Participatory Culture: What questions do you have?

Question Mark GraffitiHenry Jenkins, Mimi Ito, and I have embarked on an interesting project for Polity. Through a series of dialogues, we’re hoping to produce a book that interrogates our different thoughts regarding participatory culture. The goal is to unpack our differences and agreements and identify some of the challenges that we see going forward. We began our dialogue this week and had a serious brain jam where we interrogated our own assumptions, values, and stakes in doing the research that we each do and thinking about the project of participatory culture more generally. For the next three weeks, we’re going to individually reflect before coming back to begin another wave of deep dialoguing in the hopes that the output might be something that others (?you?) might be interested in reading.

And here’s where we’re hoping that some of our fans and critics might be willing to provoke us to think more deeply.

  • What questions do you have regarding participatory culture that you would hope that we would address?
  • What criticisms of our work would you like to offer for us to reflect on?
  • What do you think that we fail to address in our work that you wish we would consider?

For those who are less familiar with this concept, Henry and his colleagues describe a “participatory culture” as one:

  1. With relatively low barriers to artistic expression and civic engagement
  2. With strong support for creating and sharing one’s creations with others
  3. With some type of informal mentorship whereby what is known by the most experienced is passed along to novices
  4. Where members believe that their contributions matter
  5. Where members feel some degree of social connection with one another (at the least they care what other people think about what they have created).

This often gets understood through the lens of “Web2.0” or “user-generated content,” but this is broadly about the ways in which a networked society rich with media enables new forms of interaction and engagement. Some of the topics that we are considering covering include “new media literacies,” “participation gap” and the digital divide, the privatization of culture, and networked political engagement. And, needless to say, a lot of our discussion will center on young people’s activities and the kinds of learning and social practices that take place. So what do *you* want us to talk about?

12 thoughts on “Participatory Culture: What questions do you have?

  1. interested to hear your thoughts on the norms of participation and enculturation of new members in participatory production environments. A lot has been written about Wikipedia and other F/OSS projects but I’m curious to hear your thoughts on how this plays out in other contexts.

  2. Hi danah,

    The book project sounds fascinating and I look forward to reading more! Here are a few initial thoughts/questions:
    1) How can measurements of participation help a group or organization be truly inclusive? What frameworks for measurement exist? How are the goals, strategies and outcomes of a community group or organization affected by choosing one measurement over another (page views as opposed to number of comments, code written, artwork displayed, remashes made, etc.)?
    2) Case studies of informal mentorships: It would be great to see examples of the kinds of mentorships that have lasted for long periods of time. Especially those that have crossed some sort of national/age/skill/socioeconomic “barrier”. How have mentors managed to balance their own interests and time constraints with those of their pupils? What role did physical vs. online connections play in establishing and/or sustaining their relationship?
    3) What role do physical spaces play in creating a participatory media culture? Some of the really successful civic engagement projects I’ve seen had an entry point at a physical location (a hackathon, a school event, a meetup, a BBQ). A physical meeting point seemed to get people connected and really motivated to share skills. It also seemed to boost their confidence in the types of skills that they can contribute (as opposed to rejecting web media projects at the get-go out of the fear that they’re not “tech savvy” enough) What role do physical spaces play in creating trust, cooperation, sustained engagement, self-confidence?
    4) A critique of ways that participation rhetoric has clouded responsibility to be genuinely inclusive. Jenna Burrell offers one example in Invisible Users: Youth in the Internet Cafes of Urban Ghana. She discusses her experiences at the UN World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) and writes that “the language of ‘inclusion,’ and the incorporation of ‘civil society’ groups were all widely publicized components of the new and improved World Summit process.” She continues “However, awareness of the conference circulated primarily within certain elite social networks. Additionally, the setting communicated itself visually as a space for elites.”

    These questions are somewhat vague and open-ended. But they’re things I’ve been thinking about. Perhaps they might help you in the book brainstorming process. Thanks for reading! -Luisa Beck

  3. This is a great topic! I am interested in “Citizen Sensing” – a nascent discipline at the crossroads between citizen science, sustainability and maker culture. Citizen sensing could be used to address social, environmental and economic sensemaking but it seems participants/proponents seem often caught in the technology questions around hardware or software involved to collect the data at the expense of the bigger question which should be at the center of the sensing. This can be mobility, biodiversity, energy, etc. While this process seeks change agents, it aims initially at involving people to get them thinking about a problem set leaving to each individual the “right” required steps for change (if any).
    How about exploring the motivations for joining citizen sensing projects and the gap between being involved and activism and actual bottom-up change?

