Spreadable Media is the latest book by Henry Jenkins, professor at the University of South California and participatory culture theorist, written together with two digital strategists Sam Ford and Joshua Green.
The book cover is, for once, very communicative and immediately explains the content: a series of taraxacum officinalis (lion’s tooth or dandelion) with moving spores. According to Jenkins, the digital media products are like dandelions, if you blow on them, they spread in the air, but not like viruses. One of the best qualities of the book is: questioning the dominant rhetoric on the circulation of media texts like viruses. YouTube videos, a journal article posted on Twitter, do not spread through contagion, but through a conscious decision from the users that let them circulate.
Viral marketing and Web 2.0 dominant idea that it is enough to create a “viral” campaign, or to produce a “meme” that function and will automatically replicate like a virus. The difference between a virus and a media text is that the virus has inscribed in its code the objective of replicating itself as quickly as possible, while a media text is a cultural product that only replicates itself through human action. It is not a matter of wool goat.
In the idea of media as virus there is a subtle vision of the users like consumers who are passively contaminated and can do nothing but transmit the virus to their neighbours. The metaphor of the infection and the contagious overrates the media power and underrates the one of the audience. In the opinion of Jenkins instead the transmission from a node of the Web to the other, from user to user, occurs because active users autonomously decide to let some contents circulate instead of others.
Before spreading any content people must face several decisions: Is it worth sharing this content? Could it be interesting for anyone specific? Does it tell something about my identity, does it tell something about me, or my relationships with others? What is the best way to disseminate it? Should I share it like this, or should I supplement it with a message?
The book’s basic idea is that we are facing a changing in the paradigm of the form in which the cultural contents circulate within a society. It is emerging a hybrid model of circulation, the result of the mix between top-down institutional strategies (media corporations that decide what produce and when launch a film/record/TV series/bestseller book/event) and bottom-up strategies. The control over the contents produced by media is not anymore strictly in their hands, it is instead negotiated with the media public, today linked with webs and able to establish, through the Web sharing, the popularity or the failure of a certain content.
As clearly emerge from the book, the spreadability is the characteristic of some media texts of being suitable for diffusion. A film that comes out in cinemas throughout the world but is not available for online streaming and can not be remixed is not spreadable and lends itself to piracy. A prominent example of what this spreadability means is the case of Susan Boyle, candidate to the English TV program Britain Got Talent. The audience judged the audition so amazingly that the YouTube video of that performance has been shared by millions of people, and went form hand to hand, reaching 77 millions of visualisations without the help of any top-down promotional strategy.
According to the author, digital culture is characterised by the so-called user-circulated content, rather than the more misused user-generated content. The changing in focus, from contents generated by users, to those circulated by them, helps us to gain a wider and realistic picture of the digital culture characteristics. This sharing culture has also for sure some unpleasant fallouts for the creative industries. The audience ability of shaping the circulation of their products sometimes contrasts with the economic strategies of the media industries: when a movie is just released to the cinema or a record has been launched they start to illegally circulate on the peer-to-peer platforms or on non-authorised streaming channels, spreadability becomes piracy. However, as emerge from p. 16 of the book, “piracy is often the consequence of the business and strategic incapability of the media corporations of letting available their contents in times and modes desirable for the public”.
Henry Jenkins’s new book does not provide anything new compared to his previous publications but is an obvious prosecution, the attempt to continue providing reading instruments of an evolving digital culture. Jenkins’s viewpoint remains the same to his first articles that made him famous – “Textual Poachers: Television Fans & Participatory Culture”, 1992: media audience is also made of individuals who become passionate to cultural products, who want to dialogue with them, want to take them, remix them, use them to create new social bonds and to negotiate their own identity. If the content producers do not allow them to do that, the active audience will be forced to enter “clandestineness”, becoming a pirate.
Paraphrasing an old hacker slogan, Jenkins’s lesson is the following: “Information wants to be streamed”. Contents want to be diffused, spread, and streamed. The consumption of cultural contents takes place within a social context. In this ecosystem it is anachronistic stopping the circulation of cultural contents, as well as stopping the free circulation of people, goods, and services. Sociologist Berry Wellman, in his recent Networked. New Social Operating System (Guerini e Associati, 2012), also claims that today cultural contents have a new social life, thanks to the digital webs on which they travel.
In conclusion, the limit of Jenkins is always the same: he emphasises a participatory culture mostly based not on the creation of the users’ original contents but on the appropriation of media texts from the fans, even if in this book, it must be said, that he deals with the critiques from the theorists of the exploitation of the users’ digital work, and thus praises the dark side of the Web participation, which creates a new value for the media industries.
Anyone who has a maximalist vision of participation, such as Nico Carpentier (author of Media and Participation. A Site of Ideological-democratic Struggle, Intellect, 2011), does not agree with Jenkins’s reductionism. For Carpentier participating does not mean just to react with a media text and produce engagement but rather means giving the possibility to the public to participate to decisional processes, create contents with the public or even let it participate to editorial decisions.
In any case Spreadable Media is well written and is very useful to understand the social value of content sharing. A book that every media publisher, above all the Italians, should read in order to convince themselves once and for all, that they can survive the perfect storm only if they will free their contents, only if they will work hard on the construction of strong communities of readers/listeners/audiences. These communities will take charge of the circulation of better contents.
And for instance, it should be the time that the huge audio/video archive of the RAI (Radio Televisione Italiana) would be easily accessible and shareable under the Creative Commons licence. Because if a content is not spreadable, Jenkins says, is a dead content.