Hyperrhiz 05: Reviews
Henry Jenkins, Convergence Culture
University of Central Florida
Jenkins, Henry. Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide. New York: New York University Press, 2006.
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 ... (Jenkins 259-60).
In his 2006 book, Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide, Henry Jenkins, a major figure in the study of fan culture, continues and expands his work on the fan and blog cultures that exists in digital social networks. In this book, Jenkins introduces the reader to the ways in which these cultures converge in corporate, religious, social, and entertainment aspects of American society. Jenkins endorses the investigation of ideas as they cross media technologies, as well as historical and cultural contexts. In Convergence Culture, Jenkins combines his academic expertise with an accessible style for a general audience interested in media and cultural studies. Even business, religious, and social researchers may find portions of this book relevant to their needs. Jenkins' work is at the nexus of media studies theories that focus on the ideas of media convergence, fan culture, fan fiction, blogging, collective intelligence, and participatory culture.
In Convergence Culture, Jenkins concerns himself with the four aspects of convergence — economic, technological, social, and cultural. By "technological convergence," Jenkins means the digitization of media content. Economic convergence refers to the integration of the entertainment industry into a media conglomerate that controls a variety of aspects of the production of media and results in a restructuring of cultural productions and transmedia activities. Cultural convergence describes the new forms of creativity that emerge from consumers. This could include fan fiction, game modifications, and organic convergence such as "spoiling" communities or imitative and parodic activities that surround the various media productions: the TV reality series Survivor; Harry Potter, Star Wars, and Matrix film series; role playing games that spin off these films; religion as it is served by digital medias; and the politics of the 2004 American presidential election.
Jenkins' Introduction provides an overview of the historical and cultural context that allows for a blurring of these four aspects of convergence, a blurring of the lines between disciplines. While this stance may be antithetical to many traditional academics, Jenkins makes the point that the future portends a move away from highly specialized academic and even corporate disciplines. For Jenkins, today's convergence culture crosses traditional boundaries of specialization and fields of study and allows for almost any form of media to be produced by almost any person or entity, regardless of prior training. This move requires each specialist to intersect with and navigate the information structures and technologies as they exist and change. Convergence, then, for Jenkins, is this blurring of boundaries, fields, and specializations.
Jenkins' core claim in Convergence Culture is that convergence culture represents a shift in the public's relationship to media. For Jenkins, this shift is first through popular culture, where the skills acquired through play also have applications in the worlds of education, work, and politics. Jenkins points to a variety of social, corporate, and academic institutions that are attempting to break their entrenchment by modeling new initiatives on grassroots fan communities. In turn, these new initiatives benefit from what Jenkins calls an era of media convergence and collective intelligence.
The study of popular culture, for Jenkins, is a process of collective meaning-making that has a direct impact on the operation of social institutions like religion, education, business and even the military. Throughout Convergence Culture, Jenkins relies heavily on the theories posited by Pierre Levy in Collective Intelligence: Mankind's Emerging World in Cyberspace. Levy's work describes the phenomenon of collective human action and the ability to "collectively think" about problems in order to reach a consensus. The first case study that Jenkins illustrates is the collective intelligence that pervades online fan sites. Chapter 1 "Spoiling Survivor: The Anatomy of a Knowledge Community," explains how individual bits of information are collected, advertised, then doled out to hungry consumers of information. This "group think" culture (or as Jenkins terms it, "collective intelligence") has its own rules and credentialing systems which evaluate not only the quality of information posted, but the ethos of the poster.
Jenkins' analysis provides new insights about the contributions of collective intelligence as it applies to online environments. Some members in the Survivor Spoiler group, for example, devote many hours of time and research in order to create elaborate models, systems, and hypotheses that fit the available chunks of information posted by members. Others edit, review, and challenge the facts and the statements in a type of academic peer review of the ideas.
Along with the concept of collective intelligence, Jenkins develops ideas about the expert paradigm and affinity groups. The expert paradigm "uses rules about how you access and process information, rules that are established through traditional disciplines. By contrast, the strength and weakness of a collective intelligence is that it is disorderly, undisciplined, and unruly" (Jenkins 53). Emerging knowledge cultures are voluntary, temporary, and tactical affiliations. People only remain in affinity groups as long as they meet the emotional and intellectual needs of the individual (Jenkins 57). These terms and their use in cultural studies are not new; Jenkins works within a now familiar tradition of popular culture scholarship.
