Squee from the Margins: Interview with Rukmini Pande (Part III)


Many fans may argue that they are being respectful in not constructing minority-centered narratives because these are not “their stories to tell,” because of the dangers of appropriation or stereotyping. How do we create a learning space within fandom where such representations can be critiqued and debated without shutting down willingness to participate and contribute? 

I think there is a significant difference in terms of context between the conversations that occur in the publishing industry around appropriation and the ownership of particular stories/experiences and the unwillingness of fans to engage with already existing characters of color within popular cultural texts.  

In professional circles, non-white authors face significant barriers in accessing publishing opportunities that come much easier to white authors due to institutional racism. This is why there has been a concerted effort in genres such as romance novels and Young Adult literature, amongst others, to help spread awareness of more diverse voices in a white dominated field.   

However, within fandom, the conversation has always been more about creating communal modes of enjoying characters and texts. It is true that certain experiences are specific to cultures that may be unfamiliar to white audiences but to posit that the majority of narratives and tropes that make up fanfiction are somehow inaccessible to characters of color is once again ascribing a universalism only to whiteness.   

With regard to concerns about stereotyping, I would point out that fans routinely engage with (white) queer cultures of which they have no direct experience. The resulting fanwork regularly sparks in-fandom discussions about whether these are also problematic depictions of (white) queer lives. These discussions often become heated but I do not think fandom is going to stop writing those stories any time soon. Again, to posit that writing well rounded characters of color is an especially fraught process is to continue to validate the idea that whiteness is normative.  

The concept of cultural appropriation seems especially charged in writing about fandom since fandom studies has also celebrated the ways fans appropriate and rework materials drawn from mass culture. How might we work through these conflicting ideas about appropriation as we begin to incorporate race more fully into our analysis?

I don’t have specific thoughts on this but would point to Ebony Elizabeth’s excellent upcoming book The Dark Fantastic which considers this is more detail.  

Editor’s Note: Check out the podcast interview we did with Ebony Elizabeth Thomas about this project.

A push for greater awareness of racial exclusions and inclusions seems to be simultaneously playing out in fandom and fandom studies, helping us to map some of the potential fault lines (and continuities) in the aca-fan identity. What similarities and differences do you see in the ways the two communities have responded to the critiques you and others are posing at the current moment? 

I think that fandom and fan studies have had a similar range of responses to critique which is a mix of genuine engagement, defensiveness, and outright hostility. As I’ve mainly been discussing fandom so far I’ll address fan studies here.  

I will be honest that it remains a difficult area to discuss because I’ve received support for my work from my peers as an individual and I am always going to be grateful for that. However, I’ve also been confronted with the field’s whiteness in a very direct and aggressive fashion. This occurred in Feburary 2019, in response to my tweeting what was, in my opinion, a rather self-evident fact – that Fan Studies as a discipline is dominated by whiteness. I was extremely surprised by the pushback I received, the wider implications of which have been discussed in detail by Samira Nadkarni here.  

I think it is also really important to reflect on what this level of defensiveness means when talking about issues such as decolonization. After all, if we are still at the point where non-white scholars are asked to explain extremely basic concepts such as institutional racism and structural whiteness then it is a very damning indictment of our bibliographies, methodologies, peer review processes and publishing.  

I am often told that white scholars are afraid of speaking about race. In response I would say that firstly, this fear puts the entire burden of doing the work of decolonization on non-white scholars who, it must be pointed out, also face considerable anxiety and an equal possibility of messing up when approaching the topic. Secondly, this fear is damaging the field because it results in work that is fundamentally incomplete and also participates in further entrenching whiteness-as-default.  

As this debate around your book have unfolded, there has been some tendency of academics to acknowledge that systemic and structural racism impacts academic research as a whole but to push back on the idea that fandom studies might be particularly problematic in this regard. This no doubt reflects the perception within fandom, and fandom studies, that this is a more progressive, inclusive, and transgressive space than most traditional disciplinary spaces. Yet, your argument is that we can only really maintain that sense of ourselves by bracketing race from our conversation. And throughout the book, you offer a range of examples where the exclusion of race from our consideration erases, silences, or marginalizes. How do you respond to the “not only fandom studies” argument? 

I think that’s a rather blinkered argument to make because isn’t the whole point of an academic field to be self-critical so that it can move forward to produce better, more accurate, and more incisive knowledge? If we allow such defensiveness to shut down not just critique, but the possibility of enriching our research through rigorous and inclusive methodologies, theoretical frameworks, and publishing practices, then we will certainly fail in accurately portraying the complexity of fan communities today.


Dr Rukmini Pande is currently an Assistant Professor in English Literature at O.P Jindal Global University, India. She completed her PhD at the University of Western Australia. She is currently part of the editorial board of the Journal of Fandom Studies and has been published in multiple edited collections including the Wiley Companion to Media Fandom and Fan Studies and The Routledge Handbook of Popular Culture Tourism. She has also been published in peer reviewed journals such as Transformative Works and Cultures and The Journal for Feminist Studies. Her monograph, Squee From The Margins: Race in Fandom, was published in 2018 by the University of Iowa Press. She is also working on an edited collection on race/racism in fandom in order to bring together cutting edge scholarship from upcoming scholars in the field.

Squee From the Margins: Interview with Rukmini Pande (Part II)


I suspect some fans are going to be more willing to accept the idea of more diverse participants in fandom spaces than are going to be willing to take on an obligation to personally expand the representations of race within fandom. Can we separate out inclusion from diversity in regard to representation within a participatory culture? Why or why not?

 I think the first thing to question here is the framing the concept of engaging with characters of color as “taking on an obligation.” Why should it be so?  

The assumption that characters of color do not offer the same possibilities of pleasure and exploration of fandom tropes and archetypes is in itself racist. Indeed, while characters of color that offer rich potential for fannish squee have always existed, as the roles offered to non-white actors within popular cultural texts have expanded this disjuncture has become even more clear. There are plenty of similarities between Bucky Barnes from the MCU movies and Finn from Star Wars in terms of their character arcs but only the former has become the locus of fan attention.  

To link this to my earlier responses, there is a clear connection between the attitude that assumes that characters of color are somehow inherently unsuitable for fannish modes of pleasure and the labelling of vocal fans of color as fandom killjoys. The foreclosure of the possibility of learning to find joy in characters of color (as I did in my experiences with Star Trek) and only framing this process in punitive language – policing, obligation, scoring social justice points, etc – is in itself a product of the logic of white supremacy.  

Also I think it is important to underline that fans of color have always been in these spaces and have contributed materially to their evolution through the production of fanwork, supporting projects like the AO3, and building community infrastructure. So, even though this labor has been invisibilized, I don’t think they need (or desire) the acceptance of white fans to validate their continuing participation.   

One of the more chilling observations running across your book is the idea that as Hollywood has developed marginally more inclusive representations, fan fiction writing communities have tended to lag behind rather than keep pace, still focusing on white characters even when they are peripheral to the original narratives rather than helping to further develop minority characters and re-center stories around them.  In what ways does the fan fiction community seem to reproduce the exclusions and silences of the entertainment industry more generally?  What obligations do individual fans bear in dealing with this situation? And what strategies have emerged in response to this process of marginalization? 

To pick up from my response to the last question, I think that framing these interactions in exclusively punitive terms is limiting. After all, there is a long and celebrated tradition of analyzing fandom as a learning resource. People have incessantly documented their experiences of this – from figuring out how to code, to deconstructing internalized attitudes towards sexism, homophobia, and slutshaming, to kink exploration, to researching what kind of lubricant would be available to the Victorians. However, when it comes to unlearning internalized racism – to which fans of color are equally susceptible – why is the possibility of fandom leading to that completely negated? Why do white fans need to see this engagement as an obligation or as policing? It is because there is a deep and immediate defensiveness sparked by the idea that whiteness is a racialized identity with specific effects.  

To address the second part of the question, fans of color are definitely in a continual state of overt or covert negotiation with the whiteness of fandom spaces and texts and have evolved strategies to deal with it – self segregation, fanwork fests, etc. However, it is also limiting to frame their fannish activities only through this lens. It is after all, not their responsibility, nor is it within their power, to fix the problem. For instance, sometimes an angry post about how the pairing of Steve Rogers/Darcy Williams (who have never met in the MCU canon) continues to have more fanfiction than the pairing of Steve Rogers/Sam Wilson (who are well established companions) is just that – an angry post that is meant to vent frustration without offering a solution.  

You argue that these silences or exclusions are not simply “glitches” in a system that otherwise works to embrace a range of identities and experiences. Rather, you see these “glitches” as part of how “fannish algorithms” operate. Explain. 

In my framing, fandom algorithms are structures that are seen to order the workings of media fandom, both in terms of communitarian etiquettes and technical strategies that involve fannish digital infrastructure like archiving fanworks and organisational strategies such as tagging. These algorithms are basically “strategies of squee.” They are seen to operate independently and without bias towards any particular individual fan or character.  

So when racism is seen to interrupt their workings, it is seen in the form of a “glitch,” an interruption of a system that otherwise works smoothly towards promoting such common fannish experiences such as the formation of safe spaces, the exchange squee, the pushback against a restrictive canon and the lessening of friction between opposed groups.  

Another effect of this formulation is to see the roots of these glitches, when they occur, as part of a larger systemic malfunction that fandom participants cannot influence. This allows for troubling patterns of behaviour to be deflected outwards onto flawed popular cultural texts or onto individuals who act in bad faith against fandom etiquettes, allowing the core liberal nature of media fandom spaces to operate without questioning. 

As an example, fandom algorithms can be axiomatic such as “Ship and Let Ship” which is seen as a basic common sense approach to fandom spaces where different individuals have different needs from a text. Theoretically, the operation of this algorithm would result in a harmonious fan space but the “glitch” would occur when fans of Finn from Star Wars would point out the anti-blackness that is influencing his sidelining in fanworks.  

The larger effect of this algorithm then is to encourage fans to ignore patterns of erasure over time, such as the inevitable elevation of white characters in text after text.


