One of the most enjoyable facets of “Geek” culture is its welcoming, all-inclusive, anything goes mentality. The more passionate you are about your preferred mythos, the better. I was watching the Morgan Spurlock (along with Joss Whedon and Stan Lee) documentary on the cultural phenomenon that is Comic-Con. (Trailer here) It reminded me of Henry Jenkins’ book (who also is interviewed in the film) on transmedia and the increasing power/influence/production capacity of fans, Convergence Culture. Here is the review of it I wrote for class.
In Convergence Culture Henry Jenkins attempts 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, produces, and content” (12). Convergence is the flow of media content across multiple media platforms and the increasingly cooperative and dynamic producers and consumers of that content. Convergence is a somewhat chaotic journey, not a fixed destination. Jenkins refutes the “black box fallacy” that all media is destined to someday be streamed into our homes through a single device. Media companies are learning that convergence is inevitable and are gradually learning to adopt their content and platforms to account for their collective, empowered, active audience. Convergence is radically altering the dynamic relationships between media producer, content, and audience.
Jenkins begins with a discussion on the prototype reality TV show Survivoras an example of how the collective intelligence of online fans can be leveraged in their struggle to wrest information from the producers of the show. The questionable spoiling activity of “ChillOne”, who provided end-of-season secrets to online Survivor fan communicates, raises questions of what members of a collective intelligence (Jenkins draws heavily from Pierre Levy) can reasonably expect to know, share with others, or expect from producers of a show. Fans are typically grouped in a community on a volunteer, goal-oriented, finite basis. The show American Idol is the most profitable reality show of all time and is largely shaped by corporate, financial, and marketing concerns. Jenkins describes this changing landscape as “affective economics”. It has both positive and negative implications: “allowing advertisers to tap the power of collective intelligence and direct it toward their own ends, but at the same time allowing consumers to form their own kind of collective bargaining structure that they can use to challenge corporate decisions” (63). Idol convinces fans that they have a say in the outcome of the show and thereby cement their loyalty and recognition of advertisers. The series is designed to garner multiple levels of audience engagement from channel-surfing “zappers” to diehard “loyals” and fans in-between. When there is a perceived discrepancy (as in a voting scandal) the advertisers’ brand may suffer, so their interest is in maintaining consistently pleasant emotions in the audience.
The Wachowski brothers’ The Matrix film ushered in a new era of transmedia storytelling: the communication of a cultural phenomenon through multiple platforms. “The Matrix” is entertainment for the age of media convergence, integrating multiple texts to create a narrative so large that it cannot be contained within a single medium” (95). It was not just a single movie, but a film trilogy, series of video games, an online presence, a comic book, and more. Transmedia storytelling requires the creation not only of a single believable narrative but a believable world—one that embraces multiple interpretations, overlapping mysteries, and where one text might shed light on another and thus enlighten fans. “Fans are the most active segment of the media audience, one that refuses to simpy accept that they are given, but rather insists on the right to become full participants” (131). No cultural text has generated more fan activity than the Star Warsfranchise. Hundreds of thousands of fans have created just as many hours of fan fiction (both written and film), re-edited films frame-by-frame to remove unwelcome characters, and in general been a blessing and a headache for Lucasfilm, the owners of the Star Wars rights. There are contraditions and multiple perspectives to be considered at the succession from one media paradigm to the next. “None of us really knows how to live in this era of media convergence, collective intelligence, and participatory culture” (170). When a 13 year old girl creates a fictional newspaper for the world of Harry Potter, the problem of transmedia storytelling becomes cross-generational in addition to crossing (and further blurring) the boundaries of creator/fan, owner/borrower, etc. Everyone from religions communities to political parties are wrestling with how to adopt, reject, or survive the shifting landscape.
The 2004 presidential campaign was the first in which parties seriously attempted to incorporate and communicate messages across various media systems and bring bloggers into their service. Voter awareness and participation were encouraged by web-sites, sardonic TV shows, controversies, and voters themselves. Jenkins advocates a kind of critical mediated utopianism and pushes back against those who are purely critical or pessimistic of evolving transmedia practices and convergence culture as a whole. Convergence culture is enabling new forms and venues for participation and collaboration, and this turns the traditional one-way flow of power (from producers to consumers) into multi-directional avenues of control, creativity, and opportunity. The future is taking shape now.