Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Convergence Culture by Henry Jenkins

Henry Jenkins, Director of the Contemporary Media Studies Program at MIT, attempts in his acclaimed 2006 book Convergence Culture to look beyond the hype surrounding new media and instead analyze the cultural transformations that occur when these new media meet the old. Arguing against the idea that convergence should be understood primarily as a technological process, he instead demonstrates that it represents a cultural shift as consumers are urged to seek out new information and make connections among dispersed media content.

Rather than writing from an objective viewpoint, Jenkins instead describes what the media landscape looks like from the perspective of various localized people. He also is quick to dismiss the idea that in the future consumers will get all their media from one device, referring to this prognostication as the ‘black box fallacy.’ Through his book, Jenkins explains how convergence is both a top-down corporate-driven process and a bottom-up consumer-driven process.

Throughout the six chapters making up the first edition of the book, Jenkins looks at a number of scenarios that highlight the way culture is shifting based on the intersection of new and old media. He describes in detail the fans of the television show Survivor who have banded together online to form communities that attempt to find out as many secrets about the show as is possible, using this example as a microcosm to explain how knowledge can be formed within a community that would be impossible to be formed by individuals working separately. He also discusses the ramifications that interactive audience-driven voting has had on the hit American Idol, and the potential backlash against its new brand of corporate sponsorship.

In the realm of movies, much attention is paid to the Wachowski Brothers’ Matrix trilogy and the various other ways the universe was used by different media. Calling the practice ‘transmedia storytelling,’ Jenkins explains how the unified universe across the multiple media gave viewers of the films an insight into the greater intended meaning and helped inform seeming gaps in knowledge that caused the later movies to be panned by critics. He then goes on to describe the way fans have created their own content in the Star Wars universe and the issues that have been raised. The explosion of fan fiction in the fictional world of the Harry Potter books is used as an example of the copyright problems both producers of fan content and owners of intellectual property face, while advocating such practices help young people learn ways of communicating and collaborating that are antithetical to the education they receive in schools.

Finally, Jenkins analyzes the way that politics is changing as traditional means for campaigning are being influenced and in some cases superceded by the new media options available online. Even with an afterward written seemingly towards the end of 2007, this is the weakest part of the book not because of anything Jenkins did or did not include, but due to the timeliness of issue. While analyzing the way Howard Dean was able to raise so much money in 2004 is worthwhile, without the discussion of how President Obama seized these ideas and raised millions upon millions of dollars causes the arguments to seem outdated.

Formatting errors abound in the book, with dozens of hyphens being placed in the middle of words for seemingly no reason. Often lines just skip down halfway through a sentence and at least once a block quote just ended, completely obscuring the point for which it was quoted. In all this is only mildly distracting, but it does tend to jar one out of Jenkins’s narrative.

Timeliness is a problem with any book concerning technology, and can be seen in the other chapter as well, though not to as great a degree. As new media continues to explode and the changes to our culture become more and more drastic each day, Jenkins’s book will become more and more obsolete. Yet his arguments are illuminating and his writing style is easy to read and able to be assimilated by scholarly audiences as easily as by educated laymen. For those interested not only in the types of new media that are currently emerging but also in the effects said media is having on our culture, Convergence Culture is a book you should read.

No comments: