The Moral Economy of Web 2.0 (Part One)

I wrote the following essay on the cultural politics around web 2.0 with Joshua Green, a post-doc in the CMS program, who is speerheading the Convergence Culture Consortium and who is my partner in crime in organizing the Futures of Entertainment conferences. Green came to us from the Creative Industries program at Queensland University of Technology. This paper blends work out of Queensland on creative industries with work out of MIT on Convergence Culture. Green is currently completing a book manuscript about Youtube with Jean Burgess, who was interviewed here at my blog earlier this year.

The Moral Economy of Web 2.0:

Audience Research and Convergence Culture

Joshua Green and Henry Jenkins

“The central principle behind the success of the giants born in the Web 1.0 era who have survived to lead the Web 2.0 era appears to be this, that they have embraced the power of the web to harness collective intelligence….The lesson: Network effects from user contributions are the key to market dominance in the Web 2.0 era.” — Tim O’Reilly (2005)

please describe web 2.0 to me in 2 sentences or less.

you make all the content. they keep all the revenue.” —

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, fans were emblematic of audience resistance (Jenkins,1992; Fiske, 1989), understood as actively appropriating and transforming mass media content as raw materials for their own cultural productions. Mass media depicted fans as living in the shadows of mass culture (if not the basements of their parent’s suburban split-level houses), and media companies saw their tastes and concerns as “unrepresentative” of the general population. By the early 21st century, fans have been redefined as the drivers of wealth production within the new digital economy: their engagement and participation is actively being pursued, if still imperfectly understood, by media companies interested in adopting Web 2.0 strategies of user-generated content, social networks, and “harness[ing] collective intelligence.” (O’Reilly 2005)

This new talk about “putting the We in the Web” (Levy and Stone 2006) was initially embraced as granting consumers greater influence over the decisions that impacted the production and distribution of culture. By 2007, contradictions, conflicts, and schisms have started to appear within the Web 2.0 paradigm around the imperfectly aligned interests of media producers and consumers.

Consider, for example,, a start-up company that included established media players such as Titanic producer Jon Landau and entertainment lawyer Jon Moonves as advisors, and former Yahoo CMO Anil Singh as Chairman (Jenkins 2007a). FanLib began by hosting officially sponsored fan fiction competitions around The L Word and The Ghost Whisperer. Soon, the company sought to become a general interest portal for all fan fiction, actively soliciting material from leading fan writers, deciding not to solicit prior approval from the studios and production companies. The company’s executives told fans they wanted to promote and protect fan fiction writing and informed initial corporate investors that they would teach fans how to “color within the lines.” When fans stumbled onto the corporate pitch online, there was an intense backlash which spread across blogs, LiveJournals, and various social networking sites.

Fans raised a number of objections. The company wanted to profit from content fans had historically circulated for free (and adding insult, they refused to share the generated revenues with the fan authors). This debate revealed a rift between the “gift economy” of fan culture and the commodity logic of “user-generated content.” At the same time, the company promised to increase the visibility of once cloaked fan activities, thus, fans argued, heightening the legal risk that media producers would put the entire community under closer legal scrutiny. (There has been an unofficial truce between fans and producers: most producers weren’t going after fan fiction sites as long as they didn’t intend to make money off of what they created.) Yet, denied that it bore any legal responsibility to defend fan writers against cease and desist letters from studios and networks. All of this fit within a growing debate about whether corporate distribution of user-generated content constitutes a form of unpaid outsourcing of creative labor, contributing to the downsizing of internal production teams (Scholz and Lovink 2007). These fans refused to be the victims of corporate exploitation, quickly and effectively rallying in opposition to FanLib and using their own channels of communication to inflect damage on its nascent brand. At the same time, did attract more than 18,000 participants (personal correspondence with Chris Williams, March 2008), including both those new to the world of fan fiction and thus not part of existing communities and those who, for whatever reason, felt disenfranchised from the existing fan fiction groups (Li, 2008).

This example shows how media companies are being forced to reassess the nature of consumer engagement and the value of audience participation in response to a shifting media environment characterized by digitization and the flow of media across multiple platforms, the further fragmentation and diversification of the media market, and the increased power and capacity of consumers to shape the flow and reception of media content. The result has been a constant pull and tug between top-down corporate and bottom-up consumer power with the process of media convergence shaped by decisions made in teenager’s bedrooms and in corporate boardrooms.

