Jenkins, H et al ~ Spreadable Media

Jenkins, Henry
Ford, Sam
Green, Joshua
Spreadable Media: Creating Value and Meaning in a Networked Culture

Introduction: Why Media Spreads

Though marketers idealize a dream audience that will passively pass along official (viral) messages, they know that the reality is much messier: fans who create new material or pass along existing media content ultimately want to communicate something about themselves.

Chapter 1 Where Web 2.0 Went Wrong

Companies, she [Flourish Klink, Chief Participation Officer at The Alchemists] argues, are obligated to learn from and respond to fan expectations, not the other way around, since fans do not owe companies anything but rather freely give their labors of love.

For media properties to move from the commodity culture in which they are produced to informal social contexts through which they circulate and are appraised, they must pass through a point where “value” gets transformed into “worth,” where what has a price becomes priceless, where economic investment gives way to sentimental investment. Similarly, when a fan cultures’s “gifts” are transformed into “user generated content,” there are special sensitivities involved as the material gets absorbed back into commercial culture. When people pass along media texts, they are not doing so as paid employees motivated by economic gain; rather, they are members of social communities involved in activities which are meaningful to them on an individual and/or social level. Such movement – and the transformations that media texts undergo as they are circulated – can generate both value and worth. However, content producers and online platforms alike have to be keenly aware of the logics of worth being employed by their audiences or risk alienating those who are emotionally invested in the material.

Indeed, when we describe such goods and services as “free,” we mean that people have not purchased them with money, not that they have not paid for them via some other means. In each case, the producers and laborers working for “free” expect some form of (social) payment, and each person provides his or her time and labor under an expectation that others will contribute similarly, to the benefit of all. Understanding the popularity of many Web 2.0 platforms, then, means considering what motivates people to contribute their time and energy without expectation of immediate financial compensation – whether these motives are attention, recognition, and identity building; the development of community and social ties; the creation of a useful tool; or myriad other considerations.
The use of “free” attempts to describe transactions based in reciprocity while clinging to the language of the market, obscuring the underlying social mechanisms in a way that invites conflicts and violations on both sides.

It’s easy to see how this concept of the “influencer” became popular alongside notions of viral marketing: both assume there is some shortcut to building interest around one’s message. In the case of viral marketing, the myth is that something inserted into the content’s “DNA” will infect people and five them no choice but to spread its messages. In the case of “influencers,” the myth is that, if a marketer reaches a very small set of taste makers, those few will bring “the sheep” along. In short, brand developers and media producers are still trying to figure out any angle of “public relations” that doesn’t require much in the way of relating to the public. [‘public’ not in the sense of press but in the sense of real people, consumers]

The media industries and marketing professionals must abandon the illusion that “targeting” the same nine “mommy bloggers” or a handful of celebrities on Twitter is all it takes to get one’s message circulated broadly. Such a model limits the meaningful relationships a producer or brand might build, devalues people not initially considered “influencers,” and ultimately reinforces a “one-to-many” mindset, seeking out a handful of affiliates to share a message rather than seeing it develop and build through many everyday interactions.

Chapter 2 Reappraising the Residual

Chapter 3 The Value of Media Engagement

Stribling argues there are two keys to developing a model to effectively transform these varied expressions into measures companies can use. The first is balancing breadth of expression with depth of expression, a balance which Stribling acknowledges may shift for a media property over time as it is sustained by dedicated fans but sees its more casual popularity wax and wane. The second is accounting for the way time affects the value of the expression: “Too often, we see a statistic such as the number of Facebook fans or Twitter followers of a media property and an assertion that this number represents value. However, these data do not indicate what those fans do once they’ve friended or followed in order to participate in, promote, or support the media property.” To do so, Stribling proposes looking at “the amount of time spent with a media property compared to others,” “how frequently fans interact with or around a media property,” and “changes in how fans interact with or around a media property over time.”

