An Academic in Industry: 5 lessons from my year (or so) in “the real world”

Posted in Uncategorized on August 12th, 2011 by Xiaochang Li – Be the first to comment

As many of you may already know, I recently left my job at Weber Shandwick in order to pursue my PhD in the fall in the department of Media, Culture and Communication at NYU. I was with Weber for a little over a year, during which I had the unique fortune of learning from and working alongside some of the smartest, most capable, and most supportive people I’ve ever had the pleasure of knowing. And this latest transition, along with inquiries from friends and colleagues on the more academic side of things, has me thinking about what I learned, the things that surprised me, the things that will be valuable lessons to keep in mind as I head back into the academic world. On obvious caveat before I start: I’m at the very beginning of both my academic and non-academic career trajectories, so I don’t claim to be a seasoned expert in either arena. There are, no doubt, things that my current perspective doesn’t take into account.

Navigating the perilous maze of corporate america

Philosophy isn’t Strategy – When I was a researcher at the Convergence Culture Consortium, I had naively imagined that what we did was high-level strategy. I still absolutely stand behind the value of what we produced with that project, but their usuability as strategic guides were limited. In carrying campaign strategies through the execution, I was able to get visibility into far more complex sets of factors than I could have imagined. To generate “strategy” without knowledge of the execution process is like trying to plan a war without knowing the terrain. In that sense, the work we did at C3 (and, perhaps arguably, any “purely strategic” thinking projects) is important foundational knowledge to help orient your approach, but it’s ultimately a philosophy, not something you can take with you to battle.

Smaller isn’t always better – The thing that people always warned me against when I first set out to get an industry job was to not join a big company. Find a boutique, creative shop they said. You’ll be happier/do more innovative and interesting things. Big companies are dinosaurs, on the verge of extinction, out of touch. And, of course, I didn’t listen to any of that advice, and joined one of the largest PR firms in the world. And my logic was simple – even if, at the end of the day, I would eventually prefer to work someplace more independent, it doesn’t change the fact that I will probably have to do business with people who work in big corporations, and I need first hand understanding of what that means, and what their concerns and objectives are. But even more importantly, I think working the a company with the kind of scale and reach that Weber Shandwick has let me work on projects that were below sea-level, as it were. That is to say, the cool, fun stuff is the visible shiny bit, and yes, often smaller companies are better structured to execute that more quickly and nimbly, but they also don’t have the resources (or trust) to handle the far less glamorous, far more difficult work of shifting the business. I’m certainly not a proponent of big business, either ideologically or functionally, but I do feel that working in a larger company, at least in the short term, has given me far more visibility and insight into how this industry really functions.

Being Smart (or “Right”) isn’t the same as being effective - I once helped organize a panel on the unique challenges and opportunities of working across the Academy-Industry divide. One of the more contentions moments erupted when an industry rep said that sometimes, they look to the academy for 3rd party validation, to which an academic rep, offended, suggested that academics might not want to play yes-men. That exchange makes much more sense now that I understand a fundamental, but utterly unintuitive, difference between the two worlds: in the academy an idea’s value is based on its complexity and accuracy, in industry an idea’s value is based on its actionability and efficacy. Or, to put it another way, academia is ultimately an independent enterprise and your success begins and ends with your intellect and capacity (more or less). Not to say that industry doesn’t value or reward intelligence (though it’s a less certain bet), but outside academia, there are so many more factors and objectives between your idea and the end product that require very different skillsets to manage and the most useful ones are the ones that get things done. There’s just a different value criteria at work, and it helps to check your ego and assess what that criteria involves before you make judgements. What was really refreshing about Weber was the number of female role models there, women who were smart and effective, and handled the negotiation between the two while remaining incredibly accessible and pleasant.

