Tag Archives: Henry Jenkins

Will Digital Culture ever invent a Homer Simpson?

First Observation:

Entertainment Weekly recently gave us the "100 greatest characters of the last 20 years."  The list includes Buffy, Jack Sparrow, Rachel from Friends, Harry Potter, John Locke, Miranda Priestly, and Ron Burgundy.   

Second Observation:

In his latest book, Clay Shirky suggests that we now have around 1 trillion hours of creative surplus at our disposal.  We use this time variously, offering Lolcats and, yes, blog posts.

The question:

Will Shirky’s surplus ever create a character that will appear on the Entertainment Weekly list?  Will we ever create our own Homer?

Some thoughts:

I am not being argumentative.  This is an open question. The answer could be "soon" or it could be "never," and I’ll be happy.  However we answer this question, we will have improved our anthropological understanding of contemporary culture.

There is a general presumption, I think, that we are sitting on a gusher.  Shirky’s surplus is so vast, so inexorable that the creation of an EW "100 winner" can’t be far off.  And it’s not that we are talking about the proverbial 100 monkeys.  It won’t happen by evolutionary accident.  It will happen because our use of the Shirky surplus gets better and better. This argument says "soon."

Some will say our surplus is already in evidence on the EW list.  They will say that these creatures are the result of user participation, consumer cocreation, the agency and activity of fans, transmedia assembly, textual poaching, and a liberal borrowing from the cultural commons. Homer Simpson is all about borrowing and, like any bard, his standing depends finally on our consent. This argument says "already."

But there is an argument that says "never."  The red neck version of the argument rehearses the idea that popular culture is a waste land.  Thus speak Keen and Bauerlein. But there’s a more sophisticated approach that says the creativity of the internet is a derivative creativity, that mashup culture must begin with something first to mash.  Our culture may be in the direction of the consumer-producer but it will always depend on the producer-producer as a kind of "first mover." 

Let’s push things a little further.  (And again I do this for the sake of argument only.  Living at the intersection of Anthropology and Economics, I can be ecumenical on a question like this.) What if the people who make Homers and Buffys must be funded by something other than the "creative surplus."  Must there be an enterprise that engages people to invest financial and creative capitals in a (relatively) expensive and therefore risky productions which then compete in some cultural marketplace.  

By this reckoning, the EW 100 list will not exist without the intervention of commerce (of some pretty literal kind that goes well beyond the gift economies of the cultural commons.)  

I’m just asking.  

The Upshot:

This would make a dandy topic for a Futures of Entertainment session, with Shirky, Henry Jenkins, Larry Lessig, David Weinberger, Dan Snierson, Jeff Jensen, and several other thinkers.  With Sam Ford moderating, of course.

References

Anonymous.  n.d.  "Lolcats" entry on Wikipedia here.

Bauerlein, Mark.  2009.  The Dumbest Generation: How the digital age stupefies young Americans and jeopardizes our future.  Tarcher.  

Carey, John.  1992.  The Intellectuals and the masses: pride and prejudice among the literary intelligentsia, 1880-1939.  Faber and Faber.  (For an argument that anticipates and, I believe, dispatches the kind of argument made by Bauerlein and Keen)

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

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

Keen, Andrew.  2008.  The Culture of the Amateur: how blogs, MySpace, YouTube, and the rest of today’s user-generated media are destroying our economy, our culture, and our values.  Broadway Business.  

Shirky, Clay. 2010. Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age. Penguin Press. 

Snierson, Dan, Jeff Jensen, and many others.  2010. The 100 Greatest Characters of the last 20 years. Entertainment Weekly.  Double Issue.  No. 1105 and 1106.  June 4 and June 11.  here.

Acknowledgements

Thanks to Gareth Kay for telling me about Shirky’s new book.  

Jeff Bewkes and the end of influence

I attended the Advertising Research Foundation meetings today and had a chance to listen to Jeff Bewkes as interviewed on stage by Guy Garcia.

Bewkes is now the CEO of Time Warner, but his remarks were devoted especially to his days at HBO.  And well he should. Over the course of 10 years, Bewkes and his colleague Chris Albrecht changed TV extraordinarily. They changed a lot of American cutlure in the process.

So when Bewkes began talking about the HBO program The Wire, I leaned in.  As did everyone in the audience of 300 people. The oracle was about to speak.

Two things struck me.  It sounded as if Bewkes was saying that HBO quite deliberately broke with the rules of mass media. Traditionally, TV shows have proceeded extensively. They seek a nice broad proposition in the hopes of attracting as large an audience as possible.  The Wire seemed to proceed intensively.  It traded away lots of viewers for a more vivid, visceral relationship with a smaller audience.

Normally, this would look like self indulgence and a kind of ratings suicide, except that something in the world had changed. There was now a new kind of viewer, more mobile, more questing, more prepared to find a show wherever it was and then patient enough to let it build a connection.  In this sense, one of the necessary conditions of the rise of HBO was the rise of a new audience out there.  Whether anyone at HBO was reading Henry Jenkins was not made clear over the course of the interview, but I must assume someone was.

But then a second, more seditious thought occurred to me.  And this was not proposed by Mr. Bewkes, and no one should blame him for my moment of delirium.  I thought to myself: listen (I have to get my own attention somehow), this new, more mobile, more literate viewer holds a more revolutionary promise.  If and when most viewers are active and engaged in this way, wouldn’t this spell the end of influence?

