‘They’re doers. They’re participators. They’re creators’: youth, digital media, and ‘convergence culture’

As well as offering spaces for the elaboration of identity and social relations, digital technologies and social media networks have also afforded young people new avenues for creative expression. As the abundant online activities of One Direction fans demonstrates (see above), the rise of the Internet and social

Youth, identity, creativity, and digital media 189 media has brought an outpouring of youngsters’ imaginative creativity. For Mary Celeste Kearney (2006), these developments have had particularly important consequences for young women, who have exploited the newly available arenas of cultural production - music, videos, ‘zines, and so on - to explore their identities and connect with others. In doing so, Kearney argues, ‘a highly cultural productive generation of female youth’ have not only challenged traditional assumptions about media production as a world dominated by adult men, they have also subverted the restrictive roles and practices long associated with femininity. As Kearney explains:

... by engaging with the technologies and practices of media production, [girls] are actively subverting the traditional sex/gender system that has kept female cultural practices confined to consumerism, beauty, and the domestic sphere for decades.

(Kearney, 2006: 12)

Geraldine Bloustein and Margaret Peters (2011) also draw attention to the way digital production and communication technologies have provided young people with new vistas of creativity. From their ethnographic fieldwork, Bloustein and Peters show how networks of music fans, performers, and promoters stretching from Adelaide to London, Berlin, and Boston have allowed youngsters to teach and learn from one another, developing sophisticated skills in Web design, turntable mixing, sound engineering, and entrepreneurialism. Emphasising the agency and creativity of the young people in their study, Bloustein and Peters saw them as analogous to the concept of the ‘produser’.

The term ‘produser’ was popularised by Australian media theorist Axel Bruns to describe what he saw as a merging of the roles of producer and consumer in the interactive environment of Web 2.0.7 For Bruns, the new dimensions of involvement and exchange made possible by the technologies of Web 2.0 had reconfigured the nature of media audiences and consumers. Where once they had been essentially passive receivers of media content, Bruns contended, they had now become actively involved in collaborating on the processes of media production. As Bruns argued, ‘produser’ was a term that:

... highlights that within communities that engage in the collaborative creation and extension of information and knowledge ... the role of ‘consumer’ and even that of ‘end user’ have long disappeared and the distinctions between producers and users of content have faded into comparative insignificance.

(2008: 2)

Other theorists, too, have seen the development of digital media and communications as heralding a new age of empowered audiences and consumers. Henry Jenkins, in particular, has argued that technologies like Web 2.0 have opened up an increasing range of participatory spaces and sites for creativeactivity whose existence annuls ‘the old rhetoric of opposition and co-optation [that] assumed a world where consumers had little direct power to shape media content and where there were enormous barriers to entry in the marketplace’ (Jenkins, 2003). Instead, Jenkins contends, new media technologies have brought a more participatory and actively creative culture in which consumers have greater ability to ‘archive, annotate, and recirculate media products’ (Jenkins, 2003).

Coining the phrase ‘convergence culture’, Jenkins — like many theorists (see Chapter 3) — highlights contemporary trends towards integration and interconnection between media format, content, and platforms of distribution. But, alongside these forms of convergence, Jenkins also identifies a merger of the realms of production and consumption. This he sees as creating new, enhanced modes of interactive participation for audiences. In this respect, Jenkins extends his earlier (1992) work on fan cultures in which he saw fans as active and creative manipulators of media texts (see Chapter 6). For Jenkins, advances in media technologies have generalised the dimensions of engagement and creativity that he saw as characteristic of fan cultures, so that fans could be seen as ‘preparing the way for a more meaningful public culture’ (Jenkins, 2008: 239). From this perspective, developments such as Web 2.0 and the rise of social media have allowed for a greater degree of convergence between processes of production and consumption, and between commercial and amateur media enterprise. ‘Relations between producers and consumers are breaking down’, Jenkins argues, ‘as consumers seek to act upon the invitation to participate in the life of the franchises’ (Jenkins, 2008: 20). As he explains:

Rather than talking about media producers and consumers as occupying separate roles, we might now see them as participants who interact with each other according to a new set of rules that none of us fully understands.

