August 03, 2007
MIT C3 WEEKLY UPDATE
Weekend of August 03, 2007
*Opening Note: Joshua Green and Henry Jenkins on Convergence, Part I of IV
*Glancing at the C3 Blog
*Closing Note: Jason Mittell Interviews the Creators of The West Side, Part I of IV
--------------- EDITOR'S NOTE ---------------
Welcome to this week's Weekly Update from C3.
The opening note this week comes from C3 Director Henry Jenkins and Research Manager Joshua Green, presenting a preliminary version of a chapter in the forthcoming Media Industry Studies collection from Blackwell Publishing that is edited by Jennifer Holt and Alisa Perren. Their work, which builds on a lot of the foundational research from the Convergence Culture Consortium, provides a good overview of many of the arguments we have made through our collective research in the first two years of C3 This essay will be presented in four parts, each appearing in the Opening Note of the Weekly Update over the next few weeks.
The Closing Note this week is the first part of a complementary four-part series, as C3 Consulting Researcher Jason Mittell conducts an interview with the creators of The West Side, a Web-based video series that has been described as an "urban Western." The first section of the interview explains their project and focuses on the pre-production and budgeting process for the online video serial.
As usual, the newsletter this week features all the entries published during the week on the Convergence Culture Consortium Weblog.
If you have any questions or comments or would like to request prior issues of the update, direct them to Sam Ford, Editor of the Weekly Update, at firstname.lastname@example.org.
--------------- OPENING NOTE ---------------
Participatory Culture, Lead Use(r)s, and Moral Economy:
How Convergence Culture Is Changing the Relations between Producers and Consumers
Part I of IV: Convergence Culture
By: Joshua Green and Henry Jenkins
"The central principle behind the success of the giants born in the Web 1.0 era who have survived to lead the Web 2.0 era appears to be this, that they have embraced the power of the web to harness collective intelligence....The lesson: Network effects from user contributions are the key to market dominance in the Web 2.0 era." -- Tim O'Reilly (2005)
please describe web 2.0 to me in 2 sentences or less. you make all the content. they keep all the revenue." -- Bash.org
Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, fans were emblematic of audience resistance (see, for instance, John Fiske's Understanding Popular Culture and Henry Jenkins' Textual Poachers), understood as actively appropriating and transforming mass media content as raw materials for their own cultural productions. Mass media depicted fans as living in the shadows of mass culture (if not, the basements of their parent's suburban split-level houses) and media companies saw their tastes and concerns as "unrepresentative" of the general population.. By the early 21st century, fans have been redefined as the drivers of wealth production within the new digital economy: their engagement and participation is actively being pursued, if still imperfectly understood, by media companies interested in adopting Web 2.0 strategies of user-generated content, social networks, and "harness[ing] collective intelligence," as Tim O'Reilly said.
This new talk about "putting the We in the Web," as it was described in Newsweek, was initially embraced as granting consumers greater influence over the decisions that impacted the production and distribution of culture. By 2007, contradictions, conflicts, and schisms have started to appear within the Web 2.0 paradigm around the imperfectly aligned interests of media producers and consumers.
Consider, for example, FanLib.com, a start up company founded by such established media players as Titanic producer Jon Landau, entertainment lawyer Jon Moonves, and former Yahoo CMO Anil Singh (more from Henry's blog). FanLib began by hosting officially sponsored fan fiction competitions around The L Word and The Ghost Whisperer. Soon, the company sought to become a general interest portal for all fan fiction, actively soliciting material from leading fan writers and ignoring rights holders. The company's executives told fans they wanted to promote and protect fan fiction writing and corporate investors that they would teach fans how to "color within the lines." When fans stumbled onto the corporate pitch online, there was an intense backlash which spread across blogs, LiveJournals, and various social networking sites.
Fans raised a number of objections. The company wanted to profit from content fans had historically circulated for free (and adding insult, they refused to share the generated revenues with the fan authors). This debate revealed a rift between the "gift economy" of fan culture and the commodity logic of "user-generated content." At the same time, the company promised to increase the visibility of once cloaked fan activities, thus heightening the legal risk that media producers would put the entire community under closer legal scrutiny. Yet, the FanLib.com denied that it bore any legal responsibility to defend fan writers against cease and desist letters from studios and networks. All of this fit within a growing debate about whether corporate distribution of user-generated content constitutes a form of unpaid outsourcing of creative labor, often accompanied by the downsizing of internal production teams, as Trebor Scholtz often writes about. These fans were not simply the victims of corporate exploitation, quickly and effectively rallying in opposition to FanLib and using their own channels of communication to inflect damage on its nascent brand.
