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

UMS: Literature Review

In preparing for this literature review, I took into account an area of Media Studies that I engage in on a daily basis: Digital Participatory Culture.  Many scholars have addressed this new cultural form through journal entries, books and television specials.  This review will cover the key works related to the topic as well as the active thought processes of media theorists and researchers affected by the overarching key ideals.

As one digs into the current literature, a common theme arises in nearly every journal article or book.  The idea that today’s audiences now actively create and use content at the same time pulses through the veins of the participatory culture and seeks to define it. If we start at the beginning, it seems widely agreed upon that Henry Jenkins has set the stage for this field in his book Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide (2006).  Indeed, the majority of authors reviewed for this study reference Jenkins in one way or another.

In his book Jenkins (2006) notes that, “Convergence represents a cultural shift as consumers are encouraged to seek out new information and make connections among dispersed media content (3).”  He argues that in the past consumers were seen as passive and expected to be passive, but today this has changed dramatically. In some ways consumers are expected to do more legwork for their content.

Wired Magazine ran a story in its June 2009 issue entitled “The New Socialism”.  In it, Kevin Kelly vividly describes this new culture’s unique potential.

“[T]here is one way in which socialism is the wrong word for what is happening:  It is not an ideology.  It demands no rigid creed.  Rather, it is a spectrum of attitudes, techniques, and tools that promote collaboration, sharing, aggregation, coordination, ad hocracy, and a host of other newly enabled types of social cooperation.  It is a design frontier and a particularly fertile space for innovation. (118)”

The introduction to issue 10 of the Journal of Consumer Culture explains the producer-consumer shift.  Production and consumption are blurring together and in turn “notions of consumptions might come to change as it becomes an exchange of information (Beer & Burrows, 6).”  The media landscape has moved from being populated with content controlled and created by big business to content created and released by the producer-consumer.

In turn people are moving toward alternative forms of media.  They tend to view traditional big media as too professional and exclusionary.  Deuze (2007) asks, “How can we adequately explain the process, content and consequences of media consumption and production when our contemporary media praxis seems to include both at the same time? (249)”  Media is now both top-down and bottom-up in nature.

This is a question plaguing many as they wrestled with the new expectations of digital participatory culture.  Let us first look at what changes the field has acknowledged in the types of media being consumed and produced and then look at the consequences of this sea change.  We then can critically look at what has not yet been addressed in the realm digital participatory culture.

In “Media Industries, Work and Life” Deuze (2009) notes the convergence of everyday life as exemplified in the consumption of media.  He breaks this phenomenon into three paradoxes: work and play, local and global, self identity and social identity.  In doing so he explains that media is not located outside of a lived experience.  “People do not make sense of their meaning-making and usage practices with media in terms of production and consumption. (469)”  Meaning is made by the user.

Deuze notices that the cultural and creative industries generally gather to specific urban region and form pockets.  Thus, many cities have begun marketing themselves and associating themselves with such culture.  However, much of this must not come out of the official channels themselves and often times converges with the individual creators.  See, citizens as producers form a creative industry and then circulate the culture.  This can be seen in public service and for-profit organizations working together.   The result is a media convergence that blurs the lines that have traditionally divided economy and culture, cooperation and competition (474).  Thus we see this shift:  “Consumer producers are somewhat dependent on, contingent with and benefiting to, the market-driven efforts of multinational media enterprise. (477)”

So, we know that this convergence has caused a change in how consumers are interacting with media.  Gunn Sarah Enli (2009) gives us a fine example of how this plays out in the world when she examines the British television shows Strictly Come Dancing and Britain’s Got Talent. Enli answers, in one way, how established media are incorporating participatory culture into their normal content.  In the case of these programs, home viewers are asked to phone in and vote for their favorite participant.  The newly established relationship consists of not only entertaining the audience, but also engaging them.  Enli explains that audience participation in a show such as this increases perceived authenticity of the programming (482).

This idea of authenticity is one we should not gloss over.  Enli (2009) explains what she calls the “media myth of ordinary people.”  Talent shows, she says, are much akin to make-over shows in that they turn ordinary people into celebrities and vice versa. In the UK, the level of ordinary is dependent on a person’s class background which acts as a sort of guarantee of authenticity (485).  In the case of talent shows, there is a sort of class struggle involved: the public power versus the established judge.  This plays out in Strictly Come Dancing when a well known news anchor is consistently ranked as the worst dancer by the show’s judges, but each week is kept in the contest by and audience that supports him.  This contestant eventually quit the show causing a mass revolt from the viewing public.  Viewers became an “extended arm of publicity management and incognito PR agents for the media company (486)” which corresponds with what we saw from Deuze earlier.  Thus, an editorial dilemma ensues:  If you engage your audience, they will expect recognition.  In this case, that will be through influence on the programming.

