Commodity activism in a transmedia world: our latest publication
There’s an academic publications page on our blog that gives a taste of, and provides access to, our research papers about the followthethings.com project. A book chapter has just been published in an open access e-book that brings together a series of lectures in Switzerland asking if and how social scientific research can transform society. Our answer is a qualified yes.
Cook et al, I. (2017) followthethings.com: analysing relations between the making, reception and impact of commodity activism in a transmedia world. in Ola Söderström, Laure Kloetzer & Hugues Jeannerat (eds) Innovations Sociales: Comment les Sciences Sociales contribuent à transformer la Société, MAPS: Université de Neuchâtel, 50-61 Full Text
What we are keen to find out are what filmmaking, artistic and activist tactics lead to what kinds of public and corporate responses, and with what kinds of impacts on whom. There is an established argument that, when this work is didactic and tries to enroll its audiences through blame, shame and guilt, it tends to fail. Audiences feel powerless, overwhelmed, apathetic, and angry at those making them feel this way rather that at the injustices exposed (Barnett 2010, Sandlin & Milam 2008, Cook & Woodyer 2012). Even the most cursory examination of our website suggests that the elements of, and relationships set out in, this argument are quite narrowly defined. To illustrate this, we offer below a taste of what’s to come from the analysis of the followthethings.com archive. We provisionally outline one engagement tactic, one kind of consumer response, one kind of corporate response, and one kind of impact.
On the making of followthethings.com
Here’s Ian et al’s first paper about the making of followthethings.com. It was published in French in 2014 and has recently been made available on open access. You can now download the paper as it was originally written in English. If you want the French version, click here.
followthethings.com was not designed and then made, but emerged from an iterative, creative, collaborative, conversation-infused, open-ended, making project. The paper is written to reflect this. Here’s the abstract: Continue reading
Talk: keeping conversations going with Political LEGO
At the end of 2015, followthethings.com CEO Ian Cook gave a talk explaining why we re-create scenes described on our website it LEGO, what our shoppers like about them, and what they add to our scholar-activist work. That talk was filmed and you can watch it below. He talked through a series of re-creations made in response to the controversy provoked by a TV documentary film called ‘Primark on the rack’ that was first broadcast 2008, and re-energised by Primark’s response to the Rana Plaza collapse in 2013. It draws upon the work of Political LEGO artists like legofesto, whose conversation with Julia Zielke we published a few months ago. Ian’s talk outlines the argument being made in an academic paper he’s currently writing. Think of this talk as its Trailer….
Quite literally ‘following the thing’
Talking about our site with students at Bath Spa University this week, I wanted to show the most literal (and chilling) example of the ‘follow the things’ genre. It’s the only example we have come across which follows something as it’s being made, shipped, and used: telling the story of a thing’s life from the perspective of the thing itself, from its ‘point of view’, like a ‘shoot-em-up’ video game. It’s the ‘Life of a bullet’, the opening scene from the 2005 movie ‘Lord of War’.
Life of a bullet
Revisiting this opening scene, we made a new Lego re-creation today using the decommissioned AK47 bullet that we bought as a necklace from an E-Bay seller in Canada. We initially bought it to take the product photo on this example’s followthethings.com page, but it’s still sitting in our office, with our Lego, so…
Our page about the making, discussion and impacts of this opening scene is here. To see all of our Lego re-creations, check this ‘Made in Lego’ set on flickr.
‘Changing habits for good’ with followthethings.com
We have recently started working with the Scottish Development Educational Council (SCOTDEC) who have invited us to run a followthethings.com workshop at a ‘development education’ conference in Krakow this week. This is the first teacher conference in the ‘Changing habits for good’ project which brings together school teachers from Scotland, Poland, Slovenia and Bulgaria (for more, see the project outline below). We’re taking part via a videolink, and this is the blog post that will hopefull organise what happens. We’ve been asked to introduce our website and the wider project, including our ongoing ‘classroom’ project, and then to talk through some of the shopping bag activities we’ve posted on the Guerrilla Geography education website Mission:Explore.
This is followthethings.com
What is followthethings.com?
- It’s an online shopping website, if you understand ‘shopping’ to involve betraying the origins of things, like you might ‘shop’ a person to the police.
- It’s designed to have the look, feel and architecture of familiar online stores.
- It’s stocked with examples of art work, documentary film, journalism, activism, academic, student and other work revealing the lives of everyday things, i.e. the relations between their producers and consumers hidden by commodity fetishism.