You don’t have to take it so personally - Probably one of the most valuable skills that I learned (but far from perfected) was being able to separate myself from my work. One of academia’s great perils is that, like producing art, your work often gets so tied up with who you are that setbacks and frustrations can wreck all manner of emotional havoc, which in turn makes it that much more impossible to get any further work done, which of course will put you even more in a tailspin and then make everything that much more insurmountable. The cycle is barbaric. The sort of fundamental separation (dare I say, alienation) you have from the fruits of your labor in a corporate setting, while problematic in other ways, can be really valuable in teaching some perspective. While not necessarily less stressful (I lost plenty of sleep to client-related anxieties), that stress is nevertheless not quite as epic, not quite as existential in nature. It’s contained in the project, it’s a part of the work, and as much as you put of yourself into it, there’s something liberating in knowing that it can never be yours. That no matter how frustrated and daunting it gets, you have that backdoor, that moment where you can say, it doesn’t matter, let’s just get it done. At the end of the day, having my work be my work is really important to me, and it’s what drew me back to the academic world, but I feel more equipped now to handle the anxieties that can cripple productivity because even if it’s not quite as easy to decathect from your own research, I know at least that it can be done.

Ask Yourself the Right Question - I think, ultimately, the most important thing I learned was that I was asking myself the wrong thing going into industry. I thought the questions I was trying to answer were “can I do this? Will I enjoy it?” and to a certain extent, I did answer them (yes on both counts). But the questions that ended up mattering more, at least in the short term, was “could someone else do this? And is there something else I need to do?” And it was yes on both those counts too, which is why I’m heading back into research. Not because I didn’t like my work, but because I did. I enjoyed my work and still feel that there’s other work that needs to be done that my specific talents and inclinations are suited for, at least for now.

Ultimately, though, I hope to see a little more fluidity between the two worlds. The academy could benefit from more visibility into the day-to-day processes of the industries they analyze and critique. Industry could benefit from the kind of deep, nuanced thinking afforded to those of us who don’t have deadlines and earnings objectives.

Implications of YouTube’s Rickroll take-down

Posted in Uncategorized on February 25th, 2010 by Xiaochang Li – Be the first to comment

So yesterday, the interwebs were in a brief uproar when it was found that the original Rickrolling video had been taken down for Terms of Use Violation. Google identified the mistake and restored the video, but those handfull of hours during which a major artifact of internet culture was missing revealed some interesting things about our digital media landscape.

It’s not (just) a question of technology

One of the biggest issues brought forth by this takedown (and many other “mistaken” ones likes it, such as Viacom’s “accidental” silencing of racism protest) is that these incidents aren’t just a question of technological oversights. The reveal an industry build on legal and economic structures that refuse to adapt to cultural change. Google’s apology email is full of passive voice — videos are “mistakenly removed” and accounts “mistakenly suspended.” With all the talk of users, flagging systems, it quickly becomes an artful dodging of accountability. It makes it seem like it was a blameless incident, a technological snafu outside anyone’s control.

But it’s important that we don’t mistake “lack of intent” with “lack of culpability.” I don’t really blame Google — their actions are responding to IP policies that equate promoting open source to being a rogue state. As Mike Masnick points out, the problem isn’t that something fell through the cracks of a the tech system in place to identify content violations quickly. The problem is the demands of that kind of speed, the kind of “take down first, ask dodge questions later” attitude that pervades the creative industries.

Technology, and third-parties like Google, are just convenient and blamelessly neutral scapegoats in the real digital divide — the chasm between social use of technologies and industrial control over them.

Takedowns take away more than just content

Another thing that the outcry around the take-down makes us realize is that the video itself is just one part of the cultural artifact. After all, it’s not like we couldn’t still watch a duplicate video on YouTube. But what we lost that was more significant than the video were the comments, the tags, the response links, even the viewcount. The metadata and paratexts that document the significance and development of the cultural phenomenon. The video is just the book cover — the real meat of the story was the record of how people watched it. That was why this particular takedown was so outrageous. What was removed was something infinitely more unique and scarce than some video. What was removed was a rich cultural document that no one should own the IP to.

One man’s culture is another man’s spam

A final interesting aspect is the fact that the takedown wasn’t an IP issue, but a user-flagging issue. Unsurprising, perhaps, because if you’re not in on the joke, a lot of internet memes look pretty much just like spam: incomprehensible and weirdly persistent. What this reveals to us is something that those fighting the high culture/pop culture divide have been reminding us forever: that culture is ultimately wholly subjective and deeply contextual.

Navigating Online Communites: a basic primer (part 2/2)

Posted in Uncategorized on January 27th, 2010 by Xiaochang Li – Be the first to comment

Communities are complex social formations with a nuanced system of structures, roles, and behaviors. In the world of brands and corporations, this fact it too often overlooked in favor segmenting communities according to the priorities of the brand. Brands need to know who can help push their agenda amongst the community — communities are segmented into “influencers” and “everybody else.” Or, the oft-referenced “ladder of participation” gets trotted out. Though it has more segments, it nevertheless defines participation according to criteria of activeness.

