I read a book: Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age

Until recently, Clay Shirky was best known as the author of Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations. The book  was widely praised (seriously, Boing Boing calls it a “masterpiece”) and is still referenced  by social media strategist/expert/guru types as a must-read for anyone looking to explore the social dynamics that drive the use of technology, which at the time (and even now, to a certain extent) is not what drives most conversation about the internet and social media in particular.

Rather than focusing the catalyst of online social behavior on specific technologies  (i.e. what makes Facebook so popular?) Shirky argued that social tools facilitates common group behavior, conversation and social interaction. At the time, the beginning of Facebook’s online dominance and in the midst of growing fascination and panic about social media from the mainstream press. Shirky presented a reasoned, articulate and well-researched argument that the idea of “crowdsourcing” was not a new idea, but actually rooted in common, even traditional social interaction. The Internet just made that interaction happen more widely and more rapidly.

If you talk to any social media/internet  “expert” or “enthusiast” these days, this perspective is seen as common knowledge, but without Shirky’s well-presented theory and research to bolster this theory it wouldn’t have taken root.

In 2010, you’d think that this argument wouldn’t need repeating or clarification, but as traditional media continues to evolve and digital use continues to grow and become more ubiquitous, the panic of social theorists and mainstream media commentators continues unabated. The continuing debate of whether the Internet makes you smarter or more stupid seems to have a new chapter each day, but in Cognitive Surplus, Shirky’s latest book, he does add fuel to that fire, but also offers a modified version of his Here Comes Everybody thesis: The Internet has given us the tools to create, publish and share media  faster, cheaper and with more people than ever before

Shirky’s revised thesis is the reason that I think Cognitive Surplus is a must-read (there’s that term again) for media professionals in every field.

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Blogging May Not Be Dead But Live Journal Could Be

alivejournal2Uh-oh. According to Mashable, LiveJournal, of blogging’s old warhorses, is in some big financial trouble:

The company has reportedly laid off 20 of 28 employees, “leaving only a handful of finance and operations workers.”

As the Mashable article implies, MySpace and Facebook currently dominate when it comes to social media, and personal blogging is on the wane, for the most part. Most non-fandom oriented bloggers I know abandoned LJ for Blogger or TypePad years ago.

I joined LJ back in 1999-2000, mostly to follow specific fan communities that made a home there at the time, but even then I did my personal blogging on Blogger, and only kept up my LJ account to follow “Friends Only” accounts and communities like Oh No They Didn’t or Fandom Wank, when it was housed there. But blogging – and fandom activity – has certainly changed, much as it did when many e-mail discussion groups were abandoned for LJ in the early ’00’s.

LJ’s impending demise has been a long time in coming, I believe, considering the steady account erosion that started several years ago, and it certainly may have some correlation to the fans that abandoned LJ in the wake of “Strikethough/Boldthrough”, the primarily fan-community driven backlash was spurred by LiveJournal’s parent company, Six Apart, suspending user accounts deemed sexually explicit or “harmful to children.” Since a lot of fan-fiction writing communities (particularly the Harry Potter fanfic writers) were among the few that remained on LJ after the blogging masses moved on, Strikethrough was kind of the death knell for LJ, when those communities eventually moved on to open-source alternatives like GreatestJournal, insanejournal, JournalFen, etc., especially after Six Apart sold LJ to Russian software company SUP.

There’s a lot of contention about Six Apart/SUP and how the companies dealt with some of their most dedicated consumers – fangirls, for the most part. But regardless of that, with the fluid migration of social media audiences and fan communities being a constant, I think the eventual decline of LJ was inevitable.

Wizards and Vampires Singing in Harmony – Wizard Rock, Twi Rock and DIY music.

