A Response to Ian Bogost (Part One)

Ian Bogost wins the award for being first to market with a thorough, thoughtful critique of my new book, Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide. The review is worth reading in its entirity because it really does set a high bar for debate and discussion around this book. Bogost does all of us a great service in taking on this task: the review is helpful to me in identifying some of the battlegrounds that are apt to emerge around this book. As I wrote to him, there are some points of real disagreement here, some points where we place different emphasis, and some points where we agree more than his summary of the book suggests. Some of his criticisms made me wince; some left me scratching my head. I wish I had read some of them before the book went to press.

It seems the most constructive thing one can do at this point is to respond to some of his questions publically in the hopes of getting a larger conversation going around the issues he raises. Because I wanted to respond fully to a range of interesting questions Bogost raised, I am going to be running my response over my next three posts.

I Can't Belive It's Margarine!

Bogost's review begins promisingly enough from my perspective with the following lines:

The book is a short, smart, buttery read on a hot topic, and it is sure to draw both popular and academic interest.

I cite this passage here -- other than my amusement over the buttery metaphor -- just to show that he really does seem to like the book. (Bless you, Ian, for calling the book "short." It has to be the first time in human history I haven't been accused of being long winded.) Hinceforth, I am going to generally ignore the many nice things he says about the book in order to address points of disagreement. I am not trying to pick a fight with Bogost, who I admire, simply trying to respond to the issues that seem most urgent here and I have told Bogost I am planning to do this. My hope is that I can coax him to respond to my response and keep the exchange going.

Reality and Fiction

The discussion of collective intelligence in the Survivor community offers a welcome counterpoint to prevailing ideas that "puzzling" over apparently complex mass-media offers cognitive and cultural value in and of itself, such as those recently advanced by Steven Johnson; the Survivor spoilers are solving a real problem, rather than becoming drawn in to the elusive, unplanned web of J.J. Abrams telescripts gone awry.

This is one of the passages that left me scratching my head. Yes, I think it matters on all kinds of levels that the Survivor fans are exploring something that occured in the real world rather than a work of fiction. They can pool money and send representatives to the Amazon or Pearl Island and interview real people. The fans of Lost really don't have a chance to crawl down into that hatch and see what they can get from looking around. There's something fascinating about the experiences of Mario Lanza, the fan fiction writer who corresponds with and gets advice from his characters because they are real people. But I bristle a little at the hierarchy between reality and fiction implicit in this argument.

Perhaps Bogost doesn't like Lost as much as I and many of my students do. But a key assumption running through my book is that we can use fiction as a vehicle to talk through core concerns and that the activity of making sense of fiction may teach us skills that can be put to a broader array of other purposes. It may be true to Abrams and company are making up what's happening on Lost as they go -- in part in response to the speculations of the fan community. This doesn't devalue it as art -- after all, we know Dickens did more or less the same with the serial publications of his novels. People are still talking about real issues when they talk about Lost, whether they are discussing the spiritual conflicts faced by the characters or the show's representation of the politics of Iraq, Korea, and Africa. They are also learning how to work within a knowledge community and working through the ethics of collaborative information production and knowledge sharing in ways that have larger applications.

Similarly, I think we can use Survivor to ask some fundamental questions about group dynamics, sexuality, gender, race, and so forth, and as I suggest in the book, I think reality television poses a series of ethical questions that are designed to become the stuff of gossip within the fan community. It's ability to do so may have less to do with its factual status (especially given how contrived the situation is in the first place) and more to do with its rhetorical and dare I say, narrative construction. But the most important thing in both cases is they provide shared reference points around which conversations cane emerge. In the book's terms, they act as cultural attractors bringing like minded individuals together to form a reception community and as cultural activators giving the community something to do which exploits the resources of a collective intelligence.

Affective Economics

In particular, economic changes like the decreasing value of the 30-second television spot are forcing mass media into cultural convergence. Survivor and American Idol represent instances of what Jenkins calls affective economics, a marketing technique that appeals to consumers' emotional vicissitudes. I found it curious that Jenkins chose to invent this somewhat awkward term for a concept that has many names in contemporary marketing theory, including associative advertising and lifestyle marketing. One might assume that Jenkins knows about these concepts, but chooses not to mention them in order that he can reconnect the same underlying concept to cultural studies and fan communities. Yet, he also argues that affective economics is "on the fringes" in the media industry, suggesting that he may have a greater distinction in mind.

The problem of terminology is a vexing one in a book like Convergence Culture. Because the space involves imput from many different sectors, because the phenomenon discussed is evolving, and because there are almost always competing paradigms present to account for any observed phenomenon, there are always multiple terms you could use to describe a particular set of practices. Bogost has identified several places here where I had to drive a stake in the ground and I went with what seemed to me to be the best term to describe what I was talking about.

