Henry Jenkins ‘Spreadable Media’ Interview: Part 2
By Frank Rose via Deep Media Online
Last week, in part one of my interview with Henry Jenkins, we talked about how he and his coauthors came to write Spreadable Media and what it means that the “participatory culture” of the Web focuses so much of its attention on broadcast properties like Lost or, more recently, The Walking Dead. Today, in part two, Henry takes on some of the basic metaphors we use to describe the things we do online:
In the book, you argue that a number of the terms we’ve used for years to talk about Internet-related activities are in fact misleading and outright damaging. You object in particular to the infection metaphor of phrases like “going viral.” Does this really damage the idea of participatory culture?
A key assumption in this book is that words matter, that the metaphors we use shape the assumptions we make and thus the actions we take, all the more so in the context of an emerging and still ill-defined phenomenon. We argue that the term “viral media” consistently strips agency from the participants within networks of circulation. Infection metaphors lead many to think of those who spread videos as the “unknowing hosts” who are acting “irrationally,” and we think of the content as somehow “self-replicating.”
How to make sure your content goes viral.
This phrasing is often a way of main¬taining a fantasy of control at a time when centralized organizations are ex¬erting less and less control over how their content travels through the cul¬ture. This analogy gets used in a kind of learned helplessness — “I don’t know what happened; it just went vi¬ral” — or as an assertion of arcane knowledge, as in the case of various agencies which profit from their claim to help producers find strategies for making their content go viral.
As long as the focus is on these involuntary forms of circulation, we are not asking core questions about how and why people choose to circulate media, about what kinds of media they chose to circulate, about what relationships they are establishing through circulation, about how circulation adds value and meaning and often changes the cultural agenda, and about the ways that influence may work differently in a culture where top-down distribution co-exists with grassroots forms of circulation.
The use of viral models may also prevent the public from fully recognizing the potentials for collective agency in a networked culture, so that they place less value and meaning on their own actions, and so that these tactics are less likely to be deployed as parts of grassroots efforts towards social justice or cultural innovation.
Is there an inherent problem with the term “user-generated content” as well?
Several problems, actually.
First, I have problems with the term, “user.” Let’s take the case of YouTube and its promise to help us “broadcast yourself.” In English, “you” can be both singular and plural. YouTube seems to want to emphasize personalized self-expression and encourages contributors to see themselves as “users” of the platform. In practice, most of the forms of media sharing which exist on YouTube are collective in nature —they operate in the context of various kinds of subcultures and communities, each with a longer history of grassroots media production, each having made a conscious decision whether or not to share their content through Youtube or some other platform. So, a core problem is that the term, “user-generated content,” focuses too much on the commercial relationship between users and platforms, and not enough on the social relationships within and between communities of media contributors.
A second problem has to do with the term “generated.” User-Generated Content focuses needed attention onto forms of grassroots production but does not allow us to think about what publics do with materials that they identify and recirculate, and this process of “user-circulated material” is central to Spreadable Media. The reality is that a small but growing portion of the public has produced and shared media it has produced. Yet, a much larger number have passed along meaningful bits of media content and inserted them into conversations which were important to them.
A word about “content”: the dictionary definition says it originally described “that which is contained,” as in the contents of a bottle or a book, yet in this environment, content is rarely contained and it gains value through its circulation throughout the network. So, perhaps, the term “content” has also outlived its usefulness.
For the record, we have no serious intellectual disagreements with the hyphen.