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Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide

Author: Henry Jenkins
Publisher: New York: NYU Press, 2006
Review Published: April 2008

 REVIEW 1: Susan Keith
 REVIEW 2: Anne Kustritz
 REVIEW 3: Darby Orcutt
 REVIEW 4: J. Richard Stevens

When a reader encounters the word "convergence" these days, he or she has to pause to contemplate what the writer means. To scholars of political economy, critical studies, or media management, "convergence" sometimes is a synonym for corporate media consolidation. To those who study technology, "convergence" often refers to a melding of media devices, resulting in mobile phones that access the Internet, take pictures, or display video. To scholars of journalism and mass communication, "convergence" frequently refers to the delivery of news across media platforms, often with print, broadcast, and online entities sharing content.

Although MIT professor Henry Jenkins refers to each of these types of convergence at various points in his thought-provoking book, Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide, he defines "convergence" even more broadly. To him, it is "the flow of content across multiple media platforms, the cooperation between multiple media industries, and the migratory behavior of audiences who will go almost anywhere in search of the kinds of entertainment experiences they want" (2). In Jenkins' cultural studies view, convergence is closely intertwined with two other concepts: participatory culture, in which "consumers are encouraged to seek out new information and make connections among dispersed media content" (3) and collective intelligence, the notion that knowledge emerges from the collaboration of many individuals.

Jenkins, the DeFlorz Professor of Humanities and founder and director of the Comparative Media Studies Program at MIT, is deeply interested in fan culture and entertainment studies. (His ten previous books included Fans, Bloggers, and Gamers: Exploring Participatory Culture, From Barbie to Mortal Kombat: Gender and Computer Games, and Democracy and New Media.) So it is not surprising that much of Convergence Culture concentrates on entertainment media, with chapters on fan culture and the reality television shows Survivor and American Idol; fan fiction and Star Wars; and the world of the Matrix films, games, and comic books. Other chapters examine readers' expansions on and defenses of the Harry Potter books and technology-enabled acts of participatory democracy.

Some of this material will be familiar to those who have followed Jenkins' work closely. As he notes in the book's acknowledgements section, portions of the text have appeared in his columns in MIT's Technology Review magazine (and on its Web site) and in various edited books. For readers not familiar with Jenkins' work, Convergence Culture provides a worthy introduction.

In it, Jenkins lays out a view of the converged media landscape that is realistic yet optimistic. He writes:
[C]onvergence represents a paradigm shift -- a move from medium-specific content toward content that flows across multiple media channels, toward the increased interdependence of communications systems, toward multiple ways of accessing media content, and toward ever more complex relations between top-down corporate media and bottom-up participatory culture. ... In some cases, convergence is being pushed by corporations as a way of shaping consumer behavior. In other cases, convergence is being pushed by consumers who are demanding that media companies be more responsive to their tastes and interests. Yet, whatever its motivations, convergence is changing the ways in which media industries operate and the ways average people think about their relation to media. (243)
Jenkins acknowledges the power of ever-consolidating corporations to control the products of the mass media. For example, he notes that American Idol has proved to be an economic boon not only for FOX, which broadcasts the show, but also for phone companies that transmit audience votes for the contestants. Yet Jenkins views audiences as active and, thanks to 21st-century technology, better equipped than ever to revise, remix, and reconceptualize media products -- to, in other words, "speak back to the mass media" (248).

Much of the book is devoted to providing examples of such bottom-up participatory culture. Jenkins introduces readers to home-schooled Mississippi teenager Heather Lawver, who founded an international online "newspaper" for J.K. Rowling's fictional Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. He examines the culture of fans who "talk back" to the creators of Survivor by doing extensive collaborative research then revealing online what will happen in future episodes, i.e. publishing "spoilers." He also describes how some Star Wars devotees have created films that extend or parody the stories of George Lucas' universe.

Jenkins acknowledges that not every consumer will have the inclination to participate to such a degree in the remaking of mass media products. So he argues, in the book's conclusion, for reconceptualizing media literacy education to provide less focus on the "dangers of manipulation" (259) and more emphasis on "expanding skills at deploying media for one's own ends" (259).

One feature of the book that may annoy some readers is its extensive use of lengthy marginal material. Jenkins may have intended the multi-paragraph "sidebars" that accompany most chapters to promote non-linear reading in the same way that Internet hyperlinks allow Web readers to explore beyond a single online text. Unfortunately, however, in book form, the parallel narratives merely compete confusingly for the reader's attention. This is especially true in the chapter "Searching for the Origami Unicorn: The Matrix and Transmedia Storytelling," which has four sidebars, one of which runs down the margins of eight pages and even features footnotes.

That is, however, one of the very few stylistic problems with the book. Jenkins is a fluid and engaging writer, and Convergence Culture is as accessible and engaging as the media products it covers.

Susan Keith:
Susan Keith (Ph.D., University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 2003) is an assistant professor in the Department of Journalism and Media Studies at Rutgers University. Her research focuses on journalistic practice, including cross-platform newsroom convergence, media ethics, and media law. She reviewed Virtual Methods: Issues in Social Research on the Internet for RCCS. 

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