Audiences, Participation & Engagement, Digital Culture, Media Industries

Five tips for producing a short academic video

Nina Vindum Rasmussen

Universities all over the world are scrapping face-to-face lectures and pivoting toward audiovisual delivery of events and conferences. What tools and skills are required to create video content that transcends the Zoom aesthetic we have grown so accustomed to? In this essay, I want to share five practical tips I have picked up after producing my first academic video for this year’s Association of Internet Researchers (AoIR) conference. Fingers crossed I will remember them myself next time.

The task: Condense your paper into three minutes

Presenting at AoIR2020 involves submitting a paper extended abstract and/or a video presentation of one to three minutes. The conference committee grants presenters maximum creative freedom:

‘You can create a video in any way you want e.g. direct record yourself presenting content, voice record over a PowerPoint video, Zoom recording of several presenters discussing the paper, edited curation of images that represent your presentation, animation, a ventriloquist performance. We highly encourage creative submissions!’

As much as I wanted to opt for that ventriloquist performance, I went for the simpler video approach. At first, I gasped in disbelief at the thought of radically trimming down the traditional 15-minute presentation. Three minutes! I can barely say my full name and the words hiding behind the CMCI abbreviation within that time. However, producing the video turned out to be more than just a painful ‘kill your darlings’ exercise. In fact, the process has served as a powerful analytical tool that has helped me explore my PhD in a new way. Here is what I have learned along the way.

Lesson 1: Get to the point

Three minutes leave no time for fluff or lengthy descriptions. Clarity is key. You can only share a couple of ideas, and you want to get to the main argument quickly. Viewers rarely stay until the end. On average, people have watched 71 pct. of my video (according to Vimeo’s detailed statistics). Hook the viewer with a compelling first image and try to keep it short and snappy throughout the entire video. Treat your points like oysters – they should be swallowed whole without chewing or savouring. I found this challenging, as I have no overview of my data whatsoever. Detecting patterns at this stage of the PhD has proven useful, though.

Lesson 2: Think with sound and images

Film is a powerful medium, not least due to its three inherent components: image, story, and sound. Transferring academic papers to video means tapping into a more visual and sonic approach to your work. A good way to kick-start a creative spark is by browsing through your recent YouTube history: What kind of content do you like to consume yourself and why? For my video, I mimicked the style of Harper’s Bazaar’s ‘Food Diaries’. Yes, beware: Browsing through your YouTube history is a soul-searching endeavour that might reveal a fascination with what celebrities eat throughout the day.

Brainstorm with others early on and bounce your crazy ideas off them. They might even chip in with brilliant input or agree to perform as actors (thanks, Dad). When the basic story and visual components are in place, write a script and/or create a storyboard with drawings or photos. Combine it all into a game plan you can follow on the day of shooting. This document will also help you at the editing stage, as you essentially have a recipe for the video structure.

Lesson 3: Get some guidance and some gear

I am by no means a videomaking pro, so I rely on tips from videographers like Peter McKinnon and audio producers like Mike Russell. They offer accessible tutorials on how to acquire high-quality image and sound. You do not have to purchase expensive equipment, but you need to adhere to basic rules surrounding composition, lighting, and recording sound. I want to strike a blow for audio here: Audio quality is paramount, and it really is worth getting your hands on a decent microphone. Even a small directional microphone designed for mobile devices, such as RØDE’s VideoMic Me, will significantly improve your sound. In terms of lighting, I used some artificial lights, but you get a long way with simply utilising that big lamp we call the Sun.

Lesson 4: Bring your talking-head video to life with B-roll

Spice up the classic ‘talking-head’ video (i.e. when someone looks and speaks to the camera) with diverse types of footage and camera angles. By using two cameras in the presenting situation, it will be easier to achieve a visually dynamic result. Place the cameras around 30 degrees apart to avoid ‘jump-cuts’ (cutting between two sequential shots without changing the camera angle much) – unless you’re Jean-Luc Godard or just a fan of that jittery style.

Most importantly, shoot or find lots of B-roll, i.e. footage that supplements the primary/A-roll footage, which in this case is the shots of me speaking to the camera. Create a library that contains all the stuff you can potentially use, both in video and photo form. For still images, I recommend Unsplash, which provides a library of high-resolution photos that can be used for free.

Lesson 5: Leave sufficient time for editing

Slicing and dicing the clips is the most time-consuming part of the entire process. Spoiler alert: You will grow very tired of listening to your own voice. Acquire whatever software you need to edit the footage properly. I prefer Adobe Premiere Pro, because it allows you to integrate work done in other Adobe Creative Cloud apps, all of which students and teachers can purchase at a 65 pct. discounted rate.

In short, I highly recommend producing videos alongside doing the actual research, instead of seeing it as a communication task at the end of the research. It has forced me to reflect on my discoveries two years into the PhD, what I still need to figure out – and how this can be communicated visually and sonically.

