Looking back on convergence culture

Jean Burgess
Mar 1, 2016 · 8 min read

It’s weird and slightly tiring to realise that it’s now ten years since Henry Jenkin’s book Convergence Culture was published (also precipitating Henry’s entry into blogging, by the way). Back then, it highlighted the potential as well as the pragmatic and political challenges of a changing new media landscape in which content was spread across media forms and platforms, and in which fans and ordinary audiences were actively participating as co-creators, distributors and influencers. The book and its related concepts, (like participatory culture) came in for a real beating from critical scholars, but it also sold like hotcakes and made a significant scholarly impact.

It seems a little odd now to think about the extent of the optimism and the curious ferocity of the opposition that were provoked by Jenkins’ take on that moment in digital culture in the mid 2000s— a moment when YouTube was barely a twinkle in Google’s eye, when there was no such thing as a tweet or an iPhone, and Facebook was a website for social networking among college students rather than the enabling infrastructure for Mark Zuckerberg’s domination of the whole damn planet. The trends Henry’s book picked up have in some senses become so much more pronounced; in other ways the concerns around fandom and cultural politics seem almost quaint, overshadowed by issues around surveillance, big data, and online hate.

So it was quite challenging but also fun and sort of nostalgic to be asked to write a short entry on the topic for Laurie Ouellette and Jonathan Gray’s Keywords in Media Studies, which they are putting together for NYU Press. I thought it would be nice to share it more widely, so here it is (in final draft form, with academic referencing) below.

Keyword: Convergence

Convergence is a dynamic of change. In the most neutral and general sense, it describes the tendency for separate streams or pathways (whether of matter, of technologies, or of biological life) to come together. Its complement is divergence — the tendency for these same paths and streams to branch, fork, and drift apart.

In the context of media and communication, convergence is the tendency of separate media technologies, cultural forms, and/or social practices to come together to perform similar functions and make new hybrid media systems. In this sense, it is a key driver of economic, technological, and cultural change in the media environment. Convergence, then, is one of the constitutive dynamics of new media (Hartley, Burgess, & Bruns, 2013). To be able to describe and understand the different forms convergence takes is to begin to unravel one of the deepest and most longstanding issues in the history of media studies: the nature of the relationship between technological and sociocultural change.

From the late 1990s through the mid 2000s, the concept of media convergence was especially prominent. It featured in media scholarship, in popular reporting about the internet and digital media, and in media policy circles. There is even a well-respected academic journal that took its title from the concept and the dynamics of media change it represents: the title Convergence: The International Journal of New Media Technologies implicitly suggests that “convergence” is the primary dynamic of new media.

During this peak in the 2000s, the concept was strongly associated with a certain optimistic vision of participatory culture — springing especially from the fact that audiences and fans were now talking about, evaluating, curating, and remixing media content via the same digital networks that media producers were using to distribute and market it. Henry Jenkins is most famously associated with this model of media convergence, and he elaborated the concept in his influential and much-debated book Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide (2006).

Tracing the origin of the concept of media convergence to Ithiel de Sola Pool (1983), Jenkins begins with the most orthodox technological definition, which has two parts: on the one hand a single physical medium might perform a number of functions that were previously handled separately (in today’s terms, think of smartphones especially); while at the same time a single cultural function or service can be carried by several different technologies (think of “television” content, which we can now access in a dizzying variety of ways, including via “smart” television sets that run mobile operating systems and connect to app stores). Convergence Culture explores the changing relationships among cultural producers and consumers under these conditions, which are driven both by “top-down” and “bottom-up” logics (18), focusing particularly on the potential for these new relationships to lead to a more participatory culture — hence, the optimism. Jenkins does acknowledge the dangers of convergence, including concentrated media ownership, despite the lower barriers to cultural production afforded by new media technologies. He warns that the “cultural shifts, the legal battles, and the economic consolidations that are fueling media convergence are preceding shifts in the technological infrastructure,” and that “how those various transitions unfold will determine the balance of power in the next media era” (17).

However , other scholars have raised concerns about Jenkins’ approach to convergence — so much so that an entire special issue of the journal Cultural Studies was given over to scholarly critiques of the “overuse” and conceptual limitations of the term, some of which are directed at Jenkins specifically but also at “participatory culture” approaches more generally (see Hay & Couldry, 2011, for an overview). Across the twelve contributions to the collection, the recurring themes concern a perceived lack of attention to history and power — in particular, because of its focus on the ‘newness’ of new media, the contributors suggest that work on convergence and participatory culture in digital media suffers in comparison to the power of a “conjunctural analysis” of the kind associated with (British) Cultural Studies; as well as exhibiting a lack of understanding of the socially and environmentally destructive impacts of technological and economic convergence.

