Tag Archives: Henry Jenkins

From comics to capital markets: Michael Knolla on how to get there from here












Today I’m featuring a guest post from Michael Knolla. 

Michael works for an investment firm.  Thanks to Pip Coburn, that great conveyor of intellectual exchange, Michael and I recently shared a conference room.  At some point in the proceedings, I overheard Michael talking about comic books and popular culture.  Passionately.

“Ah,” I thought, “This is not always the background or the passion of people working in the capital markets.”  Indeed, the worlds of investment and fan culture are pretty discontinuous.  You can do one.  Or you can do the other.  In our culture, you have to choose.

More’s the pity.  The investment world is increasingly shaped by cultural forces that fans are especially good at understanding.  And a career in investment is, I think, a great platform for anyone who wishes to carry the study of popular culture into their professional life.  The poetry and the banking of Wallace Stevens were mutually exclusive.  For Michael Knolla, there are lots of connections.

Indeed, Michael has apparently discovered a Northwest passage, and I was anxious to find out how he did it.

You will see the full text below, but I liked this passage especially.   Michael is referring to the skills he learned from transmedia or as he calls them,

“the ‘shared worlds’ of Marvel, DC, Valiant & Image comic books as well as the Dragonlance & Forgotten Realms novels.  Shared worlds, where different authors use the same settings and/or characters to tell stories with varying levels of interconnection, require a different kind of reading, I think, than stand alone or self-contained works.  With plots that would go on for months, if not years, crossing over at various times into other titles I learned to categorize and recall data in a way that helped me make connections and anticipate twists in the story.  Later this would be incorporated into one of the frameworks I use for identifying & monitoring investment themes.  It was also an early exercise in sorting signal from noise in learning which authors’ characters were more restricted in their ability to influence the larger arcs.

Michael found strategic understandings in popular culture. 

I’m guessing I was about 3 years old when my father first showed me the original King Kong.  The iconic image is of course King Kong on top of the Empire State Building with the airplanes flying around him, but what has always stuck with me was King Kong fighting the dinosaur.  This giant gorilla vs. T-Rex dynamic opened a whole new mental framework in my toddler mind, one that would be nurtured by a healthy serving of Godzilla movies as I grew older.  The latter were important as they moved the dynamic from one of x vs. y, winner take all, to a more rock, paper, scissors model.    For example, Godzilla could defeat Mothra in its caterpillar form but Mothra would triumph in the moth version, yet it might take both Godzilla & Mothra to triumph over MechaGodzilla.  It is easy to fall into heuristics in this profession when it comes to competitive advantage (that industry X is all about branding or company Y will always dominate because of its low-cost manufacturing, only to see these paradigms subverted by new distribution models or changes in the consumer decision metric) despite the warnings of Porter & Christensen.  

Michael sees a still more general benefit to this popular culture consumption.

Read enough books, watch enough movies, and you’ll eventually develop a strong sense of how stories work that enables you to go beyond Chekov’s gun in your forecasting (not just that it will be fired, but at whom, by whom, for what reason, and what the fallout and resolution will be).  This experience in predictive pattern recognition combines well with the above into a framework for developing investment theses and forecasts.

Here’s the full text.  It begins with Michael’s note to me:

Grant, thanks for the opportunity to talk about two of my favorite subjects: the research process and media consumption.  I am blessed to be someone who has found a job they truly enjoy, yet I doubt many of those who knew me in my youth would have guessed I would end up an equity analyst given that the only stock I grew up around was the livestock at the farm at the end of the street.  Yet, almost a decade into my career hindsight suggests that I was hardly disadvantaged by my starting point.  Rather, to borrow from Steven Johnson’s new book, I needed to exapt the skills I had developed in a different context to my new profession.  This is NOT intended to be an “Everything I Needed to Know About X I Learned from Y”; college, the CFA exam, the mentoring of analysts I’ve worked with, experience, etc. have all been vital to refining those skills and adding many more.  But if you are interested in how culture or commerce can catalyze/synthesize thinking about the other my experiences may serve as decent conversation starters:

