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DISPATCH FROM MASSACHUSETTS | If It Doesn’t Spread, It’s Dead

DISPATCH FROM MASSACHUSETTS | If It Doesn't Spread, It's Dead

“If it doesn’t spread, it’s dead.” With that pointed dictum, Professor Henry Jenkins kicked off a series of profound deliberations on the nature of new media at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology for the Futures of Entertainment conference last weekend. Blending academic theory with practical insight, the conference (co-presented by MIT’s Comparative Media Studies program and the Convergence Culture Consortium) surveyed the many ways in which emerging technologies have empowered audiences and forced the industry to adapt new models.

Jenkins, co-director of CMS at MIT, specializes in fan culture and has written several books on the topic, including “Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide.” Despite the abstract nature of his research, Jenkins and his peers hosted a series of valuable conversations about the power of mobilizing audiences for a variety of entertainment properties, particularly film and television. Emboldened by the obvious fan mentality that informed the 2008 presidential election, Jenkins introduced the conference by announcing his attempt to seek “a roadmap for the way our culture is going.”

It was also a not-so-subtle plug for a new book project, tentatively titled “Spreadable Media,” which will continue Jenkins’ attempt to look at convergence culture as a collection of materials with a set of relationships, “not simply a magical set of links.” Jenkins views the impact of internet on fandom as a new collaborative process. “In a networked society, people are constantly forming knowledge communities,” he said, explaining that the internet has engendered a new form of participatory culture — a contemporary version of folk culture. As a result, everyone involved in the professional world of entertainment, including filmmakers, musicians, and those who support their work, to figure out a fresh set of rules. “The logic of convergence culture has been embraced by most entertainment industries,” Jenkins said. “What happens next? We’re going into a space we don’t understand yet.”

The plurality of the conference title was key to its design. As topics ranged from “Consumption, Value and Worth” to “Franchising, Extensions and Worldbuilding,” the speakers emphasized multiple futures and pathways for different types of entertainment. Vague terms such as “web 2.0” and “viral media” were rejected with particular vehemence. Jenkins considered “the myth of viral media” as a message from the corporate world, but “the most wrong-headed way to think about what’s going on.” Instead, he viewed the popularity of online video and web-based communities as a conscious phenomenon. “We can’t strip ‘viral media’ from this idea of infection,” Jenkins complained. There’s a clear agenda behind popular online media, he argued, particularly when consumers transform content to fit their needs.

Jenkins’s interpretive approach to new media applies to several disciplines, as evidenced by the diverse interests expressed by the group of graduate students involved in planning the conference. Founded three years ago by postdoctoral researcher Joshua Green and a few other students, Futures of Entertainment plays into all of their research areas, not the least of which involve the new horizons of the film community. Researcher Ana Domb Krauskopf, for example, is currently completing her dissertation on alternative film distribution. While she focuses on the usual case studies, such as “Four Eyed Monsters” and “Head Trauma,” Krauskopf also examines similar projects taking place in Latin America.

Such research demonstrates the benefits of an ongoing conversation between the academy and the industry. Even the densest academic lectures, which ordinarily might alienate professionals operating outside that bubble, ultimately served as an intellectual means of tackling the ways in which new media have altered the landscape of modern entertainment. On Friday afternoon, Jenkins sat down with Yochai Benkler, the Berkman Professor of Entrepreneurial Legal Studies at Harvard and author of “The Wealth of Networks: How Social Production Transforms Markets and Freedom.” The two men discussed exactly the topic implied by the title of the book, with particular emphasis on the ramifications of YouTube.

Henry Jenkins at the Futures of Entertainment Conference at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Photo by Eric Kohn.

Jenkins introduced an intriguing quandary: While early users were happy to contribute content to the video sharing site when it launched in 2005, the terms changed after Google purchased the company the following year. “Suddenly, a multimillion dollar price tag was placed on user-generated content,” Jenkins said. He noted that some new media experts, such as Terra Nova, offer critiques of such free labor, the question of whether we should pay for YouTube content raises an entirely seperate issue. For filmmakers seeking to profit off their work, generating revenue from YouTube content would be tremendously beneficial. However, fan communities that upload material as part of their hobby might see this as profiteering.

