Convergence Culture; on fans, creators, and the possibilities of fandoms

A news report on a viral tweet, the Pokemon franchise expanding into animation, playing cards, and apps, making a fanzine about something you’re obsessed with — these things might look random, but there’s a common theme. These phenomena are examples of convergence culture.  

“Ready or not, we are already living within a convergence culture.” This is the opening line of the translated version of the leading book on fandom theory, Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide, published last month through Shobunsha. What is convergence culture? The author, Henry Jenkins, lays out the three criteria:  

“… the flow of content across multiple media platforms, the cooperation between multiple media industries, and the migratory behavior of media audiences who will go almost anywhere in search of the kinds of entertainment experiences they want.” (Jenkins, 2006, p. 2) 

This term encompasses a wide range of things, from #MeToo, fanfiction, Wikipedia, fans visiting real-life locations from fiction, all the way to the Capitol riot. Convergence Culture is significant because it transformed how the media industry operates (chiefly old media like TV and newspapers). It also changed how consumers interact with media itself. Consumers are no longer passive because they react and respond to those creating media in a myriad of ways. Thanks to this convergence, the power dynamics at play have become much more complex.  

How, then, did the relationship between creators and fans change? What are the possibilities of fandoms? What is its dark side? We sat down and spoke to Kohki Watabe, Sae Kitamura, and Yasuhito Abe, who have shared the experience of taking Jenkins’s class and translating his book into Japanese as one team. 

A history of convergence culture in Japan? 

——What sort of scholar is Henry Jenkins? 

Kohki Watabe (Watabe): He’s a towering figure in fan studies. His most-read book is probably Convergence Culture, but he established himself as an authority on the subject when he published Textual Poachers: Television Fans & Participatory Culture in 1992.  

Yasuhito Abe (Abe): There’s no doubt about it. Even in Japan, people often cited Textual Poachers from the mid-90s onwards.  

Sae Kitamura (Kitamura): I believe he’s the most positive-minded scholar in the field of fan studies. He writes about fun, exciting things.  

——In his book, Jenkins writes that Pokemon and Yu-Gi-Oh! are trailblazing examples of convergence culture.  

Watabe: He must’ve heard about those from Japanese researchers he knew. However, the phenomenon of convergence exists even without technology. Fan culture is everywhere in Japan. People were already making literary fanzines during the Meiji era. Sci-fi communities were making fanzines after the war. If we consider everyday people partaking in fan culture as convergence in popular media, then Kadokawa Shoten’s multimedia franchise from the 90s onwards is convergence in corporations.  

——What are some examples of bottom-up, grassroots convergence in recent years?  

Kitamura: Hashtag activism is one example. There was an initiative to improve National Theatre Live, a project to show theatrical productions in English-speaking countries in Japanese movie theaters. At the time, the quality of the subtitles was awful. Fans spoke out against it on platforms like Twitter, being like, “The subtitles are wrong.” As a result, they fixed the issue. Also, whenever an adaptation of a book or a film geared towards women is showing in Japan, they’re given weird titles most of the time. 

——Suffragette was translated to “Mirai o Hanataba ni Shite,” which means something along the lines of “turn the future into a bouquet.” People tend to attach the word, future, to films in this vein.  

Kitamura: There have been times where film buffs protested against that sort of thing by using hashtags. For instance, the Japanese title of Hidden Figures changed quite dramatically. (Note: At the time, “Watashitachi no Apollo Keikaku,” which translates to “Our Project Apollo,” was part of the title. However, the film doesn’t depict Project Apollo; it depicts Project Mercury). In English-speaking countries, it’s more aggressive. Fans said the 3D model of Sonic the Hedgehog was weird, and Sonic the Hedgehog changed a lot because of that. 

The influence of fans’ opinions  

——Are there any examples of fans’ voices influencing those who create media, as well as the content itself?  

