On Henry Jenkins, Audiences and Participatory Culture

Henry Jenkins’ essay, Quentin Tarantino’s Star Wars?: Digital Cinema, Media Convergence and Participatory Culture aims to provide a different perspective on fan appropriation and media transformation. Jenkins outlines how ‘too often’ these things are ‘marginalised or exoticised’, the common assumption being that anyone spending time or energy creating ‘products of mass culture’ must have ‘too much time on their hands’ or ‘something wrong with them’. Jenkins, alternatively, treats media fans as ‘active participants within the current media revolution’ and treats their cultural products as an ‘important aspect of the digital cinema movement’. He correlates the multitude of Star Wars fan-products with the advocation of the democratisation of digital cinema and cultural production, calling the fan-products a ‘success story’ that came from the fostering of ‘grassroots creativity’ through opening up the tools and channels of media production and distribution’. Jenkins also examines how and why Star Wars became a catalyst for amateur digital filmmaking and what route this movement may take in the future. Jenkins also identifies two ‘significant cultural trends’ of which Star Wars fan-products are the sum of: ‘the corporate movement towards media convergence’ and ‘the unleashing of significant new tools which enable the grassroots archiving, annotation, appropriation, and recirculation of media content’ (Jenkins, 2006: p251-252). Convergence is the process in which things get closer together, specifically, media industry convergence is ‘the increasing integration of industries and markets in communication sectors such as broadcasting, film, photography etc. so that print, screens, discs and websites can all be platforms for the same content-provider’ (Chandler & Munday, 2011: p77). This kind of convergence is largely due to the rise of the internet as well as technology becoming more accessible and affordable, therefore allowing existing practices of fandoms to be consumed and shared globally. Jenkins’ final aim is to provide a new equilibrium in regards to how amateur films intersect with the commercial film industry based on the new production and distribution context (Jenkins, 2006: p252).

 

Jenkins, in Quentin Tarantino’s Star Wars?: Digital Cinema, Media Convergence and Participatory Culture, examines how studios look for products that will be able to transfer ‘fluidly across media channels’ and gives the examples of ‘comics into computer games’ and ‘television shows into films’. Whilst ‘technical convergence’ is attractive to fans, as it allows them to immerse themselves in a fictional world through multiple platforms, it is attractive to media industries because ‘it will open multiple entry points into the consumption process’, meaning that alongside paying for a primary product, all manner of tie-ins belonging to all kinds of mediums can potentially be bought too, thus maximising profits. Jenkins’ focus on the Star Wars franchise stems from his view that George Lucas’ decision to accept a share of future profits instead of a directing wage was a ‘turning point in the emergence of this new strategy of media production and distribution’. Sales of Star Wars toys and John Williams’ soundtrack made Lucas incredibly rich and affected the nature of the films that followed. The benefits of convergence, in regards to profits, can be seen through this example: consider that Star Wars films are the primary product, and there was no primary product for the sixteen years between Return of the Jedi (1983) and The Phantom Menace (1999), yet profits were still generated year on year, through the numerous novels, video-games etc. (Jenkins, 2006: p551-554).

          On how convergence affects fans, Jenkins discusses how the distribution of various digital fan-made products through the internet allows fans to contribute to modern mythologies in a new way. In the past, folk tales were passed on by word of mouth, with concepts being added that were specific and personal to whoever was telling the story. This is the same with products of participatory culture, they allow products to be expanded upon by ‘pulling its content toward fantasies that are unlikely to gain widespread distribution’. In the past, ‘Robin Hood and Br’er Rabbit belonged to the folk’, whereas today, ‘Kirk and Spock’ and ‘Han and Chewbacca belong to corporations’. According to Jenkins: ‘Fan fiction repairs some of the damage caused by the privatisation of culture’ (Jenkins, 2006: p556-557). Jenkins also talks of how the line between fan and producer is becoming increasingly blurred. He refers to the internet as:

‘a site of experimentation and innovation, where amateurs test the waters, developing new practices, themes, and generating materials’ (Jenkins, 2006: p571)

and goes on to explain how:

‘the most commercially viable of those practices are then absorbed into the mainstream media, either directly through the hiring of new talent or the development of [works] based on those materials’ (Jenkins, 2006: p571).

