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Book Review Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide

Book Review Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide

 

There is a reason why writer and critic Howard Rheingold declared Henry Jenkins as the Marshall McLuhan of the 21st century. Like McLuhan, Jenkins’ scholarly work on media and culture has funneled into mainstream conversations, and as a result, his insights about how we live and learn through and with media and technology have affected the way many of us—that is, educators, scholars, and mediamakers—understand the world. Unlike McLuhan whose notoriety spread into mainstream and pop culture circles by the late 1970s largely because of his quirky personality and punchy proverbs like “the medium is the message”, Jenkins has managed to bring his theoretical insights into the mainstream primarily because he is purposeful in engaging popular culture artifacts in a way that is accessible for a variety of audiences.

In Convergence culture: Where old and new media collide (2006), Jenkins employs a familiar method often found in his other foundational texts; he cites popular culture media artifacts as entry points to detangle theory while inviting readers to engage in the study of culture and history. As a way of guiding readers throughout theoretical ideas and conceptual frameworks, Convergence presents several case studies, all of which Jenkins describes as the most successful media franchises in US popular culture, including SurvivorAmerican IdolThe MatrixStar Wars, and Harry Potter. The 2008 paperback publication includes an Afterword that discusses politics in the YouTube age. These media sites, or ethnographic foci provide readers with a way into understanding what Jenkins means by convergence, that is, a paradigm shift of communication and media landscapes where information flows across multiple grassroots and corporate platforms, and because of these dynamic and uncertain processes our understanding of what it means to participate and collaborate are always in flux. As participation and collaboration change and as “increased interdependence of communication systems” (p. 254) occur, we find that non-experts and non-elites are primary shapeshifters of these media landscapes. Throughout the book, Jenkins challenges readers to think differently about what convergence means, and at times we are left to piece together our own interpretation of this incomplete concept.

While reading through each case study I began to understand that Jenkins’ discussions about convergence culture was also commentary about technological change. Jenkins cites MIT political scientist Ithiel de Sola Pool as the twenty-first century prophet of convergence, and the one who reminds us that technological change does not necessarily mean an inevitable and mechanical shift from one systematic point to the next. Instead, technological change, as predicted by Pool, describes “a period of prolonged transition, during which the various media systems compet[e] and collaborat[e], searching for the stability that would always elude them” (p. 11). Convergence, then, does not so much describe change as it describes tension with change. Using case studies and by analyzing media most familiar and compelling, Jenkins’ aim is to look at how convergence thinking reshapes American culture. With Convergence Jenkins wishes to appeal to lay audiences as well as industry leaders and policy makers. His goal is not to critique media perspectives on convergence but rather to document these perspectives because, as he argues, “I don’t think we can meaningfully critique convergence until it is more fully understood” (p. 13).

Survivor and Spoiling Cultures

Beginning his analysis with the popular reality TV game show Survivor, Jenkins cites this media franchise to illustrate the impact of spoiling communities and collective intelligence on media production and consumption. Jenkins notes that “[m]apping how these knowledge communities work can help us better understand the social nature of contemporary media consumption” (p. 20). Never before has an audience been able to engage with a television show as it was happening, and even work to “spoil” or reveal secrets about the show’s location and banished contestants. Characteristic of online community forums or spoiling communities is that “[n]o one knows everything, everyone knows something, [and] all knowledge resides in humanity” (quoted on p. 26-27). Jenkins defines collective intelligence as the “ability of virtual communities to leverage the combined expertise of their members” (p. 27). As the notion of community is changing, newer forms of communities begin to emerge, and these sorts of knowledge collectives are necessary in order to restore democratic citizenship. Unfortunately, however, because we have bought into an expert paradigm, argues Jenkins, we see that more Americans “do not participate in public debates” (p. 29). As an alternative, spoiling is a practice wherein “knowledge gets produced and evaluated” via more democratic means (p. 29). In other words, spoiling is like a peer review or vetting process without all the institutionalized formalities that encourage expert knowledge over open and democratized knowledges.