Dr Rukmini Pande is currently an Assistant Professor in English Literature at O.P Jindal Global University, India. She completed her PhD at the University of Western Australia. She is currently part of the editorial board of the Journal of Fandom Studies and has been published in multiple edited collections including the Wiley Companion to Media Fandom and Fan Studies and The Routledge Handbook of Popular Culture Tourism. She has also been published in peer reviewed journals such as Transformative Works and Cultures and The Journal for Feminist Studies. Her monograph, Squee From The Margins: Race in Fandom, was published in 2018 by the University of Iowa Press. She is also working on an edited collection on race/racism in fandom in order to bring together cutting edge scholarship from upcoming scholars in the field.

Squee from the Margins: Interview with Rukmini Pande (Part I)


Few books have had the impact on the field of fandom studies that Rukmini Pande’s Squee From the Margins: Fandom and Race has had since it’s publication. I have been listening to Pande’s powerful and poignant critiques of our field take shape through multiple appearances on the Fansplaining podcast. The conversation about race and fandom has been long overdue. That moment of reckoning seems to be here, signaled not only by the publication of this important book, but also through important scholarly work by Rebecca Wanzo, André Carrington, Mel Stanfill and many others. Witness the recent issue of Transformative Works and Culture on “fans of color, fandoms of color” which was edited by Abigail De Kosnik and André Carrington. For those who want to de-colonize their reading and teaching, Pande has published a valuable bibliography.

These writers — many of them new, junior, and vulnerable — are rightly questioning some of Fandom Studies’s founding assumptions. It is not just that discussions of race (and fans of color) have largely been excluded from our previous work but that this absence has structured the field, determining what we see and what we don’t see, what we say and don’t say, throughout all aspects of our work.

As a founding figure in the field, I am trying to take ownership of some of my own past failures to fully address this issue. I have found myself rethinking some of my own work and shifting the ways I write about fandom to reflect what I have learned through these critiques, though I still have much to learn. I am also rethinking the syllabus for my fandom studies seminar which I will be teaching again this fall. I have come to recognize that the freedom to avoid writing and speaking about race is the worst form of white privilege inside the academy, and we — white scholars — cannot let ourselves off the hook here. Reading and assigning the works of scholars of color is not enough if it means we continue to ignore race and racism in our own scholarship.

This process of bringing issues of race and racism — and the perspectives of fans and scholars of color — into the center of our field and rethinking earlier work is painful, messy, and occurring in public. Pande has shown great courage in responding to the inevitable push-back her interventions are receiving, even as the field as a whole has embraced her important contributions to our scholarship.

As I thought about how to frame this interview, I wanted to give Pande a chance to respond to some of the pushback I have heard, both online and in private, from fans and aca-fans alike. As a consequence, with her agreement, I am playing devil’s advocate here, more than I might ordinarily do, as I bring some of these assumptions to the surface so they can be addressed. How we work through these debates will test the ethical core of our community, constituting a teachable moment as we learn from each other, listen to each other, and forgive each other. We need to confront certain issues directly, acknowledge histories of exclusion, marginalization, and dismissal, yet we also need to allow room for people to confront past mistakes and move beyond them. Above all, though, those of us who enjoy certain kinds of privilege need to err on the side of ethical listening.

From the book’s opening pages, you draw inspiration from Sara Ahmed’s concept of the feminist killjoy, asking “What does it mean to be a fandom killjoy with regard to being the subject of and reacting to racism in fandom spaces?” To this, I might add the question – what do you see as the dangers and potentials of taking on such a role at the current moment in the evolution of fandom studies? Is this a role which it is possible for fans of color (a problematic term for all of the reasons you note) to escape in regard to the racial dynamics you have identified in fandom spaces by remaining silent and complicit with a space which is safe for some but not for all, by “passing” within a space imagined to be post-racial? 

I think the position of the fandom killjoy is something that is ascribed to or imposed upon fans who point out the operations about race/racism in fandom spaces rather than a role that they seek out.  

It is important to make that distinction because fans who do talk about these issues are often branded as activists who are motivated by a desire to score social justice points rather than by a genuine fannish investment in a character or text. This othering also often comes with a hypervisibility that inhibits further fandom participation as their energy is expected to then go towards ‘fixing’ the problem they have identified. To quote Sara Ahmed (again!), she notes in Complaint as Diversity Work that, “A complaint teaches about institutional direction because a complaint is often treated as misdirection by the institution. Another way of saying this: to locate a problem is to become the location of a problem. Diversity work: becoming the location of a problem.”  

I think the question of escapism is a really interesting one for fans of color and one that I took up specifically in my research for Squee From The Margins. I wanted to hear about what kinds of escapism were available to fans of color in white-focused fandoms, especially in light of repeated claims by white fans that they come to fandom spaces to enjoy themselves and escape from having to consider “serious” issues (like racism) that they encounter in their daily lives.  

I found that while it is certainly possible for fans of color to “pass” within online fan spaces, their modes of escapism are mostly contingent – I can enjoy a source or fan text until it gets racist. Other fans articulated the importance of finding networks of fellow non-white fans so that they could curate their experiences to be safer. In all cases, fandom certainly isn’t a space where these fans can escape from race/racism even if it is not something that is engaged with publicly or vocally.   

Of course non-white fans have been building alternative fan spaces for a long time. Scholars like Kirsten Warner, Rebecca Wanzo and Andre Carrington have talked particularly about how Black fans in the USA have carved out space for themselves in this way. However, within anglophone media fandom this has been less successful and has been limited to events like one-off fanwork creation fests. There is certainly a level of self-segregation being practiced – non-white fans finding each other in white spaces, gravitating towards texts with better representation, etc – but fandom spaces today are simultaneously too scattered and too connected for this to be a large scale strategy. And of course, not all non-white fans like the same texts or want the same thing out of fanworks, so to treat them as a homogenous mass is also not productive. 

Across the book, you acknowledge what fandom offered you as a young woman growing up in small town India and the sense of frustration you felt in realizing that you were “passing” in a context where participants were always already assumed to be white. And you describe your growing awareness that you were not unique in having these experiences. Can you share some of the moments where you felt you were pushing against the limits of fandom in regard to race?  

The process of realising how deeply whiteness was structured into media fandom spaces was a gradual process for me. Initially, I was extremely resistant to the idea that my participation in fandom spaces could be racist. I think the first time I was confronted with evidence of this was in Star Trek (2009) fandom. As someone who’d been a Kirk/Spock shipper from the original series it was deeply enjoyable to see the explosion of fanwork around the pairing once again. I even nodded along with the dominant argument that the character of Nyota Uhura (Zoe Saldana) had been somehow lessened because of her canonical romance with Spock (Zachary Quinto).  

When some Black fans very rightly pointed out how problematic this argument was, and further that Kirk/Spock fans were either ignoring Uhura entirely or writing her character in extremely racist ways within their own fanwork, I was extremely discomfited and resistant. This was partly because as someone who had grown up in India with plenty of “people like me” on movie screens, I was unfamiliar with the racial dynamics of US-centric filmic representation. But it was also very much because I was, for the first time, being made to see how my modes of fandom were deeply implicated in whiteness even as they functioned to give me pleasure and the chance to explore (white) queerness.  

This experience was extremely foundational because once I was made aware of the racialization of my choices it gave me the chance to work through my own defensiveness. I realized that fandom had always encouraged me to be self-reflexive about my attraction to certain character archetypes and shipping dynamics in terms of gender and sexuality but had worked to elide their whiteness. This in turn helped me to value characters of color who also offered me the exact same modes of pleasure but which fandom had deemed to be uninteresting. This was a huge turning point for me, not because I was being policed into appropriate modes of fandom, but because I was able to actually expand notions of my own fannish pleasure. 

I don’t mean to imply that this was a smooth or easy process but it definitely showed me how fandom truisms (or algorithms as I term them in Squee From The Margins) like “Ship and Let Ship” while overtly functioning to maintain fandom harmony, also work towards making whiteness invisible. 

Your title, “Squee from the Margins,” evokes a fannish term that is bound up with notions of pleasure and affect. Fandom studies has long questioned the social construction of taste, whereas desire, fantasy, pleasure, and affect are seen as authentic or natural more often than not. Some would argue that the heart desires what the heart desires, so how can we push for broader representational practices in fandom without seeming to perform the kinds of policing of pleasure and fantasy which has been explicitly rejected within fandom communities in relation to gender and sexuality?  

The fact that fan studies has long questioned the social construction of taste and yet has left the deep racialization of fandom’s taste uninterrogated is, in my opinion, quite damning. As I have discussed earlier, the characterization of fans who critique the whiteness of fan spaces as ‘policing activists’ rather than people invested in communal pleasure is fundamental to how white supremacy maintains itself. This is also related to the reasoning that structures the positions that you mention where gender and sexuality are somehow magically de-racialized.  

I think the most blatant problem with the position of “The heart wants what it wants” is the accompanying unwillingness to name that “something” as whiteness because that would imply that fandom spaces are not neutral. White fans have, as decades of evidence proves, consistently chosen white characters to devote their fandom energies towards. Fannish pleasure and fantasy therefore are already fundamentally implicated in questions of race. It is simply a matter of acknowledging that fact. But, as is evident, naming whiteness triggers a deep defensiveness that manifests itself in trying to prove that those that point out the problem are the real location of disruption.   

You trace a “jigsaw puzzle of fandom histories” which led to the current moment. In particular, you focus on Race Fail 09 as a key event which helped develop a greater focus on the implicit and sometimes explicit racialized assumptions shaping fandom. Can you trace for us some of the paths which led from this incident to the growing attention to race and fandom? 

2019 marks 10 years since RaceFail ’09 and I think its legacy is an accurate reflection of the role of race in within fandom and fan studies. Firstly, it lead to a greater degree of openness in talking about the issues of race in SFF, both within fandom and in professional spaces. Secondly, it gave the chance for fans of color across media fandom to form points of connection and solidarity within these spaces at a time when that aspect of personal identity was less visible. These connections in turn amplified their critiques. I don’t think it is a coincidence that the debates in the Star Trek (2009) fandom that I discussed earlier were also happening at around the same time.

