(Aca) Blogs are Like Assholes…

You’ve heard the joke, right?  There are over 152,000,000 blogs on the internet. And in one small corner of the internet are the academic blogs, the aca-blogs. I define “aca-blogs” as blogs written and moderated by an individual (as opposed to a collective) currently involved in academia (whether as a student, instructor or administrator). The content of these blogs vary widely but they are usually at least tangentially related to the blogger’s field of academic study. Most of these bloggers write in a looser, more informal style than they would for a more traditional scholarly publication, like a peer-reviewed journal or a monograph published by a university press (i.e, the kind of documents that — at least at one time — would get you a job or tenure).

Now, I’ve never been an early adopter. I’m a proud member of the “early majority,” the folks who watch and see what happens to the early adopters before taking the plunge. I was late to Facebook (August 2008), Twitter (March 2009), and (aca)blogging (August 2009). I only started blogging in the wake of the medium’s “golden age” (an era which, like all golden ages, varies wildly depending on who you consult). I use the term “golden age” to signal a time when a large portion of the academics I interacted with on social media also had blogs, and posted to them regularly (see my blogroll for a sizable sample of media studies bloggers). Starting a blog was common for people like me — that is, for people who liked talking about popular culture in a looser, more informal way, online, with other fans and academics. And with gifs.

Part of what (I think) my early readers enjoyed about my blog is that I was using my PhD, a degree that (supposedly) gives me the ability to provide nuanced arguments and historical context about the popular culture they were consuming.  I like that my online friends (including folks I went to elementary school with, my Mom’s friends, my kids’ friends’ parents) can read my mom’s Oscar predictions or why I think the Jersey Shore cast is a lot like the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and they don’t need to buy a subscription to a journal or be affiliated with a university to do so. That’s important. If we, as Humanities-based scholars, are terrified about the way our discipline is being devalued (literally and metaphorically) then we need to show the public exactly how valuable our work is. How can we say “people need media literacy!” but only if they enroll in my class or pay for a journal subscription? That just supports the erroneous belief that our work is elitist/useless when it’s not. I know this work is valuable and I want everyone to have access to it. I also like the timeliness afforded by this online, open-access platform. I can watch Mildred Pierce the night it airs and have a review published on my personal blog the next day, which is exactly when folks want to read it. If I want to do some detailed research and further thinking about that series, then sure, I’d spend several months on a much longer piece and then send it to a journal or anthology.

Indeed, Karra Shimabukuro, a PhD student who maintains two different blogs, explains her interest in blogging this way:

I like [blogging] because it lets me share my work, and in this day and age perhaps get people to know my work and me. Now that I’m in my PhD program, I try to post stuff pretty regularly, and I always link to Twitter when I do, so get more views. I think it’s important to share my research. I read quite a few blogs, usually when I am looking for something specific though- job market, conference, early career advice type stuff. 

In the early days of my blog’s life I posted frequently (several times per week) and my posts were generally short (less than 1000 words). These posts were written quickly, often in response to an episode of television I had just watched or a conversation I had just had with someone on Twitter (or Facebook, or occasionally, real life). My early posts were also interactive. I almost always concluded posts with questions for my readers, invitations to engage with me on the platform I built for just that purpose.

Ben Railton, a professor who blogs at American Studies, told me via email:

For me individually, blogging has been infinitely helpful in developing what I consider a far more public voice and style, one that seeks to engage audiences well outside the academy. Each of my last two books, and my current fourth in manuscript, has moved more and more fully into that voice and style, and so I see the blog as the driving force in much of my writing and work and career.

 And collectively, I believe that scholarly blogs emphasize some of the best things about the profession: community, conversation, connection, an openness to evolving thought and response, links between our individual perspectives and knowledges and broader issues, and more.

Looking back at these early posts I’m surprised by the liveliness of the comments section — how people would talk to me and each other in rich and interesting ways. In 2009 my blog felt vibrant, exciting, and integral to my scholarship. A few of of my posts became longer articles or conference talks. Writing posts made me feel like I was part of an intellectual community exchanging ideas back and forth in a productive kind of dialogue.

In hindsight it’s strange to me that I blogged so much in 2009 and 2010 because those years mark one of the most challenging periods of my life — just before the birth of my second child, a beautiful boy who never ever (ever) slept. During the brief snatches of time when my newborn son was asleep, or at least awake and content, I would grab my laptop and compose my thoughts about The Hills or Google+ (LOL, Google+!). I found that, when the muse comes calling, you have to write then, not sooner and not later, or she’ll go away. So I wrote posts in the middle of the night and even while nursing my son. Blogging felt vital to me then, like a muscle that needed stretching. And when the words came, they came in a stream. The sexual connotations here are purposeful — blogging was satisfying to me in the same way sex can be satisfying. And like sex, sometimes when you try to blog, you just can’t get it up: the moment’s not right, the inspiration vanishes.

But things are different in 2014. I’ve had tenure for a year. I just completed a manuscript and turned it in to the press. My son (now 4 and a half) sleeps through the night (almost) every night and I find that I can work while lounging in a hammock next to my 8-year-old daughter as she reads. In other words, I have plenty of time to stretch my blog muscle. Yet,  I’m just losing my desire for blogging. It used to be that if I went more than a few weeks without writing a post, I got twitchy, an addict in the midst of withdrawal. But now, my blog’s stagnation engenders no such discomfort. It’s like the day you realize you’re over an old love. Dispassion and neutrality abound.

Taking stock of her own blogging hiatus last year, Slaves of Academe writes “As it turns out, walking away from one’s blog was relatively easy, given the surplus of competing screens.” And I suppose that that’s the first reason why I blog less frequently than I did 5 years ago. Back in 2009 it seemed that the internet was quite interested in the proto-scholarship offered up by the academic blog. There was an excitement there of seeing new scholarship take shape right before our eyes. And Michael Newman, a media studies professor writing about this same topic on his own personal (neglected) blog, zigzigger, explains:

 People mixed personal and professional. They’d get first-persony and confessional even in efforts at engaging with intellectual concerns. They’d make the blog as much about process as product. No one was editing or reviewing your blog, so it had a raw immediacy missing from more formal writing. 

Newman notes the rise of academic blog collectives (like Antenna), a move which has, for better or worse, worked to legitimize the process of academic blogging:

As blogs become more legitimate and serve these more official functions, they seem less appropriate for the more casual, sloppy, first-drafty ponderings that made the format seem vital in the first place.

This has certainly been true for me. I often find myself starting to write a post and then abandoning it for it’s lack of intellectual “rigor.” I second guess my posts more often now, worrying that they might be too frivolous, too self-indulgent, too weird. But of course, that’s what my blog has always been. It just seems like that sort of casual, stream-of-consciousness style writing is less acceptable now among academics. Or maybe everyone is just bored with it.

Justin Horton, an ABD who has been blogging since 2012, has noticed an overall decrease in the numbers of posts coming out of personal blogs. He tells me:

Personal blogs have been diminished by other web spaces (Antenna, etc), but there is still a place for them, and oddly, it seems be occupied by very young scholars (who haven’t gotten their names out there) and senior scholars whose names are widely known and have a built-in audience (I’m think of Bordwell, Steven Shaviro, and so forth).

Years ago it seemed like blogs represented the next wave of academic scholarship: short bursts of freeform thinking published immediately and set in dialogue with other robust online voices. But blogging has not yielded the legitimacy many of us hoped for. While I still put my blog in my tenure file, citing (what I believe to be) its value, I understand that my department’s personnel committee does not view it as a major component of my research, teaching or service (the holy trifecta of academic values), even though it has greatly contributed to all three. So without institutional legitimacy or scholarly engagement, what purpose does the academic blog hold today? Has its moment passed?

I had a chat, via Facebook message, with three fellow aca-bloggers — the aformentioned Michael Newman, Kristen Warner of Dear Black Woman, and  Alyx Vesey, of Feminist Music Geek – to get some answers. I’ve pasted our discussion below:

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Kristen started things off, by addressing the rise of the so-called “critic culture”:

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Editor’s note: I really really love Google books.

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Editors’s note: here is a link to Kristen’s post on Jessica Pare.

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Editor’s Note: Alyx is referring to Myles McNutt, of Cultural Learnings (and the AV Club and my heart).

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 No, the slow disappearance of the personal aca-blog isn’t exactly a crisis — not like the academic job market crisis, or the humanities crisis, or the crisis in higher education. But the downtick in blogging in my field does give me pause because I see real value in the kind of intellectual work performed on blogs. Posts are loose, topical, and invite others to join in. They’re accessible in a way that academic journal articles usually are not. And unlike the think pieces and recaps I most frequently read online (and which I enjoy), personal blog posts are rarely subjected to the rabid feeding frenzy of misogyny, racism and obtuseness that characterizes so many comment sections these days. The personal blog affords a certain level of civility and respect. If we disagree with each other — and we often do, thank God — we’re not going to call each other cunts or trolls or worse. At least not in public for everyone to see. We’re…classy.

So while my blogging has slowed, I’m not quite ready to give up on the platform yet. I still think there’s value in this mode of intellectual exchange — in the informality, the speed with which ideas can be exchanged, and, of course, the gifs.

So, what do you think (all 10 readers who are still reading)? Is the aca-blog dead? Does it matter? Did you like my gifs? Comment below. And please don’t call me a cunt.

Teaching this Old Horse some New Teaching Tricks

Me, inspiring my students (from fanpop.com)

Me, inspiring my students
(from fanpop.com)

This semester I have experimented a lot with my teaching and classroom policies. While implementing new policies certainly adds more work (and frustration) to an already busy semester, my hope is to find the right mix of assignments and policies so that ultimately, running my class is less work and less frustration. One policy I tried out was changing my approach to student absences. In the past my absence policy has been that students could miss 3 classes over the course of the semester with no penalty. After 3 absences, I deduct 10 points (aka, a full letter grade) from their final grades  for each additional missed class. Though I think this policy is quite generous, it created a lot of headaches for me. Students would be cavalier about missing classes early in the semester (missing 3 within the first 6 weeks of the semester) and then, when cold/flu season hit the campus (and it always does), they would miss even more classes and then beg forgiveness. I once had a student  show up in my class looking like the Crypt Keeper. When I asked her why she came to class when she was clearly very ill and contagious she said that she had used up all of her absences and didn’t want to fail my class. Another student showed up to class drunk (very drunk)  for the same reason. This led me to become the “absence judge, jury and executioner”: I would have to determine  how the student would make up the additional absences in a way that was fair to the students who did the work and  showed up every day . I also had to determine which truant students would have an opportunity to make up their absences. Does a sick aunt warrant missing 3 additional classes? What about a really bad break up? A court date?

Me, dealing with truancy from liketotally80s.com

Me, dealing with truancy
from liketotally80s.com

This process is exhausting to describe and, I assure you, even more exhausting when experienced in real life. I have so much to do with my job and policing absences made me cuckoo-bananas. So this semester, after consulting with many other professors, I came up with a new plan. Students were still allowed to miss 3 classes without penalty. But then, I added this paragraph to my syllabus:

Students may “make up” missed classes by turning in a 4 page paper that describes, in detail, what was discussed in class during the missed day. This requires obtaining the notes of at least 2 classmates and piecing together the missed lecture/class discussion from these notes and from discussions with classmates (i.e., NOT me). If the missed class is a Tuesday, the paper should also discuss the reading assignment. If the missed class is a Thursday, the paper must discuss the week’s assigned film. This paper MUST be turned in within 2 weeks of the missed class. This is the ONLY way to “make up” a missed class. You must take care of obtaining notes from classmates on your own. After 2 weeks, the absence will be counted. THERE ARE NO EXCEPTIONS TO THIS POLICY.

This semester I had approximately 30 students and in that entire group, only 2 students missed more than 3 classes. One of the students missed many classes early on and took it upon himself to withdraw from my class. He actually apologized for his truancy and then said he hoped to try to take my class again in the future. There was no whining or pleading (and there usually is in these situations). He took responsibility for absences and removed himself from my classroom. I was actually shocked by how maturely my student handled the situation — it was kind of like interacting with a real adult! The 2nd student, who missed 4 classes, just turned in his make up paper. Again, this student did not attempt to make excuses for the classes he missed. He just turned in his paper and that was that. I say this because I have never had a semester at East Carolina University where students have attended classes so regularly. I could attribute this to the fact that I taught 2 upper-level seminars filled almost entirely with film minors who were invested in the class and its material — that probably helped. But I also think that having an absence policy that removed the weight of policing student attendance from my shoulders to their shoulders may have also helped. I also think that I have been making the mistake of coddling my students a bit too much. If I start treating them more like independent adults, they will act that way. Or at least, that is how it went down this semester.

