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Spreadable Media: Creating Meaning and Value in a Networked Culture

What is "spreadable media"? Find out for yourself at the Futures of Entertainment conference. Or just read this blog post.

Spreadable Media: Creating Meaning and Value in a Networked Culture, the new book by Henry Jenkins, Sam Ford, and Joshua Green, will appear from New York University Press in Fall 2012. The core concept of "spreadable media" will be a central topic of discussion at this year's Futures of Entertainment conference to be held at MIT on November 11-12, 2011. Futures of Entertainment is an event where top thinkers from academia, industry, policy, and journalism gather to talk about cutting edge issues which will impact what happens next in arts and entertainment. Here's where you can go to register for this year's event. The following is an excerpt from their upcoming book.

I hereby give Sita Sings the Blues to you. [ . . . ] Please distribute, copy, share, archive, and show Sita Sings the Blues. From the shared culture it came, and back into the shared culture it goes. Conventional wisdom urges me to demand payment for every use of the film, but then how would people without money get to see it? How widely would the film be disseminated if it were limited by permission and fees? Control offers a false sense of security. The only real security I have is trusting you, trusting culture, and trusting freedom.     —Nina Paley (2009)


For me—for pretty much every writer—the big problem isn’t piracy, it’s obscurity (thanks to Tim O’Reilly for this great aphorism). Of all the people who failed to buy this book today, the majority did so because they never heard of it, not because someone gave them a free copy [ . . . ] I’m more interested in getting more of that wider audience into the tent than making sure that everyone who’s in the tent bought a ticket to be there.     —Cory Doctorow (2009)

Animator Nina Paley and science fiction writer Cory Doctorow are two of a growing number of independent artists rethinking and reinventing the process through which their texts enter circulation. Both offer their art to fans as “gifts,” hoping the community will support their efforts. While they differ on the best models, both artists are strong backers of the concept of a “creative commons,” and both want to escape what they see as constricting copyright regimes. Such “gifts” do not represent “free content.” This sort of gift-giving frequently implies some form of reciprocity, and that is openly acknowledged in both these cases. But these artists’ willingness to sacrifice some control over their works’ circulation helps it to spread.

Spreadable media is a theory of circulation. Distribution historically refered to a top down, industry controlled system which sought to control the movement of media content across the culture. Independent media makers have often been locked out of the most established systems of distribution by powerful gatekeepers who have worked to protect the interests of mainstream media. Circulation, on the other hand, refers to an emerging hybrid model, where a mix of top-down and bottom-up forces determine how material is shared across and among cultures in far more participatory (and messier) ways. Collective decisions people make about whether to pass along media texts are reshaping the media landscape. A system of circulation offers far more opportunities for independent media makers to enter the consciousness of their desired publics, to court relationships with fans and followers, and to engage with audiences beyond their national borders.

Under a broadcast paradigm, distribution is almost inseparable from promotion: both mechanisms ensure a commercially produced product grabs the attention of the most broadly defined audience possible. By contrast, the circulation of independent films, games, music, and comics typically demands participatory mechanisms to compensate for the lack of promotional budget. Their communication strategies often court niche and subcultural communities imagined to have a strong affinity with their genre or message, and the creators hope these supporters will promote the work to like-minded others.

Spreadability is a theory of grassroots circulation, so is viral media. That's where the resemblance between the two ends. Many in the media industries pray their messages will “go viral” because they are no longer certain broadcast messages will find their desired audiences, but they still want to create messages to attract a mass audience. Those using the term are asking the right questions about shifts in how and why content circulates, but they may have accepted an inadequate answer, one which amounts to a smallpox-infected blanket theory of media distribution. Viral metaphors capture the speed with which new ideas circulate through the Internet, passed on by the variety of tools that have lowered the costs of publishing. The top-down hierarchies of the broadcast era now coexist with a diverse network of platforms offering grassroots participation. As marketers and media companies struggle to make sense of this transformed media landscape, the idea that media content might disseminate like a pandemic—spreading through audiences by infecting person after person who comes into contact with it—has emerged as a popular cultural logic. Even if the media industries must accept the shift from an era where people congregate around media texts to one where audiences do the circulating, they hope to preserve creator control. The promise is simple, if deceptive: create a media virus, and success will be yours.