But equally, the trajectory of the debates around RaceFail ‘09 show that the presence of race/ism in fandom is noted only in times of crisis, located in the actions of individuals, and eventually excised from collective memory. When talking about fandom history, the number of scholars (and fans) who note StrikeThrough (which happened in 2007 and saw a mass purge of explicit sexual content on Livejournal) as foundational to the construction of contemporary fan spaces such as AO3 but completely ignore RaceFail (which happened only two years later) is remarkable. This forgetting is also seen in the lack of any reflection on the incident within the discipline of fan studies. For instance, during the roundtable on Race and Fan Studies at this year’s PCA/ACA conference, hardly anyone in the room could recall any scholars of color who were involved in the documentation and discussion of RaceFail. This is of course deeply troubling and points to the ways in which the discipline continues to actively enable its own structural whiteness.


Dr Rukmini Pande is currently an Assistant Professor in English Literature at O.P Jindal Global University, India. She completed her PhD at the University of Western Australia. She is currently part of the editorial board of the Journal of Fandom Studies and has been published in multiple edited collections including the Wiley Companion to Media Fandom and Fan Studies and The Routledge Handbook of Popular Culture Tourism. She has also been published in peer reviewed journals such as Transformative Works and Cultures and The Journal for Feminist Studies. Her monograph, Squee From The Margins: Race in Fandom, was published in 2018 by the University of Iowa Press. She is also working on an edited collection on race/racism in fandom in order to bring together cutting edge scholarship from upcoming scholars in the field.


Participatory Politics in an Age of Crisis: Henry Jenkins & Nico Carpentier (Part V)


Yes, Yes, and Yes!!! I really find this approach very generative. So far, in mapping the ethics of participation, we have, at this moment of crisis, focused on anti-democratic and even fascistic players, seeking to recognize ideals and norms through their violation. But I wonder if we might reverse the lens for a moment and try to define what participatory leadership looks like. I know from our earlier conversation this was a key theme for you and it is something I am thinking about more and more. This brings me back to the figure of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and the ways that she is disrupting conventional political rhetoric in order to create conditions that encourage participation by youth, women, and people of color within the political process. Here's a recent video she released about the Green New Deal, which seems particularly rich in terms of the ways it constructs, top-down though it may be, a model of what a more democratic/participatory society might look like.

First, I would note that her work is consistently pedagogical. She understands that if those who have been excluded from the political process (either formally through voter repression or informally through the ways established politicians talk) need a certain background to be brought into the conversation. We saw in the work I did for By Any Media Necessary that many young people felt the language of American politics was broken, both by partisanship and policy wonk rhetoric, both of which turned away first time voters. Here, she explains this potential set of policies in clear, vivid, and concrete terms. In this case, she's using animation and storytelling to illustrate both how we got to the current state and what a future alternative might look like.

Second, and tied to the first, she constructs an aspirational future -- not just telling us what the problem is but daring us to imagine, together, what alternatives might look like. And there are various explicit appeals here to participate, to get involved. She constructs herself as a model of a young person who has been able to become part of the most diverse group of congresspeople "so far" and she offers a model of a young Latinx girl who will grow up and replace her someday. She maps the transition between participatory or expressive politics (outside the formal system through protest) and institutional politics -- the ability to actively contribute to the decision-making process. Many young people say that they are never invited to participate in the decision-making process, never encouraged to vote, to petition, to protest, etc. and research shows that such direct appeals often make a difference.

Of course, the appeal is most effective when given by someone who plays a direct role in the young person's life. And that's why it matters that AOC's content is so damn spreadable, that she is actively encouraging people to circulate it through our everyday social networks, and thus her political speech goes where the people are rather than pulling them into uncomfortable, unfamiliar, spaces of formal politics.

I really value the ways that she embraces the civic imagination, that she dares to propose approaches that would be outside what the political establishment deems possible, given current constraints. She's pushing past what Stephen Duncombe calls "the tyranny of the possible." But at the same time, she does not mean for us to take this vision, literally, as the only possible way forward or the only way to achieve her goals. In the end, we do not have a utopia (problems persist) nor do we have a blueprint which is closed off from popular interventions. We have a provocation which encourages a continuing process of asking questions, proposing alternatives, and working to achieve them on the local, national, and global level.


Finally, if you look closely, you will see that she did the video in collaboration with Naomi Klein, best known for her book, No Logos, but more to the point, the author of a new work, No is Not Enough. This book makes the case that resistance is not enough to change what's wrong with global democracy, that we need to be willing to put effort into describing what alternatives look like, regardless of whether we yet have the means to achieve them. She describes work taking place in the environmental justice movement in Canada, which involves bringing diverse stakeholders together, to talk through problems and develop plans for alternative futures. The fact that these are considered alternatives (not THE answer) creates a space for people to participate in the process and contribute their own ideas.

There must be young leaders like AOC (or elders like Naomi Klein) all over the world who are working not just to resist authoritarian impulses in their cultures but to articulate and actively perform what an alternative might look like. Are there examples you might point to in Cyprus or the various European countries where you have been doing your work?

Our own Civic Imagination workshops are on a modest level trying to do something similar. We go into communities across America and elsewhere in the world to create temporary spaces where people can imagine the future together. Through our participatory process, we surface points of agreement as well as points of disagreement, helping communities to identify shared values and visions, as well as to recognize and pay respect to those things which differentiate their experiences and perspectives. Surprising things emerge -- a discussion of religious freedom in Beirut, a discussion of the need for national health care in Kentucky -- which do not fit our assumptions or mental categories of how such groups constitute themselves. We certainly hear some conservative perspectives, but we are also seeing people agree on things that set them apart from the institutional political leadership. It is through such a process that people may become awakened to and inculcated into the kinds of ethics of participation we have been discussing.


What does participatory leadership look like? How does it help to create conditions and provide resources that support the kinds of expansion of opportunities to participate you described in your last post? Too often, we talk about flat organizations and leaderless movements, terms which undervalue the importance that good leaders can bring to democratic processes. I am struck by the difference in the ways AOC represents herself and the ways that Trump does. Consider a news story today about the ways some servicemen wore badges on their sleeve which signaled their allegiance to Trump rather than to the American Constitution, badges which look pretty damn much like the kinds of iconography that surrounds other fascistic states. No wonder AOC has received such attacks from the alt-right -- she embodies the exact opposite of their vision for the future of American society.


Yes, I agree that leadership matters, and significantly matters, in the debates about participation, and in the debates about the protection of democracy. Where I would like to start is that participatory processes are affected by how leadership, expertise and ownership are defined and performed. Authoritarian forms of leadership disable participation, as they are contradictory. Authoritarianism is grounded in the centralization of power, while participation is based on its decentralization. The same point applies to expertise and ownership, that, depending how they are defined and performed in a particular context (and not only politics), can increase or decrease participatory intensities. Actually, there is quite a lot of mid-20th century literature in the field of leadership studies (e.g., Lewin and Adorno) that tries to think through these issues, for instance, by distinguishing between democratic and authoritarian leadership. That kind of literature can be re-interpreted and extended, to capture how participation and leadership interact, in constructive and destructive ways.

One of the additions that I would like to make is that we are up against a deeply rooted desire for these stronger forms of leadership. Different authors, e.g. Gramsci and Reich, have tried to provide answers to the question why people chose for authoritarian regimes. Without delving too deep into these discussions, I would argue that the fantasy of the ultimate charismatic leader, that manages to fulfill all contradictory demands of the people, and cares for the people as a father/mother figure, is a strong force, that we should take into account. I would also argue that this fantasy links to another fantasy, namely the fantasy of homogeneity, where there is no conflict, no dissensus, and no disagreement. Authoritarian leaders tap into these fantasies, offering to fulfill all these wishes and demands, and offering a construction of the people as the One. However tempting it is to believe that we can safely rest in the caring arms of the Leader, these fantasies are bound to be frustrated, through the heterogeneity of the social, the irreconcilability of demands, and thus the unavoidable presence of conflict.

But, as I argued earlier in our discussion, we are living in the era of the both, and I would argue that there is also another fantasy circulating, which is the fantasy of equality and horizontality. It is the fantasy of the absence of hierarchy. We find this fantasy in many different variations, some of which I would consider benevolent, while others can be deeply troubling. I would argue that when the two fantasies, the fantasies of horizontality and homogeneity, become integrated, the outcome can be deeply troubling. This is actually where populism (or what some would qualify as regressive or reactionary populism, see Mouffe's and Fraser's work) is situated, because of its anti-establishment discourse, that unifies (homogenizes) the people in its wish to remove the establishment that is considered to have betrayed it. In a next move, populism then brings in the (contradictory) logic of verticality, as it presents a new elite to the people (replacing the old established elite) that "truly" represents the people.

I think it is also possible to translate the fantasy of horizontality (and what I would prefer to label equivalence) into social practice without triggering the fantasy of homogeneity, but instead by respecting radical diversity. That is (I think and hope) where my position is situated. And (after this long detour): This is the playing field where I situate participatory leadership, or, as I prefer (to better connect to the existing reflections) democratic leadership. I do not want to articulate horizontality and homogeneity, which also means that I do not believe that we should eliminate leaders (or experts, and even (sic) owners), simply because we are all the same and we should not have leaders at all. I think this would imply the denial of human diversity, ignoring the idea that people have developed different skills throughout their life trajectories, for instance at the level of understanding, argumentation, communication and organization (which are qualities that define leadership).

Instead, we need to respect and cherish these qualities, which brings me to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who seems to have accumulated a number of these qualities, although it might be a bit early days to evaluate this. But more in general, democratic leadership is built on the articulation of horizontality, equivalence and diversity, which recognizes the particularity of individual leadership skills, but which also prevents that these differences (or particularities) harm or destroy the logic of equivalence. Or, in other words, democratic leaders are aggregators, translators and protectors of diversity, that use empathy to connect to the plurality of demands, defend the participatory ethics and avoid the creation of the incontestable 'One Narrative'. To refer to an ancient idea, democratic leaders have to have a little memento mori voice in their heads, which is a permanent reminder that they are mortal, and not divine.

