Archive for March, 2009

Dis/locating Audiences: transnational media, collaborative imaginaries, and the online circulation of East Asian TV drama

Posted in research on March 25th, 2009 by Xiaochang Li – Be the first to comment

I’ve been a somewhat inconsistent updater since I started this blog and this is due almost entirely to the research vortex that has consumed my life, which is more commonly known as my MIT master’s thesis. As some of you may (or may not) know, a significant portion of my energies right now are devoted to project that looks at the circulation of Japanese and Korean dramas through fan-organized (and frequently unauthorized) channels as a way to talk about trends in globalization, the transnational movement of media, and emergent forms of audienceship and participatory practice.

I will be presenting some of the work very soon, both at a CMS internal review, and at Media in Transition 6. While a lot of the work may be a little too involved and theoretical to be of immediate use to most, I’m putting the abstract here in case anyone is interested.

It is commonly accepted that media and communication technologies play one of the most pivotal roles in the complex system of practices and developments broadly termed “globalization.” Similarly, the increasing speed, volume, and scale of transnational circulation has been one of the most dramatic shifts in the media landscape, creating what Appadurai has dubbed global “mediascapes” that are reshaping the way we understand audiences and cultural formation. While the rise of massive global commercial media enterprises lead to renewed vigor around discussions of the dominance of the “West” upon the “Rest,” the increasing portability, transmitability, and reproducibility of media has helped to generate a grassroots globalization often discussed in terms of diasporic media audiences and all the ways, formal and informal, authorized and unauthorized, that migrant populations circulate and engage with media from the “homeland,” create deterritorialized social imaginaries that transcend national boundaries and form complex hybrid cultural identities.
However, with the emergence of internet technologies and increasing participatory audience practices online, these mediascapes have now become networked. Increasingly, individuals are radically participating and collaborating in the selection, (re)production, and circulation of texts and images that shape the very social imaginaries they inhabit, making them not only collective, but collaborative, and opening the space up to greater range of motivations and practice that can no longer be sufficiently described using old models of diaspora or imperialism. How the increased visibility and complexity of transnational media flows and the audience practices around them complicate the models of diaspora and globalism. What new (hybrid) models emerge when we take into consideration the interplay between diasporic communities and fan communities and how do the circulation and consumption practices afforded by new media technologies inform, and can in turn be informed by, the conditions of diasporic media audienceship?

In examining the flourishing online fandom around the circulation of East Asian television drama, we may begin to address some of these questions. While more traditional channels of distribution targeting diasporic audiences are floundering, the popularity of these dramas through unauthorized fan networks has grown exponentially. Rather than filtering content based on a strictly diasporic audience target, these communities are formed around the content itself rather than a pre-determined motivation and are involved in every step of the distribution process, from subtitling and selecting content to the speed or torrent downloads and promotion. Within this space, a diverse range of audience conditions and practice — diasporic populations, fans, pop cosmopolitans — come into contact with one another simultaneously shape the types of content available which, in turn, shape the “community of sentiment” they inhabit. What results is a mash of hybrids that, rather than signaling a sort of unproblematic fusion, maintains the productive tensions and contentions, creating more amorphous, conflicted, complex systems of identity and community formation.

My purpose is not to undermine the significance of historical conditions in relation to media and cultural consumption, nor to replace discourses of diaspora and media globalization, but rather to ask how other models of participation and fandom might intervene and aid in describing audience practices that do not so neatly fit within any pregiven category or single axis of identity. From there we may begin to map some of complex social, technological, and textual entanglements of cultural negotiation in an increasingly global media age.

The Fallacy of “Free”

Posted in essays, research on March 18th, 2009 by Xiaochang Li – Be the first to comment
free(credit: images used under CC license from cayusa)

“The idea of a pure gift is a contradiction.”
– Mary Douglas

“Free” is a term that has come into vogue in recent years to describe many of the systems of information and services made available in the so-called new media landscape. In 2008, editor Chris Anderson proclaimed “free” to be “the future of business” (Anderson 2008) on the web. But the word “free” means to be exempt from something, so in calling these things free, we need to be able to answer the implicit questions of what, exactly, are they free from?

“Free,” in many cases, has been conflated with “no-cost,” with the suggestion that the web is rife with free goods and services — free email, free social networks and video hosting sites, free content and information — because we don’t have to pay for them. The Free Software movement is a great example of a thoroughly-considered use of the term that addresses its multiple implications, both economic and ideological. But for the most part, “free” in popular marketing discourse is commonly assumed to be a measure of monetary value. And though the specific uses of “free” deployed by Free Software is outside the focus of this piece, there’s certainly an important lesson to be learned from an old joke amongst users of Linux: it’s only free if your time isn’t worth anything. This joke gets to the heart of why the term “free” is problematic for describing the new economic and social models emerging online: to continue to call these things “free” implies that money remains the only thing of value to be given or gained, a proposition that runs counter to how most of these systems are regulated.

