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March 3, 2008, 08:59 AM ET

I Broke Henry Jenkins's Collectible Wax Cylinder From the 1920s

For Henry Jenkins, co-director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Comparative Media Studies Program, who is emerging as a well-known public intellectual on topics of media and society, the medium is not the message. He is far less interested in the specific medium than he is in how people interact with the popular culture they consume. Which is lucky for me, since I recently managed to accidentally break a collector’s item in his personal media collection.

I got to know Mr. Jenkins while I was researching a profile of the scholar for The Chronicle. He’s a housemaster in a dormitory at MIT, which means that he and his wife, Cynthia, live in a spacious suite right on the campus.

Their living room is packed with media, with shelves full of books, video games, CD’s, and comic books, and some old examples of pop culture Mr. Jenkins has collected over the years. At one point he showed me an artifact from the 1920s — an Edison wax cylinder. Before flat phonograph records, this is how music was packaged and sold, though it seems hard to imagine that a four-inch-long hollow tube lined with wax can hold musical data. Mr. Jenkins’s wife had given it to him as a Christmas present.

Mr. Jenkins seemed excited to show me the cylinder, and he handed it to me so I could give it a closer look. Somehow — for reasons I still can’t explain — the instant I got my hands on the historic object, it shattered into dozens of pieces. I broke Henry Jenkins’s collectible wax cylinder from the 1920s.

Obviously I apologized profusely. His reaction: Rather than getting upset, he said something to the effect of “‘Cool, now we get to see what one of these looks like in cross-section.” Perhaps he was just being polite, but he said not to worry about it.

As I sat down to write my article, I realized that Mr. Jenkins’s argument is that the model of media consumption from the analog era has shattered. Canned media, like that wax cylinder, is less important than it used to be, he says. Now fans watch a blockbuster movie, play a video game that continues the plot, download the unrated version to watch again on their iPods, and make their own short video spoofing the film’s characters.

That last part, the part where fans remix culture, particularly excites Mr. Jenkins. He sees it as a return to folk traditions that fell out of favor when people started sitting around a phonograph player instead of performing songs for their friends. With the help of the Internet, fans are now sharing their own stories, songs, and short films, often using mainstream media as a jumping-off point. All you have to do is spend a few minutes on MySpace or other social-networking sites to find garage rock bands inspired by Harry Potter, or a video series called “Chad Vader, Day Shift Manager,” in which the Star Wars character Darth Vader is portrayed as a frustrated grocery-store employee.

I still felt horrible about breaking the cylinder, so I scoured eBay looking for a replacement. I eventually found one, and I gave it to Mr. Jenkins at The Chronicle’s Technology Forum last week, where Mr. Jenkins was a keynote speaker.

“It’s great to see the wax cylinder back,” he said. —Jeffrey R. Young

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