Interview with Henry Jenkins

© Henry Jenkins and Figure/Ground
Dr. Jenkins was interviewed by Justin Dowdall. September 27th, 2012.

Dr. Henry Jenkins is an American media scholar and currently a Provost Professor of Communication, Journalism, and Cinematic Arts, a joint professorship at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and the USC School of Cinematic Arts. Previously, he was the Peter de Florez Professor of Humanities and Co-Director of the MIT Comparative Media Studies program with William Uricchio. He is also author of several books, including Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media CollideTextual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Culture and What Made Pistachio Nuts?: Early Sound Comedy and the Vaudeville Aesthetic. Jenkins’ research explores the boundary between text and reader, the growth of fan cultures and world-making.

It seems that many young scholars are turning their attention to topics related to “digital media.” What role do you think media history should play in such research? What do you believe are some of the core questions these scholars should ask?

The discipline of Media Studies no longer has a monopoly on media theory. If, as Marshall McLuhan once argued, “media are put out before they are thought out,” the digital revolution has produced a vast amount of instant analysis from all kinds of stake holders – from academics to pundits, fans, media makers, and industry “thought leaders,” all of whom have wanted to describe our current moment of media transition as “utterly without precedent.” The result, in the first wave, was a series of utopian and dystopian claims which, unknowingly in many cases, replicated the discourses that have surrounded the introduction of every other major media across human history. We are just now settling down to the point that we can make more nuanced and balanced claims about the impact of digital media, and a key factor in reshaping those claims has been the willingness to actively consider historical predecessors and precedents. And our historical consciousness may be one of the most important contributions that academics can make to these debates.

In my own work, I have been insisting that we situate the expansion of communicative capacity represented by the new media landscape in relation to several hundred years of struggles by individuals and grassroots communities to gain greater access to the means of cultural production and circulation and before that, to the kinds of collaborative creativity which defined folk culture for earlier generation. For someone else, this may mean looking at the history of media regulation, of corporate dominance over communication channels, of the shifting notions of the public sphere, of the concept of imagined communities, of old media when they were “new,” of the relationship of work and recreation, all of which have something to say about the ways digital media are playing out.

At the same time, the digital media invites us to pay attention to different elements in the past, and thus, we can see it helping to revitalize the study of media transitions more generally, a tendency well represented by, say, the work of Lisa Gitelman, who has used concepts from digital theory to revisit the history of the phonograph or to produce an anthology on pre-20th century examples of “new media.” I believe that the concept of transmedia storytelling may ultimately become a way of reframing earlier debates about hybrid forms of expression, inviting us to pay attention to media practices, throughout human history, which had escaped our attention previously.

So, from my perspective, media historical research is more important now than ever, especially if we can use the current moment of rapid change to encourage us to reflect back on similar moments of transition. This has been the focus of the very successful series of conferences on Media in Transition which I helped to launch at MIT and which continues to run strong since my departure.  The eighth Media in Transition conference, next spring, deals with “public media, private media.”

What advice would you give to young graduate students and aspiring university professors, and who are the thinkers today that you believe young scholars should be reading?

My most important piece of advice is to learn to think across media. Unlike some other parts of the world, American universities have tended to fragment the study of media into medium specific disciplines.  So, film has set itself in opposition to television studies, digital media is often contained within a separate department, all of the above is cut off from the study of painting or print. Even within divisions, we isolate marketing and public relations, print and broadcast journalism, and so forth. The more we allow ourselves to be locked down into medium specific perspectives, the less clearly we are going to be able to understand the nature of changes that are impacting the current media environment. Whether we look at it in terms of structures of media ownership, patterns of consumption, modes of expression, or the flow of media content, the media system is increasingly integrated. Choices made in one media sector can have enormous impact on every other. We can not make sense of the current moment by trying to protect the purity of media or police the boundaries between disciplines.

