Tag Archives: Henry Jenkins

A letter to my culture interns, Jarvis and Donte

I have never had interns before. In fact, I thought there was something wrong with using them. But I now have two.

I will call them Jarvis Rochford and Donte Cole. (Naturally, I can’t use their real names, so I asked the name generator in Scrivener to make suggestions. It would take me a very long time to come up with something better than Jarvis Rochford. I’m just way behind on my historical romances.)

It occurred to me that there might be people out there who would like to act as virtual interns, to follow along at home, as it were.  So this letter is to you, too.

Dear Jarvis and Donte

While we wait for your internships to begin in earnest, I thought I would suggest a couple of things we can do in the meantime.

When you are reading NYT, WSJ, blogs, aggregators, etc., please listen for that small note of surprise that heralds something that doesn’t quite fit. Something on the page or the screen that has caught you by surprise.

The second step is to ask whether it is something or nothing. It’s nothing if it is a “floater,” as it were, a mote in the eye, an artifact of language or logic, but not something in the world. And it’s also “nothing” (for our purposes) if there is some easy, obvious explanation.

It’s something if on closer scrutiny it resists, defies our categories of explanation. The natural explanation here is to dismiss. If something doesn’t conform to our categories, it can’t be the category’s fault. The datum is wrong.

But of course this is the beginning for insight. What would you have to think to make this something make sense, how would you have to change your explanatory models?

There is lots of stuff pouring around out there. I found this in the WSJ the other day.

screenshot

This is what Marc Andreessen calls ‘software eating the world.’ Amazon consuming high street and the mall. An easy explanation then. The thing that struck me was the acceleration. See the data for 2017. The “why” is not mysterious but the “now what?” is. What does the world look like when retail vanishes more and more from the bricks and mortar world? I realize I haven’t really thought about this. I have no obvious answers, no particular way of thinking about the problem. All I (now) know is that it approaches at speed…and I’m not ready.

Retail Reeling is not a perfect example of pure surprise, then. Marc Andreessen put us on notice years ago. But it is a chance to discover that my explanatory models, the sense making apparatus in my head, are not a reliable guide to the world in the works. I’m not ready for what happens to culture and the world once software eats them both.

Here’s something that’s, for me, weirder. I was at a media conference last week. (Thank you, Jacob Groshek for including me in the very interesting Streaming Television and Second Screening Workshop at Boston University.) I came upon a reference to Superwholock.  I checked Google trend to see where it stands in terms of popularity. Gliding gently into obscurity by the look of things.

screenshot

Lots of little questions: why was it invented in the first place? Why did it peak several years ago? Why is it now on the decline?

The categories that activate for me when I look at this are chiefly to do with fanfic. This is a fantastically interesting development, and one measure of the extent to which we are shifting from passive media consumption to something more Jenkensian: an inclination to appropriate and reinvent.

But there are more interesting and particular things to mine from the meme. Have a go at it (or any other meme).

That’s always the game here at cultureby.com. What’s happening “out there?” What are the first signals, the earliest indicators that something has changed? What can it tell us about what is happening “in culture.” And what does that tell us about who and what we are becoming as a world and culture (not always the same thing but always interacting ferociously)?

This turns out to be a long note, and with your permission, Jarvis and Donte, I will put it on line at cultureby.com. There may be people who want to act as virtual interns…or real ones for that matter.

comics on culture on Charlie Rose

IMG_6204Yesterday, the Charlie Rose Show repeated interviews with comics Billy Eichner, Amy Pohler, Matt Besser, Ian Roberts, Matt Walsh, and Seth Meyers.

A couple of comments jumped out.

Matt Besser: “You don’t have to appeal to 30 million people anymore.”

Ian Roberts: [the stuff we do can be] “a little rougher, more radical, more experimental.”

So what does that mean for popular culture?

Samantha Bee has an answer (at least for Full Frontal):

“We just do the material that appeals to us, the sort of thing we want to see.”

Does this mark the beginning of the decline of TV as a mass medium? Is TV, at least comedy on TV, now the artist’s playground, a place where artists can satisfy their own creative agenda?

This would spell the end of that glassy, packaged, patronizing, anti-improvisational work that popular culture produced in the 1950s, the stuff that made comedy look like an airshow: “Here comes a joke, this is the joke, how great was that joke!”