The other change I made this semester was to the way I managed the students’ reading assignments. I had been finding that even in classes filled with my best students, there was a reading problem. That is, students weren’t doing the weekly reading assignments.

It got so bad last semester that I finally just asked my students point-blank “Why aren’t you reading?” And they told me. They felt the reading assignments were either too long or they didn’t see the need or value in reading them on the days when I didn’t go over the reading in detail in class ( in my day we did 50 pages of reading for a class, the professor didn’t discuss it with us and WE LIKED IT! but I digress….). So I listened to this feedback and changed things up. This semester I taught shorter essays (10-20 pages tops) and I also required the students to compose 3 tweets about the week’s reading and post them to Twitter every Monday, using the course hashtag. Here is an excerpt from the assignment I handed out at the beginning of the semester:

Guidelines for Twitter Use in ENGL3901

General Requirements

-You must post at least 3 tweets each week by 5pm every Monday (the earliest you may post is AFTER 5pm on the previous Monday)

For example:

-you must read the following short pieces by Jan 22 [Geoffrey Nowell-Smith “After the War,” pp. 436-443; Geoffrey Nowell-Smith “Transformation of the Hollywood System,” pp. 443-451]

so the tweets about that reading are due anytime BETWEEN 5pm on Jan 15th and 5pm on Jan 22

-You may do all 3 tweets in one sitting or spread them out over the course of a week

-All tweets MUST include the hashtag #E3901 so that the class (and your professor) will be able to see them

-All tweets must contain at least one substantial piece of information on or about the week’s reading assignment

As with the adoption of any new technology, there was a learning curve involved in using Twitter for classroom credit. Over half the students had never used Twitter before and therefore were not accustomed to its 140 character limit. I also had to send out weekly reminders for the first few weeks of class. But by the end of the semester I was surprised to see that the students kept up with this assignment and that they were actually processing the reading in useful ways. Being forced to take a complex idea and express it in 140 characters forces the student to engage with the material more deeply than if s/he had simply read the assignment and then put it down (or not read it at all!). I also think that having to account for their reading labor (and it IS labor) publicly — to the professor and to classroom peers — made the students realize the value and importance of the weekly reading assignments.

last semester

last semester

I actually wrote about this experience — as well as my experiences using blogs in the classroom — in a new short piece over at MediaCommons. If you’d like to learn more about the value of social media in the media studies classroom, you can click the link below. Please comment!

Click here to read “Mind Expanders and Multimodal Students”

So while instituting new policies has been time-consuming — both in planning, executing and documenting — overall, I am really happy with the results. I have a tendency to “mother hen” my students. I check in and remind them of deadlines, I poke and prod, and ultimately I wear myself out. I think I must wear them out too. Both the new absence policy and the incorporation of Twitter to encourage reading in the classroom has shifted some of those burdens from my shoulders to my students’ shoulders (where it belongs). This was most apparent when I realized that no one had emailed me this semester to explain why s/he had missed class and why I should count a particular absence as “excused” (in my class there is no such thing as an “excused” absence, unless the university tells me so).  I feel like students took more ownership of attendance and engagement with their reading assignments. When I teach a 100-person Introduction to Film course this fall (a course with a notoriously high absence rate and low reading engagement rate), I will be interested to see how these new policies work. Til then though, I am going to go ahead and give myself a soul clap:

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“To Dance Again!”: Affect, Genre, and the HARRY POTTER Franchise

Cast of the A VERY POTTER MUSICAL and A VERY POTTER SEQUEL

Cast of the A VERY POTTER MUSICAL and A VERY POTTER SEQUEL

This week I attended the annual Society for Cinema and Media Studies conference in Chicago. I decided to share the paper I presented there as part of the panel, “Affect in the Age of Transmedia Storytelling” on this blog in an effort to make research that was presented to just 20-25 people (not a bad turn out for one of the first panels of the 5 day conference!), available for a wider audience. My paper was originally titled “‘Falling in Love with Hermione Granger’: Affect, Genre, and the Harry Potter Franchise” but I ultimately did not have time to discuss the song, “Granger Danger” in this brief paper (a note that drew at at least one “Booooo!” from the audience when announced), so I changed the title for this post to reflect that omission.

To watch “Granger Danger” start at the 2 minute mark

Other than the title change and some added clips (yay internet!), the  paper below  is what I presented last Wednesday. I welcome any feedback.

A screen shot of my panel from the SCMS 2014 conference program.

A screen shot of my panel from the SCMS 2014 conference program.

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“To Dance Again!”: Affect, Genre, and the Harry Potter Franchise

I want to begin this discussion of affect in the transmedia franchise by discussing a scene from A Very Potter Musical, a full length stage musical written, directed and performed by a group of University of Michigan performing arts students and recorded and broadcast online via YouTube in 2009. The show has 14 original numbers and over 9 million page views. The scene you are about to watch is a recreation of a significant moment from JK Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire –when Lord Voldemort finally reclaims a human body after more than 11 years of painful disembodiment. What is the first item on Voldemort’s evil agenda? Why, to dance of course!

Begin watching “To Dance Again!” at the 3 minute mark:

In this number Voldemort usefully describes how music can compel the body to dance, even when the brain rejects the idea:

“The other boys would laugh and jeer

But I’d catch em tappin their toes.

‘Cause when Id start to sway

they’d get carried away.

And oh, how the feeling grows…”

These lines—and the whole number for that matter, highlight the relationship between affect and music—how the compulsion to sing or dance is frequently pre-cognitive.

Joe Walker as Lord Voldemort

Joe Walker as Lord Voldemort

In “Serial Bodies,” Shane Denson defines affect as “the privileged but fleeting moments, when narrative continuity breaks down and the images on the screen resonate materially, unthinkingly, or pre-reflectively with the viewer’s autoaffective sensations.” Denson then goes on to cite Linda Williams’ famous essay on body genres,  “Film Bodies: Gender, Genre, and Excess,” in which she argues that when watching horror films, pornography or melodramas, “the body of the spectator is caught up in an almost involuntary mimicry of the emotion or sensation of the body onscreen” (144). Though Williams makes a passing reference to musicals in her list of potential body genres, the musical is rarely discussed in terms of its relationship to affect. However, the instinct to sing or dance to a catchy tune is frequently takes place just before our conscious mind reminds us that such an impulse could lead to public humiliation.

I am also using affect in this talk to reference the very real emotional connections between fans and the texts they love. In fact, the syntax of the musical favors emotion in that the genre’s most valued characters are those who sing and dance because they love it so much–because the pure bliss of performance cannot be resisted. Those characters who sing and dance purely for money or who overthink their art are usually proven to be villains, or at the very least, in need of reformation.

For example, in The Bandwagon (1953), Jeffrey Cordova (Jack Buchanan) is only able to create a successful show when he stops aiming for “high brow” status and just makes a show filled with music and dance:

So what does a singing and dancing Lord Voldemort have to do with transmedia franchises and affect, the subject of today’s panel? By translating key plot events from the Harry Potter franchise into musical numbers, I am arguing that A Very Potter Musical transforms the fantasy franchise’s key opposition between good and evil to the musical’s own preoccupation with joie de vivre over monetary gain. In her study of Roswell fandom and genre in fan discourse, Louisa Stein argues that fans “use generic codes as points of identification with story and character, making fictional narratives and characters personally meaningful or resonant through processes of genre personalization” (2.4). Likewise for fans of the musical, A Very Potter Musical offers an affective entry point into the vast narratological universe of Harry Potter, making the franchise more personally meaningful. This is not to say that Potter films and books don’t generate affect in their audiences, but rather that the structures of the musical create new opportunities for affect among Potter fans (and of course, for Potter fans who dislike musicals, AVPM will not provide any form of engagement because they won’t seek it out).

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As a transmedia franchise that includes 7 novels, 8 blockbuster films, a Disney theme park, toys, videogames and countless other product tie-ins, Harry Potter fandom is necessarily broad, heterogeneous, and expressed through a range of media platforms: thousands of fan-created websites, newsletters, slash, conventions, a thriving genre of Harry Potter­-themed rock music known as “wrock,” and even an activist group known as the Harry Potter Alliance. A Very Potter Musical, which seems to straddle the spaces between fan fiction, wrock, and possibly even filk, disguises its budget limitations with winking musical performances, self reflexivity, and the unabashed passion of its actors. Fan love fills in production gaps and adorns the visible seams of this otherwise amateur production. The lengths that fans will go to express their adoration for a beloved text have been well-documented by fan studies scholars like Henry Jenkins, who describes fan fiction as “a celebration of intense emotional commitments and the religious fervor that links fandom to its roots in fanaticism” (251). Thus for scholars of fan studies, AVPM is nothing new. However, for a scholar of film genres like myself, the show is quite useful for understanding the role that genre—specifically the musical–plays in the relationship between fandom, transmedia franchises and affect.

Watch Darren Criss (Harry Potter) and Joey Richter (Ron Weasley) perform “Goin Back to Hogwarts” with some fans. Note the moment when the fans chime in at the 55 second mark and Darren Criss’ reaction:

One way that AVPM creates an intimate relationship between fan and text is by transforming the multibillion dollar Harry Potter transmedia franchise—the ultimate form of mass culture–back into folk culture. Whereas folk art is an expression of the community who is also its audience, mass art is disseminated to its audience already made, articulating its values for them. However, as so many fan studies scholars have noted, fan fiction allows fans to convert mass culture back into folk culture. I would add that by explicitly relying on the syntax and semantics of the musical, AVPM is even more adept at creating the sense that mass art is folk art. Jane Feuer argues that: “In basing its value system on community, the producing and consuming functions served by the passage of musical entertainment from folk to popular to mass status are rejoined through the genre’s rhetoric” (3).

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For example, film musicals often offer up images of the diegetic audience to compensate for the “lost liveness” of the stage, serving as a serving as a stand in for the film audience’s subjectivity (27). Many Hollywood musicals include a diegetic audience that cues the non-digetic audience in about how to feel about a performance—if they clap and cheer, the performance was successful. If they sit silently in their seats, the performance was a bust. A similar effect is created when watching the streaming video of the live stage performance of AVPM. As you heard in the “To Dance Again!” number, the laughter, applause, and hoots of appreciation stemming from the live, diegetic audience solidifies the non-diegetic audience’s understanding that these low budget performances are, in fact, successful — even when it is difficult to hear some of the actors’ lines and jokes are lost. This is especially important for something broadcast over the internet, since most viewers of AVPM are likely watching on their computer screens, alone. The diegetic audience thus serves as a viewing companion, reassuring us about when to laugh or applaud.

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Likewise, Feuer argues that many musicals include characters who are not supposed to be professional singers and dancers but who instead sing and dance for the love of it. This use of “amateurs” gives us the feeling that stars are singing and dancing on screen because they love to, not because they are being paid to do so. By masking this professionalism, the musical’s performers are closer to us, the amateurs in the audience. AVPM offers a similar experience, only the performers we are watching really are amateurs in that the show itself is a labor of love rather than a profit-generating venture.

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This feeling is bolstered by the show’s shoddy production values. For example, in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, the evil Lord Voldemort attempts to revive his body by attaching what little remains of his soul to the simpering Professor Quirrell. In the book, and even more so in the film adaptation, this melding of two men—skull to skull–is a horrifying spectacle. However, in AVPM the inability to create a CGI monster and the need to improvise becomes one of the show’s best gags.

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We marvel, not at Rowling’s fantastical prose nor at the wonders of CGI, but at the cleverness of the students who have put on this show.

Watch the big reveal here:

When watching AVPM the amateurish costumes and sets, the imperfect sound and image quality, and the occasional mistakes, lets us know we know we are watching Harry Potter fans who are just like us—rather than seasoned professionals. Such moments work, to quote Feuer again, to “pierce through the barrier of the screen” (1). So while AVPM is not spontaneous (clearly it was rehearsed and well though-out), its imperfections create the feeling of spontaneity, which is so central to the task of making mass art appear as folk art. Furthermore, Glen Creeber argues that the rawness of online video and the solitary viewing conditions it generates creates a sense of intimacy and authenticity not found in cinema or television. He argues that the “homemade” aesthetic of webcam images creates the “profound intimacy of the image” (598).

