Interview – Henry Jenkins

Henry Jenkins is an American media scholar, professor and author, who has published several books exploring the boundaries between media texts and fan cultures, including Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide and Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Culture. M3 contacted Henry to ask him about the role of copyright in the digital age, the future of fan-funding and the importance of the record store…

M3 – First of all, could you tell us a bit about yourself and what it is that you do?
Henry Jenkins – My official title is Provost’s Professor of Communications, Journalism, Cinematic Arts, and Education, but my actual interests are broader than that. :-) I’ve joked that I should be described as a Professor of Miscellaneous Studies. The core of my work over the past twenty-plus years has been focused on the roles which media and popular culture play in our everyday lives. In particular, I have sought to document and interpret the growth of participatory culture and the struggles of everyday people to assert greater control over the processes of media creation and circulation and, through this process, to exert a greater influence on the media landscape. I started with a focus on media fans — a theme which continues to run through my work — but the web has made the experience of cultural participation far more widespread. Thus, I am now very interested in understanding participatory culture through the lens of education, politics, the law, and the creative industries. In the pursuit of these interests, I not only have written books like Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Culture; Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide; and the forthcoming Spreadable Media: Creating Value and Meaning in a Networked Culture (with Sam Ford and Joshua Green), but I also have worked to design new curricular resources for schools, helped run conferences such as Transmedia Hollywood and Futures of Entertainment, and write a blog which brings all of these realms together for readers around the world.

The recent popularity of fan funding websites and initiatives could be seen as an extension of the participatory culture you have written about. Do you think fan funding is a realistic alternative to traditional, top-down distribution methods?
Let’s define “realistic” here. If you are asking whether fan funding can totally displace the the mass media industry’s more traditional mechanisms for funding new content, the answer is no. I suspect that, for the foreseeable future, the most commercially successful artists will be working with labels and commercial producers. However, can fan funding provide alternative routes to success or support to artists who choose to remain largely independent of the commercial industry? The answer is increasingly yes. We are seeing more and more projects get funded through Kickstarter, increasingly developed through crowdsourcing the shooting of footage, the development of special effects, even the editing process. More and more of them are soliciting the help of supporters in getting in front of audiences, large and small. In Brazil, we are seeing large-scale concerts funded and organized by fan collaboratives to get artists to Rio who might not have performed in Latin America before, and we are hearing about bands from Scandanavia and the Baltics building international followings through fan sharing online, which paves the way for concert tours in countries where they had lacked the infrastructure to compete within traditional commercial practices before now. We are seeing independent artists form partnerships with their fans which start from the conceptualization of their projects and extend through final release dates. Again, this is not where the big bucks are, but it is where independent artists may find appreciative publics for works which might never have been produced and distributed otherwise.

Do you think the digital age has rendered traditional concepts of copyright obsolete, or do you think they are still relevant?
The practices and processes surrounding digital media certainly raise questions about very narrow understandings of intellectual property law, forcing us to develop a new understanding of what constitutes fair and legitimate uses and what may be legitimate attempts to protect the rights of authors. In Spreadable Media, we argue that it is important to suspend the tendency to describe all forms of unauthorized use through the morally charged language of piracy. Rather, many forms of unauthorized use may produce value not only for audiences but also for producers. Science fiction writer Cory Doctorow has famously argued that more independent artists suffer from obscurity than piracy and advocates that any mechanisms which increases awareness of those artists’ works will, in the long run, enhance their value in the marketplace. I’ve argued that piracy is more often the result of market failure on the part of media industries than moral failure on the part of audiences. By this, I mean that unauthorized uses often involve unanticipated audiences, unanticipated uses, and unanticipated interests that the industry should monitor and respond to rather than trying to push further away. Many manufacturers have embraced what they call lead users — early adapters and adopters of new products who remake them to better serve their needs and, in the process, anticipate new features which the company might want to create. I would argue that a similar logic should apply to uses of media content — that fan groups may help to explore aspects of the work which would not be cost-effective to produce but which may enhance and sustain interests or which may introduce the content to new potential audiences.

