Media Convergence

You don’t have to be familiar with the academic literature that has established media convergence as social science theory to be aware of its existence. The processes and effects of media convergence have transcended technology and Hollywood, and are now reflected in nearly every facet of our lives. For instance, when innovation brings streaming television to our mobile phones, not only with it mark an important milestone for technological convergence, perhaps the ultimate fulfillment of Negroponte’s switch, but it will change where, when, why, and how we are entertained forever. Social media, broadband penetration, mobilization, media corporation consolidation, and FCC deregulation are all aspects of media convergence. Although they may be debated and enacted at the macro level, such media phenomenon impact how individuals interact socially, access new information, and express their values every day.

Moreover, such development in media convergence will most likely involve the considerable and broad cooperation between media content creators, broadcast networks, and mobile technology producers. These corporations will have to navigate a new, digitally powered consumer market, which has fostered a myriad of subcultures, increased individual personalization of entertainment media, and even begun to degrade the previously unidirectional nature of information transmission. As information and the conduits for its transfer gain value in our society, we must evaluate security, diversity, and ownership. Will a few major entities with significant economic power or many smaller entities competing and fostering innovation better serve the long term interests of our economy, society and culture? Different degrees of government regulation in various segments of the market may be needed to protect public interests, and ensure the future of our new information society and culture economy.

All these elements and concerns are part of media convergence, and are shaping our future. In fifty years, the careers our children will want, the main products our country produces, and our global transactions will all have been defined in part by the swift changes our media landscape is currently experiencing. In the book Media Convergence by Tim Dwyer, renowned media scholar Henry Jenkins is quoted as defining convergence as follows:
“A word that describes technological, industrial, cultural, and social changes in the ways media circulated within our culture. Convergence is understood here as an ongoing process or series of intersections between different media systems and not a fixed relationship.” (p24)
By this definition, media convergence is not a set thing, but a fluid progression that affects how all mediated sociocultural elements produced and disseminated. Although the process of convergence perhaps most impacts entertainment media, by extension all cultural and information processes are affected. This is the essential truth behind the importance of media convergence: ultimately it will influence how individuals define themselves, how countries record their histories, and the future of industrial innovation.

Media has been evolving since the invention of the written word, which more than a thousand years later was followed up by the invention of the printing press, and a few centuries later the steam-driven rotary press made modern, mass circulated newspapers possible (Neuman). However, comparably quickly, within less than a century, the telephone, phonographs, motion pictures, and radio were introduced to the general public. These new media were swiftly followed up by television, cable television, cassette tape, FM transistor radios, VHS, compact discs, and digital video discs. In the last century, media evolution has increased exponentially, thus affecting how we work, live, and play.

The most recent major development for media has been the internet, which first reached a mass audience in 1993 with the creation of the first user-friendly, graphic interface, search engine, Mosaic (Dwyer). Unlike previous new mediums, which complimented or competed with existing media, the internet has the potential to subsume existing media by digitalizing and untethering them (Neuman). That is the internet can take all media forms translate it into one common language, binary, and then wireless transmit it anywhere via satellite, transcending the boundaries of disparate analog systems, time zones, and geographic regions. Thanks to the internet media evolution has reached new levels of convergence, consequently garnering the attention of theorists, analysts, regulators, and innovators.

In fact, the study of mass communication can currently be understood as the study of converging media. Converging Media: A New Introduction to Mass Communication defines convergence far more succinctly as “the coming together of computing, telecommunications, and media in a digital environment” (p8). This text divides convergence into three types: technological, economic, and cultural. Although all three forms of convergence work in conjunction with each other and should not be studied separately, they can function as individual lenses from which to view various aspects of convergence. Since media is central to the entertainment industry, analyzing the influence of technological, economic, and cultural convergence upon this specific industry can offer considerable insight into broader sociocultural issues.

Technological Convergence
Developed in the late 1980s, Nicholas Negroponte and George Gilder proposed that “What goes over the air (broadcast TV and radio) will go via wire and what goes via wire (telephony) will go over the air” (Neuman p 50). Thus far this theory has largely proven correct, and has since become known as the Negroponte Switch. Another way to understand this technological transformation is the blending of television with telephony (Yoo). Before the internet, television was strictly the mass medium, the primary means for content producers to transmit a uniform message to a mass audience. Conversely, telephony was strictly the primary means for individuals to transmit unique messages to other individuals. Digitalization and the Negroponte Switch changed the nature of information, and restructured these communication systems. Wired communication could now be used to communicate with a mass audience, like fiber optic internet, and wireless communication could be used to communication with an individual, like cell phones.