Media companies are being forced to reassess the nature of consumer engagement and the value of audience participation in response to a shifting media environment characterized by digitization and the flow of media across multiple platforms, the further fragmentation and diversification of the media market, and the increased power and capacity of consumers to shape the flow and reception of media content. The result has been a constant pull and tug between top-down corporate and bottom-up consumer power with the process of media convergence shaped by decisions made in teenager's bedrooms and in corporate boardrooms.
Mass media are increasingly operating in a context of participatory culture, but there is considerable anxiety about the terms of participation. Some media producers adopt what we are calling a collaborative approach, embracing audience participation, mobilizing fans as grassroots advocates, and capitalizing on user-generated content. Others adopt a prohibitionist posture. Frightened by a loss of control over the channels of media production and distribution and threatened by increasingly visible and vocal audience behavior, some companies tighten control over intellectual property trying to reign in the disruptive and destabilizing impact of technological and cultural change. Most companies are torn between the two extremes, seeking e a new relationship with their audiences which gives only as much ground as needed to maintain consumer loyalty.
This essay focuses on the resulting reworking of the "moral economy" that shapes the relations between producers and consumers. "Moral economy" refers to the social expectations, emotional investments, and cultural transactions which create a shared understanding between all participants within an economic exchange. The moral economy which governed old media companies has broken down and there are conflicting expectations about what new relationships should look like. The risks for companies are high, since alienated consumers have other options for accessing media content. The risks for consumers are equally high, since legal sanctions can stifle the emerging participatory culture. To understand this debate, we must bridge between the historically separate spheres of audience studies and industry research.
"The historic role of the consumer has been nothing more than a giant maw at the end of the mass media's long conveyer belt, the all-absorbing Yin to the mass media's all-producing Yang....In the age of the internet, no one is a passive consumer anymore because everyone is a media outlet." -- Clay Shirkey (2000)
Push-button publishing, citizen journalism, and pro-amateur creative activities dominated early conceptions of the ways digitization would change media production. Newer, so-called "Web 2.0" companies integrate participatory components into their business plans. These activities run from feedback forums and beta-tests to inviting audiences to produce, tag, or remix content. Online services regularly collected under the banner of 'Web 2.0' such as photo sharing site flickr, social networking sites MySpace and Facebook, and video uploading sites such as YouTube and Veoh, have built entire business plans on the back of user-generated content. Software companies engage users as beta-testers and co-creators of content, as John Banks writes about in his 2002 essay "Gamers as Co-Creators: Enlisting the Virtual Audience." Marketing departments build puzzles, scavenger hunts, and interactive components into websites and mixed-media campaigns to generate buzz around branded entertainment properties. Technological, cultural, and marketplace changes make such tactics a necessity.
Henry Jenkins describes many of these changes in Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide. The book's argument might be reduced to the following core claims -- that convergence is a cultural, rather than technological, process; that networking computing encourages collective intelligence; that a new form of participatory culture is emerging; and that skills acquired through 'leisure' activities are increasingly being applied in more "serious" contexts.
1. Convergence is a cultural rather than a technological process. We now live in a world where every story, image, sound, idea, brand, and relationship will play itself out across all possible media platforms.
Convergence is understood here not as the bringing together of all media functions within a single device but rather as a cultural logic involving an ever more complex interplay across multiple channels of distribution. A decade ago, people predicted the digital revolution would displace older one-to-many broadcast media system with newer many-to-many modes of communication. Today, the major changes emerge from the interactions between old and new media, sometimes working in concert (as in transmedia storytelling or branding efforts) and sometimes in opposition (as when consumers use new media channels to talk back to media conglomerates.). This convergence is being shaped both by media conglomerate's desires to exploit "synergies" between different divisions and consumer demands for media content where, when, and in what form they want it.
2. In a networked society, people are increasingly forming knowledge communities to pool information and work together to solve problems they could not confront individually. We call that collective intelligence.
This capacity of consumers to work together across geographic and social distances has been at the heart of Web 2.0 discourse. Networked communities, as Pierre Levy suggested in his 1997 book Collective Intelligence, represent an alternative source of knowledge and power which intersect, but remain autonomous from, the transnational reach of consumer capitalism and the sovereignty of nation states over their citizens. Web 2.0 companies incorporate and embrace-- (using Tim O'Reilly's term, "harness") this collective intelligence rather than allowing it to exist as an independent source of consumer power and critique.
