Andrejevic, iSpy (UP Kansas, 2007)

This is cross-posted to my LiveJournal blog here. Comments welcome in either space.

Mark Andrejevic. iSpy: Surveillance and Power in the Interactive Era. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2007. $29.95 hardcover. 325p. ISBN 978-0-7006-1528-5.

1. Introduction

[1.1] In iSpy, part of Kansas’s CultureAmerica series, Andrejevic focuses on the trade-off between privacy and convenience. He argues that although the Internet provides unprecedented access and tools, it comes at a cost, and users need to consider that cost. The business models that lie behind corporations’ giving users such ostensibly “free” access—Google and its ilk—are just that: business models. They are providing something useful to the user, and in exchange, the user gives up private information, which is often used to target advertising at an incredibly specific level. Further, the user doesn’t know about or have access to that private information; the user doesn’t even know whether it’s correct.

[1.2] This book is not a love song to the Internet and the communities housed there; it’s a warning shout. Users, perhaps without really noticing it, are becoming complicit in creating organizational models that do not favor them, and these models are fast becoming codified as simply the way things are, something users accept because they think that the convenience factor outweighs the cost. Consider Gmail, for example. I use it and love it. I actually believe Google when they tell me that the discreet ads that pop up are based on computerized keyword searches and that nobody is reading my e-mail. I know that there’s a trade-off between privacy and convenience, between cost and benefit, and obviously, I’m paying the price and choosing the benefit of convenience. But I have no idea what information Google collects about me, or what they plan to with it. I have to trust them, and I have to hope that they won’t betray that trust.

[1.3] Although the book covers a host of topics, including commerce, war, politics, and monitoring, I’m going to focus here on chapter 5, “iMedia: The Case of Interactive TV,” because this is where his ideas have the most to do with fan culture. Andrejevic isn’t a fan and he isn’t embedded in fan culture, but his ideas affect the fannish sphere, particularly in his analysis of how producers of content use fans.

2. iMedia: The Case of Interactive TV

[2.1] Andrejevic focuses in this chapter on connection between the user and the act of marketing. He analyzes the fan site Television Without Pity (TWoP), which provides hilarious parodic summaries of currently running TV shows and invites readers to comment. The snide sniping of writers and readers united against the producers creates a fan community that ostensibly engages around the source text, but that in reality uses the source text as a pretext for this engagement. Andrejevic’s goal is to show how “interactivity can be enlisted by producers as a form of instant feedback . . . as well as a marketing tool and an invitation for viewers to identify with the imperatives of the producers” (137).

[2.2] Andrejevic distances himself from the fannish sphere after acknowledging its existence (via Jenkins, of course) and gracefully admitting that a fanwork may be “significantly more creative and interesting than the raw material from which it is crafted” (138). Fanworks, however, are not his focus; rather, he pays attention to the engagement itself and its relationship to the producer. He defines the fannish online audience merely as a group of TV viewers from all over the world who use the Internet to engage in critique and discussion. To analyze patterns of engagement at TWoP, he ran a poll and invited comments. For his subject position, therefore, he presents himself as disinterested outsider.

[2.3] An important part of the fans’ enjoyment is the fact that intense engagement in the community increases the pleasure they take from the text. Some note that they watch TV shows, even bad ones, just to read the TWoP recaps by their favorite writers, so they can be in the joke. Others just follow the show online via recaps, without ever actually watching it. The show, in short, becomes not text but pretext. The fan activity becomes the thing itself, rather than a means to an end, and the show is just raw material, to be skewered and parodied.

[2.4] Andrejevic’s focus on production and consumption follows Jenkins’s well-established, often-rehashed notions of participatory culture, but to this reading, Andrejevic adds “the promise of shared control, the invitation to participate in the production process,” which he thinks “doubles as an invitation to internalize the imperatives of producers” (149). At TWoP, for example, marketing is directly analyzed in dedicated threads on this topic. But do the producers of media actually take fan feedback into account? Can TWoP’s consumption result in production?

[2.5] The answer is yes, but indirectly. It can be inferred that producers read TWoP because shout-outs, or direct allusion in the TV show to something that appeared on TWoP, sometimes appear. Online bulletin boards provide more than audience reaction; they also provide a kind of audience research, a window into the customer that producers need to pay attention to, and Andrejevic quotes a few producers (of ER and Survivor) who monitored online activity and took it into account. Yet this kind of attention is rarely cited by Andrejevic’s interviewees as an imperative for engaging with TWoP. They’re there for entertainment and snark; they’re there for their own contributions to be read and valued; and they’re skeptical that they can actually make a difference. Producers are revealed to hold all the power, to be unassailable and ultimately unreachable, despite the shout-outs; they comprise the “inner sanctum” (155).