He concludes by suggesting that the future of digital cinema and it’s distribution will allow big-time directors such as Steven Spielberg to release shorter, riskier works. He also forewarns a potential monopoly, as distributors clamp down on the use of their materials in fan-made productions. (Jenkins, 2006: p573-574)

Henry Jenkins is an American professor of Media who has taught at various universities and is the author of several books on ‘transmedia storytelling’ and ‘convergence culture’. He also defined the four main aspects of ‘participatory culture’. According to Jenkins, they come under: ‘Affiliations‘ (memberships, formal and informal, in online communities devoted to a specific media product, these can be Facebook, Myspace, message boards etc.);‘Expressions’ (producing new creative forms based on the original product, such as fan videos, fan-fiction/films);‘Collaborative problem

solving’ (working together, formal and informal, to complete tasks and develop new knowledge, such as through Wikipedia, alternative reality gaming, or spoiling); and ‘Circulations’ (shaping the flow of media, such as podcasting or blogging). His research examines the effects of media on audiences and vice versa; fan-culture and ‘world- making’, which is, in Jenkins’ words:

the process of designing a fictional universe that will sustain franchise development, one that is sufficiently detailed to enable many different stories to emerge but coherent enough so that each story feels like it fits with the others’ (Jenkins, 2006: p294).

Jenkins’ research into fan-cultures is of the school of thought believing that audiences are active not passive and is an alternative to the ‘Direct Effects’ model, which suggests the idea that media content has a short-term, direct effect on behaviour. This archaic school of thought is also known as the ‘hypodermic needle model’ or ‘the magic bullet theory’ and suggests that people are ‘uniformly controlled by their biologically based ‘instincts’ and that they react more or less uniformly to whatever ‘stimuli’ comes
along’ (Lowery & De Fleur, 1995: p400). In popular discourse this ideology is thousands of years old, dating back to Plato’s Republic, in which he asked:

‘Shall we simply allow our children to listen to any stories that anyone happens to make up, and so to receive into their minds ideas often the very opposite of those we shall think they ought to have when they grow up? No, certainly not. It seems, then, our first business will be to supervise the makings of fables and legends, rejecting all which are unsatisfactory; and we shall induce nurses and mothers to tell the children only those which we have approved, and to think more of the moulding of their souls.’ (Plato, 1989: p45).

Although, in academic research this school of thought is less than 100 years old and has been utterly discredited. Regardless, it remains the theoretical basis of many moral panics about youth and media, propagated in news and political discourse. A specific example would be the Judas Priest Trial, in which the British band were accused of being responsible for the suicide and attempted suicide of two American teenagers in 1990, due to the content of one of their songs (Moore, 1996: Scientific Consensus and Expert Testimony: Lessons from the Judas Priest Trial). The Judas Priest trial epitomises criminologist and sociologist, Stanley Cohen’s, view that when someone or something is defined as societal threat, it then becomes stylised and stereotyped by the media; usually spearheaded by ‘editors, bishops, politicians and other right-thinking people’, these people, specifically Pastor Joel Schimmel in regards to the Judas Priest Trial, still rely heavily on the ‘Direct Effects’ model of communication even though academics, for example: Martin Barker, Julian Petley and David Gauntlett, dismiss such views on violent media as ‘daft’, ‘mischievous’ and bordering on superstitious (Barker, M. and Petley, J, 2001: p1); Gauntlett claims that this model should be ‘laid to rest’, preserved only as an historic relic in the history of media research (Gauntlett, 2005: p5). Research into the ‘Direct Effects’ model was spurred by fears of societal ties breaking down as a reaction to rapid industrialisation and new mass media in American at the end of the nineteenth century. The main alternative to the ‘Direct Effects’ model is the ‘Encoding/Decoding’ Model which comes from the school of thought believing that audiences are active, not passive.

