Tech, Transmedia and Geek Acceptance

In my introductory post,

http://geektheory.wordpress.com/2008/05/21/hello-world/#comments

Chad made a response with enough meat that I’ve decided to respond in a full post here.

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I’d agree that technology has changed music distribution moreso than a lot of other things, but I think it’d be unwise to dismiss other changes due to technology.

The internet has created vast opportunities for niche communities to form around interests without specific geographic boundaries. Back in the day, fan culture was an underground circuit of mimeographed fan ‘zines and the conventions. Now, fan cultural activity happens substantially (mostly?) on the internet, with vast fan fiction archives, fan vidding and re-mix culture, live forum thread discussion during episodes, and more.

One of the main lines of argument in my hypothetical future dissertation will be to trace and explain how geekdom has come into the mainstream, from a marketing perspective, from a cultural diffusion standpoint, and more. Watching four year old kids come into the Build-a-Bear workshop and get really excited about making a monkey with a Spider-Man or a Batman bear makes it very clear that many superheroes have come around again in a fashion reminiscent of Superman’s overwhelming omnipresence during the 40s, the fact that comics used to have distributions that Marvel and DC would invade small 3rd world countries to have once more.

Yes, geek culture is being tapped as a source for commoditization, but the other side of commoditization is popularization and normalization. Looking at the new tv shows from last year, a substantial proportion were based on speculative fiction premises: Pushing Daisies, Bionic Woman, Chuck, The Sarah Connor Chronicles, Journeyman, Reaper, plus a number of shows from years immediately previous. As CGI and special effects become more affordable, the dramatic and cinematic opportunities of genre television became much greater. Companies are making genre shows to make money, but they’re also making <i>genre</i> shows to make money, and as a result, we’re getting more and more genre material in prime-time, where it gets exposure, seeping into the collective unconscious and changes the definition of what fantasy and sci-fi mean in the broader culture. Sci-fi means Flash Gordon, but it also means Battlestar Galactica and LOST. Used to be that SF literature fans bought every book that was published in the genre just to have more <i>stuff</i>. Now, the glut of genre lit means that we get to pick and choose and be really picky. It’s all out there, with people who wouldn’t identify as geeks spending lots of time talking about Lord of the Rings as a way to really talk about how hot they think Sean Bean and Orlando Bloom are and how hot they’d be together.

Geekdom is gaining acceptance the way anything does — slowly and almost imperceptibly. Plus, making jillions of dollars goes a long way towards getting people to listen to what you say. Peter Jackson will be able to make whatever movies he wants for quite a while, until he completely fracks up and loses people a lot of money.

As for transmedia cultural diffusion — Of course not all Buffy fans will buy the board game and CCG and RPG, but a few will, and the kind of RPGing they do will be different than other modes of RPG-ing, mostly because it’ll probably look a lot like the freeform text-based RPGs people do online. And when the transmedia storytelling requires fans of a property/world to jump between media (and here’s the important part) and does so in a fashion that is both inviting and provides good materials in the multiple media but also makes it so that the different manifestations can stand on their own, then we’ll really see the media/cultural crossover. Things like the Matrix series did the transmedia bit, but not as effectively as they aught.

I’ve watched The Big Bang Theory and had a similar response at first, but re-evaluated my opinion when I decided that there is at least as much a loving treatment of geekdom as their is subtle condemnation. This acceptance comes later in the season, when Sheldon throws Penny’s critique of Nerdmabilia back in her face re: her Hello Kitty stuff, Beanie Babies, etc. And while most of the nerd leads are exaggerations of geek stereotypes, it’s a sit-com, so exaggeration of mockable traits is part and parcel with the genre. And at the show’s heart is the promise that love may be able to grow across the seemingly vast cultural divide represented by the hallway between Leonard & Sheldon’s apartment and Penny’s. And as much as the show makes fun of geekdom, it also makes fun out of geekdom. It’s not a paragon of positive representation of geek culture, but it is a representation of geeks as dramatic leads in their own right.