Frankly, I am less invested in these terminological questions than Bogost is. I see the varied terms as different ways of describing the same phenomenon. Each term helps us see some aspects more clearly and makes others harder to see. For that reason, there's an argument to be made for keeping multiple terms in play rather than trying to figure out which one is best. If my words are useful, use them. If not, dump them.

He's right that part of what I was trying to do in this chapter was to show the match between what academics in cultural and media studies had said about fans and an emerging discourse about the role of emotional investments within the brand space. I intended the phrase, affective economics, to be a tad oxymoronic. We tend to think of economics as a cold rational field quite removed from emotion. I wanted to suggest the various ways that people are trying to attach value to emotion in the new media economy. I was interested in several things: the talk about "lovemarks" or "emotional capital" which was shaping the strategies of brand managers and advertising executives; the degree to which research inside the industry was demonstrating in economic terms the value of fan commitments to programs; the work by Robert Kozinets and others about brand communities and the ways they parallel fan communities; and the ways that product placements sought to connect the emotions associate with entertainment onto products embedded within that story.

Some aspects of what I am calling affective economics are deeply embedded in current advertising practice, referred to by the various terms Bogost identifies ("lifestyle marketing," "associative advertising," "relationship marketing," etc.) while others are still emerging -- such as the focus on "favorite viewers" as opposed to demographic or ratings to measure the success of a program.

I am convinced that this shift represents the best means we have of getting media producers to reassess their relationship to their consumers and that seems to be key to the long term viability of participatory culture. In the book, I cite Grant McCracken's observations that companies will have a legal right for the foreseeable future to tightly control their intellectual property and shut down most forms of fan participation but they will have an economic interest in opening themselves up to greater participation from their consumers. One of the reasons for this is that they are discovering, perhaps some would say rediscovering, the value of committed consumers.

When I talk to executives at advertising companies or media companies, I get two key messages right now: one, they are terrified about losing control of their brands or products; they fear what the consumer can do to them through online communications. Second, they want very much to build a strong brand community that will help support their brands and products. And for the short term, this makes it possible to rewrite our contracts with the media company.

Part of what I wanted to stress in the book was Robert Kozinet's argument that brand communities can both promote and police the behavoir of media companies -- can help them reach new consumers, can hold them accountable for bad decisions. This happens because we are no longer talking about isolated consumers; we are talking about groups that pool knowledge, deliberate together, and take collective action. At one point, I refer to these new brand communities as collective bargaining units.

I was intrigued by Jenkins's willing adoption of lifestyle marketing practices, mostly since I have been such a vocal critic of this type of advertising, both here (1, 2) and, in considerably more detail, in my forthcoming book Persuasive Games: Videogames and Procedural Rhetoric. Essentially, my argument is that lifestyle marketing does not address consumers' actual lifestyles, but fashions lifestyles as constructs that marketers manipulate consumers to adopt.

This point of disagreement probably deserves a whole blog post in and of itself. To make short work of it, I think Bogost is right that lifestyle marketing can be an empty gesture, a desire to herd us into fixed demographic categories that may have little or nothing to do with how we actually live and think. I suspect, though, that this form of lifestyle marketing is apt to become less and less effective as we are able to get together with like-minded individuals and share insights on the web. Bloggers are pretty aggressive at unmasking and debunking lifestyle pitches that seem inauthentic or run counter to the established practices and beliefs of particular communities. Most of the brand communities I am describing emerge bottom up from the grassroots, though companies may step in to facilitate their activities more fully. These communities emerge because we have authentic investments in the goods that constitute our everyday life and because brands express meanings that we draw upon to express our identities.

The fact that brands serve a range of other functions for the companies that produce and market them doesn't take away from the fact that we also make use of those brands for our own expressive purposes. For example, having grown up in Atlanta as part of a certain generation, I feel a strong emotional bond to Coca Cola. Its international success as a company becomes an extension of my pride in my home town. This was especially powerful when I was a boy and Atlanta was first fighting to become a global city. It was astonishingly important to me that I knew that Coke was a product produced in Atlanta and consumed around the world. I still feel that aura around Coca Cola even though I have an allergic reaction to carbonation that means I don't actually drink Coke. In that sense, my emotional investment in the brand is totally divorced from the reality of the product and does not even translate directly into my role as a consumer. It is up to Coca Cola's advertising executives to figure out how to transform my warm feelings towards the company into purchasing decisions. And in my case, I am a hard sell because it makes me sick to drink the stuff. While I think advertising plays with powerful emotions, those emotions do not necessarily over-ride our rational judgements about how the actual product will operate in the context of our own lives.

