In Convergence Culture, Henry Jenkins argues that convergence is not a technological endpoint. [1] That is, the future of convergence is not a single “black box” capable of all media functions. Such a perspective fails to consider the economic, social and cultural forces that shape how technology is used.[2] For example, Priscilla Coit Murphy discredits the idea that books will eventually disappear and give way to newer media. She argues that books are deeply embedded within our media system, fulfilling social interests (by offering a unique type of media experience), economic interests (media conglomerates do not want to abandon a viable commodity), and intellectual interests (books are a vital part of learning and knowledge).[3]  Though its content, audience, function, and social status may shift, the fact is, “old” media ultimately coexist with “new” media.[4] Theatre coexists with cinema. Radio coexists with television. And as discussed in the last section, television coexists with the Internet.

Instead of understanding convergence as primarily technological, Jenkins argues that convergence is a cultural process emerging from two powerful forces:

The American media environment is now being shaped by two seemingly contradictory trends: on the one hand, new media technologies have lowered production and distribution costs, expanded the range of available delivery channels and enabled consumers to archive, annotate, appropriate and recirculate media content in powerful new ways; on the other hand, there has been an alarming concentration of the ownership of mainstream commercial media, with a small handful of multinational media conglomerates dominating all sectors of the entertainment industry.[5]

Cultural convergence, then, is the interplay between the top-down power of economic convergence (media conglomerates dispersing content across media) and the bottom-up power of participatory culture (consumers interacting with media content and technology in unpredictable ways). After focusing on media consolidation in 1.1, I now to turn to the capabilities of participatory culture, specifically as they relate to television.

In our participatory culture, consumers are active, socially connected participants within the changing media environment. New technologies become tools within a multimedia sandbox, empowering ‘typical’ consumers to become creators, artists, and visionaries. With little effort and time, one can easily edit video, manipulate graphics, remix intellectual property, and post it all to YouTube. The way Jenkins sees it, “the power of participation comes not from destroying commercial culture, but from writing over it, modding it, amending it, expanding it, adding greater diversity of perspective, and then re-circulating it, feeding it back into the mainstream media.”[6]

Crucial to the idea of participatory culture is collective intelligence, the “ability of virtual communities to leverage the combined expertise of their members.”[7] The idea of collective intelligence is that individuals will combine their talents and knowledge to achieve tasks and goals that no one could have completed alone. Within television fandom, one of the best examples is Lostpedia, a comprehensive, user-generated guide to the fictional world of Lost. As I will discuss in Chapter 4, Lost’s narrative complexity encourages close examination and triggers encyclopedic impulses. Together, fans collaborate to investigate and decipher an array of puzzles and enigmas to uncover Lost’s vast narrative data.

In light of these participatory practices, consumers have changed their expectations for entertainment. They now crave media texts offering complexity, community, and opportunities for creativity, texts that enable consumers to satisfactorily apply their participatory capabilities. To a large degree, these new demands are associated with younger generations.[8] Sharon Ross, in her book, Beyond the Box, notes that the Millennial generation is particularly “migratory,” meaning that they are quite skilled at traversing multiple media to hunt down content.[9] As Ross observes, Millenials are so used to multitasking on the Internet — sharing, communicating, and social networking — that they do so without even thinking about it. As a result, Jenkins points out, Millenials are coming to expect multiplatform components from their entertainment:

The kids who have grown up consuming and enjoying Pokemon across media are going to expect the same experience from The West Wing as they get older. By design, Pokemon unfolds across games, television programs, films, and books, with no media privileged over any other. For our generation, the hour long, ensemble-based, serialized drama was the pinnacle of sophisticated storytelling, but for the next generation, it is going to seem like well, child’s play.[10]

Jenkins argues that younger consumers are adept at tracking down character backgrounds and side-plots, and then making connections across many different texts of a franchise. Marsha Kinder argues that these “hunters and gatherers” learn transmedia navigation at an early age through video games.[11] That is, a child’s enjoyment of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Nintendo game would actively encourage their interest in the film, videogames, websites, and merchandise.

To cater to these transmedia expectations, Sharon Ross  observes how television producers are experimenting with “invitational strategies” for ‘tele-participation’: “interactions with a show beyond the moment of viewing and outside of the television show.”[12] Some strategies are rather explicit, like informing people to vote for their favorite American Idol contestant. Other invitations are more “obscure” because participation is encouraged through narrative complexity, inviting fans to compare notes and collaborate to make sense out of it all. Either way, the key point from Ross’ research is that television producers can only offer the invitation; ultimately, the viewer has “the power to refuse it, accept it, bring along a guest, drop by, or stay and really party.”[13] Thus, inviting tele-participation, as Ross’ research suggests, helps create a shared sense of ownership over a property and tears down the barrier between the “authoritative” media producer and the “passive” media consumer.

If new technologies create a venue for greater audience tele-participation (fan fictions, wikis, remixes, viding), they also enable television networks to capitalize on consumers’ participatory activities, generating higher ratings, brand awareness, and save-the-show activism. Many producers and cast members maintain direct interaction with fans. Some networks have fan fiction contests and galleries, while others, like the WB’s WBlender, provide tools for users to produce music videos or mash-ups without infringing on copyright. Corporate and grassroots forces are constantly interacting with one another, and it is this exchange that fuels transmedia storytelling.

[1] Understanding convergence primarily as technological is what Jenkins calls the  “black box fallacy.” In Convergence Culture, 13.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Murphy, Priscilla Coit. “Books are Dead, Long Live Books.” Rethinking Media Change: The Aesthetics of Transition. Eds. David Thorburn and Henry Jenkins. Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2003. 81-95.
[4] Jenkins, Henry. Convergence Culture.
[5] Ibid.,18.
[6] Ibid., 257.
[7]Jenkins applies the French philosopher Pierre Levy’s notion of collective intelligence to the digital age. Convergence Culture, 27.
[8] Jenkins, et al.  “Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture: Media Education in the 21st Century.” White Paper for MacArthur Foundation, 2006.
[9] Ross, Sharon Marie. Beyond the Box: Television and the Internet. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell Publishing, 2008.
[10] “Transmedia Storytelling.” MIT Technology Review.
[11] Kinder, Marsha.  Playing with Power in Movies, Television and Video Games: From
Muppet Babies to Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
. University of California Press, 1991.
[12] Beyond the Box, 4.
[13] “Inviting Our Participation: An Interview with Sharon Marie Ross (Part One).” 8 October 2008.

Posted by Aaron Smith on June 17, 2009
Tags: Uncategorized

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