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."
This phrasing is often a way of maintaining a fantasy of control at a time when centralized organizations are exerting less and less control over how their content travels through the culture. This analogy gets used in a kind of learned helplessness — "I don't know what happened; it just went viral" — 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.
I'm sure the hyphen is relieved. But what about Web 2.0? You argue that Web 2.0 has taken a wrong turn, even as you note that it provided the preconditions for spreadable media. How could it have gone right?
Let's start by making a distinction between participatory culture and Web 2.0. Today's participatory culture is the result of more than a hundred years of struggle by various grassroots communities to assert greater influence over the core decisions that impact their lives, including the shaping and reshaping of the culture around them. Web 2.0 is a business model which seeks to capture and capitalize on the public's desire to participate. In doing so, it has provided some key affordances which have helped to expand the communicative capacities of everyday people, but it has also set restrictions or extracted tolls from their participation in ways which have been highly destructive.
Much of the early writing about Web 2.0 assumes a world where the interests of the commercial companies and those that use their services are perfectly aligned, an "architecture of participation," to borrow Tim O'Reilly's term. Yet, as we have watched things unfold over the past five or six years, every major Web 2.0 company has found itself at the center of controversy as some significant segment of its users have asserted dissent over various aspects of their terms of service, including debates around censorship and copyright enforcement, data mining and privacy policies, advertising practices, etc. Some academics talk about the problem of "free labor," where the public is contributing content upon which the company profits and thus is not being fairly compensated for the value they bring to these platforms.
Many things went wrong here, but they mostly start with a failure to engage openly and fairly with the people who are choosing to conduct aspects of participatory culture within these digital spaces, to actively listen to and try to understand their stakes in this process. In particular, I think we need to do a better job understanding the differences between what motivates a commodity culture and what motivates participation within a gift economy, as well as what happens to meaning and value as content moves between the two, often multiple times over the course of its digital afterlife. I am not sure I can offer concrete solutions for what a better model looks like — especially since the solutions are not likely to be one-size-fits-all — but we hope our book encourages a process of active communication between the companies and the communities they hope to serve.
Clearly you're right. Instagram, Facebook — these companies keep running into trouble when they try to assert ownership of what their users create. How do we get past this, given that social media companies need some way to generate revenues from the free platforms they're providing?
Companies often complain that consumers are taking their content without just compensation; this is the opposite side of the same issue — these companies profit from content produced by grassroots communities without necessarily providing fair compensation for their labor. Not all of the people who post content on YouTube necessarily want to profit economically from what they produce, but they do want to be respected for the value they are generating to the company, and often they want greater control over the use the company makes of their content.
Social networking sites are laying claim to user's content, in part, as a way to make it harder to shift between platforms and thus to weaken our ability to resist other terms of service which we might otherwise find unacceptable. Once we have brought our friendship circle to Facebook, once we are told we cannot port any content we created on Facebook, we are much more vulnerable to any other unilateral renegotiation of our social contract this company wants to impose.
What makes this particularly troubling is the lack of transparency: these claims on our property may be buried in a mound of small print as part of the terms of service which we click past in signing up for the site. As a teacher, I am trying to get my students to go back and review more closely those terms of service, since this has proven to be the one place where the company spells out what they plan to do with our content, and students are often shocked by what they learn. Periodically, these terms of service become the focus of consumer outrage and we've seen collective push-backs on many of the core Web 2.0 sites over one or another of these issues.
I am not sure anyone knows what the right business model for these social media companies should look like, and it's not my job as an academic to tell companies how to profit from their users. But I think that any way forward has to start with a deeper attention to what motivates participation, what forms of rewards make sense for different kinds of participants, and what kinds of policies enable rather than construct the public's ability to make use of these platforms in ways that are valuable and meaningful to them.
I love your description of piracy as a "market failure." How do you think broadcast media should deal with the concept of ownership in a world of participatory culture?
When we talk about piracy as a market failure, we are speaking first and foremost about the failure of the broadcast industries to make content available to the public when, where, and how they want. We provide many cases where the public has created value for companies through their acts of unauthorized circulation. We might start with the Susan Boyle example, where the grassroots circulation of that video did not initially generate revenue for Freemantle, which could not respond quickly enough to the public's demand to make Britain's Got Talent available legally in the United States and other parts of the world. Yet the grassroots circulation drove public interest so that when her first album was released, it was a top-seller in the U.S. market.
