Welcome to the herd: The Bronies


I remember the first time I heard about My Little Pony (MLP). I was online, searching for interesting mods (‘modifications’)  to a role-playing game I play when I chanced upon a My Little Pony version. I then remember ‘youtubing’ the mod and watching cartoonish pegasi (instead of the game’s original dragons) flying around within the game world, squealing all the while (today I’ve learnt that the squeals are actually a pretty famous line from the series). Dismissing it as a tribute to another game which featured flying pegasi (‘Mr Toots’ from Red Faction), I closed the window and moved on. That was probably my first encounter with the children’s cartoon series, My Little Pony and its global community of much older and interestingly, male fans known as the Bronies (short for Bro Ponies – female fans of the series are known as Pegasisters).

So who are the Bronies? And why might they be worth sociological study? Perhaps it would be best to begin with a brief introduction to the My Little Pony cartoon series. First created in 1982, MLP began as a toy figurine created by Bonnie Zacherle in 1981. Then known as My Pretty Pony, it was produced by Hasbro and marketed as a toy for young girls. In 1983, the toy was redesigned and perhaps most importantly, renamed as My Little Pony. Sales of the toys took off and since then, a total of 4 generations (Wikipedia 2012) of MLP toys have been sold in the US and around the world. The first MLP cartoon series was broadcast on television in 1986. Running for a year, the action/adventure series consisted of 63 10 minute episodes. A second cartoon series, My Little Pony Tales, was launched in 1992. It ran for 6 months and was significantly different in terms of genre (‘slice of life’ (Wikipedia 2012)) and target audience (‘older pre-adolescents’ (ibid)) from its predecessor. For the next 18 years, there would be no MLP cartoons though the toy line would see significant changes.

In 2010, Hasbro brought on animator Lauren Faust (who previously worked on another famous cartoon series, the Powerpuff Girls) to reboot the cartoon series. Titled My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic, the cartoon tells the story of six ponies who embark on a quest to save the land of Equestria from evil as well as spread the messages of love, friendship and tolerance. Under Faust’s direction, the animation and art styles of the series were updated. A new storyline as well as new characters were introduced. Perhaps the greatest change was Faust’s conscious decision to steer clear of the ‘usual gender stereotypes, such as equating girls with pink’ (Ann Zechariah 2011) and keeping the show gender neutral (ibid). Evidently, these changes have worked, attracting not only more young girls aged between 6 to 12 but new and unexpected audiences as well – by this, I am of course referring to the Bronies.

So who are the Bronies? In short, they are a ‘worldwide community of fanboys, from tweens to grown men, who have fallen in love with the show’ (Ann Zachariah 2011:2). However, Bronies do not just merely watch the show. Their love for the show is expressed in a wide variety of other practices which range from buying dolls of their favourite pony to writing fanfiction and even attending MLP conventions. But one may ask, aren’t there other worldwide communities of fanboys who have fallen in love with other cartoons and who display similar behaviours? How do they differ from your fanboy who enjoys The Clone Wars series or Avatar: The Last Airbender? As Rebecca Angel (2012) suggests in her column entitled “In Defense of Bronies”, Bronies have evoked strong negative reactions from certain people (in Angel’s article, certain other Wired writers). Their comments range from “pedophilia, to escapism, to gender and age bias, to delayed maturation’. Perhaps the most common reaction have been those that accuse them of emasculation, that bronies are not masculine and not straight either because they like “girl” things (Angel 2012). It appears that despite Faust’s decision to keep the show gender-neutral, collective memory continues to ‘gender’ and view MLP through other coloured lenses. Bronies thus constitute a subculture in the sense that they are considered non-normative and possibly occupy a marginal position in the overall male gender structure.

