C3 Weekly Update

Editor's Note

Welcome to the C3 Weekly update for the week of Monday, February 9th. This week, we begin our spring 2009 installments of pieces by C3 Consulting Researchers, CMS Alumnus and current students and reseaerchers expanding on the idea of Spreadable Media.

In our first piece, entitled The Implicit Contract, Comparative Media Studies Alum Alec Austin offers his perspective on the transactional, moral and emotional value impliciit in the contract between content providers and their audience - and the choices which can be made on both sides of the agreement to shape the terms of this contract.

In our Closing Note, Hanna Rose Shell explores clothing and its ability to tranmit, its inherent portability, continual flux and changeability - further articulating clohings global potential for spreadability, communication and subversion.

This week's newsletter was compiled and edited by Daniel Pereira ( for the Convergence Culture Consortium. Please don't hesitate to contact us if you have any suggestions or comments.



In This Issue

Editor's Note

Opening Note: Alec Austin on the Implicit Contract between between content providers and their audience

Glancing at the C3 Blog

Closing Note: Hanna Rose Shell on Secondhand Media: Salvaged Clothing and Global History


Opening Note

The Implicit Contract

Everyone wants something from their entertainment. Whatever they want, an audience’s satisfaction with a product is dependent on whether their expectations were fulfilled or exceeded. As such, viewing the relationship between the provider and audience of an entertainment property as a contract helps explain why audiences enjoy and accept some content choices and reject and are angered by others.

Creators and critics of fiction and film have been aware of the need to entertain audiences without boring or distracting them for quite some time. The science fiction author Larry Niven described the reader as “entitled to be entertained, instructed, amused; maybe all three. If he quits in the middle, or puts the book down feeling that his time has been wasted, you’re in violation [of the implicit contract].”

While Niven describes the implicit contract in terms of engaging and entertaining the audience, film theorists have taken the metaphor further. Thomas Schatz and Henry Jenkins used the lens of a contract to discuss relationships between media producers and audiences. Schatz described film genres as tacit contracts, which create a reciprocal studio-audience relationship, but Jenkins argues that Schatz undermines the reciprocal dimension of the contract by assuming that what Hollywood delivers is what the audience wanted.

I believe, as Jenkins does, that the exchange which audiences and providers are engaged in is more complex than that. Audiences have expectations about both content and the way that content will be delivered. The exchange involved in entertainment media can easily be broken down into its component parts.

The Audience offers the Provider:
* Their time
* Their attention
* And sometimes (e.g. movies, cable TV) their money.

The Provider offers the Audience:
* Entertainment
* And the delivery structure they expect.

When an entertainment provider is seen to have violated the implicit contract created by the audience’s expectations, they risk alienating their audience.

The alert reader will have noticed that we are dealing with the _perception_ that the implicit contract had been violated. This is because with an implicit contract, each audience member’s subjective experience of the entertainment will determine whether they feel the contract’s terms have been fulfilled or not. While the parties to a legal contract can bring their dispute to an a judge for a binding decision, an entertainment provider cannot appeal to authorities who will declare that they have held up their end of the bargain. In most cases, the only significant contribution to the discourse which creators and purveyors of entertainment can make is the marketing and content of a work. In such cases, if audience members are unhappy with an entertainment product, the purveyors of that product have few ways to address that dissatisfaction.

In the case of iterative media, such as TV or comics, which regularly release new content, conditions are slightly different. While creators working in such a medium can respond to audience dissatisfaction by changing the content of later work, there is inevitably a time delay involved such a “response”, given the lead time necessary to produce content for release. As such, even creators that work in iterative or serial media are likely to feel powerless or frustrated when audiences interpret or react to their work in a way the work’s purveyors see as misguided or unsympathetic.

Consequences of Contract Violation

The notion that the purveyor of a work of entertainment is powerless cuts both ways, of course. While an entertainment provider may lack control over how their work is interpreted, the audience for that property has no control over its creation. Furthermore, without an enforcement mechanism for perceived violations of the implicit contract, audience members must take on the enforcement role themselves.

Audiences have three means by which they can attempt to redress perceived contract violations. The first is dissatisfaction, which manifests itself both in lessened engagement with an entertainment property and complaints made to other fans and the property’s creators. The second is withdrawal, which manifests itself in the loss of the audience member as a viewer or customer. And the final means is boycotting, which manifests itself in audience members actively trying to dissuade others from supporting or engaging with a property.

Audience members typically become dissatisfied with an entertainment property due to contract violations that are relatively minor (repeated continuity gaffes, etc.). Such violations erode the audience’s engagement, but the damage can be repaired by supplying content that’s more in line with what the audience desires. That said, the cumulative effect of repeated contract violations can lead audiences to withdraw from a property, as can a single contract violation of sufficient magnitude.

