Saturday, October 20, 2007

A Gathering of Action Figures

Yesterday's keynote by Henry Jenkins was a little less exuberantly optimistic than the last talk on participatory culture that I saw him give, and it hearkened back to work he had done decades ago at the start of his research as a participant observer on fellow members of fan cultures who served as what he called "textual poachers." In his talk on "The Moral Economy of Web 2.0: Reconsidering the Relations between Producers and Consumers," he was at least willing to offer the counterargument that many now make to his participatory culture evangelism: Web 2.0 means "You make all the content; they keep all the revenue." Although he disagreed with Lawrence Lessig, because the Stanford law professor compared Star Wars fans to sharecroppers, he at least acknowledged that there were legitimate grounds for debate.

Thus I hate to sound critical, not only because Jenkins is an influential figure, who was introduced to the crowd as the Marshall McLuhan of the 21st century, but also because he is a genuine public intellectual who actively lobbies congress and supports progressive educational reforms. And the fact that he wants to serve as a moral conscience for enormous faceless corporations can certainly do no harm. But given that so many of the most interesting talks at AoIR were critiques of the Web 2.0 juggernaut, I was sorry to see him give what felt like a standard spiel to a conference crowd.

For example, although he was preaching to the converted in the context of the annual conference of the Association of Internet Researchers, he started with the most obvious milestones in the mass media, which he called the "plethora of pronouns": the Time "You" person-of-the-year cover, the Newsweek cover about "Putting the We in the Web," and the cover of Business Week about "The Power of Us."

Furthermore, Jenkins own definition of Web 2.0, "fandom without the stigma," is one that I would take issue with, given the number of people using social media tools who don't feel any loyalty to branded products and who instead embrace D.I.Y. sensibilities that respond to politics, religion, family, or communities rather than the entertainment conglomerates and transmedia stories that are central to Jenkins' cultural narrative that centers on "thirty years of Star Trek fans." As I've said before, I'm not a cultural snob, I've been to a Star Trek convention or two in my time, and my husband and half my friends make their livings from the business of market-driven mass entertainment. Moreover, as an academic, I don't consider his idea that consumption should be taken seriously as rhetorical action is one that is particularly controversial, since it comes from Michel de Certeau and many other theorists. But many of my main objections to his otherwise very readable recent book Convergence Culture weren't resolved at all by this talk or any of the other Jenkins' talks that I have heard over the years. These reservations were underscored by Jenkin's seeming failure to appreciate the irony of showing an image like the one above to represent Web 2.0, a picture that was created by eboy as a tongue-in-cheek homage to his corporate clients rather than an illustration endowed with the oppositional edge of similar brand-based visual rhetoric, such as the logo flag from Adbusters.

Jenkins was willing to acknowledge that media conglomeration and the harsh regulation of intellectual property relations has complicated his image of his three main talking points, which as he reiterated were 1) convergence culture, 2) networked society, and 3) the emergence of new forms of participation, as the case of the ultimately hegemonic FANlib showed. It was also revealing to hear about his own frustrations with the MIT Open Courseware initiative, since his own scholarly remixes done in teaching his media courses aren't among the offerings, given the university's legal concerns that made trade offs of fair use for copyright protection. And the fact that he used a slide with his own ideas from what he presented as an anonymous maker of user-generated content demonstrated not only that he had his own fans but also that he saw himself in a circuit of a moral economy with them (although he didn't credit the author by name).

However, in closing with praise for a recent grant to MTV for civic education rather than expressing a wish to have such funds go to far more interesting and less profit-driven political interventions being written, directed, edited, and produced for the small screen, such as the YouTube videos of my Facebook friend James Kotecki, I think he's choosing to support a cable giant that will give us more humorless and dumbed-down "boxers or briefs" simulations of deliberation.

Jenkin's story about how proponents of net neutrality left action figures in the public spaces of Singapore, where they were forbidden to protest, only let us his audience see how the authorities took this plasticized and branded form of "people power" much less seriously than comparable actions by real-life demonstrators on the streets of Burma that used social media like blogs and digital video in ways that fit my definition of Web 2.0.

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Anonymous Michael Faris said...

Hmmm... I used that same poster anecdotally in my thesis defense. When I showed it, I said, "there are various problems in this city: corporatization, pollution, vandalism, and — well, whatever's going on with the robot arms bursting up from the streets and the little people with M's on their chest and Mickey Mouse ears — whatever they are doing, I read it is as mischievous, but I can't quite figure out what they're doing."

While I drew on de Certeau in my thesis as well (I was discussing the blogosphere as a city), I don't really see using this poster as a celebratory way to represent web2.0.

7:44 PM  

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