We talk about the ways fansubbing has helped to build a market in the United States and elsewhere for Japanese anime, Latin American telenovelas, or East Asian dramas, in ways which would not have been anticipated by their original producers. And we talk about the ways fans who traded tapes of old wrestling events helped World Wrestling Entertainment identify a previously unimagined market for older performances. I don't think all forms of piracy necessarily create value, yet because we start with a moral frame that assumes that unauthorized circulation damages value, we do not ask other questions about when and how these actions work in the long-term interest of the producers.
As you explain, users have one set of expectations and media companies have another. Clearly there's a tension between participatory culture and broadcast media when the two encounter each other in an essentially participatory medium — and at times it's provoked outright conflict, as with YouTube take-downs and the SOPA debate. But isn't this a necessary stage in the transition to a world of shareable media?
We are at a moment of transition, which has been both prolonged and profound. Almost everyone agrees that the future is apt to be more participatory than the past, but there is heated disagreement over the terms of our participation. We talk in the book about the concept of a moral economy — that is, the shared social understandings which need to be in place for an economic system to operate in a way that fairly reflects the interests of all parties. The moral economy of the broadcast era has been shattered, and we have not yet established a new moral economy for the networked era.
All sides are seeing themselves under threat. There is simultaneously a crisis of copyright and of fair use. There is a lot of experimentation and debate in response to this crisis, and there needs to be much more. Different parties are making competing claims on the future of media are seeking to legitimate their interests at the expense of others. So we are hearing about "sharing" and "pirating" as different ways of framing the unauthorized grassroots circulation of music.
What we need to be seeing is negotiation, and that has to start by all parties creating greater transparency about what they see as at stake in these current debates. We hope our book will help drive further useful conversations around what would be a fairer system which would allow more meaningful forms of participation. So, yes, these disagreements are an important stage in that transition, and, yes, there's no certainty about what the final outcome of these debates is going to look like. But it seems important to be talking with each other rather than talking past each other as we seek to understand what a better path forward might look like.
Will it take a new generation of media executives to complete this transition?
Maybe. When I go in and talk with companies, I see many different perspectives about these issues around the board table, yet there does seem to be some tendency for older executives to be more anxious about losing control over their content and younger executives to have a deeper appreciation of the ways that the public's participation might generate new kinds of value for the company.
I think the transition is going to be more complicated than one generation replacing another in the C-Suite, for all of the reasons I've suggested above. Corporations will not give away some of their current power and control without a fight. Yet, the idea of losing control should not govern their actions. These companies have already lost control over what people do with their content. We can remix it, remake it, and recirculate it in pretty much any way we want. They can take legal action against some of us, but they can never stop all of us. So, what they need to do is to get back into the game. Many, but not all, younger executives get this, though some of them are seeking to control the game for their own profit in ways which ultimately damage the culture.
The central conflict, as you point out, is that we have commercial enterprises operating in a sphere of noncommercial sharing. This conflict has been endemic to the Web from the start. But there also seems to be a sort of technological determinism at work — the Internet promotes sharing (in a licit or illicit fashion) as effectively and as blindly as broadcast media inhibits it. Do you have any doubt that participatory culture will ultimately prevail?
Many academics are skeptical that the public will ultimately benefit from their participation, even as they acknowledge the ways companies are adopting a rhetoric of participation in order to get people to perform in ways which will generate profit for them. I am much more optimistic that the public is learning ways to assert greater control over the production and circulation of media and to work collectively in pursuit of their shared interests. The first group is perhaps a glass half empty, I am perhaps a glass half full, but where we might agree is that we are still only talking about half a glass.
I think this is a struggle which is going to play itself out over the next few decades: that the final outcome is not inevitable, but that the debate will center around the terms of our participation and not over whether or not our culture is going to be more participatory than it was in the broadcast era. We know that social change comes not when conditions are at their worse but when they start to improve and the public develops aspirations for further change. The language of Web 2.0 promised more participation; the technologies supported it, and so the public has raised expectations about what meaningful participation looks like, and they are proving more and more effective at disrupting the operations of institutions which seek to stifle or exploit their participation. My hope is that they will continue to gain ground in the pursuit of their interests, but that companies may also learn new ways of doing business which allow them to survive and even thrive in a context of increased participation.
Henry Jenkins, Joshua Green, and Sam Ford will discuss Spreadable Media at SXSW Interactive on Friday, March 8, in a 5:00 PM session at the Austin Convention Center.