Furthermore, recent innovations in mobile and broadband technology have led many to speculate that all communication, mass and interpersonal, will soon occur via one personal, wireless, digital device (Storsul). This transition has already begun with laptops and netbooks, and is on the verge of compacting even further in the form of smart phones. However, it is important to note that although terminal convergence is a likely potential outcome, it does not describe the current technological landscape. For example, cell phone screens are too small to facilitate reading long books, and laptops are too big to use for listening to music on the go.

In Media Technologies, Transmedia Storytelling and Commodification, Goran Bolin breaks down digitalization into three perspectives: production, distribution and reception (Storsul). Digitalization has changed how media is produced by allowing digital artistic expression, and reducing publication costs, which increases the fluidity of information and makes media creation more egalitarian. Additionally, digitalization has altered the nature of media distribution. The capacity and speed of information transmission is greater than ever before, and new network structures have decreased corporate mediation, thus increasing sharing between individuals. Finally, digitalization has impacted information reception. While increased media diversity has allowed individuals to personalize their entertainment experience, access and storage of entertainment media now requires the consumption of highly specialized digital devices.

Given the current structure of technological convergence, the entertainment industry can adapt to leverage certain new opportunities. In the past, delayed adoption of new technology has resulted in piracy, consider digital music distribution. However, it is not too late for media corporations to take advantage of emergent mobile technology (Long). Responsible management and affordable monetization of mobile devices and wireless plans can provide media corporations new revenue streams. In addition, the democratization of media production has allowed for exponential growth of creative innovation from individuals. The breadth and depth of user generated content can be construed as competition against media corporations that have traditionally served as content producers, or it can be leveraged as an opportunity. Increased creative content and decreased production costs, allow media corporations to concentrate on media curation, digitalization, and distribution.

Moreover, since terminal convergence has yet to be achieved, digitalization facilitates transmedia storytelling, the ability for entertainment narratives to play out on a variety of media devices (Long). Perhaps progressively using mobile phones as the primary digital nexus, other platforms both new (cloud integrated tablets) and old (cinematic film) can be tied into smart phone to allow media consumers to experience a more holistic entertainment experience. Thanks to new digital technologies, the entertainment industry now has capability to offer enhanced narratives like never before.

Economic Convergence
Transmedia storytelling also creates new opportunities for advertising, cross promotion, and licensing deals. This new economic model was most succinctly described by the editor of Wired magazine, Chris Anderson, who argued that the commercialization of the internet was an emerging market with increasing value, and therefore could not be approached in marginal terms (Pardo). Rather, Anderson advocated a long-tail economic approach, based on evidence that suggested the internet was connecting previously dispersed consumer markets, practically eliminating distribution costs, and promoting individual interests over mass popularity. In essence, companies in the entertainment industry can leverage the new found promotional opportunities of mobile transmedia storytelling to cover initial costs, and then proceed to profit from long-term consumer engagement and loyalty. Such a business approach runs counter to traditional economic models that set revenue goals in relation to the next quarter or next year. Still given the current swiftly changing entertainment market place, the rate of new technological innovation, and new consumer dynamics, a long-tail economic model can offer up a broader business mentality capable of profiting from instability.

However, the long-tail economic model frequently relies on low barriers of entry that allow for innovative, start-up companies. This is not the reality of the current structure of the entertainment industry. Recent deregulation has allowed unparalleled corporate mergers and acquisitions that have consolidated the industry into an oligarchical structure (Pavlik). These enormous, entertainment enterprises span the globe, and are often surprisingly tied to parent organizations with product lines seemingly unrelated to media. A classic example has been General Electric’s ownership of the NBC media empire; though, there are many more instances of conglomeration, including Virgin Mobile and Virgin Entertainment. This oligarchy creates a self-reinforcing system, where by mega corporations have the power to influence government, industry, markets, and regulations to the best generate further profit and power. However, what’s best for the oligarchy, which traditionally forms business goals around short-term profit margins, may not be what’s best for the long-term interests of individuals or countries (Dwyer). Media consolidation can decrease media diversity, and increase the hierarchical divide between different socioeconomic classes’ access and adoption of new technology.