[2.6] This snarkastic distancing follows political notions of interactivity described by Jodi Dean, in which the skeptical subject (here, the fan) is working entirely in a symbolic order, attempting to prove that he or she is not a dupe. This results, paradoxically, in Dean’s “perverse logic of celebrity . . . one in which the subject takes pleasure in the very failure of its attempt to make an impression on a debunked symbolic order” (153). The posters at TWoP can therefore be seen as people who wish to be perceived as savvy subjects, as nondupes, people who do not believe in the implicit promises of the producers.

[2.7] The savvy viewer therefore engages while simultaneously knowing that such engagement will not result in change. The producers are the real insiders, of course, but TWoP posters feel like insiders themselves because of their engagement through a skeptical subject position. They are not “naive victims” (156). By engaging, by showing themselves, by posting, the savvy viewers are accepting “an invitation proffered by interactive media: for audiences to reveal themselves in increasing detail to producers” (156).

[2.8] Andrejevic concludes the chapter by revisiting Habermas’s notion of refeudalization, which he started the chapter by defining as “the relegation of members of the public to the role of observers of the spectacle of power—a spectacle framed by the mass media in the form of pundits, celebrities, and political elites” (135). This results in media organizations serving the powerful. TWoP and similar interactive sites seem to argue for the existence of refeudalization because these open sites fit the bill for being a public sphere: anyone can post (although TWoP deletes posts and bans members to keep community standards), and Andrejevic notes that such open forums tend to be female-gendered spaces, a “savvy but domesticated interactivity” (159).

[2.9] If the work that TWoP posters do is just that—work—then it is unpaid labor. Andrejevic lays this against Jenkins’s celebratory notion of textual poaching; Jenkins’s poachers become Andrejevic’s complicit savvy viewers, both tirelessly generating content. By working against TPTB, TWoP posters are actually playing into their hands, providing useful feedback and viewership at no cost to the producers. The producers don’t even have to accord status or insidership in recompense. In the end, the rules of the game aren’t transgressed; they’re codified. TWoP, and by extension any fan activity, does not result in a transformation of media to a better, more democratic genre. Instead, it results in “a reflexive redoubling that amounts to an active form of self-submission” (160).

3. iMedia and fans

[3.1] The move from Jenkins’s hopeful, celebratory reading of fan activity to one that relies on a savvy, self-submissive fan is heralded by two obvious changes: first, the political moment; and second, the advent of interactive technologies—in short, Iraq and the Internet. Both Jenkins and Andrejevic rely on active fans. But the textual poacher, who seizes power by becoming a producer, has become a textual poacher who seizes power in such a way that her productions become in turn a tool of the producer.

[3.2] As a fan, I find such analyses are intellectually interesting, but ultimately, they don’t change my behavior or my motivation for fan engagement. Andrejevic’s ideas reject the notion of fandom as a utopian, democratic sphere, but then again, I never thought it was. Instead, Andrejevic’s ideas force me to assess our culture and the savvy, disinterested stance currently in vogue. I can’t help but view media outlets with cynicism: why else cancel Farscape or Enterprise, both successful shows? (I must be a savvy viewer! I think that pleases me.) I feel powerless, and thus I blog.

[3.3] Fans tell stories to one another about successful fan drives: Bring back Daniel Jackson on Stargate SG-1 and Carson Beckett on Stargate Atlantis! Give us one more season of Star Trek! Renew Beauty and the Beast! Send the Jericho producers peanuts to show you care! We remember these stories because they’re so rare, and we remember them because TPTB actually paid attention to something we were saying and acknowledged our existence—and the work we had to do en masse to generate these huge fan-based responses.

[3.4] Andrejevic reminds us that although sometimes we think that TPTB are paying attention, they will only do so as long as they can get something out of it. Carson Beckett’s coming back will, I hope, be a highly rated media circus. But we’ll be complicit in generating that media circus—after all, when we tune in, we create the ratings. We’ll blog and squee and write fanfic, and the producers will take notes. We can’t go back underground, back to hard-copy fanzines, back to solely face-to-face conventions. The genie is out of the bottle on that one.

[3.5] If it’s a cost-benefit ratio, like Gmail, I’ll pay the price. The producers can reap the benefits of my unpaid labor, because against that, I hold the pleasure of my engagement, which I value more. In fact, if a producer read anything I wrote, I’m pretty sure I’d be pleased and flattered. I perceive the production of texts—the producers’ texts and fanworks—to be in sync with one another, to form a larger artwork, some primary and some derivative. Of course my reading of this metatext is democratic and utopian; it tacitly ranks the derivative work of the fan right up there with the canonical texts created by the producer.

[3.6] But this shouldn’t be any surprise. I’d hate to acknowledge that all this work, all this unpaid labor, was for nothing.

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