  4. It’s a hard request that you’ve posed, of course, because it’s a big topic you’re tackling, and it’s hard to guess what you have an have not already put on the agenda for your disucssions with Mimi and Henry. But a couple of things come to mind that, while you’re probably already considering them, I don’t mind reinforcing just in case.

    * emphasizing the historical dimension

    this is probably a no-brainer for you three, but (a) it’s so easy in the discussions for people to slip into a presentism that paints this all as a phenomenon coterminous with the web, that I think it has to be said again and again; but more importantly, (b) I’d like to hear your argument about the shape of that historical trajectory. So it’s one thing to say “zines, cable access, amateur radio, etc…” and show that there are precedents; it’s another to say something about that history. For instance, is Lessig right, that this was a mode of culture that was dominant for many centuries, until it was squashed by the “read-only” model of the major entertainment industries? Or was it alive and well all along, and its just that media culture offered something over and above it, i.e., the shared objects that a “mass” form seems uniquely able to offer? Did media culture sit alongside and overshadow participatory culture, or did it eat it, by drawing amatuer talent into its routines and institutional obligations, by characterizing its path as the one artists should aspire to, and by building legal structures (i.e. modern copyright) that funadmentally disenfranchised folk forms of culture? Is participatory culture reemeerging because of the web, or because of the concomitant shrinking of the media industries, or because of a political shift in Western public culture — or is “reemerging” the wrong word, because it was never gone in the first place, it just that it changes and rejuvenates with every available medium?

    * clarifying the new power of the platforms that cater to participatory culture

    this is my own angle coming through, for sure, but I noticed that the only place where the new media industries appear in your list of topics is in the issue of “privatization of culture.” My own current research is asking about the curatorial role these platforms and providers are playing, making decisions about what counts as “bad content” and developing modes of governance for managing that stuff away. That’s one angle. Another might be the kind of political and moral legitimacy these providers have because they play host to this participatory culture — something you can see in the way that Twitter gets heralded as playing a role in the Arab Spring, sometimes by Twitter PR itself. My main impulse in this work is to pull against the tendency for these stakeholders to disappear, to hide beneath the seemingly frictionless flow of content we’re all making. So discussing the ways in which they oversee participatory culture, the benefits they accrue from doing so, and the financial windfall they build as a result, would I think be an important element of the discussion. This might also require including the ecosystem of other private stakeholders and public standard-setters who are involved in and also benefit from this, from the consumer object makers like Apple to the organizations that set Internet governance policies.

    * the materialities and modalities of participatory culture

    I’m thinking here of the superb new book by Jonathan Sterne on the mp3: he argues in his introduction for paying greater attention to “formats:” to examine where they came from, what assumptions were built into them along the way, and how those assumptions drive some of the cultural shifts that ride on them. You could expand that to think about all the little technologies, tools, formats, and the like that are now part and parcel of this participatory culture, at least at the moment. in my mind this requires more than simply noting that kids making YouTube videos can do so in part because digital cameras and video editing software have gotten cheaper, easier to use, and more widely available. It should go further, to ask about the design assumptions built into digital cameras or video editing software, to ask how these tools embed assumptions about what amateur production should look like and how it should circulate, how those assumptions are materialzied into the artifacts themselves and circulated around them as promotional claims and instructional guidance. A smartphone app that not only let’s you easily edit your video but also has a one-click upload to Facebook matters materially for who makes, who sees, and in what ways.

    Again, I may be preaching to the choir, but maybe they deserve the extra emphasis just in case.

    Good luck! Looking forward to reading what emerges.

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  7. Thanks for the opportunity to participate in this important project. the work of Henry, Mimi and danah has (and will have) benchmarking properties for scholars, policymakers and educators alike, and participation in it makes this a shared responsibility.

    That said, and beyond all the kudos and fan-like attributes I have for the investigators… please allow me to add a critical cent or two to the notion of ‘participatory culture’ articulated here.