The debate over net neutrality is central to concerns about the economic convergence of entertainment corporations. Net neutrality involves the move by governments to place regulations on the owners of telecommunications networks that provide internet access in order to ensure equal access to users (Gilfoy). Digital monopolies maybe one way for entertainment corporations to ensure profitability and market stability; however, it also allows private entities to become powerful communication gatekeepers. In an society driven by information, this would allow entertainment corporations considerable influence over the dissemination of political information and the behavior of voters, perhaps giving the media oligarchy more power than the government. Furthermore, it is questionable whether increased media consolidation is a sustainable option for the long-term competitive growth of the entertainment industry. Although, innovative startup companies would have trouble competing domestically, other countries with stricter net neutrality regulations and fewer barriers of entry would drive new technological and economic growth that could threaten our entertainment industry.

Fortunately, there are alternative economic models for the entertainment industry to explore. For example, media companies can focus on catering to consumer demands for personalization, and broad, integrated, instant access. In this model proposed by David Marshall in New Media as Transformed Media Industry, rather than monetizing media access as a gatekeeper, consumer interactivity is monetized (Holt). Marshall proposes that a new business model based on interactivity would enable user creativity by creating expansive, inclusive cyber systems, increasing productivity by intelligently anticipating users’ desires, and facilitating collaborative innovation via online socialization. Current examples of such systems include online gaming, YouTube and Google Adsense; however the full potential of monetized interactivity has yet to truly be tapped. Such an economic system could prove particularly viable for the entertainment industry, which already produces engaging content and is poised to enhance interactivity with the expansion of transmedia storytelling. Thus the entertainment industry can profit from convergence without risking stagnation or degrading the sociopolitical integrity of our citizens and country.

Cultural Convergence
The third vantage point for analyzing convergence is cultural convergence. Previously cited, Henry Jenkins’ definition of convergence alludes to the tremendous impact convergence is having on our sociocultural landscape. Expanding upon Pierre Levy’s theory of collective intelligence, Jenkins argues that in a society driven by information knowledge culture gains value over commodity culture (submitted for publication). The development of internet subcultures, digitalized niche markets like LOLCats, steampunks, Anonymous, and Occupy Wall Street, support the theory that the dawn of collective intelligence is nigh. According to Levy and Jenkins, this new system of thought offers “four potential sources of power: nomadic mobility, control over territory, ownership over commodities and mastery over knowledge” (2006, p35). Previously passive users can harness these new forms of power to blur traditional boundaries, actively spreading media content or even using digital tools to become content creators. Such developments create a new civil contract, where individuals enact citizenship through contributing knowledge and participating in the collective, public sphere.

In particular, the rapid switch to mobile computing has destabilized communication, creating cognitive disconnects that allow for revolutionary new applications (Nercissians). Early initiatives to bridge the digital divide by introducing wired, desktop computers to low-income, urban school districts failed. However, the internet has finally found penetration into these environments thanks to the affordability and portability to new mobile phone technology. This is an example of how mobility can transcend boundaries, fusing computing with the fluidity of postmodern culture, what Levy and Nercissians refer to as a resurgence in the nomadic nature of our society. The continued development of collective intelligence can empower an emergent discourse, a new sociocultural milieu that utilizes increased context awareness to recontextualized mass media and create new technologies with social and emotional intelligence (Nercissians). In essence, collective intelligence has the potential power to change the orientation of our society and culture, including the creation of media content and the structure of the entertainment industry. Such forces could change the design of new technology, making it more organically integrated and less stressful to use. It could further blur the lines between media consumers and media producers, and it could level the digital divide.

Such a tumultuous market environment, which cedes control to individual users, can be a daunting prospect for entertainment corporations. However, such a future does not preclude the possibility of a profitable entertainment industry. Innovative and active mass media corporations will be able to transition to new cultural roles. As users increasingly take on the role of media curation and story production, entertainment corporations can become responsible for facilitating transmedia dissemination, further integration of mobile technology, and fostering social interactivity. However, an industry based on this new structure of mediated cultural development will require the reduction or elimination of barriers to entry, since innovation and creativity will be valuable forms of knowledge. Consequently, net neutrality whether institutionalized via social convention or government intervention will be essential.

To Infinity And Beyond
We are currently experiencing an era of broad and exponential media convergence that impacts technology, economy, and culture. Media is becoming more mobile, interactive, and collective. Although this poses challenges to the traditional structure of the entertainment industry, these changes also present exciting new opportunities. Rather than passive media consumers, individuals can now become nomadic, digital citizens, who actively participate in the creation of new media, and direct the spread of cultural artifacts. If entertainment corporations can adapt to this restructuring, rather than attempting to leverage oligarchical power against it, they can develop more sustainable business models with innovative forms of revenue.

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