·       Shared Worlds & Learning to Identify & Monitoring Investment Themes: My first experience with an investment bubble was the late 1980s/early 1990s comic book craze.  At the time I was convinced I would pay for college with my comic book collection.  Strangely enough in a way I think I have, as I pay down my student loans with the money I earn as an equity analyst.  While Marvel was briefly a publicly traded company before being acquired by Disney, and DC has been a part of Warner Brothers for some time that is not the connection I am referring to.  Rather it relates to the skill set that evolved out of reading the “shared worlds” of Marvel, DC, Valiant & Image comic books as well as the Dragonlance & Forgotten Realms novels.  Shared worlds, where different authors use the same settings and/or characters to tell stories with varying levels of interconnection, require a different kind of reading, I think, than stand alone or self-contained works.  With plots that would go on for months, if not years, crossing over at various times into other titles I learned to categorize and recall data in a way that helped me make connections and anticipate twists in the story.  Later this would be incorporated into one of the frameworks I use for identifying & monitoring investment themes.  It was also an early exercise in sorting signal from noise in learning which authors ^ characters were more restricted in their ability to influence the larger arcs.

·       “Cigarette Burns” & Leading Indicators: Many of those comics were read between shows while I worked at the movie theatre my father managed.  I’d started out tearing tickets and cleaning the theatres and worked my way up through concessions & ticket sales to eventually become a projectionist, just like both of my brothers, before heading off to college.  For a few summers I helped put together the new films each week, splicing the reels together and then running them through late at night to make sure they’d sent all the reels and they were in the right order.  To this day I can’t help but notice the “cigarette burns” that indicate a reel change.  What I came to appreciate was the structure the reels provided to a film.  They each would run ~15 minutes so your typical 90 minute film had ~6 reels, with the characters & setting being introduced in the first, the conflict in the second, and the resolution in the fifth with the denoument in the sixth.  (That reel changes also conform decently to commercial breaks when eventually aired on TV, further supports their relevance to film structure I’m guessing.) By simply watching for the cigarette burns it was easy to anticipate the pacing of a given movie.  The corollary I would later experience is the focus required to know when to look for leading indicators in cyclical industries and the understanding of the different implications depending on when in the cycle they occur.

·       Plot Structure & Pattern Recognition in Forecasting: As I was advancing from ticket tearing to concessions & tickets to projectionist I was also graduating from comics and TSR books to more “sophisticated” reading.  Again, there was a lot of time to read between shows, so the fast reading (another very helpful skill in this profession) originally honed on week long driving vacations as a child, in the days before handheld videogames and portable DVD players, was further refined between shows.  Read enough books, watch enough movies, and you’ll eventually develop a strong sense of how stories work that enables you to go beyond Chekov’s gun in your forecasting (not just that it will be fired, but at whom, by whom, for what reason, and what the fallout and resolution will be).  This experience in predictive pattern recognition combines well with the above into a framework for developing investment theses and forecasts.

·       Cash Flows Across the Value Chain: I would later go on to work at the small bookstore in the mall where the movie theatre was located, and these teenage employments provided another lesson applicable to business analysis.  Movie theatres don’t make their money off of ticket sales, but rather concessions. The lights at the bookstore were kept on not by the sale of bestsellers (particularly given the heavy discounts they often had), and certainly not via sales of “fine literature” but rather through the regular sales of Harlequin romance novels and detective fiction.  The price points on these books may have been lower, but the margins were higher and the frequency of purchase was far more regular.  This taught me to look beyond the obvious revenue streams & horse races/popularity contests to the multiple cash flows across a value chain.

·       Godzilla & the Relative Nature of Competitive Advantage: I’m guessing I was about 3 years old when my father first showed me the original King Kong.  The iconic image is of course King Kong on top of the Empire State Building with the airplanes flying around him, but what has always stuck with me was King Kong fighting the dinosaur.  This giant gorilla vs. T-Rex dynamic opened a whole new mental framework in my toddler mind, one that would be nurtured by a healthy serving of Godzilla movies as I grew older.  The latter were important as they moved the dynamic from one of x vs. y, winner take all, to a more rock, paper, scissors model.    For example, Godzilla could defeat Mothra in its caterpillar form but Mothra would triumph in the moth version, yet it might take both Godzilla & Mothra to triumph over MechaGodzilla.  It is easy to fall into heuristics in this profession when it comes to competitive advantage (that industry X is all about branding or company Y will always dominate because of its low-cost manufacturing, only to see these paradigms subverted by new distribution models or changes in the consumer decision metric) despite the warnings of Porter & Christensen.   Certain competitive advantages are stronger and more sustainable than others but the movies & comics of my childhood serve as a reminder that there is always a weak point that could be exploited, the kryptonite or Achilles’ heel if one is feeling more classical.  It may not be, or it may take longer to exploit it than your investment horizon, but you darn well better be aware of it and monitoring for it because when a competitive advantage breaks down the market shift can be fast and dramatic.   When I worked at the bookstore, where we sold Magic & Pokemon cards, and I can now see a similar learning opportunity among the kids engaged in the games (as opposed to simply collecting the cards).  That these also incorporated crude “resource management functions” makes them even better in my eyes.