(Jenkins, 2006: 3)

A range of researchers have adopted such perspectives in their analyses of modern youth culture. Leisha Jones (2011), for example, uses the concept of ‘prosumption’ in her analysis of the flurry of fan activity that surrounded Stephanie Meyers’ series of Twilight romantic-fantasy novels for young adults (first published in 2005) and the ensuing movie franchise, The Twilight Saga (begun in 2008). Twilight itself was a major commercial success but, for Jones, what was especially significant was the ensuing proliferation of texts created by ‘girl prosumers’ who ‘deploy technological savvy and critical aesthetic acumen to generate a host of responses to Twilight, which they then publish on the Internet’ (Jones, 2011: 439). According to Jones, this wealth of fiction and other fangenerated material was ‘taking reader response to a whole new level of selfactualization’, and represented a hub of creativity ‘through which girls enculture, and produce one another, actualizing one or any number of selves online’ (ibid.). And the same might also be said of the outpouring of cultural

Youth, identity, creativity, and digital media 191 production undertaken by One Direction fans. Indeed, author Anna Todd could be considered a personification of the ‘prosumer’ ideal in the way she transformed her passion for Harry Styles and co. into a wildly popular fanfiction series, followed by a money-spinning media franchise (see above).

A convergence between the roles of production and consumption has also long been a pronounced feature of the video games industry. Since the 1990s players have tinkered with commercial video games, freely adding to them, reconfiguring them, and extending their degree of sophistication. Through these processes of ‘modding’ (short for ‘modifying’), players have developed new ‘skins’ for avatar characters, configured new storylines, game levels, and scenarios, and even crafted entirely new games — all disseminated via online fan sites and communities. But players have also been increasingly incorporated into processes of game design and development, so they are no longer simple consumers of a ‘completed’ end product. It has, for example, become commonplace for games manufacturers to involve fans in the testing of games prior to their commercial release. To trial new products and prolong the shelf-life of existing games, firms have also enthusiastically provided ‘modders’ with a host of ‘shareware’ resources and open-source editing tools to assist their creative endeavours. And, for some commentators, these dimensions of audience participation have represented a new direction in relations between producers and consumers. Sue Morris, for instance, suggested that many video games should now be understood as a form of ‘co-creative media’. ‘Neither developers nor player creators can be solely responsible for production of the final assemblage regarded as “the game”, Morris argued, ‘it requires input from both’ (Morris, 2003: 345).

Undoubtedly, digital media and Web 2.0 technologies have provided young people with a wealth of new, accessible avenues for producing and publishing texts, images, and all manner of audio-visual material. And, as cultural theorists have long demonstrated, youth are not simply the passive dupes of manipulative commercial media, but are active agents who generate their own cultures and identities (see Chapter 6). Nevertheless, some critics are circumspect about the grander claims made for media interaction, collaborative production and the ‘empowering’ dimensions of prosumption. Jenkins’ work, particularly, has been criticised for using the very engaged world of fandom as a model for understanding the behaviour of media audiences more generally. As Elizabeth Bird observes, this tends to lose sight of ‘the more mundane, internalized, even passive articulation with media that characterizes a great deal of media consumption’ (Bird, 2011: 504). Indeed, José van Dijck cites ‘an emerging rule of thumb’ that suggests only one in a hundred people will be active online content producers — with 10 ‘interacting’ by commenting, and the remaining 89 simply viewing (van Dijck, 2009). Moreover, as Bird succinctly puts it, ‘much online activity is simply inconsequential banter’ (Bird, 2011: 504).

Furthermore, while audiences certainly actively engage with media texts, this should not overshadow the way media producers can still inscribe representations of the world that influence audiences’ attitudes and behaviour. Andy

Ruddock (2008), for example, analyses a successful advertising campaign in Britain that — through the use of hip imagery and viral media — transformed cider drinking (once a woefully unfashionable preference) into a cool and trendy lifestyle choice. Working with young audiences, Ruddock found that they were undoubtedly active, informed, and ‘media-sawy’ but, at the same time, they were also very aware of (even irritated by) their own realisation they had been successfully manipulated.

