“Spreadable Media” authors discuss power of social media

Cameron Koch

How “stuff” travels through culture.

That’s the main topic of the upcoming book “Spreadable Media” by University of Southern California professor Henry Jenkins and WKU and MIT graduate Sam Ford.

Jenkins and Ford led a discussion about “Spreadable Media” in the Ransdell Hall auditorium in front of several dozen students and faculty Wednesday evening. The talk emphasized the importance of social media’s role in the production and circulation of online content.

Jenkins began by distinguishing how distribution and circulation have changed in relation to the social media of today.

Traditionally, the top-down corporate media controlled the distribution of news and content, but that this is no longer the case.

“It’s still shaped by major corporations, but it’s also partially bottom up,” Jenkins said. “All the people in this room shape the circulation of media. We spread media to other people and are getting media as it’s spread to other people.”

Jenkins and Ford discussed how corporations are still unsure about how to deal with the uncontrolled spread of media, and often suffer because of it.

This led the two media and pop culture experts to define what exactly it means for a video to go “viral” on the internet.

“Something is viral when it gets popular,” Ford said.

They cited the example of Susan Boyle, a woman who appeared on the British television show “Britain’s Got Talent” in a 2009. Her audition video has millions of views, according to Jenkins and Ford, because people spread it through the use of social media.

However, the British company that owned the show didn’t know how to respond to the sudden explosion of demand which resulted in the company not earning a single dime off of the show’s popularity.

Ford, who is the director of Digital Strategy for the public relations company Peppercom, explained how companies and advertisers are now trying to tap into that viral market but are going about it the wrong way.

Something becomes spread not by creating a community, but by tapping into multiple already existing communities, Ford said.

“If we can create the right virus, the right content, we can get people to spread whatever we want,” Ford said.

The issue of piracy of music and other media on the internet was also discussed, with Jenkins arguing that piracy wasn’t necessarily a bad thing.

Jenkins said that corporations immediately use the word “piracy” for unauthorized use of content, but that even if it is unauthorized, it doesn’t have to be destructive.

“If you benefit from that act of circulation, if it becomes part of the norm in the way the culture operates, then the language of piracy is far too morally charged to really account for the value created…by people taking content from one place to the other,” Jenkins said.

Bowling Green senior Mitch Henson found it interesting to listen to the two experts.

“I’m a former pop culture student,” said Henson, who is now an advertising major. “It was interesting to hear experts in that certain field.

“I feel like a lot of businesses are kind of ignorant in the ways of social media and spread-ability and things like that. It is the new trend. You either have to adapt or die.”

Claire Holman, a graduate student at Vanderbilt, traveled with other Vanderbilt students to attend the discussion as part of an education literacy class.

“We are studying new media and its role on education,” Holman said. “He had some interesting things to say about its role in the economy and the moral judgments about it. It will prepare us to be teachers and judge how our students use new media.”

Toward the end of the discussion, both Jenkins and Ford emphasized responsibility for the content that we create, as well as the media that we share.

“We should have a conversation about what constitutes valuable participation, and what constitutes responsible and ethical participation,” Jenkins said.

“How often do you end up just hitting forward, or sharing that link on Facebook?” Ford said. “This spreadable media environment we are living in today impacts us, gives us greater power.”

Ford then used the memorable “Spider Man” quote adding, “as Uncle Ben would say, ‘With great power comes great responsibility.’”