us?

My comments below respond to The Chronicle of Higher Education's March 7th gloss on events following the University of Illinois' decision to terminate its "Fighting Illini" mascot symbol. For more on the matter, go here.

It seems illogical to me to equate the presence of Indian mascots in collegiate sports with some vague notion of "celebrating" cultural difference (much less "uncovering" the ancient history of a civilization whenever the San Diego State Aztecs take to the field). From Warriors to Vikings to Cowboys to Banana Slugs (Santa Cruz's wonderful parody of a mascot), mascots are necessarily stereotypes. Thus, the terms of the debate should address the representational politics of mascots, not their illusory capacity to stand in for "real" cultures and peoples.

The American Sociological Association has been perfectly reasonable in outlining its position on the matter. On the other hand, defenders of Indian mascots who rage against political correctness are reduced to making a weak, "personalist" argument: "What difference does a 'redskin' on a jersey make? Doesn't offend me." Other defenders who hail the "achievements" of indigenous people through collegiate and professional sports teams (!) would seem to have lost the plot on what social and political recognition entails in a pluralistic society.

Defenders of Indian mascots would do better to frankly acknowledge their practical interest in the matter: A mascot has nothing to do with celebrating cultural difference (or "honoring" indigenous people) but is instead a powerful symbol of institutional history and pride. In other words, the mascot is a symbolic figure of identification for legions of students, administrators, and, most especially, alumni. If defenders would openly admit this very basic principle of institutional memory and identification, the debate over the use of Indian mascots in collegiate sports would expand and feature more interesting viewpoints.