    Participatory culture (hereafter: PC), as it is generally used here and in the work referenced, seems to have primarily metaphoric properties. It has become a catch-all phrase, comprising of a series of practices, competences, and vaguely (and, in a nice way, naively) defined values – sharing, being kind to others, openness and honesty. What of its theoretical properties? How is PC an ontology?

    In this supposedly PC, the good citizen-consumer feels ‘free to contribute’ only insofar as she aligns with dominant societal power structures, generally comprised of a complex mix of rule-giving educational or consumer contexts (schools, shops, copyright warnings on purchased goods, licensed software, closed-off hardware), corporate walled gardens, EULA-based online services, and so on.

    In other words, PC seems to primarily take place within a context of disciplining and control. Thusly one could argue that PC takes place as a function of society that needs its individual members to police themselves.

    Rather than being more involved than previous generations, people in today’s ‘participatory culture’ therefore seem primarily engaged in mutual and self-disciplining. The sharing and remixing that happens within the world of Ito, Jenkins and boyd seems intrinsically benign towards whatever power figures enable people – school children, consumers, citizens – to share and mix in the first place.

    In the shift from a national control society (Foucault, Deleuze) to a global suspicion society (Mattelart), greater participation in contemporary culture does not necessarily equal greater freedom – in fact, participatory culture maybe the worst enemy for one’s ability to live a good (media) life.

    How do we educate to subvert, towards greater freedom, to destroy as well as (safely) critique? Where are Paolo Freire and Amartya Sen (among many others) in this Microsoft-funded project?

    Thanks again for allowing me to share these somewhat cheap comments… many of which are similarly embedded in Tarleton’s wonderful post, and can be found in an essay I was privileged to co-author with our (Indiana University’s) Janissary Collective – appearing in the recent Participatory Cultures Handbook edited by Aaron Delwiche and Jennifer Jacobs Henderson.

  8. This sounds like a very interesting endeavour. I’m especially excited to see what comes of it.

    Personally, I would like to see what ramifications you feel the climb in participation online has had on the economic model currently seeming to work. Are we likely to see further changes in the economic model from monetary to more “free” economies, or will we settle into a more balanced economic model of cash and attention/information/reputation?

    Also, you suggest that a lot of the work on this will be done in regards to “young people’s” actions online. What would you parameters for this be? With our extended lifespan, the term “young people” seems, at least to me, to be less clearly defined than it once was. Under 25 does not seem to fully encompass those who might identify as “young people,” though over thirty may well be pushing those definitions a little far.

    I think the third clause in the definition of “participatory culture” is a little removed from current ideas in the online community. It seems there is little in the way of mentorship, either given or accepted, as children grow up in such an environment as to learn necessary skills for creating online content from a much younger age than previously. If anything, one might argue it has reversed and it is the younger generations teaching the older ones a thing or two.

    Again, I really look forward to seeing the fruits of this project.

  9. Reblogged this on Kumusta Kabayan and commented:
    This is quite an interesting research from the Social Media Collective! What I would be interested to read/explore is the participatory element of knowledge-creation through the Internet. Is there now a more open North-South dialogue among participants in Internet forums?

  10. This is quite an interesting research. Perhaps in the line of Mark Deuze’s thoughts on the disciplining element of PC, my interest is in knowledge creation through the Internet. Would you be looking at the participatory element of creating knowledge through the Internet. For instance, how has the Internet opened up spaces for North-South dialogue in academic online forums? What types of knowledge are given weight in which online communities and why? Thanks for reading.

  11. This may be whollly or partially subsumed in Jean-Paul de Vooght’s comment, but to what extent, if any, should participatory culture lead to change outside the participating group? Is it enough to engage in respectful discourse among the participants? For example, a group may participate in discussions regarding the potential discriminatory impact of algorithms and datasets and come to some consensus about what could be done to effect changes. Is it within the remit of the group for one or more participants to move forward to seek change and, if so, are there any restrictions on what may have been gained through the group discourse?

    A related question is whether participatory cultures give rise to more or less outside activism? While there may be much more networked political engagement, does that engagement result in more activism or does the participatory culture act, if you will, as a pacifier or substitute for activism?

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