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Interview with Carlos Alberto Scolari, communication researcher and expert in digital media
"This is a fascinating time to be studying and working in communication"
June 2013 / By Jordi Rovira
On 30 April Carlos A. Scolari took part in the seminar Transmedia and fan-generated content, organised by Mediaccions, a UOC research group specialising in digital visual culture. Scolari is an expert in digital media and mass communication, an area in constant evolution.

The title of the seminar contains terms that had not been heard of a few years ago. Is visual culture simply undergoing a change, or are we witnessing a full-scale revolution?

Rather than revolution, I prefer to talk about 'continuity' and 'discontinuity'. In the United States, the first science fiction fanatics, who organised their own conventions, began to emerge in the nineteen thirties. So fan-based creation dates back a long time. At the end of the sixties, Star Trek became incredibly popular over a couple of seasons and left a core of highly active fans who began to organise the famous conventions for 'Trekkies'. Next came Star Wars, which had a similar effect. And we can see the results of this phenomenon in the international comic and anime conventions held in Barcelona. So in this sense there is a line of continuity with the past.

How does the industry view this phenomenon?

In the seventies, Star Trek fans published their own comics, introducing new plots, and the show's creator always gave them his blessing. But things were always kept within these fan groups. The discontinuity that social networks have brought is a very different thing. Before, work produced by fans had very little distribution, whereas now all you have to do is post on YouTube or go to sites like fanficcion.net - where users post their own creations - and the fan community acquires a global dimension. A lot of videos go viral and are downloaded millions of times. So there is continuity, but also a new dimension, which is what social networks bring to the equation.

In your talk at the seminar you discussed Lost, one of the examples that you have studied. But you have also mentioned other series that engage in a lot of interaction with fans. To what extent does fan-based creation alter the creative process of professional productions?

In some ways, feedback has always been a feature of the traditional media. The X-Files was the first series to engage in this dialectic of online discussion with its fans, and gave occasional nods to their feedback by incorporating certain suggestions. A few years before this we witnessed the Twin Peaks phenomenon, but the Internet was still in its infancy and we didn't have the same dynamic. The X-Files, on the other hand, was a series for the web age. I was a big fan, and I remember how episodes in the second or third season began to incorporate suggestions that viewers had sent to Chris Carter, the creator and producer of the show. It was even rumoured that some of the characters were named after the series' most active fans on the web. But we're talking about the beginning of the Internet. Now, some twenty years later, the dialogue is far more intense.

But not all creators take the fans' suggestions on board...

Obviously the author of an original work can choose to be less receptive, in the way of a traditional artist. But from a marketing perspective it is very interesting to hear what people have to say. For example, the character of Ben Linus in Lost - every inch the archetypal bad guy - was only meant to appear in a couple of episodes. But following vociferous appeals from the public, he was kept in until the final episode and became one of the mainstays of the series. He even evolved as a character.

Where does audience engagement end and marketing begin?

There's no single answer to that. There are examples of fan groups who are really engaged but not caught up in any sort of marketing strategy, this is very often the case. The thing is, people who look at it in terms of traditional concepts don't take this type of production into account. In their book Spreadable Media, Henry Jenkins, Sam Ford and Joshua Green discuss this friction between the industry and the fans. They explain that the traditional broadcasting paradigm was built on a business model that essentially 'sells' the people in front of screens to advertising agencies and companies. This was supported by audience measurement systems - based on the 'Nielsen family' model - that made it possible to calculate how much a minute of television was worth. But there are now series that have been watched seven million times by traditional viewers and eleven million times via illegal downloads.

So there is a problem with the audience measurement companies being behind the times...

They are beginning to catch up, because they have realised that marketing efforts were missing out on the millions of fans who contribute to the narrative of their products as well as being consumers. This is important because series fanatics spend a lot of money on merchandise. So the measurement companies are beginning to get their act together. Thanks to Web analytics we also have access to information about what's going on in social networks. The old measurement system should be merged with Web analytics, as it could give us a new model that encompasses this huge group of people that hadn't been taken into account until now.

And we would have far more realistic figures...

Getting back to the issue, there are some pretty wild experiences outside the marketing sphere. Initially, George Lucas didn't want to know anything about this type of creation; he didn't like people making shorts with his characters, some of which were basically parodies. But in the end he gave in and organised the Fan Film Awards. The only condition he imposed was that submissions weren't allowed to feature new characters. So in this case marketing eventually generated a new creative space, which could also end up happening with the Harry Potter website (www.pottermore.com). There's also a whole area of fan creation that the marketing men don't control and which refuses to be part of the official channel.

Where should we draw the line with respect to altering the original product? In the future, will I be able to write Don Draper into bed with one of the female characters in Mad Men?