As earlier mentioned, the bronies can be found throughout the world, even in Singapore (Ann Zachariah 2011). The Singapore Bronies Society (a Facebook page set up in August 2011) represents the local community of bronies. The 834 members (as of 2nd September 2012) of the SBS represent both genders (although it appears a significant of them are male), the 4 races and several nationalities. In my survey of its membership, it appears that most members would be considered youths in terms of age. Like most Bronies around the world, the Singapore bronies also create fan-art, fan-fiction, create remix videos, cosplay amongst other fan practices. They have also organised gatherings. Somewhat inspired by the series itself, the SBS pledge is to “Pledge ourselves as one united group. Regardless of parasprites, manticores and hydras. To build an awesome society, based on dedication and more awesomeness. So as to achieve honesty, loyalty, kindness, generosity, laughter and magic for our group!” (Singapore Bronies Society 2012)

Bibliography

Angel, Rebecca. 2012. “In Defense of Bronies.” Wired, May 27.

Ann Zachariah, Natasha. 2011. “Pony posse.” Straits Times, October 30.

“Singapore Bronies Society: About.” 2012. Singapore Bronies Society Facebook Page. Retrieved September 01, 2012. (https://www.facebook.com/groups/singaporebroniessociety/members/)

My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic fandom.” 2012. Wikipedia.org. Retrieved September 01, 2012. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bronies)

Bronyspeak
Welcome to the herd: After an individual gets hooked on the show, other fans often formally welcome them by saying “Welcome to the herd”. This is commonly combined with an image macro featuring the character Pinkie Pie with hypnotic swirly eyes. Other variations of welcoming have also been created along with various catchphrases. A popular derivative of this is“You shall be assimilated”.

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The Master/The Sifu

The Project

Vincent Ng. Ip Man. Recent gold medal. Jet Li. Fighting Movies. Gymnastics. Words one can associate with wushu. But what is wushu exactly? And who practices it in Singapore? What does wushu look like today? Are films representative of this traditional art or are they glammed up, fake distortions? These are but some of the questions that The Tao of Fighting (http://the-tao-of-fighting.blogspot.com/) seeks to answer.

Synopsis

Apart from the incredible and sometimes deadly fighting moves that characterize all martial arts, most martial arts are characterized by Master-Disciple relationships. Wushu is no different. In this video, we interview Zhong Sifu, an experienced wushu instructor who trains students (both new and old) at a community centre. We asked him to tell us more about wushu as well as what it is like to be and become a Wushu Master.

Credits:
Zhong Sifu of Wufang Singapore
Braddell Heights CC
Singapore Wushu Dragon & Lion Dance Federation
The International Wushu Federation (IWUF)
Mountain Dew (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7Vi1JjPlbYQ)
freesound.org

Photos and video taken by:
Tang Chee Seng and Aaron Chan

Narration by:
Aaron Chan

Final Project Individual Proposal

Working Title: “Martial Art or Art? Wushu in Singapore”

Group: Chee Seng, Jennifer, Jeannie, Aaron

Synopsis of main story:
Every Saturday, youths make their way to a basketball court in Serangoon Central to fight. Fight? Yes indeed, to fight. You see, these youths are wushu practitioners, members of the wushu community in Singapore, some of whom gather at Serangoon Central (amongst many other places) to learn and train with others like themselves every Saturday. In recent years, the number of wushu practitioners and learners (especially amongst the young) has significantly increased, this in part being due to the popularity of several recent wuxia films such as the Ip Man series. Not only have such films swelled enrollment and club numbers but they have also re-ignited interest in Chinese culture. Such gains however,in the eyes of some, have not come without their consequences. Some practitioners feel wushu has become too commercial and modern at the expense of the traditional and more authentic forms which are less flashy and entertaining. Others see this as a generational gap and that traditional wushu may well die out with the few remaining practitioners. Through our website and journalistic works, we thus hope  to tell stories about wushu, the Singaporean wushu community, their struggles with change and their views on the future.