·       Trinitarian vs. Bull/Bear: All this reading and movie watching eventually coalesced into what I call my Trinitarian format, and it enabled me to move outside of the simple bull vs. bear dynamic that is so prevalent in the industry.  In literature I came to understand that my appreciation of one work was often greatly enhanced by the comparison and contrast with at least two other works.  Thus my life long love of Douglas Adams was deepened by my reading of Terry Pratchett and Kurt Vonnegut.  My reading of Umberto Eco is improved by my reading of Jorge Luis Borges and Italo Calvino.  H.P. Lovecraft is all the more enjoyable when read together with R.E. Howard and Dashiell Hammett.  As I began to read professionally I translated this dynamic into a framework that moved beyond reading something for and something against a given precept in a given area, to non-fiction trinities.  These would be comprised, for example, of one book written from a macro-perspective, another from a micro-perspective, and a third maybe from a non-western perspective.  Alternatively I might read works that take the same approach, but apply it to different issues or vice versa.  I have found this very helpful in my research, especially as it often highlights what a given perspective is leaving out, which is often more telling than what it includes.

Finally, only about a quarter or a third of my current book reading directly relates to my day-to-day work (i.e. would be classified as “bizbooks”).  Another third is basically fiction, which helps to refresh my mind.  My wife would always laugh when I was studying for the CFA exam that after an hour or so I’d say I was sick of reading, yet fifteen minutes later she’d find me reading a novel.  Those fifteen or thirty minutes of fiction, however, would typically rejuvenate me for another hour or two of studying.  The rest is a quest for novel frameworks and perspectives.  Isaiah Berlin’s The Hedgehog & the Fox, for example, is one of my favorites.  The dominant metaphors in business are sports related, having inherited the position from the previous generation of military metaphors, and it is useful to be familiar with them when communicating your ideas to others.  Yet if everybody else is defining the category by singles, doubles or homeruns then it can be useful to apply a different framework as it might reveal what others are missing.  

Will Digital Culture ever invent a Homer Simpson?

First Observation:

Entertainment Weekly recently gave us the "100 greatest characters of the last 20 years."  The list includes Buffy, Jack Sparrow, Rachel from Friends, Harry Potter, John Locke, Miranda Priestly, and Ron Burgundy.   

Second Observation:

In his latest book, Clay Shirky suggests that we now have around 1 trillion hours of creative surplus at our disposal.  We use this time variously, offering Lolcats and, yes, blog posts.

The question:

Will Shirky’s surplus ever create a character that will appear on the Entertainment Weekly list?  Will we ever create our own Homer?

Some thoughts:

I am not being argumentative.  This is an open question. The answer could be "soon" or it could be "never," and I’ll be happy.  However we answer this question, we will have improved our anthropological understanding of contemporary culture.

There is a general presumption, I think, that we are sitting on a gusher.  Shirky’s surplus is so vast, so inexorable that the creation of an EW "100 winner" can’t be far off.  And it’s not that we are talking about the proverbial 100 monkeys.  It won’t happen by evolutionary accident.  It will happen because our use of the Shirky surplus gets better and better. This argument says "soon."

Some will say our surplus is already in evidence on the EW list.  They will say that these creatures are the result of user participation, consumer cocreation, the agency and activity of fans, transmedia assembly, textual poaching, and a liberal borrowing from the cultural commons. Homer Simpson is all about borrowing and, like any bard, his standing depends finally on our consent. This argument says "already."

But there is an argument that says "never."  The red neck version of the argument rehearses the idea that popular culture is a waste land.  Thus speak Keen and Bauerlein. But there’s a more sophisticated approach that says the creativity of the internet is a derivative creativity, that mashup culture must begin with something first to mash.  Our culture may be in the direction of the consumer-producer but it will always depend on the producer-producer as a kind of "first mover." 

Let’s push things a little further.  (And again I do this for the sake of argument only.  Living at the intersection of Anthropology and Economics, I can be ecumenical on a question like this.) What if the people who make Homers and Buffys must be funded by something other than the "creative surplus."  Must there be an enterprise that engages people to invest financial and creative capitals in a (relatively) expensive and therefore risky productions which then compete in some cultural marketplace.  

