If it doesn’t spread, it’s dead.
That’s the central argument of Spreadable Media: Creating Value and Meaning in a Networked Culture, a 2013 book by Henry Jenkins, Sam Ford, and Joshua Green, which “challenges some of the prevailing metaphors and frameworks used to describe contemporary media.”
Spreadable Media targets three readerships for the book: media scholars, communication professionals, and people actively creating and sharing media content who are interested in the resulting cultural and industry changes that are occurring.
In fact, the book could appeal to anyone who is interested in understanding the cultural and social changes that are occurring online and in the media environment. The final chapter, Thinking Transnationally, provides a particularly interesting analysis of the international elements of spreadable media.
What Does Spreadability Mean?
“Spreadability” refers to the potential—both technical and cultural—for audiences to share content for their own purposes, sometimes with the permission of rights holders, sometimes against their wishes.
Below is a summary of the main elements of spreadability discussed in the book:
The flow of ideas - understanding circulation based on analysis of the social motives of those who are actually doing the spreading.
Dispersed material – creating multiple access points to content and texts that are both “grabbable and quotable.”
Diversified experiences – content is often customized and localized for niche audiences by community members, rather than commercial producers.
Open-ended participation - participatory activities differ substantially, depending on the community and the media property in question.
Motivating and facilitating sharing – seeking to compensate for the loss of control, media producers and networks are developing new business models seeking to benefit from at least some forms of grassroots circulation.
Temporary and localized communication - traditional top-down models of distribution have given way to a hybrid model that is partially top-down and partially bottom-up. Creators are listening closely to their audiences and meeting them when and where they are having a conversation.
Grassroots intermediaries who advocate and evangelize - if an audience is going to spread media content, it will be because it serves their own communicative purpose and fits into conversations they were already having.
Collaboration among roles – there has been a blurring of relationships between producers, marketers, and audiences. Participants may be reconciling different motivations—between their professional, personal, and social concerns.
Designing for Spreadability
While the book is more of a cultural analysis than a “how to” guide, is does provide some advice on designing spreadable media texts. The authors suggest that content is more spreadable when it is:
- available when and where audiences want it
- easily reusable in a variety of ways
- relevant to multiple audiences
- part of a steady stream of material
The discussion of the social implications of spreadable media, in my view, was the most interesting part of this book.
Spreadable Media offered a difference perspective on online piracy, that it can more often represent a market failure on the part of the media industry, rather than a moral failing on the part of media audiences. It also suggests that:
…pirate culture may ultimately be the foundation on which legal industries and institutions are formed, allowing poorer countries a chance to gain ground without having to bear the full costs of investment in production.
The book also discusses the complexly intertwined motivations of “pop cosmopolitans” who seek materials from elsewhere “to escape the parochialism of their own cultures”, and immigrant populations that seek to “maintain ties back to their motherlands.”
More generally, the book suggests that although spreadable media presents a loss of control over the content and distribution of media, it still foreshadows serious sociocultural change:
Spreadable media expands the power of people to help shape their everyday media environment, but it does not guarantee any particular outcomes. Nevertheless, we believe these processes may hold the potential for social and cultural change.
There are several key lessons or themes that arise from Spreadable Media, and while it’s not feasible to list them all, here are some of the highlights.
The central idea is that a shift from distribution to circulation involves a more participatory, two-way exchange between consumers and producers of media texts.
Because participation is key, content producers need to actively listen and respond to audiences.
Moreover, audiences are not passive “carriers” of “viral” media, rather they are active sharers of content when it is relevant for their own purposes.
In a spreadable media landscape, where broadcast has shifted to digital, content producers must accept a loss of control.
Grassroots intermediaries engage in a variety of different ways, but those engagements are unpredictable and generative.
Should I Read It?
This book will appeal to people who are interested in the big picture—those who seek to understand the social and cultural context of today’s media environment, including in a transnational context.
It will also appeal to those who like to understand the historical details of media issues. One such example was the story of how the BBC had to rely on amateur recordings of old Doctor Who episodes to help restore soundtracks that the network had thrown away decades earlier.
However, people looking for a simple and direct book of advice on creating spreadable content may be frustrated by Spreadable Media.
The book is not overly prescriptive, and there is only one chapter of advice on designing for spreadability. This makes sense, given the authors’ central arguments relate to enabling unpredictable audience participation and accepting a loss of control.
Overall, I enjoyed reading it. I give it 3.5 stars (out of 5).
New Series of Book Reviews
This post is the first in what we hope will be an informative series of book reviews. We welcome your comments and feedback on the book, the review, and any other books you’d like us to investigate.
Everyone who comments will go in a random draw to win a copy of Spreadable Media! The winner will be drawn on Friday, February 14.