Understanding the Participatory Culture of the Web: An Interview with Henry Jenkins

Henry Jenkins, Provost Professor of Communication, Journalism, and Cinematic Arts, a joint professorship at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and the USC School of Cinematic Arts.

Henry Jenkins, Provost Professor of Communication, Journalism, and Cinematic Arts, with USC Annenberg School for Communication and the USC School of Cinematic Arts.

The following is a guest post from Julia Fernandez, this year’s NDIIPP Junior Fellow. Julia has a background in American studies and working with folklife institutions and is working on a range of projects related to CurateCamp Digital Culture. This is part of an ongoing series of interviews Julia is conducting to better understand the kinds of born-digital primary sources folklorists, and others interested in studying digital culture, are making use of for their scholarship.

Anyone who has ever liked a TV show’s page on Facebook or proudly sported a Quidditch t-shirt knows that being a fan goes beyond the screen or page.  With the growth of countless blogs, tweets, Tumblr gifsets, Youtube videos, Instagram hashtags, fanart sites and fanfiction sites, accessing fan culture online has never been easier. Whether understood as a vernacular web or as the blossoming of a participatory culture individuals across the world are using the web to respond to and communicate their own stories.

As part of the NDSA Insights interview series, I’m delighted to interview Henry Jenkins, professor at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and self-proclaimed Aca-Fan. He is the author of one of the foundational works exploring fan cultures, “Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Culture,”  as well as a range of other books, including “Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide,” and most recently the co-author (with Sam Ford and Joshua Green) “Spreadable Media: Creating Value and Meaning in a Networked Culture.” He blogs at Confessions of an Aca-Fan.

Julia: You state on your website that your time at MIT, “studying culture within one of the world’s leading technical institutions” gave you “some distinctive insights into the ways that culture and technology are reshaping before our very eyes.”  How so? What are some of the changes you’ve observed, from a technical perspective and/or a cultural one?

Henry: MIT was one of the earliest hubs in the Internet. When I arrived there in 1989, Project Athena was in its prime; the MIT Media Lab was in its first half decade and I was part of a now legendary Narrative Intelligence Reading Group (PDF) which brought together some of the smartest of their graduate students and a range of people interested in new media from across Cambridge; many of the key thinkers of early network culture were regular speakers at MIT; and my students were hatching ideas that would become the basis for a range of Silicon Valley start ups. And it quickly became clear to me that I had a ringside seat for some of the biggest transfomations in the media landscape in the past century, all the more so because through my classes, the students were helping me to make connections between my work on fandom as a participatory culture and a wide array of emerging digital practices (from texting to game mods).

Kresge Auditorium, MIT, Historic American Buildings Survey/Historic American Engineering Record/Historic American Landscapes Survey, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/hhh.ma1361/photos.080151

Kresge Auditorium, MIT, Historic American Buildings Survey/Historic American Engineering Record/Historic American Landscapes Survey, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/hhh.ma1361/photos.080151

Studying games made sense at MIT because “Spacewar,” one of the first known uses of computers for gaming, had been created by the MIT Model Railroad club in the early 1960s. I found myself helping to program a series that the MIT Women’s Studies Program was running on gender and cyberspace, from which the materials for my book, “From Barbie to Mortal Kombat” emerged. Later, I would spend more than a decade as the housemaster of an MIT dorm, Senior House, which is known to be one of the most culturally creative at the Institute.

Through this, I was among the first outside of Harvard to get a Facebook account; I watched students experimenting with podcasting, video-sharing and file-sharing. Having MIT after my name opened doors at all of the major digital companies and so I was able to go behind the scenes as some of these new technologies were developing, and also see how they were being used by my students in their everyday lives.

So, through the years, my job was to place these developments in their historical and cultural contexts — often literally as Media Lab students would come to me for advice on their dissertation projects, but also more broadly as I wrote about these developments through Technology Review, the publication for MIT’s alumni network. It was there where many of the ideas that would form “Convergence Culture” were first shared with my readers. And the students that came through the Comparative Media Studies graduate program have been at ground zero for some of the key developments in the creative industries in recent years — from the Veronica Mars Kickstarter campaign to the community building practices of Etsy, from key developments in the games and advertising industry to cutting edge experiments in transmedia storytelling. The irony is that I had been really reluctant about accepting the MIT job because I suffer from fairly serious math phobia. :-)

Today, I enjoy another extraordinary vantage point as a faculty member at USC, who is embedded in both the Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism and the Cinema School, and thus positioned to watch how Hollywood and American journalism are responding to the changes that networked communication have forced upon them. I am able to work with future filmmakers who are trying to grasp a shift from a focus on individual stories to an emphasis on world-building, journalists who are trying to imagine new relationships with their publics, and activists who are seeking to make change by any media necessary.