Issues of power, ownership and control are also downplayed in notions of ‘prosumption’ and collaborative production. Media companies, for example, have become adept at deploying ‘terms of service’ on online activity, so that anything users post effectively becomes the property of the company. Such terms and conditions, Christian Fuchs argues, ‘are totalitarian mechanisms that are necessarily not democratically controlled by the users, but under the control of corporations’ (Fuchs, 2011: 303). And many theorists have pointed to the exploitative way many companies have minimised their costs by harnessing the input and expertise of amateur fans. Variously dubbed ‘free labor’ (Terranova, 2000), ‘invisible labour’ (Downey, 2001) or ‘playlabour’ (Kiicklich, 2005), the practice is pronounced in the world of video games but has also become a feature across the field of media production. Moreover, as their online data is harvested and traded through the practices of ‘surveillance capitalism’, audiences are themselves turned into commodities. As Fuchs explains:

... web 2.0 is largely a commercial, profit-oriented machine that exploits users by commodifying their personal data and usage behaviour ... and subjects these data to economic surveillance so that capital is accumulated with the help of targeted personal advertising.

(Fuchs, 2011: 304)

Commercial companies, moreover, have become adept at co-opting fan activities and viral media into marketing campaigns that foster consumers’ emotional commitment to brands by cultivating a sense of dialogue, involvement, and active participation. In this respect marketing consultants C.K. Prahalad and Venkat Ramaswamy have promoted the concept of‘co-creation’, arguing that commercial success lies not in an old view of consumers as passive recipients of goods and services, but in a new embrace of joint creation of value by the company and the customer; allowing the customer to co-construct the service experience to suit their context’ (Prahalad and Ramaswamy, 2004i: 8). In their book The Future of Competition (2004Ü), Prahalad and Ramaswamy argue that brands are best able to compete if they can draw their customers into a relationship of active collaboration and ‘co-creation’ which, they contend, not only improves businesses’ ability to respond to consumer demand; but also fosters consumers’ loyalty and emotional commitment to brands. In the youth market such strategies have been especially pronounced, spurred by widespread assumptions that ‘millennial’ youngsters are characterised by their creativity and technological proficiency (see Chapter 3). As the marketing agency Tongal

Youth, identity, creativity, and digital media 193 explained to prospective clients in 2016, millennials were ‘the perfect partners for co-creation’. ‘They’re doers. They’re participators. They’re creators’. As Tongal enthused:

Millennials love to create content. They make it by themselves and they make it with friends. What smart marketers are realizing is that by giving Millennials the opportunity to create projects with them, they can become their friends too.

(Tongal, 2016)

The genial language, however, disguises the fact that the ‘friendship’ is patently not an equal one. While young consumers may interact with companies online, they have no meaningful power in terms of ownership or control. As Fuchs argues, audiences may ‘participate’ in the production of cultural goods, but the wealth accrued is retained by industry, and authority remains firmly in the hands of big business:

Corporate platforms owned by Facebook, Google and other large companies strongly mediate the cultural expressions of Internet users. Neither the users nor the waged employees of Facebook, Google and others determine the business decisions of these companies. They do not ‘participate’ in economic decision-making, but are excluded from it.

(Fuchs, 2014: 56)

Rather than marking a shift into a radically new era of ‘prosumption’ and ‘cocreation’, young people’s prolific engagement with social media and Web 2.0 technologies might be better seen as a facet to what the Australian cultural theorist Graeme Turner (2010) sees as a wider ‘demotic turn’ in contemporary cultural life. For Turner, this ‘demotic’ (meaning ‘of, or for, the common people’) trend is marked by ‘the increasing number of opportunities for ordinary people to appear in the media’ (Turner, 2010: 2). In these terms, developments in media technology and format have given ordinary people both greater levels of media access and a greater degree of visibility as they turn themselves into media content through the proliferation of reality TV, confessional talk shows, social media, Internet influencers, and so on.

A positive aspect to this demotic trend is that it can give exposure to issues previously ignored in media coverage. An example might be the US Black Lives Matter movement that, in 2013, began using online media in its mass protest against police violence and racial injustice. Similarly, in 2017 the international #MeToo campaign used social media networks to involve millions of women in a challenge to sexual harassment.8 And, more generally, there is evidence to suggest the Internet has played a part in extending some young people’s level of civic and political engagement. For instance, a major study funded by the European Commission between 2007 and 2011 found that, across six European countries, young people were largely alienated from, or atleast felt dissatisfied with, traditional political institutions (Banaji and Buckingham, 2013). But, for those already involved in politics, the Internet represented ‘an important mobilization tool’ (155). And (perhaps more importantly), for young people from minority communities - political, sexual, ethnic, regional, or religious - the online world represented ‘a space to enact diverse identities, to question notions of tradition, to discuss the meaning of culture and citizenship, or to develop methods of participation and protest’ (ibid.).

