The MIT Alumni Association’s online directory has some pretty distinctive job titles, like Chief Mom Officer and Chief Event Wrangler. But one title has eluded MIT’s 130,000+ alumni: professional wrestler1, although Sam Ford SM ’07 comes close. (Editor’s note: See our update at the end of this story.)
From 2005–2007, while Ford was a graduate student at MIT, he was a licensed professional wrestling manager in his home state of Kentucky, where he portrayed the villainous character of an academic aristocrat who feverishly checked his Blackberry and snubbed his nose at the wrestling audience.
“My character had great disdain for the state of Kentucky—he was offended to even step foot on bluegrass,” Ford says. “In reality, I grew up there and I raise my family there now. But it was great insight into audience engagement and participatory culture, which I studied at CMS/W.”
Devious character aside, a shared love of wrestling connected him with former CMS/W co-director Henry Jenkins, and as a CMS/W graduate student, Ford taught MIT’s only course on professional wrestling in 2007.
“One radio host called it a sign of the apocalypse,” Ford says. “In reality, it looked at the cultural and media history of American pro wrestling. The course brought an eclectic mix of students from media studies, humanities, science, and engineering.”
Ford spoke to Slice of MIT at the 2015 South by Southwest (SXSW) Interactive festival, where he was part of a four-person panel that discussed the rise of paid editing in Wikipedia and its impact on internet neutrality and transparency in advertising. Ford was one of more than 100 MIT alumni who presented at the festival.
“I’ve always been interested in Wikipedia as a societal endeavor—it’s a collaborative project where people can build on individual expertise,” he says. “Wikipedia has a conflict of interest policy. You shouldn’t directly edit an entry related to a company you work for or with, for instance. Many business executives don’t understand how the Wikipedia project works.”
Ford helps brands better understand Wikipedia, and the importance of editing transparency, through his work as director of audience engagement at Peppercomm, a communications and marketing firm that specializes in audience engagement through new media. (He’s also an adjunct faculty member at Western Kentucky University.)
“Wikipedia is near the top of most organizations’ search engine rankings, and, meanwhile, more and brands are trying to connect with their audience directly,” he says. “There is a growing number of instances of companies getting caught editing their own Wikipedia entries. That’s a big problem, especially when they try to hide what the FTC calls ‘material connections’ that create a conflict of interest.”
Ford’s interest in Wikipedia stemmed from his overall CMS/W research, where he studied participatory cultures, collective intelligence, and the future of storytelling and audience engagement in a digital era. In 2013, he, Jenkins, and former MIT researcher Joshua Green co-authored Spreadable Media: Creating Value and Meaning in a Networked Culture.
And perhaps no group is more participatory that a professional wrestling audience, who boo and cheer based on choreographed actions in the ring. As for an MIT-educated pro wrestler? Ford doesn’t think it’s that far off.
“We’ll call him the Fighting Beaver,” he says. “Beavers are innovative and focused on a sort of fighting spirit and attitude, just like the MIT ethos. It’s a perfect fit for the wrestling world.”