Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide
Author: Henry Jenkins
Publisher: New York: NYU Press, 2006
Review Published: April 2008
I have been gratified that Convergence Culture has been embraced by so many academics but I never intended this book as primarily addressing an academic readership. Coming off of my experiences writing for Technology Review, I wanted this book to speak to a range of publics -- including journalists, policy makers, fans, gamers, bloggers, secondary school teachers, librarians, and industry insiders, who were both shaping and being impacted by these shifts in the media landscape. My hope was that the book might offer a shared vocabulary and conceptual framework through which we could discuss and evaluate the directions our culture was moving. My goal was to make these arguments more accessible without necessarily reducing their complexity or their scope, but I anticipated a certain amount of push back from academics on theoretical and methodological issues.
While the book's tone is optimistic, I did not mean for it to be uncritical, hence my emphasis on the concept of critical utopianism. I hoped the book might provide resources for other critics to develop more nuanced accounts of the potentials and problems surrounding this new configuration of media power.
In this spirit, I welcome the critical perspectives offered here. Anne Kustritz's critique in particular raises questions I have been struggling with in my own thinking over the past few years. She notes that some forms of fan participation are valued and other cultural practices are excluded, marginalized, or silenced within a culture still primarily defined around corporate values. She questions whether the book ultimately sides too much with those who want to "participate" within the system rather than those who want to operate outside it. She and several others here also ask whether the book is too focused on entertainment to the exclusion of other important roles media plays in our culture.
Convergence Culture sought to address some of these concerns by stressing the contradictory relations between producers and consumers at a moment of media in transition. Sometimes, the interests between the two are aligned, sometimes opposed. Indeed, I would argue that each case study identifies points of "collision": spoiling Survivor reflects tensions between the public's desire to play the game and the producer's desire to preserve secrets; participation in the voting around American Idol heightens audience loyalty and attention but also sharpens their criticisms of the sponsoring companies; The Matrix's transmedia storytelling enhances the fan experience but may cut itself off from mainstream audiences; Star Wars fan cinema may support the participation of some fans (mostly male) while masking the activities of other fans (mostly female); Harry Potter fans are fighting both against those who would repress the book and those who would lock down its intellectual property.
Of these discussions, it is perhaps my account of Star Wars fan cinema which most directly addresses Kustritz's concern with which groups get excluded in this environment. Here, I point to the ways that LucasFilm's shifting policies reflect impulses towards prohibition and collaboration but also suggest implicit gender biases in the ways he deals with different modes of fan participation. For the paperback edition, I have added a section which examines the conflicts surrounding FanLib and discusses the emergence of the Organization for Transformative Works, developments which focus on the ways that women's cultural production has been marginalized by some aspects of web 2.0.
At the time I wrote the book, I was most interested in exploring the fact that some fan interests were getting greater visibility and having a stronger influence on decisions being made within the media industry. Retrospectively, I should have spent more time focused on those groups who are being excluded or who are choosing to operate outside of the commercial mainstream. Ironically, of course, Textual Poachers was criticized for the opposite reasons: reading fan culture as oppositional culture rather than dealing with its points of intersection with the interests of the commercial industry. I had not fully anticipated how many people would read Convergence Culture who had not been exposed to the arguments of my previous book or that some people would see the new book as superceding rather than supplementing Textual Poachers.
I do see some reason for optimism as communities of all kinds are learning to tap social networks to further their own interests and I am interested to see how and why the industry responds to these pressures. That said, my hope is that a robust convergence culture will support a range of alternative media practices that exist alongside and often challenge the operations of mainstream media. Indeed, a core argument of the book is that we are acquiring skills through our play with popular culture that are opening up new forms of political and institutional practices.
Kustritz correctly identifies some muddiness in my own thinking about what forms of culture can and will be absorbed by the mainstream industry. Some of the shifts in language she identifies (between "best" and "most commercially viable") reflect my attempts to articulate the logic of the industry's own thinking about these issues though I should have engaged more critically with the slippage between the two. I have been taken in recent years by work on fan fiction (especially by Catherine Tossenberger) which stress the ways that its radical potential is tied to the fact that it is not "publishable" by traditional criteria and thus represents a site of experimentation and innovation. I have also been impacted by the work of Abegail Derecho on forms of self-censorship within fan communities and by the efforts of the viding community to insist that their forms of production be part of the public's perceptions of DIY media. One side focuses on the gains of remaining within a subcultural enclave, while the other points towards the importance of demanding greater visibility. Perhaps understanding more fully what the cultural industry can absorb easily may help us to see all the more clearly what is radical or transgressive about those elements which remain outside.
Right now, it is clear that the media industry's relations to its audience is in flux and that the industry is moving in lurches in a direction that tolerates and in some cases embraces new forms of participation. Some aspects of fan culture are being embraced fully, some marginalized, though the decrease in "cease and desist" letters aimed at fan fiction sites suggests that the Powers That Be are reassessing their relations to aspects of fan culture which remain outside the commercial mainstream. We need to resist the temptation to understand emerging collaborations purely in terms of co-optation, since each requires the industry to make changes in its normal relations to consumers and its prevailing production practices. We also must guard against any tendency to be complacent about inequalities in access and participation and need to constantly push to expand the diversity of our culture at all levels.
What happens next? Will some new consensus emerge? Will the other groups remain locked outside? Will the media industry imperfectly reflect their interests? Will they continue to struggle for representation within the mainstream or will they choose to construct their own niche cultures which are more visible and influential than ever before but less powerful than the commercial media against which they often define themselves? None of us really know. But protecting and enhancing the infrastructures that support participatory culture and collective intelligence is a fight worth pursuing, since these infrastructures will be valuable whether in a fight for greater mainstream representation or for cultural autonomy.
The past few years have sharpened my understanding of the critical battles that must be fought if we are to insure greater cultural diversity and protect the values of a more participatory culture. My more recent writings have stressed contradictions in the discourse of web 2.0 reflecting the conflicting motivations of different cultural participants -- the tension between fandom's gift economy and the commodity culture implied by the concept of user-generated content. I am finding myself struggling to reconcile my own support for collaborationist models with growing criticism of "free labor." I hosted a series of conversations about gender and fan studies through my blog designed to help all of us better understand the role which gender and other forms of difference play in determining which groups exert influence in our culture. Through my work on new media literacies, I have been identifying strategies to confront and overcome what I call the Participation Gap. And through my recent writing about YouTube, I have been reflecting on whether creating an open platform for audience participation necessarily insures that diverse perspectives are viewed and respected.
I needed to understand what was working about the present moment of convergence culture before I could understand what issues still needed to be confronted. I want to thank Kustritz and the other participants in the Gender and Fan Culture discussions for helping to sharpen my own thinking on these issues. I also want to acknowledge others, including Ian Bogost, Kristina Busse, Yochai Benkler, Steven Johnson, Steven Duncombe, Mimi Ito, Trebor Sholtz, Tara McPherson, Mark Deuze, Joshua Green, Tiziana Terranova and Alex Juhasz, among many others, whose work has directly or indirectly challenged some of my assumptions.
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