Given the acuteness and intensity of this debate in the mid to late 2000s and its focus on Jenkins’s work, the concept of convergence might seem specific to the digital era. But media and communications have always been shaped by convergence, and new media scholars have long been attentive to both the creative possibilities and the social dangers associated with it. On the industrial side, James Carey was concerned about the centralization of power associated with the ‘electronic revolution’ that was connecting and reconfiguring public, commercial and personal communication in the mid twentieth century (Carey & Quirk, 1970). On the consumer side, technological inventions have generated surprising new combinations — convergences — of practical uses not intended by their inventors. The telephone is an excellent example — intended for broadcast and business but taken over for intimate, personal communication — thereby transforming both the telecommunications infrastructure and the practices of everyday, domestic life (Marvin, 1997).

Convergence is more significant and challenging than ever, both in economic and critical terms. Since the mid-2000s, social media like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube have — each in their own distinctive ways — created new forms of cultural convergence among the modes of communication and self-expression formerly characterized as personal media (self-portraiture, daily journaling) or public communication (journalism, news distribution). Zizi Papacharissi and Emily Easton (2013: 171–82) have discussed how technologies of social convergence like Facebook and Twitter produce a new habitus — a new way of living in and through media that emphasizes authorship, “accelerated reflexivity,” and the blurring of boundaries between cultural production and the practice of everyday life, and that have normalized the very idea of living in a state of constant newness. The boundaries between public and private have always been both constructed and dynamic — think of the quasi-public sharing of holiday photographs via the humble slide projector and the vernacular form of the slideshow on the one hand; and the public exposure of private information through “gotcha” tabloid journalism on the other — both of which predate digital media by many decades. But social media combine public communication with interpersonal communication and self-expression in specific ways, not only across platforms but also single platforms like Facebook, leading scholars to talk about new concepts like a “private sphere” (Papacharissi, 2010) for the circulation of public communication via personal stories, or “context collapse” for the convergence of our public and private personae (Marwick & boyd, 2011), for example.

The logics of industrial convergence are having profound and concerning effects in the social media moment too; and the “platform paradigm” is a crucial and distinctively contemporary form of this (Burgess, 2015). Mega-platforms like Facebook and Google are seeking to provide more and more of the services that used to take place in other platforms. From scrappy start-up to search giant to global connectivity and digital services company, a single Google sign-on can connect your workplace (through Google Drive and Gmail) to your personal entertainment system (through Android TVs, tablets and mobile devices), and your most intimate relationships (through geolocative dating apps, for example). From being a place for college kids to meet up and hang out, as part of its Internet.org infrastructure project Facebook is planning to beam their own version of the internet from the sky to developing countries — indeed, Facebook arguably wants to supplant the open web in favor of its own operating system. For Uber and other “sharing” economy businesses, the convergence of personal transport coordination and workforce management within a mobile app is only the beginning of a historically significant disruption of our employment and civic infrastructures and how they are managed and governed.

Convergence, then, is a dynamic of new media that operates technologically, socially, and industrially. It is neither a revolutionary event that can be located in the mid-2000s, nor a state that can be permanently achieved — it’s a persistent tendency, but never a fact. As Papacharissi and Easton note, the dynamics of new media are “founded upon the premise and the promise of constant change and permanent evolution” (2013: 171). In the restless logics of the digital economy, there needs to be enough apparent stability to enable us to integrate new media into our everyday lives and for cultural entrepreneurs and Silicon Valley startups to build new cultural forms and viable business models around them, but there also needs to be enough change and disruption (which can come from media consumers as much as from tech companies) to enable new new media to emerge.

Works cited

Burgess, J. (2015). ‘From “Broadcast Yourself” to “Follow Your Interests”: Making Over Social Media.’ International Journal of Cultural Studies, 18(3), 281–285.

Carey, J. W., & Quirk, J. J. (1970). ‘The Mythos of the Electronic Revolution.’ The American Scholar, 395–424.

de Sola Pool, I. (1983). Technologies of Freedom: On Free Speech in an Electronic Age. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Hartley, J., Burgess, J. & Bruns, A. (2013). ‘Introducing Dynamics: A New Approach to “New Media”.’ In Hartley, J., Burgess, J. & Bruns, A. (Eds.), A Companion to New Media Dynamics (pp. 1–11), Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell.

Hay, J. & Couldry, N. (2011). ‘Rethinking Convergence/Culture.’ Cultural Studies, 25(4–5), 473–486.

Jenkins, H. (2006). Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide. New York: New York University Press.

Marvin, C. (1997). When old technologies were new. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Marwick. A. & boyd, d. (2011). ‘I Tweet Honestly, I Tweet Passionately: Twitter Users, Context Collapse, and the Imagined Audience.’ New Media & Society 13.1 (2011): 114–133.

Papacharissi, Z. (2010). A Private Sphere: Democracy in a Digital Age. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Papacharissi, Z. & Easton, E. (2013). ‘In the Habitus of the New: Structure, Agency and the Social Media Habitus.’ In Hartley, J., Burgess, J. & Bruns, A. (Eds.), A Companion to New Media Dynamics (pp. 171–84), Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell.

DMRC at large

Opinion and analysis from members of the QUT Digital Media Research Centre

Jean Burgess

Written by

Professor of Digital Media & Director of the Digital Media Research Centre (@qutdmrc), Queensland University of Technology.

DMRC at large

Opinion and analysis from members of the QUT Digital Media Research Centre

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