Sharing Big Ideas on Media and Youth Activism

Young people using social media don't deserve to be called "slacktivists," says this semester's Humanities Institute Distinguished Scholar-in-Residence, renowned media critic, Henry Jenkins.

By Barbara Melendez

      USF News

TAMPA, Fla. (Sept. 30, 2014) – While the world is in the throes of the latest communications revolution, Henry Jenkins is observing, taking notes, making connections, analyzing the big picture and drawing fascinating conclusions. A contagious passion for his subject matter infuses every word from the Provost Professor of Communication, Journalism, and Cinematic Arts, Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Southern California, who is a member of the USC Media, Activism, and Participatory Politics research group and a fixture in the Big Thinkers Series on YouTube.

Jenkins spent a week at USF as this semester’s Humanities institute Distinguished-Scholar-in Residence, providing yet another opportunity to be exposed to one of the nation’s great thinkers up close and personal.

Memorable Visits Around Campus

University of Southern California Annenberg School for Communication Professor Henry Jenkins ignited a great deal of interest in his work and left behind many positive impressions following his stint as the Humanities institute Distinguished-Scholar-in Residence the week of Sept. 22.

The students in School of Mass Communications Instructor Rick Wilber’s “Mass Communications and Society” class had read Jenkins’ famous “Dude, We’re Gonna be Jedi!” essay, about fan filmmakers, “and so he spent time talking with the students about that topic as well as discussing spreadable media and crowdsourcing and more,” she said. “He spoke to a group of more than 300 for the better part of an hour and managed to keep it entertaining and fun even as he presented material that has a lot of heft. I was hugely impressed. I was also delighted that a number of the students had thought-provoking, interesting questions for him. His visit to the class was, I think, a major success. Oh, and we all found out that when it comes to comics, he’s more of a Marvel Comics fan and a little less of a DC Comics fan. That brought a lot of knowing nods from the students.”

When Jenkins came to Associate Professor Kelli Burns mass communications class, "My students had the opportunity to read and then create transmedia campaigns inspired by Dr. Jenkins' recent book ‘Spreadable Media,’ she said. "Having Dr. Jenkins in the classroom to provide a critique of my students' work and then discuss new ways of conceptualizing brand campaigns was an invaluable culmination of this experience."

“The work of Dr. Jenkins is extremely relevant and important for students who plan to work in communications industries. As people move seamlessly among different media and continue to be bombarded with messages, communicators are challenged to attract and engage their target audience. Dr. Jenkins' work provides important lessons and examples on how to best accomplish transmedia storytelling."

Jenkins visited a doctoral course in the Literacy Studies Program in theDepartment of Teaching and Learning in the College of Education. Associate Professor Jenifer Schneider said, “Henry Jenkins' work, and guest appearance, provided a pivotal turn in the course. First, readinghis blog and several books helped the students, asfutureliteracy scholars, understand how digital media literacies work in society and how they could work in schools. Second, his thinking helped the students identify avenues for exploration within the field of literacy studies. Finally, in Henry Jenkins – the person – we witnessed an individual who is performing as a public intellectual. He shared and modeled how scholars can engage local and global communities to share information and build networks for collective intelligence.”

About his visit to her qualitative methods graduate seminar, Associate Professor Mariaelena Bartesaghi in the Department of Communication, said, “I was anxious about the visit, for it is not every day that I meet someone of his caliber, whose work showed me what good work in cultural analysis was in graduate school. But Dr. Jenkins is as humble, generous and friendly as he is brilliant. He put my class at ease, and spoke with great passion and vivacity about how he came to piece his research together, calling into play matters of ethics, crossing the boundaries between insider and outsider, and making new theory at a time when very little was understood about fan communities or even how to go about listening to their accounts." 

"The fact that he spoke from a position of true caring, bringing up dilemmatic moments in research really brought home to the students the messiness and exhilaration that goes with the fieldwork and interviewing process, and well as how to make sense of our co-produced interactional ‘data.’"

Assistant Professor Aisha Durham said, "Jenkins is inspirational in what he said was his glass half-full approach to social media activism. He cited Superman and other icons to show how millennial groups use the shared language of popular culture to influence traditional politics, such as the Dreamers on immigration and the Dream Defenders on race relations. For Jenkins, social media is a vehicle to meaningfully engage within and across diverse communities. After his talk, I am sure each one of us walked away believing we are the change agents that he described."

Assistant Professor Justin s. Brown said, “It was enlightening for my graduate students in Digital Media & Society to have Prof. Jenkins share his vision and optimism for the potential of participatory culture and spreadable media to impact political participation while also articulating the challenges we face in changing media structures and policy and furthering digital literacy.”

