“I hate your politics but I love your diamonds”:
PriceScope, Politics, and Participatory Culture
It may seem strange to consider a diamond lovers group when looking for locations at which to explore the intersections of civic engagement and participatory culture, but the community of PriceScope, a diamond consumer information messageboard, certainly fulfills Jenkins' characteristics of participatory culture, and as such, has functioned as a site of civic engagement in at least three distinct ways-- as a politically relevant new model of commerce, as a site of diverse political conversation, and as a charity.
PriceScope attracts those who are planning to make a diamond purchase and those who wish to share knowledge of the diamond market. Through this process, a participatory culture, one marked by “relatively low barriers to artistic expression and civic engagement, strong support for creating and sharing one’s creations with each other, and some type of informal mentorship whereby what is known by the most experienced is passed along to novices” (3, Jenkins, et al., 2006) is formed. Those on a particular quest post daily updates about their communications with vendors, share photos they are sent of diamonds under consideration, and ask for feedback. Collectively, members brainstorm jewelry designs, decide between various potential purchases, and celebrate each step toward the final product. A finished piece is a creative product of the whole community, not belonging just the member who bought it nor the vendors who craft it. The extent to which the result is successful is everyone's responsibility, everyone's achievement. Indeed, it is also a place where “members believe their contributions matter, and feel some degree of social connection with one another” (3, Jenkins, et al., 2006). Because so many came to to site for engagement rings, this process is often emotionally charged, and mentor member express pride not just in the knowledge new members gain, but that that knowledge was used toward such a significant purchase. After attaining this expertise, many continue posting, eager to now help with others.
In addition to the messageboard, which is considered a non-commercial space with strict rules that govern vendor behavior, the PriceScope website has a database of diamonds available from small jewelers across the country. As a politically relevant form of commerce, PriceScope allows independent jewelers to unite to compete against chain stores, whose wares are disdained as overpriced, low-quality “maul diamonds.” This business model, which attempts to overcome the high-pressure sales of chain stores and the premiums commanded by luxury brand-name diamonds, is dependent on a special kind of consumer: the diamond geek. By providing a space to “geek out,” to “learn to navigate esoteric domains of knowledge and practice and participate in communities that traffic in these forms of expertise” (Ito, et al., 2009, 28), PriceScope allows for the development of a participatory culture and a successfully “glocal”small business model. Rather than bemoan the commercialization of the public sphere, it might be productive to try to understand this kind of hybrid commercial-social space and other new forms of commerce as inherently political.
For a several years, PriceScope afforded extensive political discourse. Among its “off topic” subforums, the the messageboard included “Around the World” or ATW, which was intended for discussion of current events. On ATW, PriceScope members demonstrated a wide political diversity and engaged in heterogeneous political dialogue that was otherwise absent from many of their lives . One member wrote that PriceScope was the only place she was able to have these conversations, even though she was the only Obama supporter in a family of conservatives. “When I try to talk about it with my parents, it just turns into a fight,” she wrote, “You guys help me understand my own family better.” Even though many posters were passionate partisans, the conversation was animated but civil. The feeling of social connection fostered by the participatory culture mitigated disagreements. One wrote, “Whenever ATW threads get to be too much, I just click over to Show Me the Ring and see how supportive and helpful we all are to each other and I figure that we can just agree to disagree.” In this way, PriceScope serves as a counterexample to those who suggest that online political conversation largely exists in “echo chambers” where homogeneous groups shore up and strengthen shared beliefs. When a political dialogue is built on a participatory culture, it can attract diverse participants and maintain a civility.
However, as a place for this kind of political conversation, PriceScope was not always successful. In the long campaign season leading up to the 2008 presidential election, there was a marked surge of activity on ATW. Many members were using it more often than the diamond forums. Indeed, one of the longest thread in the history of PriceScope, not just ATW related to the nomination of Sarah Palin. New members somehow found their way to the site to engage only in the political discussion without any interest in diamonds or stakes in the community from which ATW had formed.
Moderators began posting warnings about civility and establishing rules for political discussion that had previously been unnecessary. They created separate threads for Democrats and Republicans. Although this was intended to create a safe space for members for members to freely express their views, it was a harbinger that the space for political dialogue formed by diamond geeks was in trouble. For too many of those involved in the political threads, that debate was no longer consistently paired with working together in a supportive environment around a shared interest in diamonds. The participatory culture was no longer strong enough to support a politically diverse dialogue.
Things only got worse in the aftermath of the election. Although most of the threads have been deleted, there are many references to “hateful” posts about race, religion, and sexual orientation. Prop 8 in particular became major point of contention especially when an established member on the diamond forums posted an open letter to the community stating that she was leaving PriceScope completely because she not longer felt welcome because of her sexual orientation. Many members were extremely upset by her departure. Several members reported no longer feeling comfortable recommending PriceScope to friends for information on diamonds, even though it represented the best such knowledge available, because they didn't want these friends to associate them with the political views represented on ATW.
Eventually, the moderators decided to ban political topics entirely. This decision also upset members. Some hoped that after the intensity of the election had worn off and PriceScope had returned to its core membership of “diamond lovers,” the political topics could come back. Others speculated about “defecting” to another gem and jeweler site, but many PriceScope members had long dismissed it as having a less knowledgeable membership and “shady” administrators with unresolved conflicts of interest with vendors, so it was not a viable option. One member lamented the passing of political discussion on ATW, stating, “I don't think I would have voted if it had not been for this place and the people in it.” Another posted a question asking where she could find a “neutral, intelligent political forum, like ATW in the good old days.” No suggestions were given.
In the aftermath of this crisis, a third form of civic engagement emerged. To remind PriceScope of its former spirit, moderators encouraged members to “remember their roots” by sharing the story of what brought them into PriceScope in the first place and started the “PriceScope Community Project,” which asked them to nominate diamond photography to be compiled into a book to be sold to raise money for charity. Although charity may not be as innovative a form of civic engagement, it represents the beginning of a process to repair and restructure the participatory culture upon which the other forms depend.
Today, ATW is still an active forum, although political topics are still banned. Members use it to talk about current events that are not overtly political. The election was as a major disruptive event that presented a trauma to the community that is was not equipped to deal with. But perhaps PriceScope will emerge stronger. The moderators seem to have taken an unofficially laissez fair approach, deleting only threads that are most obviously in violation of the no politics rule and those that start to stir up contention. Members not interested in diamonds have largely stopped posting. There remains the hope, as the one member stated, that “eventually we'll get our politics back.” In the meantime, there are still plenty of beautiful diamonds to ogle, plenty of new gemological techniques to learn about, and plenty of people out there who need to be saved from sullying their engagement by sinking a small fortune on some Maul Diamond.