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Nov. 23, 2010, noon

Why spreadable doesn’t equal viral: A conversation with Henry Jenkins

For years, academic Henry Jenkins has been talking about the connections between mainstream content and user-produced content. From his post as the founder and former co-director of the Comparative Media Studies program at MIT, Jenkins published Convergence Culture, which is about what happens when, as the book puts it, “old and new media collide.” It’s a tale of fan mashups and corporate reactions.

And now he’s back with a new catchphrase. If convergence culture was 2006, spreadable media is now. The argument: If it doesn’t spread, it’s dead. For things to live online, people have to share it socially. They also have to make it their own — which can be as participatory as just passing a YouTube clip on as a link or making a copycat video themselves.

But what does this mean for news? If news is growing more social, how does Jenkins’ notion of spreadability work for traditional media? And how can traditional media harness user energy to make content not just meaningful but also profitable?

These were some of the questions I had when I first heard the concept, which Jenkins and his collaborators first put out in a white paper in 2009. But I’ve had a chance to read the first few chapters of the book, due out in late 2011. Spreadable Media (coauthored with Sam Ford and Joshua Green) doesn’t mention traditional journalism. But as I’ve had a chance to work with Jenkins, who’s now a professor at USC, I wanted to see what spreadable media might mean for news. Here’s how Jenkins explained the idea’s implications for journalism in an email interview. Among the topics: why all journalists are citizen journalists, journalists and their possible conversations with audiences, paywalls, and most-emailed lists.

NU: What is spreadable media?

HJ: The concept of spreadable media rests on the distinction between distribution (the top-down spread of media content as captured in the broadcast paradigm) and circulation (a hybrid system where content spreads as a result of a series of informal transactions between commercial and noncommercial participants.) Spreadable media is media which travels across media platforms at least in part because the people take it in their own hands and share it with their social networks.

This kind of informal circulation may be solicited or at least accepted by media producers as part of the normal way of doing business or it may take forms which get labeled piracy. Either way, the widespread circulation of media content through the conscious actions of dispersed networks of consumer/participants tends to create greater visibility and awareness as the content travels in unpredicted directions and encounters people who are potentially interested in further engagements with the people who produced it.

So, at its heart, our book is interested in the value being generated through this grassroots circulation and how various sectors of the media industry are being reconfigured in order to accept the help of grassroots intermediaries who help expand their reach to the public. Along the way, we dissect many of the myths about how media circulates and how value gets generated in the digital era.

NU: How does spreadable media relate to your term convergence culture?

HJ: Convergence culture starts by rejection of the technologically focused definition of convergence as the integration of media functions within a single media device — the magic black box — in favor of one which stresses the flow of media content across multiple media channels. Certainly the rise of the iPod, the iPhone, and the iPad, have made the magical black box much closer to reality now than it was when I wrote Convergence Culture, but I would say we’ve had much more experiencing living in a convergence culture than living with convergence devices. We live at a moment where every story, image, or bit of information will travel across every available media platform either through decisions made in corporate bedrooms or decisions made in consumers’ living rooms.

The book outlined what this means for entertainment, branding, education, politics, and religion, placing a strong emphasis on what I call participatory culture. Citizen journalism is the application of participatory culture to the news sector but similar kinds of trends are impacting each of these other spaces where media gets produced and distributed. The emphasis in that book though is on participation in the form of cultural production — people creating videos, writing fan fiction, and otherwise generating their own media.

Spreadable Media takes the convergence culture context as given. We are now half a decade deeper into the trends the first book describes. Since the book was published, we’ve seen the expansion of mobile communication, social network sites, Web 2.0, and the rise and fall of Second Life, all extending our understanding of participatory culture and transmedia communication. So, what are the consequences of those shifts to how information, brands, and media content circulates? We certainly are still interested in participatory models of cultural production but we are now much more interested in acts of curration and circulation, which on both an individual and aggregated level, are impacting the communication environment.

NU: Let’s talk specifically about what spreadable media might mean for news. What are your thoughts on the way the news industry might make sense of this concept?

HJ: A central idea animating the book is “if it doesn’t spread, it’s dead.” There is a constant tension at this moment of media transition between wanting to lock down content and meter access on the one hand (a model based on “stickiness”) and wanting to empower consumers to help spread the word (a model based on “spreadability.”) We can see that tension in terms of the desire to gate access to news content and the mechanisms of spreading which characterize Twitter and blogs. Journalists have long embraced a central idea in this book — that content represents a resource which community use to talk amongst themselves. Journalists need to know how they fit into those circuits.

