Participatory Culture: A Population of Multipliers

Henry Jenkins explores the value of participatory culture in this week’s reading, Spreadable Media. With network television at a complex crossroads at the moment, audiences are seeking entertainment from a variety of platforms. There is a stark contrast between the live-television viewing experience versus legal Netflix or Hulu endurance watching, versus illegal downloads and live streaming. These all differ in legality and authority, but which forms the strongest participatory culture?

It depends on how one defines “participatory culture.” In another Henry Jenkins article, Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture: Media Education for the 21st Century, he defines participatory culture as:

1.With relatively low barriers to artistic expression and civic engagement

2.With strong support for creating and sharing one’s creations with others

3.With some type of informal mentorship whereby what is known by the most experienced is passed along to novices

4.Where members believe that their contributions matter

5.Where members feel some degree of social connection with one another (at the least they care what other people think about what they have created). (Jenkins, 7).

breaking-bad-art-collage-1This week’s reading acknowledges how network television (particularly the Nielsen system) does not equate online viewership with live television viewership. However, I’m not sure I would correlate how fans watch the content with how fans fulfill the definition of “participatory culture.” As an example, fans watched Breaking Bad on live television, they watched it live streaming, they watched it on Netflix and they watched it via torrent file sharing. As far as I know, each of these fans were about as obsessive as the next. There is not one particular platform that promises a certain level of fandom, right?

That’s hard to say in today’s society of digital multiplicity. Providing a historical contrast, however, there are current fandoms and niche audiences that exist around older shows that didn’t originally have the option of multiple platforms. Shows like Buffy, The Vampire Slayer, ER, and other shows were in their prime mostly before the internet. This means that members of those fandoms who only discovered the show recently either found it through an online resource, television reruns, or purchased DVDs. Question for John – does the Buffy fandom of the late 90s/early 2000s contrast with the current fandom? Is there a current fandom? Or does the fandom exist due to the experience of watching it on television when it was originally broadcasted?

Since I’m pretty sure there is a strong and very current fandom for Buffy, this leads me to believe that fandoms and participatory cultures can exist regardless of the manner in which viewers view.

Grillo-Marxuach and Mittell both challenge the assumption that unauthorized viewing holds no commercial value, pointing to alternative revenue streams which might count within U.S. television’s evolving business models. They suggest how audience members generate value through their direct purchases (of downloaded legal episodes, of DVDs, of program-related merchandise) and through their role as grassroots intermediaries drawing in new audience members. In doing so, both Grillo-Marxuach and Mittell evoke a logic of engagement, one of several that will help us decode the kinds of viewing most valuable to media industries. (Jenkins, 115).

Does this mean that there is more value in the participatory culture of those who watch their content online? The illegality of the viewing process is more conducive to boosting show loyalty? That by already being in the environment of community and engagement, viewers are more likely to blog, tweet, and post about the show, therefore spreading the word?

These fantastic individuals are described by anthropologist Grant McCraken as “multipliers.”

A “multiplier” is someone who will treat the good, service, or experience as a starting point. Multipliers will build in some of their own intelligence and imagination. They will take possession of a cultural artifact and make it more detailed, more contextually responsive, more culturally nuanced, and, lest we forget the point of the exercise, more valuable. Using a term like “multiplier” will help the meaning maker keep new realities front and center. If there is nothing in the product, service, or experience that can be built on, well, then it’s back to the drawing board (Jenkins, 124).

It is due to the “multipliers” of society that the Veronica Mars movie was created, that shows come back for another season, and even characters come back from the dead (like Hammad’s example of Star Wars‘ Darth Maul coming back in The Clone Wars, I think?).

The fact is, participatory culture in digital platforms is pretty much vital to the survival of contemporary television programs. Even though the reading says that there is a assumption that online viewership doesn’t matter, it clearly does. My guess would be that TV networks are constantly checking their trending stats, just to be sure that TV is still being discussed at the water cooler.

It is also abundantly clear that viewers, regardless of how they follow a television show, can still be members of participatory culture. If we all had cable at Wheaton, I’m sure we would spend at least some time off of our computers and more time lounging in front of the television. But once the credits roll, everyone can go back to their Twitter and Facebook feeds, reacting, sharing, and contributing to a network of social engagement.

Jenkins, Henry. Spreadable Media: Creating Value and Meaning in a Networked Culture. New York University Press, New York: 2013. Print.

Jenkins, Henry. Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture: Media Education for the 21st Century. The MacArthur Foundation, Chicago: 2006. Web.


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