Flow: a Field of Dreams
Alexis Carreiro / Queens University of Charlotte

Flow 2016 logo

This column is published as part of the “Flow: Ten Years of Un-Conferencing” plenary, held during the 2016 Flow Conference.

I think I was the last person invited to develop the 1st Flow conference. I had shattered my right wrist earlier in 2006 and was still doing physical therapy three times a week to recover from its complete reconstruction. I was also taking a full course load while taking notes and writing papers with my non-dominant hand, so if that doesn’t give you any indication of how desperate the original organizers were for help, I don’t know what will. (Side note & advice to current RTF graduate students: when researching the representation of female roller derby on reality TV for a book chapter, just watch the show. Stick to the text. Participant observation is a bad idea.)

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My wrist. I still have the hardware. And the scar.

The entire time we were creating the conference (refining the concept; creating the questions and submission guidelines; figuring out the logistics, etc.), I kept thinking about the movie Field of Dreams. We were spending all this time and energy building something that felt big and ambiguous and special, but there were so many unknowns. Will it work? Does it make sense? Will people “get” it? Will they understand that we’re trying to break down the traditional conference structure and make it more democratic? More inclusive? Will they appreciate that we want participants to dialogue with each other at the table instead of monologue at each other from behind a lectern. And, most importantly, I couldn’t help but wonder: “if we build it, will they come?” We honestly had no idea. And, it wasn’t until after my own panel that I knew the answer.

In 2006, we worked hard to secure a mix of academics and industry practitioners and I was lucky enough to moderate the Feminist Television and Feminist Television Studies panel that year.


Flow Roundtable #18; 2006

Moderating that panel was a key moment for me because I was (and still am) a fan of Susan Douglas. I had read her book Where the Girls Are: Growing Up Female with Mass Media as an undergraduate and felt like I had stumbled across a secret universe I didn’t know existed.

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Cover of Douglas’s Where the Girls Are.

It was the first book I’d ever read that took pop culture (especially female pop culture) seriously and scrutinized it with the attention it deserved. It was thoughtful, insightful, critical, playful, and very funny. It was discerning without being dismissive. She made it easy to condemn—and laugh at—the absurdity of mass media while still being a fan of it. Douglas peppered her harsh critiques of 1950s and 60s housewives and nannies with wry humor, and these spoonfuls of sugar helped the medicine go down. So, needless to say, meeting her and moderating that panel was a huge treat. (Personal confession: I still regret not getting her to sign my copy of that book, though. Damn it. #Acafan)

After the panel finished, I was approached by a well-known scholar who asked me if she (and her institution) could host the next Flow conference. She was adamant that her school would be a good location and could take the conference to the next level, and it was then that all my Field of Dreams questions were answered. In that moment, I knew we had created something useful and valuable. We built it; she came; and she wanted to take it with her. You know it’s a good sign when people want to poach your ideas, so it felt like a home run. I eventually took her request back to the conference team, but we decided that it should stay at UT. And I’m so glad it did.

When I look back now and see the long list of former Flow managing editors and general editors, I am honored to be on it and to have been a part of it. I’m proud of what the graduate students were (and still are) able to accomplish with this conference. It adds value to the field of media studies and to the Radio-TV-Film department at the UT- Austin. Not only is it an incredible graduate program, but it offers students an opportunity to learn from and network with scholars around the world every two years. That opportunity kicked in a few doors for me, and I’m so happy it’s still doing the same for other students at UT. (#hookem)

As far as what the future of Flow might look like, I have a few ideas.

Flow journal. I’d love to see the journal adopt a “readability” requirement. I currently edit the Journal of Digital and Media Literacy, and we require that all articles be accessible to people reading at a high-school level. The goal isn’t to “dumb down” academic discourse but to write it in such a way that includes and welcomes the audiences we write about.

Flow book. For the next book, I think we should publish a “best of” anthology. Sadly, not all institutions count online publications for tenure in the same way that traditional print publications count, so for that reason, I think it should be in print. The topics and conversations are relevant, engaging, and contribute to the cultural canon in ways that are accessible and timely. (Perhaps Chuck Klosterman could write the introduction. Does anyone know Chuck Klosterman? See below. If so, let’s make that happen.)

