June 29th

April 10-18, 2008

Welcome to the first Thesis Show for the Honors in Multimedia Scholarship Program! The 31 projects featured in this show represent the work produced by the program's first cohort, most of which began as freshmen in the fall of 2004. Over the past four years they have been on the front lines of a paradigm shift destined to transform academia in the years to come, generously helping to shape the program and forging new forms of scholarly production.

Created in 2004 by the Institute for Multimedia Literacy, an organized research unit within the School of Cinematic Arts, the Honors Program was built on years of experiments in deploying new forms of scholarly production conducted across the university in classes that united traditional course materials with multimedia labs. These early course experiments explored ways to enhance traditional academic practices through multimedia with the goal not only of developing new forms of scholarly expression, but of helping the university keep pace with the “real world” knowledge of incoming students, who are increasingly fluent in new technologies and their respective vernaculars. Indeed, the program emerged from an early recognition that the very concept of literacy was shifting and that to be literate in the 21st century means not only being able to read and write with critical sophistication, but being able also to use images, sound, networks and interactivity as modes of expression.

The Honors Program was not designed to be a major or discipline but is instead transdisciplinary and built on the idea that students will need to acquire advanced knowledge within their major in order to realize the full potential of multimedia scholarship. As a result, the IML methodology is fundamentally hybrid and designed to facilitate engagement with the theories and methods from a host of disciplines, which are then explored through a set of core competencies specific to scholarly multimedia. The Thesis Projects are the result of this high level engagement in a specific discipline, from biology to engineering to cinema, along with an advanced deployment of multimedia authoring skills. This hybridity requires students to work closely with an advisor within their major, as well as an advisor familiar with multimedia authoring. Students are asked, then, not only to excel in their majors by conducting advanced research or articulating a complex thesis in their field; they are also expected to push the boundaries of multimedia scholarship, finding an appropriate platform and mode of expression suited to the ideas they wish to express. Nobody said it was going to be easy!

What the IML did not know as the program took shape was just how fast the technological landscape would shift in four years. While the program began with the goal of improving visual literacy, for example, focusing specifically on the use of still and moving images in scholarly practices, the shifts often designated as the move from Web 1.0 to Web 2.0 required that we be far more attentive to not just visual literacy but computational literacy and what scholar Yochai Benkler calls a “networked information economy.” It required acknowledging the dramatic shift toward participatory culture, collective intelligence and user generated content.

The last four years have also seen the evolution of how educators think about undergraduate students. Henry Jenkins highlights a host of new skills shared by students in “Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture: Media Education for the 21st Century,” a white paper produced in association with the MacArthur Foundation's five-year, $50 million digital media and learning initiative launched in 2006. The initiative alone points to the growing significance of multimedia literacy, but more importantly, Jenkins asks how educators might work with the skills our students bring with them, rather than trying to deny or exclude them. Is multitasking the damning trait of a distracted generation, or an enviable skill that educators ought to support and hone?

While much research has contributed to the formation of the Honors Program, it has been specifically influenced by the work of John Seely Brown who, with Paul Duguid in The Social Life of Information, advocates a shift from learning about to learning to be. They write, “Learning about implies a passive consumption of knowledge in the form of facts. Learning to be implies the application of knowledge in the development of skills that allows us to fulfill a particular (professional or non-professional) role in society.” Learning as becoming signifies an ongoing process, one that continues well after graduation.

The Honors Program has worked to address these shifts and the abilities of students in various ways, transforming traditional classroom practices by integrating blogs and wikis, using YouTube and iTunes, and encouraging videoblogging, sonic argumentation, and interactive gaming as new forms of expression. The program has also responded to emerging trends, developing a course in citizen journalism, for example, in which students interrogated Web 2.0 media by creating it, as well as a course in virtual worlds, in which students explored emerging social environments such as Second Life.

