Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide
New York and London: New York University Press, 2006.
cloth, 308 p., ISBN 0-8147-4281-5, US$29.95.
NYU Press: http://nyupress.org/
Decades ago Edward Jay Epstein's seminal News from Nowhere: Television and the News looked inside the production of television network news, providing readers unfamiliar with that process something of a shock (1). Instead of supplying a simple recitation of the important events of the day, Epstein described the major networks as purveyors of news programming strongly distorted by production demands, formulaic writing, and pre-conceived content outcomes: in short, they provided a highly artificial sense of reality that was, literally, news from nowhere. So strong were production and other organization imperatives that the networks and their affiliates were seen as being almost unable, or at least unwilling, to provide non-framed accounts of news.
During that era viewers had scant recourse if they attempted to find more comprehensive or varied accounts of the day's events, for all the alternatives were to a greater or lesser extent either centralized, limited in what they could provide by what was provided (e.g., through large content providers like the Associated Press), or both. And certainly the audiences' capability to modify or otherwise determine content was almost non-existent. Today these circumstances have changed dramatically. How that happened, how content in a much wider arena than just news is shaped and marketed now, form the focus of Henry Jenkins' Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide.
By convergence Jenkins is not simply speaking of the notion of delivering all content through one device. Instead, he draws upon the writings of Ithiel de Sola Pool, Pierre Levy, Peter Walsh and others to describe three key concepts: Convergence refers to the various methods now employed for the development and delivery of media content through different modalities, including through cooperation among widely differing media organizations; participatory culture is the interplay among media producers and those purchasing their products; and collective intelligence references the process of sharing resources and skills as consumers share knowledge about what they consume. A "convergence culture" is developing, playing out most prominently now in the entertainment media, but Jenkins believes that it will eventually change many other aspects of society. Because of entertainment's large presence in the development of this convergence culture, he chooses to makes his arguments through case studies of a selection of contemporary entertainment specimens: the "Survivor" and "American Idol" programs, and the "Matrix, "Star Wars," and "Harry Potter" films. He admits the selection is arbitrary, but his choices make for interesting and mostly convincing illustrations.
The "Survivor" discussion shows how this first example of so-called reality television broke the old mode, for content creators were no longer the sole determinants of programming objectives and outcomes. Through the Internet, fan communities focusing on "Survivor" developed. "Spoilers" contributed advance knowledge of content through inside information, adroit analyses of program details, or guessing. The series producers were very aware of all of this, altering future programming and/or creating misinformation to keep viewers guessing. "Survivor" was the antithesis of the News from Nowhere content creation model, the latter offering content carefully constructed and delivered by centralized organizations, without consumer interaction or interference.
Jenkins' "Survivor" discussion focuses on the creation of a knowledge community independent of, yet participatory with, content producers. At the same time, fan spoilers provided sneek insights and previews into forthcoming episodes, sharing their knowledge with one another (sometimes), and in so doing causing producers to respond by closing off production leaks or in other ways derailing fan discussions online. All of this created a sometimes adversarial process as producers attempted to protect their product. The creation of a fan-based collective intelligence about "Survivor," rather than a version provided only through a top-down expertise-based system controlled by producers, is one of the important cultural and communication shifts Jenkins documents.
While the relationship between fans and producers he thus far describes could be adversarial, the more symbiotic nature of that relationship is well illustrated by his third example. The "American Idol" case study shows how producers carefully conceptualized and encouraged fan participation for marketing and other objectives. The goal is what Jenkins terms affective economics, ". . .a new configuration of marketing theory, still somewhat on the fringes but gaining ground within the media industry, which seeks to understand the emotional underpinnings of consumer decision-making as a driving force behind viewing and purchasing decisions." (Jenkins, pp. 61-62) The industry is after "loyals," viewers who "spend more of their social time talking about [programs]; and they are more likely to pursue content across media channels" for longer periods than other types of viewers. (p. 74) He shows how the loyals contribute to pulling others more deeply into the viewership of a show like "American Idol," thus underscoring their value to producers and advertisers. The discussion on how well this show contributed to sales by advertisers such as Coke, whose products were interwoven into the program as more than mere product placements, suggests an art as much as a science: "Yet in a world where sponsors are more closely associated with the content, all of the hosting companies may be negatively affected by any negative perceptions that emerge around the series. It is through struggles that the relationship between media producers and consumers will get redefined in the coming decades." (p. 92)
In the third chapter on "The Matrix" series of films and associated media, which he calls "transmedia storytelling," Jenkins explains that "Media convergence makes the flow of content across multiple media platforms inevitable. In the era of digital effects and high-resolution game graphics, the game world can now look almost exactly like the film world--because they are reusing many of the same digital assets." (p. 104) Thus, films like "The Matrix" series draw upon and generate content from a variety of other media: video games, comics, cartoons, and the Web. Creative minds from many industries, not just one industry, are responsible for "The Matrix" transmedia expereince, and all by design. The consequences are global as fan bases draw upon multiple expressions of "Matrix" content appealing to different cultural manifestations. Although viewers may still be used to self-contained, single-story films, Jenkins believes transmedia content like "The Matrix" will become increasingly normative.
