Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide
Author: Henry Jenkins
Publisher: New York: NYU Press, 2006
Review Published: April 2008
For anyone interested in new media, virtual communities, or the economic, social, or political development of the networked digital frontier, Henry Jenkins' Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide is a must-read. This book, in highly accessible and readable style, offers fresh perspectives, apt and well-documented analyses, and genuinely thoughtful and thought-provoking ideas. For those familiar with Jenkins' corpus (not the least significant of which is his groundbreaking co-edited collection Hop on Pop: The Politics and Pleasures of Popular Culture published in 2002), none of this will come as any surprise. The important question for those interested in cyberculture studies is not whether, but how to read this book.
When I briefly reviewed Convergence Culture for CHOICE (volume 44, number 10, June 2007), I especially remarked on the refreshing optimism of Jenkins' reversal of the standard dystopian convergence narrative. He convincingly transforms the very villain of what I there termed the "brave new media world" into the -- at least, potential -- hero of the story. Rather than cast as threat to grassroots power, convergence plays the role of matrix, or connecting force between individual and establishment.
That this potential thus far largely plays out only in response to manifestations of popular media may understandably disturb some. The complex relations among popular and public cultures, both historically and contemporaneously, warrant deeper consideration by media critics. Given Jenkins' stated belief that the current participatory popular culture will greatly define the future of public culture, it isn't difficult to imagine his final chapter, where he overtly turns to consideration of popular political engagement, as preface to his next project. Yet, before simply steaming headlong with Jenkins into the civic arena, I encourage lingering over his provocative analyses in prior chapters of the interplay between big media and its audiences.
In "Spoiling Survivor," Jenkins provides not only a case study of networked collective intelligence at work, but exposes a back-and-forth game of sorts involving television producers and a virtual community of audience members. The "spoiler" fans harness the many tools of our information society to collectively guess ahead of the show's storyline, while its creators provide both clues and red herrings. For hard-core fans, at least, convergence thus transforms the stereotypically passive and one-way medium of television into part of an active and interactive community in dialogue with the producers. The power relations within this interaction prove amazingly complex, not just in terms of the community's tacit rules for participation, but in the dual boon and threat they pose to the producers' bottom line, as loyal viewers who could also ruin the suspense and therefore ratings of the show.
"Buying into American Idol" depicts commercialism at full height, taking advantage of every opportunity to place product, right down to the text message voting mechanism itself as a joint venture with AT&T Wireless to inculcate Americans in its use. Such an "affective economics" model, as Jenkins terms it, fails or succeeds not according to a single metric (e.g., ratings), but seeks to build connectedness with audiences expansively, across multiple types of channels.
Jenkins presents his fascinating notions of "transmedia storytelling" in his chapter, "Searching for the Origami Unicorn," using The Matrix as case study. The film series layers cultural reference on top of cultural reference, and by design creates a rich medium in which audiences find or craft their own meanings. This dense tapestry of reference also extends into other Matrix products, including video games, comic books, and DVDs, each of which fills in more of "the story." The Matrix conglomerate appears ultimately as a world-making enterprise, one that actively engages its fans in collaboratively spinning its very narrative.
While the Star Wars franchise has similarly if not even more so prompted fans to become co-creators of a virtual universe, relations between these fans and the Lucas Arts company have often been far less than warm. "Quentin Tarantino's Star Wars" describes the power-plays between fan-creators and the rights holder. Rather than revel in multiplicities of meanings, creator George Lucas and his company have often worked to close off supplementary narratives and narrative possibilities, sometimes by means of real or threatened legal action, sometimes by clarifying the "official" version of the story (e.g., revealing that the masked Boba Fett character was actually male). Even against the most highly authoritarian policing of a narrative brand, however, fans would have the final say in which versions of the story were "real" for them.
That new media may foster "participation" in old media is the basis of "Why Heather Can Write," which focuses on internet communities for fan fiction based on the Harry Potter books. What becomes clear from the content produced by and the vast scope of this audience involvement, however, is that the communities thus formed have identities far beyond (and in some cases seemingly scarcely related to) the series itself. The world of Harry Potter, for example, seems to serve only as bare touchstone or pretext for the "world" of The Daily Prophet online newspaper, created by and for children, and reflects their own real-world contexts and anxieties. Such participatory sites, Jenkins observes, function for their members as training grounds, learning centers, and social laboratories.
"Photoshop for Democracy" represents Jenkins' full turn to consideration of overt political engagement, albeit focusing on political expression by means of popular modes, including blogging and amateur photomontage. Again, mass media producers respond to grassroots productions to an extent unprecedented in the "old media" age -- incorporating, challenging, and harnessing (or hijacking) grassroots culture, while at the same time being incorporated into, challenged, and harnessed (or hijacked) by it.
One productive way how to read Convergence Culture is to ponder the very how of convergence's transformations of stereotypically passive media consumption into truly two-sided mediated relationships. Each of Jenkins' chapters could on its own spawn a dissertation, and hopefully at least some scholars will be eager to more completely flesh out the specific processes by which old media are becoming new, and new media are redefining identity and participation for audiences (themselves become communities).
Henry Jenkins, Tara McPherson & Jane Shattuc, Hop on Pop: The Politics and Pleasures of Popular Culture. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2002.
Darby Orcutt is Senior Collection Manager for Humanities & Social Sciences at North Carolina State University Libraries where, among other areas, he builds strong collections and special collections focused on new media and digital culture. He actively publishes and presents in the fields of communication studies, popular culture, and library science, as well as regularly teaches in library science and religious studies, including a seminar on "Religion & Comics," which examines religious expression in comic book and graphic novel formats worldwide. <email@example.com>
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