Like other grown fangirls, I have a recent history of reading fantasy literature book series that I’m too damn old for. (Harry Potter, Twilight)

While not an active fan of either, I’ve certainly followed both series, their subsequent status as a pop culture phenomenon and the resulting psychotic fan activity they’ve both engendered. (I’ll get to that later.) Even before the movie came out (still haven’t seen it, BTW) some media critics were already eager to make Twilight into the next Harry Potter, and the book sales alone offer plenty of hard evidence to base that declaration upon, though it’s clear that Twilight has a long way to go to reach the incredible global influence that Harry Potter has: Stephenie Meyer’s series has,of now, sold 25 million copies worldwide, impressive until you compare J.K. Rowling’s 400 million copies sold worldwide.

Either way, it’s easy to see that both series are bonafide fan phenomenon and even if there is not direct overlap of fan involvement from Harry Potter to Twilight, (though I suspect there is) Twilight fandom activity certain matches the fervor HP fandom. Harry Potter wiki? Meet Twilight Wiki.  Huge semi-academic convention? Oh yeah, they’ve both got it. (Though HP has several.) Delusional fandom acting out in bizarre ways? Settle in and spend some time reading about Twilight and HP fans’ crazy antics. It’s gonna take a loooong time.

But the most interesting shared phenomenon is the trend of garage rock bands being formed by fans of both novels. Harry Potter fandom started the trend with its own brand of Harry Potter inspired music, “wizard rock,” which is a bonafide phenomenon in itself: the genre has spawned  over 200 bands, according the Wizrocklopedia, the genre’s own news blog, an EP of the month club, even a documentary that came out earlier in the year. Harry and the Potters, a pioneering Wrock band, started their own label.

Not too long ago, I learned that Twilight fans have jumped on the rock bandwagon too, Check out the Bella Cullen Project’s YouTube Music video:

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and these dudes, the Mitch Hansen band and their ode to Twilight werewolf Jacob Black:

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I’ve been following the Wizard Rock phenomenon for awhile now because of my interest in music and my own fascination (and admiration) of these bands (mostly kids and teens) who have fashioned their own DIY subculture and microeconomy, selling CD’s, playing alternative spaces like libraries and coffeeshops, building a subgenre and a community from the ground up. Once again, it’s the 1000 true fans idea put into practice.

Once you can get over the fact that its rock based around a children’s book series, and the music is of … er… varying levels of quality, you see that these kids are creating an infrastructure for DIY music production and distribution that rivals what a lot of professional punk and hardcore bands are doing these days. It’s pretty inspirational and something that  even professional bands could take a page from.

There’s a very long history, of course, of filk music, sci-fi and fantasy devotees creating music based on their fannish preoccupations, but the music itself, more often than not, stayed contained within fan communities, Wrock and Twirock bands appear to have bigger goals. These kids are playing out, performing for fairly large audiences, distributing their music to other fans across the globe. Are they professional? Semi-professional? Something in between? Are they threatening the brand integrity of the media that they are helping to promote or do they deserve corporate support for pouring time, energy and cash into what is essentially grassroots promotion of these book series? I doubt most of these kids even think about these issues, they are more concerned with expressing themselves creatively and sharing their efforts with other fans.

Last week, the LA Times published an article about the Twilight Music Girls,  several musicians inspired by Twilight director Catherine Hardwick to write music based on the books.

“It was back in July that we got to meet with Catherine Hardwicke and talk to her about the movie,” [musician Kris] Angelis says. “We were saying that we had been inspired to write songs about ‘Twilight,’ and she said, ‘You should form a group. That would be so much fun.’ So it was Catherine Hardwicke who put the idea in our head. We formed the MySpace page that night.”

I highly doubt we’ll see Warner Brothers or Little, Brown and Co. the respective corporate owners of Harry Potter and Twilight) come out publicly in support or even acknowledgement of Wizard Rock or Twi-Rock, but at least in the case of Twilight, there is some definitely buy-in and support of the fan-inspired music from some of the creative voices behind the series, who see the value of encouraging this fan activity. I have a feeling we’ll see more of this.

