The Poachers and the Stormtroopers: Cultural Convergence in the Digital Age

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Academic Commentary
Title: The Poachers and the Stormtroopers: Cultural Convergence in the Digital Age
Commentator: Henry Jenkins
Date(s): Spring 1998
Medium: speech, transcription of speech
Fandom: multifandom
External Links: The Poachers and the Stormtroopers: Cultural Convergence in the Digital Age
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The Poachers and the Stormtroopers: Cultural Convergence in the Digital Age is a 1998 speech by Henry Jenkins.

The transcript was posted online shortly afterwards.

H. Jenkins is a well-known academic defender of fanfiction, and this is a talk he presented at the University of Michigan in 1998. He uses anecdotal evidence to excellent effect, and makes very persuasive arguments in support of fandom. [1]

Some Topics Discussed

  • Kevin Rubio's 10-minute, $1,200 fan film called Troops. The film, which was posted to the internet, spoofed "Star Wars by offering a Cops-like profile of the stormtroopers who do the day-in, day-out work of policing Tatoone [sic], settling domestic disputes, rounding up space hustlers, and trying to crush the Jedi Knights."
  • how "Troops" captured the enthusiastic interest of George Lucas, and this has led to job offers, one from Dreamworks; the speech compares the interest and public approval of "Troops" to a proposal for a new Star Wars Usenet community to post and discuss Star Wars fanfiction [2]
  • Jenkin's term "cultural convergence" -- "Sociologists are starting to refer to the "N Generation," the "Net Generation," or "Gen.Com", children who have come of age in relation to interactive technologies and digital media and who operate under the rather bold assumption that they can be active participants shaping, creating, critiquing and circulating popular culture. "Cultural convergence" describes new ways audiences are relating to media content, their increased skills at reading across different media and their desires for a more participatory and complex media culture."
  • how the internet has made it easier for fans to find each other, levels the playing field of production and imagination
  • Jenkins mentions publishing "my first work on fans as 'textual poachers' (while this is clearly related to the book Textual Poachers, Jenkins is referring to something published in 1988, perhaps his thesis, a chapter in a book, a journal submission?)
  • Jenkins describes some topics in Textual Poachers
  • the impact of VCRs on popular culture
  • the rise of more complicated television, story arcs
  • the downsides and exploitation of Chris Carter's and J. Michael Straczynski's online engagement with fans
  • "We are on a collision course between technologies that encourage collaboration and full participation in cultural production and economic and legal structures which are pushing to further privatize our culture."
  • "Those of us -- as citizens and academics -- who want to believe that the net has a transformative potential in our culture, society, and politics, should be lending our voices to the fans who are on the front lines exploring how this media will be used in relations to the entrenched power of the culture industries."
  • while Jenkins does not address it here, one topic is that of gender and power; "professional fan boy" productions garner more acceptance and attention than the "scribblings" of women

Some Excerpts

Last fall, the usenet discussion group devoted to Star Wars felt they ought to respond to increased traffic sparked by the re-release of the films and create a separate newsgroup where fans could post and critique original fiction set in the Star Wars universe. Such stories often involve rereading the Star Wars saga from the point of view of Darth Vadir [sic], the Emperor, the Stormtroopers, and the other imperial forces. In a rare action, the Usenet hierarchy vetoed the plan, not even allowing it to be presented for a formal vote, claiming that it promoted "illegal activities," i.e. that it encouraged the violation of Lucasfilm's copyright interests in the characters. Interestingly, the same group the official gatekeepers of the internet had previously failed to stop the creation of discussion groups devoted to the circulation of child pornography, information about making terrorist weapons, or the exchange of illegal drugs. Many believe that they made this decision based on a series of cease and desist letters issued by Lucasfilm attorneys aimed at shutting down fan-related Star Wars websites or blocking the circulation of fan fiction about the films. Through the years, Lucasfilm has been one of the most aggressive corporate groups in trying to halt fan cultural production.
Let's consider how they differ. From a classical legal standpoint, Troops would seem to pose a greater direct threat to Lucasfilm's interests. It has high production values, which could easily be confused with official Star Wars materials. It is produced by a professional who seeks entry into the entertainment industry who wants, in short, to profit from his appropriation of Lucasfilm's intellectual property. The Star Wars fan fiction, on the other hand, is clearly of an amateur quality and is explicitly marked as such. Its circulation on the net does not require money to exchange hands and offers little chance for fans to directly or indirectly profit from their cultural output. Lucasfilm's official rationale for shutting down the fan sites, after all, is that if they turn a blind eye to fan's non-profit appropriations, they will loose some of their ability to control the production and circulation of unauthorized commercially-produced materials which attempt to capitalize on Star Wars.

