Q&A with WKU alumnus Sam Ford on ‘Spreadable Media’ book

Cameron Koch

WKU alumnus Sam Ford and University of Southern California professor Henry Jenkins will be making a presentation in Ransdell Hall auditorium at 7 p.m. Wednesday to discuss their new book, “Spreadable Media.” The Herald talked with former WKU student and MIT graduate Sam Ford about his experience here at Western, the subject of his book and why Facebook is so addicting.

Q: You were a student at Western not so long ago. Did you come to Western already knowing what career you wanted to pursue? How did your time at WKU prepare you for your career and did some of your experiences at Western influence your current research interests?

A: When I first came to WKU, my plan was to be a journalist. I had worked in high school at a local newspaper and was really fascinated by telling the stories of local people. While I was a journalism student at WKU, though, I realized that my interest in media extended beyond community coverage. My first semester, I decided to add English as a second major. My second semester, I added film studies as a minor. The next semester, I picked up communication studies as a third major. And after that I added mass communication as a fourth major. Through all that, I realized I was fascinated with studying pop culture and the media, and all of the opportunities WKU provided to study pop culture — and this was before there was even a pop culture studies major on campus — took me straight to graduate school at MIT. I spent my time at WKU working on an honors thesis on the place of pro wrestling in U.S. culture. My final semester, I even team-taught a class with Dr. Pam Johnson on the history of pro wrestling and applying various ways of understanding and studying pop culture to pro wrestling, a class I was able to go and teach a version of while at MIT.

Q: Can you us give a brief overview of the book you co-authored, “Spreadable Media”?

A: “Spreadable Media” looks at what changes in a world where distributing media content leaves the hands of media companies exclusively and enters into the hands of the audience themselves. This era of circulation — where we all have media content at our disposal and can easily pass it along with one another — means we are discovering news stories, television content, advertisements, political movements and anything else you can think of from our friends and family as often as or more often than we are finding out about it from the source itself. This changes the dynamic considerably between audiences and producers, and it means that our social relations are, now more than ever, helping shape the content we encounter. Our book examines all the implications of this shift, in terms of how it is changing the media industries, independent media production, marketing, journalism and, most importantly, being a citizen and an audience member.

Q: What exactly do you mean by the term spreadable media?

A: Spreadable media is intended to describe content that audiences are sharing with one another. The idea is to contrast it to other concepts people have used to describe content in the past few years. We contrast “spreadable media” with “stickiness,” the concept of putting content up online at a particular destination and then measuring how many people come see it. But we also use it to distinguish what we believe is misleading about metaphors like “going viral” or “reaching influencers” or “Web 2.0,” the various terms that have been used to describe an environment where people are responsible for helping drive the distribution of media.

Q: How did you come to work with Henry Jenkins on the book?

A: Henry and I are co-authoring this book with another colleague, Joshua Green. The three of us helped run a research group at MIT called the Convergence Culture Consortium, and this is an idea that Henry and Joshua began exploring that I was fortunate enough to join them on. The research began late in 2007, and it has been a rewarding last five years that will culminate in the release of next year’s book.

Q: How do you think Facebook and Twitter have changed the way people interact? You always hear stories about people who are addicted to Facebook, but why do you think that is? What is our fascination with social media?

A: Throughout “Spreadable Media,” we argue that everything we see today isn’t exactly new. Before people were spreading media, they were talking about it by spreading word of mouth. Before people were gathering on Facebook, they were gathering in person. And so on. But social network sites are allowing people to reach each other more frequently and to stay in contact with a much broader range of people than was previously possible, which proliferates these activities. So, basically, these platforms make possible the types of activities we’ve always been doing on a much larger scale than we could do them in the past.

Q: Where do you see social media and the internet going in the near future? Do you see it changing drastically as we’ve seen in the last decade?

A: Social media will continue to evolve as new functionalities come about and as people get more and more comfortable with what these new platforms allow for. We’re increasingly seeing Boomer-aged citizens and above adopt social media practices, and technology continues to make interaction more and more fluid. One major change is the continuously evolving role in which media companies, brands, etc., have with social media. We are seeing more professional communication take place online than ever before, and we are also seeing companies start to use social media for customer service and other meaningful forms of interaction that increases the expectation from audiences that the company, show, or individual expert they are interested in SHOULD be accessible in some way online.

Q: Some of your specialties are fan and television studies. Could you elaborate on what exactly that consists of and how you became interested in research in those fields?

A: Fan studies study audiences who are particularly engaged about a certain media property or subject and examines the activities, roles and dynamics of those audiences to better understand what attracts people to media and entertainment and the roles those media properties play in people’s lives. And television studies examines those shows that are pervasive in our culture and how television is evolving how it tells its stories. Our idea is that studying pop culture tells us a lot about our society and often predicts what’s coming in terms of communication at large. After all, much of what we’re seeing people do today on social network sites and in relation to the news, to political movements, etc., can be traced back to activities that fans of soap operas or science fiction programs or comic books or sports have been doing for some time.

Q: What can Western students expect at the discussion on Wednesday?

A: In Wednesday’s discussion, we will give a broad overview of the subject of our book with what we hope are some entertaining examples from the pop culture landscape. We hope to show the audience how we are all gaining more potential power in today’s media environment and what that power might mean for us and for marketing and the media industries.