I would argue that this has always been the case. I teach a graduate seminar on Medium Specificity at the USC Cinema School, and we are re-reading some of the classics of film theory with the eye to considering what they tell us about the intersection between media: so, Rudolph Arnheim’s polemic against the coming of sound, say, was actually an analysis of many kinds of hybrid media forms from opera to radio drama, Eisenstein wrote extensively about theater (from the circus to Kabuki) and literature (what Griffith learned from Dickens) in trying to explain why he thought montage was the essence of cinema, and Bazin describes how developments of new media technologies were shaped by a driving “myth of total cinema” or how the introduction of photography freed paintings to pursue modernist abstraction. In short, there is no pure film theory, not even in the classical period, when it was obsessed by the need to define cinema’s original contribution as an art form, and there certainly isn’t any such thing as media purity at our current moment of transmedia storytelling or conglomeration and concentration. So, contemporary scholars have to learn to think, teach, and research across media.

As for who young scholars should read, there’s a wealth of new work emerging almost every month right now as the academic world is making this transition towards a comparative media perspective in their work. I try to feature as many of the new books as I can through my blog, so I won’t try to construct a list of shout outs here. Instead, I want to urge young scholars to read beyond the boundaries of their own disciplines. Folks in cultural studies, for example, need to engage with work in the consumer research tradition that is coming out of the business schools. Everyone who studies media should be attentive to the work on Digital Media and Learning emerging from the education schools.  We should be attentive to work on intellectual property, remix, and peer-to-peer production coming out of the law schools. And beyond that, we need to acknowledge that, as I’ve already suggested, academics do not have a monopoly on media theory. We should be attentive to works being produced by industry thinkers (such as those represented at conferences like South by Southwest) or the thinking of creative artists (such as those who speak at events like Story World) or public intellectuals (such as those featured at Ted and Ted X events). You need to be reading blogs and watching podcasts, which is where the most urgent exchanges are taking place, and you should be looking at events, such as the Futures of Entertainment conferences, which represent crossroads where these various communities come together.

In 2009, Francis Fukuyama wrote a controversial article for the Washington Post entitled “What are your arguments for or against tenure track?” In it, Fukuyama argues that the tenure system has turned the academy into one of the most conservative and costly institutions in the country, making younger untenured professors fearful of taking intellectual risks and causing them to write in jargon aimed only at those in their narrow sub discipline. In a short, Fukuyama believes the freedom guaranteed by tenure is precious, but thinks it’s time to abolish this institution before it becomes too costly, both financially and intellectually. Since then, there has been a considerable amount of debate about this sensitive issue, both inside and outside the university. Do you agree with the author? What are your arguments for and/or against academic tenure?

I have not had a chance to go back and read what Fukuyama wrote, but here’s my thinking about tenure: tenure is a profoundly imperfect process, one which can protect academic freedom and at the same time have highly conservative and chilling effects on junior scholars. The reality, as I see it, is tenure is not likely to go away any time soon and if it does go away, it’s still bad news, because it is more likely to be abandoned for all of the wrong reasons – because of the shifting economic logic of American universities, not in the name of promoting greater academic freedom and intellectual flexibility. So, for me, the question is not whether we should have tenure or not, but rather how can we reform our tenure practices to better reflect the values that should govern education in the 21stcentury.

How, for example, can we rethink tenure in media studies to support a growing generation of hybrid scholars, who do not fall neatly into the categories of critical studies or production, but who combine hands on and conceptual work across their career? How do we create support for junior scholars to become public intellectuals, to share their ideas with larger publics, to provide greater service to the communities in which they are embedded and invested? How do we form a basis of support under tenure for various forms of electronic publishing, given the reality that fewer and fewer books are being printed and that digital publishing may represent the best way to express certain ideas? How do we support blogs, videos, podcasts, and a range of other audiovisual means through which scholars might better present their insights about media? How do we value timely response to contemporary developments as opposed to the sluggish “always late to the party” practices around academic publishing? How might humanistic programs deal more effectively with collaborative work, such as those involving Big Data, which might be normative in the sciences and social sciences, but do not align well with our tenure standards? How do we value work that straddles the borders between academic disciplines in order to promote new configurations of scholarly fields? These are questions that need to be asked within the current tenure system if it is going to provide space for current graduate students and junior scholars to pursue projects that reflect the current demands of media studies.

