Title: Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide
Author: Henry Jenkins
Publication Date: 2006
LC Call Number: P 94.65 .U6 J46 2006
I’ve been thinking about teaching a college writing class with a popular culture theme and am trying to give myself a good background before I do. To that end, I read Henry Jenkins’s Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide, and you can probably expect more posts about books on this subject in the future.
Jenkins, a very well known scholar in popular culture and fandom in particular, divides the book up into six chapters, plus an introduction and a conclusion, in which he addresses many different aspects of popular culture, from the perspectives of producers, fans, advertisers, and others who are perhaps less directly involved in his subject matter but still interested in it (teachers, critics, etc.). Throughout the book, he is so engaging that I’m tempted to assign some chapters in my class, although the language is somewhat academic and I’m aware I have to be careful about this. He is also not limited to one specific fandom and uses examples from both science fiction/fantasy properties like Star Wars and less-nerdy properties such as reality shows. In part, this is because each of these communities has different characteristics and is interesting for different reasons, but I also find that, given students’ tendency not to realize that, for instance, they don’t have to like Star Wars to find Jenkins’s insights into the ways that fans remix it interesting, it’s useful to have diversity among the properties. It’s also been my experience that they are more likely to be fans of American Idol than of any of the nerdy things that I tend to like. (If you mention Doctor Who, they stare at you blankly because they have never heard of it. Sadness. Of course, I hadn’t either when I was their age.)
In any case, Jenkins is very insightful about a lot of things that I wanted to consider. His chapters on Survivor and Harry Potter cover how information is sought, understood to be valid, and used to establish membership within a group. One central concept he introduces is that of “knowledge communities,” which come into being when fans come together in virtual spaces and pool their information, allowing them to take advantage of what any of them knows instead of needing each of them to know these things individually. Jenkins, following Pierre Levy, notes that, “these new communities are defined through voluntary, temporary, and tactical affiliations, reaffirmed through common intellectual enterprises and emotional investments. … These communities, however, are held together through the mutual production and reciprocal exchange of knowledge” (27). There is a lot more about how knowledge communities form online and around specific fan properties; his first example is about fans who spoil Survivor by trying to find out who the contestants are, who wins, when others are eliminated, where the season will be filmed and so on. It is (as the witches of Prydain said about the magic sword) quite astonishing the lengths to which some will go.
Jenkins points out that this creates an adversarial relationship between the show’s producer, who wants to keep all this information secret until the show airs, and this specific group of fans, who seek to reveal as much as possible before the season even begins. This has a real effect on the show because the producers make an effort to keep the information hidden and create red herrings to throw fans off the trail. Over time, though, this community has become less egalitarian because of the ways that knowledge is ferreted out. The game was once about guessing the winner based on contestants’ weight loss and other clues that could be available to anyone, but as spoilers began using more sophisticated techniques to which most did not have access, such as using GPS cameras to identify the location from space, it became more about evaluating the claims made by those who had somehow obtained privileged information. However, Jenkins’s article on Harry Potter fandom shows that not all such communities become less egalitarian over time. He shows how online HP communities help fans–especially young fans, and largely female ones–to establish authority for themselves as writers in a supportive environment in which they can interact with adults on an equal footing. This is a very rare opportunity and Jenkins does an excellent job of showing its value and enumerating the various literacy skills, not taught (or not taught well) in schools that young people can acquire in this way. He quotes the guidelines that one group establishes for beta readers of fan fiction, and it is striking how closely they resemble things I would like students to be able to do in peer workshops. Engagement with this community can sometimes reach into what I’d consider political engagement, as Harry Potter fans banded together to defend the books against those who wanted to ban them from schools and libraries. Fan communities can be really powerful for their participants, and I find the fact that school usually fails at creating such deep engagement disappointing.
Jenkins is also interested in how producers, advertisers, and others of their ilk affect/are affected by the engagement of fans, and he notes that this is an asymmetrical relationship in which power for fans comes at a price. The chapter on American Idol convinces me that reality shows explain a lot about, say, Facebook, and he articulates the terms of the privacy bargain better than anyone I have ever read on the subject:
“Here’s the paradox: to be desired by the networks is to have your tastes commodified. On the one hand, to be commodified expands a group’s cultural visibility. Those groups that have no economic value get ignored. That said, commodification is also a form of exploitation. Those groups that are commodified find themselves targeted more aggressively by marketers and often feel they have lost control over their own culture, since it is mass produced and mass marketed. One cannot help but have conflicted feelings because one doesn’t want to go unrepresented–but one doesn’t want to be exploited, either” (62-63).
Jenkins is sympathetic to the fans who face this dilemma. He argues that convergence is a double-edged sword; it means that the power of fan communities can be exploited by commercial interests, but it also gives the fans the ability to influence the culture that they care about; he likens it to a “collective bargaining structure that they can use to challenge corporate decisions” (63). He points out that a similar problem exists for those who control these cultural products as well, since they may need to give up some control in order to engage their fans. This interplay is covered very well in the chapter on Star Wars, in which Jenkins describes in some detail the attempts of Lucasfilm to encourage fans to make Star Wars their own while discouraging them from criticizing the franchise or violating their copyrights. To Jenkins, this is a conflict between mass culture, which is produced and owned by corporations and consumed by an audience distinct from those groups, and something like a new folk culture, in which fans can appropriate and retell stories that they feel they own communally.
It’s clear that Jenkins is excited by the possibilities that convergence culture offers, but he’s also cautious about the effects of the appropriation discussed above and is well aware of the limitations of the culture he describes. He is not a cheerleader for fan cultures, then, but he does advocate for their interests, and he takes them seriously. Throughout the book, he is insightful, engaging, compelling and well-documented. This is an excellent look at fan cultures and I’d strongly recommend it to anyone who is interested in understanding the communities that arise around media and the interplay between these communities and the producers of the media that inspired them.