Another form of this celebrity came in early 2009 when the working class, unemployed Susan Boyle stunned audiences on Britain’s Got Talent with her singing voice.  A nobody became a somebody overnight--but not due to the established television media.  Rather, the internet made Boyle a household name globally, with YouTube acting as fuel to the fire.  “Social media have provided non-professionals with tools for reproduction and redistribution of media content, and thus imposed changes to the relation between mass media companies and the audience. (Enli 2009, 489)”  Again we see that people have become producer-consumers.  Enli says this poses a problem for big media.  Audience patterns have changed in that they are more active and outspoken, reaching across oceans and borders.  “Traditional cultural boundaries between national publics and global publics are blurring, and national broadcasters are no longer capable of controlling the reach of their content. (490)”

Indeed, web technologies since 2004 have brought about the speedy adoption of the participatory mindset.  What is known as Web 2.0 (though most on the front lines of the movement despise the term) has led the way, allowing non-technical users to create content and contribute to production.  Harrison & Barthel (2009) find that teenagers make up a large portion of this group of online producer-consumers, creating blog posts and remixing others work.  Adults online generally focus their attentions to more artistic expression such as photography, film, artwork, icon and interface design (162).  However, Harrison and Barthel contend that no one yet understands the motivations behind this creation.  They do, however, note that it is in keeping with creative industry history and akin to grass roots creativity.  Producer-consumers are “networked, collaborative, mobilized in pursuit of common interests in popular culture and produce their own media. (164)”

Beer and Burrows (2010) note that this “history of cultural recycling” has made its way into the mainstream and is now “an integral part of everyday life (7)”.  Everyday things, what many would consider the mundane, are put onto video sharing sites like YouTube, micro-blogging platforms like Twitter, and into social media profiles like on Facebook.  This could be construed as part of the desire for authenticity.  It also is changing the notions of privacy in our culture (7).

Not only that, but the details shared go on to create a sort of digital narrative of each person.  In her article “‘Freshly Generated for You, and Barack Obama’: How Social Media Represent Your Life”, Jill Walker Rettburg (2009) gives the example of a social travel site taking the data she provided it of her annual travel and creating an overview of her year.  When combined with data from other websites--perhaps books purchased from over a year, Facebook status updates, or Flickr photos--a fairly accurate and robust narrative can be built, all from one’s own voluntarily shared personal information.

Think also of how one might research a conference speaker before attending their keynote lecture.  Beer (2008) points out that with a quick Google search one can find biographical information on anyone from Wikipedia or a social networking profile, you may be able to find past talks on YouTube or perhaps books they have published (229).

This extends into cultural circles as well.  This ease of ‘getting to know you’ helps to level the playing field.  Take, for instance, a celebrity.  Beer (2008) did just this to become re-acquainted with performer Jarvis Cocker finding that the artist’s MySpace profile housed a vibrant community around it.  Beer posits that the ‘flickering connections’ made by the 2-way communication of fans with artist and fans with other fans has created a flattened environment where “ordinary people can ‘hang with the stars’. (232)”  The artist doesn’t have to be in constant attendance, but he maintains this connection in an important way.  “[H]is intermittent interjections remain essential to giving a sense of ‘livingness’ to the profile while remaining only a part of a range of multi-dimensional and decentralized interactions and connections. (231)”  In other words, there is a perception of proximity that helps to keep the authenticity alive (232).

But at what cost does this information leak come?  Beer (2009) points out that Information Technology now comprise and constitute our lives rather than mediate it (987).  The medium has become a thing.  All of this information is stored in databases and then used.  In other words, information is not only about how we understand the world, it is also active in constructing it (988).  He explains that software algorithms are now making decisions for businesses based on gathered information.  This creates a sort of marketing discrimination as we give the power to the algorithm (991).

Beer (2009) doesn’t think this is all bad, and can certainly be helpful.  The web service aggregates, or ‘scrobbles’, user music listening trends.  A user opts into sending listening stats to the servers which in turn use that data, along with user-generated metadata, to suggest new bands to listen to (996).  The music people come to listen to on is there because of the algorithms--and the power we have given them.  This could also be found true of recommendations.  The data we give based on purchases, reviews, search terms, etc., shape what products the algorithmic engine presents us with.  Often times this is helpful and, even, appreciated.