Again, I am interested in what happens when the top-down efforts of companies to sell products meet bottom-up forces from consumers who are asserting their identity through their relationship to products. I avoid the classic cultural studies term, resistence, in describing this because it paints too simple a picture of what's going on. Sometimes, these interests are alligned, sometimes they are opposed. In most cases, some kind of negotiation has to occur to reconcile them. Most of them time they are "impure" in that they represent some complex blending of subcultural and commercial motives. The emergence of brand communities interest me because they are both an expansion of corporate reach and an expansion of consumer power.

I tried my best to honor Jenkins's request for readers to "bracket their anxieties about consumerism," but I never felt that he returned to the problem in earnest. Hopeful appeals to future potential are nice, but I expected more vision and leadership on this topic. It's possible that advertising just doesn't bother Jenkins very much; it is, after all, the primary fuel of popular culture.

I recognized that the American Idol chapter was going to be one of the most controversial in the book -- especially for academic readers. Let's face it: the academic world has sought to distance itself from the commercial sector for a long, long time. I think in doing so though we have lost the ability to frame meaningful critiques or engage in dialogue with some core forces within our society. We act as if there was something obscene about money or as if advertising was right next to child pornography on the ethical scale. As long as we start from this premise, we will not be able to meaningfully engage in the conversations that are shaping our culture. We will not be able to talk to people in the business world and have any chance of having them take our ideas seriously.

In other parts of the world (Canada, UK, Australia), media and cultural studies have been very actively involved in policy work, connecting on a regular basis with key government leaders, consulting in the formation of key policies that impact their society. In the United States, we have been largely locked out of those conversations. We don't have a seat at the table. Our government listens to social scientists about cultural matters but not those of us in the Humanities. In these other countries, though, it isn't as if the academics fully agree with the policymakers or totally support their agendas. But they have agreed to suspend disagreements on some levels in order to engage productively on others. In this country, our culture is shaped more by corporate decisions than government policies (though I would argue our desire to turn every conversation into a struggle against the entire economic system doesn't make us effective in either sector).

So, yes, it is probably true that I am less worried by the commercial aspects of our culture, including advertising, than Bogost is. I personally enjoy many products -- cultural and otherwise -- produced by American industry and do not think that commercialization per se corrupts the artistic process. It can but it doesn't have to. All art is produced in an economic context which shapes to some degree what gets produced. I would say the track record for popular entertainment under capitalism is pretty good.

Right now, I am choosing to engage in other kinds of conversations with industry, conversations designed to increase media company's responsiveness to their consumers. Perhaps it might be best to think of what I am calling for in the book is a consumer rights movement for consumers of popular culture -- a fan politics as it were.

In that regard, sweeping critiques of consumer capitalism seem less productive than more focused discussions of specific policies and practices. I think it can be productive to be critical of specific industry practices that may improve or diminish the quality of our lives. I think most consumers have made some kind of peace with the commercial impulses that surround them, have learned to read through them much of the time, have resigned themselves to accept them as a necessary evil if the result is getting access to entertainment or products they want. I see consumers increasingly savy about the economic interests that shape the culture they consume and more and more willing to make trade-offs which serve their interests.

I saw my book as addressed as much at the media industries as at consumers and was trying to provide a space where both sides could understand the other's perspectives a bit more clearly. Swatting your readers with a newspaper is hardly the best way to open up a dialogue. I fully expect the information provided in that chapter to be deployed in a range of different arguments about whether this new model of consumption is a good thing or a bad thing. I may even engage in some of those arguments from time to time. But what I was trying to do there was describe, as accurately as I could, how this new style of affective economics works by looking more closely at a specific advertiser, Coca Cola, and at a specific franchise, American Idol.

With luck, this book will push debates about consumerism to another level, allowing for more nuanced discussions of what is going on right now. Too often, critics of consumerism act as if nothing has changed in the ways brands operate since the 1950s. Bogost is a much more nuanced thinker on this subject: his critiques here of lifestyle marketing suggest a real engagement with contemporary industry discourse; he has also worked himself extensively in and around advertising so he has some front line perspective on this. I expect to learn a lot from his book. It's just apt to be a very different kind of book than the one I set out to write.

I do think I am offering both vision and leadership in trying to find the basis for reaproachment between academics and industry. I don't think the only way to show leadership is to go in with guns blazing. I As I suggest in the book's conclusion, the fight for the quality of our culture is one which needs to be fought on different levels.

In Part Two, I will take up Bogost's critique of my concept of transmedia storytelling and some of my arguments about fan culture. Since issues of commercialization run through his argument, they will resurface throughout this response.