It is fair to argue that the Internet birthed spoiling culture in popular media. When Jenkins wrote Convergence in 2006 he was looking primarily at the ways community boards and forums functioned as spoiling communities. Currently, in 2013, one could argue that Twitter is a type of spoiling community particular in response to TV drama shows like ABC’s Scandal and AMC’s Breaking Bad. Jenkins notes that spoiling is an action that requires sleuthing and investigating, and is characterized as adversarial since “one group [is] trying to get their hands on the knowledge the other group is trying to protect” (p. 43). One could argue that spoiling also takes place on Twitter or Facebook with shows like Big Brother, a similar contestant reality game show like Survivor.

American Idol and Affective Economies

Jenkins’ chapter on American Idol (AI) further explores the ways older and newer media collide, in addition to introducing readers to a concept he calls ‘affective economies’. Affective economies describe the idea that the consumer is “active, emotionally engaged, and socially networked” with/in media content (p. 20). Using AI as a case study, Jenkins highlights the various ways advertisers and networks perceive audiences and manage viewership. He argues that reality television like Survivor and AI proved to be the “first application of media convergence” (p. 59) because they illustrate the intersection of old (television and radio) and new media (web and mobile telecommunications), and also the multifaceted manner in which transmedia platforms are built and maintained. Jenkins mentions that AI may have also been responsible for getting more Americans “excited about text messaging” (p. 59), thereby ushering in a new (but not so new for Asian and European countries) form of mobile communication to the US-American public.

(Source)

The overwhelming success of the AI franchise is not only due to the loyalty and emotional connection audiences felt for show itself, but also the connection audiences had to the AI’s advertisers. Jenkins continues throughout the chapter to explore media convergence by discussing the positive outcomes and negative implications of affective economies and brand loyalty, particularly calling our attention to the collective intelligence of consumers and audiences and their ability to challenge corporate decisions while at the same time being exploited by corporate structures.

The Matrix &Star Wars and Transmedia Storytelling

Jenkins highlights The Matrix franchise to examine transmedia storytelling, most notably, citing the problems with the way the franchise designed and executed transmedia narratives. As Jenkins notes, The Matrix franchise forces audiences to do their homework in order to “truly appreciate what [they] are watching” (p. 96). However, the problem with this sort of transmedia storytelling is that not all viewers are willing to engage with other media platforms, like video games, in order to participate fully in the media and storytelling experience. Jenkins’ chapter on the Star Wars franchise delves into how corporate and grassroots convergence gave rise to uncertainty about what rules “should govern [consumer] interaction” and participation. Unlike the transmedia storytelling that wound up isolating some Matrix’ fans, the transmedia storytelling of the Star Wars took on a deeper meaning for children’s play and amateur filmmaking. As fans engaged in the transmedia storytelling of Star Wars they did so by using digital and physical artifacts that added new meaning to the story. Fans would use artifacts like action figures to create Star Wars fan fiction or parody. As fan fiction and parody became a more popular form of remixing and retelling Star Wars, Lucasfilms pushed back because of copyright infringements. Eventually, corporate media stepped in to limit the scope of this type of fan participation.    

       

Critique

At this point in the book, I found that the case studies Jenkins cited were not as engaging as I initially thought they would be at the beginning of the book. As a media scholar reading this text in 2013, I found some of the case studies outdated and uninteresting to follow. Granted, just because a media text is outdated certainly does not mean it is an irrelevant site to study. I am well aware that I probably exist in the minority when it comes to my lack of enthusiasm for media franchises like Star Wars and The Matrix. That said, though, I could not help but think about the ways Jenkins analyses might also apply to the current social media landscape. Because the last publication date of the book occurred in 2008, there is no mention of social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook (although much of Jenkins analyses does incorporate discussions about online message boards). Consequently, at times, I found myself drifting in an out of the text while reading plot synopses about shows and movies in which I was never interested. I also found myself thinking about how social media platforms might also transform the ways in which old and new media converge, and how corporations and grassroots merge, and certainly how people actively, and not so actively participate.