The video:

Digital Culture, Media Industries

Besides the Screen 2020 Online Festival

Dr Virginia Crisp

2020 was supposed to be a big year for the network I co-founded with Dr Gabriel Menotti,  Besides the Screen. To celebrate the 10-year anniversary of the network, we had events planned in Brazil, China, Portugal, Italy, Germany and the UK throughout the year. We were also looking forward to the publication of the fourth edited collection to be born out of network activities, and the launch of a new multi-lingual open access online journal. Needless to say, things did not go entirely as planned.

The network has always had an international focus, starting out as an explicit attempt to build research connections between the UK and Brazil, hosting conferences alternately in both countries and producing edited collections in both English and Portuguese. Indeed, the co-founder and I have often noted our amazement that we have managed to co-ordinate the network from different sides of the world for such a long time whilst also remarking that such an endeavour would have been considerably harder even a decade before. Thus, in some ways we thought we were well-equipped to continue with some network activities online even though everything we had planned had to be radically rethought. Indeed, on the one hand, we had always heavily relied upon online technologies to facilitate the running of the network, but on the other, we needed to also enable meaningful academic interactions across time zones, differing levels of internet access, and the many extra commitments and concerns our participants might have during these difficult times.

Some things were just delayed a little, the edited collection, Practices of Projection: Histories and Technologies, was finally published in June and it contains many fantastic contributions from network colleagues from around the world. In a way, we were lucky because the collection was all set to be published in March and so there has only really been a small delay in publication. I am only sad that we have not been able to talk about the book at various events over the summer to celebrate the work of all of the chapter authors. Having said that, had there been much more work to do to get the book ready for publication, the delay would have undoubtedly been much longer. The journal too, is still happening, but those working on this project have (like so many others right now) found their lives dominated by increasing workload and stress levels (amongst many other things) meaning that all non-priority tasks are taking a back seat at the moment. Without going into too much detail on this important issue at the moment, as has been mentioned in UK publications such as the Times Higher and The Guardian, this has disproportionately affected female academics.

Indeed, the experience of lockdown is being seen to increase inequality in multiple ways. Even as a white academic working on a full-time permanent contract at an elite UK institution I am feeling these burdens acutely whilst being strongly aware that my own experiences are at the very tip of a very large iceberg.

Nonetheless, thanks to the tireless work of my network colleagues (I can personally take very little credit for all of this), the series of events we had planned became, in part, the Besides the Screen 2020 Online Festival. There was an amazing online conference from 22 – 24 July organised by my network colleagues Ana Carvalho, Inês Guerra and Célia Vieira at ISMAI, Portugal and the screening programme curated by Gabriel Menotti and intended to be hosted in Brazil in the Spring has been re-curated and organised by Menotti and is now hosted on the network’s Youtube channel.

I volunteered to write this post some time ago and many thanks to the microsite editors for being so incredibly patient with me over the last few months. The reason I have persevered with this when so many other things have had to be de-prioritised right now, is that I wanted to take this opportunity to celebrate my network colleagues and the incredible work they have done in making the Besides the Screen 2020 Festival happen. If you check out the conference programme you can link through to the pre-recorded papers and see their respective abstracts or you can go straight to be YouTube Playlist. Similarly, you can see the festival screening programme on YouTube direct and/or see full details on the website. The online version of the conference exhibition was also reconfigured into a series of artists talks and links to their work.

I want to wholeheartedly thank the organisers, panellists, artists and other contributors who all played their part in bringing this year’s anniversary events online. There are some wonderful talks and artworks still available to view as part of the festival so do please check them out if you can!

Audiences, Participation & Engagement, Digital Culture, Media Industries

Children who are well informed are less worried – A study in 42 countries on “Children, Media, and COVID-19”

Professor Jeanette Steemers 

Together with Cardiff University, CMCI administered the UK component of a worldwide survey of 4,322 children aged between 9 and 13 in 42 countries.  289 UK children took part in the survey over a period of 10 days from 16-26 April, the second-highest number after Belgium, also a country that has experienced high levels of Covid-19 infections. Although based on a convenience sample administered during the lockdown,  the survey showed that if children have some basic knowledge about the virus and how to protect themselves and others from it, they are less worried. If children believe fake news such as “Eating garlic can prevent you from catching the coronavirus”, they are more likely to be “very worried”.

Initiated by the  International Central Institute for Youth and Educational Television at the Bavarian Broadcasting Cooperation, and the PRIX JEUNESSE Foundation,  the study “Children, Media, and COVID-19” asked questions about children’s emotions and knowledge regarding the coronavirus, their media use, and their strategies for reducing stress and regulating their own media consumption. The samples cannot claim to be representative of the countries or on a global level. Nevertheless, they offer some interesting findings and tendencies regarding how children perceive Covid-19.

