Saturday, February 09, 2008

Spreadable Not Sticky

That's right. That's me filming Mimi Ito filming Mark Marino filming Henry Jenkins in the ultimate document of digital media recursiveness.

By virtue of the annual conferences about digital culture that I attend, it seems that I see MIT's Henry Jenkins keynoting several times a year, as I did here and here. But the DIY Video Summit was unusual in that we actually had an extended face-to-face conversation over dinner. Rather than rehearse some of my reservations about his theses in Convergence Culture, while sharing a table with Mark Marino, we three chatted informally about our common tasks as educators. No matter what our differences in theoretical positions or relationships to institutional authority, as a trio we shared many of the same concerns about how best to connect students' social media practices to academic literacy and to negotiate new roles outside of conventional scholarly criticism as bloggers and makers of other forms of digital media.

Jenkins, of course, has been an extraordinarily productive academic blogger, despite a travel schedule that moves him between time zones about as often as I change my shoes. It was nice to get a chance to say in person how I admired how he had made his blog a useful primary source to other researchers, by posting detailed interviews, often with creators who don't otherwise document the rationales for their work. Although it is a solo blog, Jenkins maintains a remarkably dialogic tone. In other words, it's not merely a set of meditations; it's also a series of conversations.

This conference was one in which Jenkins spent a lot of time contextualizing his newer stance as a ”critical utopian,” who has begun to express some skepticism about simplistic equations of participatory culture with Web 2.0. For starters, Jenkins resists such popular terms "meme" and "viral," because he argues that they deny human agency. And rather than talk about the "stickiness" of new media, which suggests that users are merely trapped in the digital form of a roach motel, Jenkins has embraced the term "spreadable" to describe the dissemination of content by members of online communities.

Taking a page from Stephen Duncombe in imagining new forms of activism, Jenkins also described the lifecycle of the famed snowman of the CNN/YouTube debates, with whom Mitt Romney famously said he would refuse to debate. He noted that the "posterchild" snowman borrowed much of its slapstick style from DIY TV original Mr Bill, who ended up serving as a post-Katrina advocate for change on environmental issues. (You can check out Mr. Bill defending the value of the natural history of New Orleans and Louisiana's swamps for yourself.) Thus, what could be called Mr. Bill 2.0, Billiam the Snowman, created by Minnesota brothers Nathan and Greg Hamel, who were fans of the Saturday Night Live original, appropriated Romney's own phrase, "Lighten Up Slightly" to respond to the candidate's jibes.

Like many at the conference, Jenkins also pointed out the limitations of older "digital divide" models that focus solely on access to hardware. He argued that there were three continuing areas of concern when it came to DIY media-making: 1) the "participation gap" that involved social skills and cultural competencies, 2) "majoritarian" structures that constituted user validation in the crudest quantitative terms, and 3) "hater talk" that inhibits participation from the most diverse possible audience. Although he described himself as "agnostic" on the question of whether the platforms for DIY videos should be profit or nonprofit, he did describe the challenge as "to imagine WeTube and not YouTube."

Jenkins and I have had some interesting exchanges recently about applying Lev Manovich's "database aesthetics" to YouTube and the possibility that this aesthetics functions alongside the "vaudeville aesthetics" that Jenkins has described. During the plenary panel, Jenkins pointed out that when Republican presidential contender Rudoph Giuliani objected to fellow candidate Joe Biden’s characterization of his presidential campaign message as “a noun, a verb and 9/11,” anti-Giuliani users of digital tools promptly created a number of mashups that consisted of nothing but selections from the database of Giuliani's references to the event.

For more political database art, you can check out the State of the Union Parsing Tool, this hypertext of The President's Address on Iraq, or a zillion mashups of State of the Union Addresses up to 2007.

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