Book review

Spreadable media: Creating value and meaning in a networked culture, by Henry Jenkins, Sam Ford, and Joshua Green

Melissa A. Click

University of Missouri, Columbia, Missouri, United States

[0.1] Abstract—Henry Jenkins, Sam Ford, and Joshua Green. Spreadable Media: Creating Value and Meaning in a Networked Culture. New York: NYU Press, 2013, $29.95 (352p) ISBN 978-0814743508.

[0.2] Keywords—Convergence; Media production; New media; Participatory culture

Click, Melissa A. 2013. Spreadable Media: Creating Value and Meaning in a Networked Culture, by Henry Jenkins, Sam Ford, and Joshua Green [book review]. Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 14. http://dx.doi.org/10.3983/twc.2013.0525.

Henry Jenkins, Sam Ford, and Joshua Green. Spreadable media: Creating value and meaning in a networked culture. New York: New York University Press, 2013, hardcover, $29.95 (352p) ISBN 978-0814743508.

[1] Spreadable Media: Creating Value and Meaning in a Networked Culture is an exciting new book from Henry Jenkins, Sam Ford, and Joshua Green. As the authors describe in their preface, "How to Read This Book," the book was written to build understanding and conversation among three groups of readers: media scholars, communication professionals, and citizens who actively produce and share media content. The book's themes developed from the authors' work at MIT's Convergence Culture Consortium, which also endeavored in its five and a half years to put these groups in conversation.

[2] Jenkins is now professor of communication, journalism, cinematic arts, and education in USC's Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. He is the author of numerous books, including Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide (2008) and Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Cultures (1992). Sam Ford works as director of digital strategy for Peppercom, a strategic communications and public relations agency. He is coeditor of The Survival of Soap Opera (2011). Joshua Green is a senior strategist at Undercurrent, a digital strategy firm. He is coauthor of YouTube: Online Video and Participatory Culture (2009).

[3] Though dialogue and exchange are the book's stated goals, Spreadable Media's numerous compelling examples of media industry shortsightedness and grassroots indie innovation read as appeals to media professionals to embrace the logic of participatory culture, and create and circulate media in ways that demonstrate an understanding of and respect for audience motivations. For this reason, readers with stakes in the tug-of-war between fans and industry will likely enjoy, and be invigorated by, the authors' arguments about spreadability. Readers with interests in media audiences and participatory culture, however, may have more mixed reactions to the book's content. In general, Spreadable Media is less focused on speaking to media fans and media scholars than it is on using examples from participatory culture and media scholarship on audiences and fans to help build a persuasive argument aimed at media professionals.

[4] Developing a sophisticated understanding of the movements of media content in networked communities is Jenkins, Ford, and Green's primary purpose. The authors argue that although the growth of online communication tools has increased the speed and scope of the sharing of media messages, the practices and values of those who share content in our contemporary digital media environment have long histories. Thus, they assert that digital platforms like YouTube and Twitter are not new per se; rather, they are built upon practices that have long been part of participatory culture. In direct opposition to familiar metaphors for the movement of media content like "stickiness" and "viral," both of which suggest the desire to either lure or overtake audiences, "'spreadability' refers to the potential—both technical and cultural—for audiences to share content for their own purposes, sometimes with the permission of rights holders, sometimes against their wishes" (3). In short, spreadability encourages industry producers who wish to have audiences engage deeply with their media messages to reconsider their conceptions of the audience, strategies for turning a profit on the media messages they produce, and approaches to message production and circulation.

[5] The book's 352 pages are divided into seven chapters that build and support Spreadable Media's main arguments. The first chapter endeavors to explain "Where Web 2.0 Went Wrong." The chapter is a thorough evaluation of the disconnects in the rhetoric and mind-set of Web 2.0, which promised a new era of producer-consumer relationships by tapping into online participatory culture for the purpose of the promotion, distribution, and improvement of media content. Jenkins, Ford, and Green assert that Web 2.0's failure is rooted in producers' inability to develop mutually beneficial long-term relationships with users, or what E. P. Thompson described as a "moral economy." In other words, because content producers are driven by the logic of profit-driven commodity culture, and audiences are driven by the logic of the reciprocity of gift culture, producers do not fully understand the social motivations undergirding the relationships that enable content sharing. As a result, many producers are overinvested in their ownership of content, which has kept them from appreciating the value of spreading their content freely.

