Against Henry Jenkins. Remarks on Henry Jenkins’ ICA Talk “Spreadable Media”.

I have watched Henry Jenkins’ virtual keynote presentation “Spreadable Media” that he gave at the 2011 conference of the International Communication Association. I do not like it and here are some reasons why this is the case.

Jenkins says that he has learned from and that his analysis is now deeply informed by the criticism of Critical Studies-scholars, who stress aspects of exploitation and free labour on web 2.0, and that it is important to take these criticisms into account. He wants to stress the “expansion of participation on the one hand and the expansion of a new business model, which tries to court and capture that participation on the other”.

Jenkins says that he wants to stress both structure + agency, pleasure +exploitation, whereas Critical Studies scholars would mainly stress structure and exploitation. He says that these scholars tend to conceive users as isolated, passive consumers, whereas for him they are a networked collective close to a Habermasian public sphere.

The question is how much Jenkins has really changed his analysis and how much he has really taken into account and engaged with the arguments of Critical Studies?

Jenkins simply constructs a dualistic “both…and”-argument based on the logic: “Web 2.0 is both …. and … ”: both pleasure and exploitation, both a space of participation and a space of commodification. He wants to focus on the aspects of pleasure and creativity and wants to leave the topic of exploitation to others and does thereby not grasp the dialectics at work and the relations of dominance we find on web 2.0. The question is not only what phenomena we find on social media, but how they are related and to which extent and degree they are present. There is no doubt that web 2.0 users are creative when they generate and diffuse user-generated content. But the question is also how many web 2.0 are active and which degree of activity and creativity their practices have. So for example in Sweden, one of the world’s most advanced information societies, only 6% of the population have their own blog, only 8% of all Internet users blog occasionally,  and only 16% of all Internet users upload video clips occasionally (Findahl 2010). Cultural Studies Scholars like Jenkins tend to overstate the creativity and activity of users on the web. Creativity is a force that enables Internet prosumer commodification, the commodification and exploitation of the users’ activities and the data they generate. Creativity is not outside of or dual to exploitation on web 2.0, it is its very foundation.

Another problem I have with Jenkins’ work is his use of the notion of participation. He has defined and continues to define a “participatory culture” as a culture:
“1.With relatively low barriers to artistic expression and civic engagement
2.With strong support for creating and sharing one’s creations with others
3.With some type of informal mentorship whereby what is known by the most experienced is passed along to novices
4.Where members believe that their contributions matter
5.Where members feel some degree of social connection with one another (at the least they care what other people think about what they have created)“ (Jenkins 2006, 7).
Jenkins has argued that increasingly “the Web has become a site of consumer participation” (Jenkins 2008, 137) and his ICA talk confirms that he holds on to this assumption and understanding of participation.

The problem with concepts like “participatory culture” is that participation is a political science term that is strongly connected to participatory democracy theory and authors like Crawford Macpherson and Carole Pateman. I have in contrast to Jenkins and others argued against a vulgar use of the term participation and stressed that Internet Studies should relate the usage of the term to participatory democracy theory, in which it has the following dimensions (Fuchs 2011, Foundations of Critical Media and Information Studies, Chapter 7: Participatory web 2.0 as ideology; Fuchs 2008, Internet and Society):

