Like big data, socialstructing brings dangers as well as opportunities. The greatest danger, the author of The Nature of the Future argues, may be new boundaries between those who are economically and educationally equipped to take advantage of socialstructed institutions and those who are not. Any changes in the way people organize social ties, political institutions, established work patterns, and measures of value are unpredictable, but it can be forecast with certainty that some people will always take advantage of any imbalances revealed by new technologies to further their own interests at others’ expense. I’m with Gorbis when she writes, “If we are not careful, the new curve may also bring with it new disparities. What direction this nascent curve takes is up to us. We are not passive bystanders in the unfolding of the future; we have some responsibility for and agency in shaping the kind of future we want to live in.”
Spread or Dead
Spreadable media is what results when socialstructing meets entertainment, advertising, and journalism. Consider the way that the circulation of media—for example, the millions of links, likes, tags, comments, blogs, tweets, and emails that can quickly make a video viral—has become a cultural force, and even a new form of economic production.
In Spreadable Media: Creating Value and Meaning in a Networked Culture, media theorist Henry Jenkins, formerly of MIT and now at USC, and his coauthors, digital strategists Sam Ford and Joshua Green, make a convincing case that fan involvement in the re-creation and circulation of media content is not just an interesting side effect of many-to-many multimedia networks and smartphone video editing apps, but a significant force for empowerment and exploitation in and of itself. “What we are calling spreadability,” explain the authors, “starts from an assumption that circulation constitutes one of the key forces shaping the media environment.”
Just as big data forces us to reconsider our privileging of causality over correlation, spreadability is forcing major culture creators, such as entertainment companies, to reconsider how much control of their content they should cede in order to see it more widely distributed. Armies of fans of anime—Japanese animated cartoons—voluntarily subtitle and recirculate their favorite videos in multiple languages, providing valuable exposure to the animators. Independent video makers generated more than $10 million worth of publicity for Mentos candy as a side effect of posting popular videos of people dropping Mentos into Diet Coke to create a geyser. The underground circulation of professional wrestling videos revealed hitherto unidentified “surplus audiences,” which prompted World Wrestling Entertainment to launch a new cable channel devoted to past matches and to sell DVDs of classic matches.
Jenkins and his coauthors also cite example after example of fans who produce cultural value for nonmonetary rewards, such as social recognition by their peers. For instance, fans of the Harry Potter books and films created Dumbledore’s Army, a worldwide online community that effects real change in the physical world. Its members sent airplanes full of medical supplies to Haiti after the devastating earthquake of 2010 (spreadability multiplied by socialstructing).
Spreadable Media debunks the notion of “influencers” that was popularized by Malcolm Gladwell. Citing research by network scientist Duncan Watts and others, its authors argue that networks and communities of co-influencers are more important than keystone individuals: “Any new system must respect the importance of surplus audiences and the role active audience members play as grassroots intermediaries shaping the experience of other audience members.” They also cite the importance of “produsers,” a word coined by Axel Bruns to define those who combine the functions of producers and users of media. “Produsers,” write the authors, “play curatorial and promotional roles, selecting and promoting content and creating metadata, improving the prospects of the material being found by future users.”