[6] Chapter 2, "Reappraising the Residual," spells out what producers ought to know about audiences by discussing the motivations and contexts that shape audiences' evaluations of media content. Grounding this chapter is Raymond Williams's notion of the "residual" value that develops from cultural practices. The authors use the term residual in two senses: cultural and economic. Residual cultural value is developed when communities arise from longing nostalgically for or making "new" discoveries of past materials (e.g., retrogames and Steampunk). Residual economic value, on the other hand, is the extra or bonus monetary value of forgotten commodities (e.g., Scooby-Doo and World Wrestling Entertainment). The possibilities for the development of both kinds of residual value are heightened in a digital environment where individuals and communities can easily use, appraise, and share media texts online. This chapter's examples demonstrate how residual meanings can result in new value for media content and brands. The authors stress that message producers wishing to profit from messages with economic value should work to better understand audiences' cultural and social motivations for appraising and spreading content online.

[7] "The Value of Media Engagement" is demonstrated in chapter 3, which takes a close look at the American television industry. Specifically, this chapter explores the tensions between the new possibilities for storytelling and delivery in a digital environment and the television industry's refusal to let go of its narrow approaches to audience measurement and evaluation. The authors describe the overall changes in the TV industry through a shift from appointment-based viewing, where audiences must turn on their TV on time for the content they desire, to engagement-based viewing, where audiences have the ability to access TV content when and how they want. Jenkins, Ford, and Green argue that engaged audiences "are more likely to recommend, discuss, research, pass along, and even generate new material in response" (116). With reference to the cancellation of shows like Jericho and Chuck, and the innovative storytelling from shows like Ghost Whisperer and Glee, the authors demonstrate that the TV industry would be better served by rethinking its approaches to audience measurement and engagement than by trying futilely to make an appointment model more economically feasible. Noting that the contemporary environment has both fragmented audiences and normalized cult behaviors, chapter 3 also cautions those media producers who have already or who will choose to move to the engagement model to rethink the status quo practice of valuing certain kinds of audiences over others, and to value all of the audiences and activities their programs inspire.

[8] Chapter 4 seeks answers to the question, "What Constitutes Meaningful Participation?," and supports the previous chapter's assertions. Jenkins, Ford, and Green discuss the impact of the changing relationship between media producers and audiences, and explore what constitutes participation. They acknowledge that the move in the contemporary digital environment to describe audiences as producers is an attempt to move away from the assumed passivity of consuming, but they stress that it would be a mistake to accept that activities requiring greater skill are more meaningful or participatory. Instead, we should value a range of participatory roles, including evaluation, appraisal, critique, and recirculation, and recognize that people play different roles in different media environments. Much of the chapter explores a number of participation models that illustrate these arguments and build on Axel Brun's concept of "produsage," a portmanteau of "producer" and "usage" that demarcates the fluidity of roles necessary for communal creation and recreation. Examples from Technobrega communities in Brazil to the immigrant rights movement in L.A. drive home the authors' message that media companies need to build strong relationships with their audiences, and that the most spreadable media is that which is most relevant to audiences' lives.

[9] Exploring strategies for "Designing for Spreadability" is chapter 5's purpose. The authors use John Fiske's notion of producerly texts—texts that offer multiple layers of readings and/or openings for audience reworkings—to frame their suggestions that media content designed for spreadability must begin with an understanding of audience motivation. The kinds of content that are most spreadable, Jenkins, Ford, and Green posit, include collective values and fantasies, humor, parody and shared references, ambiguous or unfinished narratives, mysteries, controversies, and rumors. To be spreadable, content must also be movable, reusable, and part of a larger flow of content. The chapter includes a discussion of the ways spreadable media, by mobilizing participatory cultures to be more civically engaged (e.g., the Harry Potter Alliance), may be "may be planting seeds which can grow into deeper commitments over time" (224). These hopeful examples of spreadable media's potential are tempered with a crucial discussion about spreadable media's risks and a call for audiences to develop critical skills to help them carefully discern what is ethical to spread and when.

[10] In chapter 6, Jenkins, Ford, and Green examine a range of strategies used by producers who are "Courting Supporters for Independent Media." These producers do not have the promotional budgets and platforms to compete with the majors but have created "spreadable business models" (233) by building on the reciprocity of gift-economy logic and by targeting communities that are likely to find their content appealing. The numerous examples in this chapter demonstrate how indie producers (from web comics to Christian media), by relinquishing control over how their content gets to audiences, spread their messages to audiences with whom they may have never had contact and built reputations and relationships with audiences that, in many cases, brought them economic benefit. The message here is that setting content free, according to the logics of participatory culture, does produce the results the major media corporations want. The authors also stress, though, that audiences reap important benefits from these strategies through increased access to niche media content and through increased agency over their media environments via collaboration with producers to produce, distribute, and promote media content.

