Book Review: Convergence Culture by Henry Jenkins.Posted: April 3, 2011
Decker’s a Replicant.
“The older American folk culture was built on borrowings from various mother countries; the modern mass media builds upon borrowings from folk culture; the new convergence culture will be built on borrowings from various media conglomerates.” – Henry Jenkins
“My name is Legion: for we are many.” – Gospel according to Mark, 5:9
In Convergence Culture, USC media guru Henry Jenkins analyzes a shifting cultural landscape and dissects the current particulars regarding audience interaction with mass media. Jenkins uses a hodgepodge of examples drawing from sources such as television (Survivor), film (The Matrix), fiction (Harry Potter), and political campaigns (Howard Dean, Barack Obama) to investigate the nature of modern media and how its axis has shifted radically to allow for remixing, re-interpretation, canonical deviation, and culture jamming on terms established by fans instead of producers. Jenkins also looks at how these practices have influenced producers and media itself.
Jenkins states in the introduction that “If old consumers were assumed to be passive, the new consumers are active.” Example after example presents the new vistas that affordable digital technology and transmission media have opened, and the takeaway is that while “old” media fans could only consume, modern fans can easily reciprocate with their own interpretations of pop culture if they should so choose. Media dispersion, canonical deviation (“Which version of Blade Runner is definitive?!?”), and the nature of knowledge communities are explored in a multi-tiered analysis of what it means to be a fan in the age of configurable media, Facebook, MMORPGs, and Photoshop.
In a nutshell, the concept of convergence is one in which fans have forgone the “one-way” nature of old media to forge a new path that allows them to interact with their favorite creations. Harry Potter fan-fiction is one such example explored by Jenkins, as is investigative reality TV “hacking” by fans who have taken their interest in shows such as “Survivor” and “American Idol” to a new level. Concatenating and amassing a gestalt in fandom is now a process of curation and construction influenced by multiple iterations and knowledge communities, where credence is leveraged by the degree of veracity that one will give a retcon, side story, or alternative interpretation. For example, I believe that Han Solo shot first because of the nature of his character and because of the weight that the original Star Wars carries with me. My apologies to George, of course.
Dr. Jenkins also notes the expanded nature of narrative media, exploring the distributed “transmedia” plot of The Matrix, which was spread over various transmission media like video games and an animated side story. His analysis of media production models and “co-creation” explores the various contrasting attitudes of creators in the modern media space; some producers openly welcome fan-created content while others have a more mercurial or even adversarial relationship with it.
In the updated version’s afterword, Jenkins explores the impact of convergence culture on the 2008 presidential campaign and examines the attitude of mass media toward fan-created content in the realm of “proper” media. The descriptions of the difference in approach between quick-thinking, innovative fans and that of oft-restricted conglomerates exemplify Jenkins’ main ideas in an elegant way, although he does note the media’s shifting attitude toward embracing user-generated content. Additional insight is given with regard to the lionizing weight afforded to established monoliths as well as the coeval pursuit of “parallel interests” by both independent grassroots alliances and well-known media interests.
Convergence Culture won the 2007 Society for Cinema and Media Studies Katherine Singer Kovacs award for good reason: it’s an excellent, well-written, fast-paced, and surprisingly enjoyable book about modern media that balances an encyclopedic knowledge of culture with insights culled from leaders in communications research like Rheingold, Levy, Itou, and Eco. One wouldn’t usually expect that reading about the participatory nature of modern media and how it reflects the same kind of melange that birthed The Odyssey would be anything besides a chore, but Jenkins proffers an excellent crash course for those who want to explore the roots of interactive media cultures.
My take: If you are at all serious about communications research that is focused on modern media consumption and fandom, you need to read this book.
Much like a roller-coaster ride, convergence culture as a practice could be interpreted as an assault on the senses that could easily overload or confuse somebody. So much happens simultaneously across so many mediums that we can only hope to grok a general appreciation of where a certain fandom is heading at any given moment; but the corollary is that each personal take can be valid, genuine, and meaningful.
Reviewing my notes on the book, I was surprised to realize how dense it is in terms of its breadth. Jenkins’ sense of construction allows you to cruise from Mcluhan to Spock to Peter Bagge to Anderson Cooper in 294 pages without feeling like you’ve short-changed yourself academically or culturally, which is at the very least a commendable accomplishment. Aside from an inexplicably repeated passage that is most likely due to a printing error, the book is a satisfying and fairly brisk read that conveys an important message: we have an “all you can eat” pass at the cultural smorgasboard.
So who’s hungry?