Triumphant Return

Hello, and thank you, to everyone who has shown an interest in my research!  I’m back, and I owe you all an apology for falling off the face of the Earth a few months ago.  I had some major health issues last semester that forced me to take a medical leave of absence, which I’ll get into soon.  What’s important, though, is that I am feeling better now, and I am back on the thesis horse (it neighs in footnotes).  I have managed to get into this semester’s thesis seminar class, and I am stoked to continue working on my research.

Allow me to get real for a moment.

I have a bit of fear talking about this subject, as it may make me seem less desirable as a professional in my future career.  Some people might feel like I won’t make a reliable professor, and they’re entitled to that opinion, as much as it might pain me.  I feel it is worth talking about, however, as like it or not, it is a part of me, and I am not going to feel ashamed.  I’m the one who gets to decide if my issues make me unfit for academia, not anyone else, and this is my way of saying to the academic community “Yes, I have these challenges, and yes, I am still a competent scholar and educator.  Deal with it.”

Since the age of about 17 I have struggled with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder and Major Depression.  It has affected every facet of my life, and last semester’s leave of absence was due to a severe flare-up, or relapse, or whatever you want to call it, of my symptoms.  This was caused by the stress of grad school, and the fact that the medications I had been taking for years had lost their efficacy (yes, that’s a thing that happens).  During my absence, I went into an acute partial hospital program, where I received intensive group and individual therapy, and medication management. I continue to see my therapist on a weekly basis, and my psychiatrist on a monthly basis.  That is something I will need to do perhaps indefinitely.  I need to structure my life around this sort of routine care so I don’t wind up in crisis again.  I get into trouble when I stop participating in routine mental health care because I feel as if I have somehow “outgrown” my mental illnesses, or that I am “too smart” to be feeling the way I do.  OCD has nothing to do with maturity; it has nothing to do with willpower, or intelligence.  And neither does Depression.  To think/act otherwise is like someone trying to force their way out of Type 1 Diabetes by claiming they’re too adult to go into a hypoglycemic coma.  I am still able to achieve and succeed; I just have to be careful about how I do it, and I must be aware of things that make me vulnerable to my mind’s irrational self-cruelty.

I’ll get off my soapbox now, and I thank you all for hanging with me through that little speech.  A lot of that was important for me to verbalize, even if it may not seem directly relevant to my research.

Now, let’s get to the good stuff.

During my recovery process I was able to continue doing some informal research on closed species communities.  In fact, becoming a more active participant in the Griffia community was a big part of my healing.  It’s amazing how therapeutic the features of participatory cultures can be when one is tackling serious mental health struggles.  According to Jenkins (2009) these features are as follows:

  1. Relatively low barriers to artistic expression and civic engagement
  2. Strong support for creating and sharing one’s creations with others
  3. Some type of informal mentorship whereby what is known by the most experienced is passed along to novices
  4. Members believe that their contributions matter
  5. Members feel some degree of social connection with one another (at the least they care what other people think about what they have created)

Now allow me to explain how each of these features was beneficial to me.

  1. The low barriers to artistic expression and civic engagement allowed me to participate in the Griffia community without pressure or guilt.  Some days I didn’t feel like logging in at all; my mind just wasn’t in the right place to do much of anything.  Other days I was able to make a quick piece of art work or enter a simple event, like a raffle or game of chance.  I never felt like I had to do anything special to earn the right to participate or be heard.  I knew that whatever I did was enough, and that helped me to rebuild my creative identity and self-esteem.
  2. The strong support for creating and sharing made me feel like I had something to offer.  Part of Depression is feeling like one is worthless or a disappointment.  It was harder to feel that way when what artwork I was able to post received favorites and positive comments from people all over the world.
  3. The informal mentorship aspect made me feel like I was continuing to learn and achieve.  There were some prompts I did where the creator of the Griffia species allowed community members to use her personal characters.  They were grateful and encouraging to those who made art of said characters, myself included.  To earn praise from someone I admired at a time when I felt unworthy of praise really meant a lot.
  4. I definitely believed that my contributions mattered.  Around December I began making random gift art for others in the community, and it made me feel like I was helping others instead of just receiving help.  Yeah, they were just drawings, but they made people happy.  Instead of feeling like I was taking, taking, taking, as is common when one is receiving health care, I felt like I was able to give and make somebody’s day just a little brighter.
  5. I felt my social connections with other members of the community begin to strengthen the more I participated.  I began to recognize certain names and characters, and that allowed me to feel more grounded and in-control of that part of my net life.  Gaining better control of that one part of my life gave me the momentum and confidence to take control of other, more important, parts of my life.

