Response to Bogost (Part Three)

When Ian Bogost wrote me earlier today to say that his response to the first installment hadn’t appeared on my site, I was confused. I went back to my spam filter and discovered that more than 30 substantive comments to this site from a variety of sources had gone missing. I had been trying to be as inclusive as possible and make sure all of the reader’s comments were posted, cutting out only obvious spam and purely personal invective. I feel really bad to discover so many of you fell prey to the spam catcher. Now that I know it is an issue, I will be checking regularly. I have now reposted everything that got blocked — for archival purposes if nothing else. Sorry for the mixup. All I can say is that I am new at this.

Over the past two installments, I have been responding to Ian Bogost’s thoughtful yet challenging review of my new book, Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide, over at Water Cooler Games. In part one, I addressed some issues surrounding the emotional dynamics of contemporary advertising. Last time, I addressed some questions around transmedia entertainment and fan culture. Today, I will wrap up with some thoughts on the commercialization of culture and the relationship between technology and culture, among other topics.

For those who might be interested in hearing me speak more about the ways convergence culture is impacting the games industry, check out my appearance on a podcast organized by the editors of The Escapist.

Noncommercial Media

Tthe omission of convergence communities that opt for more historically-entrenched creative practices in lieu of outright commercial commodities seems to reflect Jenkins’s own preference for contemporary popular culture, and perhaps his own libertarian politics. The subversive undertones in Convergence Culture remain squarely on the side of mass market global capitalism. While Jenkins admits that many corporations are pushing convergence as a strategy of control, he frames consumer resistance as a struggle to get media companies to be more responsive to consumer tastes and interests.

Hmm. Where do I start? I see my book as describing a particular aspect of contemporary culture which has to do with the intersection between commercial and grassroots media. I am very clear from the start that no one can describe the full picture and that all I can offer are a limited number of snapshots of cultural change in practice. There is much about the culture which this book doesn’t address, though I would hope that its insights help others to begin to explore these implications for their respected areas. I know that Mark Deuze, for example, has been applying some of these ideas to the study of news and journalism; I have myself done some writing lately about the implications of participatory culture for education and for participation in the arts; and so forth. I would have said that the book tries to show how trends in popular culture are relevent to the political process, to education, to religion, and to the military at various points along the way, which is more than what most books on popular entertainment have tried to do.

My own particular background as a scholar — and my own particular interest as a fan — lies in the area of popular culture. It doesn’t mean I don’t see value in other forms of cultural production. I do. But there are plenty of others in the academia who know those areas better, write about them more knowledgibly, and make better contributions to them. I find myself drawn to popular culture in part because it requires me to defend what some see as the indefensible and in the process, to try to complicate the easy hierarchies that too often operate within our culture.

Some of what my book doesn’t discuss is addressed very well by Yochai Benkler’s Wealth of Networks, a book that I really wish I could have read while I was writing my own book. He’s making an argument that we need to discuss the present moment in terms of the shifting relationship between commercial, amateur, civic, and nonprofit sectors, each involved in the production and circulation of media, and each meeting each other on somewhat different terms because of the leveling influence of the web. Man, I wish I had said that. My book really focuses on the two extremes there — the commercial on the one hand and the amateur on the other. I do think it could have said more about these other players in the middle — various nonprofit groups, educational and cultural institutions, etc. and the role they play in reshaping the media landscape.


Participation

To become “full participants in our culture” seems to entail filming Star Wars action figures, decoding reality television puzzles, or authoring Harry Potter fanfic. Jenkins intends these examples to be paradigmatic, but the chasm between the book’s examples and the set of possible niche-market or grassroots media properties is tremendous. Jenkins does believe in such properties, but it’s a shame that they failed to make an appearance in Convergence Culture, even in the sporadic sidebar mini-essays that pepper the book. Among others, easy examples could have come from Second Life, where both creation tools are provided and intellectual property rights are conferred onto players.

Again, timing issues are involved here. Second Life really emerged too late to be a central focus in the book. I probably should have added more references to it during the last revision process but I felt like it would have taken more space than I could give it to really explain what’s going on. Second Life is enormously important as a testing ground for all of the issues the book explores. Interestingly, my students have been most interested in exploring branding and product strategies within Second Life, suggesting again that it can not be understood purely on a grassroots level, but also represents the intersection between commercial and amateur content. (I hope to share some thoughts on the commercialization of Second Life in a future blog.)

Similarly, Chris Anderson’s work on The Long Tail has heightened my awareness and interest on niche media production. More and more, niche media dominates my writing here on the blog and I am certain to have a lot more to say about it in the future.