Julia: Much of your work has focused on reframing the media audience as active and creative participants in creating media, rather than passive consumers.  You’ve critiqued use of the terms “viral” and “memes” to describe  internet phenomena as “stripping aside the concept of human agency,” and that the biological language “confuses the actual power relations between producers, properties, brands and consumers.” Can you unpack some of your critiques for us? What is at stake?

Henry: At the core of “Spreadable Media” is a shift in how media travels across the culture. On the one hand, there is distribution as we have traditionally understood it in the era of mass media where content flows in patterns regulated by decisions made by major corporations who control what we see, when we see it and under what conditions. On the other hand, there is circulation, a hybrid system, still shaped top-down by corporate players, but also bottom-up by networks of everyday people, who are seeking to move media that is meaningful to them across their social networks, and will take media where they want it when they want it through means both legal and illegal. The shift towards a circulation-based model for media access is disrupting and transforming many of our media-related practices, and it is not explained well by a model which relies so heavily on metaphors of infection and assumptions of irrationality.

The idea of viral media is a way that the broadcasters hold onto the illusion of their power to set the media agenda at a time when that power is undergoing a crisis. They are the ones who make rational calculations, able to design a killer virus which infects the masses, so they construct making something go viral as either arcane knowledge that can be sold at a price from those in the know or as something that nobody understands, “It just went viral!” But, in fact, we are seeing people, collectively and individually, make conscious decisions about what media to pass to which networks for what purposes with what messages attached through which media channels and we are seeing activist groups, religious groups, indie media producers, educators and fans make savvy decisions about how to get their messages out through networked communications.

Julia: Cases like the Harry Potter Alliance suggest the range of ways that fan cultures on the web function as a significant cultural and political force. Given the significance of fandom, what kinds of records of their online communities do you think will be necessary in the future for us to understand their impact? Said differently, what kinds of records do you think cultural heritage organizations should be collecting to support the study of these communities now and into the future?

Henry: This is a really interesting question. My colleague, Abigail De Kosnik at UC-Berkeley, is finishing up a book right now which traces the history of the fan community’s efforts to archive their own creative output over this period, which has been especially precarious, since we’ve seen some of the major corporations which fans have used to spread their cultural output to each other go out of business and take their archives away without warning or change their user policies in ways that forced massive numbers of people to take down their content.

Image of Paper Print Films in Library of Congress collection.

Image of Paper Print Films in Library of Congress collection. Jenkins notes this collection of prints likely makes it easier to write the history of the first decade of American cinema than to write the history of the first decade of the web.

The reality is that it is probably already easier to write the history of the first decade of American cinema, because of the paper print collection at the Library of Congress, than it is to write the history of the first decade of the web. For that reason, there has been surprisingly little historical research into fandom — even though some of the communication practices that fans use today go back to the publication practices of the Amateur Press Association in the mid-19th century. And even recently, major collections of fan-produced materials have been shunted from library to archive with few in your realm recognizing the value of what these collections contain.

Put simply, many of the roots of today’s more participatory culture can be traced back to fan practices over the last century. Fans have been amongst the leading innovators in terms of the cultural uses of new media. But collecting this material is going to be difficult: fandom is a dispersed but networked community which does not work through traditional organizations; there are no gatekeepers (and few recordkeepers) in fandom, and the scale of fan production — hundreds of thousands if not millions of new works every year — dwarfs that of commercial publishing. And that’s to focus only on fan fiction and would does not even touch the new kinds of fan activism that we are documenting for my forthcoming book, By Any Media Necessary. So, there is an urgent need to archive some of these materials, but the mechanisms for gathering and appraising them are far from clear.

Julia: Your New Media Literacy project aims in part to “provide adults and youth with the opportunity to develop the skills, knowledge, ethical framework and self-confidence needed to be full participants in the cultural changes which are taking place in response to the influx of new media technologies, and to explore the transformations and possibilities afforded by these technologies to reshape education.” In one of your pilot programs, for instance, students studied “Moby-Dick” by updating the novel’s Wikipedia page. Can you tell us a little more about this project? What are some of your goals? Further, what opportunities do you think libraries have to enable this kind of learning?