In the book’s opening chapter, I reflect on the role of Twitter in the aftermath of the Iranian elections. I argue that its central role was not in helping to organize the protests but rather in getting information about what was happening to the outside world and to increase people’s emotional engagement with it. Twitter stepped in to bring what was happening in the streets of Tehran closer to people in the west — with key roles played by the Iranian diaspora in the United States and Europe who helped to facilitate the circulation of this information. The general American public felt greater closeness to the people in Iran because they were learning about these events through the same tools as they used to share cute cat pictures with their friends. And they felt a greater investment in what was happening because they were actively helping to alert others about the events.

As this unfiltered information was flowing through Twitter, those on the social networks started putting pressure on news agencies to provide more cover. You could imagine Twitter as a self-contained news system, but the opposite happened: they used #cnnfail because they wanted the skills and resources that professional journalists could bring to the process. They were signaling how much they still relied on legacy media to sort through the pieces and help provide a context for the information being circulated. While it was framed as a critique of journalism, it was actually a call for help. News organizations need to be more alert in registering these signs of public interests and more nimble in responding to them.

NU: Are bloggers an example of people experimenting with media spreadability? What do we do for news organizations who want to bring all of that user engagement and monetize it?

HJ: We’ve long known that news stories generate conversations that people cut out news articles to put on bulletin boards and refrigerators, that we clip news stories and send them to friends. This happened in a pre-digital world and it happens now with more speed and scope thanks to the affordances of digital networking tools.

Blogs originated as a tool for sharing links; Twitter is now used extensively to share links with other consumers. News sites which prevent the sharing of such content amongst readers may look like ways to protect the commercial interest of that content, but in fact, they kill it, destroying its value as a cultural resource within networked communities, and insuring that the public will look elsewhere for news that can be spread.

In the book, we use the example of how the Susan Boyle video moved through the blog community, being situated into a range of different ongoing conversations wherever she was relevant — with science blogs talking about her vocal cords, church blogs organizing prayer groups, mommy blogs dealing with her role as a caretaker for her elderly mother, music blogs discussing her song choices, and fashion blogs talking about her make-over for the show. Every news story today spreads through these grassroots intermediaries and gets inserted into various conversations across a range of different communities. The better journalists understand how value gets created through this process, the more effective they will be both at serving their ever more diverse constituencies and at developing a business model which allows them to capture value through circulation.

NU: You say in your white paper and current drafts of the book that content that users can’t manipulate and whose intellectual property is controlled by organizations will be the least likely to spread. That seems to describe a typical news article, and maybe a typical news organization. How can news organizations make their content more spreadable?

HJ: Spreadability is partially about technical affordances. YouTube videos spread well because they allow users to embed them on their blogs and Facebook profiles. At the same time, the embedded video’s interface makes it easy for us to follow it back to its original context on YouTube. It is content which is designed to be spread.

Spreadability is also about social relations with consumers. Many of those who create spreadable content actively encourage readers to spread their materials, often directly courting them as participants in the process of distribution. We are certainly seeing news sites right now — Slashdot comes to mind — which encourage readers to gather and appraise content, but far fewer are encouraging us to help create awareness through actively circulating their content.

It is interesting to think about groups which have a strong investment in seeing content spread and a lower investment in controlling its distribution. Think about political campaigns with low budgets who want to maximize their reach to voters. Think about religious media who place a higher value on spreading the gospel than monetizing the circulation of information. Think of activist groups who want to reach beyond their core group of supporters. In each case, they build in direct appeals to their fans to help them spread the content rather than constructing prohibitions on grassroots circulation.

Right now, news organizations are caught between their civic mission — to meet the information needs of their communities and their economic needs — to stay in business long enough to serve their publics.

NU: What does spreadable media mean to the conversations journalists need to have with their audiences?

HJ: As information spreads, it gets inserted into a range of conversations which help people to process the information and understand its value for them as members of a community. In the book, Sam Ford, my co-author, draws on his experience in the PR world to talk about companies who actively listen to and respond to what their consumers say about them. He argues that the conversations seeded by spreadable media are much richer ways to monitor public response than narrowly structured focus groups. And he cites some examples of companies which identified problems in their customer relations and rectified them as a result of listening closely to what consumers said about them.

Newspapers have historically relied on letters to the editor to perform some of these functions, but this focuses only on those groups who seek to influence directly their editorial decisions, while there are other things a news organization might learn by actively listening to conversation people are having around and through the circulation of their content.

