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"I declare war on viral media"

"I declare war on viral media" Jodi Harris

iMedia: Let's start with transmedia in entertainment. It's emerging, but maybe not quite here yet. What do you think might be the catalyst that could make transmedia storytelling take off?

Jenkins: As "Madge the Manicurist" used to say in the old Palmolive commercials, "You are soaking in it." The transmedia revolution has been building over the past decade. There is now an expectation that transmedia content is going to be produced for certain kinds of programs, and the range of programs (and audiences) that are expecting transmedia is expanding dramatically week by week. Much of contemporary transmedia is designed to help satisfy the needs and interests of hardcore viewers, but this strategy is based in part on a theory of social influence. For every hardcore fan, whose interest is fed by transmedia, there are many other more casual viewers who get pulled to the program so that they can engage in conversations with the hardcore fan.

Henry Jenkins  is provost's professor of communication, journalism and cinematic arts at USC Annenberg School for Communications & Journalism.

iMedia: Can you give an example of what you consider to be a great transmedia campaign?

Jenkins: I would say that some of the really successful ones in the past year or so would include the campaigns that launched "District 9," "True Blood," and "Glee." Each, in its own way, built audience awareness. "District 9" and "True Blood" used the web (fake websites, online videos) and physical space (billboards, park benches) to expand our understanding of the world where the story is taking place and its connections -- literal and metaphorical -- to the world of our everyday experience. By the time you got into the theater, you already knew that "District 9" was set in a world where aliens and humans are segregated (not unlike apartheid-era South Africa), that there was growing political disagreements on alien regulation and alien rights. Not bad for a film that might otherwise not have even registered on the public consciousness.

Step up your engagement! Don't miss out on more of Henry Jenkins' thoughts on capturing the attention of the new media audience. Join him as for his keynote at iMedia's Entertainment Marketing Summit, June 29 in Santa Monica, Calif. Request your invitation today.

"Glee" has deployed transmedia performances -- the songs and performance numbers as distributed by iTunes -- and embraced participatory culture -- the songs as recorded as lip sync and karaoke-style performance videos on YouTube. The first might be modeled on the "Rock Band" video game -- using the television show to generate awareness of music, and vice-versa; the second builds on the success of Soulja Boy and others who have empowered the audience to perform their music, and thus increased their visibility.

iMedia: With budget cuts and an overall reduction in studios' marketing budgets, are there opportunities that today's entertainment marketers are missing out on? Are simpler, more cost-effective tactics like social media doing an adequate job of replacing the big, flashy websites and alternative reality experiences that were so common a few years back?

Jenkins: There were reports a few months ago that showed that the Twitter flow surrounding the release of a movie may be the best single indicator of how big the film is going to open. In the past year, we've seen a number of sleeper genre films -- "District 9," "Paranormal Activity," "Kick-Ass" ("Splice" looks to be next) -- that opened bigger than expected because of the buzz they have generated in the most hardcore and socially networked fan communities. I am not sure there's a magic solution here -- the solution has to emerge logically from the specific media properties -- but any brand marketer is making a mistake if they are not paying attention to the potential for internet buzz to expand the base audience.

iMedia: Speaking of mistakes, what would you say is the most alarming trend in entertainment marketing today?

Jenkins: In general, I have declared war on the concept of "viral media." As a model, it leads media producers to think in the wrong ways about the value of their content and its relationship to the audience. Taken at face value, it offers us a smallpox-soaked blanket approach to media distribution: Unknowingly infect your consumer and let them spread the germs to their friends and neighbors. In fact, in a world with many media choices, consumers are actively selecting what content is meaningful to them and circulating it consciously to people they think may be interested. They are deploying media content as gifts for their personal networks, as resources for ongoing conversations. Until marketers understand the consumer's active agency and the social mechanisms shaping their circulation of content, they are doomed to insult and alienate the very people they are hoping to attract.

Beyond that, I am very concerned about trends in social networking sites that take away the public's ability to set their own privacy settings and to govern what kinds of information they send out to the world. Here, the word "viral" may be more accurate, but the behavior is making many people ill.

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iMedia: Where do blogs fall on your respectability meter? Are they the only true, honest journalism vehicles, tools for marketing and ego-casting, dangerously biased and poorly researched, or somewhere in between?

Jenkins: This very much depends on the blog. As a blogger myself, I work hard to produce timely, thoughtful, and well informed information for my readers. There are some outstanding bloggers -- both amateur and professional -- who cover genre entertainment right now and whom I trust more the mainstream critics and journalists who often do not know science fiction, horror, comics, etc., well enough to meaningfully comment on new releases.