These effects might be subjective and limited only to me, but I doubt it.  It actually makes me really curious about any other research that might exist that examines the connection between participatory cultures and mental health recovery…  I may look into that…

Some other stuff I thought was cool:

Firstly, I learned about a Tumblr blog that exists specifically to highlight and react to “drama” that occurs in CS communities.  I think this blog will be very useful for me when it comes time to discuss opposing viewpoints.  I may think CS communities are the best things since sliced bread, but a lot of other people don’t.  By reading through the criticisms posted at this massively-multi-authored blog, I can get a better sense of the negatives people find within CS communities.

Secondly, there is this.  A lot of events and activities in the Griffia community rely on a Random Number Generator (RNG) to determine results.  In light of this, a lot of community members began to jokingly pray to the RNG gods whenever they entered raffles, or other similar activities.

RNJesus

Presumably drawing on this community-wide joke, the creator of Griffia actually made a personified representation of the Random Number Generator into a diety for their fantasy world.  I don’t know about you, but I think that’s pretty damn cool!  It’s a great example of member participation influencing the story of a species/world, and one of the things that excites me so much about these communities.

And there you have it.

My return to research blogging has been a bit all-over-the-place, from mental health to Random Number Generators, but it still feels great to be back.  I will begin posting here more regularly as I continue my work.

Once again, thank you all for sticking with me.  I will do my best to make you proud with this thesis.

 

 

 

 

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Reflection and a Transmedia Storytelling Question

 

Last week’s teleconference/webinar/e-interview/I’m-not-sure-what-to-call-it with Kim Jaxon and Henry Jenkins went very well. I got nervous and began to ramble when I was asked to talk about my research, but my ideas were met with interest and positivity, and that’s a huge encouragement. I still don’t feel like I’m “part of the club,” but I am reassured that I’m on the right track to becoming a card-carrying scholar. Thanks to our guest speakers and the others who tuned in to listen to them, I’ve received some more great research leads and opportunities. I may even get to survey or interview Young Writers Project alumni to help answer my question about whether skills, ideas, and attitudes acquired as adolescents in online participatory cultures transfer to real-life work and higher education scenarios. I’d actually like to cite some of the things I heard and took notes on during the e-interviews, and I’m wondering if this is permissible. I’m assuming I would follow the citation format for a personal interview, but since this was a more informal, group-format interview, I’m not sure if I’m allowed to use things that were said as legit, citable research. Any clarification on this would be much appreciated.

I’m also looking for some clarification on another concept: Transmedia storytelling. According to Jenkins (2006), as he is cited on the first page of a paper by Dr. Leigh H. Edwards, “Multi-platform storytelling refers specifically to texts where content appears in a coordinated way across many different media formats (such as television, film, webisodes, mobile phone applications and mobisodes, games, books, graphic novels, and music albums)” (2012). Edwards’s paper talks about corporate mass media entities hogging the transmedia storytelling game, and using their wide-stretching fictional worlds as a way to exploit fans and make more money. Some examples Edwards talks about include the Glee and Harry Potter franchises (2012).

What I am curious about is whether what is occurring in the closed species (CS) communities that I’m researching is indeed an example of transmedia storytelling. If it is, then I would be able to make the claim that CS communities are examples of financially-sustainable, grassroots transmedia storytelling, something that I’m learning would actually be a pretty big deal. It would fit in with the civic imagination portion of my thesis because it would be showing people an alternative, more genuinely participatory and nonexploitative method of transmedia storytelling. It would show that independent emerging artists can make money from transmedia storytelling and fictional universes; it’s not just a game for the big brands. I guess it would be kind of like seeing a mom-and-pop pharmacy thrive in a neighborhood with both a CVS and a Walgreens, except instead of pills there’d be weird creatures with chicken feet. Witnessing the success of one mom-and-pop pharmacy lets other prospective pharmacy owners know that they don’t have to buy into a franchise in order to survive; they can do things their own way, perhaps in a way that’s more responsible and community-oriented, and still make a living.

