Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Convergence Culture

I just finished reading Henry Jenkins' Convergence Culture: Where Old & New Media Collide (2006; updated 2008). As one who entered digital media late and from classical rhetoric, this book worked extremely well for playing catch-up, especially about the rich texture of participatory culture. Baffled by the appeal of contemporary media (Survivor; American Idol: and the Matrix), I eagerly soaked up his interpretation of these which explained them in the context of "large scale collaborative knowledge communities" that were made possible with the web. His elaboration of trans-media storytelling further brokered the transmutation of what I value in rhetoric and narrative into the contemporary media with open access not only to spectatorship but also to production and to community. I already liked Harry Potter but came to appreciate even more its relationship to how "kids are mapping out new strategies for negotiating around and through globalization, intellectual property struggles, and media conglomeration."

Perhaps most importantly, Jenkins avoids the polarizing tendencies typically found around media activity and criticism. His conclusion and afterword reach toward the best of what has compelled me toward a lifetime of engagement with rhetoric and symbolic action. As suggested above, his depth accounting conveys the resurrection of hope and the potential for democratic activity through the grassroots engagement in media production and publishing about both personal and social matters. But he also shows the limitations of this ground-up dimension. Although he doesn't label it as such, the king archetype is needed to balance the everyman/woman/child. The final answer is not to abolish mass media because it potentially offers a public space needed for a world vision (to which Jenkins references Habermas). This balance connects with his title: convergence culture.

The bulk of the book, however, focuses on the popular voice, sometimes referred to as the "fan." The significance of Jenkins' work can be seen in this paragraph from his conclusion (p. 267). In it, he also venerates the timeless essential place of story.
"Fans reject the idea of a definitive version produced, authorized, and regulated by some media conglomerate. Instead, fans envision a world where all of us can participate in the creation and circulation of central cultural myths. Here, the right to participte in the culture is assumed to be 'the freedom we have allowed outselves,' not a privilege granted by a benevolent company, not something they are prepared to barter away for better sound files or free Web hosting. Fans also reject the studio's assumption that intellectual property is a 'limited good,' to be tightly controlled lest it dilute its value. Instead, they embrace an understanding of intellectual property as 'shareware,' something that accrues value as it moves across different contexts, gets retold in various ways, attracts multiple audiences, and opens itself up to a proliferation of alternative meanings."

I don't believe our children automatically develop into "fans" of the quality Jenkins just named, and I don't believe their unguided engagement in Web 2.0 makes us into persons characterized by these values either. Transformed teaching and teachers are vitally needed to meet the opportunity provided by the convergence culture. Jenkins' book calls us toward an "achievable utopia." Supporting teachers to be able to play their role in this demands a comparable act of accomplishment. That's what I believe we are about in our projects around Digital Media and Learning and in our work with the National Writing Project.