In addition, the Honors Program has been a testing ground for new ideas on all levels, and this research has in turn informed an international community. The IML's Professor Steve Anderson, for example, used his findings about student projects in an essay titled “Regeneration: Multimedia Genres and Emerging Scholarship,” which outlines what he sees as the fundamental genres of new forms of scholarship. Similarly, former IML Director Anne Balsamo and Anderson contributed an essay titled “A Pedagogy for Original Synners,” published in the Digital Youth, Innovation and the Unexpected compilation edited by Tara McPherson and published by the MacArthur Foundation. IML Honors Program research has also been presented at conferences around the world, and a book outlining the program's methodology is in its final stages. All of this research has been thoroughly informed by this first Honors cohort.

Through all of the changes - culturally, institutionally and programmatically - the first cohort of Honors Program students has been steadfast, incredibly creative and groundbreaking in their use of multimedia. They have been guinea pigs for the program's experiments in teaching, and they've been the beta testers for a host of new software applications. They've been the program's ambassadors, showing the rest of USC what's possible, and their efforts helped spark the inauguration of the university's Multimedia in the Core program, mandated by Provost Nikias as a way to give all students at USC the chance to work with multimedia. They've been mentors to faculty members, helping show professors in their majors ways to think about new forms of scholarship. They've transformed the USC campus, protesting intellectual property policies, founding clubs devoted to Free Culture, participating in virtual world building and greatly enriching the intellectual community at USC. They've won awards and grants, produced plays and films, made discoveries, started businesses and conducted groundbreaking research. And perhaps most significantly, they've worked collaboratively, teaching each other with inspiring generosity. The survival and success of the Honors Program is due in large part to the character, dedication and fortitude of this first cohort. This thesis show is a testament to their devotion and hard work and we proudly dedicate it to them.


The Honors Program owes much to its founders, who are numerous. They include Anne Balsamo, Director of the IML when the program was founded, and its key architects, Steve Anderson and Richard Edwards, who helped form and shape the program, drawing on their years of experimentation with multimedia education while post-docs at the IML. Andrew Syder, Andrew Durkin, Lisa Tripp and Chris Gilman all played active roles in shaping the program in its earliest stages, as did the long list of faculty members who participated in the first multimedia-enhanced courses at USC. Peggy Weil helped students develop their projects in their earliest stages, and Virginia Kuhn stepped in to guide the fourth year of the program, and, working with Anne Bray, steered students through the development of the thesis projects, as well as post-project reflection. Janein Chavez has played an invaluable role as the program's administrative advisor, while David Lopez, Mike Jones, Bjorn Littlefield-Palmer and Elizabeth Ramsey have all worked with this cohort of IML Honors Students in various ways.

Elizabeth Daley, Dean of the School of Cinematic Arts, got the whole thing started by founding the IML in 1998, setting the foundation for what would become the Honors Program and lending her support and advocacy every step of the way. Additional thanks go to Rick Jewell who, as Associate Dean of the School of Cinematic Arts, helped shepherd the program through its various stages of approval from the curriculum committee on up to the Provost's office. The IML owes ongoing gratitude to USC Provosts Lloyd Armstrong (1993-2005) and Max Nikias, whose vision and commitment to the future of education has kept the IML at the forefront of multimedia scholarship. Finally, the program's many thesis advisors from across the USC campus have played a key role, working collaboratively to ensure the highest level of research and articulation from the perspective of each student's own discipline. The IML extends its gratitude to all who have worked to make the Honors Program a success.

Honors Program Thesis Project Essay

Simplifying Complexity//Complicating Simplicity

The projects in the Simplifying Complexity/Complicating Simplicity grouping reveal the ways in which digital technology, like any technology - writing, for instance - is inherently ambivalent, as Andrew Feenberg argues in his seminal Critical Theory of Technology; as such, it can be used to illuminate or to obfuscate concepts with equal ease. In other words, technology can be deployed to help us to understand things more clearly, or it can muddy our thinking about ideas that have become naturalized and taken for granted. The ability to deploy sound and image (in addition to text) clarifies complex ideas by demonstrating their features textually, imagistically and aurally, particularly in terms of scientific inquiry; at the same time, the ability to harness and “speak” in the language of audio and video allows the sort of sustained critical engagement with a highly mediated world full of ubiquitous advertising and entertainment. Using these images against themselves, one begins to see nuances that are not apparent when these fast-moving messages flood our environment.