I know that this is a lot to ask from individual leaders, but I think that this re-articulation of leadership is very necessary to protect contemporary democratic cultures (and, by the way, our environment as well, but that is for another discussion). At the same time, we should not blindly trust the authority of leaders, even if, at first, these leaders seem to fulfill all criteria of democratic leadership. We should keep in mind that time plays a role, and that the maintenance of democratic leadership poses a serious challenge, as leaders are exposed to the seductive capacities of power. That is, of course, the main reason why rotation remains a crucial democratic principle. But I would argue that also collective leadership structures, with leadership teams (without having a primus inter pares) instead of individual leaders, should be considered and implemented more.

And even when these more protective scenarios, driven by a structural distrust in the necessarily benevolent authority of leaders, are implemented, I would still argue that we simultaneously need mechanisms that undermine this authority of leaders. Historically, the jester has shown to be a crucial figure, that could speak truth to power. The carnavelesque is a more structural form of this kind of disruptive practice, which has the capacity to undermine authority, even if it is only for a limited period in time. A more contemporary version is political satire, which again has the capacity to desacralize leadership. Of course, political satire has gained a strong position in the US media sphere, but maybe the not-so-exclusive focus on one particular leader (which we now often find in these late-night talk shows) would be more beneficial, however tempting it is to focus on the current US president. And I would like to add that we need a better comprehension of the current transgressions and the enjoyment they create, but we also need to develop counter-transgressions, that strengthen the democratic tissue, instead of weakening it.

The shift towards a different (democratic) leadership model is part of a broader change towards a more progressive politics. There is, of course, paradoxically, the need for democratic leaders to develop an ideological project that elaborates these more progressive politics, including the identity of democratic leaders. In order to move outside this paradox, we need to broaden the notion of democratic leadership, not restricting it to institutionalized politics, but incorporating and connecting democratic leaders from all social fields. That returns us to Gramsci's concept of hegemony, or the creation of a dominant ideological project through a series of political alliances. This does not imply that all progressive forces need to agree on all issues, or that they need to become assimilated into one impossible meta-project. Instead, we need these forces to generate, in a non-defensive way, what Laclau and Mouffe call a chain of equivalence, with the many different progressive groups collaborating in the development of a new progressive ideology for the 21st century, without denying their internal differences.

But we also need a second, much broader, political alliance, with all democratic political forces, conservative and progressive, to protect the idea of democracy itself. I would argue that this is even more urgent, as anti-democratic forces are gaining strength in the West, and there is a strong need to re-hegemonize democracy. This does not mean that this broad alliance, a democratic front, needs to agree on particular ideological projects. They do not even have to agree on what kind of democracy is preferred. The plan to establish more intense forms of democracy, including participatory democracy, in a variety of fields (including media and communication), does not need to disappear from the progressive agenda. But there is a need for a new democratic social contract, that pledges to actively defend the idea of democracy itself. Now is about the time, I would say.


Henry Jenkins is the Provost's Professor of Communication, Journalism, Cinematic Arts, and Education at the University of Southern California. He is the author or editor of twenty books on various aspects of media and popular culture. He is perhaps best known for Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Culture and Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide. He is celebrating the paperback publication of By Any Media Necessary: The New Youth Activism, of which he is co-author. His forthcoming books include Popular Culture and the Civic Imagination: Case Studies in Creative Social Change (which he co-edited with Sangita Shresthova and Gabriel Peters-Lazaro), Participatory Culture: Interviews, and Comics and Stuff

Nico Carpentier is Docent at Charles University in Prague; he also holds part-time positions at Uppsala University and the Vrije Universiteit Brussel (VUB - Free University of Brussels). Moreover, he is a Research Fellow at the Cyprus University of Technology and Loughborough University. Earlier, he was ECREA Treasurer (2005-2012) and Vice-President (2008-2012), and IAMCR Treasurer (2012-2016). Currently, he is Chair of the Participatory Communication Research Section at IAMCR. His latest books are The Discursive-Material Knot: Cyprus in Conflict and Community Media Participation (2017, Peter Lang, New York); Cyprus and its Conflicts. Representations, Materialities, and Cultures (2018, co-edited), Critical Perspectives on Media, Power and Change (2018, co-edited), Respublika! Experiments in the Performance of Participation and Democracy (2019, edited), and Communication and Discourse Theory (2019, co-edited).

Participatory Politics in an Age of Crisis: Henry Jenkins & Nico Carpentier (Part IV)


Your question here about whether a Lynch Mob would be participatory is a compelling one. Frankly, I am still trying to work through your question to my own satisfaction. Your position gives you a more stable vantage point from which to address this. But if you accept, as I do, that the goal should not to automatically assume that all participation is going to be progressive, if you accept that there is a continuum of different degrees of participation, and if you assume there is a blurry boundary between interaction/expression and participation, then you are left in an uncomfortable position right now.

You are correct that any formal or mechanical notion of participation poses some problems as we deal with right wing populist movements around the world. For example, there is strong evidence that the alt-right is using debates among fans of Star Wars, and other recent franchises (Ghostbusters, say) which have sought to move in more inclusive directions, to identify and recruit angry white male fans into their cause. And my friend, Tara McPherson, is researching Neoconfederate and white supremicist groups and finding that they are similar recruiting from gaming platforms. Fandom and gaming are both spaces I have read as central to what I describe as a more participatory culture. In some ways, these groups, whatever their politics, are helping young people bridge from the expressions associated with participatory culture and involvement in some political process. So, what allows us to discount them as participatory? I know, not your problem to address.

Or consider another example. I am really interested in a media event that occured in Forsyth County, Georgia, which was a so-called “sundown town” -- no Blacks lived there and they were not safe if they remained in the county after dark. (A white supremicist lynch mob had cleared out all of the black residents in the 1920s and as of the 1980s, none had moved back). Civil Rights protestors were directing national attention towards this segregated city and early in her career, Oprah chose to make this issue a focus of her program. She made a controversial decision to only allow people who lived in Forsyth County into the studio audience, much to the outrage of the Civil Rights leaders and protestors who had come in from elsewhere. When the episode aired, we got the spectacle of Oprah as the only black person on the set, dramaticizing more powerfully than anything else could the exclusion of blacks from the county. Inside the studio, the locals engaged in heated debates around the issue of being a white only community.  

Most showed some form of racism but within the terms of the conversation, there were real notable disagreements and these dissenting views were tolerated within the norms of the community. This group would ultimately make the decisions which impacted this policy. (Today, by the way, Forsyth County is a multiracial/multicultural community with demographics that look very much like all of the other counties in this part of Georgia.) Is this process participatory? It cuts to your question of who gets to participate, I think, since by one definition, the members of the community were allowed to participate where-as by another definition, there are visible acts of exclusion going on here. I often use this example to think through the issues we are both raising here.  

Your focus on participatory ethics gives us one path forward, and that’s why it interests me so much. If we develop an ethical definition of participation, then the fact that those who were excluded from membership within this community -- by force in some cases — were not allowed to participate surely limits the quality of participation, even if by a mechanical definition, the event follows participatory procedures and is in fact broadly inclusive within a narrower definition of what constitutes the community. This is why the other distinctions we are both proposing may be helpful.  From my opening post, we have: 

Participation in what?

Participation for whom and with whom?  

Participation towards what ends?

Participation under what terms?  

Participation to what degree? 

From your recent post, we have: 

What makes participation possible?

What is the level of participation?

And what does participation then do?  

There is a certain amount of overlap here, as well as a few nuanced differences. For example, “participation towards what ends?” describes motives while “What does participation then do?” focuses on results. “What is the level of participation?” and “participation to what degree?” are pretty interchangeable, unless I miss a more nuanced distinction. I love the “what makes participation possible?” question since it points to the issue of causation or at least the conditionality of participation, a question I had not included in my list. But it seems possible that the two lists could be merged, which would give us some ways to define different kinds of participation with a high degree of precision, even if I hold onto some messiness for descriptive rather than prescriptive purposes.  

Your question of “What makes participation possible?” suggests ways expression/interaction may enable deeper forms of participation (or may keep participation alive as an ideal even during times of repression). Here, I am thinking about the work of Yomna Elsayed who participated in one of the conversations in the series and also contributed to an earlier exchange about popular religion. She’s interested in mapping the democratic potentials within Egyptian popular/participatory culture following the collapse of the Arab Spring uprisings there. She sees critical voices emerging through anti-fandom, popular music, internet humor, and memes, which may not be overtly political, but do allow young people to form alliances and express oppositional perspectives on the values underlying the current power structure in their country. Within cultural studies, these practices has all the markings of cultural resistance but it has not yet coalesced into a formal political movement and would not meet your definition of participation in that they do not get to collectively participate in decision-making. Yet, if a new resistance movement emerged there, it might build on the foundation that such cultural expressions provide, just as earlier cultural practices (more-so than Twitter or Facebook as specific platforms) helped to foster the preconditions for the Arab Spring. For me, expressions are one of the cultural factors that shape the civic imagination and make participation on a more political level possible. 

Now, can we do similar work in terms of identifying some of the ethical norms essential to create what you describe here as a democratic culture? I’ve focused on not working to exclude others from meaningful participation. A second norm which might seem definitional of a democratic culture is a willingness to accept the outcome of democratically arrived decisions, something we are not seeing much of in America today, where Trump has sought to actively negate every law or policy that Obama passed and refused to enforce or promote those which remain on the books. And we might point to an obligation to defend rather than delegitimize democratic institutions and practices. What else would you add to the mix?


Let me start with the dilemma that your last reply starts with, and that we have been talking about for a while: The limits of participation. It is a very simple question that has been the starting point of my theoretical work: When does participation stop being participation? As you know, I find it hard to accept that every human action is labelled participation. Once that assumption is accepted, then the unavoidable question becomes: Which human interactions are outside participation?

One of the dilemmas that comes out of this simple question is the democratic limit of participation. My argument is that participation is a concept that loses its meaning if it is pushed outside democratic culture. Of course, there are many grey zones, and there, the discussion is famously complicated, but that should not spoil the fun right now. There is one important addition, and that is that we need to distinguish between progressive politics and democracy. It is implicitly present in your last reply, but I want to emphasize this distinction, because I think it is important. As you write, there is now ample evidence that participatory logics can be activated by a wide variety of political ideologies, and that is not the exclusive territory of progressive politics. This, of course, is combined with the realization that civil society is not necessarily progressive, and not even necessarily democratic. Some have proposed the term 'uncivil society' for this, but this idea segregates civil from uncivil society, which is sort of missing the entire point. Even then, it was about time that we got all this documented and made explicit.

