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?

Bringing Research to Bear on the Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Minors (a.k.a. “child sex trafficking”)

I believe that technology can be leveraged to empower people in amazing ways, but I also recognize that it can also be used in deeply disturbing ways. All too often, when we as a society see technology being used in horrible ways, we want to blame and ban the technology. As a researcher invested in leveraging the visibility of ugliness to make serious cultural change, my role is to step back and see if we can understand better what’s going on in order to more significantly impact the issue at hand.

I know that technology is being used in the commercial sexual exploitation of minors. I also know that many people have responded to the visibility of “child sex trafficking” on commercial websites by wanting to shut down those commercial websites. Seeing horrible things makes people want to act, which is fantastic. Unfortunately, without focus, those actions can be counterproductive. As a researcher dedicated to ending crimes against children, my goal is to make sure that we understand what we’re doing so that we actually address the core of the problem, not just the most visible symptoms of it. Unfortunately, we know very little about how children are advertised, bought, sold, and exploited through the use of technology. There are plenty of anecdotes, but rigorous data is limited. This I realized was something that I could help with. As a researcher, my goal has been to try to untangle the complex ecosystem and obtain data that can help us actually go after the root of the problem.

I worked with Heather Casteel and Mitali Thakor to construct a framing document to ask challenging questions about how technology is being used in human trafficking and, specifically, the commercial sexual exploitation of minors. Microsoft Research Connections (Rane Johnson-Stempson), the Microsoft Digital Crimes Unit (Samantha Doerr, Bill Harmon, and Sue Hotelling), and I put together an RFP last December asking for researchers to submit proposals about how they would research and address some of the hard puzzles in this ecosystem. We were surprised – and delighted – to get far more viable, thought-provoking, and important proposals than we could fund. After a difficult decision process, we decided to fund six projects that are intended to bring important research to bear on this important issue. The grant recipients we funded are as follows:

  • Dr. Nicole Bryan, Dr. Ross Malaga, and Dr. Sasha Poucki of Montclair State University and Dr. Rachel Swaner of the Center for Court Innovation, for research on how networked technologies, including the Internet, mobile phones, and social media, are used by “johns” to procure children for sexual purposes.
  • Dr. Susan McIntyre of Calgary, Alberta, Dr. Dawne Clark of Mount Royal University, and Norm Lewis research assistant at Mount Royal University, for research on the role of technology in the recruiting, buying, and selling of victims in the sex trafficking industry.
  • Professor Mary G. Leary of the Catholic University of America, for a comprehensive assessment of judicial opinions on child sex trafficking issued over the last ten years.
  • Dr. Kimberly Mitchell of the University of New Hampshire Crimes Against Children Research Center, for research on technology’s role in facilitating child sex trafficking and understanding the benefits and obstacles for law enforcement.
  • Dr. Jennifer Musto of Rice University, for research on how law enforcement leverages the benefits and overcomes the obstacles of using technology in combating the trafficking of children for commercial sexual exploitation.
  • Dr. Anna W. Shavers, Dr. Dwayne Ball, Professor Matt Waite, Professor Sriyani Tidball, and Dr. David Keck of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, for research into identifying the clandestine language used in web advertising of child sex trafficking and conceptualizing intelligent software to identify such online advertisements.

My hope is that these amazing scholars will investigate these challenging issues and provide new data and analysis so that we can develop sound socio-technical interventions that really work to address the core issue: the commercial sexual exploitation of minors. Through this process, I also hope that we can begin to develop a meaningful research community to really tackle these challenging intellectual and analytic puzzles from multidisciplinary perspectives.

It’s been awe-inspiring to watch so many different organizations and institutions work on combating human trafficking – government agencies, NGOs, advocacy organizations, and corporations. My hope is that this research will provide insight into these discussions so that we can develop new tactics and strategies for helping those who are marginalized and victimized. Additionally, I hope that the development of a research community in this area will help provide a locus to which practitioners and advocacy groups can turn to develop viable interventions.

I look forward to working with these scholars and going deeper into these issues in my own research.

Opportunities not to miss…

Over the last six weeks, I’ve posted various opportunities for students, academics, and other scholars that I’m co-directing/hosting, many of which have deadlines looming. I want to summarize them in one post for those who either missed them or wanted some synthesis:

Microsoft Research Postdocs.

