Oct 24, 2010

Media Convergence, Audience Divergence

Media Convergence, Audience Divergence – Some of my reflections on the book Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide by Henry Jenkins (2006)

Jing Ke
Oct, 2010
Course Title: Knowledge Management

Content Summary of the Book
In short, the book Convergence Culture tackles with cultural changes and social dynamics emerged from the use of new media. As the author delineates in the introduction, this book is about the relationship between three concepts – media convergence, participatory culture, and collective intelligence (p. 2). The word “convergence” in the context of this book means: 1). the flow of content across multiple media platforms; 2). the cooperation between multiple media industries; and 3). the migratory behaviour of media audiences today. According to Jenkins, in the process of convergence, the circulation of media content across different media systems, even different nations and social systems, depends heavily on consumers’ active participation.
As Jenkins points out, the convergence also represents a cultural shift as consumers are encouraged to seek out new information and make connections among dispersed media content. In contrast to traditional media ecosystem where the producer and the consumer are playing separate roles and staying on different levels in information communication process, the relationship between media producers and media consumers is changing dramatically in the transformation of digitization: though in varied degrees, they both become interactive participants in media activities, alone with the phenomenon is the fluid power dynamics – this backbones what the author called participatory culture.
One outcome of this participatory media behaviour is the collective consumption of media products, and the emergence of collective intelligence, which is derived from the media consumers’ creative and collaborative interactions with the media and can be seen as an alternative source of media power. With this being said, Jenkins explores in this book how collective meaning-making within popular culture is starting to “change the way religion, education, law, politics, advertising, and even military operate” (p. 4) in contemporary world with a couple of cases in each chapter.
This book also discusses the relationship between technology and human mind in terms of media convergence. Jenkins holds that although technological innovations in the area of information communication have huge implications in our social structure and social behaviour and can always bring together multiple media functions in one device, the main boost of convergence, however, largely lies in the human mind, more specifically, in the brains of individual consumers and their social interactions with others. In other words, Jenkins in this book highlights the cultural and social meanings of convergence rather than simply physical means of media and information communication.
Abstract of each chapter:
Chapter 1 of this book examines the phenomenon of Survivor spoilers in the consumption activities of reality television. This group of consumers is read as a vivid example of a knowledge community whose members work together to forge new knowledge and thus bring about collective intelligence. As a representative of contemporary media consumption, their knowledge becomes an increasingly noticeable power in the age of media convergence.
Chapter 2 focuses on another well-known reality television in the US: American Idol and explores how reality television is being shaped by “affective economics”, which encourages companies to blur the line between entertainment content and brand messages and invite the audience into the brand community. The ideal consumers are supposed to be active, emotionally engaged, and socially networked, thus they can carry out more active consumption as well as protect the brand integrity.
Chapter 3 examines The Matrix franchise as an example of transmedia storytelling emerged in response to media convergence. It concludes that relying on the active participation of knowledge communities, transmedia storytelling has become an indispensible motivator in the commercial success of fictional movies and similar media product.
Chapter 4 is about fan culture, which I personally understand as a subfield of participatory culture. It deals with Star War fan filmmakers and gamers and explains how they satisfy their own fantasies and desires by actively reshaping the scenarios and plots of the films.
Chapter 5 goes further into the fan culture and probes into the politics of participation in the realm of participatory culture. It represents the struggles between fan writing and media producers over the intellectual property issue and the struggles between conservative and liberal Christians over their attitudes on media convergence, globalization, and traditional authority as well as the influences on children’s education. In general, the author holds a positive viewpoint on those issues and stand on the side of participation.
Chapter 6 turns from popular culture to public culture and argues that the lines between political culture and popular culture have blurred in new media era. Giving the example of 2004 American presidential campaign, Jenkins suggests that since citizens today are more engaged in popular culture than political discourse, it is popular culture that should take the responsibility to educate the public about political importance and to make democracy more participatory. On the other hand, with the participation of citizens in the campaign activities, the candidates and parties are losing some control over this political process.
In conclusion, this is a book about convergence, collective intelligence, and participation in new media era. Jenkins tries to give us a bird’s-eye view on how convergence and participation is changing the culture, politics and economy of our society. This process can be summarized in his own words, “convergence culture represents a shift in the ways we think about our relations to media, and we are making that shift first through our relations with popular culture, but the skills we acquired through play may have implications for how we learn, work, participate in the political process, and connect with other people in the world.” (p. 23)