In “The Role of Toxin-Antitoxin Pairs in Cell Death: Cell Survival in Escherichia coli,” Elizabeth Nakasone animates the interaction of toxin anti-toxin pairs in e-coli bacteria, showing the implications of programmed cell death for antibiotic resistance, for instance, or tumor growth in cancerous tissue. Complex biological systems are better understood when one can read text, see visuals and hear an explanation. Moreover, in keeping with the idea of clarification, Nakasone created a “clean” Web site to house her information in order to keep the focus on the science, using the encyclopedic nature of the computer which allows her to add as much information as she is able, while also pointing viewers to further sources. A 50-page thesis paper simply could not contain this work.

Xing Chen also exploits the digital space and computer processing, in this case in order to explain brain research on the laboratory mice with which she works. In “Cerebellar Conditioning in Mice,” we find a clearly constructed Web site that adds film clips of research protocols and procedures to textual and oral explanations. Chen wants to show viewers the way in which “learning takes place as cerebellar connections are modified over numerous trials,” as well as “changes in proteins of the deep nuclei of the cerebellum.” These “are studies to compare effects of learning in trained mice with the absence of learning in control animals.” Not only does Chen explain such complex articulation by using multiple registers (text, sound and image), but she also explains the research protocols themselves. In this way, she not only shows her knowledge of the content of neuro-scientific research, but gives a meta level view of the field too.

At the other end of the spectrum, Alexis Lindquist explores the language of the musical score in cinema, noting the often subliminal ways in which music is used to impose not only mood but interpretation of the visuals of film. Her project “The Language We Don't Talk About: Hearing Time and Place in Film Scores” consists of a visually stark Web site which foregrounds sound, along with and a visual/textual companion site that lends theoretical and scholarly weight to her argument,

Dustin Johnson believes in the need both to link cinematic theory more directly to the practices of cinematography, and to understand how cinematic practices shift and change over time. In “Cinematography Articulated,” Johnson shows cinematography to be a language that is internalized by the technical staff on film sets, and in this way he troubles the seemingly transparent nature of aspects of color, grain, exposure, latitude, contrast, composition, shot, angle and depth of field, all of which are subject to technological limits and possibilities, but more importantly, constitute a fully articulated semiotic system.

At the IML we believe in disrupting binaries almost as quickly as we identify them in order to retain reflexivity. As such, we close this section with a hybrid effort that troubles the simplicity/complexity binary established here: Andrew Hogan's “Multiperspectival Examination of Alexander the Great” prevents us from ever seeing the historic figure of Alexander the Great in simple terms. “Sadly, the course of time has left us only fragments of any primary sources” of his life, Hogan notes, adding that secondary sources are wildly divergent in their “facts.” Therefore, Hogan contends, the only way to really understand Alexander is to confront these sources “in concert”; Hogan reveals this complexity by narrowing his focus to multiple accounts of a single event: the decisive Battle of Gaugamela. He hopes his users, having experienced his project, can mount an informed view of this intriguing figure.

A core text for the Honors program is Hamlet on the Holodeck: The Future of Narrative in Cyberspace. In it, Janet Murray describes four essential properties of digital environments. They are: procedural, participatory, spatial and encyclopedic. The first two, she claims, contribute to the vaguely defined word “interactive” while the remaining two contribute to the notion of an “immersive” component. The projects in this group use the appropriate key characteristics described by Murray to serve their rhetorical purposes, demonstrating the type of critical engagement championed at the IML.

Just Gaming?

In their 2006 essay “The Play of Imagination: Extending the Literary Mind,” USC Associate Professor Douglas Thomas and Annenberg Visiting Scholar John Seely Brown used the term “conceptual blending” to describe the ways in which players of massively multiplayer online games are able to take into account multiple worlds simultaneously, and in so doing, find “new and unusual opportunities for learning.” One key to the success of these games, the authors argue, is that they are eminently social, but perhaps more importantly, the rich social fabric of the games “blurs many of the boundaries that we tend to expect, such as the distinction between the physical and the virtual, the difference between player and avatar, and the distinction between work and play.” The essay is part of a growing body of work that highlights the potential of games for learning and educational practices, a project undertaken by several Honors Program students who use interactive game structures in order to encourage an engaged response to serious issues.