I understand, too, that in analyzing popular culture and media, communications scholars often face the problem that, at some point, the content we analyze will be outdated since newer media platforms and technologies are continuously changing and emerging. Since 2006, Jenkins has discussed at length the ways newer media platforms and artifacts impact participation and learning (see, for instance Jenkins 2009).

 If taken as an historical text Convergence presents a chronicled narrative of television franchises similar to the way Erik Barnouw journeys through the history of American television in Tube of Plenty (1990). Convergence might also be understood as an historical text that echoes the form and function of McLuhan’s 1964 seminal text Understanding Media: The Extension of Man, particularly in the way Jenkins’ engages popular culture to flesh out what it means to presently existing within a paradigm of media culture that is not fully understood.

On Literacy, Democracy, and Participation

The more relevant and poignant discussions in Convergence came when Jenkins addressed characteristics of convergence culture having to do with literacy, participation, and democracy. The focal point in chapter 5 concerns the constraints and affordances that participatory and transmedia texts like Harry Potter confront while up against what Jenkins states as “the most powerful forces shaping children’s lives [that is] education and religion” (p. 178). Jenkins argues that literacy is not simply what we do with print but also what we do with media. It is also in this chapter when Jenkins points out the uncertainties we confront while living in a convergence culture. He writes:

“None of us really knows how to live in this era of media convergence, collective intelligence, and participatory culture. These changes are producing anxieties and uncertainties, even panic, as people imagine a world without gatekeepers and live with the reality of expanding corporate media power” (p. 176).

Jenkins highlights the story of Heather Lawver, a young girl who started a fan community website The Daily Prophet that engages young people from all over the world to write and tell stories inspired by the Harry Potter franchise. Children enter into an imaginary world using fictive identities to explore a range of issues related to school, family, and fantasy.

In a participatory culture and fan community, children obtain skills characteristic of a convergence era, that is, they learn how to pool information, share and compare, evaluate, make connections, express interpretations, and circulate what they create online. Children learn through what professor James Paul Gee calls “affinity spaces” (quoted on p. 186). Affinity spaces invite young people to immerse in a learning environment that is not necessarily restricted by space, institutional bureaucracy, and adult authority, but rather depends on peer-to-peer teaching and learning across various informal learning spaces. In a participatory culture, every participant is responsible for scaffolding, not just the teacher. Unlike most traditional schooling spaces, fan communities encourage literacy through alternative ways of learning and participation with new media.

(Source)

Here, Jenkins discussion about literacy in a digital age are very much in dialogue with Lev Manovich’s The Language of New Media (2001) and Gunther Kress’ Literacy in the New Media Age (2003). As Jenkins’ discusses Heather Lawver’s case study and Harry Potter, he is also inviting readers to think about the ways young Harry Potter fans engage with tools and representations of new media like digital video, audio, imagery, and hypertext. Though Jenkins is not explicitly making a case for multimodality and new media literacies in Convergence, while citing Heather Lawver’s story, he does call forth concepts associated with making meaning through multiple modes of writing, reading, and remixing texts.

Chapter 6 highlights remixing culture in response to political campaigning and organizing. Jenkins references the 2004 presidential election naming, in particular, Howard Dean’s successful online fundraising campaign lead by Joe Trippi. Though Dean’s 2004 campaign has been celebrated as the first successful online political organizing effort, it was also a moment in which the public was able to control the outcome of what turned out to be an embarrassing campaign as media makers mocked and remixed Dean’s now infamous concession “scream speech” using digital videoaudio, and Photoshopped images.