As Mittel demonstrates, drillable texts become spreadable through fans’ collective intelligence-gathering and meaning-making processes (e.g., Lostpedia). For texts such as soap operas, which are complex through their accretion, fans might engage through interpreting, contextualizing, continuity-testing, and communally piecing together the relevant backstory for a recent episode, in light of the massive amount of text that has come before. In short, both types of stories provide viable models for engaging particularly dedicated audiences, for creating potentially spreadable material, and for taking a transmedia approach to storytelling – even if they build that engagement in quite different ways.
-> The one (e.g. Lost) is drillable, because each episode is densely packed with story/information. Fans can first drill and then spread to each other and then drill together.
-> The other (e.g. soap operas) is drillable, because even though each episode has very little story, there are so many of them that not getting lost requires a lot of collective fan activity. Fans have to spread first to collectively understand the bigger picture and then they can drill together.

The contrast between True Blood‘s and Glee‘s grassroots campaigns is striking: one involved the careful rolling out of content to reach different tiers of participants; the other relies on the uncoordinated efforts of the audience itself to create and share content with more casual fans.

[…] there are many competing models for thinking about how audiences relate to the expanded content becoming ever more normal in our transmedia world. Some envision that transmedia storytelling means a story or narrative world that unfolds in installments across media platforms. In these cases, producers are never certain how deeply fans will be able to engage in each touchpoint, so they either have to make this dispersed material of secondary interest or else must eventually catch up those who follow only certain prioritized installments on what they might have missed in ancillary texts. Meanwhile, some producers envision the transmedia space as offering different appeals to different niche audiences: the people playing the games may not be the same people reading the webcomics.

Unfortunately, this mentality of narrow age/gender targeting has too often found its way into transmedia storytelling as well. Often, the television industry has viewed transmedia narrowly as a means of attracting certain segments of the audience […].

Suzanne Scott (2009) argues that transmedia content may appropriate ideas from grassroots cultural production and reroute them to serve other markets, a process she describes as a form of “regifting.” The commercial industry now polices fan material, absorbing what is compatible to mainstream tastes, marginalizing the rest. Transmedia extension, Scott argues, often promotes “a narrowly defined and contained version of fandom to a general audience.”
While these practices may expand the reach of particular fan cultural practices (such as fan fiction’s focus on secondary characters) and reward some fan interests (such as a fascination with backstory), industry choices reflect producers’ sense of what kinds of audience members are desired and what kinds of meanings enhance rather than detract from mainstream interest. Scott describes the result as a “digital enclosure,” a sanitized, market-friendly version of the much messier space of grassroots fan criticism and cultural production: “Whether or not ancillary content models are being actively deployed as a device to rein in and control fandom, they are serving as a potential gateway to fandom for mainstream audiences, and they are pointedly offering a warped version of fandom’s gift economy that equates consumption and canonical mastery with community” (2009).
-> sanctioned fans / affirmational fandom -> fans that have an almighty god above them: the producer who controls and decides everything -> “the source material is re-stated, the author’s purpose divined to the community’s satisfaction, rules established on how the characters are and how the universe works. […] It’s all about nailing down the details.”
-> non-sanctioned fans / transformational fandom -> “is all about laying hands upon the source and twisting it to the fans’ own purposes” (p. 151)

We all should be vigilant over what gets sacrificed, compromised, or co-opted by media companies as part of this process of mainstreaming the activities and interests of cult audiences. In this context, it matters how media companies understand the value that fans create around their property. It matters whether audiences are seen as commodities or labor, whether companies assume that valuable content can only originate from the commercial sector, and whether all authority rests with sanctioned contributors or whether legal practices of the networks and studios protect space for more transformative uses. And, crucially, it matters what forms of audience creation and creativity ultimately are labeled as “transmedia.”

[…] creators have to consider how these transmedia touchpoints can offer sites for listening rather than promoting.

Chapter 4 What Constitutes Meaningful Participation?

