Henry Jenkins on ‘Spreadable Media,’ why fans rule, and why ‘The Walking Dead’ lives

Henry Jenkins on ‘Spreadable Media,’ why fans rule, and why ‘The Walking Dead’ lives

January 17, 2013

“If it doesn’t spread, it’s dead”: With this pithy dictum, Henry Jenkins summed up the nature of media distribution in the Internet age. Introduced as “our new mantra” in a 2007 blog post about Jonathan Lethem and slash fiction, it turned up again as the title of a 2008 white paper from the Convergence Culture Consortium, the initiative Henry launched at MIT to explore the changing dynamics of the media industry. Now it’s the central idea that animates Spreadable Media, the new book he’s written with Sam Ford and Joshua Green, two former C3 colleagues who have moved on to consultancy roles — Sam at Peppercomm Strategic Communications, Joshua at Undercurrent. In whatever context, this idea stands as a corrective to the distribution model of the broadcast era, which presumes that control will rest with whoever puts the product out, not with the people who are the market for it. The levers of power have shifted.

Due out next week from NYU Press, Spreadable Media is an essential read for anyone who wants to under­stand how media works today. The book begins by contrasting spread­­ability with sticki­ness, an earlier measure of online appeal that prevailed during the heyday of “Web portals” like AOL and Yahoo! Sticki­­ness was a Web 1.0 concept that tried to port ideas from the broad­cast indus­try into the Web world — ideas like cen­tralization and pull and pre-structured inter­­activity, as opposed to dis­persal and flow and open-ended participation. But the au­thors take issue with Web 2.0 as well, and they seem border­line ap­palled by the “viral” metaphor that has attached itself to the act of online sharing. Participation, they argue, is not a dis­ease, and should not be treated like one. To do so is to denigrate not just the act but the peo­ple who doing it — that is, us.

Henry and I have known each other for sev­eral years—I’ve spoken to his class at USC, and he interviewed me when The Art of Immersion came out. So with Spreadable Media now available for pre-order, I was eager to return the favor. Here’s our email exchange:

When you coined the phrase “participatory culture” in 1992, did you have any idea how participatory it would get?

I never would have imagined it, to be honest. My understanding of the concept has deepened over time. In 1992, I used “participatory culture” as the subtitle of my book, Textual Poachers, which just came out in a 20th anniversary edition. I was trying to set up a basic contrast between the ways that mass media had created a spectator culture and the ways that fandom was asserting a collective and individual right to par­ticipate within media culture, often through the production of new kinds of works — fan fiction primarily, but also fan music and fan video — from the raw materials that the culture industry provided. My thinking at the time was informed by writers like Seymour Papert, who had described the forms of cultural participation which had grown up around the Samba Schools in Brazil, but my thinking lacked much cultural scope or depth.

Over time, we’ve seen a dramatic expansion in the scale and visibility of par­ticipatory culture and it has become much more central to the ways that the media industries work. As I watched the emergence of digital culture, I initially read it through the lens of fandom. So much of what I was seeing — from virtual communities to remix videos — paralleled practices I had identified across the history of fan culture in the United States, and fans were early adapters/adopters of digital technologies, often demonstrating potential uses of platforms and tools which had not been previously anticipated. Yet, fandom is only one strand from which contemporary participatory culture has emerged.

Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, we can point to many different groups which sought to assert greater control over the means of cultural production and circulation, who have sought greater participation in the core decisions that impacted their lives, and who have modeled new kinds of community defined around shared interests rather than geographic location. Many ideas about political participation became a part of the ethos of digital media as a con­se­quence of the migration of counterculture figures, such as Stewart Brand and Howard Rheingold, into the earliest online communities, and the idea of sharing online may owe much to the early influence of academic culture on the web, with the historic obligation of professors to profess, that is, to share what they know with the world.

So today we are seeing diverse forms of participation. We could argue that participation as a concept has been stretched to cover so much that it is losing its value as a distinction from other forms of consumption, and, in my field, there are more and more calls for a new nuanced vocabulary for describing and appraising different forms of participation.

That said, I am careful to describe this culture as “more participatory,” because it is important to acknowledge that not everyone is able to participate as a con­sequence of constraints on access to technology or to core skills and com­pe­tencies or a sense of voice and empower­ment. Not everyone’s con­tribution is equally valued, given the ways we often carry with us inequalities from the physical world into online spaces. Any celebration of a more participatory culture needs to acknow­ledge the exclusions and discrim­ina­tions which consti­tute the lived experiences of many people around the world, for whom online participation remains a distant fantasy. Much of my work these days has been devoted to helping to advise U.S. educational institutions on the best ways to help bridge the digital divide and the participation gap so that we may come closer to realizing the potentials of a participatory culture to increase democratic citizenship and cultural diversity.

How and why did the three of you set out to write this book? What was the process like — who contributed what?

As I was working on my last book, Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide, I discovered that there was growing interest in my ideas beyond the academy, especially in various sectors of the culture industries. As the head of an academic program, I was searching for ways to connect my students with other pathways to employment rather than assuming all of my students would become university professors.