Watch Harry Potter face off with a Hungarian Horntail at the 1 minute mark:

In addition to creating intimacy between fan and text, A Very Potter Musical—due to the genre’s focus on the joys of song–creates an affective relationship between viewer and text. For example, in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, Harry Potter’s participation in the Triwizard Tournament leads him to engage in battle with a Hungarian Horntail, a fierce breed of dragon. Harry ultimately defeats the Horntail with his exceptional broom-flying skills. And in the film adaptation, we get to see this fantastical scene come to life through the magic of CGI. However, in AVPM, Harry defeats the dragon by summoning his guitar, not his broom, and then by performing an emo ballad about the futility of hand-to-hand combat entitled “Hey Dragon”.

Watch the number here:

The song concludes with the lyrics:

“I can’t defeat thee

So please don’t eat me

All I can do

Is sing a song for you.”

The dragon is eventually lulled to sleep by Harry’s song. Harry thus relies on the power of music—rather than magic—to win a seemingly insurmountable challenge. So while this musical number is a practical way to disguise the absence of state of the art special effects, it also highlights the way that music can impact the body, turning a fierce dragon into a purring kitten. The consumption of spectacle is a pleasure central to the Potter franchise but in AVPM these are replaced with the pleasures of musical performance.

 Like most examples of fan fiction, AVPM also highlights aspects of the Potterverse that may not be apparent in the novels, films and officially licensed paratexts, but which fans desire. For example, in the books, secondary character Ginny Weasley is defined almost entirely in relation to her older brother, Ron, and her love interest, Harry. Likewise, Ginny’s romantic relationship with Harry is primarily understood through Harry’s point of view. For example, in Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince, Rowling describes Harry’s budding feelings for Ginny in this way:

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Likewise, the films cue us in to Harry’s desires via longing close ups or by frequently putting Ginny in a position to be rescued by Harry. This is such a prevalent plot twist, in fact, that wrock band Harry and the Potters wrote a song about it:

The fan knows little of Ginny’s interiority, other than through bits of dialogue or the occasional longing glance at Harry:

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In AVPM, however, Ginny performs the torch song “Harry,” which puts a literal and metaphoric spotlight on what it feels like to be in love with the Boy Who Lived.


Watch “Harry” here, performed by Ginny Weasley (Jaime Lyn Beatty)

Ginny’s moving performance, in which she dances awkwardly with Harry’s guitar—a proxy for her absent love object—provides a renewed emotional connection with this secondary character. And Ginny’s performance—which is passionate but imperfect as she struggles to hit her big notes—creates an affective relationship with this character that may not have been possible when watching the Potter films. The goosebumps that appear on my arms as Ginny sings, are a testament to the way that music generates an affective viewing experience.

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Here again we can see how the choice of genre—the musical—allows Potter fans an entry point into the transmedia franchise that is personal and intimate. Indeed, there are numerous covers of “Harry” on YouTube, a testament to the way that AVPM allows Potter fans a different, more embodied way, to express their fandom.

Watch my favorite fan covers of “Harry” here:

One thing all of these performances share is a nervous, almost giddy, sense of joy—we can trace the joy expressed in the original AVPM performance as it is then translated and transmuted through each fan video—a domino effect of pure love. Likewise, the comments on each video are generally supportive, with the Potter fan community coming together to support each new iteration of the original fan text.

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In this way, AVPM fandom appears to mimic that of the wrock community. Suzanne Scott argues that wrock, unlike filk, “mimics a conventional performer/audience dialectic rather than a collective creative enterprise when performed.”

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Although there is a separation between performer and audience here, I believe that the significance of AVPM lies in the affective relationships it facilitates between fan and text, even if the text’s various performers are performing online with one another, as opposed to face to face in a filk song circle.

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 In conclusion, A Very Potter Musical translates the fan’s love of the Harry Potter storyworld and its characters into a series of musical numbers that fans can then sing themselves. By depicting bodies that must express themselves through song and dance, A Very Potter Musical is an ideal venue for understanding the importance of affect in fan fiction. AVPM demonstrates the way that mass culture can be transmuted back into folk culture, thereby offering fans of the transmedia franchise a personalized, emotional engagement.

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Works Consulted

Creeber, Glen. “It’s Not TV, it’s Online Drama: The Return of the Intimate Screen.” International Journal of Cultural Studies 14.6: (2011): 591-606

Denson, Shane. “Serial Bodies: Corporeal Engagement in Long-Form Serial Television.” Media Initiative 22 Feb 2013 http://medieninitiative.wordpress.com/2013/02/22/serial-bodies/

Feuer, Jane. The Hollywood Musical, 2nd Ed. Bloomington: University of Indiana Press, 1993.

Jenkins, Henry. 2012. “‘Cultural Acupuncture’: Fan Activism and the Harry Potter Alliance.” In “Transformative Works and Fan Activism,” edited by Henry Jenkins and Sangita Shresthova, special issue, Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 10. doi:10.3983/twc.2012.0305.

——-. Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide. New York: New York University Press, 2006.

———. Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Culture. New York: Routledge, 1992.

Rowling, JK. Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince. New York: Scholastic Inc., 2005.

Scott, Suzanne. “Revenge of the Fan Boy: Convergence Culture and the Politics of Incorporation.” Diss. University of Southern California, 2011. Online.

Stein, Louisa Ellen. 2008. “Emotions-Only” versus “Special People”: Genre in fan discourse. Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 1. http://journal.transformativeworks.org/index.php/twc/article/view/43.

Tatum, Melissa L. 2009. “Identity and authenticity in the filk community.” Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 3. http://dx.doi.org/10.3983/twc.2009.0139.

Williams, Linda. “Film Bodies: Gender, Genre and Excess.” The Film Genre Reader III. Ed. Barry Keith Grant. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2003. 141-159.

The Most Objective “Best of 2012″ List Ever, Part III: Social Media

Earlier this week I posted “Part I: Television” and “Part II: Memes” of “The Most Objective ‘Best of 2012′ List Ever.” There doesn’t seem to be much enthusiasm for these highly idiosyncratic “Best Of” lists that I’ve been producing BUT I’m the kind of gal who likes to finish what she starts, so today I present Part III of my list:

Best of Social Media

You thought this post was going to be about Pinterest, didn’t you? Wasn’t 2012 the year of Pinterest? And really, I should be the target consumer for Pinterest since, according to MediaBistro, 97% of Pinterest users are female. And I’m a female. But after just a few weeks of heavy use back in March, I stopped using my Pinterest account all together. Simply put, I found it overwhelming. So many crafts to make, so many recipes to try, so many quick and easy ways to “do it yourself!” and “make your own.” I want someone else to “do it” and I want to “buy my own.” Pinterest just made me feel bad about myself — which is, apparently, a common complaint about Pinterest. So, no, this post is not about Pinterest. All of you crafty go-getters and DIY-ers need to pick up your homemade Christmas ornaments and old timey cold remedies and go elsewhere.

My favorite social media this year is Facebook Groups. Now, I know, I know, Facebook introduced its “Groups” feature  way back in October of 2010. But remember folks, this is my list. I do what I want. Facebook Groups qualifies for my “Best of 2012″ list because it was not until 2012 that I began to use Groups in earnest and realized the potential of this excellent social media feature. If you have not used this function, it’s very simple: Facebook Groups allows you to start a group (on say, “bird watching” or “rabble-rousing”) and then invite select individuals to join you there. You can make the group private or public and can give those you invite the option to invite others to join as well.  Prior to 2012 I was not involved in any Facebook groups. Now I belong to nine:

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All of these Groups address different needs in my life and contain different users. For example “Greenville” is a venue for members to post questions and announcements pertaining to the city of Greenville (aka, the town where I live). Here people ask for recommendations for house painters, doctors, and babysitters, or post about Greenville-related events. Sadly, this is the least active group to which I belong — mostly because it is small and many of the users are not active social media users (so they don’t see posts or think to respond to them) and because Greenville is the place where fun goes to die (so why should its FB Group be any different?). I also belong to a Group for my children’s school and for a dear friend who was recently diagnosed with breast cancer and wanted a private space in which to update her friends and family about her treatments and prognoses. There are so many uses for this feature.

The most active Groups to which I belong were started by my fellow social media addicts — those who keep tabs on when fellow Group members make posts and engage them in conversation. For example, my all-time favorite FB Group experience from the past year was Skirthathon 2012. For those who do not reside in my small corner of the internet, Skirtathon is the brain child of Dr. Kristen Warner and its premise is simple: wear a skirt or dress every weekday for the entire month of April. For Skirtathon to work, the participants must announce what they are wearing each day to the group. That way, we can keep tabs on each other and shame one another for failures “to skirt” (sample excuses include: “Too tired” and “It’s raining.”). When I participated in Skirtathon 2011, we relied primarily on a Twitter hashtag (#Skirtathon2011) to track each other’s outfits. But I will admit that I often felt a little sheepish posting photos or outfit descriptions to my entire Twitter feed. Though it shouldn’t, it made me feel (like others would feel) that I was frivolous or shallow, a “silly girl.” That’s why this year’s Skirtathon was so much better — this time we had our own private FB Group where participants could not only post photos of their outfits, but the rest of us could comment on these outfits and even provide links to the stores where they were purchased. There was much ooo-ing and ahh-ing and skirt-envy in these comment threads.

Me, skirting in my office.

Me, skirting in my office.

As the month went on, the women participating in Skirthaton became increasingly creative and bold, not just in their outfit choices but also in the backdrops and poses used in photos. Suddenly, we were all living in our own personal Anthropologie editorial photo spreads. We also posed with our dogs, cats, babies and even our very large (and very beautiful) pregnant bellies. Even though many of the women using the Group had never met each other in real life (some had not even met via social media prior to joining the Group), everyone gamely commented on each other’s outfits, accessories, and artful use of lighting. I loved seeing a woman I know only because she is the friend of a woman I know through Twitter telling one of my childhood best friends how adorable her son is. It sounds forced but it wasn’t. This is going to sound incredibly cheesy but I’m going to go ahead and say it: this group made me feel beautiful and empowered. Go on and laugh, cynics. But I hold fast to this truth: Skirtathon reminded me that I can love a good sale, a well-placed belt, and a patterned stocking and still be an excellent and serious scholar. I’m every woman, it’s all in meeeeeee. Below are some of my favorite images from this past spring’s Skirtathon (used here with each lady’s permission):

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(For more on Skirtathon, check out Kelli Marshall’s post here)

Another FB Group I joined and loved this year was an online book club entitled “Fancy Ladies Book Club.” There was a little bit of secrecy surrounding this book club (for example, this In Media Res post discussing one woman’s participation in the book club was written anonymously for fear of tenure-related repercussions) since the club was formed in order to read E.L. James’ 50 Shades of Grey. But let me be perfectly clear: I was and still am a member of the Fancy Ladies Book Club. In fact, I gave the Fancy Ladies Book Club its “fancy” name as a subterfuge so folks wouldn’t know we were really reading mommy porn. Wasn’t that clever of me? A private group was perfect for such an endeavor since we all wanted to be able to speak as freely (and crassly) as the material warranted. Since completing 50 Shades of Grey (which culminated in a live, somewhat drunken reading at a bar this summer when a few of the Fancy Ladies found themselves at a conference together), we have also read Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl and Junot Diaz’s This is How You Lose Her. In all cases our conversations were alternately funny, smutty, smart, and enlightening. I am hoping we read Louise Erdich’s The Round House in January and that I can continue to read and learn from this community of brilliant women.

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Finally, the most recent addition to my FB Groups list is also the most useful (not that dishing about erotic fiction and skirts isn’t useful too. But those Groups don’t impact my job). Approximately 2 months ago, Erin Copple Smith, an Assistant Professor of Media Studies at Austin College, started a FB Group called “Teaching Media.” Unlike the previous groups I just mentioned, “Teaching Media” is an “open group.” This means that posts to this group will appear in the poster’s FB feed and that members can invite others to join. The group now boasts 251 members and has, at least for me, been an invaluable resource for answers to questions I have had about the ins and outs of teaching a media studies-based curriculum.