Some might challenge the idea that minor erosions of an audience’s engagement actually matter. My work developing E.P. Thompson and Henry Jenkins’ idea of the moral economy strongly suggests that it does. When a purchase supports an individual or company that has treated an audience member well, that purchase has added value. Conversely, a creator or company that has treated an audience member poorly will encounter resistance when trying to make a sale.

In addition to its economic impact, the moral economy has an emotional dimension as audience members develop relationships with creators or rights-holders. Over the long term, “legitimate” behavior and sincere engagement can cause audience members to become personally invested in your success. Consistently behaving in ways the audience deems illegitimate creates resentment and an environment where audience members become invested in your failure.

When seen as part of the moral economy, minor violations of the implicit contract have a clear effect, as they create audience resistance, and can lead to boycotts when audience members who feel their trust has been betrayed choose to actively undermine a property’s success.

Creators and producers who are concerned about triggering an audience backlash over a perceived violation of the implicit contract should be aware that marketing and creative choices can do a great deal to shape both a property’s audience and the terms on which it will be received. As such, if fulfilling the implicit contract is a priority, it is critically important that a product’s marketing creates genre & structural expectations that are consistent with the actual product, and that the product itself lays the necessary groundwork for the direction in which it develops. While the discursive use of genre expectations is beyond the scope of this essay, canny media providers can leverage strategically chosen references and genre markers to communicate product expectations that are both accurate and appealing. This should be the goal of any entertainment provider who is concerned about fulfilling their end of the implicit contract.

Alec Austin is a 2007 Master of Science graduate from the Comparative Media Studies program at MIT, where he was a graduate researcher for the Consortium. Austin's work at C3 focused on how commercial concerns, ads, and product placement affect the content of (and audience reactions to) TV, movies, and new media such as videogames and weblogs. Alec's critical work has been published in a variety of venues, including The New York Review of Science Fiction,, and, the last of which he co-founded. He holds a BA in Mathematics from Reed College, and has written three novels. Austin is currently a technical designer for Electronic Arts in Los Angeles.

Glancing at the C3 Blog


If It Doesn't Spread, It's Dead (Part One): Media Viruses and Memes

And now I pronounce you... a monopoly

Whedon's New Business Model 'Horribly' Awesome

Jason Mittell Interviews "Vlad and Boris"

Gossip Girl and the Value of Snark (Part II)

Gossip Girl and the Value of Snark (Part I)


Follow the Blog

Don't forget – you can always post, read, and carry out online conversations with the C3 team at our blog.

Closing Note

Secondhand Media: Salvaged Clothing and Global History

Clothing, almost by definition, is a medium of transmission. It is both the means and the site for storage and the spread of information. Clothes are made to be carried by the human body (as in the French porter and the Haitian Creole pote) as the body moves through space, time and life in the world. From their origins in the first days of human culture, textile skins were portable artifacts and temporary prostheses, shaped by the demands of a mobile body and inscribed with markers of that body’s history. The demands on clothing have always been high – armor (protection against shame, enemies, and the elements) and aesthetics, comfort and durability. The portability of clothing, and its proximity to the human body, means that it is also changeable. Clothes are artifacts in continual flux. They convey messages to the world, and they also provide the raw material for subversion of precisely these messages.

Traditionally, vestments were few and far between. Their production took a great amount of human and material resources. Into their tailored forms much was literally and culturally invested. In the Western tradition, throughout the Middle Ages and Renaissance, clothing, once shaped to a given body, might be worn for years, sometimes carried for a lifetime. The clothing wore its owner as much as the owner wore the clothing, bearing comparable markers of a personal narrative. Through the movements of a body in time, its clothes would acquire increasingly personal and human characteristics – worn knees and elbows, a stretched waist. Stains, patches, tears and color changes accompanied a life journey, or at least several decades thereof.

Sometimes an article’s function was portable. This was especially true when even the simplest clothing was scarce, its production costly, time-consuming and labor-intensive. A coat might be cut down into a vest, or a dress into a scarf. As a garment’s function evolved, so too might the identity of its wearer. A dress might be handed from mother to daughter, carrying with it signs and markers of generational passing. A master might give his worn-out shirt to his servant, for whom it could either serve as bodily cover or portable currency. In the Renaissance it was common for servants to sell their masters’ old clothing to peasants in neighboring villages. Itinerant rag and old clothes dealing grew into a veritable calling – a profession of portability. The dealer became an intermediary between wearers, marking a transitional phase in an article’s mobile life history.

