Interview

Interview with Henry Jenkins

TWC Editor

[0.1] Keywords—Academia; Acafan; Fan; Fan community; Fan studies

TWC Editor. 2008. Interview with Henry Jenkins. Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 1. http://journal.transformativeworks.org/index.php/twc/article/view/61.

doi:10.3983/twc.2008.0061

1. Introduction

[1.1] TWC conducted an e-mail interview with Henry Jenkins, whose crucial work, Textual Poachers (1992), resulted in the widespread reinterpretation of fan activity as a simultaneously critical and creative act. Jenkins's blog (http://www.henryjenkins.org/) has become a site not only of Jenkins's personal musings on media studies, but also a venue for dialogue. He regularly posts interviews, and he's also lent out his site for conversations between fans, as in the FanLib debate (http://henryjenkins.org/2007/05/transforming_fan_culture_into.html and http://henryjenkins.org/2007/05/chris_williams_respond_to_our.html), and between academics, as in the Gender and Fan Culture dialogues that paired male and female scholars (http://www.henryjenkins.org/2007/05/when_fan_boys_and_fan_girls_me.html, mirrored on LiveJournal at http://community.livejournal.com/fandebate).

[1.2] Jenkins, himself an acafan, has broadened his studies of fan practice toward studying participatory culture more generally, including analyses of gaming and gamers, as his most recent works, Convergence Culture (2006), Fans, Bloggers, and Gamers (2006), and The Wow Climax (2007), demonstrate. He is the cofounder and codirector, with William Uricchio, of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Comparative Media Studies Program and is the Peter de Florez Professor of Humanities. However, his longtime interest in fans and fan studies hasn't waned; he advised the Organization for Transformative Works (OTW) during its creation, and he sits on the advisory board of TWC.

[1.3] Jenkins's current research interests include pedagogy and media literacy. He wrote a white paper entitled "Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture: Media Education for the 21st Century" (http://www.digitallearning.macfound.org/atf/cf/%7B7E45C7E0-A3E0-4B89-AC9C-E807E1B0AE4E%7D/JENKINS_WHITE_PAPER.PDF) for the MacArthur Foundation, and in his blog, he notes that his goal is "making sure that every kid in America has the social skills and cultural competencies needed to participate in a networked society." In the interview below, he touches on concerns including gender and accessibility in fan studies; the uneasy relationship between media producer and active consumer; and the importance of diversity in dialogue, with fans, academics, and acafans all coexisting—if not peacefully, then at least usefully, with forums provided that will permit the multiplicity of voices to be heard. We hope that TWC will be such a forum.

[1.4] The following TWC editorial team members contributed to this interview: Kristina Busse, Karen Hellekson, Alexis Lothian, and Julie Levin Russo.

2. Fans and fan studies

[2.1] Q: When you wrote Textual Poachers, fan studies wasn't even a recognized area of study, let alone a subdiscipline with its own academic journal. What do you think are the most important factors in the development of the field? How do you think these changes in fan studies are tied to technological shifts and changes in the industry? What does it mean for fans and fandom to have an organized academic presence?

[2.2] HJ: At the time I wrote Textual Poachers, fan studies would have been understood as part of a larger move within cultural studies to explore subcultures, readers, and audiences. I was working with John Fiske, who had been a key American advocate of this kind of ethnographic approach to understanding the agency and activity of media audiences. There was a growing body of research that was sympathetic to soap opera fans, say, but not much that was engaged with the worlds of science fiction, fantasy, horror, or action-adventure fans who have been central to my own work. There was clearly something in the air since Camille Bacon-Smith, Constance Penley, and I ended up writing about the fanzine community at about the same time, working independently with only limited contact with each other.

[2.3] These same factors produced a community of academic readers who were sympathetic to the work that we produced. There are many good histories of the emergence of fan studies as a field. I can't fully account for everything here. But as I see it, there has been a steady flow of fans into academic circles over the decade and a half since Textual Poachers and the other studies appeared. There had always been a higher than average number of fans among academics and librarians, and some of them felt empowered by the early work to focus more of their energies in this direction. There were fans who read the early research in undergraduate classes and saw a model for academic work that played to their strength and interests. And there were people who discovered fandom as graduate students and thus engaged with this field as an interesting outgrowth of their other intellectual interests.