- It shows how their makers tried to make these relations apparent, visible, tangible in ways that might move their audiences to act by trying to make them feel guilty, shocked, appreciative, awkward and/or involved in other people’s lives and work.
- It researches what its makers and viewers have said online about each example: what it aimed to do, how it was made, what discussions it provoked, and what impacts it had.
- It’s full of quotations that are arranged so that they read like a conversation, a conversation that can move from the computer screen into the classroom as teachers create lesson plans and schemes of work with its contents.
- It aims to inform and inspire new ‘follow the things’ work (by teachers, their students, as well as artists, filmmakers, journalists and others), which we hope to publish on the site too. Some examples of new work have already been published.
- It has become a popular website for teachers looking to engage their students in North-South relations via the geographies of commodities. So, we’re working on a new ‘classroom page’ to bright together materials and ideas already developed for this purpose.
First: let’s browse!
Click the homepage image above and you’ll get to the store. Get a sense of what’s available by browsing its departments. Where do you want to look? I’ll talk about any page you choose!
Second: a preview of our classroom page
Our site isn’t intended for any particular group of people.But we know that school teachers and their students are keen to use it. This is a page whose contents we’ve been working on for the past couple of months, with a teacher trainer, student teachers, an educational consultant, and undergraduate students. It’s not published yet, but will be by the end of this month.
Third: workshop activities
To get a sense of the educational materials and activities on this page that could imaginatively engage students in ‘development’ issues, we were hoping to give out some of our shopping bags (they didn’t arrive on time, unfortunately). We had these made in a factory in China that makes them for UK supermarkets. They are made by the same people, in the same way, to the same specifications. And we have produced a series of missions based on their lives and travels on the Guerrilla Geography education site Mission:Explore.
To get a vivid sense of Guerrilla Geography and Mission:Explore are all about, this video is excellent ( you don’t have to be a geographer to find this interesting!)
There are six shopping bag missions, starting with ‘get the bag’, and ending with ‘go ladybugging’! You can complete the series to win the ‘followthethings.com champion shopper’ badge, and you can borrow and adapt these missions for classroom, fieldwork or homework activities for your students.
1. get the bag – 2.where was it made? – 3. who made it?
4. where has it been? – 5. go secret shopping – 6. go ladybugging.
We’ll go through the missions this afternoon, and then try one or two now (perhaps even setting one as homework). These aren’t impossible if you don’t have the bags. We will have to improvise! And feed back tomorrow morning…?
If you want to find out more, please comment on this post or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org . Thanks!
You can also follow us on Twitter and Facebook. We’re happy to answer questions there too!
PS: ‘Changing habits for good’
This is a 3 year project funded through the European Commission’s programme for ‘Raising public awareness of development issues and promoting development education in the European Union’ (details here). It brings together a organizations in Scotland (SCOTDEC), Poland (Polish Green Network), Bulgaria (Creative Effective Grassroots Alternatives) and Slovenia (Institute for African Studies).
Thinking geographically: with followthethings.com
In this post, I want to briefly set out ways in which High School Geography teachers in the USA (and elsewhere) could use our site with their students. Why? Totally by coincidence. We’re visiting the Watson Institute at Brown University this week. Across the hall, a conference for High School Geography teachers is taking place that’s organised via Brown’s Choices program. When they found out that we were here and have been working this year on our classroom project – creating resources for UK school Geography teachers – I was asked to talk about this just before dinner today (for 10 minutes). This is the blog post that I’ll be showing on screen, combining what we’ve already done and what’s coming next in the followthethings.com project.
1. the main idea
This is explained in the short paper circulated at the conference. This was published in a journal produced by the Geographical Association – the professional association of Geography teachers in the UK – for High School Geography students and their teachers. The paper begins:
Many of us pay little or no attention to where the things in our lives come from. We may be concerned about factory conditions in other parts of the world, but not feel any direct sense of connec- tion with the people working there. ‘Made in…’ labels and ingredient infor- mation don’t tell us much about these connections and relationships. But they can be starting points for ‘geographi- cal detective work’ (Hartwick, 2000). This can allow teachers and students to piece together their understanding of commodities and their complex geographies, and provoke classroom discussion about the impacts of con- sumers’ decisions, which inevitably draw upon the key geographical concepts including:
globalisation – uneven development – interdependence – scale and connection –
proximity and distance – relational thinking – identity responsibility
This paper includes examples of student ‘follow it yourself’ research on socks, chewing gum and an iPod. You can download it here.