For nearly all the children surveyed worldwide, life has changed radically. Most at this point were no longer going to school, often their parents are working from home, sport and leisure activities are no longer possible. Worldwide, one in two children felt worried because of coronavirus. The percentage of children being “very worried” differs from country to country. While the proportion of “very worried” children in Austria (2 %) and Germany (3 %) is low, it was around three quarters in e.g. Tanzania “very worried.

The greatest fear among all children was that a family member will fall ill, that they won’t be able to visit their grandparents and other relatives for a long time.

What this study makes very clear, however, is the connection between being worried and knowledge. The fewer facts the children know about the virus and how to protect themselves from it, the higher the proportion who are “very worried”.

Children are especially likely to be “very worried” if they are taken in by fake news stories, e.g. that “coronavirus has been used as a weapon by a foreign government”, or that “garlic stops you from catching the coronavirus”. The conclusion drawn from this is that knowledge is linked with a reduction in uncertainty and thus in a reduction of worries.

This suggests that children need reliable age-appropriate information and media that are made for them explaining the situation without scaring them away or fostering anxiety.

Audiences, Participation & Engagement, Creative Economy & Cultures of Production, Creativity & Cultural Labour, Cultures of Creativity, Media Industries

The Birth of the Creative Industries Revisited

Dr Jonathan Gross

CMCI began life in 2002 as an MA in Cultural & Creative Industries. This led in 2007 to the launch of the Centre for Culture, Media & Creative Industries, becoming a ‘Department’ in 2010. We now welcome students from all over the world to our three MA programmes (and soon to our new BA), many of whom plan to develop a career in the creative industries.

Given the ubiquity of the ‘creative industries’, some of our students may be surprised to learn that the phrase is only slightly older than CMCI itself. Where the idea of the creative industries comes from, and how it gained such rapid significance, is a story I tell in a new report, The Birth of the Creative Industries Revisited.

Soon after winning the 1997 general election, Tony Blair’s Labour government set up a Creative Industries Task Force. This brought together ministers and civil servants with senior figures from film, music, fashion, publishing and advertising. The following year they produced a document that defined the creative industries for the first time, and estimated their contribution to the UK economy in terms of GDP and jobs. This was the 1998 Creative Industries Mapping Document. 

Few pieces of cultural policy have achieved the visibility of the Mapping Document. It has been widely influential and the subject of heated debate. However, the story has not been fully told of why and how the document was created. To help tell this story, I undertook a piece of oral history, speaking with those directly involved.

This research had two phases. The first was interviews with members of the Task Force who commissioned and produced the document. The second was a ‘witness seminar’, in which some of these interviewees then took part in a public discussion. Witness seminars have been employed since the late 1980s by academics researching contemporary British history. It was only in 2016, however, that the format was first used within cultural policy studies, with a session to mark the 70th anniversary of the Arts Council of Great Britain. Our witness seminar was held at Somerset House on 11th December 2018, almost exactly twenty years since the publication of the Mapping Document. (The transcript can be accessed here.)

Taking the interviews and the witness seminar together, the research demonstrates that whilst the Mapping Document is often understood as the archetypal piece of New Labour policy – exemplary of Blair’s Third Way politics – the story is more complicated than this, and more instructive. The repositioning of the Labour party within conditions of late 20th century economic transformation produced circumstances conducive to the creation of the Mapping Document and its promotion of the ‘creative industries’. However, caution should be exercised in reading the mapping work as central to the New Labour project. It was primarily driven by Chris Smith (the first Secretary of State for Culture, Media & Sport) and a small team of advisors; and was undertaken with extremely limited resources.

One of my report’s headlines is that, to understand the specific characteristics of the Mapping Document, including its contentious definition and statistics, we need to understand its genesis at different scales of causal explanation. This means recognising not only the alignments between different factors that brought it about – the global emergence of the ‘knowledge economy’, the repositioning of the Labour party after 18 years in opposition, the specific machinery of UK government, and the ideas of a small group of people – but also the disconnections and tensions between them.

In the report I show that it is the tensions between these different factors, as much as their alignments, that help us to understand how the Mapping Document became extremely influential, highly contentious, and, for many of those involved in the Task Force, both a huge success and a disappointment. Offering this kind of analysis, across multiple ‘scales’ of explanation, I hope the report not only helps to tell a specific story –  of where the ‘creative industries’ comes from, and how it first came to be defined and measured –  but also encourages further research (via oral history and ethnography) into the processes by which cultural policy develops.