By this reckoning, the EW 100 list will not exist without the intervention of commerce (of some pretty literal kind that goes well beyond the gift economies of the cultural commons.)  

I’m just asking.  

The Upshot:

This would make a dandy topic for a Futures of Entertainment session, with Shirky, Henry Jenkins, Larry Lessig, David Weinberger, Dan Snierson, Jeff Jensen, and several other thinkers.  With Sam Ford moderating, of course.

References

Anonymous.  n.d.  "Lolcats" entry on Wikipedia here.

Bauerlein, Mark.  2009.  The Dumbest Generation: How the digital age stupefies young Americans and jeopardizes our future.  Tarcher.  

Carey, John.  1992.  The Intellectuals and the masses: pride and prejudice among the literary intelligentsia, 1880-1939.  Faber and Faber.  (For an argument that anticipates and, I believe, dispatches the kind of argument made by Bauerlein and Keen)

Jenkins, Henry.2006. Fans, Bloggers, and Gamers: Media Consumers in a Digital Age. NYU.

Jenkins, Henry. 2008. Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide.  NYU 

Keen, Andrew.  2008.  The Culture of the Amateur: how blogs, MySpace, YouTube, and the rest of today’s user-generated media are destroying our economy, our culture, and our values.  Broadway Business.  

Shirky, Clay. 2010. Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age. Penguin Press. 

Snierson, Dan, Jeff Jensen, and many others.  2010. The 100 Greatest Characters of the last 20 years. Entertainment Weekly.  Double Issue.  No. 1105 and 1106.  June 4 and June 11.  here.

Acknowledgements

Thanks to Gareth Kay for telling me about Shirky’s new book.  

Jeff Bewkes and the end of influence

I attended the Advertising Research Foundation meetings today and had a chance to listen to Jeff Bewkes as interviewed on stage by Guy Garcia.

Bewkes is now the CEO of Time Warner, but his remarks were devoted especially to his days at HBO.  And well he should. Over the course of 10 years, Bewkes and his colleague Chris Albrecht changed TV extraordinarily. They changed a lot of American cutlure in the process.

So when Bewkes began talking about the HBO program The Wire, I leaned in.  As did everyone in the audience of 300 people. The oracle was about to speak.

Two things struck me.  It sounded as if Bewkes was saying that HBO quite deliberately broke with the rules of mass media. Traditionally, TV shows have proceeded extensively. They seek a nice broad proposition in the hopes of attracting as large an audience as possible.  The Wire seemed to proceed intensively.  It traded away lots of viewers for a more vivid, visceral relationship with a smaller audience.

Normally, this would look like self indulgence and a kind of ratings suicide, except that something in the world had changed. There was now a new kind of viewer, more mobile, more questing, more prepared to find a show wherever it was and then patient enough to let it build a connection.  In this sense, one of the necessary conditions of the rise of HBO was the rise of a new audience out there.  Whether anyone at HBO was reading Henry Jenkins was not made clear over the course of the interview, but I must assume someone was.

But then a second, more seditious thought occurred to me.  And this was not proposed by Mr. Bewkes, and no one should blame him for my moment of delirium.  I thought to myself: listen (I have to get my own attention somehow), this new, more mobile, more literate viewer holds a more revolutionary promise.  If and when most viewers are active and engaged in this way, wouldn’t this spell the end of influence?

Here’s what I was thinking.  As and when viewers become more free wheeling, more curious, more prepared to stop in at obscure places and to bear with difficult shows, the "early influencer" matters less and less.  Viewers will be possessed of the ability to find their own shows and make their own choices.  They will not look to others to identify and vet shows for them.  Every viewer, or at least more viewer, would act as "masterless" men and women, making their viewing choices by their own lights.

And this would mark an interesting development in the world of media and marketing.  After World War II, the assumption was that in an era of mass media, it was really enough to fill the advertising and production cannons and eventually our messages and show would find their audience.  We might emulate those above us in the status hierarchy, but really the very point of the era of mass media was that it was now possible for Hollywood and marketers to make direct contact.  But as audiences fragmented, it was increasingly necessary to have some viewers leading other viewers.  Someone to play the role of the early adopter. Hence the work of Gladwell and the buzz students.  Hence all that talk of activating chains of influence.  Early adopters were now key to the viewing community, and increasingly key to the advertising research community.

But this is perhaps a temporary condition.  As viewers get better and better, influencers matter less and less.  In a weird way, we will return to the world of mass marketing.  Not because there are fewer, louder media, but because they viewer is so mobile, so charged with his or her own taste, so motivated by his or her interest in what TV has to offer, that the only person most viewers will be listening to is themselves.