Who were some of your mentors in graduate school and what were some of the most important lessons you learned from them?

At the University of Iowa, I worked most closely with Rick Altman and Edward Branigan (who was a visiting lecturer there at the time). Rick fostered my interests in American genre films, but especially modeled my interests in thinking comparatively across media. An Altman syllabus might encompass early Roman romances, the design of the doorways of medieval cathedrals, the great 19thcentury novels, popular melodramatic theater, comics, paintings, and of course, films from multiple national traditions. Branigan was perhaps the first graduate school professor to recognize and really help me to identify my strengths as a scholar. At the time, I came into graduate school from Georgia State University, which had had no real resources or faculty focused on film and media studies. I was almost entirely self-taught and there were idiosyncratic gaps and pockets of knowledge that meant that I always came at the discussions in the seminar room askew the other students. My first sessions were more than a little bruising, but Branigan helped me to figure out a path that made sense for me.

John Fiske was a transformative figure for me. I encountered him first at the University of Iowa, where he was a visitor, and then, at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he was offered a faculty position. I’ve written often about the profound mismatch between what I knew as a fan who had seen the enormous creative and interpretive activity of that community and what I was being taught as a graduate student at a time when “subject position” theories of ideology were in vogue and there was very little space for focusing on audiences as active producers of culture and meaning. Fiske brought me into contact with the British Cultural Studies tradition and gave me a language through which to frame my work.

David Bordwell was my other primary mentor in graduate school, and he helped me to develop a more rigorous approach to discussing the poetics of popular culture: my dissertation on early sound comedy and the vaudeville aesthetic grew out of my efforts to work through the implications of Bordwell’s Classical Hollywood Narrative paradigm in relation to my passions for low comedy and popular theater.

Both Fiske and Bordwell were deeply committed to teaching, and you could make the argument that they saw their scholarly writing as an extension of their roles as teachers. They insisted on very concrete, very personal, and very accessible modes of writing, which might enlarge the publics which media studies addressed. These are virtues I very much hope to pass along to my own students. They also used the classroom as a way to work through their ideas and engaged with their students as their thinking partners, enjoying students who challenged their assumptions or questioned their findings.

Inside the classroom, how do you manage to command attention in an age of interruption characterized by fractured attention and information overload?

I do not accept the premise that “fractured attention” or “information overload” are unique properties of the digital age. These are challenges that faculty have grumbled about across at least the 20th century and perhaps much earlier. Plato worried that his students were losing their memory because of their over-reliance on the written word. So, the first piece of advice is to get over it. If anything, it is much easier to monitor the distractions of our students, today, because they are coming up on a screen and thus visible to us as we walk around the room than were the day dreams that occupied the minds of previous generations of students but left fewer material traces.

But, second, the trick is to incorporate these other modes of engagement into the instructional process. I actively encourage my students to bring their laptops to class, I ask them to look up information and contribute it to the class discussion, I provide back channels through which they can ask questions and get response from the TAs if they are confused. I also am moving between different modes of presentation – sharing videos, projecting power points, lecturing, leading discussions – across the course of a class period. And with my current large lecture hall class, I am integrating students into 4-5 person knowledge communities, designing tests that can be taken within teams, and encouraging them to rely on each other more for dealing with questions more complex than they can handle as individuals.  In short, I put my theories about the value of informal learning in a more participatory culture into practice in the ways I design and execute my classes.

We’ve been speaking about issues involving the university environment. Moving on to a quote by Marshall McLuhan, he declared in 1964 that, “departmental sovereignties have melted away as rapidly as national sovereignties under conditions of electric speed.” This claim can be viewed as an endorsement of interdisciplinary studies, but it could also be regarded as a statement about the changing nature of academia. Do you think the university as an institution is in crisis?

By this definition, American universities have always been in crisis, and perhaps always will be.   In some ways, educational institutions are profoundly conservative, slow to adapt to change, falling back on old methods, practices, and paradigms, which are passed along from generation to generation. On the other hand, because they deal with youth, because they are about generating new knowledge, they are constantly the locus where social, cultural, political, economic, legal, and technological changes are felt first.