Out of those two goals, we established the Convergence Culture Consortium (now the Futures of Entertainment Consortium) in 2005, as a space where faculty and students might interface with key thought leaders within the media industries and hash through core policy issues impacting the future of enter­tainment. Our goal was to help push industry leaders to take the steps needed to be more responsive and supportive of the move toward a more partici­patory culture.

Sam Ford was one of the first graduate students to be affiliated with this in­i­tiative and later served as its project manager; Joshua Green was hired as the re­search manager of the consortium. The idea of Spreadable Media first emerged from a white paper I wrote with Xiaochang Li and Ana Domb, two of the other graduate students who worked with the Consortium. In many ways, this book is a consolidation of the conversations we had through the consortium over the years.

We also have been sharing around 40 essays tied to the themes of the book yet circulating online through the book’s home page; most of these essays are written by alumni from MIT’s Comparative Media Studies graduate program or by faculty and industry leaders who were otherwise affiliated with the Con­sortium. Today, the Con­sortium runs the Futures of Entertainment con­ference every fall and the Transmedia Hollywood conference every spring.

As far as the writing of the book, we brought different expertise to the mix — Sam now works in communications/PR, Joshua in branding, and I remain an academic with strong ties to the fan world, but we all worked through the manuscript so many times that it would be hard to really identify who contributed what at this point. To answer your question literally, we wrote the book via Google Docs, which meant that we could all contribute asynchronously to the same text, revising each others’ prose as we went, rather than each of us writing recognizable chunks. We would gather via Skype from time to time to talk through ideas, although, since the ideas emerged from the ongoing conversations of the Consortium, we already had some shared frameworks which made it much easier to proceed in this fashion.

Obviously, there’s a major gulf between what you call the broadcast media world — a small number of publishers and broadcasters distributing finished works to a consuming public — and the participatory culture of the Web. But much of what the participatory culture responds to most intensely is “finished” works, be they Mad Men or Lost or The Walking Dead. What does that say about the future of broadcast media?

As I discussed in Convergence Culture, there was a fantasy in the early days of the Digital Revolution that new media was going to displace old media; instead, what we’ve seen is that new media intersects with old media in more and more complicated ways. Many of the key sites of “Web 2.0” — YouTube or Twitter, for example — serve multiple functions for different kinds of media producers, including amateur, professional, semiprofessional, activist, governmental, reli­gious, educa­tional, etc. In some cases, we are seeing new ideas emerge from grassroots media producers and reach a critical mass that allows them to exert some impact on the national/global political and cultural agenda. Yet, we can also see ways that the public has helped to circulate and increase the visibility of content produced for a range of other reasons.

We start the book, for example, talking about the case of Susan Boyle. But, if we wrote the book today, we might just as easily be talking about “Gangnam Style” or KONY 2012. Each of these examples points toward somewhat different potentials for grassroots circulation to impact the value and meaning ascribed to media content — both Susan Boyle and “Gangnam Style” start as commercial content but targeting very different markets (UK and Korea), while grassroots circulation opened up new territory for the original producers; KONY 2012 was the work of an activist group which reached a spread that the original producers, Invisible Children, could not have anticipated and were unprepared to cope with.

Yes, many examples of both fan production and circulation react to works that are “finished” in the sense that they are fully produced, yet fans are not “finished” with those materials and want to deploy them to express their own ideas. So the zombie has emerged, for example, not simply as an icon of The Walking Dead but as a metaphor used by a range of political movements around the world — including Occupy Wall Street in the United States. Fans are using Harry Potter or Avatar as the springboard for discussions of political concerns which might or might not align with those of their original producers.

We write in the book about the ways that older media content may gain new value as a consequence of forms of retro-consumption — from old video games to old music — and describe the different ways that cultural producers and critics have responded to the return of this residual content to cultural centrality. All of this is to say that the broadcast paradigm is being reshaped right now by grassroots participants, but it remains central to the way the culture operates. Broadcast media may simply have to share space on YouTube and other platforms with content which emerged from DIY media makers, some of which is starting to gain much greater visibility than anyone might have imagined even a decade ago.

Coming next Tuesday: In part two of our interview, Henry talks about his problem with “viral,” what’s wrong with the whole idea of user-generated content, and what we really mean by participatory culture. 

The Sea We Swim In

"Neuroscientists tell us and . . . politicians well know how much more convincing a clever narrative can be than a description based on data. A good reason to learn more about the brain mechanisms that are activated by stories and the tricks that storytellers use, both of which are revealed by the digital anthropologist Frank Rose."

—Corriere della Sera (Milan)

The Art of Immersion

"A highly readable, deeply engaging account of shifts in the entertainment industry which have paved the way for more expansive, immersive, interactive forms of fun . . . accessible and urgent."

— Henry Jenkins, author of "Convergence Culture"

West of Eden

"The saga of Apple in its early years is a case study of the California style of creativity smashing headlong into the realities of Wall Street. Once again, Californians came up with a revolutionary idea which the Northeast seized control of and institutionalized. . . . Frank Rose has written the book on Apple and the entire Silicon Valley phenomenon."

— Kevin Starr, author of the eight-volume "Americans and the California Dream" series

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