My Adventures in Poland (Part One)

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Malgorzata Bernatowicz and Miroslaw Filiciak are the two people who translated Convergence Culture into Polish as Kultura Konwergencji:zderzenie starych i nowych mediow. This picture was taken when they were showing me around the old section of Warsaw. The building in the background is the Namiestnikowski Palace, where the President of Poland lives.

What follows are some highlights from the introduction I wrote for the Polish edition of the book. I have focused here primarily on some thoughts I shared with my new Polish readers about the global context within which the issues discussed in the book are operating. The original plan was to have a chapter focused entirely around globalization be part of Convergence Culture. Much of that material ended up being included as the “Pop Cosmopolitanism” essay in Fans, Gamers, and Bloggers, or developed through the sidebars in the book at the Animatrix and about anime fansubbing. But here, I tried to bring a few strands of my thoughts about global media change together.

Next time, I will offer more observations on digital and popular culture in Poland.

Welcome to Convergence Culture.

For those of you keeping score, The dotcom era has ended. The age of Social Networks and Mobile Media has emerged from its ashes. Blogging is thriving. Podcasting is on the rise. Everywhere you look the people are taking media in their own hands, speaking back to mass media, forming their own on-line communities, learning to think, work, and process culture in new ways.

We are no longer talking about a digital revolution, which envisioned new media displacing the old. We are now talking about media convergence, where old and new media interact in ever more complex ways, where every story, brand, sound, image, and relationship will play itself out across the maximum number of media channels and platforms.

We are no longer talking about interactive media technologies; we are talking about participatory culture. Talk to advertisers, media producers, network executives, game designers, fans, gamers and bloggers and they will all tell you that the consumer is gaining new visibility and new cultural influence in this emerging culture. This is at the heart of what some American observers are calling Web 2.0. Some of them are embracing this change with enormous excitement, others with great fear, none of them claim to fully understand what is going to happen next. The terms of our participation in this new convergence culture are very much under debate, being shaped by governmental policies and court decisions but also by choices being made both in corporate boardrooms and in teenager’s bedrooms.

New media are being put out by technology companies and they are being redefined on the fly by various groups of consumers. Companies are trying to get ahead of the game by empowering their lead users, by allowing key fans and consumers to test their products before they even reach the market, and building on their insights to create a better mousetrap, build a better game, or produce a better television show. Media networks are trying new strategies to grab the attention of their viewers and insure longer term loyalty to their properties. As they do

so, viewers are every level are demanding the right to help shape the production and circulation of media content.

Sites like YouTube have emerged as meeting places between all kinds of different subcultures, fan communities, and participatory cultures, places where commercial and amateur media circulates side by side. They are producing their own stars and they are also turning out to be places where consumers re-evaluate network content, calling attention to moments on television which might otherwise have passed by without much comment. Online worlds, such as Second Life, are thriving based almost entirely on what people are calling consumer-generated content (though to reduce what happens there to content or describe the participants in these worlds simply as consumers is to grossly simplify what is taking place)….

Morover, these changes are occuring on a global level, impacting each country differently according to their own national cultures and traditions, but being felt around the world. There’s a reason why they call it the World Wide Web. It is not simply that American media products are flowing into international markets — this is scarcely news. More profound is the degree to which cultural goods from other parts of the world — at the moment, especially from Asia — are flowing into the American market at a rate so fast that it is breaking through the protective membrane constructed by American major media companies to block access to international competitors.

More and more American young people are embracing what I call pop cosmopolitanism — seeking an escape from the paroachialism of their own cultures by embracing cultural materials from around the world. There is an ironic juxtaposition between an American government which acts more and more in unilateral terms and a younger American population which is embracing global media. I recently spoke to an American teenager who described this particular JPop group as her “favorite band in the whole wide world.” Anyone who is the parent of an adolescent knows that’s the way teenage girls have always talked. But this time, as I listened to her enthusiasm for a band which had no label and no distributor in the west, I thought she might be telling the truth. She had searched the world for a group that spoke to her and found it through networking with kids in Japan who shared her interests in anime, manga, and cosplay.

It isn’t just that American youth are consuming more international media:they are also taking advantage of a network culture to engage on a regular basis with youth from around the world who share their common interests. I am struck by the story of Heather Lawver in the Harry Potter chapter of my book. When Warner Brothers first sought to shut down certain fan websites around their newly acquired franchise, they sent cease and desist letters to young people in parts of the world which would have once seemed very distant from their base. Yet, as Heather tells us, the word got back to their American fans almost instantly because they already participated in a global fan network. More recently, I watched fans of the American science fiction series, Stargate, mobilize fans to news of the series cancilation worldwide in just a few days time. They now understand television operating within a global framework, rallying fans in many different countries to put pressure on their local networks where the show is still thriving and using that economic clout to push the American producers to continue to generate new content.

In some ways, new media technologies are making more visible the kinds of cultural links that immigrants have long maintained back to their mother country. I see this pattern with my own students who have come to the United States for an education but still listen to radio stations, read newspapers, share music, and talk about fan cultures from back home. The web now serves the functions that ethnic grocery stores and community centers have long played in immigrant communities with one exception. The content is flowing from one community to another as people mix and match cultural materials with others from radically different backgrounds. I live in a dormatory at MIT and I have seen first hand the ways that media sharing is opening up students to new kinds of culture from around the world.

So, I have to confess that I wrote this book very much from an American perspective. My expertise is in American media and popular culture, though it is increasingly clear that one can no longer understand American media outside of a global context. I have never been to Poland and know only very little about your country. I hope to change this but for the moment, I can claim no particular expertise about the media changes that are impacting your corner of the planet. That said, I suspect much of what I write about here will sound familiar to anyone deeply immersed in popular media in any part of the world. Many of these same franchises are known in Poland — either through American imports or through localization of larger multinational properties.

There are differences created as a result of different economic structures — the difference between commercial and state run media production systems, for example, result in different opportunities and restrictions on participation. Some cultures have strong traditions of open debate and democratic citizenship; others have historically placed greater restrictions on what the public could see or say, but all of them are being rocked by a media culture which is more open and more participatory than anyone would have imagined a few decades ago. As the rate of internet access increases in countries around the world, they are one by one confronting some of the cultural, legal, economic, and educational challenges Convergence Culture records.

I am certain that there are new and innovative uses of media that have emerged among youth subcultures and fan communities in your country which are not yet known in our part of the world. But the key phrase here is “not yet known.” As media flows more and more rapidly and fluidly across once rigid national borders, innovation on the grassroots level may still have a global impact. Throw a pebble in one part of the ocean and the ripples will eventually wash up

on every shore.

In the book’s closing passages, I return to the issue of who gets to participate in the kind of robust participatory culture I am describing and who gets left out of the kinds of knowledge communities we are discussing. My own work has turned increasingly towards interest in media literacy as I am working with American foundations and educational institutions to identify the core social skills and cultural competencies young people need to acquire in order to fully participate in convergence culture. In doing so, I hope to shift the conversation beyond talk of the digital divide which is so often defined purely in terms of technical access and onto the participation gap which is concerned with the skills and opportunities needed for young people to actively engage with the affordances of the new media landscape….

This is certainly not a uniquely American problem. Each country is facing these difficulties on their own terms, on their own time table, in their own way, and on their own terrain, yet all of us are struggling with how to insure that the increased power and knowledge being generated by emerging technologies and cultural practice can be spread across the population as a whole. My hope is that this book will help people to better understand the implications of this participation gap both in terms of their own national cultures and in a more global context.