Henry Jenkins: frictions emerge over trans-media and money-making

25 May 2012

Content is king - Henry Jenkins. Photo credit: Joi Ito

American media scholar and pop culture expert Henry Jenkins, currently on a lecture tour of Europe, said that all content is heading in the direction of trans-media, shifting from its original state to new platforms. But he warned traditional media owners need to be ready to cede control of revenue in some cases to make it work for them.

At a lecture earlier this week at the Institute of International and European Affairs in Dublin, Jenkins spoke about how content is gaining media and value in the era of spreadable media.

He pointed to the oxymoron contained in the word ‘content’ which actually means ‘contained’. “Content is no longer contained. It has become unmoored. We can’t think of content the same way we had.”

He added that when we think which is more important content or design, we should be thinking ‘use’. “Content is trans-media, which means across media,” Jenkins said pointing out how the culture of media today involves integrating content across platforms.

Jenkins, who prior to taking up his current role as Provost Professor of Communication, Journalism, and Cinematic Arts, a joint professorship at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and the USC School of Cinematic Arts, was Co-Director of the MIT Comparative Media Studies program.

As an example of how traditional mediums like the cinema are shifting content to new mediums he cited the recent release of The Hunger Games which saw fans unlock content city by city using Twitter.

He also cited the promotion for the upcoming film Prometheus which involved a TED talk set in 2023 discussing events leading up to the movie’s narrative going viral on YouTube.

Another example is the Buffy the Vampire Slayer series which he said had seven seasons on TV with the eighth season continuing in the shape of a series of comic books.

“It’s all about expanding outward the story you are trying to tell. In the US trans-media is the buzzword. In fact it’s a job category and there is enormous interest in how to build content that can move across platforms.”

Jenkins also cited the example of the Wonderful Wizard of Oz franchise by Frank Baum which spawned not only the iconic film but more than 20 novels, a series of short and feature films and even comic strips from rivals.

“The Glee TV programme has had more number one hits in the US than Elvis or the Beatles.”

Trans-media is also evolving into marketing and Jenkins pointed to a guerilla campaign for the new movie The Amazing Spiderman which caused anger among local authorities in the US when kits of paint and stencils were handed out to create spider symbols on walls and buildings.

“This was a case where the studio encouraged people to vandalise buildings to promote the film.”

The people’s editorial

Other forms of how trans-media exists is through fan fiction sites.

“Wikipedia is part of the participatory culture that is trans-media,” he said pointing out how the participatory culture can be defined by low barriers for participation or creation, informal mentorship, sharing your creations with others, members who believe their contributions matter and how members care about members opinions of self and their work.

He also pointed to how how Japanese anime became a popular and legitimate business in the US after being pirated beforehand, how Swedish bands are touring the US without having sold albums and how Nollywood is now the third biggest movie medium in the world, citing a “weird moral economy” between pirates and producers. Ink, a low budget fantasy was first uploaded to BitTorrent and half a billion users downloaded it and is now selling brusquely on Amazon. Iron Sky, a forthcoming movie, was produced via a crowdfunding model.

But how can we distinguish between participatory culture and the viral fixation of Web 2.0?

“Participatory culture traces its roots back to folk culture in the shadow of the mass media of the 20th century. The business aspect occurs with Web 2.0.

“I don’t see a nice harmony,” he pointed out adding that at one extreme participatory culture is free while in terms of Web 2.0 we enter into a world of frictions like fee structures and copyright.

“I see frictions emerging between making money and exchanging culture.”

But culture is being exchanged every day through social media and that friction will continue.

For example, memes like Toy Shining and videos that go viral like Donald Duck Meets Glen Beck.

“Pepper Spray Cop has become an icon of the Occupy movement. This is about the people’s editorial,” Jenkins said pointing to the impact of Kony 2012.

“It took Kony 2012 four days to reach 70m people. By comparison the highest rated TV show gets 40m people and the top box office movie needs to reach 15m people.

“Susan Boyle’s YouTube video spread faster than the commercial sector could keep up and in the US they couldn’t get her onto TV fast enough. Her album outsold Whitney Houston.

“This isn’t viral media, the theory of spreadability is distribution and circulation shaped increasingly by unauthorized uses.

“I am trying to avoid the use of the word piracy because of the moral charge of the word, but companies that know how to respond can find a way to profit, even it means losing control of revenue in certain cases.”

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years