But all this to say that I do not want to locate the cut-off point, the point that decides about the limit of participation, with progressive politics, thus excluding democratic-conservative politics from participation. I do think that it is perfectly feasible, and actually for me almost too obvious to mention, that we can combine conservatism and participation. I see democracy as a site of permanent struggle between a wide range of democratic ideologies, and participation has to be part of this, otherwise we would theoretically create one gigantic (progressive) echo chamber. I think that this cut-off point lies elsewhere, for instance when social interactions becomes antagonistic, and an enemy is created, even if the "us" is characterized by the most intense decentralization of power. These scenarios also include symbolic violence, in its many variations, which places, for instance, racism outside democratic culture, exactly because of its violent nature.

Of course, this is my stepping stone to the ethical discussion, but let me wait, and bring out one more complexity, that is also part of our limits-of-participation discussions. Again, this is one of the more troubling sides of defining participation. My argument would be that participation only occurs when (members of) a dis-privileged group becomes privileged through the participatory process. This question was one I was working on with a couple of great teams of Uppsala University students, who, in a wide range of case studies, always got confronted with these dilemmas. They looked at restaurants, churches, and so many other places, and the question that kept on coming back was: Who is part of a dis-privileged group, and who thus gets empowered through the participatory process? In an article with Derya Yüksek, about participatory contact zones and conflict transformation in Cyprus, we analyzed the role of youngsters in a Cypriot bi-communal education-related project, called the Cyprus Friendship Program (CFP). Here, and especially in the theoretical part, we really spelled out that discussions about youth participation need to be grounded in the idea that youngsters have a weaker power position in society, for instance, through the logic of adultism, and thus can become empowered through participatory processes. We can also turn the argument around, as I would never label the decision-making processes of elites participatory, especially when they find themselves in more or less the same power positions. I often use the example of a meeting of media company executives, which I do not consider a participatory process. But, if a union representative would be invited to that very same meeting, it would actually become participatory process (at least in my eyes).

And that brings me to our questions and lists. I think it is fairly easy to integrate both lists, and I agree with how you are approaching this integration (including your emphasis on messiness). But the previous paragraphs also bring me to suggest one more question: Who becomes empowered through the participatory process? Or, in a slightly more complicated language: Which members of a dis-privileged group find their power position strengthened through the participatory process? And if I may go back to my 12-step model for participatory analysis from 2016, I would also suggest these questions: In which context is the participatory process situated? And, maybe more importantly, what are the differences in the sub-processes that together make up a participatory process? The latter is important, I think, because one thing that I have seen in different research projects, is that participatory intensities can be quite high in one room, and much lower in another room, even if it is all about the same house.

These are, of course, analytical questions, but they are important, because there is a need for more reflection about participatory analysis. Still, now that we are talking about questions, I have two more (related) questions, that have been fascinating me: Why does participation matter? And what drives people to keep on engaging in these participatory processes, especially given the power mechanisms, that do not welcome maximalist participation? My curiosity resulted in the decision to edit a special issue for the Portuguese journal Comunicação e Sociedade ("Communication and Society"), together with two Portuguese colleagues (Ana Duarte Melo and Fábio Ribeiro). Related to the Participatory Communication Research (PCR) Section of the International Association for Media and Communication Research (IAMCR), this special issue had as remit to at least offer a few clarifying thoughts on why participation matters. The special issue is expected to come out in 2020, so we'll have to wait for a bit, and there is still a lot of work to be done, in order to figure things out.

And all this finally brings me to the ethical discussion. As I wrote a bit earlier, my starting point is that the ethical is constructed through the struggle between different normative frameworks (that is where Ernesto Laclau's influence on my work kicks in). At this stage, the ethics of selfishness and selectivity seems to be winning, but that is not a reason not to try to champion an alternative normative framework. My first proposal would be that participation is ethical in itself. This might sound obvious, but I think this has not been elaborated sufficiently. Actually, the ethical is problematically absent in contemporary Western political discourse as a whole. That is one more reason why we should explain that the redistribution of power is deeply ethical. Dis-privilege, in all its variations, ranging from the economic exclusion of poverty, over exclusions from public spaces to the exclusions from governing, is simply an unethical phenomenon, because it violates and damages the principle of universal equality.

My second proposal would be to argue that particular characteristics, can, firstly, intensify participation, and can, secondly, prevent that participatory procedures (or what you call the mechanics of participation) become disconnected from the ethical. The ensemble of these characteristics is what I would call participatory ethics. One place to start, slightly unusual for me, I must confess, would be the (normative dimension of the) ideal speech situation (ISS), as developed by Habermas. It is based on (1) the right to gain access, (2) the right to question, (3) the right to propose, and (4) the right not to be coerced. Of course, the critiques on the ISS are/were considerable, but I still very much like the ethical and rights-based dimension of the ISS, as a tool to develop a participatory ethics. But using my own conceptual language, I would also have to say that these norms behind the ISS are mostly related to access and interaction ethics (with the exception of the fourth one, which refers to autonomy).

So there is a need to add more characteristics. I would like to propose three other sets of characteristics, even if these are only snippets of ideas. The second cluster is the acceptance of the hegemony of democracy. Of course, the exact realization of democracy is object of legitimate socio-political conflict, and there should be a radical embrace of diversity, but there is also a need for the acceptance of the idea of democracy to become integrated in this normative framework of participation. A second cluster is related to the respect for democratic procedure and institutions. These are the issues you refer to, ranging from the acceptance of micro-level decisions to the acceptance of democratic institutions. But, and the "but" is important, this respect should not be blind. In this discussion, I believe that there is a lot to learn from the model of delegative democracy, which has the built-in principle to revoke the mandate of representatives, if they stop functioning properly. I think this is an idea that we can use at micro and macro/institutional levels. And finally, there is a need for an ethics of care, which I would translate in a collective care and responsibility for the participatory process itself, and in, secondly, the care of all participants for all participants.


Henry Jenkins is the Provost's Professor of Communication, Journalism, Cinematic Arts, and Education at the University of Southern California. He is the author or editor of twenty books on various aspects of media and popular culture. He is perhaps best known for Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Culture and Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide. He is celebrating the paperback publication of By Any Media Necessary: The New Youth Activism, of which he is co-author. His forthcoming books include Popular Culture and the Civic Imagination: Case Studies in Creative Social Change (which he co-edited with Sangita Shresthova and Gabriel Peters-Lazaro), Participatory Culture: Interviews, and Comics and Stuff

Nico Carpentier is Docent at Charles University in Prague; he also holds part-time positions at Uppsala University and the Vrije Universiteit Brussel (VUB - Free University of Brussels). Moreover, he is a Research Fellow at the Cyprus University of Technology and Loughborough University. Earlier, he was ECREA Treasurer (2005-2012) and Vice-President (2008-2012), and IAMCR Treasurer (2012-2016). Currently, he is Chair of the Participatory Communication Research Section at IAMCR. His latest books are The Discursive-Material Knot: Cyprus in Conflict and Community Media Participation (2017, Peter Lang, New York); Cyprus and its Conflicts. Representations, Materialities, and Cultures (2018, co-edited), Critical Perspectives on Media, Power and Change (2018, co-edited), Respublika! Experiments in the Performance of Participation and Democracy (2019, edited), and Communication and Discourse Theory (2019, co-edited).



Participatory Politics in an Age of Crisis: Henry Jenkins & Nico Carpentier (Part III)


Let me thank you again for your role in shepherding me through the process of receiving my honorary doctorate -- a process literally straight out of Ingmar Bergman’s Wild Strawberries. I should note that I still wear the gold ring given to me in a ritual which “marries” me to my discipline. My wife of 35 plus years has been surprisingly understanding about this arrangement. She said that she has suspected such a relationship for years and is just glad to get it out in the open.

Seriously, as always, I found your remarks provocative and generative. You are right that the series has largely taken the idea of an “era of crisis” at face value. Certainly, as an American, raised with notions of “exceptionalism,” I was thinking about our own crisis in democracy, a term which I do not take as overstated. I certainly have seen many presidents in my lifetime whose positions and policies I found objectionable, but this is the first president who I felt was systematically undercutting the norms and institutions upon which the prospects of democracy in America depend. I came of age politically with Nixon and Watergate, but whatever threat Nixon posed, I always had a sense that the system of checks and balances was working to right things again, including with some degree of bipartisan cooperation. Republicans were willing to call out Nixon but have been much slower to call out Trump. We are seeing institutional politics fail to hold Trump accountable and we are seeing participatory politics struggling from within with the influence of the alt-right.


That said, I share your sense that the crisis we are discussing is a global phenomenon with the rise of authoritarian or authoritarian-leaning leaders in countries around the world. While there is definitely a U.S. bias in the mix of participants in these exchanges, I am also proud that we saw insights here from scholars situated in or at least focused on Latin America, Eastern and Western Europe, Asia, and the Middle East, offering us models of how cultural and political resistance is playing out around the world. And you’ve added several other important examples to the mix with your wide-reaching opening statement.

As always, we arrive at similar points with somewhat different terminology. You want to distinguish between interactions and participations, and we’ve discussed these terminologies before in our earlier exchange. For me, interaction is too close to interactivity, and in my work, I try to draw a distinction between interactive technologies and participatory cultures. I might be prepared to use the term, expressions, for some of what you mean by interactions, but there’s some loss here, since many talk about self-expression and I still want to keep our focus on the social exchange of meaning and the formulation of public opinion, even where expression may be closer to what we mean than participation, especially in the context where both neoliberal discourse and progressive critique of neorealism keeps wanting to pull us back towards individualism and privatization. To me, a central element of participation is that we participate in something larger than ourselves, however we want to imagine what it is we are participating within. At the current moment, participation pulls us towards the idea of networks, communities, collectives, in ways which we can not stress enough. At heart, a discussion about participation is a discussion of the potentials for collective intelligence and collective action. 