Personal Commentary
Written in 2006, Jenkins’s book was, to a large extent, prospective. His arguments and observations on convergence media and participatory culture turned out to be evidentially appropriate when we examine the societies in the context of developed countries today. However, we have to understand that one can hardly give an all-around portrait on how media convergence changes our society in the era of digital revolution in one single book, and human culture is something that has the capacity to introspect, evolve, and regenerate from time to time. With that being said, I personally hold the viewpoint that Jenkins in this book emphasized too much on the convergence side of media and society but overlooked the divergence side of this issue.
Doubtlessly, convergence is the trend of today’s world: we are talking about globalization and integration in every context of human society; we are building up organizations like EU and APEC from continent to continent; and we are witnessing a growing number of tycoons gaining significant control over the media from which we receive information. The tide of convergence has greatly influenced and reshaped our society in terms of media industry, social institution, economy, culture, communication technology and so forth, pushing them going on the track of convergence as well.
However, here I’d like to turn to the other side and question what the driving forces of this media convergence are. Jenkins in this book pointed out clearly that it is the innovation of technology (i.e. digitalization and Internet) and the human nature (we use media as natural choices) that mainly motivated the trend of convergence. Jenkins was right, definitely, but I’d like to highlight something he also discussed in the book: the divergence of audience, which is also, from my perspective, a major motivation which shifts the model of media communication from mass communication to segmented communication and finally personalized communication in the past decades.
In this book, Jenkins had actually mentioned various examples on audience divergence but didn’t go much further into this discourse. To name a few, the Survivor spoilers and the grassroots fan communities, which are both small groups of audience consuming and producing media product according to their own taste and favour. These groups are just a small part of the big picture of audience segmentation in digitalized era, and in my opinion, the convergence of media platforms, technologies and even the whole media industries is an essential way to maintain audience’s attention in the situation that they have in fact been largely diversified. By means of media convergence, today’s audiences, especially young audiences, are able to keep participating in media consumption via multiple platforms and channels, and in return, they contribute their knowledge and intelligence into the media content production, making the participatory culture possible.
As it’s been illustrated in both the cases of Survivor and American Idol, in today’s media context, relations between media producers and consumers are breaking down as consumers are seeking to participate in the generating of media product – this reminds me the term “prosumer”, which emerged in early 1980s and means the fusion of producer and consumer (or the professional and the consumer). We are living in a commercialized era - the media system is typically commercialized. Thus in my opinion, the surge of “prosumer” in the field of media practice is also largely motivated by the phenomenon of audience divergence, more accurately, by media group’s desire to maximize profit through the media product, by-product and advertising industry. Since in the context of digitization, the only way for media groups to survive and keep a profitable production is to fulfill the highly diversified audience’s taste, to which the best mean is to allow and encourage the audience to join in the production chain and realize personalized product.
Besides exploring the transition in consumer’s behaviour in media convergence and the implications of such transition, in this book Jenkins also points out the power shift yielded by the media convergence and cultural shift, which in my opinion concords with the postmodern way of thinking, say, typically, with Foucault’s statement on power/knowledge. The wide spread of computing technology and digitalized information communication witnessed the collapse of a centralized power and hegemony in our society. With this power collapse, mass production in society breaks into pieces, citizens gain more rights to speak in the political process, and segmented audiences all over the world are searching media product according to their own favour and in the way they feel most comfortable with.
To sum up, in my opinion, we can divide the outcome of digitization into two sides: the convergence side and the divergence side. Convergence is about ICTs, media industries, media product and other services they provide while divergence is about the audience, their needs and tastes, and the media content they are consuming and producing. They are like two sides of a coin; they co-exist and interact with each other in the context of digitization.
Besides that, Jenkins raised a question in his book which I feel worth our noticing: he questioned whether the changes brought about by convergence opened new opportunities for expression or expanded the power of big media. This question requires careful consideration and is kind of alarming. My answer is, though power shifts drastically, the changes are actually expanding the power of big media but this expansion is disguised under the image of new opportunities for expression and decentralization of media power. – Anyway, time will tell to what direction we are going and whether it is a blessing or a curse.