It’s Not ‘Screens,’ But ‘Convergence’

Over at Caught in the Web, Sam has a good rebuttal to the very problematic article in this weekend’s New York Times, “Why Television Still Shines in a World of Screens.”

As Sam points out, Randall Stross not only misses the notion of “immersion,” and its history within the field of media studies, but also views his notion of “screens” through an advertising-filled lens.

I would humbly add one more point to Sam’s post. Stross actually says it, but clearly misses the significance of what’s he’s writing here:

We are so smitten with screens that we often can’t bear to choose one over another: 31 percent of Internet use occurs while we’re in front of a TV set. We are also taking an interest in watching video on our phones: 100 million handsets are video-capable.

What he’s dancing around here is the main thesis in Henry Jenkins’s text, “Convergence Culture.” In it, Jenkins argues media today is never read or even created in isolation, that the various media platforms we see and use every day (Stross calls this our “three screens”) are actually all part of a larger media eco-system. And, significantly, on the production side, media producers are learning not only how to engage audiences in new ways, but also that this kind of engagement is crucial to success.

For me, the best example of “convergence” in the Jenkins sense of the term is the ABC series LOST, which I’ve written about before. The writers actually pay attention to their fans (the killing off of two minor characters a couple seasons ago was done completely for the fans, who really, REALLY did not like them), and things like spoilers, which swirl around the show on the net, aren’t so much about finding out the plot points, but are ways to think through and search for answers. “Spoiling” is more about empowerment and agency, and this kind of audience activity would not be possible with television alone; rather, it’s the convergence of television, and wikis, and blogs, and other forums that create the kind of “immersive” experience that television holds.

Two other points to make. One, this idea of “screens” conflates the qualitative differences found in experiencing media on different platforms. In a previous post, I wrote about just how less “immersive” LOST was watching on ABC’s web site, versus watching it on my TV (and flipping through the commercials), and those experiences are less “immersive” than watching LOST on DVD, without commercials at all. (I keep putting “immersive” in quotes based on Sam’s pointing out the misuse of that term.) I question the merits of conflating the media experience of watching television on a 42″ HD wide-screen from your living room and the media experience of watching Hulu on your office computer into a general thesis about “screens.” (That said, Boxee, and applications like it that will be developed, are helping to merge those platforms into a single, user-friendly experience.)

The second point, which I’ve perhaps already stated indirectly, is that not only is “text” not going away (a point Stross makes), but “text,” in the form of blogs and Internet forums, is actually both on the rise, and *critical* to the success television is having today. Technorari’s State of the Blogosphere 2008 has the numbers:

Blogging is…

* A truly global phenomenon: Technorati tracked blogs in 81 languages in June 2008, and bloggers responded to our survey from 66 countries across six continents.

* Here to stay: Bloggers have been at it an average of three years and are collectively creating close to one million posts every day. Blogs have representation in top-10 web site lists across all key categories, and have become integral to the media ecosystem.

According to Technorati, 900,000 blog posts are written every day. Now, obviously some of them contain video, but the point is, that the blogosphere is vibrant, and it’s not only (and simply) video sites like YouTube that are engaging people online.

To state this all directly: To minimize the complexities of the various forms of media and audience/user engagement today in terms of “screens” and “video” and “text,” and looking at audience numbers for each of these, is missing out on the larger, more important dynamics of participatory media, and completely missing the agency granted to the reception side of the communication model.

Stross, quite frankly, reveals himself to be an old media — and an old media thinking — kind of guy, even if he is talking about new things like YouTube and the web.

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