It would be horrifying if disciplines which first took shape in the industrial age were left unchanged in any significant ways by the rise of the information age (and the emergence of a networked culture).  The past few decades have seen dramatic changes in every aspect of our everyday lives in part by our relationships with new media, and thus, every discipline has to make rapid adjustments to these shifting structures or run the risk of being irrelevant to the lives of our students.

We need to remove administrative structures which make it hard for us to reconfigure the relationships between different domains of knowledge, which discourage experimentation, innovation, and collaboration, which set too many restrictions on who we talk to, who we read, and what we think matters as we pursue our research questions where-ever they lead us. We need to recognize that we are preparing students for a world where they will move much more often between jobs and between fields, where our graduate students may work both in the academy and in industry, where the highest value is flexibility in dealing with new challenges.

But, as we do so, we need to recognize that the structures we are pushing aside are not ahistorical, that they emerged in specific socio-cultural contexts and responded to different needs about how knowledge was going to be produced and distributed. There’s no heresy in saying these structures are not timeless and enduring, but very much of their time, and very much in need of ongoing reconsideration.

In Convergence Culture, you suggest that in terms of collective story telling, we are just now learning how to individually and collectively exercise this power. Do you believe that since you wrote that, the nature of content (particularly in the construction of truth) has changed as the “spreadability” of media has intensified?

Let’s start with something basic. The term, content, refers to that which is contained, as in the contents of a bottle or the table of contents of a book.  This is an important starting point, because media is much less likely to be contained within traditional channels and systems as we move deeper into a convergence culture.

Our new book, Spreadable Media: Creating Meaning and Value in a Networked Culture, which I co-authored with Sam Ford and Joshua Green, starts with a distinction between distribution and circulation. Distribution refers to the established set of practices whereby institutions and corporations determine the flow of their content across culture. So, decisions about whether to air Doctor Who on the same date in the UK and the USA, whether to release The Avengerssimultaneously or on a different schedule around the world, are basic decisions about distribution. Circulation refers to a system where the spread of media is increasingly shaped by the often unauthorized decisions of grassroots intermediaries, whether understood as influential individuals or larger networks. I use unauthorized to avoid the term, piracy, which is so a morally fraught term that it shuts down consideration of how value and media are generated as content moves between many hands and gets reframed as it gets inserted into a range of different networked exchanges.

The most spectacular example of spreadable media in recent months was the release of Kony 2012 by the organization, Invisible Children.  This thirty minute documentary about child soldiers in Uganda spread at an extraordinary speed and scale. The organization, based on its previous release of more than ten previous documentaries, had estimated it would reach half a million viewers over a two month period during which they planned to conduct this particular campaign. Instead, it reached more than 70 million viewers in a four day period, more than the number of people who saw the highest rated shows on American television or who went to see Hunger Games, that week’s Hollywood blockbuster. The video spread across the planet, primary based on localized choices of supporters, to pass it along through various social media channels. It forced itself onto the national agenda, forced experts around the world to respond to its provocations, although the response was often highly critical and many of its core claims got shot down. Kony 2012 spoke in very powerful ways to its young supporters, inviting their participation in its efforts to pass along its content, and proposing a vision of how social media might change the world. It was, to be sure, highly spreadable content, but it was not highly drillable content – that is, when the video came under attack, its supporters lacked the critical skills to be able to respond to and rebut these criticisms. The organization did not provide many ways to dig deeper and develop a more nuanced understanding of these issues.

To focus on Kony 2012 is to focus on an exceptional situation where grassroots circulation reached more eyes than would have been possible under the old Broadcast paradigm, spread fluidly across the planet speaking to audiences that would not have been reached if distribution had respected traditional geographic borders, and where this process of circulation pushed an issue into the agenda of mainstream media. There are more and more cases like Kony 2012 but we should not measure the success of spreadable media on the basis of these spectacular examples. So, take it down a notch to focus on the many, many more videos that are reaching 50,000 viewers or more, still an enormous amplification of the reach of amateur and nonprofit media makers under the old distribution model, or lower still, think about how a movement, such as Occupy or the DREAMers, might reach many viewers through the rapid and widespread production of videos which might individually reach only a few hundred viewers each but which collectively speak to many different communities.