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While Twitter has also been a great resource for me in terms of crowdsourcing information on syllabus building as well as my own personal research (I have detailed why here), the 140 character limit can be, well, limiting when trying to get an answer to a question that is nuanced and requires a more than a single sentence to explain. Furthermore, the “Teaching Media” page serves as an archive of sorts that Group members can return to a few days, weeks, or months after the original discussion took place (this is much more difficult to do with Twitter). In the two months since the Group has been online I have asked about: how fellow instructors use Twitter in the classroom, what kinds of absence policies have worked (and not worked), and about how to handle the possibility of inappropriate audience commentary at a student-hosted screening of The Room. I have also snapped up innumerable tips for future assignments (yes, Tony Bleach, I will be playing the “genres game” you described on the first day of my spring class, “American Film Genres: Then & Now”). What is great about this Group is that people really do respond — and quickly at that — to queries. Furthermore, they respond in detail (i.e., more than 140 characters), often offering links and examples. As someone who works at a university where there is only one other film studies-trained faculty member (Hi Anna!), I often feel like I have only one person (albeit a great person) to turn to when I have pedagogical questions specific to my field. But the “Teaching Media” group has gifted me an entire 250-person (and counting) department of smart, creative, highly engaged teachers. At any hour of the day, any day of the week (except, I guess, for the day after tomorrow, which is “THE DAY AFTER TOMORROW” when the world ends), I can get an answer to my teaching-related questions. Even flesh and blood colleagues can’t offer that kind of support. When I read about the innovative assignments, in-class exercises, and curricula being used by professors all over the world, I am motivated to be a better teacher. I am, in fact, becoming a better teacher.

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By now you may have noticed that 2 out of my 3 favorite Facebook Groups are populated exclusively by women and primarily by women who work in academia. I don’t think this is accidental.  Although the demographics of the Ivory Tower have changed a lot in recent years, it is still, in many ways, an “old boys’ club.” By that I mean: female academics are less comfortable with traditional modes of networking and often have trouble with promoting themselves aggressively as someone worth knowing. As Zdenka Šadl explains:

The academic institutions of higher education, where men dominate (both in terms of number and hierarchy) and act to prevent women from fully participating in and integrating into formal and informal networks, are prime examples of homosocial institution [Etzkowitz, Kemelgor and Uzzi 2000; Fogelberg et al. 1999; Gupta et al. 2004; Hearn 2004; Husu 2004]. Academics generally establish informal connections on the basis of the principle of gender homophily. However, it is predominantly men who form social networks – male academics give support to their male colleagues. Husu [2001] reports that many senior women interviewed in her study observed that their male colleagues supported each other through ‘old boy’s networks’. These networks, also referred to as the ‘invisible college’, [O‘Leary and Mitchell 1990] involve informal power groups whose members are in a position to make (implicit) decisions about the academic rank, status, and position of an academic. Academic women are often excluded from academic networks, and this often puts them at a disadvantage [Kaufman 1978; O‘Leary and Mitchell 1990; Toren 1991; Vazquez-Cupeiro and Elston 2006].

(you can read the full article here)

These Facebook Groups have provided me with a welcoming intellectual community in which I feel free to discuss my love of clothing as easily as I discuss the weird blend of feminism and misogyny found in Junot Diaz’s novels. I feel like I have joined my own “invisible college” and it has improved my enjoyment of academic conferences and academic life immensely. I feel supported by these women in my field — I feel like they have my back. I know I have theirs.

On a side note, if you found this post interesting or would like to discuss it further in a [gasp!] face to face format, I am happy to say that a group of smart young female scholars will be discussing these various issues in a workshop entitled “Gender, Networking, Social Media, and Collegiality” at next year’s Society for Cinema and Media Studies conference in Chicago. I think it’s going to be fabulous.

In the meantime, though, I’d love to hear about your favorite social media site or tool that made your 2012 better. Please share below.

The Most Objective “Best of 2012″ List Ever, Part II: Memes

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Over the weekend I posted Part I of  “The Most Objective ‘Best of 2012′ List Ever,” focusing on why I think Wilfred is the best, or at least the most unusual and innovative, television show of 2012.  I then promised threatened to continue to devote posts to “Best Film,” “Best Meme,” “Best Single,” and “Best of Social Media” of 2012. That list was ambitious, particularly since I am going on a long vacation in a few days. I’ve realized I may not get to cover everything promised in my first post before 2013 hits (when you will promptly stop caring about “Best of 2012″ lists). But as the kids say, YOLO! Let’s move forward as best we can:

I present Part II of my “Best of 2012″ list:

Best Internet Meme

It’s hard to select the best meme of 2012. There are so many and, like all trends, when they hit big they are all-consuming. Then the next meme comes along and we forget. Meme enthusiasts are fickle lovers. For example, all summer long I was enamored with “Mikayla is Not Impressed,” a meme that originated in a photograph taken  of gymnast Mikayla Maroney just after she won a  silver medal in the Women’s Vault Final at the 2012 summer Olympics. Maroney was the favorite to win this particular event, so when the following photograph was taken, many assumed the gymnast was “not impressed” with her silver medal:

Mikayla is not impressed with this blog post.

Mikayla Maroney is not impressed with this blog post.
Source:
Reuters

As much as I love “Mikayla is Not Impressed,” the principal behind it is one-dimensional. Take something that should be impressive —  like the Mars Rover or the assassination of Osama Bin Laden — and then photoshop Maroney’s unsmiling face into the image to denote that this event isn’t all that impressive after all.  Maroney’s recognizability, combined with the ease of the iteration (take photograph, add Maroney, no caption necessary), made this meme very easy to create, disseminate, and understand. Even my children (who are 3 and 6 years-old) understood the humor of “Mikayla is not Impressed” and frequently asked to scroll through the meme’s Tumblr.  In fact, the meme has so permeated my home that when one of my children does something that displeases me, all I need to do is scrunch up my mouth and cross my arms and my daughter will say “Why are you ‘not impressed’?” (true story). However, the moment that Mikayla Maroney and President Obama posed together while making the “not impressed” face, the meme effectively came to an end. It was fabulous to see our Commander-in-Chief embracing contemporary internet culture but where could a meme about being “not impressed” go after such an impressive photo op?

Another meme I have greatly enjoyed this year is “One Tiny Hand.” Like “Mikayla is Not Impressed,” “One Tiny Hand” does not require any text to make meaning. Its humor — or rather its horror — is based on seeing a famous person with “one tiny hand.” I enjoy this meme because it performs like a game of “Where’s Waldo.” You know a tiny hand is lurking somewhere in the photo. Sometimes it is foregrounded, as it is in the image of Kim Jong Il below. But sometimes, when there are multiple people in the image, it takes some time to locate the tiny appendage. The jouissance of this meme lies in the sudden discovery of the tiny hand.

Wait for it, wait for it, BOOM!

Wait for it, wait for it, BOOM!
Source: http://knowyourmeme.com/memes/one-tiny-hand

Other 2012 favorites:

source:http://imgur.com/pD1KV

Inappropriate Timing Bill Clinton
source:
http://imgur.com/pD1KV

While I love all of the above memes, they are fairly straight forward image macros: take a stock image and add some text to make comedy gold. Likewise, the joke behind each of these popular 2012 memes is always the same: Grumpy Cat and Mikayla hate/are not impressed by everything they should love/be impressed by; Drunk Baby says things a drunk old man would say if he were actually a little baby; Bad Luck Brian can’t seem to do anything right; and  Inappropriate Timing Bill Clinton just wants to have sex.

My pick for Best Meme of 2012 is based on the fact that it has been able to grow and evolve into different iterations, possibly because it has been around since 2007: the “Yo Dawg” or “Sup Dawg” meme. Now wait a minute, you might be thinking, that meme has been around since 2007? Then how can it be on your “Best of 2012″ list?  Great question, my intrepid reader. But, I prefer to think of memes the same way we think of television series. 30 Rock may have premiered in 2006, but the show’s writers have produced new seasons every year (some better than others). Similarly, the “Yo Dawg” meme came into existence in 2007, but  it has continued to grow and change over the years, existing in several different iterations. Its dual structure — based on recursivity and the smiling face of a man — has proved fertile ground for innovation. In its most basic form (pictured below), the meme features an image macro of rapper/actor/ TV host, Xzibit (née, Alvin Nathaniel Joiner), smiling and claiming to know what the addressee (aka, “yo dawg”) “likes” (a car, a kitchen, a rocket ship) and then promising to give that person an even better version of the coveted object.

In order to get the humor of this meme in its original form, you need to remember that Xzibit hosted the MTV reality series, Pimp My Ride from 2004-2007. In the series,  car owners  in the Los Angeles area were given the opportunity to have their old, broken down cars completely rebuilt (inside and out) and outfitted with luxury features ranging from leather seats and LED lights to TV screens and (yes) fish tanks. These extravagant touches were usually an homage to the car’s owner, like the  surfer whose VW bus was outfitted with a clothes dryer  (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pimp_My_Ride).  When presenting the lucky car owner with his new, personally customized ride, Xzibit would point out each of the added features. showcased by MTV’s frenetic cinematography and editing. The original meme plays on Xzibit’s signature voice overs (“Yo Dawg, I heard you like X, so I put X in your X so you can Y while you Y”).

Note: Couldn’t find a clip of Xzibit presenting a newly pimped car, but this episode (hosted by fat Joe) offers the template. Go to the 9.25 mark

This version of the meme always features the same image of Xzibit,  taken from a “set of studio portraits that were originally used to promote the 2006 sports drama film Gridiron Gang, in which the rapper plays the role of a minor character named Malcolm Moore” (www.knowyourmeme.com). One of the three images pictured below always serve as part of the image macro.

This image, much like Xzibit’s persona on Pimp My Ride, presents the celebrity as a figure of altruism. His smile, which is just on the verge of a hearty laugh, is inviting and generous. Therefore, when Xzibit claims to know what you, dawg, really likes, it feels loving. In this way, the “Yo Dawg” meme mirrors the popular Ryan Gosling-centered “Hey Girl” meme. Particularly in its feminist iteration, the “Hey Girl” meme is all about turning the Goz into the meme-makers’ own movable Ken doll. Talk about the male gaze, Ryan! Say “interpellate,” Ryan!  Mmmm. Yes, Ryan, yessssss. Instead of making sweet, sweet love to Rachel McAdams, the Goz is speaking my language, which is almost as good as making sweet, sweet love to him. Almost.

Likewise, the appeal of the Xzibit meme, at least initially, is that after pimping so many rides for so many years, Xzibit is now going to pimp something for you.  As I discussed in a post about memes last year, so many memes are based on a certain amount of cruelty (something or someone is being laughed at). But the “Yo Dawg” meme is based on affection: I heard you like this, so I am going to give that thing that you like, along with a smaller version of that thing inside of the bigger version of that thing. For example:

My personal favorite of the standard variation.

My personal favorite of the standard variation.

According to KnowYourMeme.com, the “Yo Dawg” meme is “recursive.” That is, the standard version of the meme relies on nested images — one image contains a smaller version of itself, which contains a smaller version of itself, which contains a smaller version of itself, etc. While the “yo yo” example featured above does rely on an invented  image, generally this meme is funniest when the image is a found object:

As the meme evolved,  the text of the original is no longer necessary. Just the presence of Xzibit lets us know that the object we are looking at is recursive:

By 2009 the meme was so widespread that Xzibit himself was frustrated with it. He tweeted the following on February 27th of that year:

My guess is that Xzibit wanted to distance himself from his Pimp My Ride days, and resume his rapping career. I would also imagine that, at least in 2009, Xzibit might not have realized the power of social media — if he had, he would have known not to tell his followers/meme-makers to commit suicide via a public Twitter account. It’s futile to try to control the internet, Mr. Xzibit; one can only throw oneself at its feet in supplication. Indeed, that is exactly what Xzibit did:

The most recent examples of “Yo Dawg,” appearing in 2012, are premised, not on recursivity, but on Xzibit’s infectious smile. In this iteration of the meme, Xzibit is depicted in a series of vertical, multi-panel image macros, a structure meant to be read like a comic book (only from top to bottom rather than left to right), in which his solemn expression is proven to be unsustainable:

The version of the meme below combines sad-to-happy Xzibit with “Happy Motorcycle Dog,” a meme that first appeared in December 2011, further proving the adaptability of the Yo Dawg meme:

Thus, the contemporary iteration of “Yo Dawg” is almost completely different from its standard, recursive version.  The semantics of the meme (smiling Xzibit) are divorced from their original syntax (Xzibit likes recursive imagery!) and instead become a meme in their own right (Xzibit can’t stop smiling!). Here we see memes functioning in a manner similar to that of film genres and cycles, which are able to take familiar imagery and use them for different purposes. It is this complexity and adaptability that makes this particular meme my favorite of 2012.

So now I must ask: what are your favorite memes of 2012 and why?