I can has cheezburger?: An example of female nerd culture

The kitteh that launched millions of lolcats

One of the most amazing items missing from the two recent books on nerd culture (American Nerd & Nerds: Who They Are and Why We Need More of Them) was the difference of the nerd experience of girls and women compared with male nerds.

I was thinking about how easy it would have been to include examples of female nerd culture in these books — the differences in ways of discussing and experiencing pop culture, fanworks (fanfiction, fanvids, and slash), the difference in marketing to girl and women (shoujo /shojo versus shonen anime and manga, especially mahou shojo, the magical girl subgenre).

One other real-world example of the gendered difference in nerd culture is Icanhascheezburger.com, the home of lolcats. While there are male fans and non-nerd fans of lolcats, lolcats is a generally female nerd phenomenon. But why?

First, the gender issue — lolcats are based on cute pictures and it is socially more acceptable for women and girls to be involved with cute things. One such example is the Japanese penchant for all things cute, called kawaii, like Hello Kitty.

Secondly, the nerdyness — lolcats “talk” in their own form of English, based on leetspeek, used primarily by computer programmers.

Those two elements put together (and in my personal non-empirical experience) show the reason why many of the fans of lolcats are female nerds.

For example, look at the picture below — filled with cuteness, yet with oddly stated language. If this would only have the picture, it could be directed at anyone who likes cute or cats; if it only had lolcat speech, it would be directed at anyone interested in subculture speech patterns. But the combination of the two demonstrates that lolcats is directed at those in both groups — female nerds.

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The spread of lolcats is detailed in a history page, describing the process by which the cat speaking oddly picture became an internet meme and a website. There has even been detailed analysis, trying to describe what makes lolcats what they are.

Ican hascheezburger.com also has a significant economic role on the internetz — according to Business Week,

A week of ads on Cheezburger, via Blogads, starts at $500 and tops out at $5,400 for a premium position. … It recently ranked No. 26 on the most-linked-to blogs list on Technorati. [Ed: As of this blog post, it is the 13th most popular blog on Technorati.]

According to the Times (UK),

In March [2008], icanhascheezburger reached No 8 in a UK newspaper’s 50 Most Powerful Blogs list. [The week of October 12th], it was recording about 5.5 million hits every day.

The spread of lolcats and its staying power for an internet meme, specifically Icanhascheezburger is quite amazing. Time quotes the site’s creator

“The breadth of cultures [lolcats] has spread to is mind-boggling,” … “We think it has evolved beyond Internet subculture and is hitting the mainstream.”

Time magazine says

The striking thing about lolcats–besides its amazing fecundity and variety and the fact that, unlike a lot of Internet cat humor, it’s actually pretty funny–is how little else like it there is online right now. …

We may be witnessing a revolution in user-generated content, but the more mainstream the Web gets, the more it looks like the mainstream: homogenous, opportunistic and commercial. It’s no longer a subculture; it’s just the culture. And don’t we have enough of that already? Are we facing a future without a weird, vital, creative phenomenon like lolcats? Say it with me: “Do not want!”

Icanhascheezburger is now a book, I Can Has Cheezburger? A Lolcat Colleckshun, by Professor Happycat, “full of kittehs and win!”

cat

Book Review: American nerd : the story of my people

Summary: Benjamin Nugent’s American Nerd is a worthwhile but deeply flawed book. The first section creating a social history of nerddom is unique and interesting, discussing the creation of the nerd in literature and popular culture — and the racial/ethnic elements in the creation of the “nerd”. The second section veers into vignettes about nerds that aren’t very edifying.

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Despite the rest of this review, I really enjoyed reading the first half of the book, where Nugent theorizes the beginning of nerd. He starts with Mary in Pride and Prejudice, moves on to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and then discusses how those that are now called nerds got place there. Nugent defines nerds in two groupings:

1) mostly male and intellectual and socially awkward “in ways that strike people as machinelike”

2) gender equal and nerd status “by sheer force of social exclusion”

American Nerd‘s true strength is the section explaining how Jewish-Americans and Asian-Americans became the exemplar of nerddom, in contrast to racialized all-American athleticism.