Watabe: In terms of Japan, pixiv users protesting against Chaos*Lounge is a classic example. The contemporary art group used artworks created by pixiv users without their permission; they used them in their collage, wet them with water, and so forth. Chaos*Lounge even printed pixiv users’ works on their products without permission and sold them for profit. To fight back, people started to use Chaos*Lounge’s art within pixiv under the hashtag, “Gendai art” (contemporary art). Meaning, they subverted Chaos*Lounge’s reasoning behind referencing other people’s work for the sake of contemporary art. The capitalistic logic of contemporary art and the gift economy of the fandom clashed against each other.  

Kitamura: The phenomenon of fans complaining to writers goes back to the 18th century when the novel format was born. Writers usually write with a vision from the start, so many writers don’t listen to their readers. But it’s a negotiation. Indeed, some writers have incorporated their readers’ opinions into their work and changed it a bit. The most famous case of this is Sherlock Holmes. In English-speaking countries, fandoms demanding something from authors have taken root since then. Like, “I want this dead character to come back to life.” From long ago, the opinions of fans have either helped creators or harmed them. I think it’s an ambiguous thing. People have speculated that the new Star Wars trilogy has gone downhill because of the fans, as an example.

Abe: Because the way information circulates has changed thanks to social media and others, fans’ opinions have become more visible and accessible to creators. Recently, apps like Clubhouse, which doesn’t leave a trace, have entered the market. People talk about deep things they usually wouldn’t want other people to hear. Now that apps that don’t save data and allow users to open up in a safe space are popping up, creaters might become even more porcher-like. 

——To listen to the fans’ true thoughts.  

Abe: You can observe what fans think on platforms like Twitter all you want. But some are reluctant to leave their footprints online; those people might have even more intriguing and beneficial insights.  

Unless the creator is competent, the fan won’t be either. 

——I’d like to know about the connection between fans and critical ananlyses. People tend to say, “Fans don’t like critical analyses,” but don’t fans make critical analyses at times? 

Kitamura: It’s incredibly tough to say whether there’s a difference between critical analyses and what fans write. But I think it’s not good for fans to act as though they’re not writing things that criticize a specific creator. There are a lot of people who do make critical analyses. By thinking, “What we’re doing isn’t critical analyses,” they’re ignoring the structure of the creative industry. Perhaps fans should say, “We’re critiquing,” proudly. Short compliments have become the norm on social media, and it’s a problem because people can’t write anything negative out of fear of getting attacked by other fans. 

——Is it possible for fanfiction to become a work of criticism? 

Kitamura: People have made critical analyses through derivative works from long ago. Many people have done it for so long, including adaptations of Shakespeare’s work. There are different kinds of derivative works, and some are better than others, but changing something because you’re unsatisfied with the original story or imagining and writing aspects and elements that weren’t in the original story are both forms of criticism.  

——You mentioned the new Star Wars trilogybut what does a healthy relationship between creators and fans look like? I assume it’s ideal for it to lead to a good, finished product. 

Kitamura: I feel like if the creator isn’t competent, then the fan won’t be either. For example, Spike Lee acts like he doesn’t listen to what other people say, but he actually reads criticisms and reflects them into his work. Auteurs at his level become better and better at responding to criticism. Maintaining a state of fans and creators challenging one another is ideal.  

Watabe: Of course, creators need to be mentally and emotionally strong, and I agree with Kiramura-san. However, it’s so difficult- I’m impressed by how Spike Lee can read critiques of his work. I mean, I can’t even look up [our translation of Convergence Culture] because I’m scared people might be saying something like, “The translation of Convergence Culture is so bad” (laughs). It’s not uncommon for fans to fall into “the dark side of the force.” For example, I wouldn’t  call someone who buys enormous amounts of CDs that come with meet-and-greet tickets so they could shake hands with their favorite idols for longer time, a good fan. But I understand that feeling of getting sucked into the dark side.  

In search of “good” fans 

——What makes one a good fan or a good consumer? How can one prevent oneself from slipping into the dark side?  