The Most Objective “Best of 2012″ List Ever, Part I: Television

Thank you, http://blogs.indiewire.com/theplaylist/the-playlists-top-10-tv-shows-of-the-2011-2012-season-20120613

Thttp://blogs.indiewire.com/theplaylist/the-playlists-top-10-tv-shows-of-the-2011-2012-season-20120613

Around this time of year, every newspaper, magazine, and blog offers up some form of the  “Best Of” list, chronicling the best films, television series (or episodes), music, books, Broadway shows, trends, etc. of the previous year. Obviously, ranking the year’s best of anything is subjective and also impossible (after all, only an individual who was watched every television episode that aired in 2012 could state, definitively, which were in the top 5). And yet, such lists are so alluring. As a working mom, who reads, watches and listens to only a fraction of what I would like to read, watch and listen to, these “Best Of”  lists take an unwieldy set of pop culture possibilities and whittles it down to a manageable chunk. These lists tell me “These are the only films from 2012 that you need to watch.” Then I take a deep breath and load up my Netflix queue.

You might thinking to yourself “Why would I read a ‘Best Of’ list compiled by a woman who has just admitted that she relies on other people’s ‘Best Of’ lists to tell her what pop culture was worthwhile from the previous year?” Excellent question. Why are you reading this? Don’t you have something better to do? No? Well then settle in, friend. I have some completely subjective selections for you based on an unrepresentative sampling of the year’s popular culture. I think you’ve made the right choice.

So without further ado, I present Part I of my “Best of 2012″ list:

Best Television Series

FX's WILFRED

FX’s WILFRED

2012 was an excellent year for television. I loved watching Walter White (Bryan Cranston) lose the final pieces of his soul on Breaking Bad. The last shot of the Girls season finalein which Hannah (Lena Dunham) finds herself on Coney Island (after passing out in the subway and getting her purse stolen) and slowly stuffs her face with cake, was the perfect end to a first season filled with uncomfortable, body-focused stories and imagery. The look on Don Draper’s (John Hamm) face when he sees his daughter wearing fishnets and go-go boots or the scene in which Henry (Christopher Stanley) feeds his newly-plump wife (aka, “Fat Betty”) some steak at the kitchen table in the middle of the night were two highlights of the Mad Men season. I also loved watching all or most of the 2012 seasons of Louie, Boardwalk Empire, Happy Endings, 30 Rock, Parks and Recreation, Don’t Trust the B in Apt 23, Parenthood, Teen Mom, and Game of Thrones. No, I don’t watch Homeland, The Good Wife, or Justified. I’m sure I would like all three, but right now I don’t have room for them in my TV diet. Like I said, “best of” lists are subjective. Let’s move on.

Dog smoking cigarette = win

While I loved all of the aforementioned programs and could make a “Best” case for many of them, my choice for “best” television series of 2012 goes to the FX series, Wilfred, because it is, simply put, the most bizarre show I have ever watched, with the exception of (of course) Twin Peaks. 

“Can you hear it?”  “No, ma’am, I cannot.”

The pilot episode of Wilfred opens with Ryan (Elijah Woods) trying and failing to commit suicide. We eventually find out that Ryan used to be a successful lawyer, working in his father’s firm, but when we meet him he is unemployed and estranged from his father (the reasons for this are only explained in the second season). Ryan’s attempts to end his life are finally interrupted by his neighbor, Jenna (Fiona Gubelmann), who wants him to watch her dog, Wilfred.  Ryan is surprised to discover that Wilfred appears to him as a large, vulgar, Australian pothead  (Jason Gann) wearing a very unconvincing dog costume. And the kicker is: Ryan is the only one who sees Wilfred in this way. This may seem like a gimmicky basis for a show, but it is also the source of some of the show’s greatest gags: one minute Wilfred is lecturing Ryan on ethics and the next he is chasing and maiming pelicans on the beach (“It’s a pelican !!! IT’S A  PELICAN!!!..It was a pelican!!!”):

In a lukewarm review of pilot, Todd VanDerWerff explains “the show gets a surprising amount of mileage out of having Gann running around in a dog costume and saying things a dog might say if it could speak.” But Wilfred isn’t just shots of Jason Gann humping or chatting up his life partner, Bear, who is a large stuffed bear. The reason I love the show is because it so deftly shifts from bleakness to laugh-out-loud comedy.  I often read about how shows like  Louie  and Girls are changing the rules of the sitcom by offering up tragic moments (like when Louie’s love interest dies in front of him on Christmas Day) in between low-brow body humor and Seinnfeld-ian levels of navel-gazing. But Wilfred takes those devices to another level. In Wilfred, despair and laughter are produced by the same cue — what is light quickly becomes dark, and vice versa.This is because the series is structured around the tension between two realities: either Ryan is a lonely, depressed, schizophrenic who uses an imaginary friend to work through his life’s problems or he is a lonely, depressed but otherwise sane man who happens to  see his neighbor’s dog in human form because that is something that happens in this world. Therefore almost every scene on the series can be read in two ways.

images

Bear!

Each episode is named after a particular lesson or virtue that Ryan needs to learn, such as “Letting Go,” “Avoidance,” and “Honesty.” Wilfred teaches these lessons to an unwilling Ryan , usually embroiling him in interpersonal conflicts that force the passive man to say or do things he normally wouldn’t. Although Ryan’s suicide attempt from the pilot is barely acknowledged, the series is clearly about teaching Ryan how to “live” (and live) in the world again. Of course,  every “lesson” Wilfred teaches Ryan serves Wilfred’s interests in some way. We feel good when Ryan learns to stand up for himself or to reconnect with his institutionalized mother (played by an excellently loopy Mary Steenburgen), but we are always left wondering: is Wilfred helping Ryan to live or is he destroying Ryan’s life, piece by piece? And if Ryan is simply imagining Wilfred, then is Ryan using this dog-shaped delusion as an excuse to destroy his own life? Is he committing suicide, just at an incredibly slow rate?

Bruce, aka, Ryan's sanity

Bruce, aka, Ryan’s sanity

Wilfred dances in between these many possibilities. Its genius lies in convincing the viewer to believe one scenario and then upending that belief with a single line or image. For example, after Ryan finally gives up on the possibility of romance with Jenna,  he begins dating a co-worker named Amanda (Allison Mack). Amanda seems perfect — she’s funny, quirky, and clearly besotted with Ryan. It seems that perhaps Ryan will finally be able to have a loving intimate relationship after past traumas had made this kind of human connection difficult for him. But in “Truth,”  Wilfred tries to convince Ryan that he should not move in with Amanda because he is still too mentally unstable. Ryan believes that Wilfred, as usual, is just looking out for his own self interests — if Amanda moves in, Wilfred will lose his best friend. Who will take him for walks or smoke pot with him? As they have this argument, an earthquake traps Ryan and Wilfred in the basement (of course).  Bruce (Dwight Yoakam), the only other human who can see Wilfred (and thus the only plot point in the series that lends credence to the theory that Ryan might not crazy), appears to rescue the duo, promising to reveal the “truth” about Amanda that is concealed in a suitcase. This truth will prove why Wilfred is right.

Ryan's hopes for true love are dashed in Season 2 of WILFRED

Ryan’s hopes for true love are dashed in Season 2 of WILFRED

But first, Ryan and Bruce must engage in a game of “Calvinball,” which involves pillow fights and “truth or dare.” The game is deliriously surreal, like so much in the series. When Ryan finally “wins ” the game and is granted access to the magical suitcase, he doesn’t discover anything about Amanda. Instead he finds a timer that tells him that he has spent 12 hours in his basement playing a bizarre game orchestrated by his neighbor’s dog. In other words, Wilfred was right — Ryan should not move in with Amanda.

Ryan is such a likable character (he is kind, empathetic and selfless to a fault) and we want him to be happy. But when we see the timer, the audience realizes — at the same moment that Ryan does — that he is crazy … but wait, is he? Or is this just what Wilfred wants Ryan to think in order to maintain the status quo? Isn’t it suspicious that everything that ends up “being for the best” also happens to serve Wilfred’s interests? These uncertainties are what drive the series and which make this show more than a collection of pooping on the lawn jokes (though I am 100% for a show that is nothing more than pooping on the lawn jokes).

Jenna (Fiona Gubelmann), Wilfred's owner and Ryan's love interest.

Jenna, Wilfred’s owner and Ryan’s love interest.

And if that doesn’t interest you, Wilfred is worth watching for its “couch scenes” alone. Incidentally, as I was writing this post I found out that these short scenes, appearing at the end of show (after the main story has been resolved), are called “tags,” or “codas” (thank you Twitter):

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Learning is fun!

The tags in Wilfred almost always take place on the couch in Ryan’s basement and feature Ryan and Wilfred engaged in a banal task, like playing a board game or having an inane conversation. They’re always fabulous:

And if that doesn’t interest you? Well, there are loads of other shows to watch. I hear The Good Wife is awesome, so maybe you should watch that instead?

I will be posting my  “Best Meme,” “Best Film,” “Best Single,” and “Best of Social Media” picks over the course of the next few weeks. Stay tuned! If you dare!

You Always Remember Your First Time

Melissa Lenos and me at our first SCMS in 2004. Yes, those *are* SCMS tattoos. Jealous?

Last weekend I attended the Society for Cinema and Media Studies’ conference in Boston.* SCMS is certainly the largest conference in my field (this year’s conference featured 420 individual sessions across 5 days!) and while quantity rarely implies quality, I do think that some of the most vibrant and interesting work in the field of cinema and media studies can be found at this conference. It is certainly challenging for me to go out of town for almost 5 days in the middle of a busy semester. It is also expensive, tiring, and stressful. I’ve been home a full week and I’m still not caught up (good thing I’m making good use of my time by writing this blog post).

So why bother attending SCMS if it wipes me out for a week? The opportunity to present my work to professionals in my field and to hear them present their work is a major draw. But truthfully, the 4-paper panel format + 20 minute Q & A session is not my favorite way to engage with scholarship. As a visual learner I prefer to consume academic work as a reader rather than as a listener (in order to pay attention at a panel I need for all presenters to use clips, still images, or at the very least jazz hands, in their talks). For me, what is just as valuable as attending panels and taking notes, professionally speaking, is putting faces to names, shaking hands, and breaking bread with new friends. Some of the best ideas for current and future work and collaborations happens during the hastily constructed group dinner or the chance meeting in the hallway. Also, martinis.

I also enjoy attending SCMS because it serves as a makeshift reunion for my graduate school friends. That is reason enough to attend. In fact, last year my proposal was rejected (grumble grumble) and I still decided to attend SCMS 2011 because it was in New Orleans I wanted to see my University of Pittsburgh friends.

“Shut yo mouth.”
“But I’m talking about the Cathedral of Learning.”
“Then I can dig it.”

Of course, I also spent a lot of my time at SCMS talking with people who did not graduate from my alma mater. Where did I meet these people, who live on opposite coasts and even in other countries? Some of them I met through reading and commenting on their work in online journals/group blogs like Flow TV and Antenna. Some I met by way of their personal blogs. But I met most of them through Twitter. In fact, over the last two years I have enjoyed SCMS more than ever due to social media.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let me first demonstrate the difference between my most recent SCMS experience — where I spent time with graduate students and tenured professors, American and international scholars, and folks representing numerous facets of my field (TV studies, Film Studies, Media Industries, etc) — and my very first SCMS, in Atlanta (2004), where I spent my time with 4 people (all from Pittsburgh).

As I was preparing for my first conference I was advised by well-meaning professors and more experienced graduate students to “network” with people in “my field.” This was a terrifying suggestion because I was so new to “the field” that it really didn’t feel like “my field.” I was just peeking in through the windows. The only people I knew in were my classmates and professors. Everyone else existed on the spines of the books I puzzled over or as bylines in the lengthy journal articles I photocopied weekly at Hillman Library.

Makin’ copies!

How can I “network” with people like Professor You-Have-Influenced-Everything-I-Ever-Wrote and Professor I’m-Cited-By-Everyone? To me they weren’t people, they were voices. You don’t talk to voices — you listen to them. So my first conference experience went something like this: attend panels, nod during the Q & A sessions but never (never ever) raise my hand to contribute, and, when the panels are done for the day, return to my Super 8 Motel room (which smelled of stale cigarette smoke and despair) and think about all of the cool stuff everyone else was probably doing at that very moment.

“This reception sucks.”

Don’t cry for me. I wasn’t alone. That year I attended SCMS with two graduate students from my program. We clung together like Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio, only without the death and hypothermia. One glorious night we sat in our motel room, on a dirty comforter that had actual cigarette burns in it, and watched Mona Lisa Smile (2003, Mike Newell). We ate chocolate cake and inserted our own dialogue. This is more fun than it sounds. We also booked our plane tickets back to Pittsburgh for a Sunday evening departure (what fools we were!) so we spent the last few hours of our trip wandering through downtown Atlanta, which was weirdly empty. At one point we wondered if we were the only survivors of a deadly virus that had decimated the city. Here are some of the actual pictures I took that day:

“Where is the ocean?!”