[2.4] The first books opened up a space; the next waves have done the work that has transformed fan studies from a topic to a field. And the rise of digital culture has demonstrated to a larger public that the kind of participatory culture that fandom embodies is not a fluke but may be a key influence on the future directions our culture is taking.

[2.5] Another factor must be acknowledged here—a similar pattern among reporters. When all of this began, I was being interviewed by reporters who were unfamiliar and often openly hostile to fandom. Now, most of the reporters who interview me for fan-related stories are themselves fans or have had some casual engagement with fandom. There are still negative stories being written, but by and large, there are really supportive stories emerging as fan academics are interviewed by fan journalists, thus providing a context for the other kinds of fans they are talking with for these stories. And as the media coverage shifts, as more people going through school are exposed to fan culture in their classes, and as the Internet makes fandom more visible, then fans are gaining much greater acceptance from friends and families.

[2.6] I realize not all fans agree that the presence of academics in their midst is a good thing. Some of this has to do with abuse by a small number of academics who didn't necessarily have the best interests of the community at heart. Some of this has to do with other issues they've had with academic life in the past. Some of it reflects the legitimate claim that fans have always theorized their own practices and that writing "meta" is as much part of fandom as writing fan fiction or editing vids, and academics have not always respected the meta written by nonacademic fans. As a community, academics doing fan studies work still have to make a greater effort to become part of the intellectual conversations within fan culture and to write work that speaks to and with nonacademic fans. We've spent so much time trying to shore up our academic credentials that we haven't always maintained our fan credentials.

[2.7] The keyword here is conversation: academic writing is part of an intellectual conversation, just as much as fan meta is. Academics and fans alike have a passion for thinking deeply and talking often about things they love. Sometimes they do so through separate channels. Ideally we'd also find ways to talk to each other, which is one reason why I am excited about this new journal—because it promises to be a meeting ground between fans, academics, and acafen.

3. Fan studies and convergence culture

[3.1] Q: Looking at your personal trajectory, you have moved from focusing on fans only to studying the relationship between producers and audiences. How does this industry focus (for example, projects like MIT's Convergence Culture Consortium) affect fan research? What do you see as the responsibilities of individual academics and academic journals like TWC in this context?

[3.2] HJ: I wouldn't necessarily accept that characterization of my research. My core interest through the years has been in participatory culture, of which fan culture represents a central but certainly not the only focus. My early work on fan culture was written at a time when fandom was a highly distinctive and somewhat insular subculture, one with limited visibility to the outside world. The first goal was to try to provide a context for understanding this community, its traditions, and its cultural practices. But as fan studies has taken root and as the visibility of fan culture has increased, I've tried to gradually broaden the scope of this research to deal with other groups who are also taking media in their own hands and to try to understand the contexts in which participatory culture operates.

[3.3] Early on, work in fan studies got criticized by people who studied media industries as if we simply didn't understand the larger economic contexts in which fandom operates. The assumption seemed to be that if we expanded our focus to deal with media industries we would see that fans were (1) not that significant in the overall market, or (2) that fans were simply an outgrowth of the marketing efforts and not resistant readers, as we suggested. With Convergence Culture, I wanted to explore some of the shifts that have occurred in the media industry—changes that have made fans in particular and participatory culture in general absolutely central to the ways the industry thinks and operates. I wanted to provide an intellectual rationale for those within the media industries who were pushing for more fan-friendly policies and who were producing new kinds of content—transmedia storytelling, for example—that many fans, myself among them, enjoyed. And in doing so, I wanted to provide fans with the tools they would need to construct a compelling economic case for the value of their contributions, for the desirability of keeping their favorite shows on television, and for the reasonableness of their feedback on the programs they watched. It doesn't mean that economic arguments are the only ones that should concern us, but they speak with particular force within the media industries and they strengthen the hands of the fan community as it lobbies for its own interests with the Hollywood and broadcasting establishments.