As we suggested in “If It Doesn’t Spread, It’s Dead,” the flow of information and services online is in many cases regulated in ways similar to those of gift economies, in which things like social prestige, reputation, and cultural capital are the central tokens of value and exchange. These types of exchanges are the ones typically referred to as “free.” However, as Mary Douglas reminds us in her foreward to Marcel Mauss’ foundational text on Gift economies:

“the whole idea of a free gift is based on a misunderstanding. What is wrong with the so-called free gift is the donor’s intention to be exempt from return gifts coming from the recipient. Refusing requital puts the act of giving outside any mutual ties. Once given, the free gift entails no further claims from the recipient. The public is not deceived by free gift vouches. For all the ongoing commitment the free-gift gesture has created, it might as well never have happened. According to Marcel Mauss that is what is wrong with the free gift. A gift that does not to enhance solidarity is a contradiction” (Douglas 2000: vii)

In other words, something that is totally free — something given completely exempt of both cost and social obligation — is extremely undesirable in the context of any economy because it precisely does not enable any form of exchange, monetary or otherwise. A totally free gift — a true give away — is a unidirectional, one-time action, in which nothing is returned.

In monetary, commercial market exchanges, the exchange is “free” in the sense that it’s discrete and does not insist on future ties and obligations to the vendor because I pay for the thing being exchanged. If I get a cup of coffee from a Starbucks, in paying for my coffee, I have severed all further obligation to the place and the person selling me the coffee. In fact, it would be incredibly strange for me to bring my barista a cup of coffee the following day. In non-monetary, non-market (or “gift”) exchanges, the content of the exchange is “free,” but the exchange itself comes with social ties. So if my neighbor invites me over for a cup of coffee and I accept, I don’t have the pay for the coffee, but it would be considered rude if I totally ignore my neighbor later if we were to pass in the hall.

Thus non-monetary — so-called “free” — exchanges are actually the opposite of free in the sense that they actually create ties and obligations between the parties involved in the exchange. These ties may be informal, such as a set of implicit social protocols of behavior such as acknowledging the presence of something you’ve shared food with, or they might be formalized within a Terms of Service agreement. Thus, if I contribute a photo to a flickr community, or upload a video onto Youtube, or write and share a piece of fanfiction, I have given away my work for “free,” but I have opened the door to form social ties with the communities I am engaging in. Similarly, sites like Youtube and Flickr are offering me a “free” service, but establishing an ongoing exchange with me for the contribution of content, audience-draw, and data. That we continue to call these exchanges free suggest that we need to expand our definition of what is valuable.

The fallacy of “free” therefore, comes down in many ways, to a problem of language. However, as we showed in “If It Doesn’t Spread, It’s Dead” with the use of the term “viral,” language is never a small matter because it both describes and enacts power. That is to say, the words we use to describe things also influence how we understand them. In the case of “viral” marketing, as we persisting in talking about it as such, we continually obscured user-agency in the passing of content, which prevented people from asking the crucial question of why and for what purposes content circulated. Similarly, if we continue to talk about these systems as “free” or “give away,” we perpetuate the perception that there is nothing being given back, that there is no exchange. In short, it makes it difficult to analyze the changing terms of transactions between businesses and users in so-called “free” models if we persist in speaking as if there is no transaction taking place.

Anderson’s proposed models are a perfect example of the difficulty the language of “free” presents. Anderson himself clearly understands and acknowledges the need to expand the definition of value, concluding that “[Attention and reputation] are the new scarcities . . . Free shifts the economy from a focus on only that which can be quantified in dollars and cents to a more realistic accounting of all the things we truly value today.” However, he suggests that some of the most successful web companies, such as Facebook and Google, are instances of a two-sided market wherein “the minority of customers who pay subsidize the majority who do not. Sometimes that’s two different sets of customers, as in the traditional media model: A few advertisers pay for content so lots of consumers can get it cheap or free” (Anderson 2009).

The problem here is that even as Anderson pushes for moving the economic focus away from monetary value, the suggestion that advertisers are paying in the place of the users puts the emphasis back on money as the only measure of compensation, when in fact the users are paying — they are paying in data and labor that makes services like Google and Facebook work. So advertisers are, in fact, paying for users, not in the sense of paying in place of them, but paying for the value they have handed over to the web company in exchange for services.

