3/18/2007

At Wagmedia, a new blog by an old friend, Ira Wagman is discussing Henry Jenkins's Convergence Culture. In particular he wonders whether all the attention being given to the new participatory culture is slighting the casual audiences--still the vast majority of culture consumers--who aren't interested in making fan fiction or researching Survivor locations to spoil upcoming seasons or following narratives across multiple platforms. Ira writes:
Do we really want television made by and for fans? What happens to the casual (and not passive) viewer? They're important too, aren't they?
I had some similar responses when I read the book. In general I am really excited by the developments Jenkins writes about, but I also have some reservations about the way scholars talk about them. Such as...

-Is participatory culture significant because it represents a prevailing mode of engaging with media? Certainly it is not that now. I kept wondering as I was reading CC whether its argument hangs on a prediction for the future. Perhaps participatory culture is poised to become a standard way for a significant number of people to engage with media. But perhaps not. Maybe participatory culture will remain a minority, niche pursuit that is more available to those with the benefits of social and economic privilege.

-Maybe even if inequality between cultural consumers is overcome in the future, most people still won't be interested in the modes of media interaction Jenkins champions. As it is now, most people who have the education and technology necessary to engage in read/write culture (as opposed to read-only culture) aren't interested. I have been noticing this more and more as I become immersed in the read/write culture myself. For instance, most people I talk to have no idea what an RSS feed is and when I tell them about it, they react like I'm trying to sell them encyclopedias. My students, whose age might indicate they are more likely than I am to know about such things, need me to define terms like "mashup." The experience of media as an immersive obsession isn't for everyone. Most people don't use media that way, and why should they? They have a lot of other things to do. My sense is that the norm is still to use the web for e-mail, shopping, looking things up, and little else--i.e., not the way you and I use it.

-Even when people are up for an immersive experience, they might prefer the role of spectator to that of participant. Participation isn't usually what we're looking for in our entertainment. I love movies and TV because they come to me, they please me, they offer me so much. In return, I often give them nothing more than my attention and interest. And this is robustly satisfying--nothing seems to be missing from the experience. Jenkins's examples are all of spectators becoming active in the co-creation of media. I too am excited by this activity, but I am not totally comfortable with the unambiguous positive moral valence this is given. It suggests that the comparative passivity of non-co-creating viewers is a less worthy mode of engagement and prescribes a certain kind of viewing activity as preferable. I'm sure Jenkins doesn't mean to be prescriptive in this way, but this is the implication I draw from the way he stakes his position.

So in general: maybe participatory culture isn't for everyone. Maybe it's being adopted as a marketing concept by media companies eager to find the next big thing. Maybe read-only culture has a lot of life left in it yet.

1 comment:

Tim Anderson said...

I hear you -- Among the things that drives me nuts when I read things like CC, a book I enjoyed, is that media convergence is a) nothing new and b) not all its chalked up to be. I love blogging and working the web, but it's kind of part of my profession as far as I see it. My parents have no desire to provide "content" and, as far as I can tell, neither do my students, each of whom have access to T2 lines and G5s. The great majority of them are simply interested in funny videos and a great story.

On that second part: the issue of narrative is really key. One of the most important things about narrative is its therapeutic function: in a culture where productivity is glorified, getting lost in a good story that gets me out of my story is more important than one may believe. Only the most Adornoesque critic would deny the necessity of a story to restore them for next day caring for children who aren't theirs or cleaning a house. And isn't getting lost in a story a form of immersion?