Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide
Author: Henry Jenkins
Publisher: New York: NYU Press, 2006
Review Published: April 2008
In his incredibly prolific career, Henry Jenkins has conducted a number of landmark, localized studies on pop culture-inflected topics from vaudeville to Star Trek, often at the juncture between production and consumption where unruly reading practices and "productive pleasures" emerge. In Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide, Jenkins utilizes his established strengths in community case studies to reflect upon what he characterizes as a widespread cultural, technological, and industrial shift. Particularly, Jenkins explains the book as an exploration of "the relationship between three concepts -- media convergence, participatory culture, and collective intelligence" (2), while defining his project as an attempt "to describe some of the ways that convergence thinking is reshaping American popular culture and, in particular, the ways it is impacting the relationship between media audiences, producers, and content" (12). Bookended by an introduction and conclusion which summarize central components and sites of struggle within convergence culture, Jenkins provides six case studies symptomatic of the tensions and possibilities produced by industries' and consumers' attempts to navigate the communities, relationships, and modes of communication made possible by convergence. In a nod to the hybridization of form common to convergence, Jenkins also intersperses a number of short sidebar articles throughout the text, integrating the academic essay with comic books' multiple panels. Drawing upon his own multiple allegiances, as he identifies as a fan, a teacher working with the MacArthur Foundation to better understand new media pedagogy, a corporate consultant, and the Program Head of Comparative Media Studies at MIT, Jenkins attempts to balance the perspectives of multiple groups including advertisers, gamers, evangelicals, librarians, teachers, and casual home viewers, and to define the stakes that each may hold in the changing media landscape.
In the introduction, Jenkins provides a number of anecdotes which memorably offer glimpses into the multi-national, cross-mediated character of representations that cycle between producers and consumers, while defining his terms by describing convergence as a process that alters relationships rather than a technological endpoint leading to one master piece of hardware. The introduction also supplies two key limitations. First, Jenkins writes that because convergence saturates our culture and has not yet fully formed, no one can currently offer a neutral or complete account of its effects. Rather, he intends to "document conflicting perspectives" and to offer "insights into the discussions that are taking place" (13). Secondly, he disclaims that the case studies which follow disproportionately describe the activities of white, male, middle-class, college-educated "early adopters," whose (perceived) behaviors and attitudes also overly influence the decisions of advertisers and media corporations. Jenkins suggests that as access and participation expand to other groups and communities further changes will follow, but given his later admission that advertisers looked to new media when the "highly valued 18-27 male demographic ... defected from television" (244), the potential impact of social strata to which advertisers implicitly assign "less value" remains questionable, as does their ability to fully and equally participate in the interactive, participatory media landscapes designed and controlled by such corporate interests.
Although Convergence Culture collects chapters which had been previously published in some form, they've all been retooled and integrated to produce a sense of cumulatively mounting complexity and overall coherence. Chapter one discusses collective intelligence and knowledge communities through a close look at the method by which on-line groups dedicated to deducing the outcome of Survivor episodes before they air negotiate social and epistemological rules of engagement. In conversation with Pierre Lévy (1997), Jenkins argues that knowledge cultures form "voluntary, temporary, and tactical affiliations" (27), in which participants may accomplish together far more than they could individually, by the principle that although no one knows everything, everyone knows something. In Survivor spoiling communities this involves challenging producers to stay one step ahead of a collective with considerable resources.
Chapter two tells the story of American Idol from advertisers' perspectives, explaining a growing alliance between Madison Avenue and Hollywood as an attempt to transform trademarks and brands into "lovemarks" by capitalizing upon the emotional intensity produced through narrative entertainment via product placement. However, Jenkins also cautions that the intensity produced by "affective economics," "inspirational consumers," and "brand communities" can backfire in two ways. First, if association with an entertainment product spurs affectionate associations, scandals associated with the entertainment product can create a backlash against the brand as well. Secondly, affectionate, long-term, socially-mediated investment in the brand can also entail a greater sense of ownership, and thus a sense that corporations ought to follow consumer demands, as well as provide the communication network necessary to add weight to collectively voiced criticisms.
Chapter three uses The Matrix to think through the sort of consumer behaviors associated with the growth of transmedia storytelling. Combining the data collecting and crunching power of knowledge communities and the affective associations which inspire purchasing across media, ideally transmedia franchises like The Matrix increasingly construct a world within which multiple stories may be told, each suited to a different medium. Jenkins argues that while consumers may still choose to approach these stories from a single point -- viewing a film, playing a video game, or reading comics individually -- increasingly each of these media will offer a unique point of entry into the entire story world wherein participation across media and in collective knowledge communities will be rewarded by greater complexity of detail and world-building.