3. We are seeing the emergence of a new form of participatory culture (a contemporary version of folk culture) as consumers take media in their own hands, reworking its content to serve their personal and collective interests.
Patterns of media consumption have been profoundly altered by new media technologies that enable us to archive, annotate, appropriate, and recirculate media content. An increasingly more digitally enabled and media literate population has taken tools once the reserve of professional media producers and made reworking photographs, video, and music a routine practice. The "remixability" of media content, shared platforms for the distribution of grassroots media, and the social networks that have grown up around media properties are reshaping audience expectations about the entertainment experience.
4. We are acquiring skills now through our play and recreational lives which we will later apply towards more serious ends.
This logic of participation is extending from consumer relations within the entertainment industry towards a broader range of interactions, including the interface of political candidates and government agencies with consumers, ministers with congregations, corporations with their employees, and educators with students. Indeed, as Yochai Benkler argues in his book, The Wealth of Networks, the emergence of new media technologies, platforms, and practices results in a hybrid media ecology,where commercial, amateur, nonprofit, governmental, and educational media producers interact in ever more complex ways, often deploying the same media channels towards very different ends. These groups come together at YouTube, which has provided a distribution channel or Second Life, which has provided a meeting ground for diverse companies, institutions, and subcultural communities. A model based purely on amateur consumers and commercial producers can't adequately account for the diverse points of intersection between these various stakeholders. Far from the frictionless economy envisioned by some corporate gurus, there seems to be rather a lot of friction when one looks closely at any point of contact between these groups.
The second part of this four-part series will appear in the Opening Note of next week's C3 Weekly Update.
Dr. Joshua Green is the research manager for the Convergence Culture Consortium and a Postdoctoral Associate at the Comparative Media Studies program at MIT.
Dr. Henry Jenkins is the chief faculty investigator for the Convergence Culture Consortium and is Director of the Comparative Media Studies program and the Peter de Florez Professor of Humanities at MIT. His blog is available at http://www.henryjenkins.org.
----------NEWS FROM THE C3 BLOG-----------
Skype/Metacafe Deal Expands Video Sharing Site's Reach. Metcafe, along with Dailymotion, will have videos distributed through Skype, a sure benefit for Metacafe that leaves some Skype viewers hoping for more deals to expand the amount of video content they can share through the Web communication tool in the future.
Gender and Fan Studies, Facebook, and The Death of Marketing. Consulting researchers and corporate partners throughout the consortium have had some interesting observations recently, from the latest round of Henry Jenkins' series on gender and fan studies, to GSD&M's recent post on the booming popularity of Facebook, to Grant McCracken's musing about the first step toward the death of marketing.
The Importance of News Brands in a Convergence Culture. Even in an era in which the Web brings into question the long-term status of traditional "old media" news sources, it's important to remember the power that a reputed news brand still has in shaping public opinion.
Second Life and the Dangers of the Expectations of Immediate Profitability. The current debate surrounding the viability of Second Life indicates the virtual world is the latest victim of the expectations that a new technology or concept is only valuable if it turns an immediate profit, rather than valuing the ability to participate, experiment, and plan for the future.
Pirates vs. Ninjas: Valuing Fans and YouTube Users. C3's Eleanor Baird looks at the new technology to screen clips for copyrighted material and how these raise interesting questions about private and public sharing.
Enlightened Hollywood Returns to Fandom Marketing. GSD&M's Andy Hunter looks at the advertising campaign for The Dark Knight as an exciting new place to demonstrate the power of catering to and cultivating an active fan base.
Daytime and Primetime Serial Dramas: The Question of Complexity. Sam Ford responds to Jason Mittell's recent post regarding the connection between seriality and complexity in daytime serial dramas and their primetime counterparts (or are they counterparts?)
Producers, Writers, and Advertisers Harmed by the Hype. How does hype harm otherwise useful concepts? Sam Ford looks at product placement, industry battles, and the work of Wayne Friedman.
Followups on Coverage of Gambling, Viacom, Decency, and Fairness. Gambling has been shut down in Second Life, while an interesting detail comes out of the case of Viacom vs. Google focusing on the definition of public performance. Oh, and Congress is still talking about decency and fairness.
Hotswap Launches: Questions About Long-Term Success. The latest Web video startup with significant hype behind it raises interesting questions about how these various technologies distinguish themselves from one another, especially when using the quality of the video as one of the main selling points.
New Measurement and Monetizing Efforts on Web, Mobile Platforms. ComScore is moving away from focusing on active users, while Third Screen announces that its ads may soon be reaching half of all U.S. mobile subscribers.