Some of the popular culture icons that Jenkins discusses are sponsored by large corporations. Names like American Idol, FOX, and Coca Cola are well-known to American consumers, and Jenkins analyzes their behind-the-scenes media maneuvering. Yet, Jenkins offers up the inspirational consumers (those dedicated brand-loyal consumers) fostering a backlash against perceived commercialism. For Jenkins, a self-proclaimed critical utopian, networks and sponsors are joining forces with customers to shape the emotional context in which consumers view television and buy products. At the same time, however, these companies are constantly being scrutinized by their consumers for the ways in which they shape the mechanisms of participation for their inspirational consumers. The discourse between consumer and provider of products, for Jenkins, is a positive force that controls the corporation, gives the consumer a voice that improves the method of disseminating information about the products. For Jenkins, emotional appeals are more important than rational appeals for consumers, and participation is the most important of all.
The variety of Matrix franchise products and media offerings available to consumers illustrates Jenkins' concept of "transmedia." Here, transmedia means the implementation of a cultural phenomenon through several different media forms. In the case of the Matrix, film, websites, and digital games all work together to create a complete experience of the virtual world of the Matrix. Not all information about the Matrix is available in any one media form. The consumer must enter all forms of the Matrix media in order experience the story completely. Transmedia, for Jenkins, is at the heart of his ideas about convergence culture. For readers interested in digital games, there is a nice overview chapter of new developments in digital gaming. Overall, Jenkins takes observations from media that are familiar and sensible and contextualizes them quite lucidly. The new idea here is not even media convergence, which Jenkins has used before. Here, it seems, Jenkins is essentially writing a handbook for corporate institutions to increase customer confidence and to profit from the methods used by researchers and academics in cultural studies.
The chapter titled "Photoshop for Democracy: The New Relationship between Politics and Popular Culture," is by far the weakest section of the book, as the complexity of the political situation surrounding the 2004 presidential campaign and election is not acknowledged. This event, like much of the media described in Jenkins's book, is timely and may not have the same impact for readers in ten or twenty years. Additionally, Jenkins offers a rather unbalanced view of political parties involved in the 2004 election. The use of parody is treated extensively and assumed to be the driving force behind the grassroots action of all political forces. The main oversight in Jenkins' analysis of the 2004 election is the ability of right wing talk radio personalities to rally traditional Republican voters. This media effect would certainly have a place in a book about convergence culture. While this glossing of ideas may serve popular audiences, offering them snappy "sound-bite" overviews of complex political maneuvering, scholars of popular media may find quite a few holes in Jenkins analysis.
In order to fill some other gaps in Convergence Culture's coverage of new media topics, Jenkins also briefly addresses the question of the digital divide and claims that a media is not just a technology. While the concept of fair access to media is addressed in the book, it is not thoroughly analyzed. Admittedly, however, a complete treatment of socio-economic imbalance in media access would not be possible in only a few pages. There is also a participation gap that must be addressed, for Jenkins, through education. As Jenkins points out, "[w]e need to rethink the goals of media education so that young people can come to think of themselves as cultural producers and participants and not simply as consumers, critical or otherwise (259).
Critical utopianism accurately reflects Jenkins' stance throughout the book. Jenkins identifies many areas of popular culture that show a possibility for improving society. Jenkins is responding to what he sees as a wealth of critical pessimism about contemporary media culture. Jenkins calls media critics Mark Crispin Miller, Noam Chomsky, and Robert McChesney critical pessimists (247). In order to combat what seems like blatant utopianism or ultimate pessimism, Jenkins endorses a politics of participation, calling increased participation in popular culture a good thing (248-9). For Jenkins, popular culture may provide a model for a mature, fully realized knowledge culture.
In the end, Convergence Culture is a good overview for readers interested in popular culture and an excellent introduction for the general public. Jenkins' combination of readable, entertaining, lucid prose, practical application, and scholarly foundations helps to establish this book as a popular analysis of contemporary cultural life. Scholars of new media studies, however, may find that this book offers only a cursory examination of the topics they study. This book is accessible to general audiences, but fails to dive deeply into the issues confronting scholars in the field of new media studies; Jenkins' work could be categorized more as journalism than as weighty new media scholarship. Even so, Convergence Culture is timely, thought-provoking, and an all-around good read for the popular audience.