The Cultural Impact of Institutional Remix: The Formalisation of Textual Reappropriation within the ABC

Jonathon Hutchinson

Abstract


Introduction

The construction of meaning is specifically denoted by texts that are created and published by the mass media. To highlight how that meaning is constructed, we might take a communication research approach which then enables us to understand how mass media texts impact society. To undertake such an approach it is useful to reflect on two methods outlined by Adoni and Mane who suggest there are two communication research methodologies. “The first focuses on the social construction of reality as an important aspect of the relationship between culture and society. The second approach concentrates on the social construction of reality as one type of media effect.” (Adoni and Mane 323). Relying on Adoni and Mane’s second communication research approach and combining this with the practice of remix, we can begin to understand how practitioners construct a reality from the mass audience perspective and not the mass media’s construction. This aligns with the approach taken by the ABC Pool remix practitioners in that they are informed by the mass media’s construction of meaning, yet oppose their understanding of the text as the basis for their altered construction of meaning. The oppositional reading of the media text also aligns with Hall’s encoding/decoding theory, specifically the oppositional reading where audiences resist the dominant or preferred reading of the text (Long & Wall).

If we align Deuze’s (Media Work) thinking to mass media that suggests we live in media as opposed to with media, the effects of the construction of reality have a major impact on how we construct our own lives. Until recently, that media and consequent meaning has been constructed by the mass media and broadcast into our living rooms, headphones, billboards and other public spaces where media resides. The emergence of Web 2.0 technologies and the affordances these information and communication technologies provide for the audience to talk back in new and innovative ways has challenged that traditional model of meaning construction. Now, instead of the mass media designing and disseminating meaning through our media consumption channels, the audience also has an opportunity to participate in this consumption and production process (Bruns; Jenkins; Shirky). “Remix means to take cultural artifacts and combine and manipulate them into new kinds of creative blends,” according to (Knobel & Lankshear 22) where Lessig  argues that digital remix is writing on a mass cultural practice scale (Remix). Remix within this paper is considered a practice that takes the affordances of the technology and couples that with the creative ability of the artists to create socially constructed meanings through new and inventive methods.

In considering socially constructed meaning, it is useful to reflect on media dependency theory, which suggests the amount of subjective reality depends on direct experience with various phenomena and the exposure to the media in relation to those phenomena (Ball-Rokeach and DeFleur). “According to the media dependency hypothesis, the degree of media contribution to the individual's construction of subjective reality is a function of one's direct experience with various phenomena and consequent dependence on the media for information about these phenomena” (Adoni and Mane 324). Remix requires a parent piece of media (the original meaning) to create a remixed child (the re-constructed meaning). There is a clear dependency relationship between the parent and child pieces of media in this arrangement, which realistically shapes how the child will be created. If this material is published in a non-institutional environment, the artist is more or less free to demonstrate what ever meaning they wish to express. However when this practice emerges from within an institutional environment, this raises concerns of the media production, namely is the media institution challenging the original meaning they placed on certain texts and are they endorsing the new socially constructed meaning provided by remix artists? Constructing new forms of meaning and challenging the preferred meaning of institutionally generated texts intrinsically connects remix to the act of online activism.

Activism can be defined as “people and organisations that work to promote social or political changes” for the benefit of society (Jones 1). Scholars have noted the significance of online technologies to aid in the mobilisation of mass groups of individuals in protest. In light of the recent Arab Spring uprisings, González-Bailón et al. note “the number of events connecting social media with social unrest has multiplied, not only in the context of authoritarian regimes exemplified by the recent wave of upsurges across the Arab world but also in western liberal democracies, particularly in the aftermath of the financial crisis and changes to welfare policies” (para 1). Although the majority of work that is remixed on ABC Pool is not related to an authoritarian regime, it is representative of the frustrations many citizens have towards the inequality of distribution of wealth and power to a few privileged individuals. Remix as an online activism activity also explicitly demonstrates Hall’s oppositional reading of encoded texts.

