In a Barbie World?

I come neither to bury Barbie nor to praise her, but to acknowledge her larger cultural role, after turning fifty this year.

And she has played an important role in several reported IP disputes (and many more unpublicized ones) — and likely more in the future. I think an entire intellectual property class could be built around Barbie — considering that are publicized claims/suits on copyright, trademark, and trade secrets.

So what makes Barbie matter so much?

For most girls in the U.S. and in many other countries, playing with Barbies is part of their childhood–dressing them over and over again, putting their ridiculous shoes on after falling off, taking them out for a drive in her RV, arranging the furniture in her dreamhome. Oh, and arranging the most scandalous weddings! In many families, Barbies are passed down from sister to sister, mother to daughter (assuming that they survive having their heads popped off, fighting with G.I. Joes, and being parachuted out windows).

The Barbie experience is part of the cultural memory of girls and women, despite the brand being owned by Mattel.

According to Naomi Klein in No Logo, the lawsuit against Aqua’s Barbie Girl:

highlighted the uncomfortable tension between the expansive logic of branding — the corporate desire for full cultural integration — and the petty logic of these legal crusades. Who if not Barbie is as much cultural symbol as product? Barbie, after all, is the archetypal space invader, a cultural imperialist in pink. She is the one who paints entire towns fuchsia to celebrate “Barbie Month.” She is the Zen mistress who for the past four decades has insisted on being everything to young girls — doctor, bimbo, teenager, career girl, Unicef ambassador….

So what makes *this* use of Barbie acceptable, yet Barbie Girl isnt?

So what makes *this* use of Barbie acceptable, yet "Barbie Girl" isn't?

According to the Barbie website,

Creativity and inspiration is in Barbie® doll’s DNA. Artists and designers from around the world have been inspired by her, whether using Barbie as a muse for fashion design or using the famed image of Barbie for a painting

While supporting some artistic reinterpretations of Barbie, Mattel, the owner of Barbie, has been very aggressive in defending their intellectual property rights.

This could be considered *not* cultural critism?

This could be considered *not* cultural criticism?

Aqua’s Barbie Girl (video above) is only the most well-known of the Barbie cases, but some other famous cases of aggressive IP protection include: Distorted Barbie and Forsythe’s Food Chain Barbie.

According to

The Forsythe case highlights the increasing challenges faced by those who wish to comment on popular icons, symbols, or cornerstones of culture, most of which are copyrighted by large corporations. “If you want to talk about the problems with society, all of the widely recognized figures are copyrighted,” says Nelson Pavlosky of “In the past, cultural icons belonged to everyone…[now] if you want to use a relevant character to critique society, you’ll get burned by companies who can silence you, not by winning in court, but by outspending you and forcing you to cave in or lose all your money.”

And Barbie has lived up to the last sentence — challenging some very obvious cultural critiques with small pockets. Adiós, Barbie is now a website (and blog) about positive body image for girls and women, though it started as a book, called Body Outlaws: Rewriting the Rules of Beauty & Body Image for its third edition:

The book book launched in 1998 under the name Adios, Barbie. It was all good for a year, until Mattel delivered my publisher a lawsuit, claiming a trademark violation. Shunned from the Dreamhouse, we agreed to change the book’s name and cover.

But what about the idea of a Barbie mashup? New York Law Revue’s Bar/Bri Girl (video above) takes the idealized clueless version of Barbie — as seen through the lens of Aqua — and pairs her with Bar/Bri, the law bar prep service. While both Bar/Bri and Aqua’s song are the focus, the cultural influence of Barbie is evident.

Original Flavor -- Barbie as Mashup, Star Trek Style

Original Flavor -- Barbie as Mashup, Star Trek Style

One final note, while trying to find pictures to illustrate some of the points made in this post (“fair use”!), I decided to go to the source — Barbie — rather than just doing an Google image search, or from news articles, or from sellers. When I found pictures and tried to copy, this was the pop-up:

This image is copyrighted, and it is owned by Mattel.  You may not reproduce, distribute, publish, transmit, modify, adapt, translate, display, sell, license, publicly perform, prepare derivative works based upon, or otherwise use or exploit this image.

New! Barbie as Mashup -- Star Trek style

New! Barbie as Mashup -- Star Trek style

Wow! It seems like Barbie doesn’t just think math is hard — but still  really doesn’t like fair use!

What Non-Profits Could Learn From Fan Culture About Social Media

chuckHaving worked in the non-profit sector for several years, and being a fangirl all my life, I can say – seriously! – that fan culture and the non-profit world would have something in common: both often rely resource of highly motivated, passionate individuals using their time (and sometimes money) to spread the word about their cause – for non-profit volunteers, that cause could be human rights, for fans it might be keeping “Chuck” on the air.