The ‘demotic turn’, then, is not without positive features. But, as Turner points out, growing participation does not necessarily equate with increased power and authority. Indeed, as Turner rather ruefully explains, while ‘ordinary people’ may feature more prominently in media representations and communication, the symbolic economy remains resolutely controlled by huge, transnational media companies:

Notwithstanding the webcam girls, the trading of music on the Internet, the availability of digital production technologies in all kinds of media forms, this is still in the same hands it has always been. It might be seductive to think of the Internet as an alternative, counter-public sphere and in many ways its chaotic contents would support such a view. But, it is a system that is dominated by white, middle class American men and increasingly integrated into the major corporate structures of the traditional media conglomerates.

(Turner, 2004: 82)

An appreciation of the continuing power of market institutions, however, should not slide us back into theories of a dissolute ‘mass culture’ in which commercial Svengalis lead passive and undiscriminating young consumers by the nose. Young people are undoubtedly creative and innovative users of the media; appropriating, transforming, and re-contextualising texts as they engineer their identities and sense of self. But notions of a new generation of creative and digitally ‘empowered’ millennials overlooks the way inequalities of wealth, power, and control continue to frame young people’s engagement with the media. Indeed, casting youngsters as ‘doers’, ‘participators’ and ‘creators’ can be seen as just the latest instalment in a long history of‘generational symbolism’ (see Chapter 4) in which stereotypical representations of youth are used to elaborate a very particular — and ideologically loaded — view of society and the character of social change.

Notes

  • 1 The practice of ‘shipping’ has its roots in ‘slash fiction’ - fan-generated erotic fiction, initially published in fanzines, that focused on same-sex pairings of heterosexual characters from popular fiction. The term ‘slash fiction’ derives from the way an oblique stroke (or slash) is used to separate the names of the two protagonists. For example, Penley (1997) analysed ‘Kirk/Spock’ stories, an early example of slash fiction in which fans imagined a sexual relationship between the two leading characters in Star Trek, the 1960s TV show. The term ‘shipping’ developed during the 1990s and was used by fans of TV shows such as The X-Files, who envisioned how the lead characters might be in a romantic relationship. Name blending (such as ‘Larry Sty-linson’) or compound names (like ‘Larry’) have become increasingly used both to abbreviate character pairings and to create a name for the ‘ship’ itself. Discussion of slash fiction, with particular attention to the way it often represents a space for queer cultural practice, can be found in Busse (2017).
  • 2 Overviews of the genealogies and applications of queer theory can be found in McCann (2020) and Sullivan (2003).
  • 3 Along with Fast and Jennex (eds) (2019), studies of the queer dimensions to popular music are collected in Brett, Wood and Thomas (eds) (2006), Lee (2018), and Whiteley and Kycenga (eds) (2006).
  • 4 Alexander (2006: 229—292) also provides a critical analysis of the way queer youth use the Internet to configure their identities and relationships.
  • 5 This was, however, set to change. In 2018 the technology conglomerate Cisco projected that by 2022 there would be 829 million smartphone users in India, accounting for 60 per cent of the population (Bhattacharya, 2018).
  • 6 As Wallis observes, there are often tensions between the way the Chinese government uses digital communication platforms to secure social control and maintain its legitimacy, and the way these same platforms ‘create opportunities for other social forces to push their own agenda and promote social change’ (2011: 420).
  • 7 In turn, the concept of the ‘produser’ evolved from the idea of the ‘prosumer’ — a term coined by the American futurist Alvin Toffler to describe the way he thought developments in electronic communication would lead to ‘the progressive blurring of the line that separates producer from consumer’ (1980: 267). This shift, Toffler conjectured, was set to transform passive, consumer society into a world where many people provided home-grown services to themselves and others, selectively producing or consuming depending on their expertise and interests. Tapscott and Williams (2006) developed similar ideas in their account of the Internet’s capacity to engender ‘mass collaboration’.
  • 8 It must be remembered, however that ‘participatory culture’ is not intrinsically progressive. As Fuchs points out, Anders Brevik - the fascist terrorist who murdered 77 people in the Norwegian terror attacks of 2011 — was known as a keen participant in his online communities (Fuchs, 2014: 59).
 
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