Review: Henry Jenkins’ Fans, Bloggers, and Gamers
This is a review of Henry Jenkins’ book Fans, Bloggers, and Gamers: Exploring Participatory culture (2006). Henry Jenkins is the co-director of the MIT Comparative Media Studies program. Fans, Bloggers, and Gamers is a compilation of several essays, including his previous work on fandom, Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Culture (1992).
The introduction of the book is entitled as the confession of ACA/fan, which already gives away Jenkins’ personal interest in fandom. Jenkins is certainly not the first scholar whose work centered on fandom, but is one of the few who took fandom seriously, even within the context of science and knowledge. What makes his work stand out in comparison to previous studies on fandom is that his work captures fans’ experience as a source for active participation in producing meaning. Rather seeing fans (or audience) as passive recipients of the media texts, Jenkins argues that fans like “poachers” occupy someone else’s property and adapt/alter it to suit their own taste. This approach provides a useful insight into the position of fans in relation to media text, which as Jenkins emphasizes, is not one-way streamed. This also means that corporate media hegemony is contested by the consumers of the texts, and that meaning of the text is not a top-down dictation, but rather a constructive one that requires fans’ participation and input.
Furthermore, Jenkins emphasis on active participation also entails a closer and critical look at the way research on fandom has been conducted up until now. Jenkins refers to the first generation of scholars such as John Fiske, John Tulloch, and Janice Radway who uses ethnographic methods, derived in part of sociological methods. Even though these early works on fandom acknowledged fandom to be a participatory and constructive phenomenon, it was “important for these writers to be outside what they were writing about, to be free of any direct implication in their subject matter” (Jenkins 2006: 11). Jenkins considers himself to be part of the second generation scholars who tried to find a way to alter the perception based on insider knowledge of what it is to be a fan, and to find a language to articulate a different perspective that comes out of lived experience and situated knowledge. Jenkins and scholars from this second generation opened up a way for a third generation of scholars who identify themselves as scholars and fans (ACA/fan).
I think that Jenkins makes a strong point by sketching the phases of social/cultural research on fandom and popular culture. It has become more acceptable nowadays to be personally involved in the subject or research matter. It is a way for not only fans, but also scholars to share their findings and collectively build on knowledge. For instance, it is usual to publish research findings on a weblog, even before the official publication of the article. Jenkins supports the interactive dialogue between research subjects (fan) and scholars. But it’s also an important issue to see the ways in which scholars are becoming part of a participatory culture of shared knowledge, enabled by the wave of web2.0 applications.
Secondly, Jenkins confronts scholars with the common practice of taking the work of fans for granted. According to Jenkins, there is the tendency as a scholar to consider their own analysis of the media text as a legitimate contribution to knowledge; whereas the work of fans or what they have to say about the media content does not pertain to the world of academia. In other words, fans are excluded in the contribution of knowledge. I may not completely agree with Jenkins on the extent to which fans are producing knowledge (which I shall discuss later on), but Jenkins gave the fans a voice and a place within the academia.
Scholars such as Simone Murray on the other hand are a bit more skeptical on fandom as a participatory culture and the emerging power in fan communities that is capable of shifting the boundaries between media content producers and consumers:
“Admirable though Jenkins’ attention to corporate regulatory structures is, his schema in Textual Poachers tends to posit fan cultures as rebelling against an essentially monolithic and stable corporate order. A more responsive depiction of the contemporary milieu given the instability of the global market economy, and the landscape of constant merger and divestment against which media conglomerates constitute themselves, might be to understand fans as exerting pressure on the parameters of a media system which is itself unstable. (Murray 2004:73 )
I do not completely agree with Murray’s point. For Jenkins, fans are not opposing or rebelling against corporate media. Partially true is that fans create alternative content, because they cannot identify with the one the producer of the text is providing. Alternative deviations from the original text are innumerable, therefore hard or even impossible to categorize (or to grasp). But Jenkins was more interested in the intentions behind these alterations and concluded that fans do not just randomly create content. In a fan community, there is a certain loyalty to the original media content. Depending on the nature and the need of the fan community, each member of a community produces content based on a certain consensus. This allows marginalized groups in society to alter the media content to their needs, which can also be seen as a form of empowerment. But fans are indeed exerting pressure on the parameters of a media system, but not through oppositional forces, but in dialogue as (according to Jenkins) fans are finding ways to mediate between the original text and their own interpretation of the text. The gap in between these two provides a space for imagination and creativity.
What I missed in Jenkins’ essays is the definition of knowledge. Fandom provides important data to construct certain kind of knowledge. But what would this knowledge entail? As I have discussed before, content (re)production in fan community can amount to anything or everything. Taking the female gaming community for instance; through the 90’s several female clans (Quake) emerged and most of them were short-lived. The importance of these clans cannot be reduced to their longevity; these marginalized female gamers used the medium for their own empowerment and thereby contesting the gender status quo in the gaming culture. But does their activity last long enough to actually contribute significant change? What kind of knowledge can we extract from (most of the time) instable and short-lived communities?
Due to new media technologies, the media chain is shifting and so are the boundaries between (and their roles as) content producers, distributors, and consumers/users. Jenkins made clear that the production of media content on the side of consumers/users is worthy of academic research. I really liked the last section of the book when it all comes down to meaning versus effect. Youth violence has been associated with the rise of violent videogames. This has always been contended, but it is only viable if we (and most people still do) consider users of media (gamers/fans/bloggers) as passive recipient, without the ability to make up their own interpretation and meaning of the text. Jenkins makes it very clear at the end of the book. It is all about meaning, the interaction with any forms of medium, especially when it is for entertainment purposes. Effects are not monolithic and certainly not dictated. To understand the effects of particular medium, Jenkins argues that we should focus on the side where meaning is produced, and as you may have guessed, that is what participatory culture is all about; active participation in consuming, and producing (several) meanings out of one media text.