I think CS communities would be examples of transmedia storytelling, especially the two that I’m examining. Participants are given the freedom to explore their characters in a wide variety of mediums, and they take advantage of this freedom. While one member of GremCorps may like to write about their Grem2 characters, another may prefer 2-D visual art (drawings, paintings, etc.); others may gravitate toward making sculptures, animations, or plush dolls. Beyond that, I’ve even seen people program simple games/software applications starring their Grem2s, and there’s a user that does Grem2-inspired industrial design (custom high-quality pens based on the colors and physical attributes of a user’s Grem2 characters). In the Griffia community, certain prompts, like Crafty Sunday, require that non-digital mediums be used. This variety in mediums does gel with the definition of “content [appearing] in in a coordinated way across different media formats,” (Jenkins, 2006, as cited in Edwards, 2012). 2-D visual art, 3-D visual art, written texts, software programming, and industrial design are all examples of “many different media formats” (Jenkins, 2006, as cited in Edwards, 2012); users’ Grem2s or Griffians are examples of “content” (Jenkins, 2006, as cited in Edwards, 2012); and the fact that they’re all created with the express purpose of sharing them in the community means that they are “appearing in a coordinated way” (Jenkins, 2006, as cited in Edwards, 2012).

What concerns me, and makes me doubt whether CS communities are truly engaging in transmedia storytelling, is the fact that these multimedia works of art are all curated in one place, in one medium: the community gallery on the DeviantArt website. Unlike the examples given in Edwards’s paper, there’s not one narrative spread out over multiple mediums, with which one must interact to get the full story; instead there’s little fragments of multitudinous stories, all of which feature the same species and world. It’s a little more like a hypertext story, except instead of different parts being connected by a hyperlink, they’re connected by a thumbnail in the gallery, and some of those thumbnails represent works in mediums that cannot be uploaded to the Internet. Like, if someone has a plush doll of their Grem2, only they can touch and interact with it, but other users can see the representation of it (photos, sewing patterns, etc.) in the community gallery. Does this inability for every member of the community to fully interact with every piece of the story in every medium disqualify what’s happening in CS communities as transmedia storytelling? Or is it just a different kind of transmedia storytelling?

Grab Bag(bean?)

Hello, readers. I know I said I was going to talk about the economic features of CS (this is the abbreviation I’ll be using from here on out for “closed species”) communities in my next blog post, but I’m sorry to say that’s not going to happen today. I feel like I still need to do more research before I’ll have anything intelligent to say that’s over a couple paragraphs. Please bear with me; I know a lot about CS communities, but not so much about economics, so learning the relevant terms and methods of description is an ongoing challenge. After a phone meeting last Friday, my advisor has encouraged me to look at the similarities between Creative Commons and the open-, semi-open, and closed species categories, and how these models both support an economy that works for artists/creative professionals. He has also provided a number of useful resources about Creative Commons, which I am still reading. So, yes, I am still very much looking into these economic features, as they are going to be a big part of the civic imagination portion of my thesis; but no, I’m not going to talk about them today. It, unfortunately, may be a while before I am able to talk about them on more than a surface level.

Instead, today’s blog post is going to be a kind of grab bag of stuff I’ve observed and decided upon in my research this week. Some of the topics may be related; some may not. Like I said, it’s a grab bag; we’re gonna have Starbursts, plastic army men, and party poppers all mixed together in there.

