Interview with Henry Jenkins: Director of the M.I.T. Comparative Media Studies Program

Interview with Henry Jenkins: Director of the M.I.T. Comparative Media Studies Program

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Mother Jones: What’s the most exciting new use of technology in politics?

Henry Jenkins: I’m not sure I’ve seen the killer app of Web 2.0 in the current political season. I’ve been watching with some interest the use of YouTube as a distribution channel for both official and unofficial communications from campaigns, and I’m looking at the potential of Second Life and other virtual worlds as an alternative space for dialogue between candidates and the electorate. I’m fully convinced that this is going to be one of the most innovative campaign seasons we’ve seen yet. We’re going to see even more eclectic experimentation in the uses of technologies, and I suspect that all the campaigns have stuff up their sleeves we haven’t yet seen.

MJ: What areas do you think are going to be the most ripe for experimentation and innovation?

HJ: I think a lot of it is not going to be through campaigns but through loosely affiliated organizations. We saw this last time with the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, Texans for Truth. Those are examples where the candidates lost control of their own campaigns to some degree, or at least maintained a level of plausible deniability. I think the most interesting work I saw during the last election cycle came out of True Majority, an organization that was using appropriation and transformation of popular culture to reach younger voters in a hipper way. I wrote about the role of what I call a Photoshop for democracy, which is the use of Photoshop collages as a kind of grassroots equivalent of editorial cartoons. What happens when you tap popular culture, you pull politics much closer to people’s everyday lives. So, I’m very interested in the ways those kinds of new uses of media touch both campaigns and citizen groups and the uneasy relationship between the two. The positive side is that it gets more citizens involved; it develops a more playful language; it produces a more engaged electorate; it transforms the language of politics. The downside is that checks on negative campaigning break down completely, and that’s what we saw the last time with the Swift Boat Veterans: They went lower faster than any campaign would have been able to do on their own.

MJ: Are there elements about the use of technology that could make the political process less democratic?

HJ: If the central conversation about the election is only online, rather than through broadcast television, large numbers of people will simply not have access to what the candidates are saying. So, for some people, this campaign is going to be more accessible than ever before. They have access to more information; they can drill deeper; they can maintain regular contact with the campaign; they can interact with other supporters and so forth. For others, who have no access or limited access to the Internet, moving all this activity online suggests that they don’t count, their voices don’t matter. They have no access to the information to make reliable decisions. And it’s not the campaigns who are doing that, so much as broadcast television, which is decreasing the coverage that it provides of the party conventions. It’s local newspapers that are cutting back the number of pages devoted to candidates for office. Those are the things that make the use of new media less democratic, because they are falling back on the presence of the new media to justify cutting back on basic information sources that citizens who don’t have online access would rely on to follow the political process.

MJ: Will so-called “open-source politics” bring anyone into politics for the first time?

HJ: I think if the language of politics, the imagery of politics remain the same, it’s probably not going to change and it’s not going to necessarily bring in people who were not involved in the political process.

MJ: Which candidate, in your view, is doing the most interesting things online?

HJ: The people behind the scenes on the Obama campaign seem to have the most on the ball in terms of exploring new models of how you use the digital media to transform the interface between the candidate and citizen.

MJ: How does he compare to somebody like Edwards?

HJ: I haven’t looked that much at Edwards’ campaign, to be fair, but I haven’t seen anything out of the Edwards campaign that’s been that fresh or original yet. And the Clinton campaign is some place in between. Announcing via the web was interesting, but it still seems to be a talking to rather than a talking with the American public.

MJ: How have you seen Obama employing the latter strategy?

HJ: I think some of it has to do with the use of MySpace by the Obama campaign, which is something that I don’t think is necessarily being courted by the other campaigns as effectively yet—an understanding of how you use social networking to reach young voters. It’s not about bringing people to your site and keeping them there; it’s about giving people the resources to take your message with them wherever they want to go. It’s allowing people to befriend the Obama campaign via MySpace and the other social networking pages. It’s really clever because it makes the social affiliation of the campaign much more visible, and it allows all those people to connect to each other and feel a sense of affiliation, as opposed to simply receiving a message from on high. That’s why the anti-Hillary 1984 campaign commercial that circulated was so much more credible than the one that reacted to it, because there is a sense of the Clinton campaign speaking to us from a contained space as opposed to breaking free of that and creating a new relationship with the voters. The interesting thing is that, in fact, we’re going to see more and more of these blurry relationships where it could be grassroots, it could be Astroturf, we really can’t tell where the stuff is coming from. And that is part of the product of the kind of decontextualization of media that goes on in YouTube. The freedom to reappropriate and transform and recirculate is liberating, but it can also be confusing because we’re seeing very powerful groups trying to pass themselves off as relatively powerless by mimicking the language and techniques of a lot of grassroots media.

MJ: What effects is this going to ultimately have on how people filter the information that they’re getting through this media? Eventually, will they simply disbelieve anything they see?

HJ: I think there’s going to be skepticism and not cynicism. We should be skeptical of the sources of information that come to us via these grassroots channels. At the same time, we’ve seen these emerging knowledge cultures, these sort of large-scale grassroots communities that pull in information and debunk these things in very quick order. The turnaround is really fast, and for those people who are wired, that flow of information is surprisingly effective, what people are calling “collective intelligence,” the ability of people to collectively pool their knowledge and share what they found. And I think that, actually, collective intelligence is a profoundly democratic process. It’s social at its root, and it allows people to form communities around debating political issues and how the candidates are representing themselves to the public. It makes us less susceptible to negative campaign advertising than we’ve been before.

MJ: How sophisticated do you think online media consumers are at this stage? And to what degree are these collective intelligence systems currently up to the task of catching misleading information?

HJ: The answer to the first question is relatively sophisticated. If we make our political process more like Wikipedia, then I think we create the space that’s needed for people to pull knowledge and form a consensus and weed through conflicting evidence. I think we’re not quite there yet. I think the interesting thing is how much this next campaign cycle accelerates the process of people moving from playing with collective intelligence to deploying collective intelligence as a source of political power. I think that’s what we’re going to see unfolding in the next couple of years. And I don’t know if we’re ready for the task yet, but I think we’re going to grow up pretty fast.


More Interviews << >> Politics 2.0 Index


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