Surely part of the issue here is the relationship between expressions/interactions and political participation. This is in part why I started my opening salvo with my reference to Huszar’s distinction between talk-democracy and do-democracy (although I also want to stress that do-democracy depends heavily on the formation of public opinion and above all, the emergence of what you describe in your post as participatory ethics). If cultural and educational interventions, as you suggest later in your post, are important tactics for keeping alive the prospect of democratic participation, then we must have a model which takes us from the exchange of meaning to the formulation of public opinion to the capacity to act on those shared opinions in ways that influence core decision-making processes. Part of what keeps my hope alive even in an era of global crisis is that I am seeing examples where this circuit is being completed.  For example, a group of high school students, impacted by a school shooting, are able to work together to spread the word via networked technologies, form alliances with other young people of diverse backgrounds across the country, mobilize through public rallies, expand their access to mass media, and lobby effectively in order to get more than 200 state and local gun control laws passed in under a year’s time.


This brings us to the paradox you discussed here: “the increasing levels of participation and the decreasing levels of control over the levers of societal power.” At the local level, the #NeverAgain movement has been highly successful, but at the national level, the stranglehold that the National Rifle Society has over Federal gun policy does not seem to be weakened by this movement, even as the organization is ripe with internal conflicts and in the midst of a financial crisis. Here, we see an enormous gap between public opinion which overwhelmingly supports gun control and national policy which resists even the more common sensical efforts to regulate who has access to military grade weapons. 

The concept of the civic as I described it in my opening post depends on shared meanings, norms, identities, and visions and these exchanges are most apt to emerge through what you are describing as interactions on a more casual, informal, and frankly, more local level. These exchanges occur within communities as they start to work together to address common concerns, and to me, this requires identifying and sustaining a sense of civic connections with each other.  In Huszar’s sense, this is “do-democracy,” as democratic values and ethics are embedded the practices of everyday life. Often, at the most local level, when the problems are how we are going to fix potholes or deal with schools that are failing our students, successful working through problems together provides the foundation for mutual trust.  

From my American perspective, it is important to note that these shared civic imaginations have historically often depended on exclusions and marginalizations, a false consensus can arise when the most diverse segments of the population are not invited to the table or worse, held down by the majority of the population. And so, a key question for us right now is how we may build a culture which is both more diverse and more participatory/democratic at the same time. In fact, the right-wing leaders in our country have won power by playing up distrust amongst different segments of the American public and damaging the credibility of institutions, such as the free press or educational institutions,  which have the potential to work towards shared understandings.  

What’s disappointing to me is the ways that the mechanisms which I have long looked towards for the kinds of expressions that might push us towards a more participatory culture are themselves being used to damage the prospect of a more diverse and more democratic culture. This is what I was trying to get at with my talk of “bad participation,” though I take your pushback against this term in the spirit with which you intended it.  

I am trying to come up with a term which acknowledges that expanding the scope of participation will not necessarily result in progressive outcomes. This does not make participation “bad” per se; it does mean that building a more participatory infrastructure will simply create a new space for struggle where different groups fight over resources and opportunities. But that struggle is more apt to achieve satisfactory outcomes  if we are able to establish a shared set of civic commitments, a trust in the infrastructure and institutions required for democratic governance, and the participatory ethics we both are advocating for. For example, a more democratic culture is apt to emerge if there is a shared commitment to the idea that my participation does not emerge at the cost of excluding other groups the right to participate.  These are to me issues which may be addressed best through cultural and educational tactics, rather than confronted head on the level of institutional or participatory politics. 

I would love to know more about where you see a participatory ethics coming from and perhaps what some of its core principles might be.  


That is a very rich reply, Henry. There is a lot to be said about what you wrote. I'll skip the Uppsala confirmation of your marriage-with-academia vows, although it is tempting to go into this. After all, there is a lot to be said about our complex relationship to academia, but that will have to wait.

I want to start with the focus on the USA, which can be found in a lot of the contributions of the Participatory Politics in an Age of Crisis series. First of all, you are completely right, there is no exclusive focus on the USA in the series. For instance, I very much appreciated the conversation between Arely Zimmerman and Andres Lombana about Colombia. And there is another argument: A call for balance should never be interpreted as a call to cease analyzing the USA. There is obviously a lot to learn from the USA, and some of the analyses are simply brilliant in their depth and insightfulness. But at the same time, we should, in particular when discussing the topics that are now on our agenda, be careful not to create nation-based myopias.

I am deeply concerned by the disruptions of democratic culture that we have been seeing, for years now, in the USA, and the disturbing lack of willingness to defend democracy, with so many people, despite the resistance of so many others. But I would like to argue that this problem, the crisis of democracy, is not restricted to the USA, and that this broad analytical span is important. I'm writing these lines right after the EU parliamentary elections, which took place from 23 to 26 May 2018 (Disclaimer: my opening statement was written before the results came out), and the bad taste in my mouth has not disappeared (yet?). In North Belgium, we had the resurrection of the extreme right-wing party Flemish Interest ("Vlaams Belang"), with close to 20% of the votes in the north of the country, making it the second largest party in Belgium. In France, the former Front National, now called National Rally ("Rassemblement National"), received 23% of the votes, more than any other political party in France. And then there is Italy, with the Northern League ("Lega Nord") receiving 34% of the votes, more than 10% more than the Italian social-democrats, who came in second. Even if the story is more complicated in many other countries (for instance, in Greece, “Laïkós Sýndesmos - Chrysí Avgí”, or "Popular Association  Golden Dawn" lost a significant number of votes, probably to another nationalist party, focusing on the (North) Macedonia issue), what we can see is the institutionalization of racism and nationalism in the West. Even if these parties come to power in only a limited number of cases, in some cases they do, but what is more important is that these parties now have strengthened their capacity to disseminate hatred, de-humanizing forms of othering and toxic leadership models, and are contributing to their normalization (which is even worse). What we also should not forget is that these parties gain strength from each other, also across the Atlantic, and actively reinforce their networks at a more global level.


But these problems are even more global, I would argue. We cannot ignore the impact of the Arab spring (and what became of it), the civil war in Syria, the Iraqi wars, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (and a series of other conflicts all over the world) on the Western crisis of democracy. The harm these conflicts did to the populations in these regions is already horrific enough, but these conflicts have also played a role in the destabilization of Western democracies, not necessarily only by the flows of refugees they caused, but also the inability of the West to care and to display hospitality. I think that my argument here, after what almost looks like a long detour, is that we cannot think about resolutions for the Westerns crisis of democracy without incorporating global justice and peace in these reflections.

The defense of democracy, against the onslaught of antagonism, is thus quite a challenge, to use an understatement. The defense of participation is an important part of this, although it is not the only part. Still, what we now need to be careful with, as defenders of the democratic revolution, is the calls to roll-back participation, because they lead to participation becoming perceived as dangerous. There is a bit of irony here, because, at first, participation was celebrated as a way forward in this process of democratization, while I would argue that we mostly got "stuck" into minimalist forms of participation, and structural power imbalances remained unchallenged. And then these minimalist forms of participation are considered dangerous, consciously or unconsciously, supporting the evolution towards more centralized and elite-based societies.

I would add that all this was not helped by the very broad approaches towards participation, where all of a sudden everything became participation. My impression is that whatever (inter)action/expression could be found, it got labelled participation. There is really a need to be much more specific. That's where your question kicks in: In what do we participate? This is, for me, something crucial: Participation is always participation in something. But, predictably, I would add a few other questions (and this comes from the 12-step model of participatory analysis), namely, which actors are involved in the participatory process, what decisions are being made, and how do the disempowered actors gain a stronger power position through this process.

But I would argue that there is also another set of questions, that is equally important. They are three: What makes participation possible? What is the level of participation? And what does participation then do? Or, in slightly different terms: What are the conditions of possibility of participation? What are the participatory intensities of a participatory process? And what are the outcomes of a participatory process? It feels a bit like systems theory, but I think that these three questions are relevant here, because they allow to discriminate between the participatory process and its outcomes. For me, process and outcomes are substantially different, and should be analyzed differently. I do not like to qualify a participatory process as good or bad, but I certainly like to acknowledge that the outcomes of a participatory process can be deeply problematic. Behind this is the idea that the notion of participation is so deeply linked (at least in how I think about participation) with democratic culture that it ceases to exist when we disconnect it from democracy.

In these kinds of discussions, I like radical thought experiments, as they tend to clarify conceptual meaning. And I like to take one sentence from your reply, because it is, I think, an absolutely vital statement: "my participation does not emerge at the cost of excluding other groups the right to participate". But I want to push the argument further with an example (or two). What about the pogrom? Is that a participatory event? What about the lynch mob? Is that participatory? If we look at these horrific social practices, we have to acknowledge that, at the level of collective decision-making, there is actually power-sharing by ordinary people, "taking justice in their own hands". A group of Nazi skinheads that uses an online platform, to collectively plan and implement a murder on a refugee, has the formal (or procedural) characteristics of participation, but I would be very uncomfortable to label it participation. My discomfort is caused by transgression of democratic culture in these examples, which for me, makes it hard to still use the concept of participation.

The alternative way of theorizing this is by including all social practices that redistribute power, even if they are antagonistic, murderous, anti-democratic, and call all of them participation. And then, there is of course the need to distinguish between good and bad participation. But as my previous paragraph indicates, I am not comfortable with the line of argument. I'm curious here, where you stand? How do you deal with these dilemmas, with the issues whether the transgressions or perversions of participation are still participation, or whether they are something else? And what are they then?

And that brings me to the question about participatory ethics, but let me be short here, because that might be something for our next iteration. Still, let me give some basic ideas, which I'll develop further, later on. My starting point on ethics is that the ethical is, like, for instance, freedom, an empty signifier (in the way that Ernesto Laclau uses this concept). This means that the ethical is an absolutely central category in our worlds, but struggled over by diverse normative frameworks, that all want to give it (=the ethical) their own meaning. I think that this is important, as, for instance, in the West, there is an ongoing struggle over the ethical, where different groups argue for an ethics of selfishness. To give you one illustration, the extreme-right in North Belgium uses "Own people first" ("Eigen volk eerst", or, a variation, "Our folks first" ("Eerst onze mensen")) as their key slogan, and I cannot find a better illustration for this ethics of selfishness.

