Can what we consider as popular culture really be considered ‘culture’ or simply fandom?
That is to say, if cultural artifacts originate from corporate products are they, in fact, ‘authentic’ cultural expressions?
An interesting distinction was made in this week’s reading, Henry Jenkins’ “Afterword: Communities of Readers, Clusters of Practice (2008). Jenkins made a clear distinction between the ‘participatory culture’ and what is referred to as ‘web 2.0’.
He defined web 2.0 as
“a form of consumer culture, a product or service that is sold to us by media companies rather than something that emerged from grassroots practices.” (p. 238).
He calls into question Brown and Alder’s formulation of Learning 2.0 (2008, p.18) where they state,
“the so-called Web 2.0 has blurred the line between producers and consumers of content and has shifted attention from access to information toward access to other people. New kinds of online resources—such as social networking sites, blogs, wikis, and virtual communities—have allowed people with common interests to meet, share ideas, and collaborate in innovative ways. Indeed, the Web 2.0 is creating a new kind of participatory medium.”
Jenkins critique calls out the “web 2.0, which refers specifically to a set of commercial practices that seek to capture and harness the creative energies and collective intelligences of their users.” (p.238)
This observation draws a clear distinction between genres of participation that serve corporate interests (even unknowingly) and participatory cultures that truly mentor the growth of the participants.
Does the delineation between these, while seemingly identical in their activities and even their artifacts, rest solely on their foundational source material? Or perhaps on the motivations and objectives of that community? A question one could ask is, does the community foster critical reflection and context of the subject, so that it may be applied by individuals to cultivate personal growth? Or, conversely, is it merely encouraging fandom?
The word ‘fan’ is derived from the word ‘fanatic’ which is defined as “a person with an extreme and uncritical enthusiasm or zeal.“
Let us examine a modern case study in context of Jenkins nuanced definition.
While Game of Thrones has generated many genres of participation and has influenced a variety of new ‘cultural’ expressions, can we claim any of these are challenging the culture-at-large toward deeper levels of thought or reflection? It could, but whether it is, is debatable. It could bring to question the notion of acquisition of power and nation building, the purpose of social hierarchy and war. It could compare the tactics of the ruling elite in the story to the modern monied elite class. But these are not the predominant dialogues within the GoT communities. Instead we see the communities stuck in fandom, debating “fan theory” like the meaning of R+L=J, for example, or rating the seasons of the television show.
No doubt, Game of Thrones is an awesome piece of literature that has spawn excellent visual media. But while the larger cultural dialogue is stuck in fandom, its utility to reflect on larger social issues is compromised. As a tool of web 2.0, GoT simply fuels the corporate enterprise around it. According to the definition by Jenkins, if it could evolve past this and become part of a ‘participatory culture’, it could instead be a connection-point offering topics for critical insight and growth in our modern cultural dialogue.