Flow conference. Perhaps there could be a way for non-UT people to help coordinate the conference. For example, in 2014, some people (including myself) were vocal and critical about the all-white, male, panel of industry experts at the plenary session. So, to assist the organizers and coordinators make the conference more inclusive and diverse, perhaps people could join an “industry contacts” committee and help secure guest speakers. It’s easy to criticize a conference but hard to coordinate one. So, if people want to help improve it for the future, there should be an online system in place that allows for that. I know creating something like that from scratch might seem a bit overwhelming and scary for the RTF faculty coordinators and graduate students, but I promise: if you build it, they will come.

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Image Credits:

1. Flow 2016 logo
2. Author’s x-ray (and injury).
3. Image from 2006 conference program.
4. Cover of Susan Douglas’s Where the Girls Are: Growing Up Female with Mass Media.
5. GIF from Field of Dreams (1989).

Please feel free to comment.

The Intimate Geographies of Flow
Michael Kackman / University of Notre Dame

Flow 2016 logo

This column is published as part of the “Flow: Ten Years of Un-Conferencing” plenary, held during the 2016 Flow Conference.

The work of scholarship is, in most of its iterations, a fairly placeless activity – we write and communicate in ways that feel atomized and disembodied, and then periodically come together in conference hotels to present and discuss our work. I have vague recollections of the cycle of Hiltons and Sheratons that have hosted SCMS, for example, but for the most part, those environments are generic biospheres, only occasionally punctuated by brief forays into the local community. We might dash off with friends to grab food or sneak out to a record store, but the work of the conference is largely contained in its host hotel.

When I reflect on the remarkable ongoing experiment of Flow, though – both the website and the conference – I’m struck by a recollection of the spaces, both physical and virtual, within which Flow emerged. If there’s a lesson I find in those recollections, it’s how extraordinarily important it is to create environments within which meaningful conversations can happen. Place matters.

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Former Flow coordinators Marnie Binfield and Matt Payne in the Texas Union – site of the first Flow conference.

As a matter of prehistory, two formative academic environments are, for me, central to my understanding of the ethic of Flow’s community. The first is the graduate program I emerged from, whose ethic I sought to cultivate as a new faculty member. The regular Thursday colloquia of the Media and Cultural Studies program at the University of Wisconsin (and subsequent debriefs at the Red Shed bar) constituted my first true intellectual community, and it remains my referent for what it means to interact both casually and deeply with peers and mentors. The second is Console-ing Passions – the feminist tv and media conference that has shaped the intellectual development and convictions of two generations of media scholars. Those two environments – one intentionally and explicitly feminist, the other, in its best moments, an exercise in feminist pedagogy in practice – taught me to value community and conversation over formal presentation.

At UT, when Avi and Chris asked me to join them in inventing something new, place mattered, too. The physical spaces where our first conversations happened – like the Cactus Café or Little City Coffee, or the wretched fluorescent-lit classroom where Avi, David, Alexis, Allison, and I spread out the first proposals for our experimental unconference and nearly panicked over the seeming impossibility of imposing order on them – are still fresh in my memory. So, too, are the rooms in our first conference site, the Student Union with its dark-paneled halls filled with portraits of Texas governors, as well as the late great Dog and Duck Pub, where we closed the conference with a shared celebratory beer. Our first few screenings – initially at the Alamo Drafthouse, and eventually amid the animatronic snake-infested seats of the Star of Texas theater – were important, too, for they concretized the joy of participating in a shared media culture.

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A 2006 roundtable conversation held in the Texas Governors’ Room, aptly adorned with portraits of former Texas Governors.

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The Dog and Duck Pub, site of many enthusiastic post-conference conversations.

Some of this, of course, is probably uncritical nostalgia – but for me the bigger lesson is that the most cherished moments in my academic life have taken place in places like this – environments which fostered conversation, interaction, an enthusiastic, open-ended talk. Flow, at its best, remains one of our field’s very best expressions of that generous spirit.

Looking ahead, I want to take this excuse to offer some unsolicited advice:

First: pay attention to geography, both physical and virtual. Flow is all about conversation, and at its best it’s like a party with every guest squeezed into the kitchen talking. To whatever degree possible, continue to experiment with ways to expand Flow’s spaces of interaction, in order to bring others into the conversation.