Henry: We documented this project through our book, “Reading in a Participatory Culture,” and through a free online project, Flows of Reading. It was inspired by the work of Ricardo Pitts-Wiley, the head of the Mixed Magic Theater in Rhode Island, who was spending time going into prisons to get young people to read “Moby-Dick” by getting them to rewrite it, imagining who these characters would be and what issues they would be confronting if they were part of the cocaine trade in the 21st century as opposed to the whaling trade in the 19th century. This resonated with the work I have been doing on fan rewriting and fan remixing practices, as well as what we know about, for example, the ways hip hop artists sample and build on each other’s work.

So, we developed a curriculum which brought together Melville’s own writing and reading practices (as the master mash-up artist of his time) with Pitts-Wiley’s process in developing a stage play that was inspired by his work with the incarcerated youth and with a focus on the place of remix in contemporary culture. We wanted to give young people tools to think ethically and meaningfully about how culture is actually produced and to give teachers a language to connect the study of literature with contemporary cultural practices. Above all, we wanted to help students learn to engage with literary texts creatively as well as critically.

We think libraries can be valuable partners in such a venture, all the more so as regimes of standardized testing make it hard for teachers to bring complex 19th century novels like “Moby-Dick” into their classes or focus student attention on the process and cultural context of reading and writing as literacy practices. Doing so requires librarians to think of themselves not only as curators of physical collections but as mentors and coaches who help students confront the larger resources and practices opened up to them through networked communication. I’ve found librarians and library organizations to be vital partners in this work through the years.

Julia: Your latest book is on the topic of “spreadable media,” arguing that “if it doesn’t spread, it’s dead.”  In a nutshell, how would you define the term “spreadable media”?

Henry:  I talked about this a little above, but let me elaborate. We are proposing spreadable media as an alternative to viral media in order to explain how media content travels across a culture in an age of Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Reddit, Tumblr, etc. The term emphasizes the act of spreading and the choices which get made as people appraise media content and decide what is worth sharing with the people they know. It places these acts of circulation in a cultural context rather than a purely technological one. At the same time, the word is intended to contrast with older models of “stickiness,” which work on the assumption that value is created by locking down the flow of content and forcing everyone who wants your media to come to your carefully regulated site. This assumes a kind of scarcity where we know what we want and we are willing to deal with content monopolies in order to get it.

But, the reality is that we have more media available to us today that we can process: we count on trusted curators — primarily others in our social networks but also potentially those in your profession — to call media to our attention and the media needs to be able to move where the conversations are taking place or remain permanently hidden from view. That’s the spirit of “If it doesn’t spread, it’s dead!” If we don’t know about the media, if we don’t know where to find it, if it’s locked down where we can’t easily get to it, it becomes irrelevant to the conversations in which we are participating. Spreading increases the value of content.

Julia: What does spreadable media mean to the conversations libraries, archives and museums could  have with their patrons? How can archives be more inclusive of participatory culture?

Henry:  Throughout the book, we use the term “appraisal” to refer to the choices everyday people make, collectively and personally, about what media to pass along to the people they know. Others are calling this process “curating.” But either way, the language takes us immediately to the practices which used to be the domain of “libraries, archives, and museums.” You were the people who decided what culture mattered, what media to save from the endless flow, what media to present to your patrons. But that responsibility is increasingly being shared with grassroots communities, who might “like” something or “vote something up or down” through their social media platforms, or simply decide to intensify the flow of the content through tweeting about it.

We are seeing certain videos reach incredible levels of circulation without ever passing through traditional gatekeepers. Consider “Kony 2012,” which reached more than 100 million viewers in its first week of circulation, totally swamping the highest grossing film at the box office that week (“Hunger Games”) and the highest viewed series on American television (“Modern Family”), without ever being broadcast in a traditional sense. Minimally, that means that archivists may be confronting new brokers of content, museums will be confronting new criteria for artistic merit, and libraries may be needing to work hand in hand with their patrons as they identify the long-term information needs of their communities. It doesn’t mean letting go of their professional judgement, but it does mean examining their prejudices about what forms of culture might matter and it does mean creating mechanisms, such as those around crowd-sourcing and perhaps even crowd-funding, which help to insure greater responsiveness to public interests.

