BROOKE GLADSTONE: This is On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD: And I'm Bob Garfield. We've been hearing about convergence, it seems, forever. It was inevitable that all of our various digital gizmos would be reduced to one magic box that handles our TV, our e-mail, our videogames, our spreadsheets, and maybe our thermostat. Instead, we seem to be accumulating more and more digital boxes, stacked up all over the house. But never mind, says MIT professor Henry Jenkins. Convergence has still arrived. Citizens have embraced technology, especially the Internet, not just to consume media but, in some cases, to control it. In his book, titled Convergence Culture: Where the Old and New Media Collide, he says the real convergence with technology is, quote, "within the brains of individual consumers and through their social interactions with others."
HENRY JENKINS: Yeah. So what we're talking about is what I call "participatory culture." It can mean, for example, in the case of reality television, "Survivor" fans tracking down information around the planet to find out what really happened on that island, using satellites to find the actual location, tapping the Internet to track down the identities of the contestants before they're announced. In other cases, it may be creating. Talk about "Star Wars" fans making digital cinema. And, increasingly, it can also be in activism, fighting back against the networks to keep your favorite show on the air.
BOB GARFIELD: Now, there's the convergence culture as it occurs organically, and then there's convergence as it's been expropriated by corporate America. My boss, Scott Donaton, at Ad Age, coined the term "Madison and Vine." Tell me about that crossroads.
HENRY JENKINS: The idea is that fans have enormous stake in popular culture. And if the advertising industry could harness that stake and direct it toward brands and products, they'd create a much more intense relationship to that as well. And maybe the classic example of that is something like Coca-Cola's relationship to "American Idol." The Coke is embedded at every level, from the red room where contestants wait, to the Coke cups in front of the judges. Now, this brand community thing becomes a double-edge sword, because the communities around the brand become so invested in the product that they will also police the behavior of the companies. In the case of "American Idol," there was such outrage over the voting mechanism, which AT&T had branded, that it led to a backlash against AT&T as a brand, and then that spills over, to some degree, to Coke and Ford, who are part of the same sponsorship arrangement for a show where the sponsors are really part of the entertainment.
BOB GARFIELD: We've seen how ordinary people using the Internet can participate in a culture which they had merely been witnesses to. But what happens on the other end? Do they end up actually altering the nature of the very entertainment programming that they're involved in as fans?
HENRY JENKINS: There's always a kind of tug-of-war going on. I mean, a classic example of this might be the case, this summer of "Snakes on a Plane." Here's a case where fans discovered a property early in its run. They began to promote their particular version of what that film should be like, and, in this case, the production company got behind that, re-shot scenes, added dialog, changed their advertising campaign and publicized their responsiveness to the fan community. Now, there's a great deal of debate now about what the outcome of that was. Did the fan activity hurt or help the release of "Snakes on a Plane?" My view is it helped it. It probably created more of a phenomenon and got more publicity than they paid for, increased awareness, and the long-term impact of that is going to be felt as we look at, say, how does it affect DVD sales, how does it affect global sales? Does it have an afterlife on college campuses? So the negotiation between fan and producer on that point created value. It may just be value that unfolds itself over a longer period of time than, I think, the mentality which says you pump the ads into the air and then the film opens big and you make most of your money in the opening weekend. I think we're not sure what the payoff is going to be from a production company point of view of mobilizing fans.
BOB GARFIELD: Let's talk about "Star Wars" for a moment, or "Harry Potter" – either one. Both of these have generated fans so devoted that they actually create sometimes full-length versions based on the original story. Movie studios and publishers react in various ways to this degree of fandom. I guess it cuts both ways for them. Tell me, what's the status quo and where do you think the world is headed?
HENRY JENKINS: Well, take the case of "Harry Potter," which is a phenomenon where there literally are millions of stories out there, and probably thousands of full-length novels that people have written, including stories written by 13-, 14-year-olds who are fans of that particular work. J.K. Rowling, early in, the creator of "Harry Potter," really encouraged it. She was excited that the books were not only encouraging kids to read but also to write. The studios had more ambiguous feelings, and they sent out cease-and-desist letters that caught up in their net a large number of young people from around the world. The young people in turn organized a children's campaign to protect their right to participate. And Warner Brothers, in its wisdom, backed down. It reappraised its attitude toward fans. It tried to actively solicit their participation, find new ways to work with them. If you think about the world we live in, it's one where no one is certain what the rules are, but I think it's going to be almost impossible to shut down this grass roots activity, and it can, indeed, generate a fair amount of actual value to the production company if they understand how to interact with it in a constructive way.
BOB GARFIELD: All right, Henry. Well, thank you so much. Thank you.
HENRY JENKINS: Henry Jenkins is the author of, most recently, Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide.