Spreadable Media: Creating Value and Meaning in a Networked Culture, by Henry Jenkins, Sam Ford, and Joshua Green, New York: New York University Press, 2013, 351 pp., ISBN978-0-8147-4350-8

Relationships are complicated things, evidenced nowhere better than in the finicky bond between media producers and their audiences at a time when the tidy borders defining these once seemingly distinct entities are being eroded. As social relations are increasingly imbricated with social networking it is often around media content that these relations are built and maintained. For those in the media industry hoping to tap into this networked culture, how audiences choose what content to discuss and circulate and what to ignore is the question at hand. In Spreadable Media authors Jenkins, Ford and Green draw from their personal experiences in academia, commercial media, and fandom to plot out the social logics and delicate decision-making processes that audiences undertake in determining the value and meaning, that is, the spreadability, of media content. In seven chapters and an online collection of essays, the authors argue that “if it doesn’t spread it’s dead,” and in so doing call for nothing short of a paradigm shift in how we conceptualize content creation, participatory culture, and the future of new media.

This shift in the new media landscape is less revolutionary than reformist, the authors explain, taking as their point of entry the inadequacies of previous models used to understand audience engagement with media content. These models ­– stickiness, impressions, biological metaphors such as viral content and memes, and most of all, Web 2.0 – are built on imbalanced power relations between producers and consumers, a top down approach to media distribution that fails to recognize audience agency and can lead to exploitative practices. In contrast, following the authors’ model of spreadability, the creation of value and meaning is not a one-shot deal or a contagion, but rather emerges from the process of deliberation audiences undertake when choosing content to engage with and share.

It is this process of deliberation that the authors, through Raymond Williams’s notion of residual culture, break down into types of decisions that different communities make in evaluating content. Whereas companies see content as a commodity, and audience contribution as adding monetary value, audiences operate within an economy of social reciprocity (the gift economy), seeing their activities as adding worth. While these systems may not always align, they might come closer, the authors argue, if producers listen more carefully to their audience’s unique system of appraisal and diversify the ways they conceive of value accretion by courting a variety of fan types such as cult, forensic, and transformational fandom through transmedia storytelling. One of the book’s most significant contribution to the literature is to be found in its critique of the tendency by both corporate media and academics to privilege “active” fan types, to which the authors respond by putting forth a revision of the concept of participatory culture first coined by Jenkins (1992) to include the so-called “lurkers” as having an equally significant role to play in shaping the new media environment.

For media producers a chapter on “Designing for Spreadability” will be the ballast of the text where key strategies of spreadability, applicable for both civic and corporate media engagement, are made plain. Drawing on John Fiske’s idea of “producerly” texts, the authors argue that the most spreadable content has gaps that invite audiences to insert personal meaning. Following this explication encouraging examples are given of how these spreadable texts have been deployed by independent media producers, leading to innovative new modes of production, funding, genres, content, and more direct and meaningful relationships between producers and consumers.

In the final chapter, working from anthropologist Arjun Appadurai’s conception of globalization, the authors propose that despite the unevenness of information flows, spreadable media has the potential to improve cultural diversity, empathy towards communities with different historical and cultural trajectories, and even help resist U.S. cultural hegemony by encouraging alternative strategies of dispersion. While the decision to tackle globalization in a book about networked culture is fairly indisputable, when we consider that the concept of spreadability is a spatial metaphor, the reduction of the spatial to a single chapter on (trans)nationalism highlights a lacuna in the authors’ core argument, which would benefit from attending to the inherent locatedness of all media products and fan activities in far more, equally important ways than the geopolitical alone. Within new media scholarship both the spatial practices of audiences and the geographic spread of fan activity are two research trajectories that need more attention and that the ideas presented in Spreadable Media may contribute to productively, if not explicitly in the book itself, then as taken up by other scholars.  

Augmenting the primary text is an enhanced book found at spreadablemedia.org consisting of 34 original essays by media scholars and professionals, and a blog updated every few weeks tracking the spread of Spreadable Media. Because the book is unevenly distributed between the three intended audiences – writing more directly to media producers than academics and fans – and because there is a slight bias in the presentation of the material – focusing primarily on “transformative” case studies – the enhanced book is crucial in balancing what may otherwise have become an unwieldy project. By moving the essay contributions to a satellite location the authors are able to maintain a succinct argument throughout the primary text without losing the breadth of voices – case studies, critical interpretations, or potential avenues of research – provided by an edited collection. While this is no small feat for a book with such big aims, the more novel aspect of the enhanced book is that it demonstrates through practice the book’s main thesis that in order for content to be successful it must spread, and to do that it must be portable, available when and where audiences want it, easily reusable, relevant to multiple audiences, part of a steady stream of material, and yes, sometimes free.

 

References

Jenkins H (1992) Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Culture.

New York: Routledge. 

Author: 

Laura L. Sharp