Participating in the Apocalypse
Participation seems like it should be easy to describe: you do something to join in, contribute, and you’re participating. According to Jenkins, Ford, and Green in Spreadable Media, however, participation, and its relation to consumption, is becoming more and more complicated, since audiences now have the means and skills not only to ingest media but also to change, contribute, and share those entertainments they love. The authors offer a range of competing frameworks that might explain how participation might be understood in our participatory media environment: “lurking versus legitimate peripheral participation; resistance versus participation; audiences versus publics; participation versus collaboration; hearing versus listening; [and] consumers versus co-creators” (155). In order to expand on just how complicated participation has become, I’d like to consider the fandom surrounding The Walking Dead (TWD) and a couple of these most salient frameworks, since fans of this series, passionate and opinionated, might be said to exemplify a few of these rubrics quite well.
Lurking versus Legitimate Peripheral Participation
Audience members who are visible, who engage noticeably through creation and discussion, are considered to be the ones adding the most to a fandom or website; they are also considered to be a small portion of a user base or community. Traditionally, inactive members (lurkers), who make up the largest portion of the base, are viewed as not offering as much (if anything at all). This view becomes complicated when we consider that levels of engagement vary and are not an “on/off” binary; that audience members contribute to a greater or lesser degree in various parts of a community; and that even lurking contributes something, even though it’s seen as passive: “From this perspective, a ‘lurker’ provides value to people sharing commentary or producing multimedia content by expanding the audience and potentially motivating their work, while critics and curators generate value for those who are creating material and perhaps for one another” (Jenkins et al.157).
Although it’s difficult to see TWD lurkers, it is possible to detect their presence. YouTube measures views, giving us an idea about the popularity of TWD fan vids, for instance. Music videos featuring popular songs, character quotes, and show scenes are a particular favorite. Consider one titled “Darryl Dixon/Numb” that was posted in Dec. 2015: it has over 312,000 views. All of these viewers have most likely not posted vids of their own, yet viewing drives “active” members to continue to create these tributes.
Resistance versus Participation
As Jenkins et al. point out, we “are resistant to something: that is we are organized in opposition to a dominant power. We participate in something, that is, participation is organized in and through social collectivities and connectivities” (163; emphasis in original). While the push from companies and media properties to turn audiences from resistance to participation is not without benefits, we must be aware that enjoyment and collaboration are not all of what’s at stake; producers and companies are also seeking greater acceptance of a brand or show, which in turn equals bigger profits. Participation has become more than just a way to show appreciation for a show or product, in other words — it’s a tool companies can manipulate in hopes of gaining an ever-wider audiences and larger benefits: “the notion of audience ‘activity’ and ‘sovereignty’ has been absorbed into Web 2.0 business models, requiring us to develop a more refined vocabulary for thinking about the reality of power relations between companies and their audiences” (Jenkins et al. 165).
Thanks to this emphasis on being brand loyalty and a visible part of a community, some fans probably feel the pressure to invest in TWD fan gear, which will show their commitment to participating in the community. And they certainly have no dearth of options when it comes to choosing fan goods; in fact, the number of licensed and unlicensed products are staggering, from t-shirts to coffee mugs to knitting patterns. Participation, here, means buying items, which may or may not be a good thing depending on what’s inside your wallet.
Participation versus Collaboration
Of course, a company or media property’s coopting of audience efforts can also lead to other effects. Sometimes, audience members become positioned inside communities not to resist or accept, but to collaborate, in the hopes of encouraging change and redirecting the aims of the community and its “mother” company. By working from the “inside” and acting as contributing members and, in a way, decision-makers, audience-member-collaborators can drive a brand/media property’s actions into suiting their needs, which ultimately offers them more out of the experience, whether the end goal is social or personal. Do companies always welcome such collaboration? Certainly not, since audience action might run counter to overarching desires or interests; however, “networked participation also forces media companies and brands to be more responsive to their audiences” (Jenkins et al. 175), which is usually in their interests, overall. The company that listens is the one least likely to be called out on Twitter for all to see.
TWD itself has been called out many times, used in service of a range of agendas that the creators may or may not support. Consider just a few article titles: “The Model Minority in the Zombie Apocalypse: Asian-American Manhood on AMC’s The Walking Dead”; “Are We the Walking Dead? Zombie Apocalypse as Liberatory Art”; “The Walking Dead: Late Liberalism and Masculine Subjection in Apocalypse Fictions”; and “’The Walking Dead’ and the Rise of Donald Trump”. Do the creators of the show align with all viewpoints presented in these pieces? Probably not. But collaboratory audience members can take advantage of their familiarity with the show to voice their opinions on subjects that matter to them, which will ultimately influence how others, including the creators, view the work. They have made the show’s fandom a space “where participants can step outside of their fixed roles and engage in meaningful conversations, identifying shared interests, mutual desires, and collective identities” (174).
The frameworks elaborated above should not be seen as the only ways to view TWD fandom specifically or participation in general. It’s easy to place TWD fandom into almost any conception of participatory audienceship, since the number of artifacts created around it offer virtually unlimited exploration and because of its immense popularity. Bearing this in mind, then, how is it possible to choose which is the best view of participation, the one which most fully explains how audiences participate today and how they could have a stronger experience in the future? In short, none are probably better than the other, since all contribute to the success of a media property as spreadable. As Jenkins et al. write:
Through our arguments so far, we hope to have convinced readers that the spread of all forms of media relies as much (or more) on their circulation by the audience as it does on their commercial distribution, that spreadability is determined by processes of social appraisal rather than technical or creative wizardry and on the active participation of engaged audiences.” (196)
Media, and TWD, need a participating audience for their successes, and this leaves room for all types of participation, from lurking to collaborating to offering critiques. Although this means that both audiences and producers need to expand (perhaps painfully) their definition of the word, the benefits, including greater connection and enjoyment, make the growing process beneficial in the end.
Jenkins, Henry, et al. Spreadable Media: Creating Value and Meaning in a Networked Culture. New York University Press, 2013.