[3.4] The work of the Convergence Culture Consortium (C3) should be understood in that context. One goal of the project is to get industry access for students who do want to go into the media industries and to also give them a new way of thinking about that work that might help further transform the industry. Another goal is to function as a consumer advocacy group, which helps the industry think through the changes that are taking place in the media landscape and offers alternative ways of doing business that support audience participation. And a third goal is to produce materials—such as the blog or the podcast of the Futures of Entertainment conference—that help make the shifts in the industry more transparent to other academics, fans, and the general public.

[3.5] That said, my own work is now turning in another direction, with several recent essays trying to critique the kinds of consumer-producer relations that have emerged through Web 2.0. The FanLib flap was something of a turning point for me in that regard, as has been a growing appreciation of the ways some aspects of female fan culture are being left behind as fans are gaining greater access to media producers. My most recent essay deals with the ways that YouTube can be situated within a much larger history of participatory culture, and in particular, it tries to understand why some communities embrace the platform and why others have been more reluctant to do so. The point I want to raise is that a participatory culture is not necessarily a diverse culture, and we need to create mechanisms that embrace and promote diversity. YouTube offers such a vast array of materials that it is hard for many of us to see what is not there or to ask what mechanisms may block it from appearing. At the same time, I am trying to develop a deeper understanding of how gift economies work and how they relate to commodity cultures as another way of addressing concerns about "free labor" that have been raised around Web 2.0 companies. These are criticisms I am making within the media industry space as well as in academic or fan spaces, and they are once again an attempt to understand the conditions that give rise to participatory culture and to understand fandom in its larger contexts.

[3.6] In terms of the implications of this shift for TWC, I would argue that fan studies will gain greater power and influence if it connects to larger intellectual and political conversations. There is certainly space here and elsewhere for work that is only focused on fan cultures and that attempts to map its traditions of creative expression and social practice. But there also should be work that shows how fan culture is linked to shifts in the digital environment, in the ways industries work, in larger debates about gender and cultural diversity, in discussions of globalization, in arguments about education and media literacy, and in discussions of citizenship and civic media. I am hoping that TWC will be a big tent that supports all kinds of research into fan culture and cult media. Doing so will make fan studies more powerful within academic institutions and beyond. Doing so will ensure the greatest diversity of paradigms within fan studies. And doing so will increase the diversity of those participating in TWC, creating a space where male and female scholars can discuss commonalities and differences in their research and learn from each other.

4. Fans, media literacy, and OTW

[4.1] Q: You have often talked about fans as early adapters and adopters of technology. How do you connect OTW with your models of fans and convergence? Your recent work has focused on media literacy, specifically around young people. What role do you see fan cultures in general and OTW in particular as playing in relation to these concerns?

[4.2] HJ: During the two decades that I have been closely engaged with fans, fans have consistently been working on the cutting edge of new technologies—whether it is vidding, podcasting, engaging on social networks, or blogging at Live Journal. Fans often push against the limits of what existing tools can do. This is all the more significant because so much research on new media underestimates the contributions of women to the development of these platforms, and here we have a model where there is a very strong female presence and where fan women are helping each other learn and master emerging tools and practices.

[4.3] This is another one of those places where fan studies can contribute to a much larger conversation—in this case, about the process of technological change and the concern raised by the digital divide, or what I am calling the participation gap. The digital divide has to do with access to technologies; the participation gap has to do with access to social skills and cultural competencies that emerge from participating in the online world. Although our culture is becoming more participatory, some people are being locked out of participation, a trend that can foster greater economic, civic, and cultural inequalities.

[4.4] Fans have developed their own mechanisms to support not only learning to use tools but also feeling empowered to do so. Fandom has always been a space where experienced creators mentored newbies, and one could argue that the beta-reading process around fan fiction has been particularly effective at helping readers become writers and allowing new writers to develop confidence and competence and find their own expressive voice. As such, there are a growing number of learning researchers who are seeking to better understand processes of "informal learning"—that is, learning that occurs outside of formal education—who are turning their attention toward fan culture. Some fans have misunderstood these trends, suggesting that we are turning attention away from adult women and toward younger participants, but in fact, the best work in that direction is interested in the ecosystem that has emerged where fans—teen and adult—learn from each other and support each other's activities. Certainly educational researchers have the greatest interest in youth because this work can then carry over and influence what goes on within schools. But they will misunderstand fandom if they see it in age-stratified terms.

