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November 17, 2006

FOE: Henry Jenkins' Introduction

The following is the C3 team's note from Henry Jenkins' introduction to the C3 Futures of Entertainment conference. For the conference's details, look toward its main page.

To open the conference, Henry Jenkins, the director of the Convergence Culture Consortium, gave some background information on what is being described as "convergence culture," to borrow the term from his book, that sets the stage for the various panels taking place here at Futures of Entertainment over the next two days. Also, see Steve Garfield's links over on Off on a Tangent.

Convergence. He begins with discussing the convergence environment we are currently in, pointing out the growing convergence between companies, such as the craze surrounding the changes in converged project open up. Henry's discussion about "putting the WE in Web," as it has been phrased in some of the popular press, emphasizes the changes in Web 2.0 (and now what's being called for in Web 3.0) to blur the line between what is corporate and what is personal. Henry points particularly to the confusing blend of LonelyGirl15 and the work of the Borat creative team. Which of these is corporate-driven, and which is grassroots? The aesthetics are starting to look the same, and the motivators are not as easy to track as it used to be, either. The Apple Store now has more than 50 channels in its first year. And, for this season, Netflix was used as a distribution tool for sneak previews to the first episodes of several shows.

Henry points out that this started with Superman years ago. Soon after his debut, we saw a radio drama, cartoons, live action serial movies, and many other cross-media products that told Superman stories. As he pointed out, this idea of transmedia storytelling or cross-platform distribution is not new but is just accelerating and changing in the current media environment. He says that comic books in particular have always been transmedia in one way or another, as the Superman model demonstrates. Look, for instance, at the online newspaper for the DC Comics series 52.

Particularly interesting is the growing amount of convergence between companies. Henry points to a few examples that have been covered here on the C3 blog, such as the Marvel Comics/Guiding Light crossover. Sticking with examples from Procter & Gamble Productions, he also points out the As the World Turns novel Oakdale Confidential, as well as crossover between the show Heroes and comic books that appear in the show and that are a part of the online content for the show.

But, aside from the technological changes that are driving these cultural changes and the deals among companies, fans are driving convergence as well. Henry says that fans mobilize, using an "extraordinary array of tactics" to create global campaigns to resuscitate cancelled shows. Why should networks stop making a show that foreign markets want to continue showing their audience just because the American audience goes weary of it? For more info on this one, see Henry's comments about fans' attempts to protest the cancellation of Stargate SG-1.

Collective Intelligence. "In a networked society, people are increasingly forming knowledge communities to pool information and work together to solve problems that they could not confront individually." Henry points to the activities of Lost fans and Matrix fans to solve mysteries from the narrative universes of these particular shows in particular. Or look at the extremely active spoiler communities for Survivor. The whole concept of alternative reality games taps into these issues. He points out the distinction between and combination of cultural attractors, which brings the fans in, and cultural activators, which gives them something to do. He also points to Veronica Mars, which allows fans to befriend its stars on MySpace. We are seeing the emergence of a new form of participatory culture (a contemporary version of folk culture) as consumers take media into their own hands, reworking its content to serve as...something. We all want to participate in some way, shape, or form. It's a world we want to participate in. See Henry's writing about these types of activities here, as well as Jason Mittell's posts about The Lost Experience.

Participatory Culture. "We are seeing the emergence of a new form of participatory culture (a contemporary version of folk culture) as consumers take media in their own hands, reworking its content to serve their personal and collective interests." He points to the example of Lost Park, South Park-inspired animations of the characters from Lost, as well as the power of fan podcasting. He also touches on some issues that have been covered here on the C3 blog in the past, such as activities Ivan Askwith documented from Comic-Con and the fan-generated grassroots marketing surrounding Snakes on a Plane (see more about this here and here and here and here. He also points to the relationship, and sometimes struggle, of The Browncoats, the fans of the show Firefly, which helped build for the Serenity film based on the show. He points out one anecdote in which these Browncoats received a bill for licensing rights for content they used, and they responded with an invoice for all the time they had spent plugging the show.

Henry also describes his disgust with the Boy Scouts joining in on encouraging kids not to download while not talking about fair use as well, thus picking sides in a debate. Henry, a former Eagle Scout, points out that Boy Scouts are supposed to be neutral in arguments of this sort. He recently posted about that here. Howver, this type of fan behavior is a global phenomenon and can hardly be stopped, as fans create a space for their creativity, whether it is sanctioned by the media companies producing the original content or not. He points out that transnational companies are stepping in, such as Virgin's offering of comic content from South Asia in the North American marketplace. He closes with the activities of Dr. Who fans, who helped drive it on the air in the UK after being off for about a decade. The show was kept alive by transmedia and fan activities, and he posits the same will happen with Star Trek with fan creators perhaps becoming the next generation of "official" product creators for Star Trek content. He also points to Revelations, the Star Wars digital fan film and fan fiction for Buffy and The X-Files.

Henry's presentation set the stage for what looks, now that it's part-of-the-way through, to be a really illuminating panel on television. Outlining the principles of participatory culture, collective intelligence, and the business models driving convergence, as well as the global reach of this phenomenon, is a nice mission statement about what C3 focuses on and the types of behaviors we are interested in.

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