But have we moved to the far extreme? Let’s call this the Samantha Bee extreme (hold all jokes to the end of the essay, please) where it’s all about the cultural producer, and no longer about the cultural consumer. At all. (There’s another possibility: that Ms. Bee has become tragically self indulgent, the Nic Pizzolatto of late night, and not long for that. I ignore this option.)

Seth Meyers had an answer. Audiences are getting smarter, he said. They have all the comedy ever recorded at their disposal on YouTube and they are “self educating.”

So, yes, apparently we are moving to the Samantha Bee extreme. Comedy producers and consumers are less different. They are growing closer. What a change this is! Comedians were once aliens who infiltrated the human community by manifesting on a standup stage, there to outrage and delight the sensibilities of people who really had no idea what comedy was or where it came from. Not now. Now more and more comedic producers and consumers make up one community.

This changes the comedian. She was once a tortured soul, torn between the popular success that came from “safe” comedy and the professional esteem that could only come from “daring” comedy. To use that airspace metaphor again (hold your applause to the end of the essay, please) comedy producers and consumers occupy the same airspace. The comics can just do better stunts.

It also changes the audience. They are no longer yokels at a country fair marveling at the ingenuity of these city slickers. (“Dang, how’d he do that!”) They are more likely to scrutinize the architecture of the joke, wondering if Samantha Bee “didn’t maybe put a little too much stress on the last word. I feel.” and then taking (or as Henry Jenkins would say, “poaching”) the joke for their own personal purposes, to make themselves funnier Saturday night at the bar.

This is all great news for some purposes. It’s good for Netflix, Hulu and Amazon. It’s good for Comedy Central, Funny or Die, and Seeso. It’s good for aspiring comics. Most of all, it’s good for contemporary culture, which gets funnier the more producers and consumers drive one another onwards and upwards. Call this the Apollo Theater effect, where the audience is so discerning, it forces entertainers to raise their game. (But now of course the effect is reciprocal.)

But it’s not all great news.

As two comedic worlds close, two cultural worlds tear apart.

As comedy producers and consumers get ever chummier, they take their leave of a large group of fellow Americans. I say, “fellow,” but of course that’s the point. As comedy gets better and pulls away, these Americans are less “fellow.” There are now millions of Americans who couldn’t find the funny in an Upright Citizens Brigade’s routine if their lives depended on it. They can’t actually see the point of it. And there are few things quite as alienating as this. You look a fool. You feel a fool.

There are two choices when this happens. You can accuse yourself of being witless and wanting. Or you can attack the person who has threatened you with this judgement, and call them an elite bent on taking your culture away from you. The only way to escape the “fool” judgement is to turn it on someone else.

And that’s where politicians like Donald Trump come in. And not just Trump, but an entire industry of pundits, experts, talk show hosts, religious leaders and other politicians have seized upon the “culture wars” as an opportunity to fan the flames of unrest, to mobilize dissent, to coax dollars out of pockets.

That’s where we are. Driven by technological innovations and cultural ones, there is now a dynamic driving groups of Americans apart, destroying shared assumptions, and putting at risk the hope that an always heterogeneous America can remain, in the words of Alan Wolfe, one nation after all.

This is not an accusation. There’s no obvious enemy. And there’s no obvious answer. No party, ideology, or interest can put Humpty Dumpty back together again. We may self correct. We may not. But chances are slim that this cultural divide will make no difference, not as long as certain interests keep hammering away at it.

But it is a confession. I wrote a book in the late 1980s called Plenitude in which I argued that the coming cultural diversity would be a good thing and that we would survive it without descending into a tower of babel or a world of conflicting assumptions. And now it’s beginning to look like I was wrong.

You can hear something tearing.

how to make TV now (the “whole world” approach)

hunters4.jpeg

Natalie Chaidez is the show runner for Hunters (Mondays, 10:00 eastern, SyFy). Recently Sean Hutchinson asked her what she was aiming for.

Our idea of aliens is cliched, she replied. She wanted to “flip everything you think you know going into an alien series.”

Mission accomplished. The aliens on Hunters are not your standard-issue “monsters from outer space.” Monsters, yes, but complicated monsters. We can’t quite tell what they are up to. Bad stuff, yes. But the exact whathow and why of their monstrosity is unclear.