Here’s what I was thinking.  As and when viewers become more free wheeling, more curious, more prepared to stop in at obscure places and to bear with difficult shows, the "early influencer" matters less and less.  Viewers will be possessed of the ability to find their own shows and make their own choices.  They will not look to others to identify and vet shows for them.  Every viewer, or at least more viewer, would act as "masterless" men and women, making their viewing choices by their own lights.

And this would mark an interesting development in the world of media and marketing.  After World War II, the assumption was that in an era of mass media, it was really enough to fill the advertising and production cannons and eventually our messages and show would find their audience.  We might emulate those above us in the status hierarchy, but really the very point of the era of mass media was that it was now possible for Hollywood and marketers to make direct contact.  But as audiences fragmented, it was increasingly necessary to have some viewers leading other viewers.  Someone to play the role of the early adopter. Hence the work of Gladwell and the buzz students.  Hence all that talk of activating chains of influence.  Early adopters were now key to the viewing community, and increasingly key to the advertising research community.

But this is perhaps a temporary condition.  As viewers get better and better, influencers matter less and less.  In a weird way, we will return to the world of mass marketing.  Not because there are fewer, louder media, but because they viewer is so mobile, so charged with his or her own taste, so motivated by his or her interest in what TV has to offer, that the only person most viewers will be listening to is themselves.

It’s just a thought, really.

Note: This post was lost in the Network Solutions debacle.  It was reposted on December 26, 2010.

Creativity’s brief moment in the sun?

At year’s end, I have an unhappy thought, that some of the creative professionals who rose of prominence in the first decade of the 21st century will be eclipsed by the end of the decade.  My unhappy thought: the first decade of the 21st century will be for some creative professionals, a brief moment in the sun.

This suspicion turns on three propositions.

1) There has been a change in supply.

As Henry Jenkins pointed out in Textual Poachers and as I labored to point out in Plenitude, the distinction between cultural producers and consumers began to blur in the last 20 years.  Indeed, there was a vast migration from one side of the distinction to the other.  Many people who once merely consumed culture (in the form of film, art, comedy, observation, journalism, criticism) were now surprisingly good at producing this culture.  Suddenly in the economy of culture, the number of suppliers exploded.

2)  There has been a change in demand.

The first decade of the 21st century  was the moment in which the corporation reached out and embraced creativity. We have many institutions and people to thank for this, including BusinessWeek (when it announced the innovation economy), Richard Florida and his study of the creative class, the Kelley brothers (David at Stanford design school, and Tom at Ideo), Roger Martin at the Rotman School, to name a few .

3) There has been a change in the market in which supply and demand find one another

Recently, I was chatted with Richard Shear. He’s owns a design firm.  Over the years he’s done very well, thank you very much. But he can see a cloud on the horizon.  He is seeing some corporations "crowdsourcing" their creativity.  They hold competitions in which all the design talent "out there" is encouraged to apply.  The best work is selected…and paid much less than my friend would have charged.  In sum, demand may be increasing, but supply is increasing more. So prices are falling.

A case in point: that image that appears in the upper right hand corner of this post?  I just bought it from istockphoto.  It cost me a dollar.

4) Creative professionals may lose their moment in the sun.

The economics of creativity may be changing, and this trend appears to be on a collision with the trend that made designers the charmed creatures of the corporation.  It’s possible that the great golden age of commercial creativity may end almost before it began.  By the end of the decade of the next century, we may be looking at a very different design world.

5) Recommendation

In the new "crowdsourced" economy, there will be one place where designers will continue to flourish.  It will be with clients who do not know what they need.  When they do know what they need, they will take advantage of the new economy.  But when they don’t, they will need a enduring connection with a designers who gets who they are, who the consumer is, and what the culture is.  They will need designers who deliver a larger package of knowledge, intelligence, and creativity.  (To be sure, this is the way great designers always seen what they do.)  The upshot?Designers should be cultivating the skills that enable them to deliver ideas and intelligence, not just design.  (To be fair, this is what all design schools say they do.)  This will take a new order of professional development.  (It will mean that designers will have to be Chief Culture Officers, whomever else they are.)

There’s good news: that as the world grows more dynamic, more and more clients are going to need more foundational work from their designers.  They won’t know what they need. They will come to the designer with a wish for a bigger picture, pattern recognition, a true knowledge and mastery of culture, a feeling for the competitive field and a deeper skill set that is perhaps now usual.

References

Florida, Richard. 2003. The Rise of the Creative Class: And How It’s Transforming Work, Leisure, Community and Everyday Life. Basic Books.

Jenkins, Henry. 1992. Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Culture. Routledge.

McCracken, Grant.  1997.  Plenitude.  Toronto: Periph Fluide.

McCracken, Grant.  2009.  Chief Culture Officer.  Basic Books.

Mandel, Michael.  2004.  "This Way to the Future." BusinessWeek, October 11.

Kelley, Thomas, and Jonathan Littman. 2005. The Ten Faces of Innovation: IDEO’s Strategies for Defeating the Devil’s Advocate and Driving Creativity Throughout Your Organization. New York: Broadway Business.

Moldoveanu, Mihnea C., and Roger L. Martin. 2008. The Future of the MBA: Designing the Thinker of the Future. New York: Oxford University Press.

Winsor, John.  2009.  The power of And.  John Winsor’s Blog.  December 30. here.

Acknowledgment

I have the uneasy feeling that my recommendation comes from someone somewhere.  I have been reading widely over the holidays, and there has been a lot of water under the board (internet surfing, that is).  If someone knows the source of this argument, please let me know.

Note: this post was lost late last year due to Network Solutions’ incompetence.  I am reposting it today December 31, 2010.