309f Note 2 (refers to page 158)
Games scholar James Paul Gee (2004) characterizes many forms of participatory culture in terms of “affinity spaces” – affinity, that is, for a common endeavor. He argues that romantic notions of community do not apply to many of these groups; engaging with one another is a secondary objective in many cases, if it exists at all. Participants in an affinity space may or may not feel a strong sense of affiliation with each other: some simply pass through, engaging with content, gathering information, and returning to their own play. Others may become more closely connected. They may participate via different modes – some active, some passive; some leading, some following other participants. […] Such affinity spaces can motivate the production and circulation of information, which may intensify affiliation and inspire other kinds of contributions. People form nonexclusive relationships to these kinds of affinity spaces: they may have multiple interests and thus engage with several different affinity spaces. And, as they travel, information spreads.

Within advertising circles, the kinds of participation desired by companies are often discussed in terms of “brand communities.” Companies have been interested in the ideas that the audiences they court form strong social bonds through common affinity for a brand, because, hopefully, these affective relations mean increased customer loyalty at a time when brand attachments are viewed as less stable than they have been in previous generations. Many marketers frame this concept as indicating corporate ownership over specific groups of people, reading the “community” as largely reactive to the machinations of the brand. On the other hand, critics worry that such brand communities can become simply vehicles for promoting particular corporate messages, a vehicle solely for granting the company access to and credibility with members’ friends and families.
-> The term “community” is abused.

Given efforts by companies to forge such active and affective ties with their audiences, critics legitimately fear a blanket celebration of participation, especially if divorced from discussions of what people are participating in and who benefits from their participation. Mark Andrejevic, for example, argues that “the simple equation of participation with empowerment serves to reinforce the marketing strategies of corporate culture” (2008, 43), while political theorist Jodi Dean talks about “publicity without publics” (2002, 173), suggesting that the expanded communication capacity enjoyed by new media participants does not necessarily result in the kinds of thinking, debating communities envisioned by traditional understandings of the public sphere.

In Daniel Dayan’s usage, audiences are produced through acts of measurement and surveillance, usually unaware of how the traces they leave can be calibrated by the media industries. Meanwhile, publics often actively direct attention onto messages they value: “A public not only offers attention, it calls for attention” (Dayan 2005, 52).
-> A very theoretical distinction of terms, but an interesting one. ‘Audiences’ is what media industries talk about – they are not real communities, they are the idea of passive consumers in the heads of mass media producers. ‘Publics’ are real active communities/discussants.

Deploying these terms, we might usefully distinguish – as others have – between “fans,” understood as individuals who have a passionate relationship to a particular media franchise, and “fandoms,” whose members consciously identify as part of a larger community to which they feel some degree of commitment and loyalty.

Such [soap opera fans’] discussions illustrate how fan communities often take on several key aspects of publics, complicating any model that would paint these fans as passive audiences. Instead, a media text becomes material that drives active community discussion and debate at the intersection between popular culture and civic discourse – conversations that might lead to community activism or social change.

This reliance on quantitative measures leads to marketing strategies that define success by what’s easiest to count (echoing the limitations of the stickiness model discussed in the introduction and the challenges of measurement facing the television industry detailed in chapter 3).

He finds that companies and agencies often venture into participatory spaces to ask their traditional questions of “Who is there?” and “How many of them are there?” rather than soliciting new insights and forming new relationships.

Yet, as companies talk about “listening,” the term has fallen into the same trap as many otherwise useful words, given the buzzword-driven nature of marketing rhetoric. The marketing/public relations version of listening often refers to little more than quantitative monitoring—the “who is there?” and “how many of them are there?” sorts of questions that Vedrashko refers to.

However, we believe that turning the active conversations of communities into aggregated data (and thus turning publics into passive audiences) strips these groups of their agency and rejects their capacity for participation.
Ultimately, listening demands an active response: not just gathering data but doing something about it. Such action might include reach- ing out in response to what audiences are talking about: thanking them for their enthusiasm, offering support or additional resources, addressing concerns, and correcting misconceptions.