[4.5] In my own case, I am trying to take what fandom has taught me about the kinds of learning needed to support and expand a participatory culture and applying those insights to the development of materials for teaching media literacy. For a long time, media literacy was motivated by a deep suspicion of the media industries and often an antimedia perspective. I'm trying to develop an alternative model that, like fandom, has space for critical engagement but also has room for creative intervention. When fans encounter an aspect of a program they dislike, they often rewrite it or remake it rather than simply critique it. As such, fandom offers an alternative model for reading that could have a huge impact on the high school literature classroom, for example.

[4.6] I've been very pleased to be partnering with the Organization for Transformative Works as we've begun to develop these materials. Francesca Coppa and Laura Shapiro have been heading up an effort with other vidders to develop a series of short films that will be circulated as part of the materials being developed by Project New Media Literacies to help explain vidding as a particular form of participatory culture. These videos will have a place alongside those we've already produced on practices like cosplay, video podcasting, blogging, DJ culture, and the like, as resources that will support learning inside and outside of school.

[4.7] One side effect of this work may be that more young people will discover fandom, but that's a trend we've been seeing since the rise of Internet fandoms, and especially since the emergence of Harry Potter– and anime/manga-focused fandoms. But more generally, I think everyone might benefit from learning how to build a more playful and speculative relationship to the texts they read, from feeling empowered to take media in their own hands and coming to recognize a world where, as in fandom, all readers are assumed to be potential authors even if they haven't written anything yet.

5. OTW and TWC in a fannish context

[5.1] Q: You have been a strong supporter of OTW and TWC from their early days. How do you see them in relation to contemporary fan culture, media industry, and academia?

[5.2] HJ: As I mentioned earlier, the FanLib controversy was an eye-opener for me and for many other fans I know. Although Web 2.0 companies are taking their models from participatory culture, they are also fully responsive to the demands of consumer capitalism. The present moment is rich with possibilities as more people are producing their own media, as the networks and producers are learning to listen to some of their fans (albeit mostly of the male variety), and as fandom gains greater visibility in the culture. Yet as these changes occur, fandom is also more vulnerable to outside scrutiny, more exposed to corporate exploitation, and more open to legal action; fandom is also likely to be written out of the history of the participatory culture that it helped seed. Legal organizations, such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation, have been quick to defend other geek communities and slow to defend the role of fan fiction online. Journalists often write about newer forms of remix culture without an understanding of their roots in the past—roots that include the history of female fan video production. And companies seek to move into the fan community and make money from their traditions without respecting the values of the existing participants. For those reasons, fans need to be better organized, to mobilize quickly, to develop alternative systems of distribution, and to develop intellectual and legal defenses of their practices.

[5.3] These seem to be the goals that the OTW and TWC have adopted for themselves. It's exciting to see so many fans rally together and apply their various personal and professional skills to constructing an infrastructure that can help support fandom into the 21st century. The group has a chance not simply to help protect what is most valuable about fan culture, but also to provide an alternative model for cultural politics that will inform larger public policy debates, such as those concerning intellectual property law and fair use or those concerning the relations between producers and consumers in the new economy. I know I am finding myself referencing the group in more and more contexts as what you are doing is connected with larger social and cultural shifts occurring all around us. I'm hopeful that the organization will be as inclusive as possible, that it doesn't become simply an enclave for academics and professionals, and that it maintains credibility across the fan community. No group can speak for all fans—fan communities are made to schism, and feuding is too often the norm. For OTW, reaching out to as many corners of fandom as possible will be important, as will be listening and learning from critics.

6. Gender, intersectionality, and fan studies

[6.1] Q: Academic and fannish debates (see the Gender and Fan Culture series and metafandom [http://community.livejournal.com/metafandom] as examples) have pointed out the need for more conversations about gender, race, class, and other structural inequalities. How do you see your own work and that of OTW with regard to these concerns? How can we address these issues more successfully in the future?