Mass media are increasingly operating in a context of participatory culture, but there is considerable anxiety about the terms of participation. Some media producers adopt what we are calling a collaborative approach, embracing audience participation, mobilizing fans as grassroots advocates, and capitalizing on user-generated content. Others adopt a prohibitionist posture. Frightened by a loss of control over the channels of media production and distribution and threatened by increasingly visible and vocal audience behavior, some companies tighten control over intellectual property, trying to reign in the disruptive and destabilizing impact of technological and cultural change. Most companies are torn between the two extremes, seeking a new relationship with their audiences which gives only as much ground as needed to maintain consumer loyalty.

This essay focuses on the resulting reworking of the “moral economy” that shapes the relations between producers and consumers. “Moral economy” refers to the social expectations, emotional investments, and cultural transactions which create a shared understanding between all participants within an economic exchange. The moral economy which governed old media companies has broken down and there are conflicting expectations about what new relationships should look like. The risks for companies are high, since alienated consumers have other options for accessing media content. The risks for consumers are equally high, since legal sanctions can stifle the emerging participatory culture.

To understand this debate, we must bridge between the historically separate spheres of audience studies and industry research. Industry research – at least within academic circles – has taken a top-down approach, emphasizing the power of media companies and the impact of the decisions they make upon the culture; audience research has historically taken a bottom-up approach, emphasizing audience interpretation and cultural production read in cultural rather than economic terms. The result has been two conflicting claims about the current state of our culture: one emphasizing media concentration and the narrowing of options; the other emphasizing the expansion of grassroots participation. This essay proposes to read these two trends against each other and in doing so, provoke a conversation between two sets of literatures – one derived from business research, the other derived from cultural and media studies. This conversation, in our case, is a literal one, since many of the ideas here emerged from work done through the MIT Convergence Culture Consortium, which facilitates regular dialogues between academics and industry insiders. This conversation also reflects the increased focus on social and cultural factors, even among tech industries, as people come to grips with the implications of “web 2.0.” This conversation might also be understood in global terms as this article combines work done by American researchers interested in “convergence culture” with that done by Australian researchers focused on “creative industries” and “produsage.” Historically, both audience research and industry studies have concentrated on single media industries rather than examining trends which cut across different media sectors and platforms. Our contention is that this research increasingly needs to adopt a comparative or transmedia approach because of the increased flow of media content and audiences across every available platform and the speed with which developments in one media sector impact thinking in every other corner of the entertainment industry.



  1. says:

    this is so fascinating to me…I’m a designer and active fan who has worked in market research. Using segmentation tools, I labored to convince marketers they had to study their audience in detail if they hoped to communicate effectively with them. I can see that this challenge is not going away, only deepening.

    My media habits have changed radically over the past few years. Netflicks and the ipod allowed me to time-shift everything I consumed, and the arrival of FIOS at my formerly dial-up rural home sealed the deal: broadcast media, even cable or satellite, is over for me. Meanwhile, podcasting led me into hitherto unknown realms of fandom where my creativity has caught fire.

    I love your blog! Thanks for the thoughtful and interesting work.

  2. As both an academic and a fan, I really am fascinated by this paper and look forward to reading the rest.

  3. Henry Jenkins says:

    I am posting here comments for a reader who has been blocked by our new procedures for reasons that I haven’t been able to investigate yet.

    Professor Jenkins,

    While it’s possible my IP address has been blacklisted as a source of spam since your site-overhaul, I’d prefer to believe that my inability to leave comments at the Confessions site is due to some procedural failure on my part, coupled with some glitch in your comment-acceptance process that consistently fails to recognize my LJ and blogger accounts as valid credentials of my comments’ spamlessness.

    It is disturbing, however, that the modern Father of Audience Participation has, in the past 10 months that I’ve been following the blog, very rarely participated in the conversation, apart from the herculean task of kicking it off. And in the hundred days of the writers’ strike the blog was either undergoing fundamental transformation, unavailable to audience participation, or skirting (with Letterman-like dexterity and disinformation) topics directly related to the labor/management dispute.