  • Who: Newly minted/about-to-be-minted PhD students working on social media topics from a social science perspective
  • Deadline: December 12, 2011
  • More Information

Special issue of JOBEM on Socially-Mediated Publicness.

  • Who: Scholars who want to publish their work on socially-mediated publicness in a fantastic journal experimenting with open-access
  • Deadline: December 12, 2011 for brief abstracts; January 6, 2012 for complete articles
  • More Information

Digital Media & Learning Summer Institute.

  • Who: Graduate students/young postdocs doing work touching on policy and innovation around digital media & learning
  • Deadline: January 9, 2012
  • Application & More Info

Microsoft Research PhD Internships.

  • Who: Current PhD students working on social media topics from a social science perspective
  • Deadline: January 10, 2012
  • More Information

Human Trafficking & Technology Research Grants.

  • Who: Scholars who can research the role of tech in different facets of human trafficking
  • Deadline: February 17, 2012
  • Request for Proposals

Please check out this opportunities and make sure that the right people you know hear about them.

Given how many amazing opportunities I had as a graduate student and young scholar, I’m really excited to be able to give back to others. Thanks to all of my collaborators and the institutions that support us in being able to create exciting spaces for scholars to flourish.

What is the Role of Technology in Human Trafficking?

Networked technologies – including the internet, mobile phones, and social media – alter how information flows and how people communicate. There is little doubt that technology is increasingly playing a role in the practices and processes surrounding human trafficking: the illegal trade of people for commercial sexual exploitation, forced labor, and other forms of modern-day slavery. Yet, little is known about costs and benefits of technology’s role. We do not know if there are more human trafficking victims as a result of technology, nor do we know if law enforcement can identify perpetrators better as a result of the traces that they leave. One thing that we do know is that technology makes many aspects of human trafficking more visible and more traceable, for better and for worse. Focusing on whether technology is good or bad misses the point; it is here to stay and it is imperative that we understand the role that it is playing. More importantly, we need to develop innovative ways of using technology to address the horrors of human trafficking.

To date, as researchers at USC have highlighted, there is little empirical research into the role that technology plays in human trafficking, let alone the commercial sexual exploitation of children. As a result, new interventions and policies are being driven by intuition, speculation, and extrapolation from highly publicized incidents. There’s no doubt that all forms human trafficking and modern day slavery are horrible, but if we actually want to help those that are victimized, we need to recognize that this is a complex issue and work to understand how the puzzle pieces fits together. My team at Microsoft Research is trying to untangle technology’s role in different facets of the human trafficking ecosystem, fully recognizing how complicated and messy it is. This is why we need your help.

Thanks to the generous support of the Microsoft Digital Crimes Unit and Microsoft Research, I’m proud to announce a pool of grant money for researchers who can help us understand critical elements of the puzzle. Please forward this far and wide because we’re hoping to find scholars with the skills, domain knowledge, and passion to really help us interrogate how technology is used in human trafficking. We need anthropologists, communications scholars, computer scientists, criminologists, psychologists, sociologists, etc.

In order to help contextualize our RFP, we have prepared a framework document meant to map out one slice of the human trafficking ecosystem: “Human Trafficking and Technology: A framework for understanding the role of technology in the commercial sexual exploitation of children in the U.S.” This document is meant to articulate some of the complex issues and hard questions that we face in trying to understand technology’s role in one aspect of human trafficking. If you’re interested in this space, please be critical and challenge our thinking.

We are also looking to identify scholars who are working in this space, including graduate students and postdocs and researchers whose work is not yet published. Even if you’re not looking for grant money, please drop us a line if you’re grappling with technology’s role in human trafficking.

On a more personal note, I can’t tell you how lucky I feel to work for an organization that is willing to sponsor this line of inquiry. It’s amazing to work with colleagues who are all deeply passionate about really understanding this horrible practice in order to do what’s right. We’re all deeply committed to the importance of research and grounding our decisions in research. And we’re all deeply grateful to all of those out there who are determined to end the violence and oppression that comes with commercial sexual exploitation and modern day slavery.

Thank you! And we look forward to hearing from you!

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Image Source: Brandon Christopher Warren, Flickr