Pierson Clair's “Regulating National Security” allows users to test the national security of the United States by asking, “Can you rearrange the budgets to create a better security structure that keeps the United States as is or more secure?” Clair notes that the project maps “over 400 points of national security, including major cities, ports, airports, defense installations and other key points of interest” and allows users to shift finances among 16 divisions within five federal departments. Using the Google Maps API, Clair has created a fascinating interactive experience that demonstrates some of the challenges in crafting a national security system.

Sara Epperson considers consumerism in her interactive game “Dream Wedding!” In this case, users move through a series of scenarios typical of contemporary wedding planning, and they quickly become immersed in the need to buy the best. It's your wedding, after all! At the end of the game, users get the bill. Epperson stays well within the realm of non-fiction here, but the results are startling, and prompt users to consider the ways in which the game of spending aligns with the reality of spending. “Because of their involvement with the game, users are implicated in the practice of consumerism,” Epperson explains.

While some students have used games to immerse users in complex ideas, others use games reflexively, as a means to interrogate the very structure of the gaming experience. Such is the case with Erik Gieszelmann's “Sliding Agency: A Study of the Balance Between System and Agency in Game Design.” The project is a game simulation that demonstrates how game designers must negotiate a delicate balance between player and system agency: too little agency for the player and the game doesn't encourage his or her creative exploration and interaction. Too much agency, and play bogs down. But if a designer can find the right balance between the two, then the game will be satisfying. Rather than merely tell us this, or make a convincing argument that proves his point, Gieszelmann lets us experience this process directly as users become, for a little while anyway, game designers deciding on how to find that perfect balance.

Evan Bregman also interrogates video games, in this case examining the relationship between the pleasures of storytelling and those of interactivity; the two, Bregman points out, would seem to be at odds. “Immersive Flow: Narrative Through Interactivity” considers how games incorporate elements of cinematic narrative along with game play that has some impact on the narrative, allowing players to experience a sense of agency within the story itself. Bregman takes this idea a step farther by creating the project as an interactive book that, in Bregman's words, “uses text, video and interaction to position its creator as a sympathetic protagonist in a narrative argument.” Bregman created his project in the Institute for the Future of the Book's new application Sophie, which Bob Stein, Institute for the Future of the Book founder (and frequent denizen of the IML) describes as a tool that allows for the creation of entities that exist somewhere between the book and the movie. Sophie easily brings together text, audio, video and more, and accommodates time-based actions within text-based projects. Bregman takes full advantage of these possibilities, and his project nicely enacts his thesis argument.


In her new book Designing Culture: The Technological Imagination at Work, Anne Balsamo, the IML's Director from 2004 to 2007, evangelizes honing the “technological imagination,” an approach to innovation used by the “technohumanist.” Balsamo argues that the divide often experienced by the hard sciences and the humanities is fatal in an ever more technologically sophisticated world. And indeed, at the IML we practice an integrated approach to tools and concepts, for we believe that while technologists can imagine what can be, humanists can reminds us what should be.

Marrying neuroscience with the tenets of mediation and yoga in her Web site entitled “Change Your Mind,” Cynthia LeFevre shows the brain to be an “adaptable ever-changing organ” that can be positively shaped by the focus that comes from practicing the sort of mindfulness that counters the deleterious effects of stress on both mind and body.

Sonia Seetharaman takes this connection to another level by investigating the dualities apparent in science and religion in “To Be or Not To Be,” a Flash-based environment that leads viewers through screens with image and text, each of which explains a concept from physics before showing its corresponding concept in religious theory. Revealing the scientific dualities and their counterpoints in religious myth, Seetharaman not only indicates the numerous overlaps between the two fields, but also suggests the human impulse toward binaries - a very fitting project to find its way into computer code.