So, in some ways, Kony 2012 is a remarkable example of the expanded communication capacities that emerge because content can be spread throughout ever expanding social networks with relative ease and with low transaction costs. But, this raises the stakes in terms of developing social structures that appraise the quality of information we place into circulation. A study recently conducted by the MacArthur Foundation’s Youth and Participatory Politics network, of which I am a member, found that 85 percent of young people want to have more help in how to critically evaluate the quality of information which enter their lives online. They need help in determining the value of information that is passed to them and which they pass along at a time when other research shows young people are learning more about the news through social media than through traditional journalism outlets. So, spreadability has enormous possibilities in terms of diversifying the content of our culture, allowing voices that lack access to powerful channels of distribution to spread ideas, but it also increases the importance of accountability and responsibility of the quality of information we circulate.

Recently on your blog, you hosted an amazing interview with Howard Rheingold. Both of you talked about this wonderful energy of culture creation though collaboration. I was wondering in what way, if any, you see the concepts of spreadable media and smart mobs as being intertwined?

Very closely. There’s a reason why Howard and I have kept crossing paths over the past two decades. Howard Rheingold embodies the links that Fred Turner has identified between the counterculture of the 1960s and more contemporary forms of cyberculture. He’s very much interested in collective experiences which have emerged through networked communication, and so am I. Howard’s early work on “virtual communities” provoke me and many other scholars to think more deeply about the kinds of social structures that have emerged online as communities of interest find ways to share insights and information without regard to geographic location.  We might describe his “smart mobs” as a model of grassroots mobilization, which exploits the resources of mobile and networked communications to bring communities together “just in time,” and the book develops a rich conceptual background for thinking about why these collective efforts may be meaningful. Convergence Culture spoke to the issue of collective intelligence, via Pierre Levy, exploring, through the Survivor Spoilers example, the ways diverse groups of people might pool knowledge and work through complex problems together within informal, ad-hoc networks. My work on New Media Literacies seeks to explain what it might mean to reinvent the educational system in order to foster this kind of social production of meaning, in order to shift for thinking about literacy as about individual capacities and instead discuss it as the capacities of diverse communities to work together to achieve common ends. Spreadable Media might be understood as speaking to the collective circulation of media content. Howard’s most recent work on “Net Smarts” talks about, for example, network literacies, an understanding of how network works and how to deploy them towards one’s own communication needs. And my current project is really focused on understanding how we are deploying all of these skills and practices to reshape the nature of civic engagement and political participation. So, I would argue that these various projects are thoroughly intertwined. I know I have learned a tremendous amount from Howard’s writings through the years, and I was thrilled to be able to feature such a rich conversation with him on my blog.

As a follow up, I was recently listening to your speech at the IIEA conference, and it seemed to me that this question of “trust” kept coming up in a similar context to how it is discussed in Smart Mobs. I would love to hear what you think about the role of collective trust in your work, and perhaps how you see the idea of “trust” impacting the future of American media regulation?

Let’s start with some of the implications of Spreadable Media, especially in relation to some current events. On the one hand, a networked culture expands the capacity of any participant to put ideas into much wider circulation, and thus, it is perhaps the most powerful tool we have for promoting democracy and insuring diversity in our media flows. It is our best hope for resisting, say, the negative effects of media concentration.  On the other hand, we should be concerned with the enormous capacity for circulating noxious content and misinformation, often in ways that are deeply destructive to our common interests. So, we should be concerned that such a high percentage of people believe that Obama is Islamic or that he lacks an American birth certificate. We should be concerned that, as I am writing this, there are waves of violence directed against American embassies across the Arab world as a consequence of an amateur-made movie defaming Islam as a religion. And we should be concerned that a video like Kony 2012 might misdirect resources away from the actual root causes of problems in Africa in ways that ultimately cause more harm than good.