As corporations are learning to exploit more fully the properties associated with cultural convergence, they are starting to profit from audience interests in the potential for archiving, retrieving, transforming and rewriting materials of popular culture. The entertainment industry is shifting from exploiting the grassroots fan culture by putting Star Wars logos on everything to exploiting it by generating products that operate more fully within a fan aesthetic and more systematically reward the community's cultural competencies. The presence of the VCR, for example, has dramatically altered the ways that many viewers relate to television content, freeing producers to construct longer and more elaborate story arcs which depend upon a much stronger sense of program history. When Hill Street Blues first introduced the idea of a more serialized form of prime time drama, there was general concern that this format would confuse and alienate viewers. Yet, Hill Street Blues quickly became the most taped program on American television at the moment that the VCR was making its initial impact in the marketplace. A symbiotic relationship has subsequently emerged between the VCR and such series as Twin Peaks, The X Files, E.R. or Babylon 5, which seek to exploit the potentials of television narrative for unfolding over time in a more novelistic fashion.

The internet has become an important player in this relationship, generating website program guides which fill in gaps in any given viewer's knowledge, and allowing for collective, expert annotation of the episodes as they air. Media producers, such as Babylon 5's J. Michael Strazinski [sic] and X Files' Chris Carter, go on line, engage with fans about their ongoing series, and help to clarify points of confusion about program mythology. However, in doing so, their presence also serves to police what can and can not be said within the fan community, since the producers are told by their lawyers they will have to leave the lists if they receive to many fan speculations about the future directions of the series. Such speculations could be confused for script suggestions and pose subsequent issues of plagiarism. Yet such speculations form the building blocks for the fan cultural creation. "JMS" is trading access to the author in return for the right to purge their own subcultural traditions. This case suggests the degree to which intellectual property law has distorted the relationship between authors and readers. Charles Dickens received countless letters from readers when he was publishing his novels as magazine serials, and evidence strongly suggests that he routinely revised his plans for the novels based on feedback from his fans.
The cultural industries are trying to spark commercial interests in interactive media, while regulating and restricting the forms of interactions people can have with their cultural materials. They want to tap into fandom as a powerful niche market, while denying fans the power to shape the popular culture being produced. I think that's what's at stake when Hollywood seeks to incorporate Troops's Kevin Rubio into its own ranks, while using its lawyers to shut down grassroots fan activities that can not be so readily assimilated. Rubio, as an employee of Dreamworks or whichever corporation ultimately secures his talents, will be a professional poacher, who can generate new forms of commercial media that reflect the popular audience's more complex and participatory engagement with popular culture. But the Star Wars fans who wanted to post their stories on the internet remain outside the clubhouse, unable to either circulate their own stories or to have their ideas incorporated into official Lucasfilm product.

References

  1. ^ Metafic
  2. ^ While Jenkins doesn't mention it, there have been many Usenet groups for other fandoms created for this purpose. Some examples alt.tv.x-files.creative (created in 1994), Alt.startrek.creative.all-ages (created in 1997) and Alt.drwho.creative (created in 1993).