Contestations over definitions and measurements continue to be consequential, shaping cultural policy and practice in many ways. I am currently involved in Developing Inclusive & Sustainable Creative Economies, a €2.9 million project funded by the European Commission via Horizon 2020, working with colleagues in CMCI – Roberta Comunian, Bridget Conor, Tamsyn Dent, Nick Wilson – and researchers in Finland, Latvia and Italy. Our central question is, ‘What are inclusive and sustainable creative economies, and how can they be developed?’. Amongst a range of concerns, this research pays attention to the relationships between definitions (of creative economy), practices of measurement (indexing and mapping), and policymaking.

The Birth of the Creative Industries Revisited is a story of a definition and a set of measurements generated in medias res: in the middle of the action. They were produced by particular people, seeking to achieve particular aims, at a particular time. From the ‘creative industries’ to (more recently) the ‘creative economy’ and beyond, understanding the role and significance of creativity within economies is an ongoing process, with potentially far-reaching implications for policy and practice. Recognising how this has been attempted in the past has an important role to play informing future such attempts: not least, by throwing light on the multiple forces that can act upon policymakers and researchers as they undertake this kind of work, in the middle of the action.

Audiences, Participation & Engagement, Digital Culture, Media Industries

Shaping digital methodologies and ethics at Humboldt University’s MeDiA Lab

Fabian Broeker

As part of my PhD research, I am currently carrying out a year of ethnographic fieldwork in Berlin, focusing on the intersection between technology, culture, and the mythology of the city among dating app users. Professor Christoph Bareither graciously agreed to supervise me during this year as a visiting PhD researcher at Humboldt University’s Department of European Ethnology and invited me to attend the MeDiA Lab (Media & Digital Anthropology Lab) sessions regularly hosted there.

The MeDiA Lab is a space for researchers, ranging from BA to post-doc scholars and beyond, to exchange ideas around the theme of media practices in “everyday life”, the challenges of empirical fieldwork in digital contexts, and ethical approaches to digital anthropology.

It has been truly enlightening to be a part of this space of discussion with a focus dedicated to exactly the challenges and ideas shaping my own research. One issue which has been a recurring point of debate is the ethics of carrying out research on platforms where sometimes notions of public or private are distorted.

Spaces which officially signal a private sphere, may, in fact, be treated as public by their users and vice versa. A good example that came up in discussions in groups on Facebook. There are closed, private Facebook groups, often popular havens for meme-sharing, which have hundreds of thousands of members, and constitute a community which cannot truly be classed as private.

On the other end of the spectrum, aligning with my own research, dating apps are a good example of a digital community which is officially public, but has many characteristics of a private sphere. On Tinder, anyone who creates a profile in theory immediately has access to all the other profiles on the platform; however, content posted here may showcase far more intimate details than one may expect from a platform with many characteristics of a public space. Indeed, one of my informants told me of how she would use her profile for short periods, then deactivate it, because she had the uncomfortable feeling that she might run into someone who saw the profile, and the intimacy this represented, on the street.

This problematises notions of what can be ethically incorporated as research data. Of course, the easiest course of action remains to gain explicit consent from anyone whose online profile is featured or discussed in research, but sometimes this is simply not viable, for example when filtering through hundreds of Facebook comments on public posts or indeed dating app profiles. Anonymity, rather than explicit permission often remains the key consideration here, allowing the collation of research data without exposing individuals.

Indeed, questions of anonymity discussed at the lab, focused not solely on research informants, but also the researcher. The potential for anonymity that research on online platforms offers makes this a truly salient point. While engaging with research participants on certain platforms via anonymous online profiles is usually not ideal, sometimes it is the only valid approach. For example, one of the MeDiA lab members is carrying out research on women in alt-right communities on Instagram. Disclosing her true identity to informants could potentially put her at risk of online trolling, among other safety concerns.

My own research has seen me grapple with similar questions of anonymity, albeit for different reasons. I have used both anonymous and non-anonymous profiles to study users on dating app platforms. However, I have found that, for example, as a male seeking to interview men searching for women on dating apps, this endeavour is far more successful when my identity and indeed gender is not featured in my research profile.

Since most popular dating apps, such as Tinder, allow you to label your gender freely but sort you into either the category of man or woman looking for man or woman or both, my research participants may assume they are talking to a woman if their profile is set to searching for women and they are engaging with me, even if my anonymous profile does not disclose my gender.

Being listed in the category of women searching for men has been highly informative, for I have had certain men aggressively asking whether I am a woman and only agreeing to an interview if this were the case, or even instances of “mansplaining” my research to me. My interactions with women searching for women, men searching for men and women searching for men have been far more pleasant both in cases where I use anonymous and non-anonymous profiles. Indeed, my profiles have only ever been banned on dating apps when I was looking to establish contact with men searching for women and in my fieldwork thus far, men seem to be the most likely to report profiles.

The MeDiA lab has offered me the opportunity to probe these facets of digital ethnography. For researchers who find themselves in Berlin and are interested in digital methodologies and theoretical approaches I highly recommend joining a session or giving a presentation.