Even so, he acknowledges that the "Matrix" story, in its byzantine complexity, may have overwhelmed readers: too many characters, too many subplots and references, and too many unresolved plot lines. While "The Matrix" may represent where things are heading, producers are still quite a way from mastering what it will take to resolve the many problems of coordinating viewing expectations and participation with all the differing content outlets and advertiser interests. Jenkins acknowledges this complexity at several points in the book, and doesn't consider that experience to date shows mastery by transmedia organizations--an important problem if content is not going to be self-contained, as is still the case for most films. But today's transmedia creations have still come a long way from the days of simple cross-licensed products, such as when films were marketed in connection with the sale of branded toys at fast food franchises. Films are increasingly, and much more elaborately, connected to other media such as Web sites, blogs, DVDs, comics and so on. There may always be a market for self-contained films, but transmedia companies are increasingly seeking committed consumers who are linked to many other media and products besides a film.
In these first three examples Jenkins chronicles experiences of consumers so deeply involved in transmedia content encounters that they seem to define a separate population cohort. Many readers of the book will at this stage wonder: How many people actually have the time and interest for this quantity of transmedia experiences? Jenkins' many illustrations show individuals who would appear to have enormous amounts of both, particularly the young. As relationship and career demands increase with age, will people still have the kind of time shown by Jenkins' denizens? He reasons ". . .Hollywood can only go so far down that direction if audiences are not ready to shift their mode of consumption," but that the opportunity for deeper content involvement needs to be an option to satisfy consumers' increasing participatory needs. (p. 130)
In his examination of the "Star Wars" film series, and the host of related products and media which became associated with them, Jenkins next shows the tension created by producers eager to have fans of their products but leery of relinquishing creative controls they believe would risk their intellectual property. It is that tension which led Lucasfilm to permit parodies of "Star Wars" but not "fan fiction" or "fan film" content entailing plot development from the series. Video game producers appear more lenient, actually encouraging "modding" (modification) of their games and other fan appropriation of content. Where to draw the line between accomodation of fans and punishment of their creative activities through legal means, Jenkins acknowledges, is still unknown.
The dilemma caused by producers' desires to control intellectual property and consumers' attraction to involving themselves more fully with those products, and on their terms, is further delineated in the author's final discussion of the Harry Potter series. Together these four case studies are intended to provide the major underpinnings for Jenkins' argument that we are witnessing development of a convergence culture, yet all of these examples are drawn from the world of entertainment. Jenkins uses a fifth chapter review of the 2004 presidential elections to show how convergence culture is also affecting our political system. Candidates can no longer control campaigns in ways that were possible before the Internet and the world of political blogging. A participatory electorate has created significant inroads in an election system previously most impacted by television interpretations of politics. That is why Jenkins argues it would be a mistake to see convergence culture as simply an entertainment phenomenon, even though it is in that arena where citizens are learning to expect participation with content creators and providers.
By book's end Jenkins has amassed quite an array of variables influencing content today, likely to continue to do so in the future, and all promoting the convergence culture. Managing an understanding of all those considerations is part of what he has set out to accomplish in this book, but in so doing he has also shown endless avenues for confounding predictions about what our transmedia futures may hold. Competing time demands for consumers, both existing ones and others still to come, greater viewer sophistication, and increasing consumer awareness of advertiser and producer interactions through content will all make forecasting more difficult and perhaps impossible. Indeed, regarding the conflict between consumers and producers of Harry Potter, Jenkins acknowledges "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. 170)
The media world Epstein described in News from Nowhere could not be more different than the larger contemporary environment Jenkins covers. The network news producers of the 1970s had a tightly controlled product, whose attractiveness was measured more or less on their terms and without audience interaction. How different things are today in the complex convergence culture Jenkins describes--and how much more unpredictable because of that developing culture. -- Douglas Kocher, Chair, Department of Communication, Valparaiso University.
(1) Edward Jay Epstein, News from Nowhere. New York: Random House, 1973.
Copyright © 2008, First Monday
Copyright © 2008, Douglas Kocher
Book review of Henry Jenkins'
Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide by Douglas Kocher.
First Monday, Volume 13 Number 5 - 5 May 2008
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