Our use of “spreadable media” avoids the metaphors of “infection” and “contamination,” which overestimate the power of media companies and underestimate the agency of audiences. In this emerging model, audiences play an active role “spreading” content rather than serving as passive carriers of viral media: their choices, investments, agendas, and actions determine what gets valued. Spreadability describes the potential to move content easily from site to site, sometimes with the permission of rights holders, sometimes against their wishes. If media makers set out thinking they will make media texts that do something to audiences (infect them) rather than for audiences to do something with (spread it), they may delude themselves into thinking they control people. From the media makers' point of view, spreadability means giving up some control over the flow of your content in order to build stronger social ties with those communities who are most interested in what you create.

Doctorow publishes his books (such as his 2003 Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom and his 2008 Little Brother) through commercial publishers, yet he has gained greater visibility by allowing fans to download his books for free and to remix and recirculate the content in ways that spark discussions. Paley sells DVDs of her 2008 animated feature, Sita Sings the Blues, through her own website, where she also sells themed merchandise, including soundtracks and T-shirts. However, much of the buzz has come from people sharing links to the film online. Some subset of those who watch the film for free ultimately pay to own, and many purchase DVDs to show their respect and support for the artist. When Paley does sell copies of her DVDs, she collects 50 percent of the proceeds because she does not split her revenue with an outside distributor. She donates the other 50 percent to, making a statement for the value of unlimited access to cultural materials. Paley estimates as of November 2010 that she has netted $119,708 through various forms of “gifts” from her fans, while making only $12,551 through theatrical and broadcast distribution. Doctorow’s Creative Commons license prohibits commercial and nonprofit appropriation and remixing of his book, while Paley allows her audience members to profit from their own commercial sales of her DVDs but stresses that they must pay a portion of revenue to certain music rights holders.

Paley rejects an either/or argument which sees the choice to “go digital” as opting out of commercial distribution altogether:


When I decided to give it away free online, what finally made me realize this was viable was when I realized that this didn’t mean it wouldn’t be seen on the big screen, that the internet is not a replacement for a theater. It’s a complement. Many people will see it online and go, “Wow, I wish I could see this on the big screen!” And so they can, and some people like to see it more than once. Another thing is, you see it online, and that increases the demand for the DVDs. So it’s the opposite of what the record and movie industries say. Actually, the more shared something is, the more demand there is for it.

Similarly, Doctorow has found his sales have increased because of the decision to share digital versions of his books online. More people discover his work and, if they value what he wrote, they often want to add it to their personal libraries. As he explains:


E-books on computers are more likely to be an enticement to buy the printed book (which is, after all, cheap, easily had, and easy to use) than a substitute for it. You can probably read just enough of the book off the screen to realize you want to be reading it on paper. So e-books sell print books. Every writer I’ve heard of who’s tried giving away e-books to promote paper books has come back to do it again.

In both cases, fans engage with the content, and a portion later decide to purchase it.

Paley refers to older forms of distribution as “coercion and extortion” because audience members are forced to pay, whether they value the experience or not. She, on the other hand, trusts her audiences will pay for what they value. Her distribution practices are often compared with English alternative rock band Radiohead’s decision to let their fans pay whatever they wanted for the digital download release of their 2007 album In Rainbows. While Radiohead still relied on centralized processes of distribution, however, Paley (2009) has embraced a much more decentralized approach:

My personal experience confirms audiences are generous and want to support artists. Surely there’s a way for this to happen without centrally controlling every transaction [ . . . ] The audience, you and the rest of the world is actually the distributor of the film. So I’m not maintaining a server or host or anything like that. Everyone else is. We put it on, a fabulous website, and encourage people to BitTorrent it and share it.

Doctorow showcases grassroots transformations others create using his material via his blog—everything from amateur films re-enacting scenes from his novels or fan-created theatrical adaptations to translations of his texts into foreign languages.

Writing for Locus, a trade publication for science fiction writers, Cory Doctorow challenges established assumptions surrounding the need for maintaining tight control over intellectual property. He suggests such norms are “hard-wired” into us as mammals:

Mammals invest a lot of energy in keeping track of the disposition of each we spawn. It’s only natural, of course: we invest so much energy and so many resources in our offspring that it would be a shocking waste if they were to wander away and fall off the balcony or flush themselves down the garbage disposal. [ . . . ]It follows naturally that we invest a lot of importance in the individual disposition of every copy of our artistic works as well, wringing our hands over “not for resale” advance review copies that show up on Amazon and tugging our beards at the thought of Google making a scan of our books in order to index them for searchers.

Such attitudes may emerge “naturally” from our mammalian predispositions, but Doctorow notes they are not the only ways we can understand our creative output. We might re-imagine our current intellectual property regimes as they might operate in a world dominated by dandelions. The dandelion is playing a law of averages, with each plant producing more than 2,000 seeds per year and sending them blowing off into the wind. The results are hard to deny when we see the number of dandelions sprinkling the U.S. landscape each spring.