Jessica Janner investigates the ways in which teens get news of the world around them. Using extensive statistics gleaned from online surveys of high school students, interviews with high school journalism classes, as well as video footage of scholars, Janner presents her findings in the various places youth visit - YouTube, Facebook and her own Web site. Janner presents her project, “My News,” as a broadcast news story updated for the 21st century. In this way, she hopes to spark discussion between traditional newsmakers and the next generation of (cyber) citizens.

Tiffany Ikeda combines economics and social psychology, creating virtual experiments that gauge self-reported levels of happiness as well as informing users about cutting edge research in this area. “HAPPINE$$” adapts traditional experiments from each field into an interactive site where users can try these experiments themselves before receiving a thorough explanation of the significance of the test, along with statistical information about its results. Ikeda highlights the “discrepancies between anticipated and experienced utility” in order to help users gain appreciation for such work but perhaps more profoundly, to help them “foster more knowledgeable personal decision-making.”

Cameron Parkins interrogates the hype surrounding the potential of digital media to provide an egalitarian space that eliminates the socio-political inequities of life in the real world. With the rise of virtual worlds such as Second Life, a space in which people log in and interact from around the globe, Parkins finds it crucial to see if the promises of “digital utopianism” are anywhere close to being realized. Informed by both International Relations and Digital Communications theory, “Walden III” “attempts to understand whether virtual worlds can overcome the confines of cultural imperialism, providing global citizens a new arena for identity creation and cultural exchange, or fall into the same trappings of traditional Westernization.”

We might think of Leonardo da Vinci as the epitome of this techno-humanist approach. From working on cadavers to oil painting to helicopter design, da Vinci reminds us that humans are very flexible and resourceful, and there is much to be learned from crossing disciplines in pursuit of innovative thinking. The projects in this group are likewise cross-disciplinary, investigating knowledge bases from seemingly disparate fields.

Getting Meta: The Role of the Database

IML Honors Program students begin their four-year introduction to the history and theory of scholarly multimedia with a class titled “The Languages of New Media I,” which borrows from Lev Manovich's seminal book The Language of New Media, published in 2002. Manovich covers a lot of ground in his text, but one of his key insights concerns the role of the database, which becomes a fundamental component in contemporary media practices and marks a shift away from a culture dominated by linear structures - such as traditional narratives - toward those that call attention to the processes of selection and combination, the two activities that are key to structuring any kind of story. Filmmakers often experiment with database structures - remember Memento and its emphasis on the film's backwards structure? - but as a medium, film remains linear. New media allows us to play with the database structure in new ways, a fact argued at length by Professor Steve Anderson in the first iteration of IML 101, which culminated with the exploration of the Korsakow System, an application that facilitates the creation of interactive database projects. Several Honors Program students conjoined critical analysis with interactive structures that call attention to the database, if not as a central component in their projects then at least as a mode of thinking that responds to the database structure.

“Welcome to the Hong Kong Express: The Relationship Between Local and Transnational in Wong Kar-Wai's Chungking Express” by Ashley Hsieh dissects the beautiful cult film by offering users a way to move through several spaces in which they encounter close textual readings of the film's major scenes. The film is, in a sense, mapped across several screen spaces, paralleling the film itself, which too traverses a city, as well as the rift between old and new, and, according to Hseih, between local and transnational.

Katie Berenbom pursues a similar form of analysis in “Do the Right Thing: Examining a Thoughtful Representation of Race in Film,” which looks at Spike Lee's 1989 classic independent film about racial violence. Berenbom highlights the fact that the film arrived when racial tension in the U.S. in general, and in New York in particular, was extremely high, especially with regard to issues of police brutality and racial profiling. Indeed, many pundits accused Lee of inciting racial violence with Do the Right Thing. In her Web-based interactive analysis, Berenbom invites users to move through seven scenes in which she demonstrates links between actual events and Lee's narrative, in the end allowing users to consider the slippery boundary between fact and fiction.

