Saturday 20th January 2018,

Revisiting Henry Jenkins and Debates over the Power of the Internet

Warning: Jargon ahead! Kept to a minimum, I hope.

Every academic discipline has a debate they rehearse over and over again, sometimes over the course of decades. Here in the social sciences and humanities, among scholars of culture, there are two real debates. If you understand them, you can basically read half of everything written about culture in the academy:

Sameness (or equality) vs. Difference (cultural enunciation, separatism) or

Agency (empowerment, citizen engagement, individual/community will, etc.) vs. Structure (power, political economy, ideology, etc.). Also known as bottom-up vs. top-down power.

In the 2000s, scholars of new media, convergence, and the Internet basically all found themselves having some version of debate #2. Most people have had to “pick a side,” at least if they wanted any serious attention.

Now that the aughts really are over, and as we enter the next (3rd) phase of digital history, the question arises:

Who won?

I’m going to do something I’d never do in a peer-review journal article. I’m going to call it.

It’s the empowerment camp!

What I Mean

There’s no such thing as” winning” in debates about culture. What I mean is something a bit less scandalous. For me, the work now branded the “empowerment” literature of the 2000s really pushed our ideas about culture and, in my opinion, took advantage of all the interesting and exciting things the new media economy inspired.

This is not to judge the specific rigor of any scholarship, which I feel is somewhat immaterial here. This is also not to say one camp will be proven “right” in the next ten or twenty years. The division between empowerment and political economy is itself limiting. At any given moment in history, with any specific piece of media, both impulses are often operating at the same time.

What I mean is when I look back at the scholarship that inspired provocative debate, which really pushed me — personally — to consider the impact of the web and media convergence, its work categorized as emphasizing the ability of users, individuals, communities and networks to use digital media to do something different, to try to reverse media history, to challenge presumed relationships with media corporations. It’s work that stresses agency.

It’s not a flawless body of literature. Too often, as scholar Graeme Turner made a consistent point of when I worked under him at Annenberg, these books stressed “anecdotes,” sometimes lacked perspective, were occasionally too “celebratory” — a word, by the way, I dislike.

But they made an important contribution, even if the next ten years completely changes the arc of media history.

Empowerment Versus Political Economy

It’s hard to summarize the debate adequately in one blog post. In writing the proposal for my dissertation I summarized it this way:

From the earliest days of research on the impact of mass communication industries on society, theorists have debated who directs the culture. Did corporations, with the participation of the government, limit the agency of the public, its freedom, creativity, ideological imagination and political power? Or do people (consumers, users, viewers, citizens) have some degree of autonomy or ability to resist the forces that have the most money, clout, distribution and voice?

Does that make sense? It’s a fairly simple debate. On the one hand, you have ordinary people without much access to powerful things — money, distribution, staff (organization), social capital, what have you. On the other hand, you have corporations and the government with enough heft to dominate the conversation. The debate long predates the web, going back at least to the 1930s and the Frankfurt School, but you can start Googling for yourself!

Classic Examples

Wikipedia is about empowerment: individuals, working in communities, can create their own information outside a traditional structures (the encyclopedia industry). See books by Clay Skirky, Axel Bruns and Yochai Benkler.

YouTube too is about empowerment. People upload videos, often made for little money (though now many made for thousands, occasionally millions), and they have the chance to profit from it (only a few do). See Jean Burgess and Joshua Green’s book (a solid overview of debates) and Chris Anderson’s Long Tail.

Corporate websites and forums (from Hulu to TelevisionWithoutPity) are often cited from political economists. Corporations use the labor of fans as free focus group testing. Their voices are sometimes heard, often dismissed. Or, they’re spaces where user input is downplayed in favor of content that gets ad dollars (Hulu). Mark Andrejvic is the key scholar here, see also Tiziana Terranova’s classic article.

Net neutrality is the current issue mobilizing those who fear the end to the “empowerment” decade (or two) and the beginning of when the web becomes like TV: centralized, shutting out users and independents. Tim Wu’s new book brilliantly puts this in historical context.

Revisiting Henry Jenkins

In reading up for my dissertation I decided to revisit the last chapter of Henry Jenkins’ Convergence Culture, which soon after its release was widely considered the defining text on the possibilities of digital media and convergence.

I’ve read the last chapter several times, but now, after refining my research project, I really understand how clear and forceful his argument is for focusing on empowerment. To his harshest critics, Jenkins is too in love with citizens and online communities to see how constrained they are by corporations and culture.