Similarly, do you think copyright laws are a threat to the creativity of organically formed fan cultures? Do you think actions with music, film, or any kind of copyrighted media for non-commercial purposes should be subject to legal sanctions?
Right now, people in the media industry perceive copyright at a crisis point as grassroots communities are “stealing” their content and doing with it pretty much what they want with legal impunity. The general public increasingly perceives fair use as in crisis as companies are seeking to regulate a range of practices which were more or less normative in a pre-digital era and otherwise restricting the capacity of people to comment on the materials of their own culture. Both are at least partially right, given the disruptive impact of new media platforms and practices which have altered the ways media gets produced and circulated. I talk about this in terms of a shift in the moral economy. The historian E.P. Thompson tells us that underlying every economic system is a moral system: before we can trade, we must establish some rules which allow us to trust each other. Whenever there is a shift in the core economic, social, or technological structures of society, then the moral economy is also disrupted and needs to be restablized. During this period, distrust grows among all parties, and all parties seek to extend and legitimate competing claims about what would be a morally acceptible system. So, we hear that “Sharing is Caring” and “Piracy is Theft,” both competing moral discourses for thinking about what it means to give music to each other in a system which is one part commodity culture and one part gift economy. The only way forward is to acknowledge the legitimate interests on all sides. Clearly, a system which restricts quotation and remixing of media content will not work in a society which has embraced principles of participatory culture. And an intellectual property system based on contractual relations between media companies is not going to work in a media ecology which has dramatically expanded the capacity of everyday people — as individuals or networks — to reshape the circulation and production of media. In such a context, copyright enforcement can function as censorship — a silencing of vital perspectives, a constraint on the ability of people to participate in their own culture. However, I am also sympathetic to the content industries, which have based their business models around collecting rents on intellectual property and now find that system being eroded by more casual and localized uses of those materials.

What is your take on the recent SOPA/ACTA controversy?
Clearly, in my view, the right side prevailed in those debates, though this is a battle which will need to be fought and won many times over. What was exciting to watch here was how quickly Washington capitulated to the combined force of many networks of users mobilized through the channels of participatory culture. The logic up until now has been that citizens stand limited chance against the Hollywood lobbyists in terms of setting copyright policies, both because the media industries would do their best to keep them ignorant about these debates and because the lobbyists had much greater access to government officials. In this case, though, grassroots media stepped up to the plate, providing much more information than citizens had previously had about these debates. This helped mobilize people in a coordinated response and otherwise intensified the impact of citizen dissent from industry-focused approaches. In the process, these grassroots media networks forced the concentrated news media to actually report on these developments. I think this changes in some significant ways the power dynamics surrounding copyright law in the United States, though we will need to keep an eye on what happens to prevent Hollywood from slipping other changes through under the radar.

What do you think the future has in store for our convergence culture? Do you think forms of media will eventually begin to diverge? For example, the public’s renewed interest in vinyl and tangible media could be seen as a reaction against the ephemeral nature of digital files and a way of distancing oneself from contemporary media altogether, in some instances.
Convergence and divergence are parts of the same process here. My point in Convergence Culture was that technological convergence was only one aspect of a much broader cultural phenomenon which involves us collectively rethinking the relationships between multiple, overlaying media systems. It may not matter if media functions are integrated into a single technology if, in practice, all stories, sounds, and images flow across all available media platforms and if we are all acquiring skills at reading different kinds of media in relation to each other. As these changes occur, a certain amount of displacement of functions also occurs. We know that, when television came in as a means of audiovisual drama, the drama functions of radio tended to decline in favor of the use of radio as a vehicle for sharing musical performances. We can see the return of certain kinds of material media practices — the fetishization of vinyl records among some subcultures would be a great example — as part of a similar process: a reaction in one part of the media system to changes which are taking place elsewhere. In practice, though, this kind of retro or subcultural consumption is shaped in powerful ways by the availability of digital networks, which allow vinyl collectors to find each other across geographic distances and social isolation, educate each other about the value of their collections, and create contexts for the exchange of older goods. So, I have bought old 78 jazz records through eBay, having learned about some of the artists on Wikipedia (or, awhile back, through Napster) and even having seen videos of their performances on YouTube.

