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    provoking meaning (part I)

    For Christmas, I received a copy of Henry Jenkins' Fans, Bloggers, and Gamers, his new collection of essays on fandom / "participatory culture." I'm about halfway through and it's pretty great.

    Perhaps the most interesting piece so far is "Interactive Audiences? The 'Collective Intelligence' of Media Fans," in which Jenkins uses Pierre Levy's notion of the cosmopedia (roughly speaking, cosmopedia can be understood as collective information-banks enabled by computer networking).

    Jenkins sees Internet-enabled fan culture as an incarnation of Levy's idea:

    "Online fan communities might well be some of the most fully realized versions of Levy's cosmopedia, expansive self-organizing groups focused around the collective production, debate, and circulation of meanings, interpretations, and fantasies in response to various artifacts of contemporary popular culture."

    and he posits a practical reason for why this might be so: "The fan community pools its knowledge because no single fan can know everything to fully appreciate [a] series."

    But as the fan community develops their collective knowledge-bank, they also develop a pretty intense capability to process series-based information. Jenkins quotes Nancy Baym (who literally wrote the book on online soap opera fandom) on this point: "A large group of fans can ... accumulate, retain, and continually recirculate unprecedented amounts of relevant information."

    So this would appear to be another force driving media producers to create more complex and dense works (the trend examined by Steven Johnson's Everything Bad Is Good For You). And, accordingly, Jenkins has a prediction: "To be marketable ... new cultural works will have to provoke and reward meaning production through elaborate back stories, unresolved enigmas, excess information, and extratextual expansions of the program universe."

    This essay was first published in 2002, predating the first episodes of Lost by two solid years, but Lost features those four methods so pointedly that Jenkins should practically get a credit on the show.

    This also serves as a potential occasion to re-evaluate exactly how "marketable" those four methods are. Critics both at mainstream venues and within fandom seem to be increasingly losing patience with the precise devices that Jenkins argues should be provocative and rewarding. What's behind this frustration? Are the devices inherently misguided, or is the Lost team's particular use of the devices flawed or mishandled? I have some potential answers to this question, but they'll have to wait until the next post.

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    Sunday, January 21, 2007
    11:10 AM


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