On the other end, there are blogs that are just spouting hot air and water and that disseminate misinformation more than anything else. The reader has to be skeptical of any blog until it has built a reputation for itself, but blogs at their best give us information we would not be able to access through any other channel.

iMedia: Continuing on the blog topic, as a journalism professor, what advice are you now giving aspiring professional journalists, who are being marginalized by bloggers and other non-traditional sources of reporting (credible or otherwise)?

Jenkins: At Annenberg, there is a great deal of experimentation going on -- in terms of alternative venues for presenting information, alternative modes of conveying information (from online video to immersive journalism and news gaming), alternative business plans, and alternative ways of demonstrating the value of professional journalism. I am very much on the same wavelength with Clay Shirky, who recently said that the world looks differently if we are talking about the future of newspapers or the future of journalism. I am convinced that quality journalism has a future, but we may not yet know what configuration it will take. I am teaching a class in the fall on "civic media," which looks at the functions of journalism and explores how they have been served by a range of different social systems throughout human history. The goal is to open ourselves to other arrangements beside the newspaper as we've known it over the past half century or so.

iMedia: As these new arrangements start to solidify, what skills do you think will be vital for your students to have to prepare themselves for tomorrow's journalism job climate?

Jenkins: Above all, creativity, entrepreneurship, adaptability, the ability to keep learning, and the ability to communicate with diverse publics. In short, the world is changing fast, and only those who know how to change in meaningful ways in response to their shifting environment will succeed. What you want to avoid is getting locked down into one way of living and acting in the world.

iMedia: A growing trend in entertainment is branded webisodes, though there hasn't yet been a standout success story. What do you think it will take for these to reach legitimized status?

Jenkins: Well, this depends very much in terms of how we measure success. One model is to search for webisodes that have been mass successes on the same level of the television shows on which they are based. This may be a long time coming since the web is not in and of itself a mass medium. There may be some successes along these lines as we move to "curated" platforms like the iPad, especially if transmedia content becomes one of the multimedia features Apple chooses to showcase there.

More often, though, right now, webisodes are being produced as niche extensions of what are already niche properties -- "Lost," "Battlestar Galactica," "24," "Gossip Girl," and "Ghost Whisperer" have all had modest yet significant success in building and maintaining their core audiences through such content. And we are starting to see niche-oriented webisodes that are attracting significant followings in their own right -- "Dr. Horrible," "The Guild," perhaps the upcoming "Legion of Extraordinary Dancers"; each represent web series that may become self-supporting thanks to a hardcore, if narrow, band of followers.

iMedia: What's your take on the print-to-online transition? What do you think will win out -- paid, free, walled gardens? Other options?

Jenkins: I suspect we are going to need to develop a hybrid model, as has occurred so far in response to television content on the web. I certainly think publications are going to want to extract payment for the content they produce -- and I don't think it is impossible to imagine them getting paying customers -- but they also do not want to lock themselves off from the ongoing conversations taking place around media content of all kinds on the web. Bloggers who link to their stories may be creating more value than they are destroying, generating consumer awareness and driving traffic to their site. I rarely go to just read one story and often stay to get more, sometimes adding the site to my regular rotations. And where I find a site that generates value for me, I value that site and would be more willing to pay for content.

I don't buy the idea that we will never pay for content just because we've convinced people the internet is for free. For my generation growing up, it would have been inconceivable that we would pay for television or bottled water, yet beliefs and practices have changed significantly over time. But you will never discipline them to do so, and you have to understand both the drivers and resistors to paying for digital content.

Jodi Harris is senior editor at iMedia Connection.

On Twitter? Follow Jodi at @Joderama. Follow iMedia Connection at @iMediaTweet.

Jodi Harris is the Director of Editorial Content & Curation at Content Marketing Institute. As an independent consultant, Jodi develops strategic content programs and projects for brand, media, and agency clients in the marketing, entertainment,...

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to leave comments.

Commenter: Aimee Davison

2010, June 08

Very good point: "Until marketers understand the consumer's active agency and the social mechanisms shaping their circulation of content, they are doomed to insult and alienate the very people they are hoping to attract."

I find this to be especially true of voting related [popularity] contests that force finalists to obtain votes by soliciting and spamming their social networks. I was a finalist in a contest recently and lost a few contacts because of my constant (and necessary) campaigning.