Geeks are still geeks, but many geeks are also the techno-shamans of our age, the early adopters of digital culture and exist in a feedback loop of SF literature and media going back and forth with scientific and technological development. Geeks may not be the 21st century Hollywood starlets, but they are making our computers, our blockbuster movies, and our bestselling novels. Geeks have made a space for themselves, partially out of being dragged in to be marketed and partially by claiming a space for themselves as the vanguard of digital cultural development.

2 thoughts on “Tech, Transmedia and Geek Acceptance

  1. Thanks for the response and the discussion, Mike. I’ll have a response for you tomorrow, even if I will acquiesce to your superior “formal paper speak”.

    -Chad

  2. I’m not dismissing every fundamental change of technology except for music. Rather, I think that it hasn’t impacted all the other niche areas that would bring “geek” culture into the forefront. Publishing, movies, comics, and games are all still bound by the corporate monolith and I don’t think technology has yet to dent any of those things.

    Sure, you’ve got stories, fan-fic, comics, and mods to video games circulated on the internet. Youtube, I suppose, is a viable medium for film making. But for the most part, except for music, the internet is still only really a vehicle to generate enough interest that can be transitioning into something more typical (from Tila Tequila to novel trailers).

    In terms of the printed word, I think the only significant change in publishing is in terms of vanityprint on demand technology. However,; I think the internet has provided authors, those who are likely to be ignored in terms of PR dollars, with their own ability to market their work.

    I think you’re totally right in terms of the growth of niche communities and fan culture. I wonder if there was a way for you to find out if cons have grown with the internet. I’m thinking more specifically of smaller ones, those geared to something really specific.

    But other than that, the only other thing I can think of would be fans getting the Serenity movie made. However, I don’t know if that same sort of impact will be possible in the foreseeable future without something else happening. I’m fairly certain that once everything was said and done, Serenity wasn’t able to make back the money spent on it, which doesn’t speak well for the geek pervasiveness.

    About superheroes and Marvel and DC, does the change in circulation have to do with changing awareness of geekiness or better business decisions on their part? And aren’t kids always going to be excited about Batman and Spiderman?

    In regards to television shows—the first question is how many of those have gotten cancelled? Television still doesn’t represent, in my mind, anything close to demonstrating popularization and normalization as an effect of commoditization. One can point to “speculative fiction” shows throughout television history that are remembered by the average person. Everyone on the street can probably tell you something about Twilight Zone, Outer Limits, X-Files, Quantum Leap and Buffy. That’s still a limited number of shows in terms of the scope of television, and pales to the pervasiveness of westerns, comedies, and the crime drama. “Weird” shows have always come in spurts as dedicated by the initial success of one show leading to a sudden rash of programming thanks to the short-sighted Hollywood exec mentality (“Huh? People must like X-Files ‘cuz it’s got aliens, let’s order 4 more alien shows!”). But until these types of shows have reached the level of the “crime drama”, the geeks just ain’t there.

    I have yet to see geeks get pickier as a whole. If that were true there would be 98.9 percent less fantasy novels published. If volume equaled change, everyone would be reading the three fantasy novels published because they would be the best written words out there.

    I wish geeks would get pickier. That’s always been by gripe. I think your average geek has the tendency to accept something just because it’s geared to them in the first place. And maybe that’s just the nature of subcultures and/or scenes…

    About Buffy—I never said no Buffy fans would buy anything else Buffy. I was saying that people who are going to jump through all those other hoops (buy the role-playing game, the card game, the video game, and the action figures) would have done that anyway. The guy who watches Buffy, then buys the role-playing game and gets into gaming—he would have gotten into gaming anyway, eventually.

    Your next comments (transmedia storytelling) confused me, and it’s there I begin to wander if I wasn’t a bit off on what you were trying to say in general. Are you speaking of a nebulous future time where technology has advanced much further than now?

    If we’re talking about the foreseeable future, I think there has to be much more change that takes place in our society, not just in terms of technology but in terms of capitalism, government, and our general way of thinking.

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