My point here then is not to pass judgement on the models that “free” seeks to describe, but rather to point out that the discourse of “free” is locking us into a very limited definition of value that is insufficient in describing the complex and evolving sets of social and economic relations that characterize a significant portion of what generates worth in a digital, networked economy. In continuing to frame these increasing complicated and multi-party exchanges as “free,” we inherently devalue everything that is not money, everything that does not fit within the previously established criteria and business models that we have already proven to be out of date and in many way insupportable in the current media landscape. And in doing so, we continue to speak as if social worth, brand goodwill, fan advocacy, is still somehow “surplus,” just a byproduct or precursor to the real return, when what we need to do is recognize that these things are the exchange. What is happening is not a giveaway, it is another form of exchange operated under a new set of standards and regulations, and it is not until we recognize this that we can begin to examine what those standards and regulations are, and how they are formed and negotiated.

Anderson, Chris. 2008. Free! Why $0.00 Is the Future of Business. Wired, February 25.

Anderson, Chris. 2009. The Economics of Giving it Away. Wall Street Journal (online), February 2.

Douglas, Mary. 2000. Foreward: No Free Gifts. In The Gift: The Form and Reason for Exchange in Archaic Societies. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, August.

Jenkins, Henry, Xiaochang Li and Ana Domb with Joshua Green (2008) If It Doesn’t Spread, It’s Dead: Creating Value in a Spreadable Marketplace. Report prepared for the Convergence Culture Consortium, MIT. Cambridge: MA

Mauss, Marcel. 2000. The Gift: The Form and Reason for Exchange in Archaic Societies. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, August.

The Value of “Free” Content: Youtube Silences Music Videos in the UK after Licensing Dispute

Posted in C3 blog on March 9th, 2009 by Xiaochang Li – Be the first to comment

[Originally written for the Convergence Culture Consortium blog]

Apologies for the strange, late cross-post from C3. With the recent travel schedule, organization has escaped me. This post was originally written early last week, but somehow didn’t end up here. I should be returning to a more steady blogging schedule now that I’m back in Cambridge.


Strange news from across the pond: due to a dispute over licensing, the Performing Rights Society (PRS) in the UK, YouTube is no longer going to host music videos in the UK. For a more detailed breakdown of the situation, cnet as a thorough write-up, but gist of it is that PRS want more licensing fees for the right to host the material, the costs of which YouTube considered “prohibitive.” There is also reported to be a lack of transparency about what content will be included in the licensing deal. Meanwhile, the PRS suggested that YouTube is not paying a fare share of their revenue.

It’s somewhat unclear as to what stands at the heart of the controversy, whether it is centrally a question of IP or of revenue share, though it does speak to the struggle and difficulty of finding models ownership and compensation in the digital space and takes us towards a much more complex problem of how to determine whether content drives people to YouTube or if the social relations on YouTube drive the circulation of content. According to the cnet article, there is also the question of if record companies are profiting from having their content on YouTube. Putting aside the issue of whether or not YouTube is sharing enough of its revenue, this issue of the “profitability” of putting music videos on YouTube seems, in my mind, to miss the point.

Music videos, to my knowledge, have generally been used as promotional materials. Attempting to charge google for high licensing fees in order to play videos seems to be a fundamental lack of understanding of both music videos and of youtube. Youtube is a fantastic place to discover new artists that may not be able to get significant radio play. What’s more, with youtube videos, you can send links to your friends to spread the word directly about songs you enjoy, which you can’t do with a song on the radio. In short, record companies and license holders may not feel as if they’re making money by having their videos on Youtube, but the truth is that they’re certainly not making money from NOT having them there. Youtube isn’t diverting potential record-buyers, after all. Streaming online video isn’t exactly the most flexible or portable way to enjoy music. What Youtube does provide is a source of low-cost, high visibility, robust promotion that has the potential to engage audiences in a way that broadcast mediums, even ones that pay high licensing fees, can’t. We only have to look at examples such as Soulja Boy to see that.

This speaks also to another key issue, which is the fallacy of “free.” By not charging licensing fees, record companies feel that they’re giving away their music for “free.” This has been the dominant discourse overall when media producers and critics alike talk about putting content on sites like Youtube or Hulu or But we have to remember that just because you’re not charging people doesn’t mean you’re not getting anything in return. Putting things on Youtube is giving content away for free if the only measure of value you have is money, and more specifically, direct payment. By pretending all of it is “free” of any form of return, any for of profit or benefit, we mask the crucial forms of exchange happening between media corporations and audiences. Non-monetary exchanges are, in fact, the exact opposite of “free” in the sense that they create social bonds, community, and a sense of goodwill and exchange. These may be implicit, they may be ambiguous and informal, but they do exist, and for musicians and entertainers, this is the kind of value they need, because this is the kind of value that translates into fans.