(Source: FreakingNews.com)

Jenkins references Trippi’s book Democracy, the Internet, and Overthrow of Everything, in which Trippi dismisses convergence, calling it a “dangerous time for this burgeoning democratic movement [...] when the corporation and advertisers will threaten to co-opt and erode the democratic online ethic” (quoted on p. 223). Jenkins is quick to retort Trippi’s claim stating that Trippi is falling prey to the Black Box Fallacy, the false notion that in the future media content will stream, and thus be controlled from a singular and centralized source. Jenkins asserts, “we are already living in a convergence culture. We are already learning how to live betwixt and between those multiple media systems” (p. 223). Jenkins’ rebuttal to Trippi is also when, for me at least, his argument becomes most salient because Jenkins is speaking directly to those who participate in a convergence culture even though they believe they are not part of it.

Jenkins concludes the book by discussing the current television landscape that has been influenced by the grassroots and democratizing practices on the Internet. Jenkins talks about Current TV (now defunct) as a network that from its inception wanted to “encourage the active participation of young people as citizen journalists” (p. 251). In addition to Current TV, Jenkins references other online media platforms like particatoryculture.org and ourmedia.org as evidence of the way amateur media makers are gaining visibility and credibility as organizers and political activists.

Jenkins ends Convergence with a welcoming:

"Welcome to convergence culture, where old and new media collide, where grassroots and corporate media intersect, where the power of the media producer and the power of the media consumer interact in unpredictable ways. Convergence culture is the future, but it is taking shape now. Consumers will be more powerful within convergence culture--but only if they recognize and use that power as both consumers and citizens, as full participants in our culture” (p. 270).

My Takeaway

Since Convergence is both an historical and theoretical text it has, and will continue to have a home in digital humanities, and in media and communication studies. With Convergence, Jenkins invites readers to broaden our understanding of participatory culture and interrogate what it means when seemingly disparate sectors, networks, and industries merge to produce different kinds of stories and alternative ways of telling these stories. This book teaches that we not only exist in an age of informed citizenry, but we are also monitorial citizens; those with the capacity to assess, critique, and evaluate the plethora of information thrown at us on a daily basis. As Jenkins describes it, the monitorial citizen is already acquiring new skills and new ethics of sharing that enable co-deliberation to take place because convergence is already happening.

And so, my takeaway from Convergence is that as we exist in this betwixt and between space wherein information is constantly being funnel through various communications platforms, we must be intent on rethinking how we participate, collaborate, and deliberate together in order to understand the worlds around us and to solve problems collectively. Convergence then, is more than just an expression of technological change, it is an era when we, as consumers and citizens are confronted with more information than we can ever process, and as such we find ourselves meandering through the “kludge-like process” (p. 17) with the hopes of being able to “create a context where we listen and learn from one another” (p. 250). This sort of reconciling and negotiating through the informational clutter all in efforts to marry ideas and solve problems is, as I see it, a process of cultural and interpersonal change, a moment characterized as perhaps the greatest collective challenge we face in the twenty-first century.

References

Barnouw, E. (1990). Tube of plenty: The evolution of American television. London. Oxford University Press.

Jenkins, H. (2009). Confronting the challenges of participatory culture: Media education for the 21st century

Jenkins, H. (2006). Convergence culture: Where old and new media collide. New York. New York University Press.

Kress, G. (2003). Literacy in the New Media Age. New York: Routledge.

Manovich, L. (2001). The language of new media. Boston, MA. The MIT Press

McLuhan, M. (1964). Understanding media: The extensions of man. Boston, MA. The MIT Press

 

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1 comment

I wonder if anyone has harnessed "affective economies" in the classroom (a pedagogical version of a Choose Your Own Adventure book?)  What would affective economies look like in a history or English classroom?  Imagine a professor allowing her students to spontaneously choose which lens/angle through which they study a particularly formative historical event such as the Civil War.  Perhaps some students could choose to study this history from the perspective of Abraham Lincoln, Dredd Scott, or Sojourner Truth? I wonder if allowing students to weigh in on the trajectory of the classroom lecture (facilitated through digital media?) would prove an effective pedagogical strategy?  An interesting (if not scary) thought for the lecturer!

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