I would be horrified if what people took from the book was the idea that I thought being a fan was the only meaningful way of participating within our culture. I simply want people to recognize that being a fan is one meaningful way of participating in our culture. We need to acknowledge that the stories generated by mass media still have enormous reach: they are the common culture that most other forms of cultural expression define themselves against. It is worth struggling for access to those stories; what stories get told and how those stories get retold is of enormous cultural, political, and economic importance. But there are clearly other kinds of participation that matter — most importantly perhaps, participation in civic life, which is a central concern in my “Photoshop for Democracy” chapter.

Again, though, I want to challenge an easy seperation between popular culture and public culture. I see public culture/civic media as increasingly informed by both the content and practices of popular culture and I don’t necessarily see this as a bad thing if the result is to get people more engagted with public debates (as I think occurs around the Daily Show) or allows them to feel more comfortable expressing their ideas (as I think happens around the blogosphere.)

The User Content Pyramid

Jenkins somewhat ignores the massive disparity in participation among collective intelligences. While he does cite Survivor producer Mark Burnett’s claim that the show’s 20 million viewers massively dwarfs the community of online spoilers, Jenkins seems to assume that this disparity is a temporary one. In the future, as convergence culture takes hold, participation will become universal. Unfortunately, participation seems to take place more naturally in levels. Raph Koster points to a User Content Pyramid Will Wright used to use when talking about The Sims. A small number of tool makers supplies a slightly larger number of content creators, who publish content on a slightly larger number of web sites, for a slightly larger number of content downloaders, compared to the even larger number of ordinary players.

I wouldn’t disagree with any of this. I think there has been a shift over the past decade in terms of the percentage of people who are interested in actively participating in the production and distribution of media content. The Pew study last December found that 57 percent of teens online have produced some kind of media content and about half of those have circulated it via the web. That’s the beginning of a pretty large scale shift in how our culture operates. And there are many factors encouraging more and more forms of cultural participation.

That said, we will not all participate to the same degree. Already in the Pew study we can see that 43 percent of teens online do not make media content — at least as Pew has defined it. There will be varying degrees of participation and there will be some at one end of the continuium who simply want to consume. There are some signs, though, that the kinds of culture produced in an era where the public is free to and expects to have the right to participate will differ dramatically from those produced in an era where most people purely watch. As Steve Johnson and James Gee suggest, they make different demands on consumer attention and cognition; they require us to take different kinds of actions if we want to fully understand what we are consuming. Moreover, a world when a large percentage of people participate will result in a much more diverse mediascape than we currently enjoy.

There will be many different forms of diversity. One kind Bogost alludes to here — the potential for niche media or for noncommercial media to find a larger public. But I am also interested in insuring diversity at the heart of consumer culture, in showing how the popular culture materials we share may still be open to different interpretations and appropriations.

That said, I am very concerned about what I am calling the Participation Gap, something I reference near the end of the book but which is driving my work on new media literacies. The participation gap is a gap in the access to opportunities to participate in our culture (and the skills required to take advantage of these opportunities). Most of the discussion about the Digital Divide focused exclusively on issues of technological access. We now have reached a point where most American kids, outside of a few nagging pockets, have access to the internet through the classroom or public libraries if not at home, but there are tremendous gaps in their ability to participate in core online experiences (as I suggested the other day in my comments about DOPA and MySpace). This is not a case of people choosing not to move further up the pyramid of user generated content. They don’t have a choice given the conditions that shape their online access, given their exclusion from the cultural practices by which others are learning how to participate.

ARG? Argh!

The first is somewhat pedantic. There are a few factual/transcription errors that may quickly obsess popular culture mavens. For one, Jenkins misspells Galdalf (as Gandolf, which is a common mistake but not one a scholar of popular culture can afford to make). For another, he mistakenly calls Alternate Reality Games (ARGs) Alternative Reality Games. Worse, Jenkins attributes the incorrect term to pervasive game researcher and designer Jane McGonigal (“Jane McGonigal … calls the genre alternative reality gaming”), misciting one of her presentations as “Alternative Reality Gaming.” If it were just the name, this might not be such a big deal. But McGonigal actually makes an important theoretical distinction (PDF) between alternate and alternative realities. Alternate realities, she argues, are “real worlds that use games as a metaphor.” She contrasts this notion with alternative realities, realities one chooses between. McGonigal further traces the concept of “alternate reality” to science fiction, where the term refers to depictions of a world of changed history, and consequently of changed dynamics. This name, then, is central to McGonigal’s claims that ARGs allow players to actively change the nature of their real reality by participating in these alternate ones.