(1) The intensification and extension of democracy as grassroots democracy to all realms of society
(2) The maximization of human capacities (Macpherson: human developmental powers) so that humans become well-rounded individuals
(3) Extractive power as impediment for participatory democracy:
Macpherson (1973) argues that capitalism is based on an exploitation of human powers that limits the development of human capacities. The modern economy “by its very nature compels a continual net transfer of part of the power of some men to others [for the benefit and the enjoyment of the others], thus diminishing rather than maximizing the equal individual freedom to use and develop one’s natural capacities” (Macpherson 1973, 10f).
(4) Participatory decision-making
(5) Participatory economy
A participatory economy requires a “change in the terms of access to capital in the direction of more nearly equal access” (Macpherson 1973, 71) and “a change to more nearly equal access to the means of labour” (73). In a participatory society, extractive power is reduced to zero (74). A democratic economy involves “the democratising of industrial authority structures, abolishing the permanent distinction between ‘managers’ and ‘men’” (Pateman 1970, 43).
(6) Technological productivity as material foundation of participatory democracy
(7) Participation as education in participation
(8) Pseudo-participation as ideology.
The problem is that for Jenkins participation means that humans meet on the net, form collectives, create and share content, etc. He has a culturalistic understanding of participation and ignores the notion of participatory democracy, a term which has political, political economic and cultural dimensions. Jenkins’ definition and use of the term “participatory culture“ ignores aspects of participatory democracy, it ignores questions about ownership of platforms/companies, collective decision-making, profit, class and the distribution of material benefits. The cultural expressions of Internet users are strongly mediated by the corporate platforms owned by Facebook, Google and other large companies. Neither the users nor the waged employees of Facebook, Google & Co. determine the business decisions of these companies, they do not “participate” in economic decision-making, but are excluded from it.
Internet culture is not separate from political economy, but is to a large extent organized, controlled and owned by companies (platforms like Wikipedia are non-corporate models that are different from the dominant corporate social media model). Social media culture is a culture industry. Jenkins’ notion of “participatory culture” is about expressions, engagement, creation, sharing, experience, contributions and feelings and not also about how these practices are enabled by and antagonistically entangled into capital accumulation. Jenkins has a reductionistic understanding of culture that ignores contemporary culture’s political economy. Furthermore he reduces the notion of participation to a cultural dimension, ignoring the broad notion of participatory democracy and its implications for the Internet. An Internet that is dominated by corporations that accumulate capital by exploiting and commodifying users can in the theory of participatory democracy never be participatory and the cultural expressions on it cannot be an expression of participation.

The most popular YouTube videos stem from global multimedia corporations like Universal, Sony and Walt Disney. Google and Facebook are based on targeted advertising models and a commercial culture, which results in huge profits for these companies. Politics on YouTube, Twitter and Facebook are possible, but are minority issues – the predominant focus of users is on non-political entertainment. Web 2.0 corporations and the usage they enable are not an expression of participatory democracy. As long as corporations dominate the Internet, it will not be participatory. The participatory Internet can only be found in those areas that resist corporate domination and where activists and users engage in building and reproducing non-commercial, non-profit Internet projects like Wikipedia or Diaspora. Jenkins (and many others) continuously ignore questions of who owns, controls and materially benefits from corporate social media.

Jenkins says that social media users are like a Habermasian public sphere. One wonders if he has ever read “Strukturwandel der Öffentlichkeit” (Habermas 1962/1991), the book, in which Habermas stresses that the bourgeois public sphere has created its own limits and thereby its own immanent critique by a) limiting the freedom of speech and public opinion in those cases, where persons who do not have the same formal education and material resources for participating in the public spheres are facing unequal conditions of participation and exclusion (Habermas 1962/1991, 227) and by b) limiting the freedom of association and assembly in those cases, where big economic and political organizations dominate the public sphere (Habermas 1962/1991, 228). In the corporate social media sphere, attention is unequally distributed, big companies, celebrities and well-known political actors enjoy attention advantages and the most active prosumers come from the young, educated middle-class. Is this a Habermasian public sphere? No. Corporate social media are an expression of the limits of the bourgeois public sphere that Habermas has pointed out.