Just as media makers often want to stay within the illusion of a broadcast world, where audiences could more easily be relegated to being passive individuals rather than understood as networked publics, corporate leaders live in a less complicated world when they can simplify how their customers are understood (hence the preference for hearing over listening).

However, listening practices are also crucial because the illusion of the broadcast world has been shattered. Not proactively listening to what customers or other groups are saying about a company’s brand means not answering a customer service problem before it becomes a public relations issue or not addressing a concern people have raised with a company’s messaging or business practice until it has already damaged the brand’s reputation. In other words, listening efforts are important for the company’s bottom line not just because they provide a foundation for building positive relationships with audiences but also because they help avoid the types of crises which are becoming increasingly likely when companies ignore what people are saying about them or their products.

In a world where if it doesn’t spread, it’s dead, if it can’t be quoted, it might not mean anything. The social practices of spreadable media necessitate material that is quotable—providing easy ways for audiences to be able to excerpt from that material and to share those excerpts with others—and grabbable—providing the technological functions which make that content easily portable and sharable.
-> quotable refers to the content level
-> grabbable refers to the technological level

Meanwhile, other researchers have found that online social networks can be as much if not more segregated than social networks in the physical world. As danah boyd (2011) and S. Craig Watkins (2010) have documented, Facebook and other social network sites often operate as the digital equivalent of gated communities, protecting participants from online contact with people outside their social circle as much as enabling easier and quicker communications with their friends and families. Both boyd and Watkins argue that people choose between Facebook and MySpace based on their economic aspirations and educational status, often using language heavily coded in class and racial terms to describe what they dislike about the other platform. Watkins compares this process to the “big sort,” which has reintroduced segregation in many U.S. cities through residential patterns.
How seriously we take these inequalities of access and opportunity depends very much on what we see as the value of participation. If, like some skeptics, we see participatory culture as “consumptive behavior by a different name,” then we should, as a former Federal Communications Commissioner suggested, see the digital divide as no more consequential than the gap in who owns fancy cars. If we see participatory culture, though, as a vital step toward the realization of a century-long struggle for grassroots communities to gain greater control over the means of cultural production and circulation—if we see participation as the work of publics and not simply of markets and audiences—then opportunities to expand participation are struggles we must actively embrace through our work, whether through efforts to lower economic and technical obstacles or to expand access to media literacies.

When we describe our culture as becoming more participatory, we are speaking in relative terms—participatory in relation to older systems of mass communication—and not in absolute terms. We do not and may never live in a society where every member is able to fully participate, where the lowest of the low has the same communicative capacity as the most powerful elites. Insofar as participation within networked publics becomes a source of discursive and persuasive power—and insofar as the capacities to meaningfully participate online are linked to educational and economic opportunities—then the struggle over the right to participation is linked to core issues of social justice and equality.

What we are calling spreadability starts from an assumption that circulation constitutes one of the key forces shaping the media environment. It comes also from a belief that, if we can better understand the social and institutional factors that shape the nature of circulation, we may become more effective at putting alternative messages into circulation.

Content is more likely to be shared if it is

  • Available when and where audiences want it: Producers, whether professional or amateur, need to move beyond an “if you build it, they will come” mentality, taking (or sending) material to where audiences will find it most useful.
  • Portable: Audience members do not want to be stuck in one place; they want their media texts “on the go.” Content has to be quotable (editable by the audience) and grabbable (easily picked up and inserted elsewhere by the audience). Audiences will often abandon material if sharing proves too onerous.
  • Easily reusable in a variety of ways: Media producers and media audiences circulate content for very different reasons, actually for very many different reasons. Creating media texts that are open to a variety of audience uses is crucial for creating material that spreads.
  • Relevant to multiple audiences: Content that appeals to more than one target audience, both intended and surplus audiences, has greater meaning as spreadable media.
  • Part of a steady stream of material: The “viral” mentality leads brands to invest all their energy in a particular media text that is expected to generate exponential hits. Blogging and microblogging platforms emphasize the importance of a regular stream of material, some of which may resonate more than others in ways creators may not always be able to predict.

success in creating material people want to spread requires some attention to the patterns and motivations of media circulation, both of which are driven by the meanings people can draw from content. After all, humans rarely engage in meaningless activities. Sometimes, it may not be readily apparent why people are doing what they are doing, but striving to understand a person’s or community’s motivation and interest is key for creating texts more likely to spread.