Mea Culpea. I could offer various explanations for how this happened or how hard I worked to fact check the book. But the reality is that I screwed up. These are things I will change in the second printing. In the case of alternate reality, I have already started using this prefered term in my current writing and speaking. Somehow I got confused and passed the confusion onto the readers. I wouldn’t read any deep theoretical significance into the terminological confusion. I don’t think the use of the wrong term impacts the heart of my argument about ARGs, though as Ian notes, it does blur some important distinctions that theorists like McGonigal have been making through their work. Sorry, Jane.

Culture and Technology

One of Jenkins’s major innovations in Convergence Culture is identifying the “black box fallacy” and offering a more distributed view of media convergence. His insistence on the cultural tenor of convergence is welcome, but Jenkins takes this emphasis to an extreme, arguing that “if we focus on the technology, the battle will be lost before we even begin to fight. We need to confront the social, cultural, and political protocols that surround the technology and define how it will get used.” This point is well taken. But in opposing the cultural against the technological, Jenkins risks missing the importance of the technology. Technologies–particular ones, like computer microprocessors, mobile devices, telegraphs, books, and smoke signals–have properties. They have affordances and constraints. Different technologies may expose or close down particular modes of expression. Part of convergence culture must entail technical media literacy, an ability to consume and create media content that takes advantage of the particular properties of particular technology systems. Most, if not all of Jenkins’s examples of computer technology take the computer for a network appliance rather than a processing machine.

I was a bit thrown by this response. I would have said that the book makes a very similar point multiple times. Drawing on Lisa Gitelman, I describe a medium as both a communications technology and the cultural protocals that grow up around it. Both sides of this are important for the reasons that Bogost argues here. My own expertise is cultural. I don’t think anyone would want to read what I have to say about technologies as technologies — there are lots of better writers on this topic. It may be my particular vantage point at MIT but I do think there is a tendency to think of convergence first in technological terms and only secondarily in cultural terms. I was trying to enlarge the conversation not narrow it.

My own notion of media literacy, which is central to the current focus of my work, certainly includes an understanding of technology, including the ability to produce and interprete simulations. There’s no real disagreement here as far as I can see.

At best, we may differ in terms of emphasis. Rereading the qoute above, the one revision I would make would look something like this: “if we focus on the technology, the battle will be lost before we even begin to fight. We [also] need to confront the social, cultural, and political protocols that surround the technology and define how it will get used.” I didn’t mean to say that fights around the design of technology were not worth fighting. I simply think many of those issues appear first through cultural practices that jerryrig or retrofit technologies for new purposes and only later surface in the technologies themselves. But the reverse is also true: the release of a new technology can spark profound cultural changes as people experiment with how it will be used and begin to develop new protocals.

Jenkins strongly downplays technology’s role as a participant in convergence culture. The content must be delivered, and technologies are there to do it. Yet, the technologies we choose to create and consume media structure the type of convergence that is possible in the first place. The iPod emblazoned on the cover of Convergence Culture is essentially a hard drive with a few circuits run for streaming data off the disk. This device is well-suited to playing linear media, specifically audio and video content. The tremendous cultural uptake of iPods makes them desirable targets for creative output, even convergent, transmedial output that Jenkins advocates. But that output is necessarily constrained by the affordances of the device–for example, iPods can’t easily run custom-built software.

Again, there’s no real disagreement there. I do think that the kind of networked culture I describe would have been impossible without the extistence of a network in the first place. I do agree with Lawrence Lessig that we should be very concerned about the cultural and social policies that get translated into code rather than law. I do think we need a world where all technology can be modified by the user. I do describe digitization as a driver of convergence culture (alongside economic factors like the consolidation of the media industry). The affordances of technology can certainly limit how they can be used in ways that should concern all of us. At the same time, though, I would push back from a hardcore technologically deterministic stance. History shows us again and again that the same technology operates differently in different cultural contexts.

The Convergence Fallacy?

Technological mastery couples with cultural mastery to help producers and consumers decide how and why to develop and consume the artifacts of convergence culture. Without such an understanding, a counterpart of the black box fallacy rears its head. I might call this counterpart the convergence fallacy: the more a media property is delivered across more devices, the better it is.

This is certainly not the case. I spend a good chunk of the Matrix chapter trying to articulate some aesthetic standards by which we can measure the value of transmedia experiences. Some are more culturally meaningful than others. Media companies have the power inhouse to create a media franchise from scratch; they lack the power to force consumers to value that experience.