Of course, who wields influence in a community and which activities (blogging, linking, reading, etc) are common are things that marketers need to know. But if we want to actually act upon this knowledge and influence those influencers, it’s equally important what aspects of a community different types of members influence and how (and why). Similarly, with the ladder of participation, it’s incredibly useful to understand what people do (or don’t do). However, as more and more people are adapting participatory technologies into their lives and communities, it becomes equally important to understand what they’re doing it for.

In short, communities and their members must be understood in the context of the community’s structures. Only then can we begin to understand not only who they are and what they do, but how their actions and their brand relationships will be received by the community at large.

Community Structures: Types, Roles, and Behaviors

Every community is different, of course. They develop unique systems and social contracts amongst the members that define the boundaries of the community. There are, however, a some definitions that we can use as a baseline to approach understanding communities online.

While I have my own loose , they aren’t nearly as thorough as what Lara Lee and Susan Fournier developed with over 30 years of research on community formation.

3 Types of Community Affiliation

Fournier and Lee describe 3 types of community affiliation:

Pools are groups who “have strong with a shared activity or goal, or shared values, but loose associations to one another” whose affiliation is created through “shared activity, goal, or values.”

KEY EXAMPLES: Apple fans, Political Parties, Ravelry

Webs are groups who “have strong one-to-one relationships with others who have similar or complementary needs,” where affiliation is primarily defined through “personal relationships”

KEY EXAMPLES: Facebook, Twitter, cancer-survivor networks

Hubs are groups who “have strong connections to a central figure and weaker associations with one another,” and define their affiliation through “a charismatic figure.”

KEY EXAMPLES: Oprah, Joss Whedon, Obama

These categories, of course, are not absolute and there’s plenty of cross-over. For instance, we might characterize a typical high school social system as a web that has within it a number of different hubs and pools. Similarly, Obama-supporters can easily also be seen as a pool, and Apple fans might cluster around Steve Jobs as a hub.

Community Roles

Fournier and Lee also outline 18 typical roles that individuals take on in communities:

1. Mentor: “teaches others and shares expertise”

2. Learner: “enjoys learning and seeks self-improvement”

3. Back-up: “acts as a safety net for others when they try new things”

4. Partner: “encourages, shares, and motivates”

5. Storyteller: “spreads the community’s story throughout the group”

6. Historian: “preserves community memory, codifies rituals and rites”

7. Hero: “acts as a role model within the community”

8. Celebrity: “serves as a figurehead or icon of what the community represents”

9. Decision-Maker: “makes choices affecting the community’s structure and function”

10. Provider: “hosts and takes care of other members”

11. Greeter: “welcomes new members into the community”

12. Guide: “helps new members navigate the culture”

13. Catalyst: “introduces members to new people and ideas”

14. Performer: “takes the spotlight”

15. Supporter: “participates passively as an audience for others”

16. Ambassador: “promotes the community to outsiders”

17. Accountant: “keeps track of people’s participation”

18. Talent Scout: “recruits new members”

I would also include two additional roles that are prevalent amongst content-creation communities:

Curator: organizes and curates community content for easy navigation

Enabler: scaffolds the creation process to encourage community content production

Community Behaviors & Activities

Finally, all communities have their own set of specific activities, but the rise of participatory culture and the networked information economy has lead to the increasing scale and visibility of a general set of behaviors.

Building from Clay Shirky’s work, Kevin Kelly of Wired Magazine describes four key modes of online participation: Sharing, Cooperation, Collaboration, and Collectivism

Sharing: One of the most fundamental logics of social participation online. We use YouTube to share videos, Twitter to share status updates, Flickr to share images, Delicious to share links, blogs to share ideas and information.

Cooperation: Sites like Flickr aren’t just used to share photos, but tag, group, organize, and reuse under creative commons. Through cooperation, it becomes more than just a sharing platform — it’s a vast archival resource. Similarly, aggregation sites like Digg, Reddit, and Slashdot use cooperation to “steer public conversation.”

Collaboration: Collaboration describes more organized and focused cooperative efforts, where groups and individuals pool resources toward common goals. Open-source software is a key example, where many contribute labor and expertise towards shared software development.

