Interview with Henry Jenkins, New Media Authority

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

In anticipation of renowned media scholar Henry Jenkins’ visit to Swarthmore on Thursday, The Daily Gazette’s David Fialkow had a wide-ranging interview, conducted via e-mail, with Jenkins. They discussed everything from the rise of participatory media culture and its effects on protest movements worldwide, to the need to revamp our education system and integrate new media into curricula, to the shifting line between collaboration and cheating.

What is the greatest benefit you have seen come out of the rise of “participatory culture?” Is there any one event or situation that sticks out in particular in your mind?

My own greatest hope is that the emergence of participatory culture may lead to greater diversity within the entertainment industry as groups that had previously lacked both representation and the means of production gain access to the tools by which they can create and share their own stories.  The past year or so has represented a tipping point as the latent capacity of media audiences to create and share media with each other has spilled decisively over into the political sector. We could point to the Arab Spring, Occupy, the Tea Party, and the battle to defeat SOPA, among other things, as each embodying the potential of decentralized, networked publics to use the platforms and practices of participatory culture to bring about real change in the public sphere. These movements are decisively not Twitter Revolutions. Twitter is only one tool, one platform, through which these struggles have been staged.

Much of the action has taken place on the ground, in the streets, but the affordances of new media have helped them to spread the word beyond their own community and get messages out to a global public without having to go through traditional news agents and gatekeepers.  Each of these movements has been under pressure to designate a spokesperson, to identify a single message, to adopt a consistent platform, as we might expect in the broadcast era, but instead, they have enabled many different participants to use many different media to get many different messages out to many different publics. They have been successful because they encourage others to participate in these conversations and in the process they have altered the popular discourse around their areas of interest.

Conversely, are there any concerns you see in the change of consumer role (from not having a voice to having a greater one)? For example, are television writers taking fewer risks or trying for less bold material in an effort to cater to consumers?

Not that I am seeing. If you look at the current television season, there have been more experimental programs on both broadcast and cable television than we’ve seen in a long time. Most of the shows that got canceled first were the retreads and the programs that followed established formulas. Most of the shows have succeeded – from American Horror Story to Once Upon a Time – have been shows which went off the map. These programs were able to find their audiences quickly because, among other things, social media allowed enthusiasts to spread the word quickly to networked communities with whom they already shared many tastes in common. It is certainly true that hardcore fans can be conservative, sometimes with good reason, but it is also the case that their ability to spread media they care about can be used to build audience awareness and create the conditions for consumer loyalty around series which might otherwise be too far outside the mainstream.

Project New Media Literacies clearly shows the links between academia and popular media. Do you think academia has done a good job up to this point of getting itself and others involved in this new media age or, on the contrary, does it need to play catch up to ensure literacy in all facets of the media?

Project New Media Literacies is less concerned with academia per se and more concerned with public education and public institutions. The reality is that our schools are often failing the current generation of students by refusing to tap into the most powerful tools and processes they have for learning outside the classroom. Over the 1990s, we wired the classroom, and over the past decade, schools have often disabled the computer, cutting teachers and students alike off from Facebook, YouTube, Wikipedia, Mobile Phones, and a range of other platforms which have become central to the ways they live and learn beyond the classroom. This has two negative effects: it alienates those who are most digitally connected and does not provide opportunities for those who are already suffering from the digital divide and the participation gap to catch up via public institutions. The Gates Foundation tells us that more young people drop out of school because they are bored than because they find the work too challenging. What we are trying to do through New Media Literacies is to create resources and pedagogical practices which bring what is best in participatory culture into the classroom and to provide professional development for teachers so they can deploy them more effectively through their teaching.

Your creation of the Comparative Media Studies graduate program at MIT deals with “reconfigur[ing] the ways we organize and communicate knowledge to our students,” according to your blog. Do you think that education will be able to constantly evolve to keep up with changing media or will media be so dynamic that this will prove impossible?

I think we stand a much better chance of bringing undergraduate and graduate teaching in line with the new media environment than bringing public schools to the table. Yet, there are going to be big challenges ahead for all kinds of education. I am writing an essay right now about what happens to exams in an era of networked computers, when more and more knowledge outside of the classroom is produced and deployed through social networks. In our professional lives, we are spending more time collaborating with people who have diverse expertise and different skills, yet in the schools, we see most forms of collaboration as cheating and we are still focused on standardizing learning rather than helping people to develop, deploy, and trust diverse ways of knowing.

Henry Jenkins will be giving a talk at 7:00 p.m. this Thursday in SCI 101. The talk is called “Spreadable Media: Creating Meaning and Value in a Networked Culture.” The event is free and open to the public.

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