Sunday, February 25, 2007

Beyond Broadcast - Henry Jenkins Kicks Digital Keister

The Stata Center at MITWhen I got to the Stata Center at MIT for Beyond Broadcast, I was glad I had registered online before I left for Boston. The one day event was designed to accomodate about 300 journos, webheads and other digital ponderers. Open registration continued the morning of the event, and as attendees settled into the large lecture hall, the organizers announced that the number of attendees was likely closer to 400. Thankfully, the room held the overflow with no problem.

I suspect that 100 people who chose to attend this Saturday conference at the last last minute were pleasantly surprised.

Henry Jenkins' keynote presentation began with an attempt to define "Participatory Culture," using among others, one memorable example of how a photoshopped image depicting the Sesame Street character Bert, inadvertantly made its way from a defunct humor website ...

this doctored photo shows 'Evil Bert' in the company of Bin Laden
The image of Bert ended up with other images as part of this pro Bin Laden collageto thousands of pro Bin Laden propaganda posters seen on the streets of Bangladesh during a pro Bin Laden protest.

(right: Notice a tiny version of Bert and Bin Laden lifted from the web.)

The point? People who take part in today's online culture are no longer passive consumers of media. They are empowered, sometimes intentionally and sometimes by mistake, by the two-way flow of digital information. Thus, anyone with a laptop and an internet connection can conceivably touch and affect the outcome of major events -- for good... evil... or (in the case of our friend "Evil Bert") ...somewhere in-between.

Jenkins makes a case for the emerging connection between "Participatory Culture" and "Participatory Democracy." He points to the apparent tension between progressive phenomena like online campaign organizing, social media and blogging - and dystopian portrayals of the dominant media as soul-sucking, vapid and hypnotic. It seems that old tropes, which promote a contempt of media, may be breaking down. More people have become comfortable with making and distributing their own digital media to express new ideas or to influence opinion using social networks. Put simply, people are developing a new and more intimate relationship with electronic media.

During his presentation, Jenkins also put up the following
short list of ideals for popular (small -d) democratic culture:

  • Participatory
  • Beyond Broadcast

  • Active

  • Open-ended

  • Transparent

  • Transformative

I included that list here, because it looks like a great blueprint for designing the new platform we as public broadcasters MUST build - in order to retain, engage and grow our community, and to survive.

Jenkins suggests that despite the naysayers' predictions, a collective intelligence appears to be forming on the web. People are organizing knowledge networks, like Wikipedia. People are forming utopian cultures in virtual communities like "Second Life." Sites like Facebook, MySpace, Blogger, and You Tube have revolutionized the way that millions of people communicate and distribute information. For people below a certain age, old forms of communication (like newspapers and traditional broadcast) have become irrelevant. OK, maybe the revolution WILL be televised after all (Revolutionary Idol, anyone?) ...but you can count on the fact that fewer will watch it in its entirety, or in real time - thanks to PVRs and You Tube.

There was a lot more to this. I could go on and on about Jenkins' ideas about Participatory Democracy and Beyond Broadcast and the Brave New World, blah blah blah - but I've been at it too long already. I have posted a bunch of links to related materials. Dig in if you are interested. Email me if you want more. Or not.

Is Jenkins' media munching just an academic exercise? Maybe. Can we afford to ignore the new realities he describes? I don't think so. Whether we are radio or television broadcasters, we must admit that our audience is changing. Consumers of all media are evolving a new sophistication. Expectations are higher. Barriers for entry to the world of media influence have fallen dramatically. For a variety of reasons, what we do - in essence - is no longer beyond the grasp of the average person. Soon, almost everyone will be able to do what broadcasters and electronic journalists do, to some degree. Everywhere you look, from Army barracks in Baghdad to suburban bedrooms in your home town, people are stepping up to tell their stories. We need to embrace these changes, and create a new space to welcome our future partners, the former audience.

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