Collectivism: More clearly structures and potentially ideologically driven examples of sharing, cooperation, and collaboration activities.

Thus ends the basic primer on online communities, compiled from observations from my work at the MIT Convergence Culture Consortium and the work of many individuals way more awesome than myself.

The bottom line though really is that communities — online and off — are social and cultural formations. Understanding the surface trends and tools is the first step, but if we must also seek an understanding of the deeper driving structures if we hope to develop long-term strategic provisions in addition to short-term tactical responses.

weekly round-up [9/25/09]: Wharton on the Long Tail, transmedia and the future of tv, Mittel on lostpedia

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

One of my biggest complaints about the blog-o-sphere is that the trade-off of being able to write more casually and toss out ideas that are just beginning to brew is that there sometimes isn’t enough attention paid to citation/reference/attribution. This isn’t so much a problem of credit where credit is due (though that can also be a problem at times). The problem is that it makes it robs us of a valuable research tool: namely, getting a big list of what people you’re reading are themselves reading.

I don’t make a ton of direct references, so adding a list of citations to my posts Grant McCracken style won’t be of much help. Instead I thought I’d start doing a weekly round-up of some highlights from what I’m reading, since I tend to read pretty widely across a number of different fields, all of which influences my thinking directly or indirectly one way or another.

  • Wharton Business School announced new research that challenges Chris Anderson’s Long Tail theory (Download full pdf at the bottom of the article). Their data-bolstered work looks at the limitations in how the long tail defines “hit” and “niche” products only in absolute terms (ie, top 10) rather than relative metrics (top 10%). An interesting read overall, and I’m always all about talking about ambiguities in definitions.
  • Henry Jenkins has a piece in the Huffington Post this week about The Future of TV where he talks about post-network television, transmedia, and the role of social media in the consumption of TV content. Anyone familiar with Henry’s work will have heard him talk about many of the examples he mentions elsewhere, but the article is a good, quick rundown of some of the key points and cases that recur in his presentations. (I have to admit, seeing “my students at University of Southern California” instead of “my students at MIT” was momentarily jarring.)
  • In a similar TV/Fans/Participatory Media vein is Jason Mittell’s study of Lostpedia in the current issues of Transformative Works and Cultures. I’m had mixed feelings in the past about that journal for fandom-related reasons, but there’s been interesting work being published (and more importantly, made openly accessible).
  • Following a couple of interesting new transmedia cases: Flash Forward and Dragons v Robots.
  • On the transmedia front, I’ve been reading a lot things scattered here and there. Gunther Sonnenfeld has a piece on transmedia as marketing strategy. I have to admit that I would’ve like more depth and specific discussion given the length of the piece, but overall it makes for a decent primer for those new to the concept. Even better though is that it led me to former MIT CMS/C3 alum Ivan Askwith’s not-so-recent-but-highly-relevant resource list post on transmedia and advertising cases and research. Tons of great links and case descriptions that runs down all the greatest hits as well as a few lesser known examples and perspectives. And finally, there’s some great discussion going on between Scott Walker and Erek Tinker in the comments of my last post.

A couple of things that I’d read before but recently revisited that are worth a mention:

  • Susan Fournier and Lara Lee’s great article in the Harvard Business Review on Getting Brand Communities Right lays out some key principles about community behaviors, motivations, and organizational structures in a really clear, smart, market-relevant way. Absolutely required reading for anyone thinking about brands and community courting, online and off.
  • Television Melodrama (links directly to pdf, requires MIT certificate to access), the article by Prof. David Thorburn that inspired my post on Transmedia and multiplicity is definitely worth reading. Don’t let the “melodrama” deter you — this article has proven really fruitful in shaping my thinking on many things that don’t fall under the heading of television melodrama. For those without MIT access, it can also be found in the collection Television: The Critical View

Offline, I’m hitting up a few books I’ve been meaning to get around to:

  • On the academic front, I’m finally cracking Fault Lines: Cultural Memory and Japanese Surrealism by Miryam Sas, in hopes that some older examples of transnational/transcultural movement of expressive forms and genres will shape some of my further research in the online circulation of content.
  • Also started reading Richard Morgan’s Altered Carbon, the first in the Takeshi Kovacs novels, and really my first foray into Sci-Fi/Genre fiction.