Abe: For creators and fans to have smooth communication, fans must have good communication among themselves. I think one requirement — and this is something Jenkins writes about too — is for older fans to act as mentors and welcome in new fans, instead of trying to one-up them with their knowledge like, “You don’t know this?” That sort of communication is vital because it brings the fandom to life and could be one condition for making the communication between creators and fans run smoothly.  

Watabe: Knowing your own desires is one qualification of being a good consumer and fan. You can be a fan of anything. The reason some people end up one-upping others is that they don’t understand their desire. If something moves you, and you’re projecting your desires onto it, then you should lean into that. If you don’t know what you want, you’ll easily be swayed by advertisements. The same could be said about consumers too.

——How could we discover what we want and immerse ourselves in that? 

Watabe: Be active as a fan! Fandoms are learning environments, in a sense. In his book, Jenkins introduces the Harry Potter fandom, where experienced writers teach newer ones how to write fanfiction. I believe that’s one medium to teach one another about what each person wants.  

Kitamura: I teach at university, and “To nurture a good citizen, a good spectator, and a good consumer” has always been my educational principle. A good citizen is someone who can judge what sort of politics they should endorse and whether that’s right in their view. A good spectator is someone who can appreciate and think about the value of art objectively. A good consumer is someone who can consume intelligently and ethically. The problem is how these three factors don’t necessarily balance each other out. If you try to become a good spectator, you could become a bad consumer, and the opposite can occur too. One example is whether you should pay money to consume something that’s artistically brilliant but created in a workplace with harassment. Having a balance [between the three principles] is hard, but the key is to think and decide on your own according to the situation.  

Watabe: I assume what Kitamura-san is saying is that she wants to create thought patterns that don’t separate the categories of lifestyle, pleasure, and politics. I deeply understand how that’s necessary to make society better. Here’s an example. AKB’s general election (a yearly event where fans vote for their favorite idol member from the respective idol group) was symbolically problematic, and the event got reduced to fans driving their favorite to the top by buying election tickets. I won’t reject it as a business. But if we accept its practice, then I feel like politics would fundamentally succumb to consumerism. It’s impossible to revive politics as it once was, even if we were to distinguish [pop culture from politics]. We can’t pretend like the fuse of politics and pop culture never happened. If anything, doesn’t it need to be torn down from the inside? That’s what was on my mind as I translated Convergence Culture.

Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide by Henry Jenkins (translated by Kohki Watabe, Sae Kitamura, and Yasuhito Abe) is out now through Shobunsha. 

Kohki Watabe
Kohki Watabe is an assistant professor at the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences at Tsukuba University and a visiting assistant Professor at Egypt-Japan University of Science and Technology. He has a black belt in kendo, naginata, and Shingyōtō-ryū (LA dojo). He theorizes on the fandom of martial art communities. 

Sae Kitamura
Sae Kitamura is an associate professor at the Department of British and American Studies, Faculty of Humanities, Musashi University. She is the author of The Women who Enjoyed Shakespeare’s Plays: Modern Theatre and Reading (Hakusuisha, 2018), Sugar, Spice, and Something Explosive: An Introduction to Feminist Literary Criticism by a Frivolous Critic (Kankanbou, 2019), and more. She is a Shakespearean and self-proclaimed Jedi.  

Yasuhito Abe
Yasuhito Abe is a lecturer of the Department of Global Media, Faculty of Global Media Studies, at Komazawa University. His recommended games are Nobunaga’s Ambition Series, Ace Attorney Series, and Dragon Quest Series.  

Photography Kikuko Usuyama
Translation Lena Grace Suda

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Sogo Hiraiwa

Born in 1990, Sogo Hiraiwa worked in the editorial department of i-D Japan before going independent. As a freelance editor/writer, he contributes to literary, cultural, and fashion magazines, and plans and edits books, including Octavia E. Butler's "Bloodchild and Other Stories" (translated by Hikaru Fujii, Kawade Shobo Shinsha). His translation works include "Dialogue" (Virgil Abloh, Adachi Press). Twitter:@sogohiraiwa