Entertainment as Collective Intelligence

November 29, 2009

I’m reading the introduction to Henry Jenkins’ Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide, which is about “the relationship between three concepts–media convergence, participatory culture, and collective intelligence” (2).   For Jenkins, “convergence” refers to “the flow of content across multiple media platforms, the cooperation between multiple media industries, and the migratory behavior of media audiences who will go almost anywhere in search of the kinds of entertainment experiences they want” (2).  This brought to mind a book I read for my Ph.D. research back in the early 1990s by Marsha Kinder called Playing with Power in Movies, Television, and Video Games:  From Muppet Babies to Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.  She used a phrase called “transmedia intertextuality” that I never forgot; this referred to the new strategy of deploying a story and its characters in multiple media formats.  The example I recall was the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, with which my young sons at the time were fascinated.  This was a movie, a cartoon, books, toys, even plastic plates!  And probably much more that I’m not mentioning here…

Between then and now the phenomenon of social networking has exploded, becoming much more widespread, thereby allowing the participatory and collective nature of Jenkins’ concept to emerge.  As Jenkins notes,

Convergence does not occur through media appliances, however sophisticated they may become.  Convergence occurs within the brains of individual consumers and through their social interactions with others. . . Because there is more information on any given topic than anyone can store in their head, there is an added incentive for us to talk among ourselves about the media we consume.  This conversation creates buzz that is increasingly valued by the media industry.  Consumption has become a collective process–and that’s what this book means by collective intelligence, a term coined by French cybertheorist Pierre Levy.  None of us know everything; each of us knows something; and we can put the pieces together if we pool our resources and combine our skills.  Collective intelligence can be seen as an alternative source of media power.  We are learning how to use that power through our day-to-day interactions within convergence culture.  Right now, we are mostly using this collective power through our recreational life, but soon we will be deploying those skills for more ‘serious’ purposes. (3-4)

This point about entertainment being the locus of emergent collective intelligence resonates with Ulmer’s “pop-cycle,” a heuretic, generative tool for electrate thinking that requires consideration of four institutional discourses (family, community, entertainment, career) and how these have influenced our identity formation.  Crossing over among these “popcycle institutions” allows us to employ images and modes of reasoning from one realm in order to solve problems in another.  For Ulmer, entertainment discourse has dominated since the late 20th century and therefore provides “the beginnings of explicitly electrate reasoning” (Internet Invention 126).  While school (the primary vehicle for community discourse) continues to privilege literate modes of thinking and knowing, those who experience these new media on a regular basis, as Jenkins suggests, are learning how to engage in the processes of collective intelligence as consumers of 21st century entertainment.