On Chuck and Carrot Mobs: Mapping the Connections between Participatory Culture and Public Participation
by Anna van Someren
I was on my 8th (excruciating) rep, struggling with some kind of bowflex-looking machine when my personal trainer asked what I do for work. As usual, I had the fleeting wish that I could say something short and concrete, something like "preschool teacher" or "novelist". Because really, did this woman care any more than the typical dentist who asks such questions with both hands inside your mouth? Could I finally come up with something a little less opaque than "researcher at MIT"? If I did, could I for once muster the self-discipline it takes not to ramble incomprehensibly?
I tried a new approach, and asked if she had a favorite television show. "Battlestar Galactica!" - her face lit up as she described the Starbuck costume her friend was helping her create for Halloween. "Well, say a Battlestar Galactica fan group became interested in doing some work for social change, work that maybe addresses an issue brought up by the show. The group I'm working with is looking at how people who organize around a story they love, and then decide to take some kind of public action." She seemed genuinely interested, so I continued with more detail during front lunges. I think I may have gotten a bit rambly, but I'll try not to here.
As readers of this blog know, Henry has moved to LA and is now the Provost's Professor of Communications, Journalism, and Cinematic Art at the University of Southern California. Although he has relinquished his role as principal investigator at MIT's Center for Future Civic Media, his work on participatory culture and civic engagement has spawned a new research project supported in part by the center. This project is bi-coastal; on the east coast we have myself, research advisor Clement Chau and research assistant Flourish Klink. Representing the west coast out at USC with Henry we have research director Sangita Shresthova (CMS alum '03) along with several graduate students whose work relates directly to our research interests.
Our early conversations circled around the skills needed to become involved in public discourse. We discussed emerging forms of engagement, such as the Carrotmob project, which might be considered civic because of its socially beneficial goal of protecting the environment. Carrotmob organizes competitions in which local businesses pledge to make ecological improvements to their practices. The business with the best pledge enjoys an environmentally-motivated flash mob: 'carrotmobbers' receive instructions via blog posts and twitter about where and when to show up and spend. The 'Finale & a Footlong' Save Chuck campaign is another recent initiative working to leverage consumer power. In April 2009, organizers mobilized fans of the television show Chuck to buy footlong sandwiches at Subway, a main sponsor, on the night of the show's finale. Fans were instructed to leave a note in the Subway suggestion box mentioning the campaign, and Chuck star Zach Levi described it as "a way for non-Nielson fans to show their love of the show by directly supporting one of Chuck’s key advertisers".
These two projects have entirely different goals, and some might say Save Chuck is a far cry from civic engagement, but it's interesting to note that the skills and strategies being used are so similar. We began to wonder if participants in campaigns like Save Chuck might stand to gain some of the skills and knowledge needed to become active citizens. With so many young people so engaged with popular culture, this potential is critical to understand. In Convergence Culture, Henry describes how popular culture can function as a civic playground, where lower stakes allow for a greater diversity of opinions than tolerated in political arenas. "One way that popular culture can enable a more engaged citizenry is by allowing people to play with power on a microlevel ...popular culture may be preparing the way for a more meaningful public culture."
Of course, there are differing definitions of what an 'engaged citizenry' looks like. CIRCLE, the Center for Information and Research on Civic Engagement, works with three primary categories: civic activities, electoral activities, and political voice activities. In Civic Life Online, Kate Raynes-Goldie and Luke Walker define civic engagement broadly and simply as "any activity aimed at improving one's community". In his book Bowling Alone, sociologist Robert Putnam considers civic engagement to be on the decline, and bemoans the social ties we've lost now that we spend more time "isolated" in front of the television. Some share his pessimism, worrying that the millennial generation lacks an interest in the workings of government, but it's important to remember that we're not talking about something static or stabilized. In their paper Young Citizens and Civic Learning: Two Paradigms of Citizenship in the Digital Age Lance Bennett, Alison Rank and Christopher Wells remind us that "citizenship is a dynamic social construction that reflects changing social and political conditions."
So how does the dimension of popular culture fit into our understanding of citizenship? Voting, joining a political party, or doing community service are concrete, measurable activities that have long been defined as civic. What does loving a television show have to do with any of this? It's helpful here to consider two opposing views of democracy described by Stephen Coleman in Civic Life Online. Although he's talking specifically about youth e-citizenship here, he offers a useful model, describing the conflict between democracy viewed as "an established and reasonably just system, with which young people should be encouraged to engage" and as "a political as well as cultural aspiration, most likely to be realized through networks in which young people engage with one another". The second view is expansive; it describes a realm where citizens are empowered not only to participate in the public arena, but to shape it. It's a view that does not contain activity within a strictly political sphere, but embraces cultural citizenship. This aligns well with Peter Levine's definition of civic engagement as not only political activism, deliberation, and problem-solving, but also cultural production, or participation in shaping a culture.
If we want to see how engagement with popular culture can fuel social action, Loraine Sammy and her activities with racebending.com provide a rich case study. Fans of Nickelodeon's Avatar: the Last Airbender animation series were frustrated and disappointed by the casting process for the live-action movie version. Paramount cast the main characters, who are Asian in the original series, with white actors. Avatar fans came together to create the LiveJournal-based Aang Ain't White campaign, which attempted to pressure Paramount with a letter-writing campaign. Loraine, who spoke on the Transmedia for Social Change panel at Futures of Entertainment 4, helped grow Aang Ain't White into the racebending movement, "a coalition and community dedicated to encouraging fair casting practices". She and other participants volunteer their time, talents and skills to advocate on behalf of this cause, which has now reached beyond the Avatar movie and may begin to play a watchdog role in Hollywood.
There are so many aspects we want to explore about the racebending community, and others like it. It's intriguing to think about how fiction and fantasy can captivate us on an emotional level, providing a narrative structure that can motivate us to seek change in the real world. We're also curious about how individuals develop their identities as citizens - is it possible that participants in the Save Chuck campaign were developing a sense of empowerment and efficacy in the world - exercising their civic muscles, as it were? Our primary interest right now lies with the nature of participatory culture communities, like racebending.
We consider a participatory culture to be on where:
How do these characteristics work together to encourage and support civic engagement? To find out, we'll be looking at participatory culture communities engaged in some type of social or public action. We're specifically interested in groups which originally gelled around shared interest in popular culture and then become somehow involved in public discourse. Racebending is an excellent example, and is one of our planned case studies, along with the Harry Potter Alliance, Invisible Children, Browncoats, Anonymous, and possibly the hacktivism inspired by Cory Doctorow's novel Little Brother.
This winter we'll be conducting interviews with members and founders of these groups, asking questions about their operations, their membership, and their activities. By spring we hope to have a stronger grasp on our research question, how do the characteristics of participatory culture environments support the kinds of social learning, deliberation, debate, and advocacy practices that allow entry into a shared public discourse? In order to share our thoughts and findings in advance of our white paper, we'll be posting updates here. This introduction marks the start of our series, so stay tuned for more from our team, and please share your ideas, critiques, and comments.