Finally Spreading “Spreadable Media”
By Xiaochang Li | February 11, 2009
After nearly a year since Henry Jenkins, Ana Domb, and I first unveiled the “Spreadable Media” research in a lengthy and dense (read: we talk fast) presentation at the Convergence Culture Consortium Partner’s Retreat last spring, we’re finally able to begin sharing our efforts in dismantling the faulty metaphor of viral media and moving towards a deeper and more nuanced understanding of how and why media content spreads online.
A condensed version of the roughly 100-page C3 white paper — drafted by Henry Jenkins, myself, and fellow C3 researcher Ana Domb, along with C3 Post-doc researcher Joshua Green — will be running in enormous 2,000 – 4,000 word chunks in Henry’s blog and on the C3 blog. I won’t be running it here, given that it’s already being posted to a blog that I contribute regularly to, but if my very tight pre-Brazil schedule in the next few weeks permits, I will be following along with additional links, insights, and commentary both on the development of the ideas we outline in the white paper as well as new thoughts and contributions from the work we have been doing this year as we dig deeper and wider with the spreadable media model, looking at new ways of thinking about commodity culture, audiences and audienceship, and global medial flows.
The first part of the condensed paper is already up at Henry’s blog here, and focuses on taking apart the current models and metaphors of so-called “viral media”:
“Talking about memes and viral media places an emphasis on the replication of the original idea, which fails to consider the everyday reality of communication — that ideas get transformed, repurposed, or distorted as they pass from hand to hand, a process which has been accelerated as we move into network culture. Arguably, those ideas which survive are those which can be most easily appropriated and reworked by a range of different communities . . . Rather than emphasizing the direct replication of “memes,” a spreadable model assumes that the repurposing and transformation of media content adds value, allowing media content to be localized to diverse contexts of use. This notion of spreadability is intended as a contrast to older models of stickiness which emphasize centralized control over distribution and attempts to maintain ‘purity’ of message . . . The metaphor of “infection” reduces consumers to the involuntary “hosts” of media viruses, while holding onto the idea that media producers can design “killer” texts which can ensure circulation by being injected directly into the cultural “bloodstream.” While attractive, such a notion doesn’t reflect the complexity of cultural and communicative processes. A continued dependency on terms based in biological phenomena dramatically limits our ability to adequately describe media circulation as a complex system of social, technological, textual, and economic practices and relations.”
While it may at first seem like an issue of “mere” language, the decision to analyze “viral” media by first taking apart the metaphor served as a turning point in our research last year, after agonizing months of collecting countless and increasingly slippery definitions of “viral” while constructing increasingly elaborate schema to account for all the various social, cultural, economic, technological, and aesthetic dimensions of the phenomenon. Ultimately, what we came to realize was that “viral” content so often seemed like the product of snake-oil and voodoo because we kept talking about it as if it were. That is, so long as we kept thinking of it as “viral” — and thus totally out of the hands of those who circulated it — we weren’t focusing on the real source and torque behind the circulation: individuals and communities of users with their own motivations and goals.
In discussions that followed a presentation and consequent paper I wrote entitled “From Pathogen to Pass-Along: Towards a Participatory Poetics of Viral Video,” Henry made a note of the slippage between the use of “viral” and its metaphor of infection, and “pass-along,” a concept that handed over greater agency to individual users and we began to think about “viral” videos as a mark of the this transitional phase in the digital media landscape, wherein content “producers” were eager to reap the benefits of user-driven content circulation, but not yet ready to accept the implications of the fact that people were beginning to pass content for their own purposes.
Anyway, for those who don’t want they eyestrain of reading the posts in their entirity, Henry’s first post includes a brief video introduction that Henry gave as the opening remarks at the Futures of Entertainment 3 conference this year. Additionally, you can see a very streamlined version of the original presentation that was retailored for an indie film industry audience that Ana and I gave at DIYDAYS Boston back in October.
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