NU: Spreadable media seems to be a reaction to the idea that things are viral and that people have no agency. But doesn’t the whole idea of viral mean that people are actually taking action to share something? Don’t we want our news stories to be most-emailed and our videos to be viral?

HJ: Very much so. Viral media asks some of the same questions we are asking, having to do with how media content circulates through grassroots communities outside the direct control of the people who originates it. But the language of viral media mystifies how this process works. Many talk as if things just happened to “go viral” when they have no way to explain how or why the content has grabbed the public imagination. Other framings of “viral media” strip away the agency of the very communities whose circulation of the content they want to explain. It is a kind of smallpox-soaked blanket theory of media circulation, in which people become unknowing carriers of powerful and contagious ideas which they bring back to their homes and work place, infecting their friends and family.

Our work starts from the idea that people are making conscious decisions to aid the circulation of certain content because they see it as a meaningful contribution to their ongoing conversations, a gift which they can share with people they care about. As they circulate this content, they first are playing key roles in appraising its value at a time of exploding media options; they also help to frame the content, helping it to fit better into the ongoing social interactions; they may also build upon, appropriate, transform, and remix the content further extending its shelf life and enabling its broader circulation.

NU: One of the things I found most fascinating about your current exploration was your distinction between ordinary Internet users, who operate according to the gift economy, and media companies that operate according to market logic. Can you explain?

HJ: Basically, spreadable media moves between commercial and noncommercial economies. For the producer, the content may be a commodity or a promotion; for the consumer, it is a resource or a gift. The producer is appraising the transaction based on its economic value. While the consumer makes a decision about whether the price is too high for the value of the content, they are also making decisions based on the social or sentimental value of the content. When they pass that content along to their friends, they do so because they value their friends far more than because they want to promote the economic interests of producers. When they consume media, they often do so so that they have currency they need in the social interactions we have around media.

Media producers need to understand the set of values and transactions which shape how their media flows in order to understand when and how it is appropriate to monetize the activities of their consumers. We are used to transforming commodities into gifts. We do it every time we go to a store to buy a bottle of wine to a dinner party. We bought it as a commodity, we give it as a gift, and the moment of transformation comes when we remove the price tag. We need to better understand the same transformation as consumers take content from commercial sites and circulate it via Twitter or Facebook to their communities.

NU: If you had to project, what might this mean for user-generated content? And what happens when we start putting paywalls up on sites?

HJ: In the case of news, we might think about many different types of user-generated content. Often, we are talking about the citizen as reporter (especially in the case of hyperlocal news), producing content which can be uploaded to news sites. We might also think about the citizen as editor, determining which news matters to their community and passing it along in a more targeted way to their friends. We might think about the citizen as commentator, who responds to the news through what they write on their blogs or updates. We might think of these media as amplifying their role as consumers, allowing them to more fully express demands for what should get more coverage, as occurred in the #cnnfail debates after the Iranian elections.

Right now, we dump all of this into a box called “citizen journalism,” which is in its own way as misleading as categories like “viral media.” We might start from the fact that journalists are themselves citizens, or that these groups are doing many things through their sharing of news, only some of which should be understood as producing journalism. Focusing on citizen journalism results in an oppositional framing of blogging as competing with professional news production. Spreadable media would push us to think about journalists and bloggers as each making a range of contributions through their participation in a larger civic ecology.

NU: And finally: How many people do you expect to actually engage in making media mashups? I see more people watching Auto-Tune the News mashup videos on YouTube than making their own media out of existing media.

HJ: Our book makes the point that there are many different forms of participation, some requiring more skills, more technical access, more community engagement than others. Spectacular forms of grassroots cultural production rest on one end of a continuum of different forms of community participation. So some people certainly will be mashing up the news, just as they are remixing songs, films, and television shows. And we can point to many exciting examples of political remix videos which emerge from people’s engagement with news and commentary — think about the recent mashup of Donald Duck and Glenn Beck.

But many more people will help to shape their news by appraising its value and passing it along to specific people or groups who they think will be interested in it. We all probably have friends or relatives who mostly communicate through forwarding things. They may or may not be exerting great selectivity in their curatorial roles, but they are helping to insure the circulation of that information. More people in the future will be engaging with news on that level and their acts of circulation will play a larger role in shaping the flow of information across the culture.

Photo by Joi Ito used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     Nov. 23, 2010, noon
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