A response to Henry Jenkins

Henry Jenkins defines “transmedia,” a term he coined, as a form of “storytelling (that represents) a process where integral elements of a fiction get dispersed systematically across multiple delivery channels for the purpose of creating a unified and coordinated entertainment experience. Ideally,” Jenkins continues, “each medium makes its own unique contribution to the unfolding of a story.” Jenkins goes on to argue that the emergence of these mediums not only supplements the original fiction — presumably a text of some sort — but that it also can have major social and political impacts. Given the extent to which certain fictions have outgrown their original boxes, spilling over into different mediums and fixtures of society, Jenkins’ view of transmedia is a difficult one to dispute.

Reading about how Jenkins sees transmedia and its potentially wide-reaching effects, I began to think about the Harry Potter series, which had relatively humble origins in print media in the late 1990s and has since exploded into a towering empire of films, theme parks, merchandise, fanfictions, etc. The Harry Potter brand has so far transcended the words J.K. Rowling put on the page that the novels seem almost like ancient texts — a foundation upon which so many other mediums have bolstered and reshaped the series. As Jenkins speaks of his vision of transmedia and what it can be, Harry Potter seems a perfect example. The books offer an in-depth, ground-level experience for “purists;” the films translate the texts into the visual realm (often adding to or subtracting from the novels); theme parks and merchandise allow fans to feel a part of the series, immersed in that world; and fanfiction gives fans a chance to sew their own threads into the series — another form of immersion. Each medium tells a different aspect of the story, which Jenkins says should be the case with transmedia.

In part one of Jenkins’ interview with Matt Ratto and Megan Boler, I found particularly interesting the concept of DIY — do it yourself — in transmedia. The authors included “DIY” in the title of their book, by doing so stating that consumers of media can more or less invent themselves by exercising free will over which fictions and pieces of media they choose to consume. Jenkins makes the argument that the way media is marketed and either pumped or deflated by society voids the notion of “do it yourself.” I hadn’t previously put much thought into it, but marketing and social norms have significant influence over the media people consume. A person doesn’t just like what he or she likes; what he or she likes is largely based upon factors outside of personal preference. The authors later admit that they shared Jenkins’ view but that they used “DIY” in the title because it is a common term people immediately understand.

I also found interesting and somewhat amusing the semantical debate over whether “DIY” is an appropriate term to describe how consumers of media shape themselves or are shaped by other forces. “You” typically is interpreted as addressing the individual, but Jenkins and the authors make note of the plural “you,” which addresses a group of people. That’s pretty misleading. The admission by the authors that they are contemplating a more relevant term — DIT (do it together) or DIO (do it ourselves) — shows how fluid and ever-evolving media and media consumption has become. I found myself thinking back to the article we read about the writer who “liked” everything on his Facebook page for two days. Twenty years ago, people simply might have liked what they liked; they had more free will. Today, the books we read and the shows we watch are determined only partly by our self interests and increasingly so by what social media, marketers and society tells us to like.

Ratto later makes a case about social media that I think is shared by many people — that it is simultaneously a source of political expression and democracy and also a source of misinformation and ignorance-sharing. Barack Obama famously used social media — Reddit, Facebook, Twitter, etc. — to win the presidency in 2008 and then re-election in 2012. The Obama campaign is evidence that social media, when wielded correctly, is a powerful tool for mobilization and political action. Conversely, social media is dubious and a dangerous tool in the wrong hands. Users have next to no incentive or obligation to verify the authenticity and accuracy of what they post, which contributes to a collective ignorance among people who take at face value what they read on social media.

Boler addressed the recent trend of media consumers, primarily younger people, obtaining their news from nontraditional sources, even sources deemed to be “fake news.” The Daily Show is probably the most famous example. News purists and political conservatives recently have argued that young people are reckless and misguided in their preference for alternative news sources — like The Daily Show — over more traditional and bonafide sources. As a frequent Daily Show viewer, I have seen Jon Stewart express many times the importance of consumers gathering their news from a variety of sources. Studies have shown that Daily Show viewers possess a stronger understanding of political and social issues than viewers of some traditional news sources — namely, Fox News. To Stewart’s point, those studies do not necessarily speak to the validity of The Daily Show as a principle news source (Daily Show viewers typically use Stewart’s show as a news supplement, as opposed to Fox News viewers, who often make Fox News their primary news source). They speak to the importance of viewers diversifying the news they consume and not investing an exorbitant amount of trust in any one source.

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