In other words, networked communication is giving us great power without necessarily fostering great responsibility, to evoke Peter Parker and Spider-man.  These are cases where traditional gatekeepers have a constructive role to play – as fact checkers if nothing else – and yet, we should be concerned where the news media is refusing to play that role, where there is more fact-checking on Comedy Central than on CNN, where political candidates (who will remain nameless) dismiss the vital role which fact-checking plays in any (small d) democratic process.

We have to create structures at all levels that require greater accountability over the information we place into circulation, and I think in many ways we all know this. I’ve already mentioned the YPP survey data that suggests that the majority of teens are signaling they would like more training in how to discern the quality of information they receive on-line. We might think about the role of Twitter in the protests following the Iran elections a few years ago and the hashtag “CNNFail.” Some have read this hashtag as signaling a great distrust of mainstream media in favor of the informal flow of information via social-media. To some degree, this is true, but it also centers a desire for professional journalists to do what they do best – work the official channels and established sources, verify core information, provided the shared base-line around which meaningful debates and discussions can take place.

That said, I am not sure that regulating speech is necessarily the best way to get at this problem. I certainly support more constraints on media ownership that prevents a monopoly of control over broadcast and cable media. We certainly need regulation to support net neutrality or to support greater flexibility in how we deploy intellectual property.  But, regulatory solutions probably will not be as effective at dealing with the circulation of false and malicious information through more grassroots channels.  Regulation certainly will not do so without serious harm to the ideals of democratizing our communication capacity and insuring free expression for the widest possible range of participants. Instead, we need to support educational solutions which foster a greater sense of personal and collective responsibility over the information we circulate, which insures more people have access to the critical literacies to challenge misinformation as they encounter it and to identify the often covert motives which shape the production and circulation of certain kinds of media. We need to help build up within our communities and networks a set of checks and balances, where-by grassroots media fact checks mainstream media and vice-versa.

Finally, what have you been recently working on?

I am in the midst of a large publishing spurt. This summer, we published a special issue of Transformative Works and Cultures which I co-edited with Sangita Shresthova dealing with “fan activism.” Later this fall, we will mark the 20th anniversary of Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Culturewith a reissue of the book, complete with a teacher’s guide by Lousia Stein and an extended interview where Susanna Scott grills me about the historical evolution and current state of fan studies. Then, at the end of January, there will be the publication of Spreadable Media: Creating Meaning and Value in a Networked Culture, and finally, a few months later (date and final title still to be announced), we will publish a book for educators on reading in a participatory culture, which describes some of the work my New Media Literacies team has been doing around Moby-Dick and remix culture.

I am part of a Youth and Participatory Politics network created by the MacArthur Foundation to better understand how new media and participatory culture are shaping the civic and political lives of young people. This is a cross-disciplinary collaboration that combines qualitative and quantitative methods, under the direction of Political Scientist Joe Kahne. As part of the network’s work, my USC-based team of faculty, PhD students, and Post-Docs, has been doing ethnographic work to examine a range of innovative political movements and networks – from the fan activism represented by the Harry Potter Alliance and Nerdfighters through the new media tactics of the undocumented youth involved in the DREAMer movement, from Young Libertarians to Islamic-Americans, and, of course, we are also paying attention to Occupy Wall Street. I wrote at the end ofConvergence Culture that we were learning a core set of skills through our play with popular culture and we would soon be applying those skills in more “serious” ways to reshape core institutions. Each of these movements, in its own ways, represents the fulfillment of that prediction – they are modeling ways where remix and transmedia can be deployed towards political ends, they are demonstrating ways that cultural participation can provide a pathway into political participation, and they are showing how collective intelligences and ad-hoc networks might allow for quicker mobilization and wider circulation of political speech. These themes will be the focus of my next major book project, which is still a few years away from completion.

© Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Henry Jenkins
and Figure/Ground with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Suggested citation:

Dowdall, J. (2012). “Interview with Henry Jenkins,” Figure/Ground. September 27th.
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