Julia: You wrote in 2006 that there is a lack of fan involvement with works of high culture because “we are taught to think about high culture as untouchable,” which in turn has to do with “the contexts within which we are introduced to these texts and the stained glass attitudes which often surround them.” Further, you argue that this lack of a fan culture makes it difficult to engage with a work, either intellectually or emotionally. Can you expand on this a bit? Do you still believe this to be the case, or has this changed with time? Does the existence of transformative works like “The Lizzie Bennet Diaries” on Youtube or vibrant Austen fan communities on Tumblr reveal a shift in attitudes? Finally, how can libraries, museums, and other institutions help foster a higher level of emotional and intellectual engagement?

Henry:  Years ago, I wrote “Science Fiction Audiences” with the British scholar John Tulloch in which we explored the broad range of ways that fans read and engaged with “Star Trek” and “Doctor Who.” Tulloch then went on to interview audiences at the plays of Anton Checkov and discovered a much narrower range of interpretations and meanings — they repeated back what they had been taught to think about the Russian playwright rather than making more creative uses of their experience at the theater. This was probably the opposite of the way many culture brokers think about the high arts — as the place where we are encouraged to think and explore — and popular arts — as works that are dummied down for mass consumption. This is what I meant when I suggested that the ways we treat these works cut them off from popular engagement.

At the same time, I am inspired by recent experiments which merge the high and the low. I’ve already talked about Mixed Magic’s work with “Moby-Dick,” but “The Lizzie Bennett Diaries” is another spectacular example. It’s inspired to translate Jane Austen’s world through the mechanisms of social media: gossip and scandal plays such a central role in her works; she’s so attentive to what people say about each other and how information travels through various social communities. And the playful appropriation and remixing of “Pride and Prejudice” there has opened up Austen’s work to a whole new generation of readers who might otherwise have known it entirely through Sparknotes and plodding classroom instruction. There are certainly other examples of classical creators — from Gilbert and Sullivan to Charles Dickens and Arthur Conan Doyle — who inspire this kind of fannish devotion from their followers, but by and large, this is not the spirit with which these works get presented to the public by leading cultural institutions.

I would love to see libraries and museums encourage audiences to rewrite and remix these works, to imagine new ways of presenting them, which make them a living part of our culture again. Lawrence Levine’s “Highbrow/Lowbrow” contrasts the way people dealt with Shakespeare in the 19th century — as part of the popular culture of the era — with the ways we have assumed across the 20th century that an appreciation of the Bard is something which must be taught because it requires specific kinds of cultural knowledge and specific reading practices. Perhaps we need to reverse the tides of history in this way and bring back a popular engagement with such works.

Julia: You’re a self-described academic and fan, so I’d be interested in what you think are some particularly vibrant fan communities online that scholars should be paying more attention to.

Screenshot of the VlogBrothers, Hank and John Green, as they display a symbol of their channel in a video titled “How To Be a Nerdfighter: A Vlogbrothers FAQ”

Screenshot of the VlogBrothers, Hank and John Green, as they display a symbol of their channel in a video titled “How To Be a Nerdfighter: A Vlogbrothers FAQ”

Henry: The first thing I would say is that librarians, as individuals, have long been an active presence in the kinds of fan communities I study; many of them write and read fan fiction, for example, or go to fan conventions because they know these as spaces where people care passionately about texts, engage in active debates around their interpretation, and often have deep commitments to their preservation. So, many of your readers will not need me to point out the spaces where fandom are thriving right now; they will know that fans have been a central part of the growth of the Young Adult Novel as a literary category which attracts a large number of adult readers so they will be attentive to “Harry Potter,” “Hunger Games,” or the Nerdfighters (who are followers of the YA novels of John Green); they will know that fans are being drawn right now to programs like “Sleepy Hollow” which have helped to promote more diverse casting on American television; and they will know that now as always science fiction remains a central tool which incites the imagination and creative participation of its readers. The term, Aca-Fan, has been a rallying point for a generation of young academics who became engaged with their research topics in part through their involvement within fandom. Whatever you call them, there needs to be a similar movement to help librarians, archivists and curators come out of the closet, identify as fans, and deploy what they have learned within fandom more openly through their work.

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