We have identified several potential sub-stories that complement as well as contribute to the larger main story in our assignment. Amongst these sub-stories (and the one which I will be taking up), is a story that revolves around a shifu or master within the Serangoon wushu community. We know all too well the stereotypes of martial arts masters from our Hollywood films and Hong Kong dramas but what does the modern martial arts Master look like, especially in highly cosmopolitan Singaporean society? How does a Master trained in traditional methods (mastery often taking years of practice and a total embracing of the underlying philosophies) reconcile his teaching of the more popular and ‘quickly learned’ contemporary style? Who will inherit his un-taught teachings? Through our informant within the wushu community, we have gained access to as well as the permission of a shifu teaching the contemporary style of wushu to be interviewed. Through this interview, I believe that I will be able to answer the questions I have mentioned above, questions that tell the story of a modern day shifu and at the same time, relate to the wider themes of the main story.

With regard to the presentation of the Master’s story, my group and I have chosen to make and post a video record of the interview that will be accompanied by text as well as photos. The accompanying text will not be a full transcript of the interview but rather a narrative informed by the interview (much like the interviews that appear in the Monday editions of ST Life) about the interviewee. In doing so, we thus provide our viewers the option of viewing either.

The Place of Web Documentaries in Journalism

What is the place of web documentaries in journalism? Why don’t or why shouldn’t web documentaries have a place in journalism? What do we understand/mean by ‘a place’? Who are the actors in this struggle? These are but some of the questions going through my mind as I type out this response out.

Let me begin by trying to define journalism in my own way. Journalism is meant to inform, so it’s about getting information and presenting it to a local (and increasingly global) population of readers. Presentable information are mainly those in the form of stories, facts and figures, verbatim as in speeches and interviews. Such information is held up to certain standards of accuracy, ethics, timeliness and so on — journalistic standards. Journalism also implies the playing of roles, there is the journalist and on the other side, the reader/viewer/radio-listener. My understanding of journalism is in many ways shaped by the traditional notion of journalism as well as by the many contesting notions that we the tech-savvy generation are increasingly exposed to (whether consciously or unconsciously).

So should web documentaries have a place in journalism? (which implies yet another question – does it fit the traditional notion of journalism? Or is the notion of journalism completely redefined?) For the moment, I have to hold off this question yet again to firstly get a sense of what web documentaries themselves are.

According to Katerina Cizek, web documentaries represent the intersection of journalism, digital media, an issue e.g. healthcare and the community (the immediate local community involved in that issue as well as communities outside it e.g. the wider world). Unlike traditional documentaries, web documentaries aim for greater engagement and participation by communities i.e the community around which the documentary is centred as well as the participating community out there (the viewers, readers etc). For the former group, it aims to give them a voice, to have them tell their own stories, in ethnographic terminology, to tell a story from an emic perspective. For the latter group, it aims not to be a dictatorial voice telling how and what to understand. Rather, it aims to create a more ‘authentic’ experience whereby the viewer/watching participant develops his own understanding, his own connection (without the help of a voice from nowhere) with the featured community. Cizek moreover notes that web documentaries seek not just to create the conditions for individual understanding but also to create political action, to create change. In many ways, the ‘journalism’ of web documentaries radically contests the notions of journalism that the industry has long held onto. Personally, I do not think it is not a case of what place should web documentaries have in the current notion of journalism but when the revolutionary paradigm shift in journalism is going to take place. It is hard to say if the revolution is currently on-going (after all, we have not made a clean break from traditional notions of journalism) but I think it may be the case that certain aspects of the new paradigm are evident. It will be more participatory, an ongoing dialogue, journalism will re-connect with the community and so on.

Other than HIGHRISE, I watched a few other web documentaries such as

http://www.thanatorama.com/us/?#/about/ and

http://nyminute.arte.tv/en/serie-106/

One thing struck me however when watching them, though these documentaries seek to build communities yet their community building efforts are somewhat limited. Looking around HIGHRISE, I tried finding an FB page for them to no avail. Not to mention, it occurred to me that the documentary could be more participatory by perhaps starting up a section for viewers to post up their own video responses of their own stories about urban living. I would argue this extends the documentary, it keeps the issues of urban living current and the growing community together. Why limit the ‘community’ documentary to just these 13 cities and 49 stories?

