Farmers or Poachers? Info Behaviour in a Postdigital Age

Henry Jenkins is often quoted for this line (or some variation of it) in a 2003 article in MIT Technology Review, entitled “Transmedia Storytelling”:

The kids who have grown up consuming and enjoying Pokemon across media are going to expect this same kind of experience from The West Wing as they get older. By design, Pokemon unfolds across games, television programs, films, and books, with no media privileged over any other. For our generation, the hour-long, ensemble-based, serialized drama was the pinnacle of sophisticated storytelling, but for the next generation, it is going to seem, well, like less than child’s play. Younger consumers have become information hunters and gatherers, taking pleasure in tracking down character backgrounds and plot points and making connections between different texts within the same franchise. And in addition, all evidence suggests that computers don’t cancel out other media; instead, computer owners consume on average significantly more television, movies, CDs, and related media than the general population.

The analogy of fans as information hunter/gatherers is one that Jenkins has been making since Textual Poachers (1992). As an information scientist, I can’t help but think about how the analogy applies not just to the participatory practices and engagement of fans, but to all people, young and old, navigating an increasingly networked world.

The kids Jenkins was talking about in 2003 are kids no longer; many have teenage kids of their own that have never known a world without the internet, social media and network technologies. The information landscape has evolved in ways that only further the integration and convergence of media. Speaking as representative of the generation in question, in the early ’00s we expected narrative extensions thanks to the carefully designed and marketed story worlds of our youth like Pokemon, Star Wars and Star Trek. The network integration of our life experiences promised by the internet was still mostly speculative then, and seeking out extensions required some labour. Our mediated forays as textual poachers were consciously undertaken. Engagement with both the narrative extensions we craved and the communities and technologies that hosted them was not achieved without some planning or forethought. Today, we expect those extensions to be seamlessly integrated in our digitally mediated experience of the world. Encounters with new extensions and opportunities to participate in the culture of fandom happen as a matter of course. The challenge is no longer accessing transmedia extensions, but parsing the perpetually auto-generating volume of content that exists around any given property.

Are we still hunter/gatherers, or have our information behaviours also evolved? To extend the analogy, have we perhaps developed from nomads, seeking out information in an environment of scarcity, into sedentary farmers cultivating vast fields of information, learning how to separate the wheat from the chaff?