Thoughts and ramblings on tech, media, culture, and food. Plus some other stuff, I'm sure.

Digital Participatory Culture

The following is a discussion topic that I am leading with @paisian in our Media Literacy course at The New School.

As this week's topic is Digital Participatory Culture we (Neal and Joel) thought it only suitable to collaborate entirely on the discussion piece to kick this off. We used Google Wave to formulate our ideas and get a basic outline of what's to come and then moved it into a shared Google Document to put the last formatting touches on it.

The discussion this week will break down what we took away as the most significant aspects of the new digital participatory culture and attempt to stratify all of these new ideas with your experiences, thoughts, ideas and research.

Many of us in this course have grown up with computers and the Internet present for most of our lives. Those of us who were recently undergrads most likely connected pretty distinctly with both the Jenkins and Watkins readings.

Jenkins defines this new participatory culture as,

"A culture with relatively low barriers to artistic expression and civic engagement, strong support for creating and sharing one's creations, and some type of informal mentorship whereby what is known by the most experienced is passed along to novices." (pp. 3)
With so much of our day-to-day lives wrapped up in the digital world, at some point you have to jump in and start contributing to the discussion. As Jörg has mentioned, Jenkins has shown us that in order to stay relevant and alive in the digital culture, we need to participate in it. Today, that takes many forms.

First up, we've got the brave new frontier of social web.

The Frontline piece and the reading excercises all mentioned a phenomenon where many people don't see the Internet as a thing to go to anymore. Instead, they see it as another part (or extension) of their everyday lives. In the PBS special "Digital Nation" Douglas Rushkoff notes, "It's changed from a thing one does, to a think one is."

Is there a difference between "real life" and "digital life"? Or maybe a better way of asking that is, should there be?

The Social

Reading through Jenkins and Watkins, and watching the Frontline stories, it quickly becomes apparent how important the relational and social aspects of digital culture are. Indeed, in order to have a participatory culture, you need to have something to participate in. That necessitates other people. The rise of social platforms like Facebook and now Twitter help to facilitate and then reinforce those connections. The evolution of relational technology in the digital age is interesting, starting with the first bulletin board systems and moving into email, instant messaging, and later full blown social networks.

Out of these more basic relationship have come collaboration-specific platforms such as the bookmark sharing site, crowdsourced encyclopedia, and the production oriented Participation has invaded entertainment channels in the form of mashup culture. Glance and YouTube and you will no doubt see some video that's been collaborated on.


Or at the site, founded by actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt as a test bed for collaborative art pieces. One recent film had over 180 collaborators on it and was shown at Sundance Film Festival to rave reviews.

The Anti-Social

With a wide-reaching always-on culture there have no doubt been some negative developments. Cyber-stalking, bullying, even a more pronounced generational gap have popped up.

As we spend more and more time with technology, are we closing ourselves off from the real world? The two of us both work with computers for a living. Joel is a web marketer for a university and Neal is a researcher for Dow Jones. We may not be the typical tech-centric users, but we find the same issues of having to juggle our online social lives with our online professional lives. For Joel, sitting in front of a computer all day has certainly had its physical impact such as eye strain and back pain. Neal telecommutes, which sometimes makes it difficult to truly step away from his different online personas (personal and professional). The communications keep coming in throughout the day -- via social networks, his "smartphone", various email addresses, etc. By bedtime, he sometimes feels exhausted by the sheer volume of messages that he has had to sort through and respond to. From this perspective, it's not hard to imagine how participation in new media environments can even lead to forms of stress.

But getting into the more dangerous side of being always one, the press has had its fair share of horror stories to lay on the public. Some people are taking up the cause to inform the public about the dangers of, say, sharing their location online. Has the participatory culture made it too easy for us to trust everyone with our data? This obviously gets into privacy issues, and we think this very much gets into the reality of what it means to be media literate in a digital world.

This new development illustrates one of the ways less than scrupulous users of Twitter and other big communication tools can exploit information that is shared within a social network.

Literacy In the Participation Age

In a more abstract way we are all faced with some of the same sorts of distractions as we are in the real world, though sometimes disguised much more cleverly. The advent of social media has given yet another avenue for big corporations to not only closely monitor consumer trends, but also to market goods and services through a direct channel, linking customers to their friends, neighbors, colleagues (i.e. other potential customers). For instance, on Facebook and Twitter it's no longer Big Corporation advertising to us, but our friends (at least that what we perceive) who do the selling. And in some ways the participatory culture has helped businesses improve their image by joining the conversation. In the US, Comcast, one of the most hated cable companies in the country, drastically improved its customer relations after one savvy employee began replying to complaints over Twitter. Now, a company is lambasted if they don't have a social media presence. At the same time, they are able to mine more data than ever by participating in the conversation. The trust gained, many times, turns into conversions and higher profits.

With so much going on, and so many news tactics to be aware of, how has the media literacy landscape changed? What are the new things we need to know?

Beyond that, how has literacy itself changed in this culture? We all have different levels of acumen when it comes to digital technologies. Does a person's savviness or lack thereof create a participatory rift? What does a media literate person look like in the midst of digital participatory culture?

Digital Culture, Politics and Social Change

The participatory culture has also played an important role in politics and activism. The 2008 US presidential election saw the rise and widespread use of social networking to political ends. The Barack Obama campaign heavily used its own social networking platform to solicit donations, organize rallies, and stay connected with constituents.

Many would argue that this played a crucial role in the Obama win, especially looking at how Republican candidate John McCain's campaign lacked severely on the social web front for much of the election cycle making his campaign less than relevant in the eyes of young netizens.

So in that light,

  • How has new participatory media enabled grassroots political movements?
  • How have emerging technologies aided those agitating for social change? How have these tools changed the political landscape in industrialized society?

This gets into some of the things we've talked about the past few weeks with regards to news media. For instance, does the “noise” of granting everyone a voice within the realm of social media inhibit or promote democratic ideals? What about for accuracy of information?

Further reading:

FOR THE INFORMATION SOCIETY” by Jack Balkin, Professor of Law at Yale University and author of the blog “Balkinization” (

(available elsewhere) The New Socialism: Global Collectivist Society Is Coming Online (Wired Magazine, 17.06)