Reflecting on Convergence Culture… the good and the bad

[This is more of a holiday-cheer post than my usual academic blog entries.  ‘Tis the season…]

In Convergence Culture, Henry Jenkins’s excellent work on the various effects of digital media on media production/culture, “convergence” takes on multiple meanings.  Part of what makes it such a good book is that all of these meanings are true.  Media convergence includes both the rise of mass media conglomerates and the rise of read/write culture.  It is the interaction of those forces that determines the shape of media power in the 21st century — we can’t just focus on one or the other.

That said, there’s also the normative question of “is it a good thing or a bad thing?”  Social scientists are trained to duck this question, but we all have our opinions.  And particularly for those of us who deal with YouTube and other “user-generated content,” it’s easy to get swallowed up by the junk and the horrendous comment threads and bemoan the lack of quality that comes as we move from a filter-then-publish world to a publish-then-filter one.

And then there’s the “JK Wedding Dance.”

You’ve almost certainly seen it.  It’s been viewed over 33 million times, making it the third most-visited YouTube clip of 2009.  Cute couple.  Wedding in a chapel.  Chris Brown’s “Forever” starts playing.  The groomsmen and bridesmaids start dancing down the aisle, followed by the rest of the wedding party and ending with the bride and groom.  It’s engendered numerous spoofs, and was directly referenced in The Office’s wedding episode.  It’s hard not to smile, watching this outpouring of joy and affection.  These people were having fun.

I can’t help but compare the JK Wedding Dance to “The Real Wedding Crashers.”  This was a short-lived reality show on NBC in 2007.  It’s pretty much the perfect antithesis to the wedding dance.  Launched after the Vince Vaughn/Owen Wilson pic, “Wedding Crashers,” the premise of the show was that soon-to-be-married couples would secretly sign up to have their nuptial events ruined by the “crashers.”  Hidden cameras would capture the crowd’s disgusted reactions, and we the people could watch and entertainment.  After months of constant/heavy promotion, the show lasted 4 episodes before joining the rotting husks of so many of its fellow bad-idea reality shows.

“Real Wedding Crashers” always left a bad taste in my mouth.  You can just imagine the pitch meeting: “it’s just like the movie hit, but with real people!  Imagine a cross between Survivor and Wedding Crashers…  It’ll cost nothing to promote and be a cross-platform event!”  This is 15-minutes-of-fame at its worst, taking one of the most storied moments in a relationship and turning it into a mean prank on friends and family.  It’s crass, it’s mean, and it appeals to the worst in each of us.  Oh, and it’s over-promoted on primetime television, probably replacing a cult favorite broadcast television show that had high production costs and a niche, devoted fan base.  It’s hard to think about “reality” shows like this (which are, in actuality, the antithesis of “real”) and not wish a speedy collapse upon the media conglomerates who visit them upon us.

And then there’s the JK Wedding Dance.  Semi-spontaneous, joyful, fun, making a special event more special and more memorable for the community that’s present.  Zero production costs, zero promotion, and reaching a viral audience of 33 million.

I don’t want to make too much of the juxtaposition — just share it because it so often occurs to me.  These are only two cases, interesting because of their symmetry.  But when I consider the normative question of whether the paired rise of participatory media and destruction of revenue streams that supported cherished older media, I cannot help but reflect on this pair of examples.  Most of YouTube is a combination of junk user-generated content and clippings from the mainstream media.  There are very few gems like this one, and bountiful examples of the fundamental flaws in the human character, I’m sure.  But the same is true for network television.  Given the choice, I find YouTube and other social media far less depressing than the economic logic of mainstream media convergence.  Democratizing production allows for more beautiful ideas to see the light of day.  As a researcher, I’m not sure how to count, prove, or disprove any of that.  But as a citizen, it sure does bring a smile to my face.