The advent of mass reproduction heralded an era of increasing clothing production, in Europe and North America especially. The more clothes there were, the more they changed hands. Cotton gins, mechanical looms and sewing machines made clothing easier to produce and more affordable to populations. By the mid-nineteenth century, prêt-a-porter (ready-to-wear, ready-to-carry) clothing was being produced, traded and consumed in the international market economy. With more clothes for the taking, the middle class purchased more of them, therefore wearing each garment for less and less time.

Fashions changed faster. Clothing, manufactured by a mechanized immigrant labor force, became increasingly inexpensive to produce. Clothes became common instead of rare, and worn clothes were discarded or exchanged at an ever quicker pacer. The paths of clothing increasingly departed from the bodies of single individuals and their families and began to travel the world. The result of excess was a new genre of, and set of possibilities for, salvaged clothing as a medium of grassroots circulation, transformation and exchange.

A range of paths developed for the second (and third and fourth) lives for secondhand clothing by the nineteenth century. A “shoddy” industry developed in England and North America, alongside the textile mills of the old and new Englands. Shoddy originally referred to a durable fabric woven out of a yarn spun of shredded refuse woolens. Shoddy, which stuffed the interiors of horse-drawn carriages, was refashioned into the wool uniforms and blankets that American and British soldiers carried on their bodies and wrapped around their fears in World War One.

By the early twentieth century, secondhand clothing was resold in shops and through itinerant merchants. Most of these junk and rag dealers were enterprising Jewish and Italian immigrants. In New York City, for example, ragmen collected cast-offs from uptown and carried them downtown for purchase by recent arrivals in need of inexpensive clothing. A new set of bodies, and a new set of histories, carried the old clothes into new places and directions.

A wool suit jacket tailored on the Upper West Side, traveled on the back of a wealthy banker between Central Park and Park Avenue. Stained at a champagne toast and discarded after six months, the suit jacket navigated a new existence in the thicket of the Lower East Side. Picked out of a rag dealer’s wheelbarrow, minus several buttons, it was purchased by an Orchard Street milkman who wore it on a daily delivery route winding through Chinatown. The jacket took the shape of its wearer and carried his weight. Traces of the Jewish community – the smells of Eastern European cooking and cast-off buttons hawked by a peddler – were inscribed deep into the warp and woof of the woolen fabric. The satin interior, a second skin lining a second life, carried the increasingly sweat-stained labels naming its original owner and the uptown tailor. Every wearing in is also a wearing out.

Textile media - both the material out of which, new entities are produced, and also the means by which information is encoded and information transmitted – spread across the globe. Clothing’s portability grants it a history of embodiment and transmutation, moving between bodies, cultures, nations and economies; it carries traces of one across the boundaries of another. In the late twentieth and twenty-first centuries, cast-off clothes from North America and Europe increasingly journey overseas en route to encounters with new wearers. Clothes are compressed into half-ton bricks, bales that might contain the shirts off hundreds of human backs. A Panamanian ship, manned by a Romanian crew, carries the discarded textile skins to the port of Port-au-Prince. What arrives in Haiti, called pepe, is a resource to be worn (pote), an identity to be had and a politics upon which to reflect. Pepe is a portable currency whose materiality is transformed by multiple processes of alteration, exchange and wear. Clothing wears the traces, and bears the burdens, of a global media history in progress.

NOTE: Photographs document secondhand clothing’s role in today’s world of spreadable media, as media of communication and subversion of hegemonic styles and economic pathways. Vanessa Bertozzi & Hanna Rose Shell produced images in Haiti, during the summer of 2006, as part of a collaborative ethnographic project that culminated in their experimental media essay Secondhand (Pepe.) [2007, distributed by Third World Newsreel] .For more information:

Hanna Rose Shell is currently a Fellow at Harvard University, as well as an Assistant Professor in the MIT Program in Science, Technology and Society (STS). As a filmmaker, historian and media scholar with an extensive exhibition and publication record, Hanna Rose Shell combines digital media creation with the following fields: the history of science; critical theory & historiography; film and media history; public history & museum studies; documentary studies; multimedia production and installation art. She has taught lecture, seminar and media production courses at the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) and at Harvard College. She received her M.A. in American Studies from Yale University in 2002, was a Fellow in Filmmaking at the Film Study Center at Harvard between 2003 and 2005, and was granted her Ph.D. in the History of Science from Harvard University in November 2007. Her digital films and installations, like her dissertation, explore the interwoven themes of media, technology, history and aesthetics.

The Fine Print

Compiled and Edited by Daniel Pereira ( for the Convergence Culture Consortium.


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