Chaidez explains:

I wanted to do something different. That led me to a neurologist from Brown University named Seth Horowitz, and he and I collaborated about the planet, their anatomy, and how they’d operate on earth. It gave it a level of originality because we approached it from the inside out.

Hutchinson:

Why did you want to dive in and be that thorough if most people won’t know those details?

Chaidez:

Because it’s fun! But you also just want to know so it feels cohesive. 90 percent of the stuff Seth and I talked about will probably never make it into the show.

This is interesting because it breaks a cardinal rule of the old television. And this is do exactly as much as you must to fill the screen…and not a jot more. To invent a world and leave 90% of it un-shot, well, we can just imagine the reaction of a standard-issue producer.

“It’s my job to make sure shit like this never happens! [Wave cliche cigar in air for emphasis] Artists! You have to watch ’em every goddamn second!”

This is a parsimony rule of the kind that capitalism loves. No expenditure must ever be “excess to requirement.” Some producers are uncomplicated monsters. It’s their job to make sure that creative enterprises are starved of the resources necessary to turn popular culture into culture. It’s what they like to call their “fiduciary obligation.”

The parsimony rule helps explain that dizzying sensation we get when we go to a TV production or a film set, and notice how “thin” everything is. Not rock but papermache! Not an entire world but just enough of it. An universe made to go right to the edge of what the camera can see, and not an inch beyond.

What Chaidez and Horowitz have done goes completely beyond requirement. They made an entire world, much of which we will never see.

Why?

This could be a case of the recklessness of the new TV. With the rise of the showrunner, people are no longer making TV as half-hour sausages. They have bigger ambitions and sometimes bigger pretensions. Budgets will bloom!

Or is there something going on here?

I think the Chaidez-Horowitz approach, let’s call it the “whole world” approach, has several assumptions (each of which, if warranted, is a way to justify additional expenditure):

1. A pre-text is better than a “pretext”

Our standards of richness, complexity and subtlety on TV have risen. “Thin” TV is now scorned. We want our culture to feel fully realized and in the case of the story telling, this means that we want the story to feel as if it predates the production. Novelists are good at this. But TV, ruled by cigar-waving producers, has been less good. Too often, the story world feels served up. Something tells us that it will disappear the moment the narrative has moved on, that it will cease the moment the camera is sated.  (For the pre-text impulse in the worlds of computers and cuisine, see my post of Steve Jobs and Alice Waters and their “exquisite choice” capitalism.)

2. a “whole world” approach is generative of fan interest

When we sense that the showrunner has taken a whole world approach, we engage. Shafts of light show through. We begin to try to construct the whole world from the available evidence. (We used to do this at the Harvard Business School. We would give students pieces of the spread sheet which they would then reconstruct.)

The “whole world” approach is a great way of turning viewers into fans. The moment we detect a whole world behind the narrative, we rouse ourselves from couch potato status and begin to examine faint signals very carefully. What does this stray remark tell us? If X, then we can assume the larger world looks like this. But if Y, we can construct something altogether different. (Remember when Star Trek viewers began to map the ship. The showrunners were astonished.) This is astounding engagement, one that every showrunner dreams of. And all we have to do, it turns out, is engage in complete acts of invention instead of “good enough for television” ones. And “good enough for television” (aka “partial world” TV) is a place no one wants to live anymore. It’s always less than the sum of its parts. That way lies creative entropy and fan discouragement.

3. a “whole world” approach is generative of fan fiction

Whole worlds made available in shafts of light invite something more than engagement. They say to the transmedia fan, “here’s a place to start. Make this glimpse your point of departure. Or that one.” Whole worlds make a thousand flowers bloom. And this too is the stuff of showrunner fantasy. To have fans who love your work so much they seek to invent more of it. To make work so provocative it sends fans racing to their key board, can there be any greater compliment? There is a whole world paradox, too. It says “the more complete your world, the more worlds it will help birth.”