A similar kind of scrutiny takes place in Michael Allison's project “Reverse Obfuscation of Radiohead's Everything in its Right Place: An Interactive Breakdown of a Song from One of Music's Most Sonically Obscure Albums,” a Web-based close textual analysis of a song from the 2000 album Kid A. However, the analysis is staged within an unusual interface, which, in Allison's words, lets users enter “the site by virtually deconstructing visual (as well as aural) noise to reach the information behind it - a metaphor for the thesis itself.” He adds that the “project intends to demystify music technology for the average listener and promote critical listening” and incorporates not only a historical approach to music technology, but an informative approach which “tutors” users in the act of critical music analysis.

“'Like Totally Eww': A Bodacious Adventure in Deciphering Textual and Cultural Implications of the 1980s Teen Science Fiction and Fantasy Genre While Charting the Evolution of Camp Films from ‘B' Billing to Blockbuster” by Olivia Everett tackles an entire film genre, namely that of the teen science fiction B-movie from the 1980s. Everett not only claims these critically neglected films as legitimate objects of academic study, but reveals how they inform the modern blockbuster. Everett fittingly uses vlogging (video blogging) to make her case, as well as linking, creating a critical site rich with annotations while also allowing for the incorporation of user feedback. Indeed, if the audience for these films is hardcore fans, it will be these same fans that make the site smarter with use.

Casey Levental brings together the histories of art and cinema in “Cubism and Cinema: Paralleled Explorations of the Old ‘New Media,'” arguing that cinema played a powerful role in the formation of cubism at the turn of the last century. Noting that the group known as “La Bande Picasso” was comprised of both artists and film enthusiasts, Levental traces the significance of motion, mechanization and composition on these painters, insisting that “it is no coincidence that the ‘moving picture' had played a role in the development of these movements' ambitions.”

Manovich argues that the database has become a symbolic form, one that privileges collections of materials and encourages users to view, navigate and search. Each of these projects in some way conducts a form of critical analysis through the tools of the database structure, giving users access to an array of materials through which they can navigate, developing an understanding of the maker's argument along the way.

Reclaiming the Physical: The Virtual Is the Real

Although increasing attention is paid to the differences between virtuality and reality, the virtual is the real in more senses than are immediately apparent. For instance, recent scientific research discovered mirror neurons, those that fire in the prefrontal lobes of the human brain when one acts as well as when one only sees the act. Under certain circumstances, the brain cannot distinguish the experiential from the imaginary. Given the highly visual and visually-mediated nature of life brought on by high performance computing, the design, articulation (via visualization) and construction of life becomes a crucial consideration. Recalling that vision itself is mediated, we must also remember that a physical object is a medium as much as a digital one.

With his project “Enlightening Engineering,” Matt Gerhardt demonstrates the ways in which theories of engineering operate in our everyday lives, using a Rube Goldberg machine combined with digital media to explain natural occurrences such as kinematics and fluid dynamics. The device is a large, complicated machine that uses multiple, semi-arbitrary steps to accomplish an exceedingly simple task, such as switching on a light bulb. As the actual machine churns through its tasks, Gerhardt uses digital media to explain the complex theories that account for each process before the user is forced to use the knowledge gained to keep the machine “operating.”

Rachel Kerry uses multimedia effects to enhance the dramatic structure of her original play “Seven Fragments,” a “dark” love story that illuminates the ravages of matters of the heart. Poetic text, story and character, mask performance, live music, and digital media animations integrate on stage to create a uniquely unified multimedia production. Kerry contends that emergent technologies “reshape today's notions of theatre,” such that “the artist's voice evolves.” She directs her actors to challenge traditional models of performance by using story as well as innovative interpretation of the visual media she has created for their interaction. Aided by a grant from the USC School of Theatre and IML technology, Kerry's play ran at the Village Gate Theatre for several performances during the first week of April. The multiple screens of her project document those shows, as well as the making of the performative materials. The “virtual” and the “real” inform each other throughout this thesis project.

Isomi Miake-Lye created her project in two main parts: one mimics the physicality of a medical waiting room and the other is a Web site whose interface is modeled on the 1950's Game of Life, updating it with video clips from research projects and links to further information. “Getting Ahead Later in Life: Insight Into Older Adult Lifestyles and Their Implications for Health Care” examines the very pressing issue of the swelling population of older adults in America and the health care issues they present. Miake-Lye argues that these “drastic demographic changes at present dictate a vital shift in our traditional health and wellbeing paradigm: the United States cannot afford to continue our costly present track.” Thus, she hopes to educate viewers about the ways in which healthy living choices can impact the quality of their own “game of life.”

