Jenkins, Ford, and Green, Why Media Spreads

Jenkins, Ford, and Green, Spreadable Media (Introductin: Why Media Spreads) (47 pages)

As Jenkins, Ford, and Green write at the start, their central concern is with the circulation of content. They are also quick to point out the difference between distribution and circulation: namely, distribution refers to “the movement of media content [that] is largely—or totally—controlled by the commercial interests producing and selling it” (1). Circulation, on the other hand, is something much more participatory and a focus on circulation “signals a movement toward a more participatory model of culture, on which sees the public not simply as consumers of preconstructed messages but as people who are shaping, sharing, reframing, and remixing media content in ways which might not have been previously imagined” (2). A key concept, thus, is participatory culture, coined by Jenkins to describe the cultural production and social interactions of a variety of different communities and groups “deploying media production and distribution to serve their collective interests” (2). Here, in this particular book, Jenkins, Ford, and Green look to the role of networked communities in the spread of media. Much of their focus lies upon digital media, but does not presume that “new platforms liberate people form old constraints” rather, they suggest, “that the affordances of digital media provide a catalyst for conceptualizing other aspects of culture” (3).

The central concept discussed in this chapter is spreadability: “the potential—both technical and cultural—for audiences to share content for their own purposes” (3). They further write, “spreadability refers to the technical resources that make it easier to circulate some kinds of content than others, the economic structure that support or restrict circulation, the attributes of a media text that might appeal to a community’s motivation for sharing material, and the social networks that link people through the exchange of meaningful bytes” (4). Spreadability is a model of understanding the way we engage with media that might be placed in foil to a stickiness model. A stickiness model refers to “the need to create content that attracts audience attention and engagement…stickiness refers to the mechanisms motivating people to seek out and spend time at a particular site” (4). Stickiness emerges as a way an expedite way for businesses to measure and visualize how they are conducting business online; however, as JFG points out, it does not reflect how audiences want to and do experience material online. They point to a few key differences between stickiness and spreadability that help better define the concept of spreadability:

  • Where a stickiness model counts on the isolated audience member to seek out content, spreadability “recognizes the importance of the social connections among individuals’, connections increasingly made visible (and amplified by social media).
  • “Spreadability emphasizes producing content in easy-to-share formats, such as the embed codes that YouTube provides, which make it easier to spread videos across the Internet, and encouraging access points to that content in a variety of places” (6). Stickiness, on the other hand, places content in a centralized location.
  • “A spreadable mentality focuses on creating media texts that various audiences may circulate for different purposes, inviting people to shape the context of the material as they share it within their social circles” (6). Stickiness attempts to serve multiple audiences simultaneously, in a centralized location.
  • “The participatory logic of spreadability leads to audiences using content in unanticipated ways they retrofit material to the contours of their particular community” (6).
  • “The spreadability paradigm assumes that anything worth hearing will circulate through any and all available channels, potentially moving audiences from peripheral awareness to active engagement” (7).
  • “in a spreadable model, there is not only an increased collaboration across these roles but, in some cases, a blurring of the distinctions between these roles [of producer, marketer, and audience]” (7).

However, despite these differences between stickiness and spreadability, JFG note that they often can work hand in hand: content remains sticky even as it spreads.


Susan Boyle: JFG points to a couple examples in order to demonstrate the impact of a model of spreadability, such as the Susan Boyle phenomenon. Part of the reason why the Susan Boyle phenomenon travelled so far and fast was that “people had the right tools an knew what to do with them. Sites such as YouTube make it simple to embed material on blogs or share it through social network sites” (11); however, as JFG point out, the technical potential can not alone explain why this content spread: “we must consider the integrated system of participatory channels and practices as work that support an environment where content could be circulated so widely” (11). In other words, we have to also consider the multiple channels of circulation made available and the way users would navigate between different platforms to spread the content for different purposes and with different social networks made available on those channels.

The intersection between the social and cultural practices with the technological innovations that grow from these practices is what is considered networked culture. JFG are careful to point out that these cultural practices were not created by new technologies: people often take content from one medium (newspaper) and recirculate them in a new medium (scrapbook) that can reach a different network/audience. What we are seeing with these new digital technologies is that what has occurred predigital is happening with greater speed and scope. “citizens count on each other to pass along compelling bits of news, information, and entertainment, often many times over the course of a given day” (13). JFG notes that such sharing may not always necessarily require new annotation, remix, or commentary: the act of sharing implicates a meaning in itself: what is this person trying to communicate to me in this forum? “People often welcome spreadable media content form friends (at least discerning ones) because it reflects shared interests” (13). Such sharing is what constitutes communities that organize around shared interests. And, the sharing of the video enabled conversations around this shared interest.

Furthermore, there is a feeling of being part of the phenomenon by sharing it. Referring to Boyle’s album, “’people wanted to get it and own it, to feel like they’re a part of it.’ Of course, those who helped circulate the video already felt they were ‘a part of it’” (14). To wrap up this example, As JFG write, “the appropriate and recirculation of even entire works may sometimes work in the best interests of not only the culture at large but also of the rights holder” (16).


“Viral” Media: JFG point out early in their chapter that the way we talk about media matters because it is through these metaphors that we are able to describe the complexity of how we engage with media and how we understand our world. As such, they confront the metaphor of “viral” spread. As they write, the viral metaphor “does little to describe situations in which people actively assess a media text, deciding who to share it with and how to pass it along. People make many active decisions when spreading media” (20). Rather, the metaphor of spreadable media avoids the implications involved with viral: infection and contamination “which over-estimate the power of media companies and underestimate the agency of audiences” (21). In a spreadable metaphor, audiences are seen to be the key agency behind the active spread/circulation of media. JFG note further that the difference in metaphor is not simply a matter of pedantics, but may have particular impact on how we create texts: “if companies set out thinking they will make media texts that do something to audiences (infect them) rather than for audiences to do something with (spread it), they may delude themselves into thinking they control people” (23).


Comcast: JFG consider the ways that participation culture—and the increasingly public nature of it—have implications in customer service which, in a world of spreadable media, begins to conflate with public relations. As such, “customer service issues become a higher priority when customers have their own online presence, means that some customers get better treatment than others” (26).


Participatory Culture: JFG focus more attention on the way that “audience members have to retrofit [media content] to better serve their interests. As material spreads, it gets remade” (27; see: Bazerman). JFG point to instances where content circulates among one network of users and is then taken up in different networks: the meaning, thus, changes the content as it moves between networks and the content, itself, changes as it is repurposed to meet new needs. “The ways that the appropriation, remixing, and recirculation of content via mechanism of participatory culture are increasingly impacting conversations far removed from what once might have been seen as niche communities. … we are seeing the erosion of traditional boundaries” (28).

While such re-circulation of media is often seen between grassroots networks, we can certainly see the trouble that might be encountered as users want to participate and recirculate content from media industries. He points to the example of Twitter accounts made by fans of characters of MadMen. Operating, likely, on a stickiness model that seeks to have a tight grip on these accounts, AMC moved to shut the accounts down. The fans, of course, noted that it is because of fans that such content is consumed at all. “Fans who create new material or pass along existing media content ultimately want to communicate something about themselves. Fans may seek to demonstrate their own technical prowess, to gain greater standing within a niche community, to speculate about future developments, or to make new arguments using texts already familiar to their own audiences” (34).


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