But the chapter, “Democratizing Television? The Politics of Participation,” is highly underrated, even as one of the most cited media texts in the last ten years. A close reading shows Jenkins thinking seriously and rigorously about media history and academic inquiry.

It deserves some block-quoting.

First, Jenkins acknowledges quite explicitly the limits of focusing on communities of users and underplaying corporate desires to harness ordinary people:

Despite the rhetoric about ‘democratizing television,’ this shift is being driven by economic calculations and not by some broad mission to empower the public. Media industries are embracing convergence for a number of reasons: because convergence-based strategies exploit the advantages of media conglomeration; because it cements consumers loyalty at a time when the fragmentation of the marketplace and the rise of file sharing threaten the old ways of old business. (Jenkins 2006, 243).

With that out of the way, Jenkins says, despite these realities, it is important to talk about participation and collective intelligence:

Am I granting too much power here to these consumption communities? Perhaps. But keep in mind that I am not really trying to predict the future. I want to avoid the kind of grand claims about the withering away of mass media industries that make the rhetoric of the digital revolution seem silly a decade later. Rather, I am trying to point toward the democratic potentials found in some contemporary cultural trends. There is nothing inevitable about the outcome. (246-7)

The “potential” here is really important, and for me, the crucial contribution those who stress “empowerment” offer to the academic literature. Indeed, academics are the first to criticize media, but are often the last to offer ways to change it. “Today, I hear a great deal of frustration about the state of out media culture, yet surprisingly few people talk about how we might rewrite it,” he writes (247).

Jenkins is creating a foundation for what he calls “the politics of critical utopianism,” which is quite a turn-of-phrase and one I, surprisingly, never hear scholars use (what’s up with that?):

The politics of critical utopianism is founded on a notion of empowerment; the politics of critical pessismism on a politics of victimization. One focuses on what we are doing with media, and the other on what media is doing to us. As with previous revolutions, the media reform movement is gaining momentum at a time when people are starting to feel more empowered, not when they are at their weakest. (248)

In just a few pages, Jenkins posits a new research agenda. We have plenty of robust and provocative theories for what’s wrong with media culture and industry, but not so many about what alternative practices can be used to really change it (“alternative” in that it’s proven popular with the public, as opposed to the alternative/experimental media we’ve had for most of the 20th century, most of which has failed to catch on past elite and niche circles). Jenkins is not out on his own here. He’s building on ideas that date back to Walter Benjamin and follow through to Michel de Certeau, parts of Foucault, along with John Fiske and a coterie of scholars from the 70s, 80s and 90s writing about media (some of which, like Fiske, were harshly cast aside in the 90s, and remain dirty citations today, for some scholars).

The Aughts and the Future

Jenkins was not, as he is sometimes assumed, trying to predict the future. But in looking at the past — the 2000s, the 90s to a lesser extent — we’re left wondering whether this “digital utopianism” is going to seem terribly dated in a few years.

History tells us it will. In fact, if you look back, the rhetoric of a changing media structure is fairly consistent — once again, read Tim Wu’s book! While writing this post, I was reviewing Beretta Smith-Shomade’s Pimpin’ Ain’t Easy: Selling Black Entertainment Television, and she points to the 1960s as the time when black people started to wax optimistic about the possibilities of new media:

Proponents claimed cable television to be ‘pregnant with the promise of a broadband, interactive communication network that could help bind communities, deliver a wealth of human services from education to health care, and create a public forum for universal debate on the important of the day. It would displace the oligopoly held by the three major television networks and usher in a new era in television.’…These cable discourses suggested the welcoming of new voices and entrepreneurial spirits. (Smith-Shomade 2008, xvi)

Sound familiar? It’s the same rhetoric I hear all the time from those (myself included) who talk about YouTube and other web ventures. All signs point to the end of the empowerment discourse.

But! Does 21st century history have to be 20th century history? Already a cadre of groups and scholars (from EFF to Free Press) are trying to change the tide. Meanwhile, ordinary users, professional independents and entrepreneurs are trying to reset the terms of engagement, and, with hope, do something more with media.

If in fact the coming years turn out differently than the early years of the telephone, radio, TV, film and cable, it’ll be because we not only had strong critiques of media industries but also because we knew the kind of media we wanted to have.

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About The Author

Aymar Jean Christian is assistant professor of communication at Northwestern University. He writes about media and society for a number of publications. For more information, click the "About" tab at the top of the page.