Themes‎ > ‎

Participatory cultures

Amateur rock musicians who came together to share performances on YouTube are transformed into copyright educator-activists.  Bollywood fans stage a protest modeled on a powerful scene from a favorite film.  A website for discussing diamonds spawns a dynamic political forum. Contemporary politics are taking place in some unlikely places, but are they really any less likely than the bowling allies Putnam discusses? Why and how do people who gather around popular culture so often emerge with civic concerns? Our approach to understanding these instances and movements draws on the work of Henry Jenkins who uses participatory culture to describe a set of practices much older than the web but these practices have migrated onto the web because of its affordances. From there, they have reached a much wider public. Specifically, borrowing from the Project New Media Literacies (NML) founding white paper, we define 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). 

Here Henry Jenkins speaks more about the characteristics of participatory culture:

We inform our understanding of contemporary participatory cultures through the detailed, large scale ethnographic study carried out by the Digital Youth Project, and summarized in the book Hanging out, Messing Around and Geeking Out: Kids Living and Learning with New Media. In the book, the authors lay out the premise for the project as follows:

Digital media and online communication have become a pervasive part of the everyday lives of youth in the United States. Social network sites, online games, video-sharing sites, and gadgets such as iPods and mobile phones are now well-established fixtures of youth culture; it can be hard to believe that just a decade ago these technologies were barely present in the lives of U.S. children and teens. Today’s youth may be engaging in negotiations over developing knowledge and identity, coming of age, and struggling for autonomy as did their predecessors, but they are doing this while the contexts for communication, friendship, play, and self-expression are being reconfigured through their engagement with new media. (p. 1)

In an interview with Henry Jenkins, Mimi Ito elaborates on the project's findings and its significance for studies of participatory culture:

Mimi Ito: ....the main thing that distinguishes different kinds of youth new media practices was the difference between what we call "friendship-driven" and "interest-driven" participation. Friendship driven participation is what most youth are doing online, and involves the familiar practices of hanging out, flirting, and working out status issues on sites like MySpace and Facebook. Interest-driven participation has to do with more of the geeks and creative types of practices, where youth will connect with others online around specialized activities , such as media fandom, gaming or creative production. (Ito, Mimi in conversation with Henry Jenkins).       

The Digital Youth Project suggests three potential modes of engagement which shape young people's participation in these online communities. First, many young people go online to "hang out" with friends they already know from schools and their neighborhoods. Second, they may "mess around" with programs, tools, and platforms, just to see what they can do. And third, they may "geek out" as fans, bloggers, and gamers, digging deep into an area of intense interest to them, moving beyond their local community to connect with others who share their passions. The Digital Youth Project argues that each of these modes encourages young people to master core technical competencies, yet they may also do some of the things that Putnam ascribed to the bowling leagues of the 1950s -- they strengthen social bonds, they create shared experiences, they encourage conversations, and they provide a starting point for other civic activities.

Like the Digital Youth Project, we recognize that the time young people spend outside the classroom engaging with these new forms of cultural experience fosters real benefits in terms of their mastering of core social skills and cultural competencies (or new media literacies) they are going to be deploying for years to come. While much has been said about why 21st century skills are essential for the contemporary workplace, it is important to recognize that they are also valuable in preparing young people for future roles in the arts, politics, and community life. Learning how to navigate social networks or produce media may result in a sense of greater personal empowerment across all aspects of youth's lives. Our understanding of participatory culture includes these forms articulated in the NML White Paper:

Affiliations - memberships, formal and informal, in online communities centered around various forms of media, such as Friendster, Facebook, message boards, metagaming, game clans, or MySpace).

Expressions - producing new creative forms, such as digital sampling, skinning and moddling, fan videomaking, fan fiction writing, zines, mash-ups).

Collaborative Problem-solving - working together in teams, formal and informal, to complete tasks and develop new knowledge (such as through Wikipedia, alternative reality gaming, spoiling).

Circulations - Shaping the flow of media (such as podcasting, blogging). (white paper p. 3) 

In our approach, we recognize that participatory culture has a history, indeed multiple histories, which stretch beyond the history of specific technologies or commercial platforms. One one such trajectory traces how the DIY ideals took root through the countercultures of the 1950s and 1960s, which, as Fred Turner has suggested, exerted powerful influences on the development of cyberculture in the 1980s and 1990s. (Fred Turner 2008)    We might imagine another history that goes back to the emergence of the Amateur Press Association in the middle of the 19th century, as young people began to hand set type and print their own publications, commenting on culture, politics, and everyday life.(Petrik, 1992)  These publications were mailed through elaborate circuits which resemble what we would now call social networks. This same community was among the early adopters of amateur radio in the early part of the 20th century at a time when it was assumed that there would be almost as many transmitters as receivers. (Douglas, 1999)   Or we might consider, as Patricia Zimmerman  does, the emergence of amateur camera clubs in the 19th century or the growth of home movie production in the 20th century. (Patricia Zimmerman 1995)    It was only later that amateur media production got labeled as "home movies" (and locked from public view) within a culture based less on grassroots production than on the professionalization associated with mass media.  Rather than participants, mass culture turned fans into spectators.
At this junction, fandom, as active participation, provides rich insights into the practices and significance of participatory culture.