[6.2] HJ: Many aspects of the gender and fan culture debate I hosted on my blog were illuminating to me. I learned things, both positive and negative, from both the male and female participants in that exchange. And it's forced me to reexamine the trajectory of my own work. Early on, my writing about fans was centrally concerned with gender and sexuality: As a male researcher, I wanted to respect the mostly female writing community I was discussing in Textual Poachers. I have always worked closely with female fans and academics who have deeply influenced every aspect of this work. I have also pushed through projects like "Normal Female Interest in Men Bonking" (http://web.mit.edu/cms/People/henry3/bonking.html) to broaden the voices heard from fandom within the academic world and to let go of some of the academic and male privilege that might have surrounded my work.

[6.3] At the same time, I was aware that a growing number of younger female scholars have begun to do their own work on fan fiction writing, and doing so from a space much more intertwined with the life of the community than I could ever claim. And so I began to shift the focus of my own research onto other aspects of participatory culture and other corners of fandom. I wrote more about other aspects of fan culture and cult media that have also been part of my own life as a fan.

[6.4] I had assumed that Convergence Culture would mostly be read by people who knew Textual Poachers; I also created Fans, Bloggers, and Gamers to show the links between the two projects. But I underestimated the number of people who would come to my work through Convergence Culture without that prior background. Frankly, I never imagined the book selling anywhere near as many copies as it has. As a result, Convergence Culture did not deal as well as it should have with the diversity of the fan community. Female fans are certainly present, but gender theory is less central to this project than in my earlier writings. And the book is about participatory culture understood in its broadest terms rather than about the female-centered fan community that was the focus of Textual Poachers. I feel strongly that as the range of work in fan studies has expanded, we should not expect that every essay address every aspect of fan culture and that it is legitimate to do work that explores a range of different fan practices from a range of different theoretical perspectives.

[6.5] Yet what the gender and fan culture debate forced me to think about was that there might be a connection between my new emphasis on the relations between producers and consumers and the more male-heavy, less feminist-focused nature of my new work. I need to be concerned that one group of fans may be gaining visibility and influence while other groups are still being excluded and marginalized. My friend Tara McPherson has noted that in general, gender and race have dropped out of academic discussions of digital media, and we need to find ways to reintegrate them into this work. And so, rising to her challenge, I am working much harder now to try to reengage with issues of gender and sexuality through my work. As I note above, my most recent work is about the exclusions within participatory culture and about the unequal relations between corporations and different kinds of fan communities. I am struggling to reconnect my work on participatory culture with the latest rounds of work in feminist scholarship. Fan scholars should try to acknowledge and address these questions of inequality and exclusion in their work. It's one reason why I speak so much right now about the participation gap and make the point again and again that a participatory culture is not necessarily a diverse or inclusive culture.

[6.6] Fandom is certainly not exempt from these concerns. For a long time, as a Star Trek fan, I was concerned that we spoke about "Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations," yet those attending conventions are overwhelming white. I now worry a lot about the generational segregation of fan communities. When my wife goes to Escapade, she hears lots of talk about the graying of fandom and sees far fewer fans who are not middle-aged; when I speak at a Harry Potter con, I am shocked by how young most of the fans are. What does this suggest about the social structures of fandom?

[6.7] Might something similar be going on with race, where we define what shows count as "fannish" according to a set of criteria that may marginalize or exclude minority participants at a time when the shows watched by most white Americans are rather different from those watched by most minority Americans? Interestingly, reality television has been the point of overlap racially, so it would be interesting to know more about how race operates in the fandoms around reality television. But in most cases, reality fandom is cut off from the fiction-focused fandoms.

[6.8] Incidentally, gender seems to operate differently within some of these fandoms: younger men and women are interacting more together through Harry Potter or anime fandom than was the case with the highly female-centered fan cultures I observed a decade ago.

[6.9] We need to be asking hard questions within the fan community about how we define our own borders and how different groups of fans interact. They are also questions we need to ask as academics about how we bridge between different scholarly communities that are studying related topics through different language and that may be breaking down along the lines of gender or race. I hope that OTW and TWC can extend the conversation we started on my blog and build connections to other such discussions taking place in and around fandom. But we are only going to achieve that goal if we embrace the broadest possible understanding of what constitutes fan culture and what models might motivate fan studies research.





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