Book Review: Convergence Culture

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Henry Jenkins premises Convergence Culture by refuting the utopian, futuristic “black box” theory. He explains the concept of convergence as a current, rather than futuristic phenomenon where new and old media collide, yet coexist. Convergence culture marks a shift from the audience’s role as a spectator to an active participant in media culture. This is changing the power that corporations have over media content: in a convergence culture, control is distributed in a “top-down” and “bottom-up” structure, from consumer to corporation, and vice-versa.

Jenkins first discusses the concept of collective intelligence in the context of online “spoiler” communities that collaborate to determine the outcome of the Survivor reality series. Collaborative tactics range from gossip to in-depth investigative research beyond the mainstream media. Jenkins distinguishes collective intelligence from the “expert paradigm”: while “experts” possess a mastery of an entire subject or field, collective intelligence is garnered from multiple sources under the premise that “each person has something to contribute, even if [only on] an ad-hoc basis” (Ibid:53). When Survivor’s plot was largely spoiled through tips from an anonymous contributor, many users on the website argued that they were robbed of the collaborative learning process.

The investigative practices of communities also exert influence on the producers of Survivor’s content, who must modify content so it is less predictable. Jenkins (2006) elaborates further on audience influence in his discussion of American Idol. He addresses how television is being shaped by “affective economics” through the lens of the consumer-brand relationship on the show. He asserts that while “zappers” and “casuals” comprise the majority of viewers, “loyal” viewers are likely to recruit other demographics, and form a lifelong emotional commitment to the brand (Ibid:74). While the Survivor and Matrix fan groups constitute a small portion of the target audience, corporations should be sensitive to their needs. These groups are willing to invest their resources into either the success or failure of the brand, depending on the corporation’s willingness to engage with them.

Jenkins (2006) discusses “transmedia storytelling” in the Matrix, revealing that the film is only a component of the story. Unexplored fragments of the movie are pursued through platforms beyond the film. These storylines have inclusive contextual elements that allow users to engage in collective decoding practices and create their own content. Jenkins points out that criticisms of transmedia storytelling often fail to understand the cultural context of the content, and suggests that a new standard is needed to evaluate the quality of these productions (Ibid:123).

Jenkins (2006) distinguishes between the concepts of interactivity and participation in his discussions of Star Wars and Harry Potter. Convergence culture allows consumers to actively participate in media content, allowing them to appropriate power previously situated in the hands of media corporations by producing fan content. Jenkins suggests that media industries can either embrace grassroots expression, or oppose it at the risk of alienating their consumer base. Rather than viewing fans as infringing on copyright through amateur film, corporations should value their loyalty and harness their willingness to contribute to the brand’s success.

Jenkins (2006) then addresses the intellectual property debate by bringing the issue of literacy into consideration. Online communities dedicated to producing fan fiction allow children to develop their imaginations, and also serve as “scaffolding” that develops writing and editing skills outside of the classroom. Writers undergo a “peer-review” process that Jenkins suggests is more advanced than inside a classroom, where assessment consists only of the teacher’s evaluation of the student.

Jenkins (2006) finally examines the relationship between popular culture and political influence and involvement. Changes in communication systems enable individuals to participate more actively in the political sphere. The popularity of “infotainment” news sources calls for citizens to develop critical skills in synthesizing the information. Jenkins also discusses the balance between maintaining a political presence on “push” and “pull” media.

Jenkins’ (2006) novel is a comprehensive study of the cultural aspects of media convergence. Jenkins selects relevant case studies that illuminate the relationship between media convergence and Pierre Lévy’s theory of collective intelligence. His consideration of online fan communities shows the relevance of their activities from educational, political, religious, economic, corporate, and legal perspectives. Readers unfamiliar with online fan communities and sub-cultures may approach Convergence Culture with skepticism. Jenkins focuses his analysis on minority fringe groups obsessed with rehashing episodes of Survivor and writing alternate storylines from the Harry Potter series. However, he constructs a convincing argument throughout the book that legitimizes academic and commercial consideration of their activities.

The discussion of teamwork within online communities is one of the strongest components of Jenkins’ (2006) defense. Jenkins asserts that collaborative learning is underemphasized and discouraged in school, yet is ironically central to effective performance in the workplace. McLoughlin and Luca concur with this idea, suggesting that “professional knowledge” requires elements of “independence, dependence, and interdependence”, where the end goal is interdependence, rather than independence within the organizational culture (2002:573). Regardless, schools continue to view the practice of collective intelligence as “cheating” and focus instead on fostering the development of expert knowledge (Jenkins, 2006:133). Jenkins’ analysis exposes the shortcomings of the educational system, which seems trapped in an archaic method of teaching that is detached from the way people formulate ideas in the “real world”.