Decisions, Decisions…

This week I made two major decisions regarding my thesis: one in regard to content, and the other in regard to structure. Content-wise, I have decided to primarily focus on two CS communities: GremCorps and the Griffia affiliated groups. I still intend to occasionally speak about other CS communities, but only to discuss features that aren’t as explicitly demonstrated in the primary two. I think this narrowing of scope will make things easier for readers, and also for myself as I continue my research. Additionally, these two CS communities are both highly active, deeply developed, and well-run, but they operate in different ways. The Griffia groups follow an ARPG (Art Role Playing Game) model, in which users complete art, writing, or socially-based quests to earn things for themselves or their characters. GremCorps follows a less structured, but no less immersive or inspiring, model where users can choose to follow prompts or do whatever they want with their characters (as long as it fits within the species rules and lore).

In regard to structure, I have decided to remove the “CS as E-lit” section from my thesis to focus on “CS Communities as Participatory Culture” and “CS Communities as Civic Imagination.” Including the E-Lit section would make the paper far too large, and it would require a lot of research that would not really apply to the other sections. Perhaps some day down the road I’ll write another paper about CS and E-Lit, as it really is a fascinating aspect of these virtual communities, but not in my thesis. This decision renders some of the sources and research I’ve already found/done unusable, but that’s okay.

Griffia

With my decision to focus on the Griffia community as one of my primary subjects, I amped up my participation in one of its groups. For months, I have been a casual lurker in this community with some awareness of what they had to offer; this week I took the plunge and became a full participant. I have already discovered a lot of things I didn’t realize before. For instance, the Griffia community has a number of Twitter accounts: one is for main community info, and the others are accounts belonging to characters in the species universe. I followed four of these Griffia accounts with my own Twitter, so now I can see the way the community uses a social media platform other than DeviantArt to communicate and expand the story of their species.

Griffia 101

Before I continue, I’d better explain a little about Griffia, as the community does not just focus on one closed species, and is actually three groups united into one larger group. Griffia refers to a fictional universe populated by a number of closed species, each of them with a different role and status. Many, but not all, of the species in Griffia were originally created by a DeviantArt user called griffsnuff, who has received awards from DeviantArt itself for being such an influential and prolific member of the site. Griffsnuff teamed up with other species creators and users to flesh out the Griffia universe, delegating the primary development and governing of some species, and their associated continents in the Griffia universe, to different creators, artists, writers, and moderators. As of right now, Griffia has four dominant species: Bagbeans, Kryptoxes, Perfaunts, and Fornlee. There are also Casters and Guardians, which seem to have many of the same rights and privileges as the primary four, but I am not sure yet if they’re considered a dominant species or not. Much about the Fornlee is still in development, but Bagbeans, Kryptoxes, and Perfaunts all have a designated continent and group. The Bagbean group is just called Bagbeans, and the Bagbean continent is Beania. The Bagbean group is also the main Griffia group, and it provides information and resources applicable to all the affiliated groups. The Kryptox group is called FluffleTales, and the Kryptox continent is Fluffia. The Perfaunt group is Anubian Empire, and the Perfaunt continent is Capria. Other species live on each of these continents as well, but there are too many to name here. Instead, see this list for a complete index of species and their statuses in Griffia. The term “Griffian” is used to refer to any species living in the Griffia universe.

Art Streams: Entertainment, Learning, Socializing, Buying

This weekend, I participated in my first Griffia Art Stream. It took place on Picarto, but an announcement about the stream and a link to it was posted on DeviantArt. In this live video stream, one of the Griffia creators was broadcasting their artistic process as they worked on Griffian pre-made character designs. They showed a live feed of their computer screen, with one window open to their preferred digital art program, and another window on the side playing movies. Because they used the Picarto platform, there was a chat box to the side of the video feed, where everyone who had come to watch the stream, and the creator themselves, could communicate via text.

Kryptox Stream Confidential

Screenshot of the art stream in which I participated.  I have blocked out all screennames/avatars and monetary information to protect the privacy of community members.

Viewers, myself included, watched as this particular creator took character designs from rough sketch through lining, coloring, and detailing. Being able to see an artist’s entire art process is not only interesting for hobbyists, but a wonderful learning opportunity for those pursuing a visual arts education. The opportunity to speak to the artist and ask questions at the same time enhances the educational value even more.