Leann Joyce offers a nuanced view of the relationship between garments and their cultural articulations from an economic standpoint. Her project is a company called “Whitees” and includes a faux storefront complete with blank tee shirts and bar code scanner. Scanning shirts reveals information beyond the typical prices. Indeed, ad copy for the project notes, “When customers scan the barcode on a tee from Whitees, articles of clothing become articles of fact.”

In Internet Invention: From Literacy to Electracy, Gregory Ulmer contends that the computer is a prosthesis of the human brain. Thus, at the IML we frequently ask what emergent technologies allow us to do that we could not do otherwise. Given our provenance in the School of Cinematic Arts and at the intersection of critical studies, production and interactive media, we ask students to think through the technologies they use: How do digital technologies and the knowledge they generate (as well as acting as a vehicle to) impact our intellect and our lives? How do we harness them to enhance the human experience? How do they help us to understand our motivations and behaviors? This group of projects explores the relationship between innovations in science and technology with the quality of human life.

Remix, YouTube, Second Life and More: Pop Culture Meets Academia

February 24, 2004 - just a month into the second semester of the existence of IML Honors Program - is now known as Grey Tuesday. Over 100,000 copies of DJ Danger Mouse's Grey Album were downloaded from hundreds of sites across the Internet. An estimated million copies of this celebrated remix, which creatively combined the Beatles' White Album with Jay-Z's Black Album, were traded over peer-to-peer networks within 24 hours. This was a symbolic gesture perhaps, but the electronic civil disobedience of Grey Tuesday eloquently spoke to both consumer frustrations with increasingly restrictive copyright laws and the growing power of peer networks to subvert their enforcement. And it spoke to a generation of university students ready to test the potential of remix, along with a host of other so-called amateur media practices, within the confines of the university. It should come as no surprise, then, that several of the Honors Program Thesis projects reflect these cultural practices, which have been “hacked” to function within an academic setting.

Perhaps the most direct reflection of this ethos is Matt Jung's interactive game “Mashupoly,” which he says parallels the music mashup in which two songs are combined in order to create a new and different song. “Mashupoly combines elements from the board game Monopoly with information about the progression of the mashup art form into a fast-growing, independent and yet still illegal genre,” he writes. Within the game, different squares represent different songs, or, as Jung points out, different intellectual properties. These properties are in turn organized along a timeline, which demonstrates the evolution of musical appropriation across several decades, going back to early jazz and moving forward. The game nicely illustrates the ways in which this kind of borrowing is codified differently relative to historical context, and coyly references the frustrated efforts of the Recording Industry Association of America, which seeks to punish college students for illegal downloads. The association figures in the game directly in that players must carefully orchestrate their listening habits by listening to as many intellectual properties as possible before incurring the RIAA's legal wrath.

If deploying pop cultural media tools was the only criteria for graduation, Freddie Wong would have moved on to grad school months ago. With several million viewers to his credit, Wong is a YouTube sensation, and that was precisely his goal. Titled “The 106 Project,” Wong's thesis tackles a deceptively simple question: What does it take for a video to become viral? Through the analysis of other successful viral videos on YouTube, Wong isolated the key characteristics, created a series of projects that included those characteristics, and watched as his videos spread like wildfire across the Web, with the numbers of viewers skyrocketing. His project charts his various experiments, inviting users to consider the strange viewing predilections of the world.

Second Life, the multi-user virtual environment that has grown increasingly popular over the last four years for everything from gambling to art to even education, is home to Matthew Lee's “Rivenscryr,” a space that allows users to explore a particular aspect of Shakespeare's The Tempest. Lee argues that the invisible character Sycorax plays a key role, despite the fact that his most important actions take place prior to the play's start. Lee takes us back to those actions, “allowing users to travel through a remnant of the island, encountering fragments of the past.” While many have considered creative uses of Second Life, Lee takes full advantage of the virtual environment's immersive features, crafting an entire world rich with texture and detail.

