Henry Jenkins explains his vision of transmedia and audience engagement
by Mélanie Bourdaa, published on 7.06.2012
Promoted by Sorbonne Nouvelle – Université Paris 3 and supported by Orange’s Transmedia lab, the Centre Pompidou hosted a lecture by Henry Jenkins on Friday 25 May for a lecture on Transmedia Storytelling entitled “Engagement, participation, play: the value and meaning of Transmedia audiences”. The lecture, organised by Eric Maigret (Professor at Paris 3 University) and (associate professor at Bordeaux 3 University), provided an opportunity for to explain his vision of transmedia and audience engagement strategies. We bring you feedback from Mélanie Bourdaa and .
THE FAN: A CENTRAL FIGURE
After an introduction in which Eric Maigret and Mélanie Bourdaa emphasised the significance of academic work, most particularly his initial ethnographic research into fan communities in the 1990s and, more recently, into Convergence Culture in the early 2000s, Henry Jenkins opened his presentation by underlining important role of fans. In his opinion, as a result of convergence culture the cultural industries now perceive fans differently and are trying to come to terms with this new variable. He explained, for instance, that a number of television series, including Fringe recently, have been kept on air thanks to fans’ demonstrations of support on social networks.
Logics of engagement:
In Jenkins’ view, five logics are contributing to the emergence of transmedia and the phenomenon of increased fan participation (‘fandom’):
- The logic of entertainment, as evidenced by the presence in the US TV schedules of TV series and reality shows;
- The logic of social connection, highlighted by votes and discussions on social networking sites;
- The logic of experts, symbolised by the collective intelligence (Levy, 1994true) brought to bear by fans for the purposes of creation, production and discussion. Henry Jenkins cites the examples of the creation of Twin Peaks fan sites and the Lost Wiki (Lostpedia), which both collate articles written by fans to offer greater insight into both series;
- The logic of immersion, which encourages participation. For example, on Oscars night fans could use a number of interactive tools to immerse themselves in the ceremony and form a community;
- The logic of identification, which enables fans to establish an identity depending on what they watch.
THE DEFINITION OF TRANSMEDIA STORYTELLING
Henry Jenkins then returned to his definition of Transmedia Storytelling, which he proposed for the first time in a 2003 analysis of the augmented universe of the Matrix film franchise, published in Technological Review.
Taking this definition as a starting point, he suggested examples to illustrate the concept, both in terms of production strategies and fan extensions. For instance, Jenkins highlighted the narrative universe of The Wizard of Oz (musicals, cartoon series, books, comic strips) to illustrate the idea that, in his opinion, Transmedia strategies were in place well before the term was coined and defined, and certainly well before the rapid rise of digital media. He emphasised this idea by explaining that Transmedia Storytelling is perfectly viable without using new technologies, and that the latter have mainly been used as facilitators by the modern creators of transmedia universes.
The researcher at USC’s Annenberg Lab then moved on to more contemporary examples, such as the creation of the Tru Blood drink as a direct spin-off of the TV products, the posting of “no aliens” stickers on benches specially designed for humans to symbolise the racial segregation depicted in the film District 9, and the Buffy the Vampire Slayer comic books created by Joss Whedon, which added an eighth non-televised season to the series.
Fans, immersed in a wide-ranging narrative universe, strive to produce their own transmedia extensions, in an example of what Jenkins calls the logic of performance. For example, fans of Lost have managed to create a map of the island which is not shown in the series, enabling them to map locations and characters’ movements. Glee fans, meanwhile, perform songs and dance routines from episodes of the show and then post and share them on platforms like YouTube. Finally, fans of Star Wars have made Star Wars Uncut, a series of sequences filmed by them and stitched together to recreate the whole film.
Jenkins also noted that some fan extensions precede the cultural industries’ transmedia creations. He cited the example of Pottermore, the official transmedia extension created by the author of the Harry Potter books. This website offers functions such as the Sorting Hat Ceremony, which determines which of the four school Houses each new Hogwarts student is assigned to. Yet this ceremony had already been developed by fans themselves ten years before, leading Jenkins to note that the cultural industries are lagging ten years behind!
Cosplay also has a role in fans’ transmedia extensions, as they offer their take on the universe and interactions between characters.
Fans’ activities can also become civic activities, as part of a movement called transmedia activism. In this case, community sharing and discussions can promote concerted action in favour of political and charitable causes. For example, Palestinian children dressed up as the Na’vi people from James Cameron’s Avatar film, to peacefully symbolise the oppression of their people. The Hunger Games provides further examples. Fans of the literary trilogy and film joined forces with the Harry Potter Alliance and Oxfam to launch a campaign against global hunger entitled “Hunger is not a Game”. Unfortunately, feeling threatened, the film’s distributor Lionsgate put a stop to the campaign.
“IF IT DOESN’T SPREAD, IT’S DEAD”
Much of Henry Jenkins’ conference focused on the circulation of media content by fans. He explained a number of terminological and cultural points. Firstly, he refers to the circulation of content by fans, and not distribution, which in his view is the province of the cultural industries. Next, he prefers the term “spreadable” to the term “viral”, which implies, in his view, a notion of contagion and infection. Finally, he rejects the description of fans that re-appropriate content and circulate it among their communities as “pirates”.
Jenkins sees the decision to circulate media content as an active one on the part of the fan, but also a sharing decision and a political choice. Taking the example of Kony 2012, or the Pepper Spray Cop meme, fans are certainly involved in receiving and circulating specific content in public spheres. In addition, these examples show clearly that transmedia does not need to be based on an established franchise (like a film or TV series), because they attracted non-hardcore fans.
In the conference, Henry Jenkins tried to explain the phenomena of audience engagement, and more specifically fandom. Transmedia Storytelling encourages various fan behaviours (creation, collective intelligence, activism, circulation, etc.), providing fertile ground for a range of engagement tools.
However, we should note the remarkable extension of Jenkins’ definition of Transmedia Storytelling. Indeed, even though he restated his initial definition in this conference, his comments suggest that he is now trying to extend the scope of Transmedia Storytelling, at times moving away from the prime reason for implementing such a strategy: the creation of an augmented narrative.