Mash-ups and Participatory Culture

“A participatory culture is a culture with relatively low barriers to artistic expression and civic engagement, strong support for creating and sharing one’s creations, and some type of informal mentorship whereby what is known by the most experienced is passed along to novices. A participatory culture is also one in which members believe their contributions matter, and feel some degree of social connection with one another.” (Jenkins, 3) Expressions are a form of participatory culture which include producing new creative forms. Mash-ups are one particular creative form that became popular within early participatory culture and survive to this day. 

In 1997,  aspiring filmmaker Kevin Rubio sought out to make a mash-up of two very different worlds. He would take elements from a popular TV documentary; COPS and mix it with a specific element of the popular Star Wars films; Storm Troopers. He would name this short ‘mockmentary’ TROOPS. 

Set in the fictional universe of Star Wars, Rubio used the infamous Imperial Stormtroopers of the Black Sheep Squadron that patrolled the Dune Sea on the planet Tatooine as his main subject. The story follows the group as they comb the desert as if they were a modern police force out on patrol to keep the peace. As they perform their duty, they come into contact with various characters from the film.

The film became a launch-pad for the modern fan-film movement as it was one of the first to make use of the digital age. Rubio took advantage of internet distribution avenues and used low-budget special effects and film equipment as well as movie-quality costumes. TROOPS was an instant success within the fan community and was even awarded the Pioneer Award in 2002 in the Official Star Wars Fan Film Awards sponsored by Lucasfilm. Later, Rubio would even be offered a job by Steven Spielberg.

 Rubio wasn’t the average fan when he made TROOPS however, he was already employed in the film-making industry and working at the Fox Kids network when he began production. Rubio even managed to use well-know voice actors also employed by the network to work on his film. This brings to mind the problem of the participation gap that Jenkins brings up; “the unequal access to the opportunities, experiences, skills, and knowledge that will prepare you for full participation in the world of tomorrow.” (pg. 3) Was Rubio at an unfair advantage considering the professional position he was already in when he inadvertently became a founder of remix and mash-up culture? 

Rubio had tapped in to one of the skills of participatory culture Jenkins defines as Appropriation – the ability to meaningfully sample and remix media content at a time before participatory culture was well known. Today, nearly 16 years later, such skills are being taught in classrooms all over the world. Appropriation being only one of the many skills Jenkins notes that are needed in new media culture. Such skills include play, performance, simulation, multitasking, distributed cognition, collective intelligence, judgment, Transmedia navigation, networking and negotiation. These skills combined with the advances in technology are making things easier than they ever have been before to create professional-looking films with little technical know-how, experience and budget and have all led to a whole new era in fan-generated content. 

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