Finally, I would like to extend a word of gratitude to the Study Abroad office at KCL. Their generous grant facilitated this academic exchange and has allowed me to hopefully continue to strengthen the flow of ideas between these two great institutions.

Digital Culture, Media Industries

Response to Ofcom Consultation on BBC Children’s news and first-run UK originations and the BBC’s request to change its Operating Licence

Due to significant changes in children’s viewing habits, the BBC requested that Ofcom change its operating licence to implement changes to its children’s news bulletin Newsround, and the Corporation’s quota of original productions for children. In November 2019, Ofcom opened a consultation on the BBC’s plans inviting other interested parties to comment.

This piece is an extract from the response to the Ofcom Consultation submitted by Professor Jeanette Steemers, Department of Culture, Media and Creative Industries, King’s College London, Dr Cynthia Carter, School of Journalism, Media and Culture, Cardiff University and Creative Industries Policy and Evidence Centre, and Professor Máire Messenger Davies, Emerita Professor of Media Policy, Ulster University.

To read the full response please visit here.

Professor Jeanette Steemers

Zoe Ball and Hacker T Dog celebrate CBBC’s
30th anniversary of live TV presentation (BBC/PA)

Sometimes the BBC doesn’t do the right thing and this seems the case with Newsround, its news service for children. Last December two colleagues, Dr Cindy Carter, Professor Maire Messenger Davies and I submitted a response to the BBC’s request to Ofcom to change its Operating Licence. The BBC is looking to reduce first-run children’s news hours for Newsround from 85 hours to 35 hours a year and reduce the frequency of broadcast news bulletins. As academics, our response is based on our academic research interest in children’s media, and on the BBC’s contribution in particular.  We know that children are watching less linear TV, but we argue that the proposed changes are hasty and under-researched. There is no guarantee that they will work or provide a viable online news alternative for children because the BBC has not outlined a clear distribution strategy, for Newsround in an online world. The BBC argues that it wants to reallocate its resources, but there is no detail, and crucially there appears to have been no consultation of children. Ofcom’s own comments throughout its consultation document suggest that they are not convinced either that children will use or find Newsround online, which begs the question, why accept the proposals and not seek to push for better ones that can be properly tested with the core audience

Our recommendation is that the BBC and Ofcom should take a more considered approach to test and analyse options for online news content and distribution and also crucially to consult children for a period of time over a year before making any final decisions. The lack of consultation with children is very disappointing. We do not agree either with an overall reduction in first-run children’s hours from the current 400 hours until the BBC has clearly demonstrated how and where the hours will be made up either as news content online or as other forms of public service content. Otherwise, this could set a precedent for further reductions in children’s hours. We propose that there should be quantitative quotas on online provision of news as a guarantee that the BBC will fulfil its remit.

Creative Economy & Cultures of Production, Digital Culture, Media Industries

Industry and Academia Meet in Edinburgh to Discuss AI-Driven Creativity

Nina Vindum Rasmussen

The hype is real: Artificial Intelligence (AI) is truly having a moment. The broad term refers to devices designed to act intelligently by mimicking the cognitive functions of the human brain. Advances in AI are disrupting major industries, including the creative sector. News headlines chronicle how AI and machine learning are aiding the production of songs, stories, and screenplays. In 2018, the first AI-generated painting sold for $432,500. These developments force the creative industries to rethink what that crucial word ‘creativity’ actually means, and whether or not it can be distilled into math. Sure, AI systems have the ability to crunch through staggering amounts of data and detect patterns invisible to humans. But can these technologies help us transcend artistic barriers, or will their creations only ever be derivative? Will AI fully master the creative process without humans in the loop – and even if this is technically feasible, should it be the goal?

On 20-21 November 2019, the second annual Beyond Conference in Edinburgh offered a glimpse of what AI-powered creativity can look, sound, and feel like. The conference was produced by the Creative Economy Programme (AHRC), and it brought together academics, businesses, journalists, and artists under one roof in Edinburgh’s Assembly Rooms. Over the course of two days, delegates explored how AI, machine learning, and big data analytics impact the creative industries – and the other way around. As the conference host, Gemma Milne, asked: ‘Can AI really do something creative and award-worthy, or do the creative industries present the biggest challenge for AI?’ Beyond 2019 tackled this and other big issues, including questions of authorship and intellectual property rights. Speakers also engaged with the darker sides of AI such as implicit bias, which was brilliantly demonstrated by the artist Karen Palmer in her presentation of her immersive film ‘RIOT.’ Along with other creative professionals, she shed light on both the limitations and opportunities of these technologies.

The musician Reeps One uses AI and machine learning to push himself further. Or as he says: ‘To push the voice is to push the mind.’