 

          The ‘Encoding/Decoding’ model was introduced in 1973 by Stuart Hall, when he rejected the idea of a fixed message and a passive recipient (Hall, 1973). This led to Cultural Studies as opposed to Mass Communications, the two are both concerned with media as a means of persuasion although Cultural Studies examines how media shapes meaning and helps reinforce dormant ideologies. When media is constructed, it is ‘encoded’ with the ‘raw material’ of reality and given meaning and when an audience consumes the product they interpret the meaning, this is ‘decoding’. When ‘decoding’, audiences’ interpretations are derived from their specific backgrounds, experiences and knowledge this can mean that meaning is not always ‘decoded’ as intended. For example, the film Top Gun’s (1986) intended meaning is a celebration of American militarism, Cold War politics and traditional ideas of masculinity, which was the dominant ideology of the time, although researcher Andy Ruddock found that the film was actually being interpreted by European students as a celebration of homosexuality (Ruddock, 2001: p125). In the Encoding/Decoding Model there are three types of reading: the ‘Preferred Reading’ (audience accepts intended reading), the ‘Negotiated Reading‘ (some parts of intended reading are accepted whilst some are rejected) and the ‘Oppositional Reading‘ (audience totally rejects intended meaning). In Cultural Studies, audiences are not blank slates waiting to be programmed but are active recipients and critical of media products.

Out of Cultural studies and the Encoding/Decoding model emerged Fan Studies in the late 1980’s and with it came the work of Henry Jenkins. Fan Studies allowed for deeper, ethnographic analysis of audiences and their habits, including: pleasures, affects and subjective investments of consumption. Fan Studies embraces the idea of audiences

or fans being active, not passive and attempts to de-stigmatise fans as they are often portrayed as ‘nerds’, ‘losers’, de-gendered males or pathological figures; obsessed with and enslaved by ‘lowbrow’ culture. Henry Jenkins is a leading Fan Studies researcher and a self-proclaimed fan himself. He believes that:

Fans produce meanings and interpretations; fans produce artworks; fans produce alternative identities. In each case, fans are drawing on materials from the dominant media and employing them in ways that serve their own interests and facilitate their own pleasures.’ (Jenkins, 1992: p214).

Fans are very active in affiliating, expressing, collaborating and circulating when it comes to ‘their’ media products. For example, fans managed to bring a character back from the dead in 1986 by lobbying the producers of Dallas (1978-1991), a contemporary example is the True Blood TV series (2008-2014) in which the producers allude to certain things, e.g. character X is angry at character Y, without offering any explanation, allowing fans to ‘fill in the blanks’, contributing to the narrative via fan fiction. Through methods like these the boundaries between producers and audiences are blurred allowing for a new ideal of culture as a collective endeavour.

Jenkins’ research is successful in summarising and identifying factors in the consumer/producer relationship. Although in 2011 the article: Rethinking ‘Convergence/ Culture’, stated that Jenkins placed too much focus on the ‘potential of users’ and not enough focus on the ‘inherently corporate logic of convergence’ (Hay & Couldry, 2011). It is possible that Jenkins status as a fan made his research overly optimistic. Regardless, his research is very relevant today, contemporary examples of the blurring line between audiences and producers could include: the Botchamania web series, a fan-made series,

pointing out lapses in the intended realism of the WWE, this actually led to changes in match bookings and to underdog Daniel Bryan becoming world champion (Soltesz, 2015: Speculation on WWE Directly Changing Storylines Due to Fan Reactions), or a much more negatively received example would be Spider-Man 3 (2007) in which fans lobbied for the character, Venom, to be included in the film, although on release the film was deemed overcrowded and the character was heavily criticised as being unnecessary and shoe- horned in.

Post-Jenkins, in the 2000s, the definition of fandom was expanded and the questions:‘is everyone now a ‘fan’?’ (Hills, 2002) and ‘is fandom now
mainstream?’ (Sandvoss, 2005) were asked. The answer could be yes, due to the decline of scheduled programming, with the rise of Sky Plus and Virgin Home Media, it is now much easier to follow a series without being a hardcore fan. The second wave fan studies is more critical than earlier research as it asks whether fan cultures themselves display elitism and exclusivity (Janovich 2002: p309) e.g some fandoms are more respected and accepted than others. In conclusion, the essay: Quentin Tarantino’s Star Wars?: Digital Cinema, Media Convergence and Participatory Culture, along with Jenkins other works, is successful in describing the dynamic boundaries between mainstream and amateur producers as well as between creators and audiences. Also, his predictions of continuing and growing convergence is apparent in the box office charts which are dominated by the likes of Marvel and other franchise based properties.