I guess we still need to work out the new paradigm of journalism that web documentaries undoubtedly deserve a place in. However, to get there, I believe web documentary makers like Cizek have to keep pushing the boundaries further and further.

**Just another thought: why do web documentaries need their own separate website? If documentary makers are truly interested in building communities around these issues, why not work an arrangement with social media platforms which already have stable communities and provide a stable platform for new ones to form?

Can Algorithms Write About Real Sheep? The Place of Algorithms in Journalism

Is journalism better served by algorithms that aggregate data, or by when humans who assimilate data and postulate? How and why?

Data is undoubtedly important and necessary for journalism. All journalism is supported by/based upon/written around data. The investigative journalist who interviews government officials on alleged corruption, the feature writer who spends days observing in a public setting. These journalists are involved in the process of gathering data. All of them rely on data for their journalistic articles. The journalist collects data from various sources, he organises and analyses them and incorporates them in the story that he is telling. In the last few decades and with the rise of post-industrial knowledge-based economies, the relationship between data and journalism is changing. A few third parties have entered and changed the data-journalist relationship – the computer, the Internet, the algorithm. We have also seen the emergence of a new type of journalism, data driven journalism or what Stray defines as “obtaining, reporting on, curating and publishing data in the public interest.” You may ask, is this not what traditional journalism is already doing? Thus, a second qualifier to Stray’s definition, data driven journalism or data journalism deals with open data or data that is freely available online and which can be organised, analyzed and presented with open source tools. One may already be to see the links between data journalism and the third parties I have mentioned. I however would like to focus on just one third party – the algorithm.

Is the place of algorithms in journalism new?

I would like to argue otherwise. I believe that algorithms have long been with us. Correct me if I am wrong but I would argue that the use of algorithms in journalism probably began somewhat indirectly with the tie-ups between the Gallup Organisation and various US newspaper companies in conducting and publishing  presidential campaign surveys. With the appearance of personal computers in the 1980s, algorithms were more ‘visible’ as traditional journalism became more and more computer-assisted. What is new or possibly about the algorithm-journalism relationship today is this: there are an increasing number of them available (even to the public), their complexity, the nature of the data these algorithms deal (open source etc), we are very much more reliant on algorithms than before and finally there is the possibility of  algorithms taking over the journalist’s role.

So can algorithms write about real sheep?

In a recent computer game, Deus Ex Human Revolution, an AI (ok fine, an algorithm) known as Eliza Cassan reports the news. She doesn’t report what humans tell her to report. In fact, she decides what to report. She creates the news. Sounds too unreal? Well, take a look at this http://www.guardian.co.uk/media/pda/2010/mar/30/digital-media-algorithms-reporting-journalism

So, it seems the future of journalism is Skynet.

Is that bad?

Why would I argue against algorithms in journalism? To a certain extent, its hard to. Algorithms in fact do a very good job of organising, analysing and presenting data. If I want to understand society as a whole, on a macro level, algorithms do the grunt work of aggregating or averaging masses of data – making a complex whole understandable.

But can the uniqueness and individuality of human experience be completely translated into mathematical language? Does knowing the average income, educational levels of the chronically poor in Singapore equate understanding poverty? I think not. Algorithms need to be ‘put in their place’. They do a very good job of giving us macro/society wide information but they are but one source of telling us about human experience. They inform us but in themselves, they cannot give rise to true understanding (the understandings they promote can be very narrow). For instance, they can tell us about the growing number of casualties in Afghanistan. We may feel horror that in the month of May, some 22 young men and women died violently and that the numbers are not projected to dip any time soon. But they cannot tell us what it is like to be a soldier in Afghanistan. They can tell us ‘what’ but not really ‘why’ (Why is it right to fight in Afghanistan? Why do men and women willingly die for their country?). In a sense, flatness (algorithmic averaging of human experience) is necessary but not everything. Hence the need for human writers and micro articles that algorithms cannot produce (on a side note, it sort of confirms the news can never really be objective, some element of subjectivity is definitely necessary).