I’m not going to place a value judgment on this, though I know a common criticism of fan culture is that “the world would be a better place if [fans] would spend that kind of time/energy working on less frivolous projects: volunteering in the community, politics, etc. (Probably not 100% fair or accurate, and Henry Jenkins has already formulated a very eloquent response to that critique in Textual Poachers)

What I do know is that when it comes to using social media, fans are savvy about using social media to organize and motivate groups to action, and fan culture may be a useful lens for non-profit professionals using social media to view their own campaigns.

No really, hear me out.

Build proactive allies/supporters through social media, not just “volunteers”

Fans are pretty self-motivated when they are excited about something, they’ll spread the word about a band/TV show/movie/ book series they’re into without even needing to be prompted or instructed to do so. Take the The Leaky Cauldron, the Harry Potter-focused fan website that has grown to become a sophisticated fan news outlet and online community, with active forums, blogs, a weekly podcast and fan- organized conferences. All of this was done with the indirect blessing of Potter author J.K. Rowling.

Or consider the “Save Chuck” campaign. When NBC’s nerd-spy show Chuck was on the bubble for cancellation, fans started a grassroots campaign via social media to inform Chuck‘s parent network (NBC) and major sponsor (Subway) about the show’s fan support.  Using Twitter, icons and badges, fans were mobilized to spread the word about Chuck online, and also used their fan power to raise money for The American Heart Association, a partner charity of Subway. The We Heart Chuck Campaign raised $10,000 for the AHA in one week, and Chuck was also saved in the process.

It’s about community, and it’s personal; consider giving people the tools to spread the word in their own way.

I think nothing gets a potential supporter jazzed quicker than feeling like they can DO SOMETHING NOW, even if it’s something small like posting a badge to their blog, or retweeting a message.

Some organizations seem to focus their social media efforts on acquisition: bringing traffic from Facebook to a website. But what about taking a “street team” approach to social media? That means giving supporters/volunteers the resources and space to spread the word themselves in the ways that they feel most comfortable and effective and to create their own communities of supporters with friends and family.

I’m not saying non-profits should give volunteers carte blanche to create their own online communities without any professional input. My point here is that fans  took it upon themselves to create and build a community of support from the ground up, supplying  fellow fans with the appropriate tools  help to take their message viral.

So how can non-profits inject some of that spirit into their own social media efforts?

Center for Social Media’s Best Practices: Now in tasty video format!

The Center for Social Media just released the above video, Remix Culture: Fair Use Is Your Friend, to help illustrate the Code of Best Practices in Fair Use for Online Video, that was released in July 2008. While I’m glad that there are best practices that address the interests of other communities, having a best practice guide for remix culture is so important — considering the community is so diverse and diffuse!

The video identifies six types of potential fair use :

  • Commenting or critiquing of copyrighted material
  • Use for illustration or example
  • Incidental or accidental capture of copyrighted material
  • Memorializing or rescuing of an experience or event
  • Use to launch a discussion
  • Recombining to make a new work, such as a mashup or a  remix, whose elements depend on relationships between existing works

The Fair Use Code is one of the “best practices” created by the Center, including:

There are other best practices guides including:

While the best practices can’t state something is or is not fair use definitively, by offering guidelines these best practices help people who are being creative understand what are the reasonable limits of fair use. One of the advantages of the best practices is that they are limited to within communities, thereby allowing the best practices to be  based on how people actually use materials within their community. But the best practices are not only for those in the community, but also for outsiders who set limits on distribution of created works, such as insurance companies (documentarians!) and ISPs (responses to takedowns).

And if you want a snapshot of remix culture from about two years ago, take a look at this video by the Center for Social Media!

Patrick Swayze and the limits of Twitter as journalism

Inews-graphics-2008-_658425a‘m a big fan of Twitter as a tool for journalists. There’s a large and active network of staff journalists at indie magazines and major news outlets, freelancers , bloggers,  “citizen journalists” (do people still use that term?) that communicate and distribute news via Twitter, and I think Twitter- and microblogging in general – presents new ways for journalists to distribute  the news and interact with the public  in ways not previously imagined.

From the eyewitness postings from the terror attacks in Mumbai last year to this week’s earthquake in Los Angeles, there are even examples of Twitter as journalism with those close to the scene reporting in real time.

But I’ll be the first to admit there are  huge  limits to Twitter as a source for journalistic content, as evidenced this morning the the Patrick Swayze debacle. After a radio station in Florida erroneously reported the death of Patrick Swayze, the news spread quickly and became  a trending topic on Twitter, with individuals posting condolences without any verifcation of the source.