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Flow at its best, “with every guest squeezed into the kitchen talking.”

Next: talk to strangers. Chance encounters are often far more enriching than those we seek out, and Flow benefits when we enlarge the pool of people with a stake in the conversation.

Even more importantly: network out and down, not up. We all have arenas of our intellectual life in which we are experts and relative authorities, and everyone benefits when we reach out generously to newcomers – to the junior professor, to the smart but bewildered undergrad, to the new shy grad student, to the un/underemployed scholar who feels like a leper at an academic conference. I love to catch up with the senior scholars at UT and elsewhere who have been kind and supportive of me when I needed it, but I think the best way to honor their generosity is to extend the same to others. We recently hosted the Console-ing Passions conference at Notre Dame, and we created a plenary of amazing emerging scholars who discussed their experiences adapting to shifting career demands and opportunities. It was a highlight of the conference, and it helped to build precisely the kind of rich community interaction that I have so often found at Flow. If you find yourself in command of resources, share with those who don’t have them.

Perhaps most controversially: don’t be afraid to explore new spaces and opportunities. Flow is inextricably tied to the remarkable graduate community of UT, and that won’t change – but if an opportunity arises to host a Flow event or conference elsewhere with new collaborators, don’t reject it out of hand. Generosity is its own reward, and it only strengthens the core values that make Flow such a cherished part of our academic lives.

Image Credits:

1. Flow 2016 logo.
2. Former Flow coordinators Marnie Binfield and Matt Payne… (author’s photo).
3. A 2006 roundtable held in the Texas Governors’ Room… (author’s photo).
4. The Dog and Duck Pub… (author’s photo).
5. Flow at its best… (author’s photo).

Please feel free to comment.

Three Wishes for Flow
Christopher Lucas

Flow 2016 logo

This column is published as part of the “Flow: Ten Years of Un-Conferencing” plenary, held during the 2016 Flow Conference.

Flow started, like a lot of interesting things, from an admixture of naiveté, discontent, and ambition. At least, that is how I remember it. Most people have probably heard some version of the origin story: Avi Santo and I in the back of a meeting room at SCMS, complaining about how the conversations in the hallways were more interesting than what was happening on the dais. The question was: how might we get those conversations into the room? Or maybe we just create a space online to encourage those conversations. And that led to Flow.

Which, frankly, has survived and thrived for about twice as long as I expected, thanks to the enthusiasm and support of the RTF department, along with the efforts and curiosity—and ambition—of the graduate students here. Your delight in reading your colleagues’ thoughts—maybe using them in class. There is no doubt in my mind that, back in 2004, without contributions from some well-known names in our field, offered to us generously and in the spirit of disciplinary exchange—and perhaps, ambition—the site would not have taken root. Kidding aside, we really owe thanks to those first writers.

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A 2004 flyer for FLOW.

That year—2004—some of us might remember, was blogging’s big moment. Blogs were my main reference point—sites with the energy and verve of Daily Kos and Television Without Pity. Movable Type and Typepad had been out for a while, WordPress had launched, it seemed like everyone was Livejournaling. Lots of new verbs. I wanted to hear the blog-thoughts of people I was meeting or reading—and short-form online seemed a natural place for it. Looking back, I can see there were disciplinary currents—a rising interest in responding to contemporary texts, interactivity, fandoms, new media industry practices—that supported the appearance of more ad hoc writing platforms. I really am not the best person to describe that genealogy, though, so instead of diagnosing the past I want to offer three wishes for the future of Flow:

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Three wishes for Flow on its 10th anniversary.

1) I hope Flow continues to model bridge-building toward media practice—practitioners as contributors and/or practice as a object of study. One of my unrealized goals for the site was to link that divide within the RTF department and many departments like it—the gap between studies and production. This goal—I admit—was born of my own pathological hope of healing a divorce in my professional lineage—media maker or media scholar? That split was readily apparent in my research as well, if you want to go looking for it. I know we have professors and instructors out there making films, documentaries, podcasts and more for audiences outside the academy, either directly or by supervising student production, radio stations, and the like. Unfortunately I know a lot of that work remains an add-on—the “personal project”—and doesn’t play much role in promotion and tenure. Maybe this is changing and I hope so. The pedagogical arguments for this sort of boundary crossing—media literacy through media making—still seem valid to me, and recent work in media industry studies and management studies is providing more theoretical arguments and historical perspectives, too.