4 a “whole world” approach is generative of transmedia

As Henry Jenkins has helped us see, transmedia is that extraordinary creation in contemporary culture where certain stories are so prized, they attract many authors. Eventually, the “one true text” gives way to a story that lives in all its variations, on all its media.  Now that our whole world is generating lots of fan fiction, it has like William Gibson’s Mona Lisa, slipped the confines of a single medium and put out into a vastly larger imaginative universe. Another paradox then. World worlds give rise to an entire universe. No, our cigar chomping producer cannot “monitize” all these variations but really that’s no longer the point. This will come…but if and only if you make something that our culture decides is worthy of its contributions. The life of a cultural “property” depends as Jenkins, Ford and Green say, on the willingness of the fan to distribute it. But as I was laboring to say yesterday, it also depends on the willingness of the fan to contribute to it.

It’s hard to write this post and not think how much it evokes the spirit of USC. First, there’s Henry Jenkins, Provost Professor of Communication, Journalism, Cinematic Arts, and Education at the USC Annenberg School. Then there’s Geoffrey Long, recently appointed Creative Director for the World Building Media Lab at USC. Geoffrey is my guru when it comes to the question of building worlds. And just today, I got the very good news that Robert V. Kozinets has been appointed the Jayne and Hans Hufschmid Chair in Strategic Public Relations and Business Communication at USC.

I am sometimes asked where people should go to study contemporary culture. Now I know.

The ‘wicked grin’ test (as a new creative measure)

How do you know when something in our culture is really good?

I think it’s when it makes us grin a wicked grin.

This is one of those: Dave Chappelle does imitation of Prince and Prince uses the imitation for his album cover. Dave becomes Prince. Prince becomes Dave becoming Prince.

For post-modernists, this is ‘signs circulating.’ Fair enough but not very interesting. It doesn’t explain why we grin wickedly.

It’s the relocation that does it. Daveness taking on Princeness. Princeness taking on Daveness as Princeness. These are meanings in motion. We grin wickedly because we can’t believe that Dave dared attempt Princeness. It’s not temerity that gets us. Dave is free to make fun of a genius like Prince. That’s the privilege of his genius.

No, what makes us grin is astonishment. How did Dave do it? How is that possible? Daveness and Princeness share a claim (and a proof) of genius, but they come from very different parts of our culture.  They are in a sense incommensurate.

And they just made themselves (for a moment, in a way) commensurate. This makes our minds happy…and our faces grin. I think it is at some level it makes our brains happy. Meanings attached to one thing now, astonishingly, belong to another. We can feel gears turning in our heads.

Dave and Prince have brought meanings together that are normally kept apart. And we thank them for this semiotic miracle by grinning our admiration, astonishment, gratitude. Who knew our culture could do that.

We make a lot of culture with acts of unexpected, unprecedented combination.  (I have tried to map this process for contemporary culture in a book called Culturematic.)

Indeed, wicked grinning should be the new objective not just of comedy and album cover design, but of branding, design and advertising. We used to slavishly obey the rules of official combination (aka genre). Now we bore people with this predictability. If the user, viewer, consumer, audience can see where we’re going, they won’t come with us. (Susan Sarandon did an interview yesterday on Charlie Rose in which she said precisely this.)

Compare a culturematic to old fashioned marketing. The ad man and woman came up with a blindingly obvious message, stuffed it into one of the mass media (3 network TV, magazines, newspaper, radio) and fired it at the target over and over again until our ears bled. Everyone just wanted the “persuasion” to stop. This was cold war torture. And the worse part of this torture was how completely unsurprising it all was.

Every thing changes when we assume that our “consumers” are clever and interesting, and, chances are, making culture on their own. This means first that they can see the grammars we are using. Second, it means that they are looking for culture to make their own, for critical purposes and creative ones.  Culture creative, assume you are talking to someone has smart as you are. Assume you are talking to someone who can do what you do. And go with the idea that we have no hope of success unless we are making content that makes people grin wickedly.

Henry Jenkins, Sam Ford and Joshua Green have invited us to embrace a new slogan: “if it doesn’t spread, it’s dead.” The idea is that a message will die unless people take an act hand in distributing it by social media. I am proposed that before we apply the Jenkins-Ford-Green test, we apply “wicked grin test.” Forget the focus groups and the audience testing. Just show your work to someone and look at the expression on their face.

Tweeting television (now locked in a box)

spreadable-media-libro-71784I have a friend who believes  every article, post, tweet he needs to read will come to him every day by new media.