    In reading The Moral Economy of Web 2.0, I’ve inserted professional film and television writers everywhere I see the word fan. That misreading, in context of the hundred days, creates a clearer picture of the 3-part presentation by minimizing the line of demarcation between all content creators (amateur and professional) in the mindset of the representatives of transnational corporations seated on the adult side of the negotiating table;

    you make all the content, we keep all the revenue.

    I’ve been visiting Hulu for a couple of weeks. Last night I took a look at Bulworth, to refresh my memory of an interesting 10year old what-if movie, only to find how many of its wild-eyed, goofy predictions are presently in the protracted process of coming true. The Hulu presentation also contains hundreds of censor’s bleeps inserted to disguise verbal profanities. Most user critiques mention the critic’s inability to watch more than a few minutes of the butchered obscenity Hulu presents as Bulworth, but in every case attention is diverted from information imparted in the film to Hulu’s bowdlerized version of its presentation.

    “The result has been a constant pull and tug between top-down corporate and bottom-up consumer power with the process of media convergence shaped by decisions made in teenager’s bedrooms and in corporate boardrooms.”

    decisions made in teenage boardrooms and in corporate bedrooms.

    There are no teenage boardrooms because consumers lack cohesive organization, representation, and any awareness of strength. The nearest we’ve come is the negotiating committee for the WGA, whose contract proposals were largely ignored as unrealistic and infantile by the AMPTP, then (with the benevolent intervention of Chernin and Iger) were passed through the digestive tract of teams of lawyers, and came out looking like Byzantine shit.

    Corporate bedrooms, conversely, represent the secret liaisons between “competitive” members of the infotainment cartel and the American government. Jay Bullington Bulworth identifies this monopoly as a club. I think this club fits rather neatly within the model ascribed to George Picket’s description of the American union (in The Killer Angels) when he describes abolitionism as ample grounds for secession from the fraternal organization that no longer met the needs of the Confederate States of America. The North simply wouldn’t allow The South to leave.

    It remains to be seen whether professional and amateur content creators, who’ve never been granted admission to the club, will be permitted to turn their backs on the infotainment cartel. It also remains to be seen what domestic and international audiences will do with the choice between familar channels of news and entertainment versus new content created to circumvent cartel. The only certainty is that respected organizations like Nielsen Online will keep right on counting eyeballs as though we were cattle, content creators will continue to funnel product through the infotainment monopoly, and the academic community will not stand up to represent the power of audience to shape, define and mediate the conversation that has already flouted The Constitution by corrupting the independence of the Fourth Estate, and continues to beat collective intelligence with the Club of special interests dedicated to the agendas of transnational corporations and their

    duly-elected political appointees.

    It’s especially disturbing to note how frequently Jesse Alexander used the term, “exploit” in last November’s discussion of Appointment tv to Engagement tv, and how he continued to insist that Heroes biggest (disastrous) challenge is the task of balancing serial and standalone content when either you or Professor Thorburn indicated that Hill Street (and other successful predecessors) barely resembles his profoundly defective memory of creative, innovative (and evidently unexamined) strategies that have worked incredibly well previously.

    I joined United Hollywood version 2.0 to stay abreast of the writing evolution. The site presently looks and feels like a ghost town. I’d like to believe that means the membership is busily creating compelling content for the internet, but it probably means they’re swinging with the club.

    Scott Ellington

  4. Although my remarks weren’t exactly intended for publication, and they re-read like a very loose aggregation of pointless rants, the most salient argument I intended to make was that the intellectual property of interest here is owned by corporations that regard it is money-making product. Minor shifts in the restrictions they impose upon its use/reuse may temporarily disguise intent, but they exist to exploit content creators and audiences, by any means necessary. The very idea of a moral economy simply doesn’t apply to moguls.

    That paragaph is still quite awkward and paranoid, but it approximates a summary of the statement I meant to make.


    This three-part YouTube video Rich Media, Poor Democracy does a much better job then I did of describing our evolving Moral Economy as an oxymoron.

    Links courtesy of VDOVault via UnitedHollywood.