Moving from an analysis of the way fans navigate increasingly complex media networks shaped by industry, chapter four charts the activities of fans who produce their own transmedia narrative extensions. Fan films provide Jenkins an entry point into corporations' often contradictory relationship to participatory culture and convergence. While grassroots appropriative media blurs the line between producers and consumers, which fosters brand affection, increases investment, and enriches the depth of fan experience while providing a potential recruiting ground for new artists and directors, such enterprises also require that corporations cede control over the future and circulation of their narratives. Drawing upon his earlier work in Textual Poachers (1992), Jenkins reminds professional producers that appropriative fan activities have become more visible in recent years, yet they long precede convergence culture. Consequently, he suggests that costly campaigns to cull, prevent, or constrain practices like fan filmmaking not only merely redirect such cultures further underground, but also risk alienating the public by disrespecting a growing social consensus favoring participatory culture and fans' right to "creatively repurpose" published media.
In chapter five, Jenkins turns to pedagogical questions, arguing for a growing need to instill media literacy alongside traditional literacy skills to combat the growing "participation gap" between those who may navigate the internet casually, and those with a set of social and technological skills robust enough to fully participate across new media and within all modes of convergence culture. Taking as a case study the child and adolescent Harry Potter fans who role play and write fan fiction, original narratives set within a professionally published source narrative, Jenkins explores how both corporations and "witherers," or powerful traditional cultural gatekeepers like educators and church groups, attempt to set legal and cultural standards for children's media interaction and participation. Yet for perhaps the first time, the communications and social organization tools available in convergence culture allow children to form powerful public advocacy groups of their own, to represent their interests. Rather than an activity which bleeds children's time and energy away from the important realms of church and school, Jenkins presents Harry Potter role playing and fan fiction as collaborative, inter-generational "affinity spaces" where children's passion for Harry's fictional world encourages experiments in moral decision making, and yields crucial skills in editing, composition, social networking, collective knowledge evaluation, collaborative learning, and media literacy, all of which may be poorly served by traditional education.
Tying together competencies in knowledge communities, transmedia storytelling, appropriative media repurposing, and the mobilization of affective attachments as vehicles for advocacy, chapter six discusses the political ends to which fans may employ skills learned through interaction and participation in popular convergence culture. Jenkins reads the 2004 election as a testing ground for grassroots new media, convergence-related strategies and their ability to slightly shift, rather than completely transform, the electoral process. He argues that while cheap newspapers and wider enfranchisement enabled the construction of the "informed citizen" around the turn-of-the-century, collective intelligence networks, which offer vast resources for gathering, processing, and evaluating information, form the basis of an emerging model of the "monitorial citizen," who can't individually follow all available information, but who can respond as part of a collective in times of crisis. While Jenkins allows that the "big media" of conglomerated network television, newspapers, radio, and publishing houses will continue to serve as a shared national frame of reference, new media offers influential tools for grassroots media to respond by remixing and reframing the pieces of common culture. He closes with a call for "monitorial citizens" to vigilantly teach themselves to access, share, (mis)trust, evaluate, contest, deploy, and act upon collective knowledge in a bid to bring politics into participatory culture.
In his conclusion, Jenkins characterizes convergence as a paradigm shift which incorporates media flow across platforms, interdependence of communications systems, multiple methods to access content, and increasingly complex relations between "top-down" corporate media and "bottom up" grassroots participatory culture. Emphasizing the political effects of convergence-style fan communities in their production and circulation of new ideas, modeling of new social structures like collective intelligence, and performance of new types of participatory cultural production, Jenkins separates his approach, which he labels "critical utopianism," defined as a problem-solving orientation toward the challenge of building a more just society, from theorists like Noam Chomsky, whom he labels a "critical pessimist" for focusing on the obstacles to achieving a more democratic society, and in the process "exaggerat[ing] the power of big media" (247) while disempowering consumers. Arguing that "big media" will always be necessary to provide shared culture, Jenkins contends that the promise of convergence culture and a more democratic future for representation lies in legislation to promote a robust legal definition of fair use, and consumer advocacy which seeks to diversify content by tying corporations' economic interests to their willingness to remain responsive to consumer demands and ability to take a flexible stance toward consumer interaction and production.