And he’s right.  We  act as editors for one another.  We see something, we say something…on Twitter, Facebook, Tumbler, LinkedIn and elsewhere.

But he’s  wrong.  I bet he misses things.  I know I do.  Plus, some things can’t get into new media.  They just don’t.

Take TV.  We watch a lot of TV.  And my Netflix research winter tells me that we watch this TV with new attention to detail and a deep inclination to talk about it.  We find favorite scenes, brilliant bits of acting, very special effects, but all of this remains locked in the box.  It just isn’t  “spreadable,” to use the language of Henry Jenkins, Sam Ford and Josh Green.  (That’s their book cover above.  Highly recommended. Forgive the Italian subtitle.  Buy the book here.)

This is a classic case of the old media failing to seize the opportunities opened up by new media.  Imagine how many of the shows that failed this fall season might have made it if their early fans could have got the word out.

What we need is some tech overlay that makes clipping and sharing easy and possible.  Build it into the remote control.  Put on an IN button and an OUT button and a CLIP button and a SHARE button.

I am sure there are legal issues here, but I am equally certain Lawrence Lessig  or Jonathan Zittrain could sort them out over lunch time.  The copy right holders are, after all, deeply incented to permit the passage of small clips.  Permit?  What Jenkins, Ford and Green say about spreadable media, applies especially to every new season of television.  If it doesn’t spread, it’s dead.

In the meantime, we can resort to efforts of our own.  Here’s a clip from one of my favorite shows, Being Human.  This is Sally, a ghost, explaining how she intends to protect the house from sale.  (Remember, she’s a ghost and therefore invisible to  mortals.)

I shot this with my iPhone.  Something less that stellar quality.  But good enough for the  internet, as they say.   Some people are put off by Being Human because it’s on SyFy (they don’t like science fiction) or because the show has such a weird premise (the creatures “being human” are a ghost, a vampire, and a ghost).  But I think this scene takes us beyond odd premises into the heart of the show.  Several “barriers to entry” fall.  SyFy wants this clip to click.

God knows, we have quite a lot of content circulating on line.  The numbers are simply breathtaking.  But the fact of the matter is that TV preoccupies us.  And it’s getting better.  As it stands, this part of our culture is excluded from the conversation.  This should change.

Being Human, US and UK versions

I am a big fan of Being Human, the US version, that recently appeared on SyFy.  

It’s a wonderful “what if.”

What if there was a vampire, werewolf, and a ghost living in a house together?  I have to say that my initial response was puzzlement.  As in, “um, er, I don’t know. What would happen if they lived together?”

Some part of the show comes from how well the producers work out the “what if” in a manner that satisfies my sense of the plausible and takes me places I never would have guessed.  Being Human works a productive balance between “oh, that makes sense to me” and “wow, how interesting!”  

The new media consumer is especially fond of things that satisfy a sense of the plausible and the possible.  (We get to keep a foot in the familiar and one in the new.)  Managing both is key…and difficult.  (I was able to predict the death of The Good Guys early because it was clear it could not find this balance.) 

When Pam got me Apple TV for my recent birthday, I was thrilled to see that it contained BBC America and that this contained Being Human, the UK version.

What a delicious opportunity to consume what Henry Jenkins calls “transmedia,” one story told in more than a single form.  (I know someone is going to object that both shows are TV and this is not transmedia. Saying that British and American TV are the same medium is like saying British and American football are the same game.)  This transmedia opportunity is sweetened by the fact that the media in question are transatlantic. With their special relationship, the UK and US continue to be, for certain purposes, variations on a theme. How interesting then to see what these two cultures would do with the same cultural artifact. 

The first thing to notice is a bit stunning.  In the old regime, the American version of a transatlantic exercise would feature actors who were more beautiful and less talented. This is NOT what is happened in the case of Being Human.  The UK actors are better looking and the US actors might actually be the better actors.  (They may be tied on the acting question.) 

This tells us that American TV is getting better or at least ballsier.  Not to lead with beauty, or (to think of this as the trade-off it probably it was) to go with talent even when it costs you beauty, that’s a big shift for an American culture producer.  

