Thursday, 11 June 2015

The work of Henry Jenkins

This post is about the work of Henry Jenkins. Henry is interested in marketing and advertising. Here are some of his blog posts on this topic:

There's a PDF document with much of this content collected in it: If It Doesn’t Spread, It’s Dead.

Here's a book he wrote:

Spreadable Media: Creating Value and Meaning in a Networked Culture by Henry Jenkins, Sam Ford, Joshua Green

In the PDF I mentioned, Henry criticizes memes, writing:

Use of the terms “viral” and “memes” by those in the marketing, advertising and media industries may be creating more confusion than clarity. Both these terms rely on a biological metaphor to explain the way media content moves through cultures, a metaphor that confuses the actual power relations between producers, properties, brands, and consumers. Both have been used so loosely they can refer to everything from word–of–mouth marketing efforts to remix videos to popular content in ways that don’t help us understand the nature of these different activities and the potential relationships between them. Both terms seek to explain the process of cultural transmission but do so in such a way they strip aside the social and cultural contexts in which ideas circulate, and the human choices which determine which ideas get replicated.
The terms 'viral' and 'memes' refer to a range of things. The term 'culture' does so too. This criticism of the terms 'viral' and 'memes' applies equally to the widely-accepted and useful term 'culture'. For me that illustrates the vacuousness of this critique. Saying something is 'cultural' doesn't help distinguish between the different aspects of culture. That's not the point of the terminology. Instead it highlights how it is copied and passed on - for example by imitation or teaching.

I fail to see how the terms “viral” and “memes” strip aside the social and cultural contexts in which ideas circulate. Those are environmental factors that act as selective forces. This is surely cultural evolution 101.

Perhaps Henry has been confused by the specialized nature of memetics. Just as genetics is quite focused on how genes mutate and recombine, so memetics is focused on how memes mutate and recombine. However, these disciplines do not stand alone - there are other folk looking more at things like development, the nature of selective forces and interactions with the surrounding ecology.

However, I'm speculating here. Henry doesn't explain where he gets his conception from. To me this criticism seems to be unsubstantiated.

Henry also writes:

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. In focusing on the involuntary transmission of ideas by unaware consumers, these models allow advertisers and media producers to hold onto an inflated sense of their own power to shape the communication process, even as unruly behavior by consumers becomes a source of great anxiety within the media industry.
Talk of memes does not "place an emphasis on the replication of the original idea" at the expense of transformation. In biology, there are copying, recombination and mutation. Saying that biological models emphasize copying at the expense of recombination and mutation seems as though it would be silly to me. Evolution depends critically on both copying and mutation. Recombination is very important too. A copying-only version of evolutionary theory would be impotent indeed - but there's no such thing - except as a straw man in the minds of critics.

I do like the "If It Doesn’t Spread, It’s Dead" slogan, though. To many memeticists, myself included, culture is alive, "not just metaphorically but technically".

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