Monday, January 24, 2011

Serious Fun

Jenkins, Henry. Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide. New York
University Press, 2006, 351 pages.

Read this book. It has a big payoff. Although Jenkin’s thesis is not easily summarized, it is illustrated through nuanced case studies of prominent forms of convergence culture. Since I don’t watch television, the book also functioned as an excellent primer on some of the television programs I have heard of over the years but never viewed. The book includes chapters on Survivor and spoiling, American Idol and sales, The Matrix and transmedia storytelling, Star Wars and grassroots creativity, and Harry Potter and media literacy. It is a book about “serious fun.”[1]

A quick definition of convergence is helpful. “Convergence does not depend on any specific delivery mechanism. Rather, convergence represents a paradigm shift—a move from medium-specific content toward content that flows across multiple media channels, toward the increased interdependence of communications systems, toward multiple ways of accessing media content, and toward ever more complex relations between top-down corporate media and bottom-up participatory culture.”[2]

Jenkins believes that the central transition currently occurring that signifies convergence is a shift away from individual and personal media consumption to “consumption as a networked practice.”[3]

Essentially, what interests Jenkins is how the combining of new and old media can often provide a synergistic effect in cultural and economic systems, and how misunderstanding that synergy can be detrimental to the very businesses who have often been the catalysts of the convergence they then try to retard. I find helpful if disturbing parallels to pastoral ministry and church leadership. For example, although LucasArts successfully encouraged fan communities for many years, especially through their MMORPG Star Wars Galaxies, and exhibited considerable wisdom with the new convergence culture by entering into a more collaborationist relationship with their consumer base, eventually, when market pressures from alternative games and models came into play, they “dumbed down” the game, and lost their hard core fan base (their collaborators) in the process.

A quote from the game’s senior director is an example of how precisely not to think when approaching the new media: “We really just needed to make the game a lot more accessible to a much broader player base. There was lots of reading, much too much, in the game. There was a lot of wandering around learning about different abilities. We really needed to give people the experience of being Han Solo or Luke Skywalker rather than being Uncle Owen, the moisture farmer. We wanted more instant gratification: kill, get treasure, repeat. We needed to give people more of an opportunity to be a part of what they have seen in the movies rather than something they had created themselves.”[4] Note to self: do a self-evaluation to see to what degree this kind of thinking informs how we operate as a church.

The reason this approach is so wrong headed is because it does not recognize that in convergence culture, it is the early adopters, the fans, the true believers and die hards, who are your biggest market. Earlier in the book, Jenkins notes that “brand loyalty is the holy grail of affective economics because of what economists call the 80/20 rule: for most consumer products, 80 percent of purchases are made by 20 percent of their consumer base. Maintaining the allegiance of that 20 percent stabilizes the market and allows companies to adopt an array of other approaches to court those who would make the other 20 percent of purchases.”[5] I believe there are close parallels between this economic system and the economy of churches as well. It is often 20 percent of the congregation who provides the energy for 80 percent of what the church does in mission in the world. Translation: there is a ton you can do, and lots of places you can go, if that 20 percent is on board, and then even more you can do to court those who would make up the other 20 percent of energy for mission, if you have cultivated the allegiance of the 20 percent. Based on some of the material I’ve read on congregational systems, and what I’ve observed in congregations, this is just about right.

However, there is more to this book than simply insights into great marketing approaches in a new media era. Perhaps my biggest revelation while reading the book was the discovery that fan communities play an integral role in our culture and communities, and not just because they are neurotically wasting time on esoterica. Fans are people who take things very seriously, but seriously in playful way. They play with what has been given, and that playfulness is often innovative and transformative. They are exercising tools in a new era that are needed for a healthy transition into the future. “Play is one of the ways we learn, and during a period of reskilling and reorientation, such play may be much more important than it seems at first glance.”[6]

Furthermore, the chapter on Harry Potter is essential for anyone interested in the new forms of literacy that are arising. Central to this chapter is the story of Heather Lawver, who launch The Daily Prophet ( a web-based school newspaper (fictional) for Hogwarts. Jenkins notes that “ a girl who hadn’t been in school since first grade was leading a worldwide staff of student writers with no adult supervision to publish a school newspaper for a school that existed only in their imaginations.”[7]

Towards the end of the book, Jenkins notes that his attention is increasingly being drawn to media literacy education, a passion I share with him. I think that in this new era, media literacy education is critical, and needs to be done in a variety of contexts, including the church. Earlier in the book, he offers a list of skills children need in order to become participants in convergence culture. These include:

1) “The ability to pool knowledge with others in a collaborative enterprise”
2) “The ability to share and compare value systems by evaluating ethical dramas”
3) “The ability to make connections across scattered pieces of information”
4) “The ability to express your interpretations and feelings towards popular fictions through your own folk culture”
5) “The ability to circulate what you create via the Internet so it can be shared with others”
6) “Role-playing both as a means of exploring a fictional realm and as a means of developing a richer understanding of yourself and the culture around you”[8]

You could bring that list straight into a planning meeting for Sunday school and bible study, and come out with some creative and enriching results. I think I’ll give it a shot!

[1] 218.
[2] 254.
[3] 255.
[4] 172
[5] 72.
[6] 29
[7] 179.
[8] 185.

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