Or to put it another way, Youtube and networked social spaces where people share, create, and circulate content are growing increasingly central to how we consume and engage with media. As as result, the real questions companies need to ask themselves is this: whether or not they feel they are profiting from being in these spaces, can they afford to not be there?

Globalization/Delight: surprise Korean boyband cameo in Mexican telenovela

Posted in fandom, globalization/delight on March 7th, 2009 by Xiaochang Li – Be the first to comment

I’ve realized recently that I really do need a special category dedicated to the intersection of globalization and awesome. For the complex routes of global media flow occassionally spawn some of the many unexpected and strange (and I have add, because I’m a killjoy, not unproblematic) combinations. This past week, in particular, has been full of such surprises.

First was the discovery of the hugely popular Brazilian telenovela set in India, Caminho das Índias (Paths to India), which apparently features a “Portuguese pop song about sadhus” on it soundtrack. Then came the report about use of “Rising Sun” — a song performed by Korean super boyband Dong Bang Shin Ki (DBSK) — on the upcoming installment of the Fast and Furious franchise (though admittedly, the surprise here has less to do with the “global” element than the combination of car-chase action movie and, well, boyband).

But by far the most awesome and most surprising cross-cultural media pastiche was found in episode 97 of the Mexican telenovela, Mañanas es para siempre. In one scene, a character shows another their class photo from art school in Florence, Italy. The photo is a clearly photoshopped composite of random individuals, including one terribly familiar face:

surprise!: Junsu

For those who don’t follow Korean Pop music, that’s not just any other random Asian dude, that’s actually “Xiah” Junsu, of Korean Boyband and Asian supergroup, DBSK (And, not to mention, the star of two of my absolute favorite mobile phone ad campaigns — Samsung Anyband and Samsung Haptic Scandal). Whether the product of a fortuitious google image search or a stealth fangirl on the production crew, this is one of the most unexpected global media cross-overs I’ve ever encountered.

View the clip of the scene here.

Skittles, Spreadability, and the question of social media authorship

Posted in C3 blog, media, research on March 2nd, 2009 by Xiaochang Li – Be the first to comment

This was later cross-posted to the Convergence Culture Consortium blog

A funny thing happened on my way to check out the new Skittles homepage-as-social-media-experiment that’s been generating all sorts of attention over my twitter feed. I went to the homepage, and in my sleep deprived idiocy, entered today’s date in their terms of service agreement instead of my birthdate.
And since Skittles decided to take my word for it that I was born today, it deemed me underage and thus not the appropriate audience for it’s free-for-all social media aggregation scheme.

While it was indeed my own oversight that got me blocked from their page, the block speaks to the underlying problem with this stunt, which is that while the idea seems interesting, the execution and practical application might fall somewhat short of potential.

There is, of course, the technical side in which their terms didn’t manage to catch that I’d entered an impossible birth date. But beyond that, there are other practical issues, such as the overlarge navigation console pointed out by Stan Schroeder at Mashable. Moreover, as Christopher Carfi astutely observes in his blog, with no way to regulate the signal/noise ratio, the site runs the risk of people loosing interest because of the sheer volume of content.

However, what interests me is that my mistake this morning presents a dilemma that has yet to be discussed in the first flush of interest and excitement over’s new strategy. For all intents and purposes, in aggregating this content through their site, and thereby putting it under their terms of service, they are effectively taking content that is otherwise open to and created by the public — what is essentially public discourse — and branding it as their own, then resetting the parameters for access.

What in one way appears to be a handing over of control to the consumers to discuss and use the brand as they wish, is in another way an assertion of a measure of ownership. Skittles owns the site and set the regulations and protocols of interaction there, but the site is composed of content created totally outside of those regulations, content created through social relations that did not agree to the boundaries that Skittles requires for its site. In other words, by asserting their right to not only aggregate, but then redefine the conditions through which the content can be viewed, Skittles is suggesting that they have some claim over the content by virtue of it being about them.

Of course, though this echoes of the notion of “fan labor,” Skittles’ incursion is fairly minor . After all, your content is still available openly elsewhere, and the terms Skittles has imposed on it seem to only be limited to age to prevent minors from open access to potentially objectionable content, which is a perfectly understandable, if somewhat ironic, concern. But it makes you think: in talking about Spreadable media, we had always been so focused on instances of individuals and communities appropriating and claiming ownership of the content of corporations for their own ends, but media spread is by nature multi-directional, so we can only expect that it would work in the other way as well. Is it different when companies appropriate content created by individuals for their own purposes?

And while this stunt certainly generated the attention it was looking for, is any of that sustainable? It is merely a flash of PR hand-waving or does Skittles actually have an idea of how they want to begin facilitating relationships between both the brand and its audience and between audience members through the brand? And more importantly, is this really the right step towards the kind of relationships they will want to cultivate?