Digital Approaches to Activism

USC Communications and Journalism Professor Henry Jenkins speaks on the “participatory culture” of the new “digital generation”

University of Southern California professor Henry Jenkins presented during a seminar last Wednesday afternoon in the Center for Computer Games and Virtual Worlds. The seminar, entitled “By Any Media Necessary: Politics and Participation in the Transmedia Age,” also featured a presentation designed to address the political arena of what has become known as the “digital generation,” who are treated to a multitude of creative and alternative approaches that prior generations did not have.

Jenkins explained how this novelty is improving the generation’s access and influence in activism, but that it prompts a closer, analytical look.

“Ultimately, the talk sought to explain what I meant by ‘participatory culture’ and explores what challenges we face in trying to more fully realize this ideal,” Jenkins said.

To accomplish this, Jenkins used a variety of case studies, from the more prominent ones to the more obscure. These included the Occupy Movement, the Kony 2012 video created by Invisible Children and the invention of the Meme. As Jenkins pointed out, the Occupy Movement  helped as both a political traditional movement and a discursive movement with the use of the witty meme graphic, such as the controversial “Pepper Spray Cop.”

Throughout Jenkin’s speech, the images that sparked these movements into the public consciousness were displayed, providing a comical yet impressive effect.

“There was a shift from sound bites to seeds for memes,” Jenkins said. “These seeds were attempted to be used by the interactive public.”

The talk continued by pointing out the differences between the old and the new models of communication. According to Jenkins, the current distribution model of media circulation is being steadily replaced by the “circulation model,” which is slowly eroding the corporate control of past years by letting individuals and groups assume active control over the media through their actions.

“We want to try to understand what these logics look like and how people are beginning to seize the power that emerges from changes in communicative capacity,” Jenkins said.

Jenkins’s team at USC is finding that the new systems are drawing more people into the political fold. Their research showed that interest-based groups were five times as likely to engage in participatory politics and four times as likely to engage in institutional politics than non-interest based groups. This represents potentially intriguing prospects for the future.

“It is not a case of one size fits all,” Jenkins said. Mid-sized mid-country cities, such as Cincinnati and Pittsburgh, and young people are becoming the central hubs of these new expressions.

The seminar talk also explored the political sphere by discussing the recent 2012 presidential election between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, and the “Binder Full of Women,” “Joker Obama” and “Guy Fawkes mask” memes.

At the same time, one of the more clever case studies mentioned was the Harry Potter Alliance, which now has over 100,000 people and 17 chapters worldwide.

“It was one of the first fandoms to emerge at the moment of the digital culture shake-up,” Jenkins said.

The Harry Potter Alliance is an organization that fights against poverty, genocide and global warming worldwide and uses its member ingenuity to publicize. Jenkins brought up the webpage for “Rock Out Against Voldemedia!” which is a compilation album from wizard rock groups, such as the Whomping Willows and the Remus Lupins. Currently, the Alliance is taking a calculated risk by fighting against their birthing company of Warner Brothers over the creation of non-fair trade chocolate frogs. The Alliance make their own fair-trade chocolate frogs and sell them online, and send complaint videos, called “Howlers” in allegiance to the Harry Potter theme, to Warner Brothers through YouTube and other electronic platforms.

Jenkins went on to argue that these various methods prove that activism needs to be taken on in many forms, on and offline.

The seminar talk concluded with a solemn tone.

“How do we manage the lack of coordination and decentralized activism and its ability to preserve its integrity of message in a world where any symbol can be appropriated by anyone?” Jenkins said.