Vlaams Belang "Our folks first" slogan 2019 - Belgium

Vlaams Belang "Our folks first" slogan 2019 - Belgium

This theoretical position has implications for our discussion on participatory ethics, I would say. We need to engage in this struggle over the empty signifier of the ethical, by developing and strengthening a counter-discourse, a different normative framework, that does, in my opinion, two things. First, participation itself needs to be defined as ethical. And second, social interactions and participations need to be embedded in a democratic culture, driven by, among other models, an ethics of care.


Henry Jenkins is the Provost's Professor of Communication, Journalism, Cinematic Arts, and Education at the University of Southern California. He is the author or editor of twenty books on various aspects of media and popular culture. He is perhaps best known for Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Culture and Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide. He is celebrating the paperback publication of By Any Media Necessary: The New Youth Activism, of which he is co-author. His forthcoming books include Popular Culture and the Civic Imagination: Case Studies in Creative Social Change (which he co-edited with Sangita Shresthova and Gabriel Peters-Lazaro), Participatory Culture: Interviews, and Comics and Stuff

Nico Carpentier is Docent at Charles University in Prague; he also holds part-time positions at Uppsala University and the Vrije Universiteit Brussel (VUB - Free University of Brussels). Moreover, he is a Research Fellow at the Cyprus University of Technology and Loughborough University. Earlier, he was ECREA Treasurer (2005-2012) and Vice-President (2008-2012), and IAMCR Treasurer (2012-2016). Currently, he is Chair of the Participatory Communication Research Section at IAMCR. His latest books are The Discursive-Material Knot: Cyprus in Conflict and Community Media Participation (2017, Peter Lang, New York); Cyprus and its Conflicts. Representations, Materialities, and Cultures (2018, co-edited), Critical Perspectives on Media, Power and Change (2018, co-edited), Respublika! Experiments in the Performance of Participation and Democracy (2019, edited), and Communication and Discourse Theory (2019, co-edited).

Participatory Politics in an Age of Crisis: Henry Jenkins & Nico Carpentier (Part II)


It feels like forever since the last discussion on politics and participation, that Henry and I had. I think this has a number of reasons. First, that discussion was published six years ago, as an article in the journal Convergence, which actually is quite some time ago. The plan for this article started even earlier, after a symposium organized by the Institute of Communication Studies and Journalism, at Charles University in Prague, which took place on 18 June 2012. Many things have happened since. One thing I cannot let go unmentioned is that I somehow dragged Henry to the Swedish city of Uppsala, to have him crowned (to specific: with laurels). The pictures of the Uppsala University pomp and circumstance have been rescued from oblivion and are well-worth of any reader’s attention. There is another reason why this last discussion feels so long ago, and that is because I have been totally immersed in my recent move to another city, and to a new full-time position, at the Institute of Communication Studies and Journalism of Charles University (the very same, indeed). So, Henry, when you asked me what I was thinking about these days, the first answer that came to mind was “unpacking boxes”. Luckily, I never lost my good spirits (or my sanity) and none of the 139 boxes were lost, even though some attempted to escape nevertheless.

But there is yet another reason why this discussion from 2012/2013 seems so long ago, and that is because times have changed rapidly. Times always change, of course, but my sense is that we have entered into an era that is qualifiable different from the state of affairs only a decade ago. Something happened in the way we think, and it gives cause to deep concerns. I believe that this ideological shift is captured well by the last part of the title of this conversation series (“Participatory Politics in an Age of Crisis”), which has not been addressed enough in these conversations: Crisis. Even if we might agree that the idea of crisis has reached the West, we should first avoid the all-too-common Western arrogance, and acknowledge that other parts in the world have been in deep crisis. Some managed to handle these crises well, but others remain in crisis, and have been for too long. And maybe the West has its own crises, and failed to see and acknowledge them. Some of my recent work, together with Vaia Doudaki, is on the construction of homeless identities. It shows the impact of the (poverty) crisis that has been with us, in the West, for a very long time. And second, if we want to use the signifier crisis, we might want to specify what this crisis is about, in order to avoid that every little change becomes labeled a crisis. In French, you have this wonderful word, the crisette, to indicate these minor crises that are not really crises. I would argue that keeping a long-term, historical perspective is a very necessary safeguard against overly agitated analyses that label every set-back as a crisis. 

But still, I do think that the use of the signifier ‘crisis’ in the title is appropriate. And I would argue that it is the idea of democracy itself that is in crisis. The crisis of representative democracy has been going on for a while, as Tormey (2015: 149) documents in The End of Representative Politics. It consists out of this idea: 

“The democracy of the representatives has come to be regarded by many as not only a rather pale imitation of the real thing, but a mechanism for preventing ordinary citizens exercising greater control over their own lives.” 

Now, we have reached a point where the crisis of representative democracy has evolved into something bigger, and much more troubling and threatening, and that is the crisis of democracy itself. The many contributors to “Participatory Politics in an Age of Crisis” might not have discussed the notion of crisis that explicitly, but as they are often writing about the USA, there are ample references to the democratic threats posed by the current US regime and the alt-right movement. But I would hate to get stuck into discussing one particular country, and believe that this democratic crisis is pervasive in the West, albeit in always different forms. Using a European perspective, for now, I would like to argue that after the Yugoslav wars (in particular the 1991-1995 phase) there was a strong desire to strengthen European democracy, human rights and peace. This has slowly changed, with the so-called refugee crisis—which I prefer to call a hospitality crisis—as a pivotal dislocation, ‘assisted’ by a series of successful terrorist attacks throughout Europe. This, in combination with a wide variety of other processes and events (think of Russia’s strong-handed return to the international stage, for instance, resulting in the annexation of part of the Ukraine, making it rather easy for the West to invoke an enemy image, even when this is still too easy), has produced strong voices that wish to move outside democracy, and that advocate the establishment of more authoritarian, nationalist and exclusionary regimes. What is even worse, these voices do more than speak: for instance, the Greek Racist Violence Recording Network reported in its annual report, “117 incidents of racist violence, with more than 130 victims” in 2018 in Greece. 

But let us not forget that there are several ‘older’ conflicts that feed into this assemblage of violence. One European example I am familiar with is Cyprus (see The Discursive-Material Knot: Cyprus in Conflict and Community Media Participation and Cyprus and its Conflicts: Representations, Materialities, and Cultures). Without going too much into detail, Cyprus is still a divided island, after decades of violent conflict, with the independence war against the British colonizer (1955-59), which also included violence between Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots, with the intra-communal violence of the 1960s after independence, with the 1974 coup, instigated by Greece, followed by a Turkish military invasion and the segregation of the island’s population, with mass displacement as a consequence. Currently, the Republic of Cyprus, which is the legally recognized state power in Cyprus and a member-state of the European Union, finds itself in an uneasy state of de facto power-sharing with the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, which is only recognized by Turkey. Despite an almost endless series of peace negotiations, the deadlock continues, with the island split in two parts, by an UN-controlled militarized/demilitarized buffer zone. Even if this conflict is a low-intensity conflict, and its details are not very well known, it remains a highly disruptive force on the island and in Europe, with the tensions with Turkey rising again because of the disputes over the Aphrodite gas field off the southern coast of Cyprus. 

These conflicts, and the threats to democracy they pose, coincide with the grown levels of participation in a variety of societal fields. Allow me to recycle here two paragraphs from an earlier publication, the foreword of Networks, Movements and Technopolitics in Latin America, where I argued that we are living in the era of the both, a contemporary political configuration which is characterized by the increasing levels of participation and the decreasing levels of control over the levers of societal power. Often, this paradox is mediated and “solved” through a defense (or a critique) of either utopian or dystopian perspectives, where this dys/utopianism is sometimes related to communication technologies, or in other cases to citizen or civil society powers, or to state or company powers. I believe we need to treat this paradox much more as a paradox, as a seemingly contradictory statement. We need to take both components of the paradox serious, acknowledge that there is a history of coexistence combined with a present-day intensification of power imbalances, and scrutinize how they dynamically and contingently relate to each other. In other words, we need to gain a better understanding of how we now live in the era of the both.  

If we apply a Longue Durée approach (Braudel, 1969) to the establishment and growth of democracy, we can hardly deny that we have come a long way. Of course, the history of our diverse democratization processes is characterized by continuities and discontinuities, dead-ends, contradictions, and horrible regressions. But what Mouffe (2000: 1–2) called the “democratic revolution” “led to the disappearance of a power that was embodied in the person of the prince and tied to a transcendental authority. A new kind of institution of the social was hereby inaugurated in which power became ‘an empty place’.” Even if we zoom in on the twentieth and twenty-first century, it is hard not to see the differences with the past. It is equally hard to ignore that the history of more than 200 years of democratic revolution has brought us more participation, in a variety of ways and levels. 

And this finally brings me to participation. I would see participation, defined as the redistribution of power (see my Beyond the Ladder of Participation article for more), as the exact location of that democratic revolution, where participatory intensities increased within the institutional political system (the deepening of participation in politics) and where they increased in many other social realms (the broadening of participation, moving outside politics). I would argue that this process has been one of the most significant processes in the past centuries, and key to our societal happiness and well-being. I tend to see this, as you mention in your opening statement, as an unfinished project, with ample opportunities to further decentralize power relations, which serves our deeply rooted desire for power. Not in the negative Nietzschean way, but as a deeply rooted desire to be empowered, to gain control over our everyday lives, and to be protected from the power abuse that absolute power brings about. (We should keep John Emerich Edward Dalberg’s words in mind: “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men, even when they exercise influence and not authority.”) I also see maximalist participation as an unfinishable project, as a utopia that can never be achieved, as new power imbalances will arise and disrupt the power equilibrium of maximalist participation. Participation is object of a permanent political struggle, and as I think that it is unlikely for elitist forces to disappear, the radical realization of maximalist participation is inherently unstable. But thirdly, I think that participation could also be finished. It could come to an end. Democracy, as a political and social practice, is not a given, but could cease to exist. It is always under threat, and its disappearance might also imply the end of participatory practices. This is why participation and democracy need to be actively protected, and not just silently appreciated and considered to be a given. 

