This is a review of Henry Jenkins’s new book Convergence Culture. The review is a bit longish, so I will do it in three separate posts today; Friday; and Monday.
Jenkins is a media studies professor at MIT, and his job is the fantasy job of a 12 year old: watch Survivor and American Idol and count it as work. His new book Convergence Culture is a sequel to his 1992 work Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Culture. Both books examine participatory media, that is, a popular culture that directly involves fans in the defining of the culture. This convergence isn’t about technology—one screen (or one box) to rule them all—but rather about the way that the bright lines separating content creators from content users are becoming increasingly fuzzy. A convergence of creators and users-as-creators.
The book is a fun read—examining not only Survivor and American Idol but also “transmedia” storytelling in The Matrix and Harry Potter and Star Wars fan fiction—and is an almost anthropological examination of new trends in fan participation. Fan participation also raises important legal issues (especially for copyright) and Jenkins spends some time on those, though they are not, understandably, the focus of the book.
The book starts with Survivor. I have only watched 20 minutes or so of Survivor but it is sufficiently ubiquitous that I know the basic structure. A group is put in a desolate location, divided into teams, presented with challenges, and then one by one they are eliminated until we have the sole survivor who wins the prize. All of this is filmed and episodes are edited and rolled out week by week as we work our way down to the winner.
That much I knew. But I knew nothing about the spoiling Survivor community: groups of people, organized mainly online, who devote substantial amounts of time, attention, and money to figuring out the results in Survivor before the shows are actually aired. When I mentioned this at one of our roundtable lunches at the Law School, one of my colleagues assumed that the point was to trade on the information on tradesports.com—a good Chicago response—but if that is right, Jenkins certainly doesn’t address it. Instead, his focus is on the thrill of the chase, on the joy of puzzle solving, and on the fun of being in the know when others are not.
This is extreme fan participation: traveling to the hotels where the Survivor team stayed in the hopes of ferreting out tidbits of information from the locals; examining before-and-after photographs of Survivor participants to gauge how much weight was lost—Survivor turns out to be the best diet plan going—to figure out how long a particular player made it through the game; looking at satellite photographs to determine the location where the game takes place.
And organizing all of this information across the Internet. The Internet makes it simple for groups to organize based on interests. It isn’t important anymore whether the person in the office across from yours is interested in the same things you are or not. Like-minded souls congregate together on the Internet and that makes it possible for them to pool information to spoil Survivor.
Jenkins then turns to American Idol. Here the point is to give fans a defined role in creating the content. In Survivor, the participants in the game determine who leaves; in American Idol, fans get to vote directly. Think of this also as a bit of an anti-DVR design: you miss the voting window if you watch the show on your TiVo a week later. Fan voting makes Idol appointment TV.
Next is up is The Matrix and “transmedia” storytelling, that is the telling of a single story across multiple platforms. What is The Matrix? (I couldn’t resist nor could Jenkins.) I think of The Matrix as a trilogy—the Wachowski brothers epic first movie and then the two far inferior movies that followed it—but, as Jenkins demonstrates, it is actually much more than that. The original Matrix was a split-vote movie: loved by many—I put myself in that category—and disliked by perhaps just as many (my wife for example). For me, the timeline of the story then moved on to the sequels (The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions). I found the sequels substantially less satisfying, though it would have been unfair to expect the same originality in those movies.
But my timeline for The Matrix—the three movies — turns out to be the timeline as experienced by a casual fan. For fans who wanted to engage in a deeper way with the material, the Wachowski Brothers provided much more. Jenkins describes the transmedia world of The Matrix: a 90-minute set of short animated films known as The Animatrix; a bunch of graphic comics by the luminaries of that world; and two games, including an online multiplayer version. All of these were intended by the Wachowski Brothers to tell a single story. You, the fan, would determine your level of involvement and your degree of understanding would depend on the effort that you put in. (Who knew? I thought that the second and third movies just weren’t that great, but, hope springs eternal, so I bought The Animatrix and watched it; nope, still don’t get it.)
Stop to assess Jenkins’s story so far. Survivor spoilers try to figure out ahead of time how Survivor will end; they don’t create new episodes of Survivor (though even there a handful of fans write fictional accounts using the Survivor “characters”). American Idol involves fans and gives them a direct role in defining content but it is very controlled role established by the show’s creators. Transmedia storytelling is much like game design: the same story has many levels, and some users will never make past the first level, while others will play on and on. But again the creator of the game—the teller of the transmedia story—defines where you can go. Indeed, Jenkins attributes the success of The Matrix to the ability of the Wachowski Brothers to implement their vision of The Matrix, even when they do so with collaborators.
On Friday, I will turn to fan fiction and Harry Potter and Star Wars.