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Ethan Thompson’s TV Family models bridge-building, blending media making and media scholarship.

2) However, my argument for including media makers—by which I mean people who are, or hope to be, paying their mortgages, childcare, or just the next cup of coffee with media industry money—is more about process than content. Another inspiration for Flow, from my side, came from retreats I had attended in the 1990s using the so-called “Open Space Technology,” agenda-less meetings that used techniques of self-organization to find latent order and energy in a work team that shared some mission or interests. Open Space was one of the threads that led into Unconferencing and Bar camps—it is still in the structure here when we submit questions and responses, rather than papers. Wild cards are important in Open Space events: the possibility to surprise, to shock, to break convention. And this often comes from outsiders. So, my second hope for Flow is that it finds even more Open Space in the future. One of my short-lived projects at Flow, called “Pass the Remote,” was a brief attempt at this—pen-palling three academics just to see what happened. In retrospect, when Flow started, our reliance on those leading lights in media studies to get attention—your attention, your department’s attention, our future employers’ attention—created an unintended consequence: arguably, we just re-created an existing hierarchy of topics, methods, and values in a more informal framework. For better or worse, we recreated the discipline, writ smaller and a little woolier. Naïve, I know, but this surprised me.

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“Open Space Technology” was an influence on the un-conference model.

3) So that’s my third hope for Flow. That it finds ways to challenge disciplinarity. This may be a faint hope. But who could we have here that would disturb notions of media studies as a discipline? I know there is cross-pollination and diversity in your topics and approaches, but what would the shock of Open Space look and feel like at Flow? Scholarship we don’t recognize from people we don’t know. I don’t know if media makers and media executives are the best source of the unexpected, but they might be a start. Other departments. Production students. People using video or the web as their medium for other art forms and political projects. And how would you attract people like that—people with other priorities—mortgages, but no conference stipend? I never cracked that nut while I was involved with Flow. Maybe you show their work. Probably you have to pay them. You definitely have to go looking, because they are no less creatures of ambition than us, and spending three days—or one day—on a college campus holds no particular appeal. I guess what I’m saying is, I think there are fruitful connections to be made when we plug into and discover the naivety, discontent, and the ambitions of others. Unexpected things happen. I’d like to see that.

Image Credits:

1. Flow 2016 logo.
2. A 2004 flyer for FLOW (journal document).
3. Three wishes for Flow…
4. Ethan Thompson’s TV Family
5. “Open Space Technology”…

Please feel free to comment.

Flow’s Community: Reflections in 2016 on Flow 2006
Allison Perlman / University of California – Irvine

Flow 2016 logo

This column is published as part of the “Flow: Ten Years of Un-Conferencing” plenary, held during the 2016 Flow Conference.

For the inaugural Flow conference, we devised a pretty complicated system to constitute panels. It was confusing to our participants, and even those of us on the organizing committee frequently had to remind ourselves of the rules we had mapped for this process. Conveners could invite two people to participate, the Flow organizing committee could invite two people to participate, and the remaining panelists would be drawn from the pool of applicants who responded to the CFPs announcing each roundtable’s central question. Our primary goal in doing it this way was to leave spots on each roundtable for non-academic participants whom either we or the convener would invite to the conference. If the goal of Flow was–and is–to promote conversation, our sense was that these discussions would be richer if, as we talked about industry trends, fandom, and the politics of television, at the table were industry professionals, fans, and media activists. This vision of the conference aligned with our goals for the Flow journal – to create a space for multiple communities interested in television to think together about the medium’s meanings and its changes.

It is hard to overstate how the emphasis on conversation, rather than on the presentation of and response to pre-written papers, was critical to the success of the first Flow. Across the roundtables, there was so much joy and energy and relief to have the space to talk about, for instance, approaches to teaching about television, the uninterrogated assumptions that guide how we determine which television texts are deserving of inquiry, and the relationship between media studies and other fields of academic research. Flow provided a profoundly valuable space for us to speak to one another, to bat around ideas and pose questions that affect our practice but rarely get discussed in a public setting.