Let me clarify that my first SCMS was a positive conference experience. I delivered my paper without passing out, I attended some great panels, and my friends and I enjoyed making fun of “feminist” Julia Roberts. But fear of rejection prevented me from meeting anyone new.

“Make way! Liberated women on bikes coming through!”

Keep in mind that I am hardly a shrinking violet. In fact, I can be quite obnoxious outgoing when the mood strikes. But this exhibitionism is coupled with a crushing fear of rejection and anxiety about my own worth. In other words, I am a human. So the idea of approaching Professor You-Have-Influenced-Everything-I-Ever-Wrote after a panel was not a possibility. What was  I supposed to say to her? Better to grin through her paper, ask her no questions, and then watch her exit the room with a group of equally imposing scholars and imagine the  conversations they will soon be having at the hotel bar:

Professor You-Have-Influenced-Everything-I-Ever-Wrote: “Did you see that silly graduate student grining during my paper?”

Professor I’m-Cited-By-Everyone: “I did! I can tell she’s never read Deleuze.”

Together: [clinking martini glasses] “Isn’t it grand not being a graduate student!”

Note: Now that I am a professor, I know that professors do not get together and make fun of graduate students while drinking martinis. They drink gin & tonics.

While writing this post I asked fellow scholars in my field to share stories of their first SCMS. I learned that my confusing/ overwhelming/ anxiety-generating experience was not unique. Below is a sampling of their responses (names have been omitted to protect the innocent):

From a Visiting Lecturer:

“First SCMS, Philly, 2 years post defense. Wore make-up trying to be ‘professional’ — only remember washing the make-up off my face like an ashamed teenager hoping to not break out in hives. Shit, that story depresses me. I seriously remember nothing about that SCMS other than the miserable Greyhound experience and make-up.”

From an Assistant Professor:

“I don’t remember the year but it was in Chicago, maybe 2000, and it was easy enough to go there from Madison without giving a paper, just to check the conference out. I was a PhD student. I think the difference between then and now is mostly a matter of knowing lots of people, many of them old friends. The conference is more familiar, much more social, and less lonely now. But I also find it frustrating to see some friends for 10 seconds total and have no time to talk to them…To be honest I don’t remember my first SCMS that well, and they all blend together in my memory.”

From an Associate Professor:

“1996, my 2nd year of grad school (about to get MA), in Dallas, when it was resolutely SCS – no M. If you ask any fellow old-timer, they may remember it as the ‘Bio-Dome’ conference, as the hotel was on a highway intersection, where the only way out was via expensive taxi, and only walkable restaurants were overpriced hotel food, Dennys, or Quiznos…I mostly stuck to my tribe of grad students to drink & play poker in our rooms, couldn’t manage any sort of small talk with faculty whose work I knew, and pretty much was a quiet wallflower. (I guess that didn’t last!) I was mostly unimpressed with the presentations, which used almost no media (a few VHS tapes?), were almost all read papers, and generally felt very old-school film studies for us media & cultural studies folks.”

From an Assistant Professor:

“2006, Vancouver, ABD. I visited friends who had recently moved there (and had another friend from Washington state drive up), so I may have only gone to a couple other panels, if any. I totally stalked one of my favorite inspirational scholars and was floored when she gave me her card and said she’d be happy to talk with me. I remember being in awe just to be there and so impressed with my panel chair. I got to have dinner with my former graduate school director [and his wife], which was great. I really missed them when they left.”

From an Assistant Professor:

“My first SCMS was 1999 (West Palm Beach). I was in my second year of my Ph.D. program…I was struck by how little my panel-mates’ papers had in common with mine (the basic overlap was that we were all talking about the internet but one of the other presenters was talking about online activism…absolutely nothing to do with what I was talking about). I don’t remember anyone close from my cohort being there, so I was limited to my hotel roommate and his connections — so a couple of evenings of uncomfortable non-conversations. I remember also seeking out my professors at times and being very treated very generously by their willingness to introduce me around and take me to good panels. Mostly, I felt unworthy of being there.”

These testimonials are linked by similar emotions: fear, anxiety, confusion, the desire to do what is comfortable (stick with your friends), and lots of downtime in the hotel room. Is this arduous first-timer experience a problem that needs to be fixed? Not necessarily. Everyone feels anxious and uncomfortable when they start working in a new profession. The longer you work, the more people you meet, and the more comfortable you feel. In fact, this is what several people who responded to my request for first-time conference stories told me. For example, one Assistant Professor said: “The only thing that’s different for me [since my first SCMS in 2004] is the number of people I know at the event each year, and that’s simply a function of being older and having left grad school.” She’s right. Things do get better. And as Max Dawson pointed out in a blog post after last year‘s SCMS, this trial by fire might actually be beneficial in the long run: “I wonder what our field would look like if young scholars didn’t have to build their own support networks early on in their careers. Would bonds formed through sponsored networking events be as resilient and meaningful as the connections formed when you eat eight meals in three days with the same group of four people? Would I feel as comfortable asking a mentor assigned to me by SCMS for feedback on a project as I do asking the same favor of the friends I made while hiding out behind the potted plants during the SCMS Vancouver opening reception?” Is the crippling anxiety of the first conference a necessary evil along the path to success in academia? Possibly.

Standard hazing rituals at SCMS

One dissatisfied PhD student explained to me: “Sososo [sic] many people said ‘it gets better,’ but a. what if it doesn’t? and b. so what if it gets better? Are we really buying into the idea that because it got better for you we shouldn’t try to change the way it continues to be for everyone else or at least newcomers?” She has a point: does she need to wait another 7 or 8 years to get the most out of this conference? Why even bother attending as a graduate student?

This same graduate student also said: “Sometimes [at conferences] I meet more new people to socialize with along with old friends, most often the people I meet are fellow grad students so the payoffs for developing these networks won’t become clear until years (perhaps many years) down the road. These people are all great, spending time with them is great! But… it doesn’t make me feel energized to be part of a community of scholars. It doesn’t make me feel mentored. It may encourage my work in some ways, but nothing immediate or dramatic. It’s all fine.” I, too, think it’s “fine” that this graduate student socializes primarily with other graduate students since these are the scholars she will collaborate with most often as she moves through her career. What is not fine is that she doesn’t feel like she is part of a community scholars and that she doesn’t feel mentored. I think that large field-specific conferences, like SCMS, should be able to provide both of these services to graduate students, either formally or informally.

There are ways to make a large, often terrifying social/professional event like SCMS (and make no mistake, events which combine the social and professional are the most confusing to maneuver) less intimidating, more useful, and more fun for junior scholars. Here are some (simple) things to do:

1. Get a Twitter Account

Word cloud of Tweets from SCMS 2012 (courtesy of @samplereality)

I know. Many of you want nothing to do with Twitter. You think it’s banal, narcissistic, and an excuse to disconnect from “real life.” So what are your criticisms?  Seriously, Twitter is an amazing way to get to know (and like) a diverse pool of scholars in the field. Every day I chat with friends (yep, using the word friend here) about their classes, their scholarship, the TV and films they’re watching, their children/cats/pups, their dental surgery, and what they’ve having for dinner. Why are these “virtual colleagues” so crucial to a positive conference experience? Because an event like SCMS, with over 1300 participants (maybe more?), feels so much smaller when you can view so many other people as colleagues rather than as faces in the crowd. Many others share my view on this:

From an Assistant Professor:

“Member of SCMS since 2004; 2008 Philadelphia first conference, four years post-Ph.D. Didn’t submit proposal (weirdly self-conscious), but attended only a few panels and didn’t network beyond people I was already friends with. 2010 New Orleans (my first conference post-Twitter) was entirely different, since I felt more confident about networking w/ relative strangers. I really do credit Twitter with breaking me out of my academic shell. For all its faults, it’s now indispensable in my academic life. Quote this (awful drivel/dribble) if you want.”

From a first year PhD student:

“[I]t was great to meet you [she means me!] and other scholars I feel like I know very well online but hadn’t actually met ‘in person’… Being a UW student opens a lot of doors, as does having a fairly visible Twitter profile and online presence.”

From a Visiting Lecturer:

“…the conference was enjoyable because I knew people beforehand (via social media, of course). And it’s not just that I knew their names, academic affiliations, and fields of interest, but that I KNEW them — as people and friends. I know about their precious (but often pukey) children, un-housetrained doggies, frustrations with family members, favorite and least favorite TV shows, challenges in the classroom, etc. Because of this, we’ve a history and can (happily) skip all the formal introductions and (sometimes) forced pleasantries that often come with attending a conference. In brief, Twitter FTW!”

From an MA student:

“I was fairly nervous about attending SCMS. While much of this nervousness was eased by having a built-in community through Twitter, I still felt occasionally out of place as a Master’s student at the conference.”

Don’t know where to start on Twitter? Follow me! No really, FOLLOW ME. My Twitter handle is @AmandaAnnKlein. Want more people to follow? Check out the the super “interactive web of Tweeters” on the SCMS website and follow the people whose handles are listed there — they are all active Tweeters, or at least they were during SCMS. For a more detailed account of my Twitter love, read my previous post on the subject.

2. Introduce People

You’re standing in the hallway chatting with a scholar, and another person waves and dashes over to say hello before dashing off somewhere else. But wait, before she dashes, introduce these two people! They may immediately forget each other but there is a chance that they will see each other again and, remembering that brief hallway introduction, say “hello again!” I became so accustomed to introducing people over the course of my 4-day stay at the conference that I found I was introducing people who already knew each other quite well. So yeah, I sometimes felt like a douchebag, but overall, I felt like I was connecting people. A PhD student I quoted above had praise for her professors at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, who took the time to introduce her to other scholars: “In general, the Madison folks take care of their own. I was introduced to several people by senior graduate students in my program and got better acquainted with junior faculty and graduate students I met at previous conferences.” These encounters had a positive impact on her conference experience.

3. Never Say “No”

Group photo from this year’s Grrrl’s Night Out! dinner

This year there were a lot of opportunities to meet people outside of panel presentations and workshops. Go to the annual Grrrl’s Night Out! dinner. Join a special interest group (there are a lot) or caucus and attend their annual meeting at SCMS. Go to the new member orientation meeting (for an account of how this year’s meeting went, you can read about Myles McNutt’s experiences here). Or go to some of the more informal events, like SCMS karaoke (we had a great time).

Along the same lines: try not to decline invitations for meals or drinks with new people. Your brain might be telling you: “But you were going to take a naaaaaaap!” Tell your brain to shut up and go anyway. Informal conversations can lead to future conversations, collaborations, opportunities, and yes, even friendships. Just go.

4. Know When to Say “No”

I know I just said that you should go to as many events as possible and that you should say yes to every invitation extended to you. But, it’s also important to know your limits. Do you get anxious in social situations? Do you find it mentally taxing to meet new people? If so, make sure to schedule some alone time so you can decompress: take a nap, exercise, stare at the wall. But give yourself that time.

5. Senior Members: Be Generous

I’ll illustrate this point with an experience I had this year. I was heading out to lunch with a senior scholar I know and some of his colleagues. I was nervous because I didn’t know of these people and they all knew each other. As Senior Scholar introduced me to each new person he did not simply say my name and rank. Instead he said “This is Amanda. She just published a fabulous book on film cycles!” I was bowled over by this praise (we are so seldom praised in this field) and not only did it make me feel more comfortable around this new group of people, it made me feel like a valued member of the field (even if I’m not quite there yet). So when you’re introducing people: BE GENEROUS. It is always, always appreciated.

6. Make suggestions

Over the past few years it’s been clear that the SCMS board has been listening to feedback from its members regarding the format of the annual conference. The new member orientation, graduate student lounge, and the addition of conference-oriented blogs on the SCMS website are all responses to member feedback. If there’s something that isn’t working at the conference, offer some solutions.  As for me, I would like to see more workshops offered at SCMS and more lunch breaks. It would also be great to have a few more on-site coffee/tea/muffin kiosks, which I think would encourage people to attend more back-to-back panels. Caffeine and refined sugar = engagement.

“Harry, your cover letter needs work.”

