Posted by: Nathan Dinsdale | October 10, 2011

Power to the Potters: Substantive Impacts of Participatory Culture

One of the main undercurrents in Jenkins’ Convergence Culture is the concept of “participatory culture” and how it impacts the relationship between media producers and media consumers. It’s a tenuous alliance that can be both complementary (what Jenkins calls “collaborationists”) and adversarial (“prohibitionists”).

The media producers tread a fine line between maintaining sovereignty over their content and appealing to the most devoted media consumers—the “loyalists,” the “brand community,” or, simply, the fans. The motivations and gratifications of media producers are seemingly obvious. At best, their aim is to create a product that’s artful, meaningful and engaging. More likely, they’re trying to make a buck. If they manage the former while securing the latter, then huzzah, champagne for everyone.

The motivations and gratifications of media consumers are more complex. All manner of social, cultural, emotional and psychological factors likely come into play. To one extent or another, what the “loyalists” of a particular brand or product likely share is a search for identity, community, camaraderie, acceptance, maybe even meaning. There’s intangible value to be found, at least for the individual or the specific community.

However, what’s striking to me about the fan communities Jenkins describes is how little substance is created from such large, passionate and mobilized populations. If only the American electorate was as passionate as The Spoilers of Survivor. The gratification that individual members get from fan experiences isn’t to be underestimated, but it seems to me that a society or culture at large hardly benefits (if not outright digresses) from many of these Idol pursuits.

Maybe it’s simply entertainment. Not every TV show needs to be 60 Minutes. Not every book has to be The Jungle. Sometimes we need brain candy. Sometimes we need to consume something with absolutely no redeeming value, hence the longevity of Seth Rogen’s acting career.

One might argue that the intangible benefits of communal interaction and shared experience within these fan groups is enough. It could be argued that the Star Wars “fan fiction” sub-culture Jenkins discusses in Chapter Four has helped push technological and artistic boundaries while breaking down the barriers between producer and consumer for a more egalitarian experience. One could also argue that the techno-activism Jenkins describes in Chapter 6 uses new methods to generate important, meaningful dialogue (although the use of technological manipulation and raving hypersensitivity to events like “The Dean Scream” make this problematic).

From my perspective, speaking strictly about the fan communities that Jenkins describes in Convergence Culture, the fanbase with the most universally redemptive qualities is the Harry Potter loyalists described in Chapter 5. Granted, this perspective could be entirely influenced by how Jenkins sympathetically frames the discussion. A significant portion of the fans discussed are kids and Jenkins handles them accordingly with kids’ gloves.

And yet Jenkins also offers evidence for the massive impact that the so-called “Potter Wars” had not just among Potter “loyalists” but also in a broader global, social and cultural dialogue. A seemingly innocuous shared passion centered around prepubescent-turned-adolescent wizardry led to a fight against censorship (Muggles for Harry Potter/kids-SPEAK!), educational empowerment and “collective bargaining” communal defense  (The Daily Prophet, Sugar Quill) as well as straight-up social activism (HP Alliance).

What makes this specific fan community even more interesting is that their “battle” as described by Jenkins wasn’t just a matter of media consumers versus media producers (as was the case with The Spoilers versus the producers of Survivor, American Idol fans versus American Idol producers, “fair-use” Star Wars fans versus LucasFilms, etc.) but instead spilled over into “real-world” issues of values, politics and religion.

There’s also a certain irony in religious fundamentalists gnashing their teeth over the “participatory culture” embraced by Harry Potter loyalists when one considers that devoted, interpretive evangelicalism based primarily on a singular literary source is, in fact, a foundational trait they both share. Not to mention that a reverse argument could easily be made when the shoe is on the other foot (The Chronicles of Narnia, the Left Behind series, one of Kirk Cameron’s straight-to-DVD epistles).

In the end, it shows a glimpse into how seemingly “throwaway” cultural products and the passion they inspire can make meaningful real-world impacts through the collective power—heretofore mostly misappropriated or untapped—of the “participatory culture.”

Discussion Questions:
-In what ways does “fan fiction” represent a shift from “mass culture” and “popular culture” back toward “folk culture” (as Jenkins describes the terms)?
-What distinction, if any, would you make between “file-sharing” and “fan fiction” as it relates to intellectual property and/or copyright infringement?

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