Convergence Culture

Posted: September 14, 2010 in Uncategorized
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I just finished going through Henry Jenkins’ 2006 book Convergence Culture: Where old and new media collide. I picked the book up because of the buzz word of ‘new media,’ but also because of the idea of convergence. It sounded like something important. So what is convergence?

Jenkins tells us that “By convergence, I mean the flow of content across multiple media platforms, the cooperation between multiple media industries, and the migratory behavior of media audiences who will go almost anywhere in search of the kinds of entertainment experiences they want” (2). At first, I wasn’t entirely sure what this meant, but Jenkins provided a great example in the Matrix. There we had a series of movies, along with some cartoons (The Animatrix), and video games (Enter the Matrix). If you wanted to, you could just watch the movies and be fine. But you could also delve a bit deeper, and understand a bit more. With those three things converging, and with the online forums where they were discussed, analyzed, and argued about, there was always more to see.Convergence is important. It “represents a cultural shift as consumers are encouraged to seek out new information and make connections among dispersed media content” and it doesn’t occur in technology. It “occurs within the brains of individual consumers and through their social interactions with others” (3). So convergence is by its very nature a social thing, something that requires community as an integral part. More importantly, it’s in the audience, in the consumers, not in the media companies.

That’s not to say the media companies have nothing to do with it. “Media convergence makes the flow of content across multiple media platforms inevitable. In the era of digital effects and high-resolution game graphics, the game world can now look almost exactly like the film world–because they are reusing many of the same digital assets” (106). The more the companies put into it, the better, and we’ve moved into a time where the story can be placed in all these different types of media, to the point where “the companies collaborate from the beginning to create content they know plays well in each of their sectors, allowing each medium to generate new experiences for the consumer and expand points of entry into the franchise” (107). It’s more than just a few toys in happy meals that tie into the movie. Now there is information that you can only get if you look for it, information that will enhance your understanding of the world, without excluding those who don’t go looking for it. The whole thing is a question of expanding storytelling. As Jenkins says, “More and more, storytelling has become the art of world building, as artists create compelling environments that cannot be fully explored or exhausted within a single work or even a single medium” ( 116). Stories are trending towards the creation of a new ‘playground’ for people to explore, rather than a tale to simply absorb.

It makes for very complex entertainment. It requires “the emergence of new story structures, which create complexity by expanding the range of narrative possibility rather than pursuing a single path with a beginning, middle, and end” (121). This sort of thing isn’t limited to entertainment either. I wrote a review of Gunther Kress’s Multimodality, which was published in the fall issue of Kairos, that was sort of a ‘choose your own adventure’ review: you could read the whole thing, a positive review, a negative review, or a very short review of the work. This was an entirely new way for me to write, and while it was only one medium, it showed me possibilities that I had never really considered.

But enough tooting my own horn. Back to Jenkins. Convergence gives us expansion on every end of the artistic endeavor, even criticism. Because the art, the story, is now being told by a lot of people at different times and different ways, it is also being critiqued by multiple people. It’s no longer a writer versus critic duality. The writer can be the critic, the critic can be the writer, and there can be many more than one of each (132). This is because “Within convergence culture, everyone’s a participant – although participants may have different degrees of status and influence” (136-7).

But that bring up an important distinction we need to look at, and that is the distinction between interactivity and participation. Jenkins sees these as very different things. “Interactivity refers to the ways that new technologies have been designed to be more responsive to consumer feedback” while “Participation, on the other hand, is shaped by the cultural and social protocols … Participation is more open-ended, less under the control of media producers and more under the control of media consumers” (137). This makes a certain kind of sense. The people making the story decide how much it can be interacted with, while the audience decides how much they want to participate. That’s an oversimplification, I think, but still helps to understand what Jenkins is getting at.

And what is it that Jenkins is getting at? He’s trying to tell us that convergence is more than just a cool new buzzword. He writes that “convergence represents a paradigm shift–a move from medium-specific content toward content that flows across multiple media channels, toward the increased interdependence of communications systems, toward multiple ways of accessing media content, and toward ever more complex relations between top-down corporate media and bottom-up participatory culture” (254). That’s a hefty claim, but one I can’t really refute. Convergence seems to be very important. I can see it everywhere, and I can recognize the difference it makes. I know that there are times when being ‘in the know’ changes something about a movie or a television show. Obscure references, nods to other television shows or movies, knowledge that can only be gained by playing the game or reading the books–all these things make entertainment something more. More interesting. More… Entertaining.

All in all, great book. I’d recommend it, and may some day use it in a class.

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