Immediately after announcing my choice for this report (Convergence Culture by Henry Jenkins) I began to wonder if I had made a mistake. My personal relationship to popular culture is a bit outside the mainstream. I prefer live stage shows (live music, live dramatic performances, live musicals) over movies, I don’t read much fiction (choosing instead current events and the history to which those events lead), and when I do see a movie it is typically non-violent. When you go to the movies with me nobody dies; in my world Bambi’s mom is still out there! Of course, this doesn’t mean I’m a total recluse nor does it mean I’m very out of touch—it means I sometimes just don’t get what the big deal is with respect to, say, American Idol or Downton Abbey. I felt that perhaps I was at a natural disadvantage with this choice, but this sensation turns out to have been unfounded.
The full title to Jenkins’ work is Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide and this is the key to the work. He presents several case studies showing how these cultures come together. The work was written in the mid-2000’s so it may seem a bit long in the tooth—phenomena like live tweeting an event may not have been possible here and today this is pretty much the default.
A few cases …
The first case study discusses the hit TV series Survivor and the knowledge communities which had sprung up around it despite the best efforts of the show’s producers. Fans developed their own networks and, within those networks, subgroups interested in the meta-problems which the series presents to viewers. Unlike later TV shows, Survivor didn’t expect to engage viewers to the depth which these fans drove matters and was concern that the spoilers (the fans who were engaged in this way) could lead to drops in the program’s ratings.
American Idol, on the other hand, is presented as a platform engineered for engagement at many levels. Elements of the show are prepared for all types of viewers: casual viewers who may not watch from week to week, viewers which may be outside the stated target audience, viewers who want to influence the outcome of the show, etc. Brands associated with the show also use the show to extend their influence over viewers by sponsoring and extending their branding to other events. Sometimes the cobranding experience backfires: problems with and questions about the voting process dampened the experience for viewers and tarnished both the producers of the show and AT&T, the telecommunications sponsor.
Another case study discusses the various outposts hosting Harry Potter fan fiction: while J. K. Rowling and her publisher initially welcomed this sort of participation by readers, the movie deal inked with the Warner Bros. movie studio complicated the intellectual property landscape for these participants. The movie studio began to send cease-and-desist letters to various web publishers which hosted Harry Potter fan fiction. Participants fought back in a number of ways, including publishing their cease-and-desist letters, working with the press, etc. The publicity generated by the participant-activists ultimately drove Warner Bros. to change their stance. Warner Bros. later worked to partner with these sites but many are still doubtful: the opportunity for good judgment on the issue had passed and the later stance is considered as a face-saving move by many. Since copyright law doesn’t especially protect authors of fan fiction, this sort of participation remains problematic.
The big takeaway
There are several lessons here for participatory librarianship. The Survivor experience lets us see that the public wants to engage and participate, and they will do so whether you want them to or not. The American Idol experience tells us that when we encourage participation then we should be prepared for it all the way through, complete with transparency in our processes.
The ultimate lesson? Participation: it’s here, so be ready for it.
(Yes: clicking on the book covers takes you to Amazon.)