Working with AI as a Creative Partner

One highlight was the talk by beatboxer and artist Reeps One (Harry Yeff), who has been reaping the benefits of machine learning to push his voice further. Back in 2018, the renowned musician debuted the first ever beatboxing battle between him and his AI twin. For Reeps One, working in tandem with these technologies have opened the floodgates for a new wave of innovation: ‘We’re able to observe ourselves, understand ourselves, quantify ourselves in a way that we cannot without this technology,’ he said. That is a human thing, he assured the conference delegates and continued: ‘We can use these technologies to become more human and grow in the spaces that we want. There is no AI. It is humans using tools.’

The musician Reeps One uses AI and machine learning to push himself further. Or as he says: ‘To push the voice is to push the mind.’

This point was echoed by several speakers throughout the two days in Edinburgh. Michiel Ruelens, CTO at ScriptBook, explained how AI can offer a helping hand in deciding which film projects should be greenlit for production. ‘Hard Science. Better Content,’ ScriptBook’s tagline goes. When you upload a PDF file of a screenplay, ScriptBook’s AI system will compare your work to the thousands of other films in their database. Five minutes later, the system has predicted the MPAA rating, box office results, and target audience. It will also analyse the characters, identify the protagonists and antagonists, evaluate their emotions, and determine whether your screenplay passes the Bechdel Test (i.e. at least two female characters have a conversation about something other than a man). A full replica of the script analysis platform is available here: ScriptBook demo.

ScriptBook. Michiel Ruelens, CTO at ScriptBook, shared his vision of revolutionising the film business with AI.

Recently, ScriptBook also moved into automated story generation, which the company sees as a way of overcoming writer’s block. DeepStory, as the AI system is called, is not meant to put screenwriters out of work, though: ‘We don’t really intend to create a story generator that creates full feature films all on its own from start to finish. We sort of see it as a co-creator or an inspiration tool,’ Michiel Ruelens said.

Chanuki Seresinhe, who works at the Alan Turing Institute and tech company Popsa, agreed that AI can foster creativity. It can combine things in a novel way, which might inspire an artist. ‘But at this moment, the algorithm doesn’t actually know when it has created something new, or whether it’s actually any good. It’s just done it. It’s still up to us to do the final tick box,’ she concluded. In other words, AI remains relegated to the role of an assistant in the creative process rather than an author – at least for now.

Karen Palmer, a.k.a. the ‘Storyteller from the Future’, talked about her immersive film ‘RIOT’, which applies facial recognition and AI to reveal the subconscious behaviour of the audience.

Digital Culture, Media Industries

China on the Move and the Children Left Behind

Xiaoying Han

My research interest in children’s media grew out of my time studying for a master’s degree in journalism. I came across an online forum called ‘Left-behind Children Bar’, the members of which were mainly left-behind children in China. Many of them posted about their hatred towards their parents and their feelings of abandonment. Some even expressed that they felt suicidal. The stories of these left-behind children drew my attention (of course the posts weren’t ‘fact-checked’). I became really curious about why these children were left behind in their hometowns and how did the parents fulfil their parenting roles from a distance. That’s the starting point of my PhD journey. My research project focuses on the role of social media within the Chinese separated families. It explores how family relationships and social media mutually shape each other.

Speaking of the left-behind children, I cannot avoid mentioning internal migration in China.
Since the 1980s, the contemporary Chinese society has been marked by immense rural-urban migration. The majority of the migrant workers have left their children behind in the children’s birthplaces. It was estimated that in 2010 there were 61 million “left-behind children” in China, of which 47% had both parents as migrants, 36% had a migrant father, and 17% had a migrant mother (ACWF, 2013).

In July 2019, I conducted a pilot study in China (Shenyang and Beijing). I interviewed eight migrant workers who have left-behind children. Their stories have left an imprint on my memory and gave me a lot of insights in terms of communication via social media.
It is interesting to find out that, based on the interviews, the communication between the migrant workers and their left-behind children centres around schoolwork. Very often, according to my informants, their online conversations began with homework or exam results. Not only one but three informants mentioned that they had to assist their children to finish their homework during video calls. They would even ask their neighbours, through social media apps, to help their children when it is necessary.

On the other hand, according to my informants, in reality, there was always a huge gap between their ‘commands’ online and the actual behaviour of the left-behind children offline. The role of carers should be taken into consideration here. There were conflicts of opinion regarding parenting between the parents and the carers, especially among those informants whose children were taken care of by the grandparents. This reminds me that one important aspect of parenting from a distance, to quote Madianou and Miller (2012, p. 72) is ‘that of discipline and control which, as in offline parenting, can often require negotiation and be resisted’.