Jenkins’ (2006) support for an educational philosophy grounded in the principles of collective intelligence continues in his discussion of the real-world applications of virtual experiences in the final chapter. Jenkins claims that the high school student running for election in the virtual Alphaville gleans an intimate understanding of the democratic process (Ibid:239) similar to a student running for student body president, but he does not address whether actual practices, such as presenting ideas virtually, could be transferred to the public sphere.

Haskell (2002) distinguishes between the concepts of “learning” and “transfer”: while learning is comprised of theoretical knowledge, transfer involves the ability to apply a learned concept or skill. The virtual world arguably provides an environment that grounds students’ knowledge of these concepts, but this raises the question of whether they are deprived of the more practical skills involved in communicating. Jenkins does not address this consideration, but a study by Clark and Jones (2009) found that students who completed online sections of a public speaking course did not differ from their counterparts who completed in-class sessions. Jenkins’ assertions are extremely important considerations to apply in response to the increasing dominance of computer technology in educational institutions. However, it was only through secondary research that I was fully convinced of this; Jenkins’ discussion of Alphaville would have benefited from citations of actual studies on the educational benefits of participation in virtual communities.

While individuals in online communities may only be “playing”, they have been shown to exert powerful force on powerful corporations and institutions, and pose a legitimate threat to presidential candidates and Hollywood studios alike. Jenkins (2006) refers to this power in his assessment of the simultaneous “top-down” and “bottom-up” system of media production between corporation and consumer. Jenkins draws on Lévy’s assertion that new structures of power arise through the collaboration in a network society, applying this concept to his economic analysis of media and content ownership and the democratization of content creation through new technology.

His discussion of the power and influence that “loyals” have over a brand exemplifies this concept. The dedication that these groups exhibit toward corporate brands by freely contributing their ideas and energy raises the question if this is a sustainable model, or if these “loyals” will eventually demand compensation or recognition for their efforts. Jenkins (2006) mentions that these fans are the least willing to cede ownership of their content to major studios, but does not address whether he thinks this will be the extent of the problem, or whether fans will begin to demand something in exchange for their intellectual labour.

Despite Jenkins’ acknowledgement that corporations “see fans as…providing a low-cost means of generating new media content” (2006:143), he fails to further address how the problematic of content ownership (in terms of the consumer as contributor) could be legally addressed. While the masses can exert major pressure through their buying power, the fact remains that corporations that understand the power of participation within convergence culture can use the ideas of “loyals” to generate revenue. Sinnreich alludes to this shortcoming in his review, “Many of [Jenkins’] business-oriented prescriptions, predictions and analyses fall flat”, claiming that Jenkins seems to exhibit a tension between his role as proselytizer and member of online fan culture (2007:46). Jenkins’ justification of the system as one that benefits both consumer and producer seems detached from reality. While Jenkins touches on the idea of a “fan’s sense of ownership over a particular property”, he is quicker to offer justifications for the existence of fan content, rather than answer the question of whether the fan should have partial claim to legal ownership of the content (2006:200).

Jenkins’ arguments convinced me that while corporations technically own the rights to consumer content, fans contribute original ideas that can considerably strengthen the brand. While I acknowledge that fans willingly create content without the expectation of ownership or compensation, it remains problematic that this system is structured so that corporations can use the collaborative efforts of their fans for profit and recognition. While corporations can profit from fan content under the protection of copyright, fans seem to have little to no rights simply because they are producing original content from a copyrighted idea. Further discussion of the legal implications of this issue would have provided Jenkins’ analysis with more depth.

Regardless of my criticisms that further exploration and justification would have reinforced the validity of Jenkins’ arguments, Jenkins is ironically limited to the confines of the print medium to explain the complex phenomenon of media convergence. He succeeds in providing a comprehensive overview of the cultural implications of technological convergence despite this, and raises important considerations about the legitimacy and utility of online fan culture from various perspectives.

References

Clark, Ruth & Jones, David. (2009). A comparison of traditional and online formats in a public speaking course. Communication Education, 50(2), 109-124.

Haskell, Robert. (2000). Transfer of learning: Cognition and instruction. San Diego: Academic Press.

Jenkins, Henry. (2006). Convergence culture. New York: New York University Press.

McLoughlin, Catherine & Luca, Joe. (2002). A learner-centred approach to developing team skills though web-based learning and assessment. British Journal of Educational Technology, 33(5), 571-582.

Sinnreich, Aram. (2007). Come together, right now: We know something’s happening, but we don’t know what it is. International Journal of Communication, 1(1), 44-47.

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