We’re Converging Alright, But How Much?

Review Citation:

Jenkins, H. (2006). Convergence culture: Where old and new media collide. New York: New York University Press.

In Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide, Henry Jenkins asserts that we are in the midst of a major transformation in the way we consume, participate in, and produce popular media.  Both creators and their audiences are expressing themselves in new ways thanks to advances in technology.  A participatory culture is emerging, changing the relationship between content creators and their fans. Social media, transmedia franchises, and accessibility of inexpensive production and distribution channels allow communities of people to interact with each other around shared content.  Although Jenkins’ case studies focus on only the most valuable properties, which aren’t necessarily representative of the wider market, his description of the struggle between “old media” leadership and the new participant consumer is compelling.

Jenkins first focuses on CBS’s Survivor as an example of convergence culture, explaining how network shows struggle with the kind of engagement their fans demand.  Examining what he calls “knowledge communities,” Jenkins depicts a cat-and-mouse game between amateur detectives hell-bent on revealing the show’s outcome, and the content creators that want to keep their secrets.  If the general audience knows the winner before the season starts, those eyeballs will disappear.  So, producers have taken great lengths to protect their show from its most vocal fans.  However, the fans now have much more powerful tools at their disposal.  By sharing satellite imagery, recording and studying episodes, and posting insider tips online, these communities pool knowledge to arrive at conclusions as a community.

Interestingly, if these “knowledge communities” of hard-core fans succeed in spoiling the story ahead of time, they risk cancelling the series prematurely by ruining its emotional appeal and sense of urgency.  Thus their fascination and focus may kill the very thing they are so interested in.  Jenkins concentrates his argument on this struggle between producers and fans.  I would have liked him to take his analysis a step further by addressing the potential benefits these small communities offer the larger audience.  He mentions how these efforts force the producers to change the way they run their show, but doesn’t suggest whether or not this impacts ratings or the quality of the content.

The producers of American Idol have taken a different approach in their relationship with consumers.  They encourage an active and socially networked viewership to watch their show, buy their music, and text their votes.  Their sponsors, product placements, and cross-promotions push the brand even further.  An engaged audience can be marketed to in many ways, creating a diverse set of revenue streams.  However, Jenkins cautions that when fans participate in a consumption community, it heightens their awareness of the marketing process and reaffirms feelings of resentment if a company exploits that relationship. (Jenkins, Kindle Location 1697).  Negotiating the balance between marketing and earning the audience’s trust is a key to successfully engaging a fan base.  Jenkins makes a compelling argument for this approach to cross-platform, cross promotion.  For example, a large part of Idol’s strategy relies on fan voting to encourage appointment TV.  This gives people a reason to watch the show live, interact with it along with millions of concurrent viewers, and discuss the performances the next day with friends – either online or in person.

Shifting focus to movies, Jenkins uses The Matrix franchise to explain the convergence of content creators across various media – all serving a single integrated story.  Most people probably don’t realize that The Matrix was not just a film trilogy.  Comic books, video games, and webisodes contributed to the story.  Theoretically, this should have given fans a vast tapestry of content to digest leading to deeper engagement, which presumably would have generated more revenues for the content creators.  However, the overall narrative story occurred across different platforms, resulting in gaps and missed knowledge for people who only saw the movie or only read the comic books.  In this case, the producers either overestimated how much the general audience truly wanted to invest in their story or underestimated the need for each medium to be self-contained to provide an enjoyable experience to less rabid fans.  What could have been a great experiment in transmedia storytelling ultimately failed to live up to its potential because content producers put too much strain on their relationship with consumers.

There’s no question that transmedia storytelling will eventually take off.  As technology and our ability to traverse single storylines along different media improve, content producers will be able to tell rich, encompassing narratives unlike ever before.  Balancing the delivery of the narrative among different platforms will remain a challenge for content creators.  Jenkins could go a step further by addressing integration of user-generated content into the overall narrative experience.  In a book on convergence, I think Jenkins missed an opportunity to suggest the possibility of content creators and consumers to tell stories together in new ways.

Access to technology plays a big role in perpetuating convergence.  Inexpensive production and distribution channels have made it easier for fan communities to generate their own content based on their favorite properties.  Jenkins identifies the Star Wars franchise as a key example to understanding the delicate balance of rights and control over characters and stories between producers and consumers.  The author asserts that these properties have become so massive and integral to popular culture, that they have become new forms of folk culture (Jenkins, Kindle Location 2901).  As such, fans have taken it upon themselves to perpetuate their new folk culture with fan fiction and elaborate home movies to celebrate their fandom.  Lucasfilm holds a tight grip on fan fiction by shutting down websites and taking legal action when they deem necessary.  But they have extended an olive branch to fans by way of organizing fan film festivals and providing sound effects for fans to use.

Star Wars is an obvious example for discussing overzealous fandom.  However, it is such an enormous phenomenon that it is hard to comprehend how user-generated content could impair its value.  Jenkins neglects to discuss cases in which properties did suffer diminishing returns as a result of an overactive fan base. As case studies, Star Wars and other huge franchises like Harry Potter do not represent the majority of intellectual properties vying for audiences.  While much can be learned from their example, but their reach is so vast that it is unclear just how sweeping convergence is to the entertainment industry.

I agree with Jenkins’ assertion that we are experiencing a convergence between producers, consumers, and media but am interested in understanding the pervasiveness of it beyond niche communities.  The traditionally passive experience of watching TV or a movie may not be sustainable in the near future because consumers have too many options and too many outlets to voice their opinions publicly.  To remain relevant, media producers have to provide multiple points of entry to their ecosystems beyond the television or movie screen.  With unparalleled access to information, today’s consumers want to feel like they’re an integral part of the conversation.  Jenkins lost me a bit when he shifted to politics.  It felt out of place in a book so focused on popular culture.  I recognize that he wanted to demonstrate that lessons learned in entertainment can be applied to politics, but it felt like a stretch.  His use of wildly popular television shows and movie franchises make the content approachable, but the various directions he takes his argument diminished its impact.  Additionally, Jenkins could have taken his research a step further by placing his examples in the context of the overall entertainment landscape of the time.  This would have provided the reader with a better understanding general media trends.

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2 Responses to We’re Converging Alright, But How Much?

  1. Pingback: Book Reviews « COM546 : Evolutions

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