Jenkins says that now in contrast to his earlier works he has engaged with the arguments of Critical Studies scholars. But one wonders when listening to him misnaming Hans Magnus Enzensberger “Hans Mangus Eisensberger” and Mark Andrejevic “Michael Andrejevic”, if he really has engaged with Critical Studies. He furthermore attributes the quotation from Enzensberger that he uses (without giving page numbers, source and publication year; a practice he uses for all quotations in his presentation) to the 1960s, whereas Enzensberger published the work, from which the quotation stems (“Baukasten zu einer Theorie der Medien”, Enzensberger 1970) in 1970. In it, Enzensberger not only talked about “emancipatory media usage”, but distinguished this concept from “repressive media use” and made clear, in contrast to Jenkins, that emancipatory media negate and aim at the emancipation of the media landscape from capitalism. In contrast to Enzensberger, corporatism and participation are in Jenkins’ view co-existent in the media landscape.

One is surprised that when Jenkins talks about media and politics that he does not talk about how the contemporary new student rebellions that resist the hyperneoliberal attack on higher education make use of social media, what the role of the media and social media has been in protests like in Madison, Spain, or Greece and in the rebellions and revolutions in Northern African countries like Tunisia, Egypt, Syria, or Libya. There is also no discussion of WikiLeaks, the most important online medium talked about in 2010. Instead, what are the “political” examples of struggles that Jenkins comes up with like? The prototypical example he gives is that 400 fans demonstrated the power of consumption when they “resisted” the planned ending of the NBC programme “Chuck” by buying (“buycott”) “foot long sandwiches” at Subway as a sign of “protest”. What does it tell us if a leading scholar simply ignores discussing the role of the media in political rebellions, protests and revolutions and instead focuses on the old Cultural Studies hobbyhorse of the rebelling TV audience that is constantly “resisting” in order to consume ever more?

Media and Communication Studies should forget about the vulgar and reductionistic notion of participation (simply meaning that users create, curate, circulate or critique content) and focus on rediscovering the political notion of participation by engaging with participatory democracy theory. There was a time, when Cultural Studies scholars were claiming about others that they are economic reductionists. Today, it has become overtly clear – and Jenkins’ work is  the best expression of this circumstance – that cultural reductionism has gone too far, that the cultural turn away from Critical Political Economy was an error and that Media and Communication Studies needs to rediscover concepts like class and participatory democracy.


Enzensberger, Hans Magnus. 1970. Baukasten zu einer Theorie der Medien. Kursbuch 20: 159-186.

Findahl, Olle. 2010. Swedes and the Internet. Stockholm: .SE.

Fuchs, Christian. 2008. Internet and society. Social theory in the information age. New York: Routledge.

Fuchs, Christian. 2011. Foundations of critical media and information studies. New York: Routledge.

Habermas, Jürgen. 1962/1991. The structural transformation of the public sphere. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Jenkins, Henry et al. 2006. Confronting the challenges of participatory culture. Chicago, IL: MacArthur Foundation.

Jenkins, Henry. 2008. Convergence culture. New York: New York University Press.

Macpherson, Crawford Brough. 1973. Democratic theory. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Pateman, Carole. 1970. Participation and democratic theory. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.























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4 Responses to “Against Henry Jenkins. Remarks on Henry Jenkins’ ICA Talk “Spreadable Media”.”

  • [...] y las participaciones resultan costosas no sólo en este sino en más de un proyecto participativo. Justamente éste es uno de los puntos que Christian Fuchs retoma en un artículo reciente, “Agains…, junto con una crítica al concepto mismo de “participación”. Es cierto que, como argumenta [...]

  • Comment from Fredrik Stiernstedt

    Bra text! Mycket grundlig och genomtänkt kritik av Jenkins presentation, som nog kan sträckas ut till mycket liknande (företrädesvis amerikansk och liberal) medieforskning. Men bör man inte akta sig för att kasta ut barnet med badvattnet? Även om Jenkins föreställning om att de sociala medierna utgör en “offentlighet” (om det nu är hans position) är bisarr, bör väl de reella paradoxer som de nya “affärsmodellerna” frambringar studeras inom vårt ämne? Vad de gör med och säger om subjektivitet, begär och drift (t.ex.) i den nyliberala kapitalismen har ju rimligtis också politiska implikationer (se t.ex. Jodi Dean’s Blog Theory [2010]) och måste studeras med begrepp, teorier och metoder från “kulturforskningens” fält. Är det verkligen “kulturell reduktionism” som Jenkins tänkande är ett exempel på? Är det inte en (liberal) avsaknad av relevant maktanalys som kommer till uttryck i hans skriverier?