Convergence Culture has already become an essential text for the fields of media studies, fan studies, and new media, and with good reason: Jenkins sets the parameters within which questions about the changing media landscape will be formulated for years to come. At his best, Jenkins accomplishes precisely what he sets out to do in the introduction; that is, he rigorously and dramatically "document[s] conflicting perspectives" and provides wide-ranging "insights into the discussions that are taking place" (13). Yet, his very even-handedness will frustrate those who desire a clearer prognosis, which provides a springboard for analyses from authors more explicitly and overtly motivated by a variety of critical methods.
Critics have long raised concerns that Jenkins credits consumers with an ability to affect change at odds with the expanding scope of media conglomerates, and he responds in Convergence Culture with extremely concrete examples of knowledge communities and participatory cultures which have successfully lobbied for inclusion in corporate decisions with more or less success. However, Jenkins also clearly states that media corporations will allow shifts toward more democratic interactions with consumers and more diverse media because such decisions ultimately reinforce their own economic interests. Thus the "change" to be had may impact the quality and quantity of representations available in both "big" and grassroots media, a worthy goal which I aggressively advocate in my own work, yet such strategies also maintain or even expand the basic structures of capital and the profit motive by spreading commodification and corporate control into types of transmedia storytelling previously monopolized by at-cost fan organizations. Gains in representational politics will not satisfy many readers. Especially if media organizations differently value particular demographic blocks, particularly the much sought-after "18-27 male demographic" (244), then the representational gains may favor "loyal" (76) young white middle-class men over mundane viewers, but offer few rewards to minority groups already de-valued in the eyes of big media. Further, one expects that media conglomerates will choose to pick up and "amplify" few significant challenges to the structure of profit, even if fan collectives favor such storylines; these impulses may appear in what Thomas Frank (1997) characterizes as a "sanitized" form, but major corporations will likely strip the actual ideological content of protest against commercialism in favor of an easily commodified politics of style or vague ideals of romanticized rebellion.
Jenkins demonstrates that critiques of industry can proliferate even within structures of cross media participation designed by corporations, yet his analyses of fan production practices favor those which lovingly extend rather than critique or question the industry's narratives and structure. In reference to fan films he writes "the best artists will be recruited into commercial entertainment or the art world" (136) without clearly defining what constitutes "the best" or why one should expect that "the best" fan artists will necessarily defect to the ranks of for-profit production. Later he specifies that "the most commercially viable [fan productions will be] absorbed" (148) which clarifies an underlying logic associating creative success with market success. Similarly, in thinking about Harry Potter fan fiction, Jenkins cites an enhanced intimacy with the canon rather than any urge to intercede in the canon as the primary motivator of fan experience. Certainly the fans he quotes who refrain from changing canon do exist, but fan fiction communities constantly debate the role of canon in their work, arguing from a plethora of perspectives on a fan author's or artist's responsibility to personalize and shape or remain within existing canon. Likewise, references to fan fiction as an "apprenticeship" for original writing (182) and Jenkins' argument that reading and writing are merely a means to the end of "a more deeply engaged relationship with Hogwarts" (197) cumulatively appear to endorse a devaluation of amateur publication and circulation, subordinated to the "official culture" produced by the industry. If audiences and consumers are to exert greater power through convergence culture, perhaps they may also do so by refusing to think of themselves first as consumers, and by constructing their own amateur at-cost and non-profit production and distribution networks as worthy, or even vital, ends in and of themselves. As Jenkins claims, Convergence Culture is already here, and his scholarship offers a compelling window into its current tensions and inner workings. Yet the real test remains as consumers, citizens, and advocates learn how to use and manipulate the tools, technologies, and cultural knowledges fostered by our shifting media landscape.
Frank, Thomas. The Conquest of Cool: Business Culture, Counterculture, and the Rise of Hip Consumerism. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1997.
Jenkins, Henry. Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Culture. New York: Routledge, 1992.
Lévy, Pierre. Collective Intelligence: Mankind's Emerging World in Cyberspace. Trans. Robert Bononno. New York: Plenum Trade, 1997.
Anne Kustritz recently completed a PhD at the University of Michigan, American Culture Department, and she received her BA in Cultural Studies and Psychology from the University of Minnesota. Her dissertation combined post-structuralist, public sphere, queer, and other cultural studies theory with cyberethnographic and embodied anthropological study of slash fan fiction communities. Her research interests include creative fan practices, copyright, sexuality, representation, and constructions of deviance and desire. She maintains an online presence at http://theorynut.livejournal.com/. <EQMJ@aol.com>
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