Mick Foley: Pro Wrestling and the Contradictions of a Contemporary American Hero (V of V). The final part of this series presents some of the takeaway points from looking at the star image of wrestler Foley as a contemporary hero and presents the list of resources cited in the essay.
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--------------- CLOSING NOTE---------------
The West Side: An Interview with the Creators
Part I of IV
By: Jason Mittell
This July, Ryan Bilsborrow-Koo and Zachary Lieberman launched an ambitious online serialized film called The West Side at http://thewestside.tv. Rather than trying to generate attention on YouTube, these two young filmmakers, who met at their day jobs at MTV, are trying to offer something distinctive on their own terms, creating a visually rich and leisurely-paced genre mixture of the urban Western. The first episode has been up for around a month, and due to some technical challenges of no-budget filmmaking, the next episode won't be out for a few weeks.
To fill the gap, I conducted an online interview with Ryan, who is a former student of mine, and Zack, discussing how they see their project fitting into the online video moment and broader possibilities of independent filmmaking. The filmmakers speak to many of the issues surrounding convergent media--serialized storytelling, innovative distribution strategies, viral promotion--but places them within the context of ambitious creators trying to make something new rather than make a quick splash. Be sure watch the first episode to get a sense of the project and their combination of ambition and imagination -- and keep an eye on these emerging filmmakers!
JM: To start things off, can you briefly walk us through the origins of The West Side? What were the initial goals you two set out to accomplish and how did you start the pre-production process?
RBK: Everyone in the independent film world has hyped Digital Video as the revolutionary filmmaking tool of the decade--cheap, readily available, easy to edit--but it wasn't until free internet distribution became viable that filmmaking really became "democratized." While DV was a huge step towards enabling the little guy on the production side, there were still too many obstacles to getting a film in front of a physical audience for just anyone to be able to make and distribute a movie. Once online video started taking off, Zack and I saw an opportunity to showcase our filmmaking abilities without having to worry about the costs and pitfalls of traditional distribution. We saw that we could independently produce something with our own equipment, in our own spare time, without going into debt, and distribute it for free. In our eyes, however, the majority of the content on the web at the time was lacking in originality: most shows were merely online versions of a story that we'd seen a hundred times before, innovative only in terms of delivery mechanism. Our goal was thus to put forth an innovative concept to go along with an unconventional distribution angle.
ZL: It was the right time in both our lives, we were both looking for our chance to make a dent somewhere, and saw this amazing convergence of opportunity that we were really excited about. And I also think it's important to note how anxious both Ryan and I were to get more involved in a project of our own--separately, before we even met. So by chance really, we both got new jobs working together in New York City, quickly became friends, and in the midst of having some drinks the very first night we hung out, made a pact that we would seize the opportunity. We started developing ideas over lunch for the next few weeks until we decided we needed to start getting things on paper, which is when we started getting more seriously committed to the idea.
I think it's also fair to say that initially the process of working in tandem was a bit awkward in that we had both been involved in failed partnerships before and were understandably a bit wary. That said, one of the most valuable things about our long preproduction process--it was eight months from the initial concept to the first shot--was the notion of doing the entire thing together from start to finish. It takes a good partner to voice concerns that are in the back of your head but to which you wouldn't otherwise listen. Working trust like that can be a really hard thing to cultivate, and we were fortunate in that it came naturally with our friendship.
RBK: This won't be our last co-production, not by a long shot.
JM: Can you give us a sense of the budget for this project? Are the actors & crew being paid, or is it all functioning as a collective leap toward potential fame & fortune?
RBK: We wrote on our production blog that we produced the first episode for three figures--meaning, less than a thousand dollars--and while we haven't added up all of the receipts, I expect that to hold true. It's almost an unprecedentedly low number. I had accumulated a lot of film and video equipment in my years living in North Carolina, where the rent is a fraction of what it is in New York, so we didn't have to sink much money into that area. We signed a special Internet-distribution deal with the Screen Actor's Guild wherein we can work with SAG talent without paying them (it's a bit more complicated than that, but both our actors and SAG have been very accommodating). Most of our budget has consisted of props and on-set food so far. For all involved, it's an opportunity for exposure, which... should I say it?... is priceless.
Jason Mittell is an affiliated faculty member with the Convergence Culture Consortium and assistant professor of American Civilization and Film and Media Culture at Middlebury College in Vermont and consulting researcher with the Convergence Culture Consortium. His research areas include television history and criticism, animation and children's media, genre and narrative theory, taste cultures and media, and new media studies and technological convergence. See his blog at http://justtv.wordpress.com/.
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