    Vi ses på Island!

  • Comment from christian fuchs

    Hej Fredrik,

    Tack så mycket för dina kommentarer. Det är viktigt och värdefullt att vi har diskussioner kring aktuella kritiska frågor för att advancera kritisk medie- och kommunikatonsvetenskap. Jag svarar på engelska.

    I think it is important that we engage with subjectivity, pleasure and play and how structure and agency/object and subject interact today. But I doubt that the right approach for this can be found in Jenkins and Fiske. In fact, I miss a serious theoretical engagement with subjectivity, pleasure and play in their works. I think we should in this context rather focus on the works of Marcuse, Fromm or Reich and how they have made use of Freud in a critical way in order to conceptualize what digital playbour is all about. My first take on this is with the help of Marcuse’s Freud interpreation (and concepts like necessary repression and surplus-repression of pleasure in capitalism) and is part of this paper here.

    I think that it is correct to characterize Henry Jenkins’ approach as cultural reductionism. He does not take aspects of class, digital labour, surplus value production and exploitation into account, but rather only to a large extent focuses on the creative production of meaning and a false interpretation of these productions as automatically politically progressive (as argued in my posting). But do not understand me wrong, I am in now way arguing against cultural analysis and cultural theory in general, I am just arguing against certain versions of Culutural Studies, specifically those of Jenkins and Fiske (and some others, the problem is partly also present in the works of Stuart Hall, but not fully, there is also much valuable in Hall’s works). We can distinguish between “Critical Political Economy of the Media” and “Uncritical/Administrative/Neoliberal Political Economy of the Media”. Cultural Studies is too much perceived as being one whole, but it is internally diverse, so maybe we should start distinguishing between “Critical Cultural Stuides/Theory” and “Uncritical Cultural Studies/Theory”? But of course we have to engage with the notion of the “critical”: What does it mean to be critical?

    Given my own notion of the critical, explicated at length in my recent book “Foundations of Critical Media and Communication Studies”, my assessment is that the approaches of Jenkins and Fiske are uncritical and that we should not engage with them. But this is not at the same time a verdict against other versions of cultural theory, as e.g. the approaches by Raymond Williams, Edward P. Thompson or Pierre Bourdieu etc, that I find very valuable and that I think we should engage with. I just think that we should differentiate between uncritical and critical approaches. There is such a big difference e.g.between Williams and Thompson on the one hand and Jenkins or Fiske on the other hand. The first two engaged so much with critical social theory. Take a look at the reference lists in the books of Jenkins and Thompson: it becomes so obvious that they have no clue about philosophy and social theory, it looks like they have not read Hegel, Marx, Gramsci, etc. My suggestion is that today we exactly read this authors and try to make sense of them – that we engage with philosophy today. I think Fiske and Jenkins are not helpful in this respect.

    Fiske’s four books “Introduction to Communication Studies”, “Television Culture”, “Reading the Popular” and “Understanding Popular Culture” have just been published in new editions (Routledge 2011). Jenkins wrote a preface – “Why Fiske still matters”: He claims: “The dismissal of Fiske has in many ways become a rite of passage for a generation or more of academics who wanted to demonstrate that they were hard-headed, even hard-hearted enough, to gain entry into critical studies and political economy, though increasingly, the dismissal has been directed by those who have had little direct exposure to his ideas and sometimes by those who have never even read his books. The Fiske who will emerge here is not that cartoon character or stick figure [...] He revised his views over the course of his career many times and he would have no doubt have continued to grow as he entered more fully into the realities of a changed media landscape” (p. xviii).