Much has been made of the supposed death of the record store in recent years. Do you believe the digital age has killed the record store? If so, do you think that this is a necessary part of progression or a tragic loss?
Well, the first thing I would say is that the rumors of the death of the record store are somewhat exaggerated. Certainly, large chain record stores have declined. However, in most cities I visit, I see smaller scale, more specialized, locally owned record stores which still perform the kind of social and cultural work these scenes have always done — building a social community around the circulation and consumption of music. The warehousing of records may well be something that can be dealt with more efficiently by Amazon or other digital dealers; the curatorship of records, especially in relation to local music production, is something which still requires the specific functions of the record store. If we ever lost record stores at that level, there would be a major loss. I think Napster had some of those functions — where I could look at the hotlist of people who were downloading from me, assuming they had similar tastes, and find recommendations that I might not know otherwise. I think that the iTunes store, though, has been like sending one customer at a time into a record store in the middle of the night — that is, we shop in total isolation, unable to scan what the guy next to us is picking out and engaging in a conversation, unable to ask the girl with the piercings behind the counter what’s hot this week, and so forth. The power of the local record store is social and cultural, not just about commerce per se, and that’s something worth fighting to protect.

What do you personally believe the future of music/film/media distribution will look like?
In our forthcoming book, we are arguing that there’s a core tension between distribution, as we have historically understood it, and circulation, as it is emerging in a networked culture. Distribution is a corporately controlled and regulated process where content gets rolled out on a schedule to serve purely commercial interests. Circulation is a hybrid system of spreading content which is increasingly shaped by the collective and often unauthorized decisions of networks of individuals who pass along content to each other. In the short run, these two systems will co-exist, but my hope is that the creative industries will embrace rather than battle the system of circulation, empowering audiences to help filter through available content, call meaningful bits to each others’ attention, and reclaim older works or embrace newer works that they feel are meaningful to particular conversations they are having within their various communities and networks. I am hoping that indie artists in particular will forge strong partnerships with their fan bases, which increase awareness of works that might otherwise fall through the cracks in a more tightly regulated system of distribution.

Finally, what does the future hold for Henry Jenkins?
In the next year, I have three new books which will be released to the world: Spreadable Media: Creating Value and Meaning in a Networked Culture (co-authored with Sam Ford and Joshua Green), which deals with these issues of circulation and distribution; Reading in a Participatory Culture, which is a case study of how we might integrate new media literacies into the educational system; and the 20th anniversary reissue of my first book, Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Culture. I am going to be touring Europe this summer, giving talks on these and many other topics, so look for me at a village or city near you.

For more information about Henry Jenkins, you can visit his official website.

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About M3 Event

The music industry is rapidly changing. The internet has enabled widespread piracy, as well as a variety of new business and distribution models. We want to offer an engaged audience in and around the Euregion an opportunity to develop a coherent and detailed picture of the future of music distribution. On the 31st of May 2012 a music conference in Maastricht, consisting of oppositional debates, creative workshops and lectures, will provoke opportunities for intellectual stimulation, debate, as well as networking. We hope to utilise the skills and ideas of some of most forward thinking minds and operators in the industry in order to highlight some promising new ideas and areas which can be improved upon.

3 comments

  1. Pingback: is this ARG? » Blog Archive » isthisarg.org Social Media Digest for April 26th

  2. Pingback: New book by Henry Jenkins in 2013: Reading in a Participatory Culture « Transmedia Camp 101

  3. Pingback: Henry Jenkins: Spreadable Media presentation and conversation | i-docs

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