Right now, there’s a lot of uncritical excitement about convergence and extensions and this often clouds judgements. Not every story should be told across all media. Not every experience is enhanced by moving it between platforms. I would hope that the book gave us a vocabulary to push beyond celebrating convergence for convergence sake and begin to explore how convergence enriches or impoverishes our culture.

Or, more convergence equals more expression. The notion that value builds exponentially as nodes in a network increases, sometimes called Metcalfe’s Law, has been implicitly extended from infrastructure networks like telephones to social networks like MySpace to product networks like Spider-Man. But this kind of value is principally economic, not expressive. Even if we accept Jenkins’s claim that the interpretive interests of fan communities undermine the intentions of mass media, they still support the financial interests of mass media. For consolidated media, convergence mitigates financial risk. And until we overcome the convergence fallacy, there is great risk that the promising grassroots convergence will subsume these mass market goals, even if they do not benefit individual creators.

Unless we know why to choose one medium over another, or one set of transmedia over another, how can convergence produce more meaningful expression? Or consume it meaningfully? Or critique it fairly, to address three of the problems Jenkins raises in the book. Without a grounding in technological literacy and critique as well as cultural savvy, convergence risks becoming bricolage, an oddjob pastiche of any old media, rather than a pioneering manipulation of particular media for particular and collective ends.

Again, I don’t think we really disagree here. I do see the movement of stories across media as opening up new points for consumers to intervene, as opening up some greater space for cultural expression in response to commercially produced and circulated stories. In that sense, convergence can and often does expand expressive possibilities. Transmedia processes can also deepen cultural experiences as we add together pieces that may seem superficial in a single medium but fit to form a more complex world when read across media.

I also think that the emergence of a networked culture, a la Benkler, creates new opportunities for noncommercial groups to insert themselves. In the book’s terms, we might think about pixelvision filmmaking or machinema as examples where alternative groups are taking advantage of commercially produced tools to generate their own niche or subcultural production. For this to happen, we certainly need to expand access to technical competency and we need to push for the development of tools that are open source and allow for inexperted users to manipulate them for their own purposes.

I see the Serious Games movement, which occupies a fair amount of attention from both Jenkins and Bogost, as a good illustration of this process in practice. Much of the work builds on models and tools generated by the commercial media. Most of the energy comes from the nonprofit sector and the desire to generate alternatives to commercial culture.

Yet, at the same time, all of us still have to confront bottom line issues because the price of producing and distributing games is high enough that we have to seek outside funding to pursue our work. At the end of the day, I don’t think alternative culture has to originate outside commercial culture — nor do I think that alternative culture ever operates fully independent of the economic contexts within which it is produced and circulated. There is no such thing as ideological or cultural purity. I hope my book helps people to think about the complexity by which commercial culture operates and also to identify strategies by which grassroots media makers can insert themselves into this process. I just am more ready to embrace grassroots media production that looks more like fan culture than Bogost seems to be from his remarks here.

Anyway, hope these responses help to clarify my position and perhaps pave the way for further dialogue. The issues Bogost raises are important. I doubt I have laid any of them to rest here. At least I hope not. These are conversations we should be having as a society. My hope is that my book’s framing, flawed though it may be, will provide a foundation for further exploration and critique.

Comments

  1. Ian Bogost says:

    By the way, careful readers will note that I fell prey to the “online orthography trap” here… that is, I misspelled Gandalf in my note about Henry misspelling it. Ha! I’ve since fixed it on Water Cooler Games. Moral: pedants must be of nimble fingers!

    Thanks again for these substantive comments Henry. I plan to respond to them in kind in the next few days, after I finish getting my fall syllabi in order.

  2. Jane McG says:

    The most fascinating thing about the term “alternate reality game” is that it was strategically designed and adopted by a vocal segment of the original ARG playing community, back when it was being tentatively called “beasting”, “immersive gaming”, “unfiction”, and other terms that ultimately proved unsatisfying to the community. The history of the debate that led to its adoption is a wonderful chronicle of a community attempting to define its own object of desire. At any rate, when I gave the keynote lecture at the ARG fan festival in 2005, my talk was entirely about that particular name, especially in contrast to the notion of “alternative reality gaming” which the press (not just you!) has mistakenly used in numerous articles. Why alternative makes more sense to some people versus why alternate spoke to the community is a lovely, lovely topic… Henry, I’ll actually be at MIT late next month for a few days and maybe you will allow me to tell you the story or show you the slides over coffee. :)