Henry Jenkins at HUMlab

To keep up with the flow of ideas when Professor Henry Jenkins, the program head of Comparative Media Studies at MIT, author, theorist, activist and philosopher, presents a seminar would be a matter of concentration at the best of times but as he spoke last at the Technological Texture Conference after two days of intense discussions and presentations should excuse my patchy notes. I tried to get down as much as I could but I kept thinking about the implications of what he said and then jumping back into what he was saying only to discover he had moved on to the next point.

Jenkins’s seminar was more like a performance with humour, engaging visuals and seamless development of argument beginning with the famous <a href=”http://www.mlcsmith.com/strange/bertsama_bin_laden/”>”Bert is Evil”</a> motif as an example of charting the flow of a cultural particle through a series of media manifestations on a global cross cultural scale. This was also given as an illustration of the nature of contempory participatory media and the way it mixes with traditional media forms.

Henry went on to outline the concept of Convergence in media, the so called “Black Box Theory” whereby it is believed by many market players that the only have to include enough features in a digital media device and they will reach the maximum number of customers and have the greatest relevance to the development of media technologies in the social sphere. Henry seems to take issue with this idea in that the convergence is not necessarily a material one but occurs on a much deeper level in cultural forms and even psychologically within the user. Citing Manuel Castells text <em>The Internet Galaxy</em> (2001) Henry spoke of “the convergence within” and quoted Castells in that “we do have a hypertext, the hypertext is inside us”.

Henry outlined his own brief here as defining the terrain of digital media and presenting issues of convergence of old and new media. The next reference was to a slightly older text; Ithiel de Sola Pool’s <em>The Technologies of Freedom</em> (1983) which outlined Convergence as a process, rather than a result and asserted that moments of convergence are matched by moments of divergence. Henry defined here the difference between ‘Participation’ and ‘Interactivity’ in media. ‘Interactive’ is media as more responsive to feedback and the constraints to which are technologically based. ‘Participation’ in media is a social and cultural factor which can be manifest in a number of ways; legally, economically, and of course in the technological configuration of the media form itself. Clearly the boundaries of participation are overlapping and morphological.

The next reference was to the French theorist Pierre Levy, whom Henry seems to draw much inspiration from in his own work. Levy concept of Knowledge Communities presents a layered version of power [from my memory and understanding this is power as horizontal but also hierarchical] reliant upon the distribution of “collective intelligence communities”. According to Henry, Levy posited Art as a kind of “social attractor” which Jenkins has developed into a “cultural attractor or cultural activator” [this is my understanding from my patchy notes], whereby a media object or field can act as a catalyst for a community who share knowledge, motivating them into activity or knowledge production.

Here Henry moved onto another area of his work: Brand Cultures. The book <em>Love Marks</em> by Saatchi & Saatchi CEO Kevin Roberts deals with “loyalty beyond reason” to a branded product. This is product identification reaching the point of self-identity. Henry described it as “brand recall with high emotional involvement” and through the “Love Marks” equation intellectual property becomes emotional capital and participation is created “as a mode of consumption”. With many areas within cultural and identity studies calling for increased participation as a means to democratization and recognition in the 1980’s the situation is currently being reversed with participation now a means of ensuring product recall and re-uptake of purchasers.

So what is ‘Participation’ from both directions, ‘bottom up’ and ‘top down’? The ‘bottom up’ embodies creativity as process, not product. Henry gave the examples of <a href=”http://theforce.net/”>theForce.net</a> (Star Wars Fan Community with collection of short films made by fans based on the genre), Jade Monkey (Manga community online where Japanese language comics are translated and represented by and for American fans) and The Refrigerator (hosting website for child art) as examples of “cultural production as merging activity”. Alongside this exists a “rhetoric of theft” driven by the Intellectual Property Rights community but there is grey area in between in regards to this. That fan communities can function as a beach head for inroads of cultural production and consumption is recognised and used by corporate powers. In the case of Jade Monkey and others like it the Japanese producers of the manga knew that works were being copied and distributed for many years but they did nothing. As a result when it came about that they began selling their own works in the USA, they already had a vibrant and large community of fans.

Finally Henry turned to the area of participatory design. Under the broad heading of “Photoshop for Democracy” he gave examples of “grassroots” (as opposed to the appropriative “astro-turf” variety which looks like grassroots on the surface but is not) use of digital media. The <a href=”http://www.bushin30seconds.org/”>”Bush in 30 Seconds”</a> advertising campaign organised by the moveon.org group was one such example of cultural production from a bottom-up paradigm which activated a large amount of interest on all levels of the American cultural landscape.

The community site <a href=”http://www.meetup.com/”>Meetup.com</a> was given as an example of knowledge communities organising themselves around new media tools to precipitate activity. The final image of Henry Jenkins presentation was taken from the WTO Indy Media project were thousands of digital video cameras were distributed to the activists at the WTO meeting in Seattle in 1999, a film was made and the work of this grassroots community continues toady in many forms and places. <a href=”http://www.thisisdemocracy.org/images/handbill3.jpg”>”This is What Democracy Looks Like”</a>