In a gift economy, circulated texts say something about participants’ perceptions of both the giver and the receiver; we all choose to share materials we value and anticipate others will value. People appraise the content they encounter according to their personal standards and the content they share based on its perceived value for their social circle. In other words, some of what is interesting to individuals may not be material they want to spread through their communities, and some media texts they spread may become more interesting because of their perceived social value.

Content spreads, then, when it acts as fodder for conversations that audiences are already having. As Douglas Rushkoff has put it, “Content is just a medium for interaction between people.

Keep in mind that many of the choices people make in spreading content, as just described, are not grand and sweeping gestures but rather simple, everyday actions such as “liking” a Facebook status update.

Communications scholar John Fiske (1989a) draws a distinction between mass culture—which is mass produced and distributed—and popular culture—media texts which have been meaningfully integrated into people’s lives. As Fiske points out, only some material from mass culture enters the popular culture: “If the cultural commodities or texts do not contain resources out of which the people can make their own meanings of their social relations and identities, they will be rejected and will fail in the marketplace. They will not be made popular” (2). Under this model, messages are encoded into content; meanings are decoded from a text. Audience meanings often expand on or deviate from a producer’s messages. Fiske recognizes that there are commercial interests working to inspire interest in mass-produced messages, but this commercial material couldn’t be “made popular” if it didn’t hold meaning-making potential.

Under the producer’s control, it is mass culture. Under the audience’s control, it is popular culture. Grassroots circulation can thus transform a commodity into a cultural resource.

Material which fills in every blank limits audience interpretations.

Fiske’s notion of the “producerly” introduces guiding principles for transforming commodities into cultural resources: openness, loose ends, and gaps that allow viewers to read material against their own backgrounds and experiences are key. As we detailed earlier in this chapter, such openness allows people to convey something of themselves as they pass along content.

As Mike Arauz, a strategist at digital consultancy Undercurrent, suggests, “[…] People’s lives don’t revolve around your brand, they revolve around life” (2009).

Perhaps the only way to retain complete control over the meaning of a text is never to share it with anyone.

In the next few sections, we highlight a few types of content which are particularly spreadable because they take up the producerly strategies outlined earlier. These include the use of shared fantasies, humor, parody and references, unfinished content, mystery, timely controversy, and rumors.

Chapter 5 Designing for Spreadability

When producers are part of a community and understand its values and shared fantasies, the content they create is more likely to resonate deeply with fellow community members.

Anthropologist Mary Douglas (1991) examines the very thin line separating a joke from an insult: a joke expresses something a community is ready to hear; an insult expresses something it doesn’t want to consider. Thus, recognizing a joke involves exchanging judgments about the world and defining oneself either with or against others. Content creators can endear themselves to a particular audience by showing they understand its sensibilities and can alienate themselves by miscalculating that audience’s sensibilities. Humor is not simply a matter of taste: it is a vehicle by which people articulate and validate their relationships with those with whom they share the joke.

hose who are creating humor and parody claim specific common experiences with those who are laughing at the joke.

When audience members choose to pass along media texts, they demonstrate that they belong to a community, that they are “in” on the reference and share some common experience. Knowing about Leeroy Jenkins helps define someone as a World of Warcraft insider while also deflecting outsiders for whom this knowledge carries little to no value. This degree of exclusivity is a key function for the spread of some material, though the inclusion of Jenkins as the basis for a Jeopardy! question also suggests how much this information becomes common knowledge beyond the initial community.

The line between a “cool campaign” purporting to be part of “the real world” and marketers exposed as looking to “dupe” the world can be thin and relies on whether creators seem to have wanted the true origins of the text to eventually be discovered and whether creators are seen to be part of the culture with which the content seeks to engage.

