"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
-- 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
convergence in mind. It wouldn't be just a device to play games
but the centerpiece of all home entertainment.
wasn't such a stretch. Sociologically, though, it was, and it
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
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.