Doctorow draws parallels between this dispersal of seeds and the ways that artists increasingly tap into grassroots systems of circulation in order to reach desired audiences:


If you blow your works into the net like a dandelion clock on the breeze, the net will take care of the copying costs. Your fans will paste-bomb your works into their mailing list, making 60,000 copies so fast and so cheaply that figuring out how much it cost in aggregate to make all those copies would be orders of magnitude more expensive than the copies themselves. What’s more, the winds of the Internet will toss your works to every corner of the globe, seeking out every fertile home that they may have—given enough time and the right work, your stuff could someday finds its way over the transom of every reader who would find it good and pleasing.

Doctorow’s own example as an author demonstrates how a dandelion-style strategy may help an obscure writer gain greater visibility and thus build a readership over time.

Doctorow offers an account of circulation that fits nicely with the themes of our book, one where value and meaning gets created as grassroots communities tap into creative products as resources for their own conversations and spread them to others who share their interests. As institutions constructed by and for mammals, media companies, educational institutions, newspapers, and political campaigns fear this potential loss of control over their intellectual offspring. The result has been, on the one hand, the development of “enclaves” and “monopolies” which tighten the distribution of their content and, on the other, a tendency to see grassroots acts of circulation as random, unpredictable, even irrational.

But nothing seems to be stopping the dandelion seeds from flowing beyond their “walled gardens.” As people pursue their own agendas in sharing and discussing media content, they are helping to spread the seeds—transforming commodities into gifts, turning texts into resources, and asserting their own expanding communication capacities.

The contemporary focus on the “viral” nature of circulation expresses media companies’ and brands’ utter terror of the unknown cultural processes now influencing all aspects of the media and entertainment industries. To manage that terror, they have often professed a mastery over an arcane science which allows them to produce “viral content.” Instead, these producers are increasingly dependent upon networked communities to circulate, curate, and appraise their output. Perhaps we might understand content creators as mammals occasionally pretending to be dandelions but then reverting often back to their true natures, like the fable of the scorpion who cannot resist stinging the frog carrying him halfway across their journey across the river. If it doesn’t spread, it’s dead; true enough. But sometimes producers would rather die than give up control.

Of course, we need to be cautious about displacing one biological metaphor with another. However useful Doctorow’s analogy may be, it is a metaphor, not a system by which we propose to make sense of spreadable media. The choices over how we deal with intellectual property are ultimately cultural, political, and economic—not biologically hardwired.

Audience members are using the media texts at their disposal to forge connections with each other, to mediate social relations and make meaning of the world around them. Both individually and collectively, they exert agency in the spreadability model. They are not impregnated with media messages; rather, they select material that matters to them from the much broader array of media content on offer (which now includes audience creations alongside industrially produced works). They do not simply pass along static texts; they transform the material through active production processes or through their own critiques and commentary, so that it better serves their own social and expressive needs. Content—in whole or through quotes—does not remain in fixed borders but rather circulates in unpredicted and often unpredictable directions, not the product of top-down design but rather the result of a multitude of local decisions made by autonomous agents negotiating their way through diverse cultural spaces.

So-called “consumers” do not simply consume; they recommend what they like to their friends who recommend it to their friends who recommend it on down the line. They do not simply “buy” cultural goods; they “buy into” a cultural economy which rewards their participation. And, in such an environment, any party can block or slow the spread of texts: if creators construct legal or technical blocks, if third-party platform owners choose to restrict the ways in which material can circulate, or if audiences refuse to circulate content which fails to serve their own interests.

Spreadability does not offer a panacea for independent media makers, however. Distribution by a major studio still matters for many independently produced films, for instance, and only a small number are picked up each year beyond the film festival circuit. Without the promotional budgets and platforms of big media companies and amidst the competition from other independent content producers, independent creators still face an uphill struggle to find audiences for their works. Many of those speaking at Seize the Power, a 2010 workshop for independent filmmakers at the Los Angeles Film Festival, concluded that these alternative practices do not fully compensate for their lack of access to the massive rollout of advertising surrounding a studio-backed release.

Spreadability can help transform this system, however. Many more films now get circulated through mechanisms that rely heavily on the support of their most enthusiastic fans. As a consequence, spreadability is actively expanding cultural diversity because a broader range of media makers have access to potential audiences and a greater number of people have access to works which might otherwise have been available only in major urban areas.


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