If 2004 brought us one of the most popular instances of remix culture, 2005 formally introduced another key moment when Henry Jenkins wrote, “Welcome to convergence culture” in an essay about the growing array of media platforms. He was describing the “flow of media content across delivery channels to expand revenue,” as well as the ways in which increasingly active consumers demand more options in ways to enjoy media. “Convergence is both a top down corporate-driven process and a bottom up consumer-driven process,” Jenkins wrote, but Patrick Skelly shows how convergence affects narrative itself. His project, “media://hack,” is an interactive examination of Project.hack, a Japanese multimedia franchise that moves across several media platforms, including anime, manga, novels and video games. Skelly dissects the ways in which the different media elements converge and diverge, allowing the story to mutate in different directions depending on the affordances of various storytelling devices.

Anastasia Shepherd delves into another pop cultural phenomenon - the cinematic remake - with her project “Face to Face: A Blind Remake.” Noting the prevalence of remakes in contemporary cinema, Shepherd ponders the elements that make a particular story worth revisiting, and notes that she's less interested in what stays the same as works get remade than in what's different. To explore ideas of the remake, Shepherd gave herself an assignment: she read Ingmar Bergman's screenplay for Face to Face, and without having seen the film, selected two scenes to remake. Her interactive project compares Bergman's project and her own version, and in the process, becomes a sly commentary on several key themes both in contemporary pop cultural media practices and those that take place in academia, namely authorship and authority, as well as on notions of originality and “the original.”

Perhaps one of the strongest shifts that occurred during the four years of the Honors Program's first cohort was a movement from a Web 1.0 ethos in which users encountered relatively static Web sites, to a Web 2.0 paradigm in which sites became platforms encouraging user creativity. The IML's Honors students cheerfully seized these tools and the corresponding mentality, and their projects reflect their ability to merge academic goals with participatory media.

Preview of Class of 2009: Thesis Show 2.0

As we celebrate the class of 2008 and the first cohort of students to earn Honors in multimedia scholarship, we also take time to reflect with these students, using the insights acquired to benefit our next class. This group of “preview” projects hints at what is in store for the class of 2009's show. These projects, created by students who wanted a head-start, are well on their way to becoming solid theses in the world of Web 3.0. From showing the Internet as a platform for civic dis/engagement and political activism, to emerging forms of Web entertainment or “webisodes,” to the sort of 3-D animations that can be created to narrativize virtual worlds and their inhabitants, these projects collectively point the way toward the new generation of mediated life.

Adam Church explores the rather seamy world of Anonymous, the Internet-organized subversive group originally thought to be nothing more than a set of vandals playing with people's lives. However, “In LULLZ We Trust” finds Church suggesting that groups like Anonymous, having come of age, are now more politically active and socially responsible, targeting the powerful Church of Scientology for instance, as they leave the desktops and come out to picket in the world. In this light, their anonymity is as much a survival tactic as a vandalistic impulse.

John Visclosky writes, directs and often appears in his webisode, which he will deploy at carefully chosen intervals with releases in weekly installments on YouTube. “The Reunion” is an innovative - but light-hearted - new Web-based series that aims to combine narrative, stylistic, technical and marketing commonalities shared by pre-existing Web serials, such as Red Vs. Blue or Getting Away With Murder. The segments will be supplemented by an accompanying blog detailing every facet of each episode's creation. Visclosky envisions that project as a “multi-disciplinary exercise that will combine elements of technically sound filmmaking, creative storytelling, and shrewd, innovative marketing.”

The purpose of Paul Gee's thesis “You Can Get There From Here: Design Differentials in 3D Animation,” is to examine several production pipelines for 3-D animation in order to document and evaluate their efficacy. Gee does this by creating multiple versions of the same project and evaluating each on its speed, facility and the quality of the final result. Using an original children's story about a duck and his less confident chicken companion, Gee is able to concentrate on issues of lighting, movement and texture. Digital literacy includes the most effective means to an end, and we look forward to being illuminated by this project.