“There are four actors in the drama you just described,” Benkler responded to Jenkins’ analysis, and proceeded to list them: Commercial media companies, which view spreadable media as a threat; creative people, who are scared of the new model; non-traditional media companies, such as YouTube; and non-professional, non-commercial users. Obviously, it would be impossible to satisfy all of these crowds at once, but their co-existence conveys the existence of an audiences motivated by the desire to spread content. With that type of commitment, the prospects of collaborative filmmaking, discussed in a recent indieWIRE article about projects like “Lost Zombies,” appear more viable than ever.

“It turned out that all sorts of things that seemed not so amenable to peer production, turned out to be [amenable],” Benkler said. Nevertheless, he suggested that fictional projects present a greater challenge as collaborative ventures than documentaries. He also questioned the motives of individual contributors to a collaborative work. Discussing the open source video platform Kaltura, he presented a hypothetical case where someone spends two hours editing a project that innumerable other people will be able to access. Is the value for the individual placed on those two hours or on the overall quality of the final product?

During a break between sessions, Jenkins suggested to indieWIRE that it made sense for early attempts at collaborative filmmaking to rely on genre conventions, because they offer familiar reference points. He also pointed out that large scale ensemble narratives seem better suited for the technique than streamlined productions. For example, “Nashville” could be made as a collaborative feature, but not “Jurassic Park” (although that doesn’t rule out the possibility of multiple versions of “Jurassic Park,” each designed by a different contributor).

Attending the conference for a panel on worldbuilding, “Head Trauma” director Lance Weiler used the intriguing metaphor of a bullet hole in a glass window to address the reservations of some filmmakers to give other people access to their projects: The bullet hole (the actual film) always remains the same, but the cracks surrounding it contain infinite possibilities. Later, Weiler sat on a panel (with, among others, “The Blair Witch Project” producer Gregg Hale) and discussed the success alternative reality game he implemented to expand the story (and commercial potential) of “Head Trauma.” “I used to say I’m a filmmaker,” Weiler said. “Now I say I’m a story architect.”

On a separate panel, television producers discussed similar strategies for expanding their programs’ audiences. Kim Moses, producer of “The Ghost Whisperer,” recounted how the network ended up paying for user-generated content and leaked plot information online to keep fans satisfied. She was joined by Kevin Slavin, managing director and co-founder of Area/Code, which develops cross-media games. His company created an online game called “Chain Factor,” which ties into the plot of CBS’s primetime drama “Numb3rs.” Response has been phenomenal. “Fan labor is what keeps interest going,” said Gail De Kosnik, an assistant professor at UC Berkeley participating in the panel. “The amount of education fans have given younger society is huge.” Slavin agreed. “A set of expectations are being built around media,” he said, “and they’re escalating.”

Considering the cross-media nature of the conference, parallels between different forms of entertainment were frequently brought into focus. During one memorable panel, “Watchmen” production designer Alex McDowell revealed the upcoming film’s use of easter eggs in the layout of the set to create fully functional universe (a tactic he also applied to the futuristic design of “Minority Report“). Stills from the film revealed that comic book detail would be peppered throughout the movie (along with sly references to “Dr. Strangelove,” “The Man Who Fell to Earth,” and other classic movies). Joining him, comics scholar Alisa Perren helped contextual the resurgence of comic book adaptations by outlining her current book project, which analogizes their recent popularity to the 1980’s independent film movement.

The expansive lecture hall of MIT’s Wiesner Building, where Futures of Entertainment took place, often felt like a movement itself, and a fully functional world with its own terms. As the conversations progressed, so too did a flurry of typing from numerous laptops throughout the audience: Microblogging and online chatter created a series of miniature conversations that converged into a unified whole. A remarkable technology called Backchan.nl allowed anyone in the room to submit questions via an online server, which would post them for the panel participants to address while they conversed. Anyone with a computer had the capacity to vote on which questions they wanted to see addressed, and the server would rank them accordingly. It was a radically compelling approach to new media-fueled discourse. Distracting? Try progressive.

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