Recovery.Gov Tracking the Tracking of Money

Data is a raw, vast mass. There are patterns (and sometimes these patterns no doubt can be easily identified) but often enough, the data does not speak for itself. It requires organisation, interpretation and analysis. For the viewing audience, it requires presentation.

http://www.recovery.gov/Transparency/Pages/DataExplorer.aspx?bk=183eda88-1598-4509-95ff-4aaa10aaa999&t=RnVuZHMgQXdhcmRlZCBieSBTdGF0ZSBieSBDYXRlZ29yeQ==

THE RECOVERY EXPLORER

One of the things that stands out about Recovery.Gov’s presentation is its claim that users can “Create and customize your own charts and graphs. ”

I took this claim seriously and set out to verify it. The main page of the explorer tells me what kinds of graphs I can expect to use: tree graphs versus bar charts as well as a list of categories corresponding to these two types of graphs.

I clicked on “Funds Awarded by State by Category” (a category under the bar charts). Though it enables much customisation, it is only somewhat first time user friendly. There’s a tutorial at the bottom whose main purpose is to inform you which is what. Honestly, I would have preferred a little tutorial video, taking me through the process. So, it took me a while to figure out how to create a customised graph for myself. The problem however is that there are almost no written summaries accompanying the graphs so unless one is in the know, the customised graphs don’t really make much sense. Hmm I would have liked a little window to appear with a written summary (the summary done up by an algorithm) whenever I moved my cursor over parts of the data – it would really help!

So does it make the complicated clear? For someone in the know (and even for someone not in the know), the data is well presented. The graphs are clear, the customisation simplifies and keeps the viewer interested but the lack of accompanying summaries to the customised presented data means one has to be in the know to understand even that simplified data. I’m guessing the audience for Recovery.Gov is likely to be a niche, dedicated audience rather than the masses (which is somewhat ironic given general American concerns about government spending).

Where We Ate, Where We Eat Now: Another Singapore Story

Synopsis
Some time in the middle of 2006, a chicken rice stall in an old Sennett Estate shophouse just off Upper Serangoon Road lowered its shutters for the last time. No doubt, it would probably mean little to many but for many patrons of that stall (including me), its closure was many things. For patrons, it meant the disappearance of excellent homemade chilli and savory kampong chicken not to mention rice carefully soaked in the right amount of oil for the right amount of time. For the congregation of a church nearby, it meant the disappearance of a convenient source of food as well as a gathering place after church. For me (the director of this slideshow), it meant the disappearance of what up till then I had taken for granted as a familiar, seemingly eternal and memory-laden place in his life. Food spaces, like many other spaces in everyday life, inevitably become entwined with individual biographies. Everyday life makes these spaces (which suggest utilitarian functionality) ‘places’ or spaces which become laden with individual or collective memories and meanings. Talking about places in a sense, becomes a way of talking about history, about life as it is lived. It is an unfortunate consequence of modernity that the physical dimensions of ‘place’ are no longer stable. In our modern era (and particularly fast-changing Singapore), we no longer speak of stability of physical places. Rather, you often hear the discourse of ‘urban renewal’ and ‘development’. The chicken rice stall I used to eat at is one such ‘casualty’ of our obsession with development. Where the shophouse once stood is now a widened outer lane of Serangoon Road. The physical dimensions of ‘place’ are evidently no longer stable, they can be torn down to make way for modernity, for development, for novelty. Stable ‘places’ can therefore only exist in individual and collective memories. The object of this slideshow is therefore an attempt to recapture those lost food ‘places’ and an alternative history of Singapore through memories (mine and those of others) associated with these lost and current food ‘places’. It is also to account for the feelings of nostalgia that we as Singaporeans (and possibly all moderns) feel, caught as we are in a sea of changes.