Although generally welcomed by parents, new communication technologies do not necessarily solve the problems caused by family separation. On the contrary, they may actually amplify the awkwardness in communication. Three out of four male informants told me that they did not know how to deal with the dead air time during the video calls with their children. They just found the online conversations embarrassing. As Bao (pseudonym), a lathe operator working in Beijing, put it: ‘I taught my son how to play basketball and swim. We are good buddies. But during a video call, after five minutes, I simply didn’t know what to say, neither did my son’.

The pilot study also helps me better understand the different life trajectories of the migrant workers. What emerged from the pilot research is one relatively neglected dimension of migration: the sense of desperation of being the main household breadwinner. The informants have the feeling that they have no alternative but to endure long periods of separation from their family members including from their children.

Lili (pseudonym), one of my female informants aged 35, lost her husband in 2018. After her husband died suddenly, Lili was expected to be the breadwinner for her children. With the hope of earning more money, she decided to work in Beijing in order to help her two daughters to finish their higher education and pursue their dreams. This put her in a difficult financial situation. The interview I did with Lili took place in the 15-square-meter room she rented in a suburb located on the outskirt of Beijing. The living condition was poor, but that’s all what she could afford.

With a huge contrast, the interview I did with Xiaopeng (pseudonym), a male air conditioning engineer aged 34, took place in his spacious office located in the centre of Beijing. Xiaopeng’s eldest son had been sent to different private kindergartens in Beijing. The 7-year-old boy is now left behind in his birthplace in the Liaoning Province and taken care of by his paternal grandmother due to the fact that he was unable to attend public primary school in Beijing without the Beijing hukou (户口). In the Chinese context, the hukou status, which designates one’s place of origin, determines one’s access to social benefits and education resources. Xiaopeng installed a smart camera at home so that he could ‘monitor’ his son’s daily life from Beijing. His son meanwhile could also talk to his parents whenever he wanted after school. As Xiaopeng put it: ‘I have tried my best to make it up to my son. I visited him as frequently as I could.’

‘I had no choice’ was the phrase that I often heard from my informants during the pilot research. Their left-behind children have to bear the consequence of family separation, a result of parents’ decisions.  Although media technology seems to play a role in facilitating parenting from a distance, the nature of the long-distance family relationships is yet to be unveiled. I am really looking forward to conducting my fieldwork in the near future to solve the puzzle.

Image: Li Min / China Daily (

Digital Culture, Media Industries, Representation

A Window into South Africa through Reality TV and Social Media

Addiel Dzinoreva

In 1994 South Africa finally ended apartheid and a new country led by Nelson Mandela was born, carrying the hopes and dreams of previously disenfranchised black people. For black people in the media and creative industries, and hopeful storytellers like myself, there was great excitement about the opportunities the new dispensation provided for our voices and stories to be told, heard and shared. However, the reality was that most media companies the early 90s were not ready and had no immediate motivation to (meaningfully) cater for the more populous black audience merely because they were not as wealthy and lucrative as minority white audiences. Fast forward to 2019, thanks to more inclusive economic policies, there has been an emergence of a black middle class that is ’empowered’ technologically, politically and economically. However, its development also means some are left behind for various economic and social reasons, creating division and tension between this black middle class and the greater black working class. These tensions are manifesting in television content being produced in South Africa, particularly in the popular and highly-rated reality television shows. The reality shows include local versions of international formats such as The Bachelor, Survivor, The Real Housewives of Johannesburg and Idols. My research, however, is focused on local formats such as Date My Family and Our Perfect Wedding that drive extensive social media debates and discussions about the post-apartheid black South African narrative.

South African television companies are taking advantage of the growing black middle class by creating products and content aimed specifically at this population group. For example the recently launched pay television channel Moja Love on MultiChoice’s DStv satellite pay-tv service which television critic Thinus Ferreira described as a channel ‘with daring, boundary-pushing reality shows about topics previously discussed in “hushed tones”’.  At the 2019 Content Showcase event Moja Love’s Head of Unscripted Content, Bokani Moyo, stated that “Our mission is to create content that is authentic, the lived experience of our communities. We want our viewers to see themselves in experiences-in-the-real.’

This claim of representation, authenticity and realism of the post-apartheid South African black experience through reality television needs to be interrogated through academic research. Indeed, there has been a growing outcry on social media platforms with some viewers accusing the producers of these shows of merely capitalising on negative stereotypes of black people for the sake of entertainment. For example, Moja Love’s reality show, Uyajola 9/9, which exposes infidelity, has been accused in the press and social media of using ‘black pain for ratings’. Unlike during apartheid when black people were not represented in media production, now, you have executives, commissioning editors, producers and participants who are black telling their stories. These stories are based on the premise of depicting and representing the real lives, stories and cultures of black people – designed to appeal to this emerging black middle-class market.

