Convergence Culture by Henry Jenkins

"Convergence" is the "paradigm shift" of the last few years.  The word gets bandied about a lot in the media world, but seems to have no set definition.   I first heard it applied to the idea that someday soon all home media consumption -- Internet, television, music, gaming, and movies  -- would take place on a single black box in the living room that would take the place of the home PC, television, stereo, gaming console and DVD player.  Microsoft created its X-Box console with just this type of convergence in mind.  It wouldn't be just a device to play games on, but the centerpiece of all home entertainment.  Technologically, this wasn't such a stretch.  Sociologically, though, it was, and it never happened.  If anything, the marketplace is filled with an even more bewildering array of electronic gadgets today.  With this style of convergence effectively dead, the word has gone on to take on a host of possible definitions.  I sometimes get the disconcerting feeling that even many of those who use the word are doing so mainly because it is expected and somehow makes them feel good about whatever agenda they happen to be promoting.

This brings us to MIT Media Studies Professor Henry Jenkins and his 2006 book Convergence Culture.  Jenkins knows exactly what he means by the term convergence, and his definition is much more complex, subtle, and interesting than the old one.  Jenkins is not interested in the hardware level at all, but rather looks at looks at trends in media over the past decade on the macro level.  He uses the term to refer to two principal trends: the tendency of modern media creations to attract a much greater degree of audience participation than ever before, to the point that some are actually influenced profoundly by their fanbase, becoming almost a form of interactive storytelling; and the phenomenon of a single franchise being distributed through and impacting a range of media delivery methods.  These two trends go together, making it very hard to pull them apart and examine them separately.  Therefore, and on the assumption that the best teacher is a solid example, Jenkins doesn't try.  He rather divides the body of his book into six substantial chapters, each examining in detail a single franchise.

His first subject of study is the reality television show Survivor.  When it appeared in 2000, it was the first of its kind on American television and, for better or for worse, caused both quite a sensation and the inevitable stream of copycats.  Jenkins focuses on the community of so-called "Survivor spoilers" which sprang up in its wake.  Taking advantage of the fact that the entire season-long contest is filmed months before it appears on television, these people go to incredible lengths to penetrate the show's veil of secrecy and "spoil" each episode before it airs by publicizing the results.  To do so, they use both the softest means, such as psychological analysises of the contestants, and the hardest.  Jenkins describes one spoiler who has formed a liaison with a satellite imaging company, and uses their data to search out contest sites before they have been announced.  The spoiler community quickly began to influence the production staff of the show.  What has followed since is an intricate game of cat and mouse worthy of a spy novel.  As an example, Jenkins describes how the production staff hid a picture away on a cranny of the Survivor website's server where the ever-snooping spoilers would be sure to find it.  Said picture had red Xs over some contestants, presumably those soon to lose by being voted off the island.  It seemed a gold mine to the spoiler community... until the next episode aired and did not follow this intelligence at all.  The picture had apparently been a deliberate plant.  Since then, both sides have gotten even more devious, as the show has become a closed feedback loop, with both its producers and the spoilers responding to the efforts of the other.  Ratings, meanwhile, just continued to increase for each of Survivor's first few seasons.  

It is arguably this demonstration of the power of public engagement that convinced the Fox television network to air the national musical talent contest American Idol, which unlike Survivor explicitly involved the viewing audience by allowing them to have a voice in deciding the winner by text messaging their votes with their mobile phones.  This method of communication is very popular in Europe, but had not really caught on in North America at the time of American Idol's 2002 premiere.  (It is in fact worth observing that both Survivor and American Idol were in fact clones of shows that originated in Europe.  We may be the largest media market in the world, but we are apparently not the most original.)  One of the goals of American Idol sponsor Verizon was to encourage Americans to become familiar with this function of their mobile phones many may not have even known existed.  This leveraging of a single property across multiple forms of media is classic convergence behavior by Jenkins' definition.

Perhaps Jenkins' best illustration of all aspects of convergence is his discussion of the Matrix phenomenon.  Most are familiar with the trilogy of movies, but casual viewers perhaps do not realize that they are seeing only part of the story.  To fully experience the Wachowski brothers' epic, one must also collect all issues of the comic book; explore the web site; view the anime cartoon; and play the video game.  These interlocking parts do not, as one might expect, merely tell the same story in different formats, but rather make their own unique contributions to a single unfolding macro-narrative, and reference one another freely.  There are aspects of the later movies, for instance, that make no sense unless one has read the comic or played the game.  Jenkins attributes much of the lukewarm reception of the second and third films among the mainstream media to this: "Many film critics trashed the later sequels because they were not sufficiently self-contained and thus bordered on incoherent" (96).  Meanwhile, the true fans presumably nodded knowingly during the films and laughed at the hopelessly clueless critics.  Jenkins argues that the Matrix is an example of a brand new kind of trans-media storytelling, one which we do not have yet have a critical framework in place to really assess.

The Matrix phenomenon also has spawned the other type of convergence, in the form of a rabid fanbase who research the philosophy behind the story; write elaborate fictions of their own set within its world; create short Matrix movies of their own; and of course are vocal with complaints and/or praise as they watch the official storyline unfold.  The new Matrix massive multiplayer online game will allow these fans a new, wide open field to participate in their shared fantasy.

Here and in his similar explorations of Star Wars and Harry Potter, Jenkins does a very good job of documenting recent changes in the media landscape, but often fails to critically examine those changes.  As a student of literature, I am a great fan storytelling, but I have to question whether getting lost in mediated worlds to the extent of many of those described in his book is really a healthy thing.  He also leaves unexplored the question of quality.  I may come off as a snooty elitist here in opposition to man of the people Jenkins, but I can't help remarking that most of the properties he examines just aren't very good.  Survivor is a celebration of all the worst aspects of human nature; American Idol is a veritable monument to bland, uninteresting music, a triumph of showbiz over artistry; and the Matrix, with its intellectual pretensions in the form of recycled Cliff's Notes philosophy, I find perhaps the most irritating of all.  The fan communities to which Jenkins devotes so much time strike me, in spite of their undeniable talent and energy, as vaguely pathetic at times.  I can't help but wonder what they might be capable of if they saw fit to put that talent and energy into original work that they could truly call their own.  In fact, all but one of the properties Jenkins discusses are big media creations.  His discussion of the Internet rise of Howard Dean is a welcome exception, but more could have been done in this area that I personally find much more inspiring than all the fan fiction in the world.  I am of course biased, but I can't help but think that a chapter on the modern interactive fiction community, chronicling its stewardship and development of a form that has been abandoned by commercial interests, would not have been amiss.

In the end, though, and even if I don't entirely share Jenkins' enthusiasm toward the brave new world he describes, Convergence Culture is a throughly researched and very readable guide to that world.  My brief comments here have really only scratched its surface.  I would encourage anyone with an interest in the subjects it deals with to get to know it better.