Barbara Melendez can be reached at 813-974-4563

Humanities Institute Director and Anthropology Professor Elizabeth Bird arranged for him to visit four mass communications classes, two classes in the Communications Department, one in the English Department and one in the College of Education which brought him into contact with students who impressed them with their knowledge of his work and their probing questions.

At the opening of his public talk before his largest audience, he arrived on stage after Bird’s introduction with words of praise for the USF students he met during the week, “I wish all of my students were as thirsty for knowledge,” and as well-prepared, he said.

Titled, “Could This Be What Democracy Looks Like: Participatory Politics, Transmedia Mobilization and the Civic Imagination,” Jenkins’ talk was a tantalizing preview of his forthcoming book, "By Any Media Necessary: Mapping Youth and Participatory Politics."

The title may be a mouthful but it captures the breadth of a subject that is unfolding all around us. For a journey into “what contemporary politics looks like,” he guided the audience in appreciating the effects and implications of young people’s use of social media all the while broadly placing the participants in the continuum of social activism. He said, in essence, that what we’re seeing is simply “politics through other means, politics through other channels,” with a new set of “communication practices.”

As a self-described “hopeful optimist,” in the face of long list of society’s ills, Jenkins pointed out that contrary to popular opinion, young people are not “slacktivists” “apathetic” or “ignorant” limiting their protests to pushing the keys and buttons on their various electronic gadgets. Rather, a great many are using “every medium necessary,” to bring about social change, “borrowing and mixing” the expression “by any means necessary,” popularized by Malcolm X in the 1960s. In fact, his research has shown, “If you’re connected online in some kind of community, it increases the likelihood that you’re going to be political and increases the likelihood you’re going to take action in the real world.”

He also took issue with the notion that there is no real risk in “digital activism,” saying that there was “political courage” in using the marriage equality symbol on Facebook, for example. Because it was an image that would be seen by all kinds of people, including people who might disagree with the users, they were taking a stance that would lead to encounters and discussions in the physical world.

Using the Occupy Movement as his point of departure, Jenkins advised his audience to look at the phenomenon in terms of what it accomplished.

“Occupy was never a mobilization,” he said. “The goal was to get Americans to think differently about income disparity. It was in a sense an attempt to shift the discursive climate. By those criteria it was successful,” noting that the shift set the tone for the presidential election.

Tracing the “iconography of democracy” from the 1930s that once worked to restore faith in the ideals of democracy, through to the present, Jenkins observed how today’s “spreadable media” is changing that imagery through popular culture. He showed how the images of superheroes like Superman and Captain America, characters from Game of Thrones, Harry Potter, Guy Fawkes, protesters dressed as zombies and even Cookie Monster are being used to dramatize political messages.

Ironically, use of the Guy Fawkes mask poses a contradiction. “These people wearing this mask feel they own the symbol,” but, as he pointed out, they are putting money into the pockets of Warner Brothers and other mass media conglomerates.

Jenkins contrasted the “culture jamming” tactics of the 60s, which sought to “break the signal and jam the signal and flow of images” with the appropriation of and attachment to symbols designed to increase circulation of media, which are the hallmark of contemporary youths’ communication strategies.

The new approach, he terms “transmedia activism,” is serving grass roots media well and is working in getting messages “out to people who might not otherwise pay attention. It’s a war for attention,” he said. “Increased communication capacity through different channels reaches a visibility and impact that’s greater than protest messages in the past would have had.”

Using examples of effective political mobilization of young people drawn from his work with the MacArthur Research Network on Youth and Participatory Politics (YPP), he showed some of the efforts of the Harry Potter Alliance, Nerdfighters, the “Dreamers,” Invisible Children, Students for Liberty, and American Muslim Youth.

Jenkins explained how the Harry Potter Alliance mixed community organizing with fandom to bring about change, redeploying “Dumbledore’s Army” against evil in the real world and how the others are getting their messages out to growing audiences through multiple platforms and making a difference – though not in all instances. In the case of the illegal immigration issue, the shift in public opinion from unfavorable to favorable for the Dream Act is largely credited to online activism, but without the desired result.

“If you’re a Dreamer, it’s not enough to change public opinion, you’ve got to get the government to act, and so far neither the executive branch nor the legislative branch has been ready to act on behalf of the cause,” Jenkins said.

In the final analysis, the new media platforms are simply resources to use as part of today’s media strategies, no more unusual than using the telephone to communicate in the not so distant past, but with the potential to reach increasing numbers of people.

A lively question and answer period concluded Jenkins’ appearance. Afterward he signed copies of his books "Spreadable Media” and “Convergence Culture,” and spoke with members of the audience at the reception which followed.

Associate Professor Mariaelena Bartesaghi, Department of Communication, observed, “He is a wonderful scholar...and a great man. I have found these qualities are never separate.”

To see Jenkins’ speech, click here or visit

Barbara Melendez can be reached at 813-974-4563