After completing some artwork, the creator put four custom character design slots up for sale via the chat window. This was an exclusive opportunity for people in the stream, and I was among the four users who grabbed a slot. I had been trying to obtain a Griffian character for awhile without success because pre-made designs/slots either sold out too quickly, were too expensive, or were not designs that appealed to me/for which I felt I could develop a character. The creator provided their PayPal (although Griffian currency, earned by doing prompts, making art, participating in events, etc., can usually be used to purchase the slots as well, this time was real money only) information to the users who had claimed slots, confirmed their payments, and then asked the users the theme and gender they wanted for their custom character. Some users decided to pay extra in order to request special features and mutations for their design. Everyone who purchased a slot got to see their new character created before their eyes during the stream, something which I found pretty magical, and which made me feel even more connected to the design. After completion of a character design, the user who had commissioned it thanked and usually complimented the creator. The creator then assigned a registration number to the design and uploaded it to the community at large. As the creator worked on one user’s design, the other users demonstrated patience and a sense of camaraderie. They congratulated those who had bought slots on their new characters and commented about features of the new characters that they found cute or beautiful. Some suggested their existing character becoming friends with a user’s new character, or helped the user come up with a name for their new character. No one complained about not getting a slot or acted jealously toward the users who did.

Some other notable things occurred on the social level during the art stream. Firstly, I was surprised to see how diverse the group of users chatting was. I can confirm that there were users from at least three different continents (North America, Europe, and Australia) in the stream. The range in ages was also pretty great. Some users in the chat revealed themselves to be high school students, college students, grad students, or working professionals. A user complaining about homework commiserated with a user complaining about audit reports, while both commented on the color palette the creator had chosen for a character’s hair. I was surprised to read a certain user, who had revealed themselves to be a high school student procrastinating on an essay, say that they “[hated] writing” because I knew this user and their creative work; they had developed very in-depth stories for their CS characters. The disconnect between a love of storytelling and a hatred for writing was a bit jarring to me, but it showed me how participation in a CS community can provide a creative outlet and a safe place to practice literacy skills for adolescents with similar inclinations. Some other users and I offered the first user some writing tips and empathy, both of which can also be very useful in helping an adolescent develop traditional literacy skills. During the stream, I also got to witness the way this community deals with conflict. An anonymous user, who used a screenname which profanely mocked the streaming creator’s screenname, tried to enter the chat and insult the creator and the community. Community members did not respond to the malicious user, aside from expressions of shock (“WTF?” “o_o” etc.), and the creator quickly acted to ban the malicious user. Throughout the stream, the malicious user tried to re-enter the chat several times using different, but similar screennames, and each time the process was the same. Users did not engage and they waited for the creator to ban the malicious user. After the malicious user was gone, some community members made comments like “It’s sad that some people have nothing better to do,” but none of them responded to the malicious user’s insults with more insults. This struck me as a uniquely civil method of conflict resolution. I’m not sure if users had previously agreed on such a protocol in other streams in which I hadn’t participated, or if this protocol just emerged spontaneously.

I also found it fascinating that the creator included a window with movies playing during the stream. While I participated, the stream played either three or four (I lost track) horror movies and two episodes of TV shows. Users in the chat sometimes discussed the movies/shows, and it seems as if they were meant as an extra bit of entertainment for those participating in the stream. Sometimes the discussions about the movies took on added depth as users discussed genre conventions, reviewed the visuals or story of a given film, or shared personal experiences related to a given film.

Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed the time I spent in the Griffia art stream. I also feel like my observations have provided a lot of data for me to work with. This does raise some questions, though. Am I allowed to use personal observations like those I wrote about in this blog post in my thesis? How would I cite a live video stream? Do I need to know the usernames of every person involved and get their permission to talk about what occurred during the stream? Have I already broken the rules by talking about it in my blog?  Do I need to delete this post?

It Begins

Hello colleagues, professors, scholars, and other readers. I am a student currently enrolled in Kean University’s Master of Arts in English and Writing Studies program.  This blog is the place where I’ll be documenting my MA thesis journey, which I anticipate to be equal parts grueling and invigorating, like hot yoga or some kind of therapeutic coal mining activity.  Grab your form-fitting pants and doomed canaries; it’s going to be a long year!