At the same time, South African societal transformation is being accelerated by increased access to the Internet and social media platforms, with an inherent promise to erode encrusted social barriers by affording audiences more agency and participation. My current research is about how the growth of social media and reality television in post-apartheid South Africa has created spaces in which television audiences can participate in the creation of meaning and how South African audiences interrogate or support how television content, and its ideologies, represent their classed reality. Theoretically, both platforms, reality television and social media, afford participants and viewers the opportunities for representation and participation.  However, these ‘new spaces’ are not neutral; they have contested spaces where television producers, are looking for entertaining, high rating, profit-making shows and also looking to influence viewers on social media – platforms that give audiences the agency to participate in how reality is re-presented.

The theoretical concepts I’m interested in are participatory culture and media representation and use of class. Why class? In South Africa, recent political and economic policies have seen segments of previously marginalised black people become part of the middle class. Therefore, you have previously working-class people now in powerful positions as television producers and executives, creating highly-rated content based on ‘where they are from’ and ‘keeping it real’. The question is, are they ‘keeping it real’ or exploiting class ideologies and stereotypes for eyeballs?  In what ways are viewers pushing back against how they are being portrayed using social media?  Or are they? The South African class structure gives us insight into factors that govern the power relations between television and its audience as both adapt to new participatory media. Thus, it allows for a better understanding of this ‘new’ society and emerging social relations.

Audiences, Participation & Engagement, Digital Culture, Media Industries, Representation

Researching Media, Gender, and Sexuality in East Asia

Dr Eva Cheuk-Yin Li

Broadly speaking, my academic and teaching interests focus on two inter-related areas. Firstly, East Asian media and culture. Secondly, gender and sexuality through the lens of the multi-directional flows of transnational and regional popular culture, audience participation (or non-participation), and everyday practices. I am interested in understanding the interplay between media texts, creative industries, and the process of consumption and appropriation. My research aims to investigate the ways in which power operates in everyday social interactions and through structural inequality by examining both on-screen representations and lived experiences. In spite of the increasingly diverse gender and sexual representations in East Asia, I am keen to study the ways in which these visual representations have (or have not) influenced or transformed gender and sexual practices at the individual and institutional levels. My methods are qualitative, ethnographic, and empirical.

The first strand of my research concerns fandom, participatory culture, and identities. For example, in a paper that I co-authored with Alistair Fraser (University of Glasgow), we explored the mediated cultural memories of Kowloon Walled City in colonial Hong Kong, often known as one of history’s greatest anomalies (Fraser and Li, 2017). In addition to examining a range of materials, such as government documents, media texts, interviews, video games, and Internet forum discussions, we interviewed fans who cosplayed characters in a local manga, which was a fictional story inspired by the history of the walled city. In this way, we traced the multi-directional cultural flows within Asia (such as Hong Kong and Japan) and beyond (such as the Anglophone cyberspace/gaming culture) and its relationship with the formation of local identity among Hong Kong young people who grew up in the postcolonial era. We concluded that the transmedia circulation and remediation of Kowloon Walled City has given rise to a second life for this historical site in which bodies, memories, meanings, objects, and identities are constantly dis-embedded and re-embedded.

BigLove Alliance’s ‘ALL4LOVE’ poster featuring Hong Kong Singer-songwriter Denise Ho aka HOCC (Left) and mainland Chinese actress Zhou Xun (right). Photo by Wing Shya. Courtesy of Wing Shya.

The second strand of my research, which is often intertwined with the first, focuses on gender and sexuality and engages with the growing scholarship of queer Asian studies through an empirical lens of media and culture. For example, in order to understand the tantalising interplay between popular culture and gender and sexual cultures in Hong Kong, between 2009 and 2014, I conducted participant observation and 33 interviews with the fans of Denise Ho (a.k.a. HOCC), the first publicly out lesbian singer in the Chinese-speaking entertainment industry (Li, 2017). My analysis explores the shifting notion of ‘normal’ among her fans as they negotiated HOCC’s stardom before and after her coming out, as well as their own gender and identities, by drawing parallels with the illiberal political system, the resurgence of evangelical fundamentalism, and the development of the local tongzhi (literally ‘common will’ or ‘comrade’, shorthand for LGBTQ+ in the Sinophone world) movement.

Over the last year, I have greatly benefited from inspiring conversations with both students and faculty members at the department while further developing my academic and pedagogic interests. The vibrant, supportive, and interdisciplinary research environment is vital to the ongoing academic and social debates on the role that transnational/transcultural media and culture play in shaping identities and fostering social equality.

Currently, I am working on several papers on the inter-Asia circulation of queer media and social movements, the representation of queer families, and the affective construction of authenticity in androgynous Chinese celebrity bodies, in addition to completing a monograph on the everyday practice of ‘middle gender/neutral gender’ (zhongxing) among women in Hong Kong and urban China (see also Li and Halstead, 2018).