Often, a media text spreads particularly far when it depicts a controversy a community cares about at the precise time it is looking for content which might act as its rallying cry. In this case, mate- rial becomes spreadable because it articulates the sentiment of the moment, a situation people have experienced but couldn’t easily explain, or an insight people hadn’t quite been able to put into words. Similarly, content spreads when it states a community’s stance on an issue of intense interest at a particular moment better than its members think they can otherwise.

Timeliness (and timing) can be particularly tricky because cultural relevance can change quickly. Such timing is hard to predict. This is often the logic behind corporate blogs and Twitter accounts (and online news sites, for that matter), where content is uploaded regularly in hopes of speaking to an issue of importance to the audience at a particular moment but with the mindset that some texts will be widely spread while others will not, depending on how long a community stays engaged on a particular issue and what other content the community might be actively engaging with at a given time.

the material which gets picked up often is not that which is of the highest quality but rather that which most powerfully speaks to the desires and fears of the participating community.

All of this suggests that more spreadable forms of civic media may not only reach unexpected supporters but may be planting seeds which can grow into deeper commitments over time.

We are not arguing here that spreadability necessarily leads to a utopian vision of a more informed, more responsible, more ethical society. Rather, as more people take an active role in shaping the creation and circulation of media texts, the public has access—for better and worse—to a greater range of voices.

Our belief is that content creators of all kinds—from Madison Avenue executives that want to sell us Old Spice to civic groups that
want to call attention to social injustices—can design texts that audiences want to spread if they recognize the basic desires and mechanics which inspire these grassroots acts of circulation. As we have seen, material that spreads is producerly, in that it leaves open space for audience participation, provides resources for shared expression, and motivates exchanges through surprising or intriguing content. People want to share media texts which become a meaningful resource in their ongoing conversations or which offer them some new source of pleasure and interest. They want to exchange and discuss media content when the material contains cultural activators, when it offers activities in which they can participate. As we saw with regard to rumors, this content often spreads when it speaks, consciously or not, thoughts that people are compelled by but lack a language to communicate.

Chapter 6 Courting Supporters for Independent Media

The free and open sharing of content can provide a valuable research tool for these producers, allowing them to see where (culturally and geographically) their texts spread and thus to build business models that might map against those pockets of audience interest. Bands that plan their tour dates around how and where their mp3s are distributed, filmmakers who empower those who advocate for their content, or authors who learn which readers to court more actively based on who is most interested in their work are using the digital circulation of their content as a means to develop new relationships rather than merely selling a single good to an individual. Some of this may look like guesswork when compared to established industry practice, but their guesses are now grounded in much more data on audience behavior and built from anecdotal readings of online flows—means that were not as readily available to alternative media makers in the past. If content creators consider getting noticed one of their primary goals, the best way for them to do so is to listen for how their material spreads.

Chapter 7 Thinking Transnationally

Spreadability has increased diversity and not simply multiplicity, yet the fragmentation of content may make it difficult for people to locate the diversity which does exist and may make it hard for minority groups to communicate outside their own communities. International and independent media producers must confront the glut of material on the international market today, depending on their most passionate supporters to help them cut through the clutter. Neither can afford the budget for large-scale advertising, so they are increasingly dependent on spreadable media practices. Such practices do ensure that their material gains circulation yet do not always compensate for the lack of focused attention that broadcast media still offers.

While commercial distribution can strip media content of all markers of its originating culture, these more grassroots practices often require a deeper knowledge of where the content originates, motivating some people to master local languages, say, in order to contribute to fan-based translation projects or to develop an understanding of local media industries or to monitor online discussions among local audiences in order to anticipate desirable content. Such contact zones may generate forms of culture which seem “impure” when read through a lens which values preservation of distinctive local cultures, but they may be highly generative insofar as they facilitate new kinds of understandings among people who are being increasingly shoved toward each other through other globalizing forces.

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