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Flyers in 2006 emphasized the conference’s conversation–rather than presentation–format.

But while these conversations were productive and wonderful for the academics in the room, they did not leave a whole lot of space for the non-academics to participate. While many of the non-academics at that first Flow made highly valuable contributions to their roundtables, I sensed that overall they felt that they were only tangentially involved in the conference, their ability to jump in to the discussion sometimes limited by the direction in which it went. Much of this, as organizers, was our fault. As we trained our graduate student roundtable moderators, our emphasis was on how to keep the conversation going, on how to assure that certain individuals did not dominate; we did not think through with them how to cast the discussion so that it did not seem insular to the faculty and the graduate students in the room.

Our relationship with people outside the academy about our work has been a longstanding concern for television scholars. On one hand, as Amanda Ann Klein and Kristen Warner recently have discussed, scholarship on popular culture rarely informs the popular press that it receives, a trend that speaks to the continued devaluation of the work we do and the expertise that informs it. Given the elevation in television’s cultural status in our contemporary moment–and the gushing assessments of its cultural worth in myriad publications–the work of television scholars seems especially critical to the broader conversation over what television does, how it means, where it circulates, who it is for, the labor conditions in which it gets made, the questions that it raises. In other words, it is to everyone’s disadvantage for television scholarship to remain cordoned off, read only within the confines of university classrooms and exam lists, with little impact on the wider dialogue about television practices in the twenty-first century.

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Even with the best intentions laid out in the 2006 conference program, not all participants felt fully involved in roundtable conversation.

In addition, on the other hand, our own work often relies on access to people who work within the industry, fans of particular series, activists engaged in struggles over the politics of representation and of distribution. So much critical television scholarship could not be done were it not for the generosity of those who share their stories, their perspectives, their documents with us. These relationships are both informative and generative and, speaking personally, have altered how I have thought about the questions that guide my research and the assumptions that led me to them.

And so fostering dialogue across communities interested in television is unquestionably important–indeed, is vital–but I think what we learned at the first conference was that Flow perhaps was not the place best suited to do this, that there was a need within our own community to have a space to talk to one another. While subsequent Flow conferences have included special panels for, for example, people who work in the industry, my sense is that the roundtables nearly exclusively have been filled by academics, the somewhat byzantine process we used to people them abandoned for a more streamlined and familiar conference method. The Flow journal, for which we had similar aspirations, also seems to be contributed to and read predominantly by students and faculty within media studies.

Going forward, I wonder the degree to which such a realization could inform the subjects of panels. If Flow is the site where we can ask each other tough questions about what we do–in our scholarship, in our classrooms, in our relationships with colleagues in other disciplines, and in our connections to communities outside academe–how might that reconfigure what seems like an important question to ask for a roundtable discussion?

Image Credits:

1. Flow 2016 logo
2. Flyers in 2006… (journal document).
3. Even with the best of intentions… (author’s screenshot).

Please feel free to comment.

Every Yack Needs a Good Hack
Avi Santo / Old Dominion University

Flow 2016 logo

This column is published as part of the “Flow: Ten Years of Un-Conferencing” plenary, held during the 2016 Flow Conference.

Ten years ago I’d never heard of an “un-conference.” Now they are a fading fad. I’m not bold enough to claim that we invented the media studies “un-conference,” but I am certain that some of our motivations for the Flow conference stemmed from frustrations often felt in the humanities: not enough opportunities for talk and way too much talking just to be heard. I think we were successful in addressing the first concern and perhaps guilty of perpetuating the second. In fact, I suspect that one of the reasons the “un-conference” has become unpopular of late is the sense that the conversations they produce don’t amount to any fundamental changes to the field or the media studies mission. At least traditional conferences are seen as possible outlets for testing driving article drafts and promoting book projects.