It’s just a thought, really.

Note: This post was lost in the Network Solutions debacle.  It was reposted on December 26, 2010.

Creativity’s brief moment in the sun?

At year’s end, I have an unhappy thought, that some of the creative professionals who rose of prominence in the first decade of the 21st century will be eclipsed by the end of the decade.  My unhappy thought: the first decade of the 21st century will be for some creative professionals, a brief moment in the sun.

This suspicion turns on three propositions.

1) There has been a change in supply.

As Henry Jenkins pointed out in Textual Poachers and as I labored to point out in Plenitude, the distinction between cultural producers and consumers began to blur in the last 20 years.  Indeed, there was a vast migration from one side of the distinction to the other.  Many people who once merely consumed culture (in the form of film, art, comedy, observation, journalism, criticism) were now surprisingly good at producing this culture.  Suddenly in the economy of culture, the number of suppliers exploded.

2)  There has been a change in demand.

The first decade of the 21st century  was the moment in which the corporation reached out and embraced creativity. We have many institutions and people to thank for this, including BusinessWeek (when it announced the innovation economy), Richard Florida and his study of the creative class, the Kelley brothers (David at Stanford design school, and Tom at Ideo), Roger Martin at the Rotman School, to name a few .

3) There has been a change in the market in which supply and demand find one another

Recently, I was chatted with Richard Shear. He’s owns a design firm.  Over the years he’s done very well, thank you very much. But he can see a cloud on the horizon.  He is seeing some corporations "crowdsourcing" their creativity.  They hold competitions in which all the design talent "out there" is encouraged to apply.  The best work is selected…and paid much less than my friend would have charged.  In sum, demand may be increasing, but supply is increasing more. So prices are falling.

A case in point: that image that appears in the upper right hand corner of this post?  I just bought it from istockphoto.  It cost me a dollar.

4) Creative professionals may lose their moment in the sun.

The economics of creativity may be changing, and this trend appears to be on a collision with the trend that made designers the charmed creatures of the corporation.  It’s possible that the great golden age of commercial creativity may end almost before it began.  By the end of the decade of the next century, we may be looking at a very different design world.

5) Recommendation

In the new "crowdsourced" economy, there will be one place where designers will continue to flourish.  It will be with clients who do not know what they need.  When they do know what they need, they will take advantage of the new economy.  But when they don’t, they will need a enduring connection with a designers who gets who they are, who the consumer is, and what the culture is.  They will need designers who deliver a larger package of knowledge, intelligence, and creativity.  (To be sure, this is the way great designers always seen what they do.)  The upshot?Designers should be cultivating the skills that enable them to deliver ideas and intelligence, not just design.  (To be fair, this is what all design schools say they do.)  This will take a new order of professional development.  (It will mean that designers will have to be Chief Culture Officers, whomever else they are.)

There’s good news: that as the world grows more dynamic, more and more clients are going to need more foundational work from their designers.  They won’t know what they need. They will come to the designer with a wish for a bigger picture, pattern recognition, a true knowledge and mastery of culture, a feeling for the competitive field and a deeper skill set that is perhaps now usual.

References

Florida, Richard. 2003. The Rise of the Creative Class: And How It’s Transforming Work, Leisure, Community and Everyday Life. Basic Books.

Jenkins, Henry. 1992. Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Culture. Routledge.

McCracken, Grant.  1997.  Plenitude.  Toronto: Periph Fluide.

McCracken, Grant.  2009.  Chief Culture Officer.  Basic Books.

Mandel, Michael.  2004.  "This Way to the Future." BusinessWeek, October 11.

Kelley, Thomas, and Jonathan Littman. 2005. The Ten Faces of Innovation: IDEO’s Strategies for Defeating the Devil’s Advocate and Driving Creativity Throughout Your Organization. New York: Broadway Business.

Moldoveanu, Mihnea C., and Roger L. Martin. 2008. The Future of the MBA: Designing the Thinker of the Future. New York: Oxford University Press.

Winsor, John.  2009.  The power of And.  John Winsor’s Blog.  December 30. here.

Acknowledgment

I have the uneasy feeling that my recommendation comes from someone somewhere.  I have been reading widely over the holidays, and there has been a lot of water under the board (internet surfing, that is).  If someone knows the source of this argument, please let me know.

Note: this post was lost late last year due to Network Solutions’ incompetence.  I am reposting it today December 31, 2010.