Last month I had the privilege to participate in an extraordinary round table on the topic of Internet Video Innovation hosted by the Information Society Project at Yale Law School. What follows is the “thought paper” I composed for the event. It’s a bit long for a blog post, but whatever.
Toward a Fuller Conception of Participatory Culture
“Media convergence” and “participatory culture” are two often-heard phrases in current theoretical and practical discussions of Internet video. Henry Jenkins defines media convergence as:
. . .the flow of content across media platforms, the cooperation between multiple media industries, and the migratory behavior of media audiences who will go almost anywhere in search of the type of entertainment experience they want (2).
He cautions that we not see convergence as a mainly technical phenomenon but as “a cultural shift as consumers are encouraged to seek out new information and make connections among dispersed media content (3).” Jenkins defines participatory culture as a move away from the traditional notion of audience and producer:
Rather than talking about media producers and consumers as occupying separate roles, we might see them as participants who interact with each other according to a new set of rules that none of us fully understand (3).
Essentially, convergence is the breakdown of the barriers between traditional media types and participatory culture is the breakdown between the conventional roles of consumer and producer.
The premise of this thought paper is that media convergence (both the evolution of media technologies as well the cultural shift that Jenkins focuses on) is well under way, but the shift toward a participatory culture is just getting started. Media producers, consumers and theorists have all become relatively comfortable with the idea that the borders between media types are eroding irrevocably. In contrast, media prognosticators and the public at large have been slower to grapple with the possible new set of rules that Jenkins suggests for a participatory culture. The breakdown between the traditional roles of media producer and consumer is potentially more profound culturally than the breakdown of the traditional media types. It is also (so far) less defined in the cultural imagination. If this premise is correct, then we have already seen a relatively clear vision of what convergence looks like, but we have seen only a hint of the full potential of participatory culture.
Evidence of the mainstream acceptance of media convergence is apparent not only in academia but also in popular culture. Fahrenheit 451, originally published in 1953, depicts homes with full-wall screens to deliver the maximum amount of converged media (as the government prosecutes a campaign to eradicate books [Bradbury]). In the present day, a TV commercial for media services has a football player literally leaping from the TV to the computer to the cell phone. Companies like Apple Computer have made the concept of media convergence a consumer ideal and a marketing message. While we don’t yet have the exact technologies depicted in Fahrenheit 451 or the football commercial, our collective culture has at least contemplated both the shiny perfection of converged media as well as its dystopian potential.
Evidence for the claim that our conceptualization of participatory culture is not fully developed is harder to come by because it is notoriously difficult to identify that which is not yet imagined. Two things that can help ameliorate this problem are: (1) identifying examples of formulations and terminologies that are outdated or inherently insufficient and (2) exploring emerging examples of participatory culture that are on the cutting edge of challenging our conception of the relationships between media, creator, and audience.
One example of the first approach is the phrase “user generated content” when used as a catchall for (among other things) social networks, online video platforms, and citizen journalism. While these phenomena are important examples of our emerging participatory culture, the phrase “user generated content” works against deep re-examination of the traditional roles of producer and audience. It assumes a “user” who (it is inherently implied) is fundamentally different than a producer (or professional). The language describing some of the best examples of the emerging phenomenon undercuts the potential for its ultimate development.
My own thought process as I approached this conference is also revealing. Looking at the participants and topics, I felt that there was a wealth of knowledge regarding the consumer side of Internet video, but that I could bring a special perspective to the changes that online video technology has brought to the video creation process. Then I realized that I had made the same error, placing an artificial barrier between creators and consumers and letting old ways of thinking define how I approached a situation. Future “prosumers” of media in a participatory culture (I had to remind myself) may not draw the same distinctions between viewing, commenting on, editing, creating, and repurposing media. As Jenkins says, they will be operating under “a new set of rules that none of us fully understand.”
One place that new conceptions are emerging is the rapidly growing world of social networks. A friend from college posts videos of obscure rock and punk shows he finds on YouTube to his Facebook wall. The most recent is “The Cramps: Live at Napa State Mental Hospital.” He also writes commentary, for this one it is: “The Cramps, punks, Californian mental patients. The concert of a Nembutal delirium. The lines blur, everyone dances.” He is not producing this content, but he is curating, reviewing, and syndicating it. Moreover, he has created a micro channel, broadcasting to an audience defined by knowing him. All he has technically done is link a video from one Internet platform to another and written a comment. Those few clicks have a direct influence to what I watch online.
A final example of emerging participatory culture is the videos made by players of games and residents of virtual worlds such as World of Warcraft and Second Life. Known as “machinima” (a neologism combining “machine” and “cinema”[Bailey]) these virtually created videos thoroughly defy the conventional division between consumer and producer. Traditionally we think of the players of a game as consumers, and the makers of a video as producers – but in this case, participants are doing both simultaneously.
Neither of these examples is without issue. Who is the owner of this content? Is this repurposing cheating the performers in the concert videos and the designers of the game environments? What about, as in Second Life, if other participants create large portions of the virtual environment that is the setting for the video? These questions can be vexing at the moment, as Jenkins points out: we do not yet understand the new rules.
A turn toward the questions surrounding participatory culture is warranted as we continue to experience and theorize Internet culture and new forms and models of video content creation and distribution. New vectors may emerge from more thorough conceptualization of a deep blurring of the traditional lines between creators and consumers of media.
Bailey, Anthony. “Origins of the word ‘Machinima.’” Anthony Bailey’s blog. 9 Sept. 2007. 20 Feb. 2008. <http://anthonybailey.net/blog/2007/09/09/origins-of-the-word-machinima>
Bradbury, Ray. Fahrenheit 451. New York: Random House, 1953.
Jenkins, Henry. Convergence Culture. New York: New York University Press, 2006.