My thesis is dedicated to the study of closed species communities on the art/social networking site DeviantArt.  I will be examining these unique, and previously unstudied, online communities with a focus on participatory culture and civic imagination.  What qualities do these groups share with other, similar online participatory cultures such as fan, gaming, and writing communities?  How do they differ?  What do these similarities and differences mean to the participants, especially those who are students?  How do closed species communities handle economic and conflict resolution issues, and can these practices transfer to participants’ real-life activities?  What positive effects might such a transfer of practices bring to society as a whole?  Additionally, I really want to look at the storytelling practices of closed species communities, and how they fit within the broader contexts of networked narratives and electronic literature.  The latter topic is a relatively new addition to my research roster, but I feel like it’s just as important as the first two.  It may even be more important in terms of introducing academia to closed species communities.  I’m not sure where exactly it will fit in, or whether I will have to adjust the scope of my thesis during the year.  Who knows?  Maybe I’ll narrow my thesis’s focus to just one of these topics, or decide to replace one with another, or add more topics.  I need to see how things go with primary and secondary research.  At the end of the previous school year, I said I wanted to take a grounded theory-inspired approach to my research process, so I guess I’ll see where the data takes me!

I guess I should probably say why I want to study closed species communities on DeviantArt, and my goals for doing so.  I have been a member of several closed species communities for years, and I am continually impressed by the creativity and humanity I find in them.  A real-life friend of mine introduced me to the concept of closed species, and not too long after, I fell in love with CCCats (Crowned Clown Cats), a closed species by a DeviantArt user called WellHidden.  CCCats are intelligent, magical parasites that inhabit animal (and sometimes human) corpses and change them into a new cat-like creature.  Yeah, it sounds morbid, but I’ve always had an interest in both parasitology and fantasy-related genres, so this species and their lore world felt tailor-made for me.

Art and CCCat species by WellHidden on DeviantArt

I obtained a pre-made CCCat character design by purchasing it with real-life money, transferred directly to the species creator/artist via PayPal.  That was about 2.5 years ago, and I have never once regretted it.  I get more use and joy out of my CCCat than countless real-life items I’ve shelled-out money for.  His name is Alo, and he has become one of my most beloved characters.  I draw him and write about him on a regular basis, especially when I don’t have the inspiration or energy to do any other kind of writing or art.  I also commission art of him from other members of the community, as well as sharing my art and writing within the community.  I have even converted some of my art, such as the image below, into free-to-use bases that other community members can use to create art of their own characters.

Art of Alo by me CCCat species and original design by WellHidden on DeviantArt

           Art by me

Based on my own positive experiences with closed species communities, and inspired by other scholars’ work on fanfiction, social networking, and gaming communities, I decided that I wanted to share closed species with the academic world.  I want to make scholars aware of the amazing creative work, social interactions, and consumption practices happening around closed species. I want to make educators, especially those who teach writing or visual arts, aware of the ways participation in closed species communities can supplement the classroom learning of high school and college students.  In short, I want to validate these fictional creatures and the communities that develop around them to the academic world.  They’re something special, and I want others in my field to see that.  Ideally, I would like to present my work on closed species at conferences and publish articles about them in scholarly journals.  It is for those reasons that I am making my thesis a traditional academic paper.

I have already begun to collect artifacts and conduct secondary research for my thesis.  The artifacts are screenshots demonstrating things I have experienced in closed species communities that I feel are significant to the topics I mentioned earlier.  The secondary research has consisted of reading books that discuss other online communities and digital storytelling practices.  I have also begun to take notes on these readings and do freewriting about how they relate to the closed species communities I am examining.

Moving forward these coming weeks, I would like to get at least another quarter of the way through Narrative as Virtual Reality by Marie-Laure Ryan.  This book is really challenging for me to read, but it has been super valuable so far in terms of understanding how closed species communities relate to things like hypertext storytelling.  I would also like to prepare to conduct an interview with one of my primary sources, so I guess that means talking to my advisor about IRB and all that stuff.

Thanks for tuning in to my thesis blog!  I’m looking forward to sharing this experience with any of you out there in Internet Land who have an interest in it!