This paper will use media dependency theory as a lens to investigate how remix occurs outside of the institution to challenge the meanings created by authorities within the institutional setting, while challenging the mass media approach towards social discourse construction. To do this, the paper will focus on the case study of one remix artist, Main$treaM, who was an active participant within the institutional online community, ABC Pool. ABC Pool was a user created content space that ceased to operate during May 2013 from within the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC).  The Pool project enabled users to publish their audio, video, photography and writing on a platform that was developed and resourced by the ABC. ABC Pool was open to everyone and was governed by the same editorial policies that regulated all media and activities across the ABC in relation to the ABC Charter (ABC Act 1983). ABC Pool also operated under a Creative Commons licensing regime which enabled media to flow across platforms, for example the Internet, radio and television, while providing attribution to the original author (generally under a Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial license). Main$treaM was one active user that engaged in remix to pursue his creative direction but to also challenge the meanings of texts that had been created by the mass media.

Max Prophet$ equals Ca$h for Comments

Main$treaM had been active in Pool for several months when he began publishing his remixed works. His approach towards media and its production is especially important as his technique involved challenging the societal discourse that is accepted from traditional forms of media production and reappropriating them to reflect how an audience would reconstruct them, from their Deuzian lived in experience. Main$treaM can also be classified as an oppositional reader of text in regards to how he decodes the meaning within the message (Hall). His online activist approach is obvious in his self-described profile. Main$treaM’s profile on ABC Pool says:

Making animations, music & loads of max prophet$

However, his profile on Discogs (Discogs is one of the largest online music databases, where users can contribute music information and data while locating collectables within the global marketplace) reveals the artist’s creative and political perspectives:

Main$treaM started off wanting to piss people off. He loathed the studio recording industry professionals & Sound Production Mass Media Culture in general. How could it be that a TV Camera can record what you say in the street, then edit it into something YOU DID NOT SAY but take a little news sample off the TV & bam: "WE WILL SUE YOU" These days it makes me sick that hard breaks & media cut ups are trendy. Not sick enough to actually stop.

Main$treaM’s approach is one that challenges the stereotypical rhetoric tropes of the mass media and is concerned with choosing a remix style that aligns with the media dependency theory. That is, he draws on the one perspective which is garnered by the traditional media figureheads and applies his lived in experience with those same societal discourses to provide a significantly different meaning (Ball-Rokeach & DeFleur). The tool he uses to operationalise this is the art of remix by taking multiple cultural artefacts to create new creative blends (Knobel & Lankshear).

John Laws is a radio celebrity who has dominated the Australian media landscape for decades with his at times controversial ‘shock jock’ talk back radio program. He is right wing in his political alignment and has at times been the centre of controversial programming efforts that has riled Australian audiences, which also involved input from Australian media authorities. His political alignment coupled with his disregard for audience sensitivities makes Laws an ideal character for an activist remix artist such as Main$treaM to target. Main$treaM had taken comments that Laws had made, placed them out of context and remixed them to deliberately misrepresent Laws’s opinion. One track in particular, Max Prophet$, is a reaction to the controversial Cash for Comments scandal (Johnson). In this case, John Laws was accused of receiving remuneration from Toyota to endorse their products on his radio program without acknowledging this activity as advertising.

Main$treaM, through one of his ABC Pool contributions Max Prophet$, selected various comments that Laws had made during his radio broadcasts, and remixed them in a format that had John Laws say he was indeed receiving large amounts of money from Toyota. His remix, in the tradition of Pauline Pantsdown, took Laws’s comments and connected them to say “That really is a terrific vehicle that Hilux Workmate, great name too isn’t it”, highlighting a clear endorsement of the Toyota product by the radio presenter. However, Main$treaM did not stop at proving his point with this one remix contribution. He also provided in addition to the Max Prophet$ contribution, many other controversial social commentary works, including Cock Cheek parts One and Two, Prickseye Picture of You and I, and Ca$h for Comment$. Each contribution focussed on a particular character trait that Laws had become known for, such as inviting input from his listeners and then hanging up on them when they provided commentary that was contrary to his opinion. “Did I call you or did you call me” was Main$treaM’s method of whimsically suggesting that Laws is a rude, right wing conservative.

