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MIT professor says media culture is participatory

Published: October 31, 2008
Section: Front Page


“We’re in a moment when media scholars have something to contribute,” stated MIT Professor Henry Jenkins at a Brandeis lecture on Thursday. His point to make: technology and media literacy is changing.

Jenkins, the founder and director of the Comparative Studies Program at MIT, explained the essentiality of new media in the coming age, something already adopted by the modern youth. Jenkins was quick to point out some of the most prominent aides on the internet, including YouTube, as well as those who use it to get their names out, or simply to be part of the community.

Indeed, Jenkins’ idea is that culture has become participatory in nature, fueled by the desire to contribute to the community and prove people’s worth.

Jenkins’ poster child has been the popular Soulja Boy, whose usage of free downloads, blogs, and encouraging remixes and reenactments of his work have allowed him to become widely known.

As Jenkins explained, he was able to “go from nothing at age 15 to…being at the MTV Awards,” all because of the open nature of his work.

Participatory culture, a trend seen in online communities like Facebook and YouTube, follows the basic tenets of user-interaction.

All people have the ability to enter, and can make a contribution if they feel the community will be interested.

As Jenkins said, “all [users] must believe they are free to contribute…and what they contribute will be…valued.”

Thus, importance is based on the community, not the individual; yet the individual is the person who can decide whether or not it is worth the community’s interest or not.

In this way, as Jenkins noted, people “are not just producers or just consumers, but some step in between.”

This intermediate area between consumption and production speaks to the possibilities of the future as newer and newer technology become available. Jenkins said that communities such as those on YouTube are quickly aiding the ideal of collective intelligence.

Jenkins explained, “we have a whole world where nobody knows everything. Everybody knows something…and what any given [community] member knows is available to anyone at an ad hoc basis.”

As technology brings everybody closer, opportunities become available.

He noted that the idea of a Renaissance Man in the modern age is a fallacy, simply because everybody can now help each other in an effort to make progress for the entire community.

Some may not have this chance, though, as schools cut funding and create limitations on learning the new technology, creating a participation gap directly related to fear for children’s safety.

Things such as time-limiting children, creating bandwidth limits, and blocking blogs and YouTube-type sites caused Jenkins to lament the “absurdity of not being engaging with the new media,” instead choosing to cut things out in a crusade “led by fear and anxiety of change, not reason and logic.”

These judgments disallow the pervasion of New Media Literacy, the ability to meaningfully sample and remix media content within context. And for Jenkins, this is necessary, as nothing is autonomous anymore.

He alluded to Moby Dick being drawn from the Bible, and how rewriting the same story occurs constantly.

So if everything is simply a reflection of something before it, YouTube, the land of remixes, may be the most vital tool people have.