Before we throw the proverbial baby out with the bathwater and accept that we are just another traditional discipline too invested in our own insular conversations to be bothered with alternative presentation (and publication) platforms, I’d like to propose that we revisit an aspect of the “un-conference” that Flow most definitely did not pioneer, but has become a staple of the digital humanities un-conference circuit: the Hack-and-Yack. Hack-and-Yack refers to a set of intersecting (though sometimes also competing) practices at un-conferences wherein scholarly conversations are complemented by efforts to “make” digital tools that elucidate, complicate and facilitate scholarly interventions. I learned how to make a twitter-bot at a THATCamp un-conference even as I engaged in provocative conversations about twitter-bots as culture jamming versus cultural critique (versus techno-fetishistic wastes of time). While in the DH world, Hack-and-Yack has increasingly become a polarizing and unproductive “hack versus yack” argument, my takeaway from THATCamp was the mutually constitutive possibilities that emerged when the definitions of “making,” “tools” and “scholarship” were tested and intersected. Hack-and-Yack might offer a usable framework that media studies could adapt for the purpose of transforming not-fully-formed ideas into sustainable experiments that forge new approaches within the field.

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The Hack-and-Yack structure might offer opportunities for discussion, collaboration, production, and presentation.

What if the Flow conference served as an incubator for new modes of scholarly production, distribution, aggregation, annotation, argumentation, engagement and intervention, with the Flow Journal serving as a platform (or a “spreadable” brand) that sponsored these emerging projects? What if we re-calibrated roundtables as planning sessions with the explicit outcome a proposal draft that could be presented to all conference attendees at a showcase event? Wouldn’t it be great if we could invite representatives from granting agencies like the NEH, SSRC, NEA, Mellon, MacArthur, etc. to serve as informal evaluators at this event?

My goal here is not to diminish the importance of talk as productive labor. There is little doubt that sharing ideas is an essential stepping stone for generating more complex understandings of our media industries and practices as well as for potentially shifting paradigms for how our field operates. But the process of moving from creating knowledge to creating works that disseminate knowledge beyond a small number of privileged conference participants is often left unfinished when the three-day gabfest ends and we return to our homes. Sure some of these ideas find their way into our classrooms and even our publications but these seem like small returns on our investment in trying to flip the conference on its head. Instead, we might look for ways to channel talk into new modes of engagement with our desired audiences, modeling alternative modes of media production, media consumption, and media analysis.

Truth be told, there are already a range of media studies projects that borrow from Hack-and-Yack principles by looking to create media even as they aim to study its impact. We might look to AJ Christian’s phenomenal Open TV project as a model for producing, distributing and studying online queer television. Or we might learn from the Organization for Transformative Works initiative, spearheaded by Karen Hellekson, Francesca Coppa, Rebecca Tushnet and others, which has brought together fans and scholars to both archive and study fan creative works. Or, we might draw inspiration from the work Jason Mittell and Christian Keathley have done creating workshops that train academics in videographic criticism and, in conjunction with their collaborators Catherine Grant and Drew Morton at [in]Transition, producing an open review publishing platform for these works.

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Logos for Open TV, OTW, and [in]Transition, all projects that create media as they study it.

We don’t have to start with anything nearly as ambitious or impressive as these projects, but we should start by recognizing that they all emerged out of intensive and inspiring conversations that went beyond the talking stage. Let’s start small. I’ve created a Youtube channel for the conference: (over)flowTV (with much thanks to Will Brooker for coining the term – even if I am using it out of context). Let’s imagine what we might do with it to propel our yakking into hacking.

Image Credits:

1. Flow 2016 logo.
2. The Hack-and-Yack structure…
3. Logos for Open TV, OTW, and [in]Transition (composite of screenshots).

Please feel free to comment.

Rethinking Television at the Inaugural Flow Conference
David Uskovich / St. Edward’s University

Flow 2016 logo

This column is published as part of the “Flow: Ten Years of Un-Conferencing” plenary, held during the 2016 Flow Conference.

Like my fellow organizers, my goal with the first Flow conference was to bring together media scholars, producers, and fans. From my own perspective, I felt it was important to collapse the distances—conceptual as well as spatial—between artist and audience, media scholar and media professional. Given the number of industry studies we were reading as RTF students it made sense that the studiers and the studied should be assembled in the same room, especially since it takes some effort on the part of scholars to get in contact with industry professionals in order to conduct interviews and ethnographies. The same was true for fan communities. With all the burgeoning research on fan culture, it seemed important to bring scholars and fans as well as fans and media professionals together. While fans and showrunners often congregated at fan conventions, it seemed like a conference with a slightly more scholarly cast could engender a rich exchange of ideas. As conference organizers we wondered what kinds of questions would be generated by this “un-conference”. How might Flow change, bolster, or challenge scholarly, professional, and fan perspectives?