The public opinion within Australia of John Laws is split between support from the conservatives and disdain from the liberals. Main$treaM was attempting to provide a voice from within the liberal perspective that illuminates the public opinion of Laws. The public opinion of Laws is one cultural discourse that is difficult to define, and almost impossible to publish to the broader public. Remix, as Lessig suggests, provides the most suitable genre of mass cultural practice to interrogate both perspectives of someone as controversial as Laws, where ABC Pool provides the most suitable platform to publish remixed societal perspectives on contemporary controversial issues. However, as outlined earlier, ABC Pool is contained within the same regulatory framework as any other publication space of the ABC. Essentially by publishing this controversial work on an ABC platform is blurring the boundaries between the ABC providing a place to publish the material and the ABC endorsing the material. ABC Pool operated under a reactive mode of moderation which suggests that content can be published without any form of moderation but if it were flagged as inappropriate by another user or audience member it had to be investigated by the ABC Pool team. Main$treaM’s contemporary material contained confronting concepts, language and techniques and was flagged as inappropriate by an anonymous Pool user during 2011.

In this instance, it becomes clear that remix within an institutional setting is a complicated activity to facilitate. By providing a Creative Commons licensing regime, the ABC Pool project is endorsing remix as an institutional activity, and given the ethos of ABC Pool to experiment with new and innovative ways of engaging the audience, remix is crucial to its operation. However given the complaints of the other users that Main$treaM’s material was inappropriate, the problem arose of how to manage contentious remix activity. Aligning with Jenkins’s convergent cultures and Bruns’s produsage theories which incorporates the audience into the production process, the ABC Pool project was required to promote remix as a suitable activity for its users. Remix as an online activist activity in turn attracted the societal dissent approach from remix artists, providing a problem of adhering to the rules and regulations of the ABC more broadly. In the immediacy of the complaint, a large proportion of Main$treaM’s material was temporarily unpublished from ABC Pool until the team could provide a suitable solution on how to solve the tensions.

The Legal Consultation Process

In an instance such as this, an ABC employee is required to consult the editorial policy people to seek their advice on the most appropriate approach on the problematic material. The ABC Editorial Policies representatives referenced the material in the then Section 9 of the Editorial Policies, which relates to user-generated content. After the consultation process, they could see no breach of the guidelines; however, given the obscene constitution of the material, they suggested the Pool team refer the material to ABC Legal, a process in the ABC known as ‘referring up’. ABC Legal had a team of media lawyers interrogate the material from a criminal law perspective. It is worth noting, in both departments, Legal and Editorial Policies, there was support for Main$treaM’s creative expression (Fieldnotes, 2011). However, both parties were approaching the material and acting in a risk management capacity to protect the integrity of the ABC brand.

After receiving the approval of the editorial policy people, the ABC Pool team had to seek the advice from ABC Legal. After two weeks of investigation, ABC Legal returned the following recommendations for the Pool team:

Ultimately, risk management is the deciding factor to determine if the material should be published or not, supported by a solid defense should the case go to court.
There are three areas to be considered with Main$treaM’s content:

