This is not a blog post about Facebook on toast. Thank the lord. But rather a summary of some interesting points raised by Henry Jenkins on the topic of his new book, Spreadable Media. A well-respected professor of Media at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, his latest research looks into what all internet marketers have striven to find in a magic formula, how and why certain forms of digital media goes viral on the internet. Less of a masterclass and more of an exploration, here are some of the main interesting points I picked up from his recent talk at the University of Westminster on social media and sharing on the web.
- What is Spreadable Media? It’s exactly how it sounds. For Jenkins it’s a study of how media circulates around the web. Some bits of content are ‘sticker’ than others, some get spread far and wide, some stays in one place. One obvious and major example was the Kony 2012 Youtube video by Invisible Children, with over 1 million views in just 4 days, second only to ripped footage of Susan Boyle, which took 7 days to attain the same number of hits. At time of writing this video was a little shy of 90 million views in a little over two months, the fastest spread video ever online. Why was it shared so much? Because there was a call to action at the end; “Above all, Share this movie online.It’s free.” The act of sharing allows people top put their own personal viewpoint on the content; a personal message in agreement or disagreement, and the contents status changes as it moves through the online space. Sharing is a stepping stone to other politically charged commitments, and socially engaged people are more likely to take part.
- Think like a Dandelion. Drawing on the ideas of science fiction writer and blogger Cory Doctrow, Jenkins notes if producers want their ideas to fly out into the world, we need to stop thinking like the mammals that we are, who keep their ideas close and are reluctant to share. But if we made our work easily copied and shared, those ideas will spread into the eyes who find it pleasing, and may eventually end up into the right hands where a commercial relationship can begin. Traditional exchange economies are not so valid for artists any more, and must look for other revenue streams.
- Grass-roots communities and Astroturf: Spreadable media to a group is like a grass-roots community, sharing content they are passionate about with each other for a shared experience and want. The first spreadable media form was the ‘zine from the traditional printing press over 150 years ago, sharing homemade fanzines via the post, which is still popular today. Personal opinions on what people think is good and ‘like’ has currency and has gained much ground. Web 2.0 isn’t as participatory as these analogue forms, but rather the friction between producers and users around what is wanted/needed from media that has produced this participatory culture. And what of the new ideas for Facebook users to be paid for sharing content with their friends on the web? Jenkins called this Astroturf, a fake sharing experience which is a sign of a struggle.
- Democracy Struggle: For the first time in history, people are able to fully reciprocate and get their voices heard. But it’s a preconception that the new media revolution will create a democracy that we have all been striving for. Instead, as referenced by the ideas of John Fiske, this new freedom is creating new struggles as we try to negotiate and understand this new media landscape. While there are 10 million active Twitter users in the UK, more than are buying newspapers, there is still a participation gap; some people don’t have access to it, and some are still not using it meaningfully.
- A better education: Ending on a point that is often made by academics, Jenkins said that a better education is needed to make people, especially the youth, understand the best ways to make use of these new forms of communication. However, there are many barriers in our way. In thousands of schools and colleges in the UK, many social media sites are blocked to increase ‘productivity and learning’. Children are then forced to learn how to learn to communicate in these online spaces on their own, without any guidance, mentoring, or safe practice guides, which makes them vulnerable. Students need to be encouraged to be participatory online.
Now, when I make some new content, new questions will be in my mind to make me think about how it will be shared around the web. Why would people want to share this? What value can people add when sharing this? Can this idea be developed into something new? All good creative food for thought, which most importantly I’ll have to remember; ‘If it doesn’t spread, it’s dead.’