 

Bibliography

Primary Text

•Jenkins, H, (2006) “Quentin Tarantino’s Star Wars?: Digital Cinema, Media Convergence and Participatory Culture” from Gigi Durham, Meenakshi, Kellner, Douglas M. (eds.), Media and Cultural Studies: Keyworks pp.549-576, Malden, Mass.: Blackwell

Secondary Texts

•Barker, M & Petley, J (2001). Ill Effects: The Media/violence Debate. London: Routledge. •Chandler, D & Munday, R (2011). Oxford Dictionary of Media and Communication. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
•Cohen, S (1972). Folk Devils and Moral Panics: The Creation of the Mods and the Rockers. London: MacGibbon & Kee Ltd.
•Gauntlett, D (2005). Moving Experiences: Media Effects and Beyond. Indiana: Indiana University Press.
•Hills, M (2002), Fan Cultures, London: Methuen.
•Hall, S (1973). Encoding and Decoding in the Television Discourse. Birmingham: University of Birmingham.
•Jancovich, M (2002) ‘Cult Fictions: Cult Movies, Subcultural Capital and the Production of Cultural Distinctions’, Cultural Studies 16 (2): 306-322
• Hay, J & Couldry, N (2011). “Rethinking Convergence/Culture: An Introduction“. Cultural Studies 25 (4-5).

•Jenkins, H (2006) Convergence Culture: Where old and new media collide. New York: New York University Press                                                                                                       •Jenkins, H (1992) ‘“Strangers No More, We Sing”: Filking and the Social Construction of the Science Fiction Fan Community’, in Lewis, L. (ed.) The Adoring Audience: Fan Culture and Popular Media, London: Routledge.                                                                                 •Mathijs, E and Sexton, J. (2011), Cult Cinema. Walden, MA and Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell. •Lowery, S & De Fleur, M (1995). Milestones in Mass Communication Research: Media Effects. London: Longman Publishers
•Plato & Ferrari, G & Griffith, T (2000). Plato: ‘The Republic’. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
•Ruddock, A (2001) Understanding Audiences: Theory and Method, London: Sage.     •Sandvoss, C (2005) Fans: The Mirror of Consumption. Cambridge:Polity Press.           •Sconce, J (1995). ‘Trashing’ the academy: taste, excess, and an emerging politics of cinematic style. Screen: Oxford Journals, Arts & Humanities. 36 (Issue 4)
•Sullivan, J (2012) Media Audiences: Effects, Users, Institutions, and Power, London: Sage

Filmography

Dallas (1978-1991) Directed by Various [TV series]. USA: Lorimar Productions •Quentin Tarantino’s Star Wars (2002) Directed by Evan Mather [Short Film]. Canada: EdickieM Films
Star Wars: A New Hope (1977) Directed by George Lucas [Film]. USA: 20th Century Fox

Star Wars: Return of the Jedi (1983) Directed by George Lucas [Film]. USA: 20th Century Fox •Star Wars: The Phantom Menace (1999) Directed by George Lucas [Film]. USA: 20th Century Fox                                                                                                                                          •Top Gun (1986) Directed by Tony Scott [Film]. USA: Paramount Pictures                      •True Blood (2008-2014) Directed by Various [TV Series]. USA: Your Face Goes Here Entertainment

Webography

•Moore, T. (1996). Scientific Consensus and Expert Testimony: Lessons from the Judas Priest Trial. Available: http://www.csicop.org/si/show/ scientific_consensus_and_expert_testimony. Last accessed March 2016.              •Soltesz, W. (2015).  Available: http://www.ringsidenews.com/blogs/speculation-on-wwe-directly- changing-storylines-due-to-fan-reactions/. Last accessed March 2016.

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