In addition to industry and fan studies, then as now there was copious research on the representational politics of television and new media. At the time of the first Flow conference, Barack Obama was not yet president and Shonda Rhimes was, if not at the beginning of her career, then at least at the beginning of her fame and popularity and scholars were raising questions about the limits of mediated representation along the lines of sex, gender, race, class, ability, and age. In addition, media scholars were asking questions about representation behind the camera as well as in front of it. Research from a number of media studies and communications departments around the US showed that women and people of color were not well represented among media professionals. It was important for us to get scholars in a room with industry professionals to address these concerns around diversity and representation. How well this worked out is difficult to determine. A decade after the first Flow conference, television seems to be broadening representation of formerly marginalized identities. How well it’s doing so is open to debate but perhaps more importantly, as the Matt Damon Project Greenlight incident and recent scholarship indicate, diversity behind the camera is still a problem.

Matt Damon attempts to explain diversity to Effie Brown in Episode 1 of Project Greenlight (2015).

One of the goals for the conference was to problematize or rethink the definition of television. This was an endeavor that had been emerging within television scholarship for some years, given the development of reality or so-called “non-scripted” TV as well as talent-based contest programming and the serial format. At the first Flow conference in 2006, in fact, Lost generated quite a discussion. While Flow welcomed questions and panels about the contemporary developments on network and premium cable, we thought it was important to also examine grassroots, avant-garde, and activist television production. If, like all media forms, television has the power to shape the stories we tell about our societies and ourselves then it was important to us to examine how TV could be used in the service of equality and social justice. For example, how can training in television production allow citizens to voice their concerns to the powerful, or allow marginalized people to gain access to professional opportunities within a mostly white and upper class culture industry? How can popular political expression or more diverse cultures of production challenge representations of class, race, gender, sexuality, age, and ability? How can we create TV that changes the story to be more inclusive, or to work on TV narrative to make stories that might create enough of a social ripple to change social policy?

To address these questions I moderated the “Radical Television” panel. For me this roundtable was crucial because it kept the spirit of the conference from a different angle: if an “un-conference” could collapse conceptual and spatial distance between the culture industries and its fans and scholars, then it was also important to collapse the distance between media producers and consumers that is, to put production in the hands of nonprofessionals. The panelists were all involved in media production in some way, either as instructors or activists. One instructor worked with underprivileged students, mostly students of color, teaching them how to shoot and edit videos that reflected their own experiences. He noted that many of his students weren’t that interested in video production, and that this lack of interest was highly gendered. While some of the female students were interested, the male students set the tone, and therefore the female students, not wanting to appear unattractive to the men, deferred their interest in video production.

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Excerpt of “Radical Television” roundtable from Flow 2006 program.

In any case, this lack of interest may have had to do with the fact that video production was far clunkier (and perhaps this was discussed by the panelists) than it is now. At the time of the panel, the technologies of radical television were primarily camcorders (though footage was edited on computers). Ten years after the first Flow conference, the ubiquitous smartphone has enabled ordinary consumers to shoot, edit, and upload videos on and from devices that fit in the palm of the human hand. Such accessible technology doesn’t always square with the “radical” part of radical television or the populist sense of democratic communication. Indeed, smartphones make our privacy vulnerable as well as create a culture in which we are bombarded with the endless minutia of peoples’ lives. This latter point is not necessarily a “bad thing” since it enables us to stay in touch with friends and loved ones but it might make the case that readily accessible technology does not a more democratic society make.

At the same time, without the smartphone, the world would not see the Arab Spring, Occupy Wallstreet or Black Lives Matter protests with such intimate detail, nor the horrifying deaths of Eric Garner, Alton Sterling, or Philando Castile. What would such a panel look like today, given the arrival of the iPhone a mere eight months after the first Flow Conference of Television and New Media? I hope that future Flow conferences will continue to rethink television and its relation to diversity, representation, and the democratization of media production.

Image Credits:

1. Flow 2016 logo.
2. Segment from Episode 1 of Project Greenlight.
3. Excerpt of “Radical Television” roundtable…

Please feel free to comment.