    Jenkins’ preface shows several things:
    * That he is an uncritical disciple of Fiske, who was his teacher. How can one be so dogmatic and not voice a single critical idea against one’s teachers? It seems like Fiske is Jenkins’ religion, he simply wrote a pure praise of Fiske without criticism.
    * He is right that there is a significant and notable difference between “Media Matters” and Fiske’s earlier works. But the question is also what the continuities of Fiske are because it is unlikely that an author completely changes his positions over the years.
    * Why does Fiske need Jenkins for writing a (bad) defense against the criticism of this works by others? Why doesn’t he write something himself? Obviously he is not dead, so why has he stopped writing? Is academic retirement really a reason for stopping writing? This question not only concerns Fiske, but many scholars.
    * My main criticism of both Fiske and Jenkins is that they have a deterministic political conception of the audience and fans, they consider them as nearly always revolting and rebelling, their examples are very selective, and so it looks like audiences are always automatically rebelling. This automatism neglects ideology and is a deterministic form of reasoning. And in this respect the “old” Fiske of the 1980s and the “new” Fiske of the 1990s (as in “Media Matters”) has not changed at all. Fiske (1989, 17, Understanding Popular Culture) argues that consumers are inherently struggling and resisting: “Popular culture always is part of power relations; it always bears traces of the constant struggle between domination and subordination, between power and various forms of resistance to it or evasions of it, between military strategy guerrilla tactics”. There is no change of this position in Media Matters (1996): “Discursive struggles are an inevitable part of life in societies whose power and resources are inequitably distributed” (Fiske 1996, 5). The formulations of “inevitability”, “always”, and “constancy” of cultural struggles show that these passages, are forms of the reductionistic logic of an automatism and mechanistic determinism of cultural resistance. These scholars, like Jenkins and Fiske, have for so long claimed that Frankfurt School was deterministic and reductionistic (without ever having read Adorno, Horkheimer, Marcuse, at least there are no real references to these works in their books) – but aren’t they themsevles the true determinists and reductionists? Shouldn’t we rather give a close reading to Adorno, Horkheimer, Marcuse, Fromm, Reich, Enzensberger, Negt/Kluge, etc today and see what we can make of it? Isn’t the form of Cultural Studies that characterizes Jenkins’ and Fiske’s works exactly missing such an engagment with theory?

    * Fiske and Jenkins almost never quote Marx, Gramsci, Adorno, Horkheimer, Hegel, etc – they completely lack an engagement with social theory and philosophy. I think the lack of engagement with classical critical theory is really what troubles me most with these approaches. No matter if we want to advance Cultural Studies, Cultural Theory, Political Economy, Critical Theory, etc – shouldn’t we not rather today engage with social theory in its critical version, both classical and contemporary? I think this is really the core of my criticism. The engagement with popular cultural texts (which is not bad, I also like popular culture and like to discuss its implications in my seminars etc, it is fun and a good didactic method to combine heavy theory (Hegel, Marx, etc) with watching/listening to popular culture, but it is a problem if such a didactic strategy is reduced to popular cultural texts without philosophy and theory… My didactic ideal in this respect is Slavoj Žižek, his heavy theory in combination with deep knowledge of film and the capability of making good presentations) has replaced the engagement with philosophy and theory. I think part of the reason why I feel much sympathy with the works of WIlliams and Thompson and lack this sympathy towards Fiske and Jenkins concerns their specific relations to philosophy and critical social theory.

    So my suggestion is to stop engaging with Jenkins and Fiske and to engage with the rich philosophical and theoretical history of Critical Media/Communication/Cultural Studies. And, if I may add, I think that this first and foremost requires an engagement with Marx and how Marx was interpreted (or not interpeted or misintrepreted or ignored) in 20th century Media/Communication/Cultural Theory.

    I definitely look forward to further thoughts from you.

    All the best,

  • [...] and I just love reading to views on the same topic. In class we went onto Fuchs blog and read this we then went to twitter and said our favorite quotes from it my favorite was “He wants to focus [...]