Three thoughts on “participatory culture”

In a recent post over at Microsoft Research’s “Social media Collective” blog, danah boyd posed a query to her readers: she’s in the midst of a project with Henry Jenkins and Mimi Ito, a back-and-forth meant to advance their thinking on the idea of “participatory culture.” They are trying to pose their different ideas on the matter against one another, the goal being “to unpack our differences and agreements and identify some of the challenges that we see going forward.” This is no idle chatter; the dialogue that develops will eventually be published by Polity Press. So she wrote,

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?

Given that I am interested in their work, and that I am at this very moment spending the week consulting with the Microsoft Research social media group, I felt a certain responsibility to lend a hand. This also let me push on some issues I have with the scholarly attention to participatory culture, that are bouncing off my own research on platforms and their curation of content. (If you’re unfamiliar with the way “participatory culture” is being used in this context, there’s a brief description in danah’s post, and if you want more you could read Jenkins’ characterization of it here.) For whatever it’s worth, I thought I would share my comments here; they may be of interest to some, and perhaps they’ll spur you to visit danah’s post, to add your own two cents. (If you do add your thoughts there, I’d love to know about them, feel free to add a comment here or just a trackback link.)

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danah, sorry for the delayed response; I hope you’re already getting some good feedback on this. 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 and 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, MP3: The Meaning of a Format. 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.