Reducing the World's Suck with Henry Jenkins

Photo: Deney Terrio

USC Professor Henry Jenkins is a hard-core fan with hard-core fans.

I should know. I'm one of the audience members who stalked him at a conference a few years ago after his keynote, hoping to have a conversation about a paper he'd just published at the time. It was an argument for a whole new way of thinking about literacy. Reading, writing, and understanding words on a page won't cut it anymore. In a digitized world, Henry says young people need new skills that go way beyond basic composition and comprehension. Skills like play ("the capacity to experiment with one's surroundings as a form of problem-solving"), collective intelligence ("the ability to pool knowledge and compare notes with others toward a common goal"), and transmedia navigation ("the ability to follow the flow of stories and information across multiple modalities"). 

Henry's ideas about literacy were formed out of his academic training for sure, but he also draws from a more personal source–his own fan identity. I crossed paths with Henry again this year at another meeting about digital culture and learning, and this time I cornered him (via follow-up email) to talk more about the relationship between fandom, literacy, and scholarship.

Why fans make better scholars

Henry: Fandom taught me how to read television. Television is a challenging medium for critics. A long-running television series may run on for 100-200 hours of content. Academic critics don't typically work on that scale. It isn't like reading an individual novel or watching a single film. For a time, academics would choose episodes almost at random for close examination in the classroom, feeling that any given episode might represent the series as a whole. Fans have always insisted that each episode contributes something vital to the life of a series: even when television series were largely episodic, they look for the connections across episodes, and now that television is more serialized, they are very good at tracing how characters grow over time and anchoring that growth to specific transformative moments in particular episodes. They do some of this work as individuals, but they do more of it as a community of readers, who compare notes, pool knowledge, and thus can deal with the scope and complexity of rich television narratives. As critics, they are so far ahead of either academics or journalists in terms of dealing with television as television…. Fandom describes a creative lifestyle, not a subservient relationship of worshipful awe before some creative artist.

So what does fandom have to do with literacy?

Henry: Fans are people who actively engage with the content of the culture around them and often use it as resources for their own cultural productions. Many of them write original stories or songs about the shows they watch; some make art or costumes; some edit vids or produce film parodies or do podcasts or develop websites or engage in a broad range of other expressive practices. They do so in a context that encourages their participation and where they often get benign and sometimes constructive feedback on their work. In short, they are part of a literacy community that supports their growth as writers, critics, and artists and provides a distribution network for their work.

Our schools at best struggle to provide these same resources and experiences to students; fandom offers these resources in a context of shared interests and playful pedagogy, and it does so for people of all ages, not simply school children…Right now, education assumes that anything worth knowing should be taught to every student. We should know the same things, and we should structure what happens in the classroom to prepare us for a standardized test, which tries to make sure we all know the same things. But in the kind of community I've described above, value gets produced because we all know different things.

Reducing the world's suck

Henry wants digital culture researchers to use what they do to "reduce the suck" in the world. I wondered how Henry knows suck when he sees it.

Henry: For me, suck consists in imposing your tastes on someone else by cutting them off from participating in meaningful activities. Right now, our schools do that all the time. Mark Twain told us to never let schooling get in the way of our education. Yet, for too many kids it does. And the first standard of education should be to above all, do no harm. So, for me, when school computers block sites having to do with Herman Melville's great American novel because Moby-Dick contains the word, Dick, they introduce a certain amount of suck into the world. When schools use technology to spy on their students rather to open the world to their investigation, that's suck, no matter how you cut it. And when kids are classified as "dangerous" because they are emo or gamers or…, then again, there goes the big suck.

Post-Columbine testimony revisited

Speaking of dangerous youth, I wondered if Henry's thinking about the relationship between entertainment, media, and violence had changed since he testified before congress more than ten years ago after the Columbine killings.

Henry: I wish I could say yes, since it seems shallow to say you haven't rethought your position. So, let me put it this way, nothing has led me to challenge my initial perspective that media violence does not cause real world violence, that playing video games is not going to turn a normal child into a killer, or that the best way to rid the world of aggression is to ban violent entertainment. Where my views have changed is that I once accepted as given that there was something called "media violence" and now, the idea that this constitutes a meaningful category seems to me increasingly ridiculous. Our culture tells many different kinds of stories about human aggression and tragedy; those stories carry a range of different meanings and emotional resonances. Some of them involve direct representations of violence. Some of them involve physical or emotional or social violence. Yet, the idea that we can lump all of those varied representations together, count them, and assume we've said something meaningful about our culture is silly in the extreme. And I would say the idea that we could construct meaningful art by excluding discussion of these themes, which are so central to human experience, seems also far-fetched. I certainly think it is a problem that violence is so often depicted in banal, formulaic, meaningless, and heartless ways. My goal would be to encourage more meaningful representations of violence. But it depresses me that ten years of actively challenging the myths around media violence has done little to change the way the public thinks about these issues. We have to assume that people are deeply invested in the myth of media violence and that it serves some larger function in the way our culture operates.

And finally: the myth of videogame addiction

Henry had more to say about myths when I asked him about what he might say to families (like my own) who don't know what to do when their kids retreat into videogames to an extent that the parents feel like they can't reach their children anymore.

Henry: Well, I would be asking as much about what [the kids were] escaping from as I was concerned about what [they were] escaping into. I think media addiction per se is largely a myth. But I do believe that retreating from the world into a game, cutting yourself off from friends or family, may be a manifestation of depression. I know that for many kids what happens in the game is more meaningful, more emotionally rewarding, more gratifying that anything they experience at school. I know that for many kids, who feel disempowered, playing the game may offer them a sense of empowerment. For kids who feel unsafe, the game may offer a sense of security. For kids who feel alone, the game may offer a chance to interact with others. For kids who feel bored, the game may be challenging and enlivening. When we know what the game is providing that is absent from their lives otherwise, we can then assess whether the problem lies in their heads, their environment, or their games.

What's more…

You can find outtakes from Henry's interview on Youth Radio's site, including his take on the term "digital native," whether the digital divide is history, and how schools need to change. Tomorrow, I'll post my interview with computer scientist and literary artist, Professor Fox Harrell, who's been developing an app inspired in part by a combo of eBay's rating system and W.E.B. DuBois's concept of "Double Consciousness" from The Souls of Black Folk.