When hypertext fiction appeared at the beginning of the nineties it was one of the first major sources of controversy. Fifteen years ago, Bill Gates made a speech in which he said that viewers would be able choose the narrative threads of a series, or even determine how it would end. But it's one thing to do this with written hypertext, like the novel Afternoon by Michael Joyce, and quite another to do it with video. It would mean filming several versions at the same time, and the cost would be astronomical. There have been a few experiments where fans have chosen the end of a series, but I don't think we will ever see more than a handful of examples. Fans are more involved in post-production, which allows them to take a finished product, recycle it and mix in other elements.

And this is when they start to create...

That's right, like the famous Hitler scene in Downfall. People have used it as a template for railing against all sorts of things, from politics to Mourinho. And if this makes the creators of original work uncomfortable, they should try to relax about it, because these creative processes are here to stay. In fact, an intelligent creator will try to capitalise on all of this narrative energy. Taking a stand through intellectual property law is absurd, but trying to ignore it altogether will just lead to more stress. We need creators with a 21st-century vision, who defend their products but aren't frightened of these other contributions, which enrich the narrative of their work.

At the consumer level, is this a generational phenomenon?

Jenkins talks about an audience sector over the age of 50 that receives no attention but, in communities of soap opera fans, has a real relationship with the new generation of fans. These older viewers won't post a video parody on YouTube because they don't have the skills, but they will know about the underlying narrative, which puts them in a good position as experts. So while the older generation may not engage with the new logics of post-production, they are highly respected within fan communities.

If we look at media consumption, in particular the 'second screen' phenomenon (in which users consult other platforms - mainly mobile phones - while they are watching television), are we not dealing with a more generational habit?

Yes, but there are seven billion people on the planet and five billion mobile phone contracts, so not all of the users can be young. The very concept of 'digital natives' needs to be treated with care, because it simply isn't sustainable to assume that all adolescents are highly skilled users of digital devices and that no-one over the age of forty knows how to use a mouse. A couple of years ago hardly any of my eighteen-year-old students were on Twitter. So there's a bit of everything...

Moving away from the generational theme, it's still clear that some people are far more prolific digital consumers of mass media than others. Could this lead to a two-speed culture of television consumption?

There is definitely a process of generational change, and this can be slow. The same thing has already happened with other mass media. Traditional television viewers will gradually be outnumbered by those who divide their between two or more screens.

You have written that "the new media species prey on our attention". Does watching television while viewing another screen affect the quality of consumption?

Lack of attention is not a new phenomenon. When some of the early novels were published in the 19th century, Madame Bovary became the subject of fierce debate and Flaubert and his publisher were taken to court over complaints that the novel had caused female readers to lose their appetites and become unresponsive to the "inputs" of their husbands. It's the same criticism that is now being levelled at videogames. I think that we are moving towards a new form of text consumption - not just visual - that is far more fragmented. So rather than fret about a loss of quality in the way we consume, we should analyse how the changes in media reception are coming about. A generation that grows up reading from papyrus is not the same as one that learns through printed books, television or Wikipedia and Facebook.

Secondary school teachers have for some time been seeing how their over-stimulated pupils find it hard to concentrate in class. Was this also the case with the audiovisual products of the past, like a Hitchcock film, for example?

Yes, because they're different aesthetics, although it's not something that concerns me. The greater speed of fragmentation we perceive today is real, but it's happening because we are living in a different society and not in the 19th century, when everything moved at a slower pace. I'm less pessimistic than these teachers. Throughout the history of humanity we have not always focused solely on the book. Text forms and reading interfaces have evolved over the ages, and we're going through a change at the moment. Some are already talking about the 'Gutenberg Parenthesis', which describes the theory that for the last five hundred years we have based our learning on books, but we are now shifting towards other forms of text. Manuel Castells discussed in an article the discrepancy between the predominance of books in schools and the reality of young people's lives outside the classroom. This leads to problems, because the society we live in is fragmented and fast-paced, whereas schools - which were designed for a different type of society - are moving in slow motion.

Will this fragmentation of the mass media continue?

I think so, yes. A series like Lost, which ran for six seasons, started out with an audience of fifteen million and ended up with only seven. Mad Men, to give another example, has seven million viewers. But that was nothing in the sixties, during the golden age of television. What we're seeing is that our media diet has diversified: we consume more stories on a range of devices. This dispersion across different devices and texts is an interesting situation. I always tell my students that this is a fascinating time to be studying and working in communication. It's like being a sculptor in Florence in 1500: the right profession at the right time.

 

Profile

Carlos Alberto Scolari (Rosario, Argentina, 1963) is a lecturer at the Department of Communication of the Universitat Pompeu Fabra. He has published books including Hacer clic. Hacia una socisemitica de las interacciones digitales (Clicking, Towards a Sociosemiotics of Digital Interactions) (2004) and Hipermediaciones. Elementos para una teora de la comunicacin digital interactiva (Hyper-mediations - Elements for a Theory of Interactive Digital Communication) (2008), as well as articles in a range of specialised journals. He is an expert in the semiotics of media and user interfaces, media ecology, mobile communication, and the theories of interactive digital communication and hyper-mediations, and has given talks, courses and workshops at universities around the world.

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