The second point is harder to assess.  Being Human uses diversity to propel itself out of genre.  By this time, we have a pretty good idea of what and who vampires are.  Indeed, the genre is starting to congeal and now takes quite deliberate innovations (True Blood) to sustain life (all puns intended).  Ghosts too.  As a culture we have gone from having no idea what a ghost is to having a pretty clear script.  (Blame Whoopi) Goldberg.  Werewolves, not so much. 

So Being Human has a built-in “refresh” feature.  Just as we are beginning to think “been there, done that” about any one of the subgenres, we are obliged to follow the story line as it crosses these subgenres.  Or, less abstractly, just as we are thinking “vampires, yawn” we are obliged to watch a vampire interact with a werewolf and then a ghost.  New life returns to the vampire.  (ditto).  And definition comes to the werewolf.   

In effect, Being Human is an interesting and successful TV series because it is not the product of the grammar that comes from genre.  It is interesting and successful because it contains a grammar that helps it escape genre.  It is not generated but generative.  Being Human contains the secret that characterizes all the culture we care about these days.  It is both familiar and unpredictable, both from genre and beyond genre.  

Being Human, Being Jenkinsian

I watched the opening episode on Being Human on SyFy this week.

The fun thing about science and fantasy fiction is that you never know which of the assumptions that govern your world will be reconstituted in the present one.  And even once you’ve spotted the difference(s), it’s still hard to anticipate what differences the difference(s) will make.

This is distinctly the pleasure of Being Human.  You can’t guess, beyond the obvious things, how vampires, werewolves and ghosts will coexist, and its fun to wait to see this play out.  The ghost (and the actress who plays her, Meaghan Rath) is especially interesting because she is still figuring out how to be a ghost and divides her time, in the meanwhile, between being a busy body around the house, and wailing, properly, at the sheer injustice of her fate.

Shake well.  Repeat as necessary.

Putting a vampire, a werewolf and a ghost in a house is interesting.  Putting this vampire, werewolf and ghost even more so.  It’s not that this has ever been for me a matter of burning curiosity, as in “I wonder what would happen if…”  But it makes a diverting pretext on which to sharpen on our wits.

Because we don’t just sit there.  We are Jenkinsians.  We are hunting and gathering the simple where, what, and who.  We are also working out the back stories.  (It turns out the werewolf is Jewish and that woman we thought was his girlfriend is actually his sister.  To know something about this family makes what we may think about his identity as a werewolf richer and more interesting.  I mean, otherwise, he’s just a one trick pony, er, werewolf.)   And we are performing a kind of cultural Sudoku.  If this is true, and this is true, we tell ourselves, then this is probably true.

The cultural participant, the Jenkinsian observer, is looking for 5 things:

1)  What are the differences that create this little world?  (And have they been well chosen?)

2)  What differences do these differences make?  (How will this play out?  I will want to be rewarded for my perspicuity, what there is of that.  And I will want to be rewarded by developments I couldn’t possibly anticipate, that will thrill me in the unfolding.)

3)  What is the field of possibility? (What am I given as background and back story?  And what can I do with them?  How rich and engaging a field is this?)

4)  What can I assume, reliably and speculatively?  (Given what I am given and can surmise from questions 1, 2 and 3, what is my own invented Being Human.  This is where the cultural Sudoku comes in.)

5)  Has the world been successfully jumbled?  Have things been brought into collisions that are normally kept asunder, and does their combination deliver present, and promise future, interesting, outcomes?

6)  Oh, there’s a 6th.  I think we are looking at each of these characters and asking "what would it be like to be like that?"  

This is the unofficial viewer’s guide with which I watch Being Human and probably any show. We are active viewers, digging, poaching, reworking, creating, empathizing, as we go.

References

Jenkins, Henry. 1992. Textual poachers: Television fans & participatory culture. New York: Routledge.

Jenkins, Henry. 2006. Fans, Bloggers, and Gamers: Media Consumers in a Digital Age. NYU Press.

Jenkins, Henry. 2008. Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide. Revised. NYU Press.

Jenkins, Henry. 2009. Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture: Media Education for the 21st Century. The MIT Press.

Post script: I hope Henry, my esteemed colleague, will forgive me taking liberty with his ideas and his name.  This idea was buzzing around in my head, and I had a 50 minutes to turn it into words on the train.