[11] Chapter 7, "Thinking Transnationally," draws from the work of Arjun Appadurai to explore spreadability's increased diversity in terms of transnational media flows. The chapter's self-reflexive discussion acknowledges that much of the authors' arguments about spreadability are based on the assumption that networked culture is accessible to those who wish to spread content. However, the ability to participate in and shape media environments is not available to all. The Global South (including parts of Africa, Latin American, and Asia) are the areas of the world specifically discussed in this chapter, but the authors also point out that divides exist within countries because of educational, economic, and geographic inequalities, meaning that the digerati around the world may have more in common with each other than with their compatriots. With reference to Nigerian film, Japanese anime, and Iranian Internet television, the authors demonstrate that spreadable media increases the diversity of offerings of transnational media, not its numbers. Examples including pirates, diasporic communities, and pop cosmopolitans demonstrate that transnational flows of spreadable media offer audiences the opportunity to challenge the global dominance that Western media organizations have traditionally enjoyed—on both local and global levels. Spreadable media flows are grassroots and multimodal; they connect citizens in countries shunned by multinational conglomerates who see no opportunities for profit and where media circulation has thus been imbalanced and uneven. Spreadable transnational media offers welcome opportunities for cross-cultural understandings, but it also brings frictions and misunderstandings. Thus, until access to the technologies and skills of spreadable media increases globally, we cannot be sure whether spreadable transnational flows will motivate audiences to learn about other cultures or whether they will "speak past each other" (289).

[12] Spreadable Media will not be an earth-shattering read for those already engaged in the debates and practices of participatory culture. These readers may be frustrated with the practical nature of the book, which often overshadows its progressive aims. Thus, although Jenkins, Ford, and Green mention in many instances that spreadability has enormous political potential, it is not until the concluding chapter that the authors state outright that the long-term goal of their spreadability model is "to create a more democratic culture" (304). At times, it seems that the authors sidestep the political importance of their arguments, particularly in the chapters that discuss civic engagement and transnational media flows, so as not to put off media professionals in the audience, who may be interested in spreadability for increased profit, not democracy.

[13] Spreadable Media's insistence that the digital media environment has enabled all audiences to engage in participatory cultures will please those who wish to open up the term fan to a wider variety of identities and practices and will trouble those who wish to retain the specificity of the term. Jenkins, Ford, and Green engage the long-standing debate over the assumed passivity of the mass audience; their assertion that through digital media more audience members can adopt fannish behaviors raises critical questions. If the demonstration of fannish behaviors redeems the assumedly passive mainstream audience, how should we conceive of those who either cannot or do not wish to participate in spreadable digital culture? And if, through spreading media content, audiences have adopted behaviors previously specific to fan cultures, how can (or should) the fans who engendered participatory cultures remain distinct? It may be tempting to answer these questions in ways that reassert the divide between audiences and fans, but Spreadable Media offers the opportunity to think deeply about the assumptions that have shaped the scholarship and cultural practices that have evolved from the way we have defined these constructs.

[14] Overall, Jenkins, Ford, and Green's message, "If it doesn't spread, it's dead" (293), is designed for media professionals—the group that most needs to hear it. To reinforce its message, the book's web site, spreadablemedia.org (http://www.spreadablemedia.org), offers more than 30 exclusive essays that expand its conversations, with extended examples from experts on a range of topics.

[15] Spreadable Media is an important read for media scholars and members of participatory cultures alike because it shakes up assumptions about media audiences and asks all readers to envision the future of our media cultures. Although it is unclear what new system will develop once the broadcast model finally dies, Spreadable Media is an appeal to those who currently hold the most power to rework the commodity logic that structures the ways they create and distribute media content in the hopes of creating a more democratic system. If we agree that "the spreading of media texts helps us articulate who we are, bolster our personal and professional relationships, strengthen our relationships with one another, and build community and awareness around the subjects we care about" (304), then loosening media producers' tight grips on media content could have profound impacts on our cultural lives. For this reason, Spreadable Media is a valuable tool for all who wish to influence our media environment. I hope its message spreads far!



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