Lots of folks would also like SCMS to help facilitate a formalized form of mentoring. I have been told that some of the caucuses currently have or are working on getting a mentoring system in place. But it would be nice to have a mentoring system available to all graduate student members of SCMS. I’m not sure how this would work but I’m envisioning something along the lines of this: professors who are willing to mentor submit their names, areas of study, and the days they plan to be at the conference to a designated coordinator. People who want to be mentored do the same. The mentee then gets matched with a mentor in the same area of study who will be at the conference on similar days. They must commit to one face-to-face meeting at SCMS and the mentor must also be willing to answer follow up questions (within reason) from the mentee over e-mail once the conference is over. This system would be especially helpful for students who attend SCMS as the sole representative of his/her graduate program — students who are basically at SCMS on their own. These are the students who are most in need of good mentors. Finally, I would like champagne fountains to be placed in all the women’s rest rooms. Make it happen, board of directors.

So why did I just devote almost 4000 words to the subject of socializing at an academic conference? Because I like martinis? Sure. But I also believe that we are more than a “field.” We’re a community. And when we are gathered as a community at a major conference (whether it is SCMS, MLA, NCA, CSA, etc) I think we have a duty to make these gatherings as welcoming and productive as possible. Am I saying that we need to hold everyone’s hand and pat their heads? No, though I enjoy a good pat on the head. But I think we can all do better.

If you have any other suggestions for ways to make large conferences like SCMS more friendly, useful, mentorly (is that a word?), and enjoyable for newcomers, please list them below. I’d also love to hear about your “first time,” particularly from graduate students (since I was only able to get 3 graduate student responses for this post).

* For those who are unfamiliar with the Society for Cinema and Media Studies, let me be lazy (but accurate!) and cut and paste their mission statement below:

The Society for Cinema and Media Studies is the leading scholarly organization in the United States dedicated to promoting a broad understanding of film, television, and related media through research and teaching grounded in the contemporary humanities tradition.SCMS encourages excellence in scholarship and pedagogy and fosters critical inquiry into the global, national, and local circulation of cinema, television, and other related media. SCMS scholars situate these media in various contexts, including historical, theoretical, cultural, industrial, social, artistic, and psychological.

SCMS seeks to further media study within higher education and the wider cultural sphere, and to serve as a resource for scholars, teachers, administrators, and the public. SCMS works to maintain productive relationships with organizations in other nations, disciplines, and areas of media study; to foster dialogue between media industries and scholars; and to promote the preservation of our film, television, and media heritage. We encourage membership and participation of scholars and those in related positions not only in the US but around the world.

Nota Bene #3: Cruising with Kate Gosselin

This is real, dear readers. Kate Gosselin, former star of Jon & Kate Plus 8, and more recent star of the “Celebrity Plastic Surgery Gone Wrong” section of your favorite tabloid, is partnering with Royal Caribbean to give vacationers the cruise experience of a lifetime! The cheapest cabin on this cruise is $3,000 and the priciest is $5,500. That doesn’t include the roundtrip airfare to the port of embarkation, 7 days worth of booze, and mandatory tips for the various staff who will be shoving complimentary ice cream sundaes in your face 24-hours a day.  And you’ll need someone to watch your cat while you’re gone. That’s gonna cost you too. Especially when your cat finds out why you’ve abandoned her for 7 days and 7 nights (hint: pee in shoes).

It’s not that I doubt that there are people out there who would like to meet Kate Gosselin, or at least see her in person. If Kate Gosselin was coming to the Greenville Olive Garden, I would most definitely drive across town to see her. I’m a gawker by nature. I might even wait in a line to see her. Especially if there was the promise of endless breadsticks and salad afterwards.

What I doubt is that there are enough people to fill a cruise ship who have 1. the desire to meet Kate Gosselin and 2. several thousand dollars of disposable income. But clearly some vacant-eyed minion in Kate Gosselin’s employ must have gotten on the blower, done some canvassing, and found out that YES! there are in fact at least 3,000 people willing spend a lot of money to “learn a new craft” with Kate Gosselin somewhere in the Caribbean. Kate makes amazing crafts.

Who might these people be? I imagine these are people who have worked very hard to create a nice nest egg for themselves, one that they’ve been squirreling away for a big splurge. They are willing to spend this money on a worthwhile venture — something the whole family can enjoy. I imagine a mother of three young children, a woman who still believes that Kate Gosselin is her former self, a domestic super hero who manages to “do it all.” She does not see Kate Gosselin’s current self: a strung out fame addict making due with celebrity cruise ship gigs (which, if you didn’t already know, are the methadone of fame fixes, followed only by state fair appearances). I believe this target consumer is a generous, good-hearted woman. She thinks that Kate Gosselin got an unfair shake when her marriage to fell apart in front of the reality TV cameras and what was poor Kate to do but scramble for more TV gigs in order to make ends meet while her lazy, good-for-nothing ex-husband shopped for Ed Hardy T-shirts and had sex with young women who should know better? Lancaster county private schools don’t pay for themselves. And neither do unlimited sessions at The Sunshine Factory.

Yes, the ideal passenger on the Kate Gosselin cruise is a woman who doesn’t like to gossip, but enjoys reading gossip rags. When the cover of US Weekly proclaims “Angie is Pregnant!” she believes them and wishes the best for Angie. She owns several products featuring the “As Seen on TV” sticker. They have to work. Why would Ron Popeil lie?

This woman sees the Kate Gosselin cruise as a chance to play “fun family games with Kate and staff,” no doubt envisioning being tethered to Kate in the 3-legged race or possibly depositing an egg, ever-so-gingerly, onto Kate’s awaiting spoon. I imagine this mother has twins, just like Kate, or possibly triplets or quadruplets (but definitely not sextuplets because then this woman would also have her own show), and that’s why she identifies with Kate in the first place. She understands why Kate was so frazzled — why she barked at her children and needled her husband. She’s done that too. Having multiples is tough.

This woman might be a stay at home mom (but only temporarily, just until the twins are old enough for school) and the days are long. Some days she wonders why she keeps wiping crumbs off of the counter top after breakfast, knowing that they’ll reappear again, like magic, after lunch. She wonders why she bothers changing her clothes before loading the triplets into the minivan and heading to the grocery store. After all, she’ll be wearing her winter coat — no one will see the dribbles of coffee on her chest or the dried rice cereal clinging to the cuffs of her sleeves. But there’s always the chance. She brushes her hair, too, and puts on a little lipstick even when she knows she’ll be at home all day, just her and the quadruplets. Grooming’s important. Because you just never know who might show up at the door while you’re sitting there, not wearing any lipstick. She and Kate understand this.

She’s sympathetic to Kate and her Botox and her hair extensions and her tummy tucks. She wouldn’t mind getting a tummy tuck herself. Who wouldn’t? She plans to tell Kate all of this at that “private BBQ on deck with Kate and a fabulous band.” She’s thinking that “private” sounds nice. Maybe she and Kate will share their birth stories. Hers is a real doozy — 40 hours, no epidural. Not even a valium. She practiced her visualization and guided imagery ahead of time, thinking of her uterus as a flower slowly opening, just as her Bradley method teacher instructed. Not many women can do that. Maybe they’ll stand together at the railing, this target consumer and Kate, looking out at the ocean, quoting Titanic (“I’m king of the world!”). “Yes,” she thinks, “this could be the family’s summer vacation. Pricey, yes. But we can swing it.” And won’t it be nice to get a “A commemorative personalized gift from Kate” (one per family)? The gift will be personal because Kate understands her, just as she understands Kate.

I understand this woman, too, because part of her is me. And I think this woman deserves better. She deserves to use that $5,000 nest egg on something real and tangible — not a staged photograph with a curt former reality TV star. But she enters her credit card information. She understands the ticket is non-refundable. She’s going to meet Kate Gosselin. It’s worth it.

I Can Haz Nyan Cat?

The other day I was reading an article a friend of mine (Melisser, this is ALL your fault) shared on Facebook. The article, “The 50 Greatest Internet Memes of 2011,” is, as you might imagine, a deep wormhole. Not only is the article long (it covers, in detail, 50 different internet memes), but it includes links to various iterations of these popular memes. It took me almost an hour to get through the first five. Afterwards I cursed myself for wasting precious grading time. When you pay other people to take care of your children so that you can work, wasting an hour on nonsense is unacceptable.

The real question here is not why did I spend a precious hour of my work day reviewing the top internet memes of 2011. Clearly,  Hipster Cop and Paula Deen riding things are awesome. But why are they awesome?

Given the rampant popularity of internet memes, it should not be surprising that there is a growing body of work on the subject. Memes are not simply photoshopped images shared on social media and on Internet clip shows for the amusement of those of us who spend long periods of time sitting in front of a computer each day. They form our social and cultural networks. The term “meme” (short for “mimeme”) dates back to Richard Dawkin’s book The Selfish Gene (1976). He refers to memes as “units of  cultural transmission.” For example, if I read an article detailing a new approach to say, the critical analysis of widgets, I might mention it to my colleague, an analytical widget specialist. She might then write about it in a paper that she plans to deliver at the National Association for the Critical Analysis of Widgets (aka, NACAW). In turn, people sitting in the NACAW audience, listening to my colleague deliver her paper, will hear that idea, putting it to other purposes, in a variety contexts. The idea spreads as it multiplies. In this way, Dawkins argues, memes are like viruses:

When you plant a fertile meme in my mind you literally parasitize my brain, turning it into a vehicle for the meme’s propagation in just the way that a virus may parasitize the genetic mechanism of a host cell. (192)

This sounds a little bit like the zombie apocalypse but you won’t need to worry about that for at least 3 more years. Let’s move on, shall we?

Like zombies, we shouldn’t think of memes simply as the innocuous debris of popular culture. As Karl Hodge explains in a article for The Guardian, written all the way back in 2000:

[Memes] are much more than just whispers being passed down a line. Religion and ritual are memes, as are fashions, political ideas and moral codes.

They are copied from one person to the next, planting fundamental beliefs and values that gain more authority with each new host. Memes are the very building blocks of culture. Not every meme is a big idea, but any meme with the right stuff can go global once it hits the internet.

In “‘ALL YOUR CHOCOLATE RAIN ARE BELONG TO US’?: Viral Video, YouTube and the Dynamics of Participatory Culture,” Jean Burgess argues that internet memes are “a medium of social connection.” The value of any particular meme is based on its ability to generate more content, that is, on its “spreadability.” Burgess explains:

…in order to endow the metaphors implied by terms like “memes,” “viruses,” and “spreadability‘ with any explanatory power, it is necessary to see videos as mediators of ideas that are taken up in practice within social networks, not as discrete texts that are produced in one place and then are later consumed somewhere else by isolated individuals or unwitting masses. These ideas are propagated by being taken up and used in new works, in new ways, and therefore are transformed on each iteration – a “copy the instructions,” rather than “copy the product” model of replication and variation.

Indeed, the Paula Deen Riding Things meme offers potential meme participants an actual template to use, promising “anyone can do it”:

For me, at least, community is a major part of the appeal of most internet memes. When I see Paula Deen riding the balloon from the “balloon boy” hoax of 2009, I am delighted because 1) the image itself is funny and 2) because I know that the author of that content also found that image to be funny. The creator and I are linked by our shared laugh over the image of a tipsy Paula Deen riding a tinfoil balloon. Or how about the person who dressed up as Paula Deen Riding Things for Halloween and then herself became an example of Paula Deen Riding Things? When I look at this image I am delighted to think that there are other people who laughed as hard at this image as I did. Just like film genres, internet memes create a sense of community.

But the point of this blog post is not to explain what memes are or how they work, since there are many superior scholars handling those questions (see Works Cited for a few). What I am interested in is why internet memes make me laugh. Dissecting humor is no fun but I am consistently amazed by how funny certain memes become for me and by their ability to make me laugh out loud when I’m sitting alone at my computer. That’s a weird feeling. The memes that make me laugh the most have a few recurring traits:

 Recognizability

The majority of memes rely on the recognizability of the image or video that is transmitted from user to user. If you cannot instantly see the resemblance between the meme and its source text (whether that source is something “in real life” or another meme), then the humor won’t work. For example, the humor of the amazing Pepper Spray Cop meme was based primarily on the recognizability of its source: the horrific police brutality that took place at a peaceful UC Davis student protest. This story was all over the news — particularly online — and the various YouTube videos documenting the protest have racked of millions and millions of views.

