“Spreading” Youth Media

MIT professor Henry Jenkins and his colleague Joshua Green say we’re moving into an era of “spreadable” media:

Jenkins: “Spreadable content is designed to be circulated by grassroots intermediaries who pass it along to their friends or circulate it through larger communities (whether a fandom or a brand tribe). It is through this process of spreading that the content gains greater resonance in the culture, taking on new meanings, finding new audiences, attracting new markets, and generating new values. In a world of spreadable media, we are going to see more and more media producers openly embrace fan practices, encouraging us to take media in our own hands, and do our part to insure the long term viability of media we like.”

The youth media field has been feeling the effects of “spreadable media” as a dawning cultural and industrial reality for some time. The instinct to repurpose and circulate stories across all sorts of scrappy (in the best sense of the word) and established outlets is second nature for young people who know how to make and move their messages to maximize audience reach. At Youth Radio, a recent example is Anyi Howell’s series about racial profiling as a rite of passage for black men in the U.S.–a story he put out in various forms (some FCC-friendly, others not) through MySpace, iTunes, National Public Radio, KPFA, community events, and print (the latter an article he wrote about his specific methodology for spreading the story).

That said, as Youth Radio’s News Director Nishat Kurwa pointed out at a recent editorial meeting here, the idea of spreadable media poses some specific challenges for youth media producers… especially its invitation for fans to remix and rebroadcast pre-produced stories at their whim. Jenkins uses the example of Stephen Colbert to illustrate this fan practice. Comedy Central invited viewers to cut up and re-edit Colbert’s interview with a U.S. congressman, making the raw footage available online-a brilliant way to disrupt journalistic authority by handing over the power of the final edit.

Here’s Jenkins:

“So, at a time when other producers are sending out cease and desist notices to shut down mashups of their content, Colbert is encouraging you to re-edit and recontextualize incriminating statements from his show (and believe me, what made the sketch so funny when it first aired was the whole series of potential meanings behind seemingly innocent statements once he planted the idea in your head.) Of course, none of this has stopped Viacom from trying to get Colbert Show segments removed from YouTube in what is surely a classic example of a media company speaking out of both sides of its mouth at once.”

That all sounds great. But here’s the thing…it still implicitly positions young people in the fan spot, media superstars like Colbert as the original makers viewers can now mess with by re-editing their segments. It’s a whole different deal when the person telling the story in the first place is young and in many ways marginalized from big media production. Let’s say that young person is sharing an extremely personal story. Let’s say she’s worked for months and months to stir up the courage to disclose something about her life. Or let’s say he’s negotiated painstakingly with collaborators to craft a narrative they all feel fairly represents their shared story. Or let’s say the organization she’s working with to tell the story has a youth development mission. And let’s say it’s taken a whole lot of strategy and work to guarantee that for once, young people and not some adult spokesperson on their behalf have final editorial say over what they want to express through media and how they want to tell it.

Under these conditions, the idea of “locking” a final version of your story, rather than inviting others to have at it, can hold serious appeal. Especially when we know how the stories of marginalized youth have been persistently distorted by the press and public.

None of this is to say “spreadable” stories or media that invites the public to go to town in the remix is not the way to go. It’s only to raise the question… assuming Jenkins is right, that “if it doesn’t spread, it’s dead,” is it ever possible that the spread itself can kill the story?

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