As communication technologies now operate on a level of ‘technological unconscious’ it is difficult to research the systems underlying our participatory culture.  Beer (2009) emphasizes that there must be strong criticism into how and why users divulge information.  “As things stand we simply do not understand how the material infrastructures of Web 2.0 play out in the lives of individual users and how software constrains and enables, how it formulates hierarchies, shapes the things people encounter, and so on. (1000)”

Though we may not understand it, there is another technical progression taking place that is particularly fascinating.  It is where converging culture meets converging technology.  Or, as Kabisch (2008) terms it, the digital and embodied worlds.  This is the place where technology informs what we are doing when we are away from our computers. Increasingly powerful mobile phones open up boundless opportunities for integrating technology with with the day-to-day on a more personal level.

A somewhat recent trend has come of location-aware software built for mobile phones.  These applications allow users to notify a website of their location, often times incorporating game-like strategy or experience reviews into their respective services.  Mathew Honan (2009), writing for Wired, spent three weeks living with two phones and all of the global positioning satellite (GPS) applications he could ever want.  What he found is how easy it is to give out vast amounts personal information unconsciously.  At the same time, he found plenty of help finding cheap gas for his car, places to eat, and nearby friends.

Kabisch (2008) has taken this a step further.  Using GPS, demographic data, and modern display technology he has created a unique technology-art installation.  He contends that the “physical world already exists as a hybrid stew of digital and embodied entities and practices. (223)”  Databases hold information about the world--location, purchases, crime statistics, etc.--and this in turn creates a digital trace and results in what he calls a demographic narrative (224).

In Datascapes, his installation, Kabisch (2008) has created a ‘virtual’ world that layers on top of the ‘real’ world in order to move away from the virtuality and “focus on the relationships that ‘synthetic worlds’ have to ‘outside’ economies and social practices. (223)”  Thus, he says, “it is useful to conceive of their information as a digital substrate--another dimension of the reality we inhabit.”

I connect this with what Jenkins (2006) wrote about the collective intelligence and how it will inform convergence culture.  He contends that no one knows everything, everybody knows something, and pooled together that becomes a collective intelligence.  The Internet and new technologies can help to bring this together.  “[T]he emerging convergence paradigm assumes that old and new media will interact in ever more complex ways. (6)”

And this is what I see is missing.  The next step in participatory culture.  Users are already contributing their experiences, preferences, and information subconsciously--and we are beginning to see some results of this mass of data.  But what is left to be done?  How will this technology fit into the way our culture progresses?  Can old media extend into life while integrating with this “digital substrate” (Kabisch, 223)”  A sort of old life versus new life, or perhaps ‘old civilization versus new civilization’ that can emerge. The digital world (or the algorithms of it) are already creeping into our physical ‘embodied’ world, but how do we make them interact in the ‘ever more complex ways’ that Jenkins writes about?

When will convergence full-on collide with society and the physical world rather than being mostly relegated to the wires and computer terminals of the digital?  And thus, what will be its effects?  How must traditional media change to respond to the ever converging world we live in?  These are questions that must be answered to fully understand the new digital participatory culture.


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Beer, D. (2009). Power through the algorithm? participatory web cultures and the technological unconscious. New Media & Society, 11(6), 985-1002.

Beer, D, & Burrows, R. (2010). Consumption, prosumption and participatory web cultures: an introduction. Journal of Consumer Culture, 10(3), 3-12.

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Harrison, T.M., & Barthel,  B. (2009). Wielding new media in web 2.0: exploring the history of engagement with the collaborative construction of media products. New Media & Society, 11(1&2), 155-178.

Honan, M. (2009, February). I am here: one man. two phones. dozens of gps apps. Wired, 17(2), 70-75.

Jenkins, H. (2006). Convergence culture: where old and new media collide. New York: New York University Press.

Jenkins, H. (2009). Confronting the challenges of participatory culture. MIT Press.

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Kelly, K. (2009, June). The new socialism. Wired, 17(6), 116-121.

Rettberg, J.W. (2009). ‘Freshly generated for you, and Barack Obama’: how social media represent your life. European Journal of Communication, 24(4), 451-466.

Watkins, S.C. (2009). The Young and the digital. Boston, MA: Beacon Press.