2. the website
This is the spoof online shopping site that opened in 2011. It contains over 60 examples of films, art work, and activism that aims to show consumers who makes our stuff, and to encourage us to discuss the rights and wrongs of globalisation and international trade. Each example has been thoroughly researched, and that research is showcased here. There are also examples of original student work, including the 3 examples in the paper quoted above. Please click the image to get to the site and browse…
3. the missions
The site isn’t made for teachers and their students. It’s made for anyone and everyone who makes this kind of work, or wants to teach with this kind of work. But its core ideas and content fits into the UK High School Geography curriculum in many ways. So we’re now working with Geography teachers and teacher-educators to develop and publish ideas and teaching resources for schools. The first of these was a series of missions on the Guerilla Geography site Mission:Explore. Its Explorers do missions, earn points and can win badges.
We have a series of six missions focused on the reusable followthethings.com shopping bags that we had made in China and are now giving away free to anyone who wants one (see our site’s Shopping Bag page here). The links for the missions are here (you don’t have to do the missions, some teachers just borrow and adapt the ideas):
1. get the bag – 2.where was it made? – 3. who made it?
4. where has it been? – 5. go secret shopping – 6. go ladybugging.
These are the postcards that one trainee teacher asked her students to write based on Mission 3:
Woop. The postcards for our @The_GA conference workshop on Friday are back from the printers. Nice work @OprahJade pic.twitter.com/Wnnsjf2QtA
— followthethings.com (@followthethings) April 3, 2013
4. our classroom page
This is what we’re working in at the moment with educational consultant and soon-to-be-a-Geography-Teacher-again Alan Parkinson (see his excellent Living Geography blog here). We’re pooling resources in a soon-to-be published ‘classroom page’, which includes this searchable map (draft copy below).
5. get in touch!
St Valentine’s Day: love, following, things.
We are going to love this week at followthethings.com HQ.
We’ve redesigned our website’s header for the season. Here it is:
[click the Cherubs’ banner, and you will get to this page]
We’re adding Finland’s favourite chocolate to our site, a new page created by University of Helsinki MPhil student Eeva Kemppainen. She’s working with us in Exeter this Spring. She is creating our first pages to be simultaneously published in English and Finnish.
We’re re-creating a scene from this new page in Lego, to add to our ‘Made in Lego…’ flickr set.
We’ve started to tweet Valentine’s Day issues, stories and activism. Like this:
“Guidance for consumers on Valentine’s Day” from @f2w & @ilrf laborrightsblog.typepad.com/international_… — followthethings.com (@followthethings) February 10, 2013
Did you know? Valentine’s Day is also ‘International Flower Workers Day”. See @waronwant‘s story waronwant.org/component/cont… — followthethings.com (@followthethings) February 10, 2013
Sending flowers? Wanting flowers? Check this @openuniversity blog post on “The ethics of St. Valentine’s Day” open.ac.uk/platform/blogs… — followthethings.com (@followthethings) February 10, 2013
On Thursday, all of our efforts will come together in a public Lecture at the University of Exeter. It’s ‘The St Valentine’s Day public lecture: love, following, things.” Here’s the opening slide:
Here’s the description on its facebook event page:
Come take part in a public lecture and discussion that puts chocolate, renowned for its romancing qualities, under the spotlight this Valentine’s Day. Ian Cook (Associate Professor of Geography at the University of Exeter) will be using Finnish chocolate (following them through the world economy as physical goods) as a case study in a broader discussion of trade justice and emphatic socio-economic relations. The discussion will also cover the ways in which this approach to understanding the exchange of material goods can be taught and learned in universities, engaging students in the issue of trade justice activism in critical, creative and enthusiastic ways. The event will take place in the Peter Chalk Centre, lecture theatre Newman C. It will take place at 2pm on Thursday 14th February.
Everyone is welcome.
followthethings in a nutshell? Just watch these.
Teaching @followthethings at University or School? We recommend these 2 @theRSAorg Animate films to kick things off iwanttodiscussthat.wordpress.com/2013/01/19/fol…—
followthethings.com (@followthethings) January 19, 2013
At followthethings.com HQ, we are big fans of the RSA Animate series. They really do bring those RSA lectures alive.
They’re also brilliant ways to introduce school and university students to key ideas and literatures.
These two, we think, make awesome introductions for anyone teaching with followthethings.com
The first is perhaps the most well known, with over 2m views. The second has just been published, and complements it beautifully.
PS for more on the animator and the animation process, read this and look here.