Thursday, January 17, 2013

Spreadable Media by Jenkins, Ford & Green - Book Review

 Since the day the first Monk decided to copy his master's sermon onto a scroll the pace of change in our media world has been changing. Gutenberg's invention of movable type led to the Europe's becoming literate in a few centuries. Telegraph, recording, film, and now all the forms of digital transmission and creation have served not only to increase the speed, but to change the nature of how communication spreads, reforms, changes. The world has become one in which we may all participate in the production of ideas, in the shape of media as well as in their consumption. The comfortable world in which a relatively small elite of thinkers and producers have “made” media while a vast horde of customers and fans have bought and used it recedes further each day as in every aspect of our lives we have the capacity to produce and comment upon a world that changes even as we interact with it. The dizzying pace of this change shows no signs of stopping as our world becomes one in which trillions of images compete with each other for our attention in a world no longer under anyone's control. We have gone from a world where the producers competed with each other to attach fans to their product, make them stick, whether it be a deodorant, a piece of entertainment, a brand of automobile, a reference group of like ethnic, racial, or linguistic similarity, a political party, or, indeed, a nation or (perhaps) a world. New media moves from being “sticky” to being “spreadable.” It welcomes new audiences in strange and wonderful ways that both intrigue us and frighten us as we begin to learn how we ourselves are empowered even in the course of being overwhelmed. Such is the world that Spreadable Media: : Creating Value and Meaning in a Networked Culture by Henry Jenkins, Sam Ford & Joshua Green (New York University Press, 2013, 352 Pages, $29.86) describes and seeks to explain in a challenging and important new book. In line with living with the creature they have described, the authors also are maintaining an invaluable web site, The web site is filled with blogs, essays, and other material about this forthcoming book, serving at once to demonstrate the book's thesis while giving the authors a forum and the world of creative information consumers and producers a platform on which they may comment and elaborate upon the book's thesis. In short, it's best to read the book with some sort of computer by your side.

A new song is sung at a concert and released as a recording on a CD. On the day of its first performance, a person in the audience records it on an iPhone and posts it to YouTube. Within hours thousands of people have viewed it or heard it. The song enters the playlist of XM/Sirius radio and is heard by more people. Hundred of people share the song with their friends on Facebook by linking to the video. Someone is struck by the song, rips it from the CD and sends it to countless others. A band in Africa hears the song, changes the lyric slightly while adapting the tune and its rhythm to a new setting and uploads the variation to YouTube. Millions more hear the song, but few pay for it, while its originator often doesn't even get credit for its composition. The song has now spread worldwide to perhaps millions of consumers on a dozen or more different platforms. This is “spreadability” which creates problems and opportunities for each person interacting with the song. Few of those people feel a moral obligation to credit or pay for the creativity of the originators. Copyright has become a word without meaning.

In often dense academic langugage, the authors examine these phenomena of new media and trace their implications for entertainment and media producers and fans, who they posit as a different creature from the consumers of yore, largely because the possess “agency,” the ability to act upon what they hear or see, and by acting serve to change and adapt the original to their own more idiosyncratic selves. The problem of delivering consumers to the product through advertising and of paying residuals for the “after life” of a product, whether it be a song, a long-ago produced television program, a book, or an advertisement have become increasingly complex. The consumer has become separated into fan communities which feel themselves to be active participants in not only the consumption, but the creation of entertainment. They meet online in forums where they discuss plot lines, characters, possible alternative story directions, and more. The current wave of popularity for classic matches in World Wrestling Entertainment and the British science fiction relic “Dr. Who” exist because fan archivists have cobbled together old matches and performances to create an archive which found its way to YouTube. Both the McMahon family and BBC have been smart enough to repackage this detritus of lost material to serve up to new fans and extend the life of the performances. Yet who gets paid now?

Henry Jenkins
Sam Ford

Joshua Green

Henry Jenkins is Provost’s Professor of Communication, Journalism, Cinematic Arts, and Education at USC. Sam Ford is Director of Digital Strategy with Peppercomm Strategic Communications, an affiliate with the MIT Program in Comparative Media Studies and the Western Kentucky University Popular Culture Studies Program, and a regular contributor to Fast Company. Joshua Green is a Strategist at digital strategy firm Undercurrent. With a PhD in Media Studies, he has managed research projects at MIT and the University of California.

Spreadable Media is largely a scholarly book by and for media professionals published just as the distinction between fan and producer, consumer and performer is becoming ever more tenuous and the choices available to viewers, readers, listeners, performers, writers, and artists have become greater than ever, and increasingly unmanageable. It is language, then, that separates the important concepts of this book from the mass of potential readers it has. Simultaneously, though, the enhanced version of it, through its web site, makes it available to a wider constituency. In videos of conference sessions, author Joshua Green discusses the change in the nature of curation while in another video, Henry Jenkins explores the changing face of copyright and intellectual property. Essays, blogs, and digital links further broaden the conepts and the audience while making the web site, and perhaps even the book, interactive. Such repurposing illustrates precisely (or better, perhaps, muddily) what Spreadable Media posits in its arguments. The combination of the book and web site make the contents of each fully accessible to a wide variety of media creators, consumers, adapters, and archivists thus increasing the utility of each.

Spreadable Media: Creating Value and Meaning in a Networked Culture by Henry Jenkins, Sam Ford, and Joshua Green (NYU Press, 352 pages, January 2013, $29.95) is available from the publisher and all the usual sources. It is heavily annotated while also presenting many internal opportunities to find the examples presented. I read it in an electronic galley made available to me by the publisher through Net Galley.