One element about the book that I wasn’t sure I was going to touch on directly was the author’s blase attidude to blatant sexism. One chapter starts with a long section about the nerd slang meaning of this word (usually as a verb, similar to pwnage, exemplifying complete domination of a gaming opponent). Nary a mention of the implications for female gamers or for others appears.

This lack of understanding of sexism and male privilege in discussing nerddom is especially disappointing in light of the extensive historical discussions of the intersection between the need to define nerddom to encompass stereotypes about Jewish-Americans and Asian-Americans. According to Nugent, WASPy athletic America needed “the nerd” as a Dorian Grey-like mirror to define what men should not to be.

So where does that leave the female nerd?

The book does mention girl nerddom in passing — including two bizarre mentions of Naomi Novik’s series sans names. Also, within the nerds-dig-Japanese culture section, Nugent creates a two-page amalgam of yaoi and slash into all things fangirl. And it is done with that “girls are so weird!” tone.

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An element missing from all of the books I’ve read about nerds, gifted kids, and the autism/Asperger spectrum is the issue of difference within difference. What is it like to be a black or latina/o nerd, accused of “acting white”? What is different about the experiences of immigrant versus born-here nerds? First-generation nerds versus family ‘o nerd? And I’m still waiting for a full discussion of gender and sexuality in nerddom.

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One last problem with the book — no index and no bibliography!

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This book is available in many libraries and its ISBNs are 9780743288019 0743288017

Book Review: Nerds: Who They Are and Why We Need More of Them

Summary: David Anderegg’s Nerds: Who They Are and Why We Need More of Them is an excellent study of why nerds and geeks are both derided and praised in modern American society from the perspective of a child psychologist. This book discusses in detail the impact of nerdiness on perceptions of social acceptance and masculinity. It misses discussing the differering impact of nerd culture, based on other aspects of identity, specifically on girls, those who are working class, and on those who seem nerdy but aren’t.

Anderegg states that there are five overall aspects to the stereotype of nerdiness:

(a) unsexy, (b) interested in technology, (c) uninterested in their personal appearance, (d) enthusiastic about stuff that bores everyone else, and (e) persecuted by nonnerds [such as] jocks.

I think the fact that Anderegg leaves out the most important aspect of nerddom to me — intelligence (or perceived intelligence). This doesn’t neatly fall into the “interested in technology” or enthusiastic about boring stuff categories.

Throughout the book, Anderegg discusses through both clinical anecdotes and theory why the statement that words can’t hurt doesn’t apply — especially in the seemingly neverending cruelty that is middle school. He asks parents to have a greater understanding of the great pressure kids are under from contradictory messages:

We act like it is all in good fun to communicate to our kids that people who are smart and do well in school and like science fiction and computers are also people who smell bad and look ugly and are so repulsive that they are not allowed to have girlfriends.

But notice how this statement excludes from nerddom, both straight female nerds and gay nerds! The book discusses several of the fandom interests of nerds, including Star Trek, online MMPORGs like Word of Warcraft, and more traditional role-playing games like Dungeons and Dragons.

While girl nerds do participate in these activities, I am surprised that experiences and activities that tend to attract girl nerds are not discussed, including long-running fandom traditions such as fanfiction (Harry Potter is only mentioned as a positive nerd exemplar) and more recent ones like LOLCats. And no mention of nerdcore?!

But this book is not an anthropological study of nerds; it is more about how to help parents, teachers, and psychologists help the nerds (and perceived nerds) in their life.

This book was discussed on an episode of Wisconsin Public Radio’s To the Best of our Knowledge, “Revenge of the Nerds” (The other nerd book discussed on the episode, Benjamin Nugent’s American Nerd: The Story of My People, will be reviewed here later).

Nerds: Who They Are is available in many libraries, and the ISBNs are 9781585425907 1585425907