What is Convergence?

Let’s define the term that gives this course its title.

The term convergence entered media studies via telecommunications.  Until the late ‘90s, telecoms thought of landline, mobile and data services as separate entities.  Even when the mobile phone providers were owned by the telecom, they functioned as separate companies.

At some point—with the decline of landlines, with increased competition from cable providers—telecoms suddenly saw all their products converging and began to sell bundles of services to consumers: landline, internet, mobile.

The same sort of thing began to happen to media companies.  Everything ran together.

At its most basic level, convergence in media means the melding together of multiple media—words, pictures, music, video—into one digital stream.

But the word has also has generated a number of other meanings.  Some of what follows reflects insights from Henry Jenkins’ excellent book, Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide.

The same media content can now be delivered on multiple platforms.

You can get the New York Times as a paper, but also in Kindle and iPad editions, as a web page, an email newsletter, or from a mobile app for both iPhone and Android.  Not to mention that the Times web site has sound and video.

The New Yorker, perhaps the most literary of magazines, is Condé Nast’s most successful iPad app, drawing 100,000 subscribers.  It also now has a website that gets updated with breaking news.

Large entertainment franchises are no long confined to a single media.

The Harry Potter series started as books.  Now it’s movies, videogames, mobile phone games and amusement park rides.  There are Harry Potter sites all over the web, both official and unofficial, created by fans.  This is Jenkins’ main interest: He’s not so focused on traditional media as in the effect of new media on major pop culture franchises: The Matrix, American Idol, Survivor, Star Wars.

As the media converge, there’s been an unprecedented concentration of power in big media companies.

Time Warner, for instance, owns New Line Cinema, Time Inc., HBO, Turner Broadcasting System, The CW Television Network, TheWB.com, Warner Bros., Kids’ WB, Cartoon Network, Boomerang, Adult Swim, CNN, DC Comics and Castle Rock Entertainment.

Here’s an overview of Walt Disney Co., which owns among other things ABC and ESPN.

Ironically, however, we’ve also seen a convergence between media producers and the audience, which used to be passive.

The traditional media tended to be one-to-many—and relatively straightforward.  That is, if you wanted to watch a television program, you watched it on a TV, when the network broadcast it, and you had little control over the programming.

Now, however, the audience migrates from platform to platform.  It can now comment on the material and make their collective voices heard on fan sites.  Big pop culture franchises need fans, but they can’t control them anymore.

There seems to be a convergence of formerly public and private media.

The digital stream seems to be causing a convergence of traditional point-to-point communication, like phones and the post office, and traditional mass media, like television and newspapers.  Social media seem to be someplace between public and private—which makes many people uneasy.

Finally, and this is the point we will most focus on: The digital stream allows far more people to access media.

The tools of media creation have become inexpensive and easy to use, the digital distribution channel open to almost anyone.

This is a major shift.  Media outlets are no longer control what can and cannot be produced, how can enter the cultural discussion and who has to be silent and passive.  The opportunities for talent are unbounded.  Our talents.

What convergence probably DOESN’T mean:

New media will NOT supplant old media.

Books did not destroy handwriting, mass circulation daily papers did not supplant books, radio did not eliminate newspapers, movies did not mean the end of theatre, and TV did not destroy either movies or radio.  New media cause older media to change, but they continue to adapt and coexist.

There won’t be one magic box.

There’s uneasiness about which media delivery system will eventually dominate.  What one box will be the one through which we access all media.  Perhaps this is on the analogy of the television and the console radio before that.  People still sort of expect there will be an electronic hearth, around which families gather, one that melds together all the media.

The opposite seems to be coming true.  We won’t have one big box that provides our media stream.  We’ll all have multiple little boxes, many of them portable.

Nobody’s sure what’s going to happen.

The technology is still evolving, but the most important changes will come with the cultural revolution.  Media is more than a delivery system.  Phonograph cylinders, vinyl records, reel-to-reel, cassette and 8-track tapes—all came and went.  CDs may soon follow.  Recorded music stayed.  It may survive digital file sharing as well.  The delivery changes, the medium changes far more slowly, if at all.

Things probably won’t settle down anytime soon.

By mastering the moment, we’re unlikely to see the whole future, which may look like chaos for a couple more decades.

Because the culture, the role of media, the role of the media consumer, the standards for media production are all shifting, we’re likely to see some angst.

There are those who insist that everything’s all new and that the old will completely disappear.  Probably not.  We’ve been through cultural revolutions before.

There are those who think the Internet is ruining us, making us stupid and distracted.  Probably not.  Change can be difficult, there are always critics.  There were people centuries ago who were against writing things down because then memory wouldn’t be as important.

About John Heckathorn

These are my teaching sites for Hawaii Pacific University
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