And that’s a big problem, one that’s happened a few times. Even the previously mentioned Twitter reports on the Mumbai attacks were littered with misinformation. 

Tom’s Tech blog wrote back in November :

If you watch Twitter you’ll see people reporting an attack at the Marriot Hotel in Mumbai.  The problem is there was NO ATTACK on the Marriot.  The Ramada hotel next door was attacked by several gun men but nothing’s happened at the Marriot.

Now imagine, if you’re someone who has family or friends at the Marriot right now.  You’d be scared out of your mind over information that’s completely false. 

I’m sorry but it really makes me angry.  What you have here are people who simply don’t care if they get the news right.  They’re turning the most dire of situations into entertainment by using Twitter to “be involved in the story.”  They throw their little tweets out not caring who they scare half to death and then brag about how great Twitter is for “beating the mainstream media at reporting the news.”

I’m of the opinion that there’s opportunity here for professional journalists to take the lead in establishing a process of vetting/gatekeeping when it comes to news content on microblogs. iJournalists have been some of the earliest adopters of Twitter andhave exploited it in innovative ways.

As with a lot of issues surrounding social media, cynics can choose view the Swayze debacle as an example of the failings of social media in journalism, but the big thinkers in media are already eyeing this and other examples as an opportunities  for journalism to reinvent itself  within the new media landscape.

MIT6 Presentation with Nell Taylor : The Chicago Underground Library: Ranganathan’s Library Rules Applied to the Digital Age

I was so pleased to co-present at MIT at Media in Transition 6 (MIT6) with Nell Taylor, Director of The Chicago Underground Library about the CUL.

This is our presentation (it will be up as a full paper on the MIT6 site shortly):

In the 1930s, Indian librarian S.R. Ranganathan created five rules for organizing libraries and created the colon cataloging system, designed to better connect library materials with each other. The Chicago Underground Library (CUL), an archive of independent and small press media from the Chicago area, expands on the notions of accessibility and democracy that underpin these rules to reimagine special collections and their place in the community. By tracing the evolution of networks and interdependencies within Chicago’s historically stratified communities and movements, the CUL proposes a social interconnectivity not just among its intended users, but also among the materials in its collection. We presented about how this library has progressed since its inception, implementing Ranganathan’s rules, and how the CUL will continue to grow — hopefully bringing this model to other cities in the future.
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The Long Tail of Fandom: Why this time Joss Whedon’s show isn’t cancelled

Once again, Joss Whedon’s latest television show, Dollhouse, like Buffy, Angel, and Firefly before it, was on the verge of cancellation. But not this time. Why? I think it is the recognition of the long tail of fandom.

According to the Washington Post’s TV blog:

Fox ordered a second season of “Dollhouse” which, some industry navel-gazers note, may be the lowest-rated series ever to get a renewal in the history of broadcast TV….

A case of the tail wagging the dog you say? … Not at all. Because, starting this season: Broadcast TV is the new tail.

This season it’s all about that “other stuff” that does so much to make a network’s parent-company happy.

Yes, some of the reason for the renewal has to do with symbiotic ownership — by owning both the show and the producing studio, more ad dollars can be kept in house. But the long tail of fandom is equally important.

So what is the impact of the long tail of fandom? In 2006, Henry Jenkins discussed fandom’s long tail about Joss Whedon’s previous series/movie Firefly/Serenity.

if we follow the logic of the Long Tail, success on one end of the tail depends on deep commitments from a relatively narrow fan base (that’s what Firefly had) and on the other end, on superficial commitments from a broader range of viewers (and that’s what Snakes on a Plane has.) I doubt anyone really has the same level of passion for Snakes as they have for Firefly. It’s a fun lark — a one night stand, a vacation movie romance. But it isn’t a once in a lifetime passion.

Joss Whedon now has built up a highly successful fandom base. Jenkins states that

Serenity had one of the most committed fan bases in media history and they would have followed Whedon anywhere

Creating and sustaining new fanbases these days is becoming increasingly difficult. Since Jenkins wrote his post three years ago, there has been an increasing drop in television audiences, new ways that people are using their free time (such as Facebook & Twitter), and the video game industry is picking up much of the remainder.

The huge returns for two movies based in the long-standing fandoms of X-Men and Star Trek, show the ways that the long tail of truly dedicated fandom can still pay out for corporate owners over time. And considering Whedon’s long highly successful fandom track record, it likely makes financial sense to keep a show where fans will always buy the merch even if the overall ratings are bad.

Full disclosure: For me as a viewer, I have experienced Whedon’s work as an example of another type of long tail — diminishing returns!, liking each next thing he does less than the ones before.