  • Copyright
  • Defamatory
  • Obscenity

In regards to copyright, it is OK to publish in this case because the works are covered by parody or satire as the pieces have a focussed angle, or subject (John Laws).
Defamation is more complicated. Firstly, we have to establish if the usual person could identify the defamed person. If yes, we need to establish what imputations there are, i.e. homophobic tendencies, pedophilia, etc. For each imputation, we need to establish if there is a defense. Typical defenses are honest opinion, expressed as one’s view, or truth. Honest Opinion needs to have a base to relate it to and not just a rant – i.e. John Laws was caught in the Cash for Comments scandal but there is no evidence to suggest he is a pedophile (unless the artists knows a truth – which becomes complicated again).
Obscenity comes under classification, and since Pool does not have a rating system in place, we cannot offer this as a way to avoid publishing. A standard example of this relates to a younger audience member having the same access to an obscene piece of content (as guided by Pool’s Guidelines Section 4.1 a and b).
These rules are premised by how do I read it/hear it. This is how a jury of citizens will approach the same piece of content. Risk management is also present when we ask how will John Laws hear about it, and what will the community think about it.
(Fieldnotes, 2011)

The suggestions the legal team returned are significant in highlighting the position of a media institution that facilitates remix. What is relevant here is a public service media organisation is a specific type of media organisation that is responsible for facilitating increased citizenry through its activities (Cunningham). Martin builds on the work of Jacka and Hartley to highlight how the ABC should be encouraging ‘DIY citizenry’. She says the combination of the core Reithian values of educate, inform and entertain can be combined with new media technologies that enable a “semiotic self determination model” to construct a “national semiosis model” (Hartley 161). However, there is a clear misalignment between the values of the PSM and the remix artist. What was required was the presence of a cultural intermediary to assist in calibrating those values and engaging in a negotiation phase between the two stakeholders. A cultural intermediary is a human or non-human actor that is located between the production and consumption of cultural artifacts and aids in facilitating the negotiation space between different expertise disciplines. In this case, it was the role of the community manager to attempt to connect the two approaches and enable remix practice to continue under the auspices of the ABC. The ABC had shifted its approach towards some of the Main$treaM material, but given its regulatory framework was unable to facilitate all of his contributions. Unfortunately in this case, Main$treaM did not align with the requirements of the ABC, left the Pool community and did not continue his practice of remix within the ABC any further.

Conclusion

Remixed texts that are published on PSM platforms demonstrate high levels of dependency on existing mass media texts, aligning them with the approach of the media dependency theory (Ball-Rokeach & DeFleur). Remixed texts are also cultural products of artists that live in media and not with media, as noted by Deuze (Media Industries, Work and Life) and are the result of mass cultural practice that manipulates the meaning of multiple cultural artefacts (Lessig). Remix as a form of online activism is also representative of Hall’s oppositional reading of texts which enable the practitioner to deepen their involvement within the social construction of reality (Adoni & Mane). Convergence cultures represent the audience’s ever-increasing desire to participate in the production of media and not merely consume it (Jenkins).

The theoretical alignment of remix with these theories suggests remixed texts have a deeper and richer cultural representation than that of its institutionally produced parent text. However, collaboratively produced cultural artefacts via remix are problematised by the digital divide debate, specifically through the access of tools and knowledge for this practice. Lin terms this problem as ‘techno-elite’ where only certain individuals have access and knowledge and tools to engage in these types of cultural activities facilitated by PSM. Further, Carpentier challenges this type of participation by asking if we have access and can interact, are we really participating in a democratising activity, given the promises of online activism? Given that PSM is pursuing the concept of the audience as user, which positions the audience as a producer of content across online environments, facilitating the practice of remix should align with its core values to inform, educate and entertain (Martin). However as we have seen with the Main$treaM case, this is problematic when attempting to align the focus of a remix artist with that of PSM. In these instances the work of the cultural intermediary as the disciplinary expertise negotiator becomes critical to increase the societal representation within the production and consumption of cultural artefacts produced through the activity of remix. A public service broadcaster that is supportive of both institutionally produced texts, along with socially informed text production through remix, will be a rigorous media organisation that supports a better informed citizenry, or as Hartley suggests a self determined national semiosis model.

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Keywords


Remix; co-creation; participatory cultures, public service media; public service broadcasting



Copyright (c) 2013 Jonathon Hutchinson

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