This meme is particularly interesting because its source  text is incredibly disturbing, revealing the casual way in which someone in power is able to use a weapon of suppression on a peaceful citizen. But the meme’s power relies precisely on the viewer’s ability to register all of this tragedy, to recognize the new environment into which Pepper Spray Cop has been inserted, and to find humor in the very incongruity of their meeting. For this reason, I think the best examples of this meme are those which have PSC spraying symbols of innocence or peace:

As the old saying goes: comedy = tragedy + time

Repetition

For all four years of college, I worked for the campus humor magazine. Often, in order to meet publisher deadlines, the staff would literally work all night: scanning images, laying out pages, and writing content. The last-minute content was almost always the product of delirium and repetition. What was not funny at 9 pm was very, very funny by 3 am. It’s all about the repetition: if say something unfunny often enough, eventually it will be funny. Even Henri Bergson knows that repetition is awesome, or so he says in his essay “Laughter: An Essay on the Meaning of Comic.” He offers this example:

The same by-play occurs in the Malade Imaginaire. Through the mouth of Monsieur Purgon the outraged medical profession pours out its vials of wrath upon Argan, threatening him with every disease that flesh is heir to. And every time Argan rises from his seat, as though to silence Purgon, the latter disappears for a moment, being, as it were, thrust back into the wings; then, as though Impelled by a spring, he rebounds on to the stage with a fresh curse on his lips. The self-same exclamation: “Monsieur Purgon!” recurs at regular beats, and, as it were, marks the TEMPO of this little scene.

Let us scrutinise more closely the image of the spring which is bent, released, and bent again. Let us disentangle its central element, and we shall hit upon one of the usual processes of classic comedy–REPETITION.

I think, had Bergson has the opportunity to see the Nyan cat video, he would be using that as an example, rather than Moliere. Watch the following videos and I think you’ll agree. First, take a look at the original Nyan cat. You only need to watch it for about 30 seconds to get the point:

Then, there are Nyan cat videos which play with Nyan’s presumed ethnicity. This variation on the meme adds stereotypical signifiers of an identity — such as a turban and Bollywood music — to the source text:

There are versions of the Nyan cat meme that simply play with its addictive, seizure-inducing score:

Then there are the many Nyan cat videos that play with the Nyan cat’s presumed joie de vivre:

This one comes with an important warning “Eats Souls.” Please proceed with caution.

I had to stop watching this one around the 20 second mark:

And finally, Nyan IRL:

With every video I laugh harder until there are literally tears coming down my cheeks as I watch the still image of a cat with a pop tart tied to its back and a plastic rainbow placed next to its ass.

Cruelty

It is difficult to deny that part of the humor of many internet memes lies in mocking the source text. And it is always a relief to laugh at someone else since it means, for the time being, no one is laughing at you:

I don’t feel all that bad for celebrities who become memes or even “civilians” like Rebecca Black. I think if you put a video on YouTube in the hopes that it will make you famous, then you have to accept the consequences of “fame,” whatever form that fame might take. But I do feel bad for those unfortunate souls who did not intend to be on the internet but caught the snarky eye of a someone with access to Photoshop and WiFi (i.e., everyone):

This meme, Angry Vancouver Fan/Angry Asian Rioter, is particularly mean-spirited. I agree that rioting after a hockey game is stupid. Who watches hockey? But clearly the appeal of this image is who is doing the stupid rioting. Asians as well as Canadians are stereotyped as being mild-tempered pacifists (which is actually a stereotype worth embracing), and so this image appears especially outrageous. “How can this Asian Canadian young man have so much  rage?” the internet wonders, “Let’s torture him for it!”  Images like the one above remind me of a John Hughes movie: Angry Asian Rioter is Duckie and all of us on the internet are James Spader.

Self Loathing

Sometimes the source text being mocked is the person sitting in front of the computer. For example, the “first world problems” or “white whines” meme that was so popular throughout 2011 mocks the idea that anyone living in a first world country and/or anyone who is white would have a legitimate reason to complain about their life:

In particular, this meme mocks individuals who use social media like Twitter or Facebook to lament the small inconveniences in their otherwise cushy lives, like finding pickles on your sandwich after you said “no pickles.” On the one hand, this mockery is deserved — with so much suffering in the world, is it legitimate to curse your cable provider for creating a DVR incapable of consistently recording the TV shows you program it to record? Sure. But next to famine and oil spills, not so much. The  snark is well-deserved and as someone guilty of complaining about many first world problems, I recognize myself in this meme. I especially enjoy cursing my cable provider (you know who are. YOU KNOW WHO YOU ARE). This kind of meme serves a valuable social purpose — it forces many of us (or pretty much anyone who regularly consumes and distributes memes) to recognize our own privilege. The best humor holds up  a mirror to society.

But let me add a brief sidenote to this “self loathing” aspect of memes. Consider the reaction to the consumer debacle that was Black Friday 2011. The image of people using pepper spray (pepper spray is having the best year EVER!) and guns in order to save  a few dollars on their Christmas purchases, is disdainful. And memes like this one appeared:

And a non-comical one:

Both images paint the Black Friday shoppers as greedy, mindless consumers. And yet, should we really be shaming all of those people who stood in lines at midnight, hoping to snag a good deal? In America’s current, desperate economic climate, can we really mock those individuals who plot, plan and scheme to save money during what is the most expensive time of year? Sure, scrambling for a Barbie doll when little children (and adults and teenagers) in Africa are starving feels unreal. But for the unemployed and underemployed worried about putting a present under the tree, waiting on line for a cheap Barbie doesn’t seem so greedy or mindless.

But still, I mean, first world problems, people, first world problems.

Or Just Read this Flow Chart

Cracked.com also did an amazing job of explaining the humor of memes with this elaborate flow chart. I suppose you could have just clicked on this link and skipped my entire post. Yeah, sorry about that.

*****

So, what are some of your favorite memes and why do they make you laugh? I think you know what mine is, at least for this week:

Works Cited

Bergson, Henri. Laughter: An Essay on the Meaning of Comic. Mineola: Dover Publications, 1911. http://www.authorama.com/laughter-1.html

Burgess, Jean. “‘ALL YOUR CHOCOLATE RAIN ARE BELONG TO US’?: Viral Video, YouTube and the Dynamics of Participatory Culture.” Video Vortex Reader: Responses to YouTube. Amsterdam: Institute of Network Cultures. 101-109.

Dawkins, Richard. The Selfish Gene. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1976.

Hodge, Karl. “It’s All in the Memes.” The Guardian. 9 Aug 2000. <http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/2000/aug/10/technology&gt;. 10 Dec 2011.
 Jenkins, Henry. “If It Doesn’t Spread, It’s Dead (Part One): Media Viruses and Memes.” Confessions of an Aca/Fan. 11 Feb 2009. <http://www.henryjenkins.org/2009/02/
if_it_doesnt_spread_its_dead_p.html>.  11 Dec 2011.

First Contact: Early Reflections on Google+

Currently, I’m on a beach vacation with my family in Long Beach Island, NJ. This would normally mean that the only thing I read is US Weekly and the only thing I write are shopping lists that look like this “Beer, Candy Bars, Sunblock, Beer.” However, every afternoon my son needs to take his nap And since the baby monitor does not reach the beach, someone has to sit in the house, waiting for him to wake up. Today that someone is me. But, waiting around the house is no real tragedy when there is a porch overlooking the beach for me to sit on and a wi-fi connection. So I thought I would use this time to reflect on the latest bit of social networking technology to come my way: Google +.

First contact. Thanks Annie!

I first heard about Google+ last week when I received an invitation to join from a friend who I met, tellingly, through another social networking platform, Twitter. I didn’t know what Google+ was, but it sounded exclusive and new, and I love things that are exclusive, so I decided to check it out. When I clicked on the “learn more about Google+” button I was informed that the system was overtaxed and that I should try again later. This experience of course only piqued my curiosity further. The site was so exclusive that even the early adopters were having trouble getting on. How tantalizing.

A few days later I tried again and was able to log on with no problem. Exciting! I set up my profile, looked around, and … was instantly bored. What was I supposed to do with Google+ now that I was on Google+? Indeed, that seemed to be the question everyone else on Google+ was asking.

My first post on Google+

As far as I can tell, Google+, which is still in its “field test” mode, meaning there are not a lot of people using it yet, is a lot like the other social networking platforms I am currently using. As with Facebook, Google+ allows you to compile friends, post updates and links into a live feed, comment on other people’s posts, add photos, comment on other people’s photos, etc. So far I can only detect two big “differences” between Facebook and Google+:

1. Instead of a “like” or “share” button, Google+ offers a “+1″ button. 

2. Google+ allows you to group the people you’ve connected with into “circles” of “friends,” “following,” “coworkers,” and customizable categories to suit your needs, like “fellow graduates of clown college.” 

Now as far as #1 goes, who cares? In fact, it kind of reminds me of the character in Mean Girls who keeps trying, and failing, to get all of her friends to use the word “Fetch.”

As for #2, yes this is a nice addition. Facebook provides this functionality as well, so that you could theoretically corral your updates in such a way that your work friends won’t see the status updates about how much you hate the people at work and your non-work friends won’t see the status updates about how much you hate them. But I’ve found this process to be clunky (and what if I ever screwed it up?), so I tend to make my Facebook updates for a “general audience.” But since Google+ demands that you place people into circles as you add them, well, I guess you don’t have a choice do you? Indeed, although I have only found 18 people to add to my Google+ circles, I find that making choices about whether to put an individual into the “friend” or “following” category is a little stressful. As Farhad Manjoo points out in a very illuminating Slate article, Google+ allows your friends/followers/coworkers/fellow graduates of clown college to see exactly what circle you’ve put them into.  Awkward. [Editor's Note: I was under the impression that people on Google+ will know what circles they have been placed into, but after I was on the site a few days I realized that this was not the case at all. Phew! Now I can keep those "Assholes" and "Douchebags" circles in tact]. Should the person who I only know through Twitter, but with whom I frequently have conversations, be considered a “friend” or simply someone I “follow”? Will she think it presumptuous of me to list her as a friend or rude of me to list her as someone I simply follow?

Circles on Google+

Manjoo also makes another great point about Google+’s circles:

I wonder, though, whether the whole theory of “circles” is misguided. It’s very possible that we’re all less obsessed with compartmentalizing our relationships than Google imagines. It’s probably true that, as Paul Adams says, we keep multiple circles of acquaintances in real life. But it doesn’t necessarily follow that people want to take the time to reflect that behavior online. After all, in the real world, managing your circles of friends is usually an implicit thing—you hang out with your school friends when you’re at school, you hang out with your New York friends when you’re in New York, you talk to your coworkers when you’re at work. Unless you’re planning your wedding seating chart, you don’t usually go around categorizing and grading groups of friends, adding some people in and keeping other people out. And take my word for it: After you do it for your wedding, you’ll never want to do it again.

Yes.

In the few days that I’ve been on Google+ I’ve noticed that most posts are about users questioning the value or purpose of being on Google+. Others post links to articles like the one I just cited, which either question the site’s value or which list the reasons why Google+ has the potential to be revolutionary, such as “The Google Plus 50.” When I read these articles, I find that they don’t offer users like me many compelling reasons to be on Google+.  For example, do I care that “With G+ seeing our comment streams, their ability to better plot social graphs and integrate AdSense and maybe even Google Affiliate opportunities is huge. (Yes, FB does this, but Google thrives on Adsense.)”? Do I even know that means? Alas, I do not.

Everything on Google+ right now is highly meta.

I am not a media analyst, I’m not in marketing, I’m not interested in “analytics” or “location focused media delivery.” But there should be compelling reasons for someone like me to use Google+. And who am I? Quite simply, I am an avid user of social networking sites. I share a lot of content: links, photos, blog posts, etc., on Twitter as well as Facebook. I truly enjoy chatting and interacting with friends who I have met online. So what value does a site like Google+ have for someone like me?

Sharing photos on Google+

Right now, at least, I am interested in Google+ because I am interested in watching a new social networking platform develop. I was late adopter of both Facebook (August 2008) and Twitter (March 2009), and I have always been curious about what these sites looked like and how they functioned before they achieved a larger user base. What did people on Twitter do when there were only a few people on Twitter?

Currently, Google+ resembles the first 30 minutes of a middle school dance. You were told the dance started at 8:00 pm so you had your Mom drop you off at 8:00 pm sharp. But when you get to the gymnasium, there are only  few other kids there and nobody knows what they should be doing. The PTA did its job and the gym looks great: the strobe light is on, the punch bowl is full, and the DJ is playing “It Takes Two.” In short, every component of the dance is in place, but no one is sure where to start or what to do. Should I get on the dance floor? Should I have a cup of punch? Is it time to start making out under the bleachers?

This is how everyone on Google+ seems to feel right now.  A few of us have ventured out onto the dance floor, posting a comment or a link here or there, and then retreated, noticing that no one else was joining in. But I suppose that this is exactly how a social networking site begins. And as awkward as it all is, I’m excited to be here. I’m ready to dance.

So readers, any of you on Google+ right now? If so, what do you like about it? And more importantly, can you add me to your circle?