To give one example from the city I have just moved to: Have a look at the struggles of the Plastic People of the Universe, the alternative rock band that was active during the times of communist Czechoslovakia, and see what damage the oppressive state machinery did to it. We can celebrate their courage, and rightfully so, and we can acknowledge how important their prosecution was to rally the dissident movement into action (producing Charta 77). But maybe we could prevent landing into this kind of un-participatory mess again, avoiding a political system that necessitates this kind of resistance in the first place. Or, to give another example, with which I open my Media and Participation book and that has always deeply touched me: During the Nazi occupation of Bohemia and Moravia, the garrison town of Theresienstadt (or Terezín in Czech) had been transformed into a concentration camp that became “home” to more than 50,000 Jewish people, awaiting their deportation to the Auschwitz extermination camp. A group of young boys, housed in Barracks L417 (or Home One) started, in secret, to produce a newspaper, Vedem (“We lead”). The remarkable collection of essays, reviews, stories, drawings and poetry, written by the 13-, 14- and 15-year-old boys in Home One, were preserved and are now in the collections of the Memorial of Terezín. Only 15, out of the 100 or so occupants of Home One, survived the war. Vedem’s editor-in-chief, Petr Ginz, was murdered in Auschwitz in 1944. One can only admire that their resilience in the face of this extreme violence, but at the same time we should hope that their resistance will never be necessary again, and their tragic destiny can be avoided for the generations to come.  

The current political reconfiguration is also an explicit attack on the more intense forms of participation. Populist projects are built, I would argue, on the core idea that the old establishment is betraying the people, and needs to be replaced by a new elite, that truly represents the people. The latter is an ideological construction that is impossible to realize, given the heterogeneity of the social and the diversity of the people. This is the Lie of populism. That, in itself, is already problematic enough, but many (although not all) populist projects articulate the elite as an authoritarian elite, advocating leadership models that are non-democratic. Participatory politics has no place in these models, as the authoritarian elite sees itself as the ultimate representative of the people, where the latter no longer has to speak for itself. We might want to keep in mind that democracy is the (always different) balance of the people’s exercise of power (participation) and the delegation of power (representation); Authoritarianism is the radicalization of the delegation of power, and the elimination of participation. 

But there are more threats to participation, as participation is becoming more and more problematized. I tend to see participation not as a problem, but as a solution, even though there are particular pre-conditions that have to be met (see below) for participation to be able to play this role. There is an ongoing tendency to problematize participation, focusing on (the) dark (side) of participation, or on bad participation. This might be one of the things to discuss further, but I am not too convinced that the best thing to do is to create dichotomies between good and bad participation (there is a long tradition of doing this in participatory theory, which I think is problematic), or to label destructive interactions “participatory”, while I would argue that these are interactions, not participations (even if the latter is not very grammatically correct, I must confess). My starting point would be the broader question: “Can democracy be bad?” I definitely agree that democracy can be weak, an argument nicely made by Barber (1984) in his Strong Democracy. Participatory Politics for a New Age, and many others. But can it really be bad? And that brings me to the question whether participation can be bad? Or is it more a matter of participation being weak or strong, or, in my terms, minimalist or maximalist? Of course, the preference for minimalist or maximalist participation is an ideological-normative matter, just as the preference for weak or strong democracy is one. But that’s not the question. Are we not defending the hegemony of democracy, and thus the hegemony of participation as a democratic principle, which also implies that we do not wish to contest the principles of democracy and participation, even though their exact realizations and materializations are still object of democratic struggle? I could undust the distinction I make between interaction and participation, where I would argue that interaction is the establishment of socio-communicative relationships, and participation is the equalization of power relations in formal or informal decision-making moments. This matters at the normative level too, because I would argue that interactions can be “bad”, or ethically problematic. Murder is a form of social interaction, and deeply problematic. But this is where the difference between interaction and participation plays out (and the usefulness of this distinction becomes apparent), because I would argue that participation, or the decentralization of power relations, cannot be “bad”. 

I need to further problematize the previous statement, because there are preconditions attached to this position. This line of reasoning only works when a substantive definition of participation is used, and not a procedural definition. In democratic theory, this distinction is crucial. Procedural democracy restricts democracy to the “rule-centered and outcome-centered conceptions of democracy” (Shapiro, 1996: 123). In procedural democracy, an outcome is “[…] acceptable as long as the relevant procedure generates it,” while in the case of substantive democracy, a “[…] [re]distributive outcome or state of affairs (equality, lack of certain types or degrees of inequality, or some other) […]” (Shapiro, 1996: 123) is defined, which is then used to evaluate the results of the decision rules. My argument would be that this distinction also applies directly to participation, where substantive participation then refers to how the outcomes of the participatory process relate to power imbalances beyond the participatory process, and other societal groups. Or, in other terms, for participation to be participation, it needs to be embedded into a participatory-democratic ethics. Of course, this necessary articulation of participation might not be taken for granted in social practice, but I would still like to argue that conceptually, for participation to be participation, it needs to be embedded into a democratic ethics. I do not have this conceptual requirement for the much broader concept of interaction, but I would see this requirement as a necessary component of participation. Yet, again there is a need to defend and strengthen participatory ethics, as part of the project of defending democracy in itself. And that is supported by (the need for) an ethics of interaction, which together come close that what you have labeled civic imagination. 

This brings me to the questions of strategy. I have, quite carefully, looked at the many contributions to the “Participatory Politics in an Age of Crisis” conversation series, because they offer a variety of strategies to strengthen democracy, and protect it. Without aiming to be exhaustive, because the conversations were very rich, there are a few examples that I want to mention. First, we, as teachers have a role to play. Gabriel Peters-Lazaro mentions in his conversation with Winifred R. Poster, the New Media for Social Change course he has been teaching with Sangita Shresthova, which I think is a crucial model for strengthening participation and democracy through the educational system. In the conversation between Kevin Driscoll and Pablo Martínez-Zárate, the latter also argues for a radical pedagogy, which I would like to support.  

But, when he writes about his work with “documentary and experimental art”, Pablo’s comments open up a second field that can contribute to the defense of democracy, which is the arts. The arts, with its reflective and critical components, has the capacity to strengthen democracy. Sometimes it is a matter of holding up a mirror, and showing, for instance, the horrible cost of exclusion and inequality. One example comes to mind, and that is Barca Nostra (“Our ship”), which is also a reference to “Mare Nostrum”, a Roman name for the Mediterranean Sea), created by the Swiss-Icelandic artist Christoph Büchel for the Venice Biennale. The art work consists out of the wreckage of the fishing boat that sank on 18 April 2015, close to the Libyan coast, after a collision with a ship that tried to rescue the fishing boat’s passengers. Around 800 people, trapped inside the fishing boat, drowned.  

In other cases, art can not only thematize democracy and its values, but it can actively intervene in the organization of (maximalist) participatory practices. One example here is the Respublika! exhibition Participation Matters, which I curated. Its catalogue, entitled Respublika! Experiments in the Performance of Participation and Democracy gives an overview of the fascinating variety of art projects, that reflected about participation and democracy, organized participation and democracy, or did both, as a modest attempt to contribute to the strengthening of Cypriot democracy. 

And, of course, as the conversations in the “Participatory Politics in an Age of Crisis” series show in great detail, popular culture also the capacity to strengthen democracy and participation (even if there are no guarantees). Without wanting to go into great depth in the analyses of this field—the many authors in the conversation series do this with much more knowledge and eloquence—there is one example I like to add, also because it reiterates the argument in the Rox Samer and Raffi Sarkissian conversation that humor and parody matters, and it brings in counter-culture. For instance, as the example of the 2019 Eurovision Song Festival in Tel Aviv (Israel) shows, parody can be used when dealing with militarist and oppressive states. The Icelandic group Hatari, who performed the song Hatrið mun sigra (“Hate will prevail”) at the Festival, not only held up Palestinian flags at the very last stage of the broadcast, but also turned their entire presence (and not just their 3-minute performance) at the Festival into a situationist intervention, which was, I must confess, most entertaining to watch. The confrontation of their counter-cultural codes (combining EBM and BDSM—Electronic Body Music and Bondage/Discipline/Dominance/Submission/Sadism/Masochism) with a cultural event that is very much organized through/for dominant mainstream culture, produced an absurd deconstruction of Israel’s deployment of the Festival to strengthen its international legitimacy and to further render its militarist and oppressive characteristics further invisible, but also of the Festival’s deep capitalist structure.

Finally, in this last paragraph I want to return to what the intellectual field can do, and to Kevin Driscoll’s wise words, in the conversation with Pablo Martínez-Zárate, when the former wrote: “to thrive in the long term, we need a shared vision of the future marked by accountability and justice.” I would argue (and I have argued, in an article entitled A Call to Arms) that is a strong need to develop a new imaginary that is democratic, participatory, just, and peaceful, and that intellectuals have a crucial responsibility in this endeavor. Possibly, we cannot do this on an individual basis, and this needs to be a collective and modular project, but there is a strong need for a long-term approach, which is global and transgenerational, and which can act as a counter-weight for the permanent attacks on the heart of democracy. We have work to do.


Barber, Benjamin (1984) Strong Democracy. Participatory Politics for a New Age. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Braudel, Fernand. (1969). Écrits sur l’Histoire. Paris: Flammarion.

Carpentier, Nico (2014) A call to arms. An essay on the role of the intellectual and the need for producing new imaginaries, Javnost – The Public, 21(3): 77-92.

Carpentier, Nico (2018) Foreword - The Era of the Both, in Francisco Sierra Caballero and Tommaso Gravante (eds.) Networks, Movements and Technopolitics in Latin America. Critical Analysis and Current Challenges, New York: Palgrave Macmillan, pp. v-xii.

Jenkins, Henry, Carpentier, Nico (2013) Theorizing participatory intensities: A conversation about participation and politics, Convergence, 19(3): 265-286.

Mouffe, Chantal. (2000). The Democratic Paradox. London: Verso.

Shapiro, Ian (1996) Democracy’s Place. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Tormey, Simon (2015) The End of Representative Politics. Cambridge: Polity.


Nico Carpentier is Docent at Charles University in Prague; he also holds  part-time positions at Uppsala University and the Vrije Universiteit Brussel (VUB - Free University of Brussels). Moreover, he is a Research Fellow at the Cyprus University of Technology and Loughborough University. Earlier, he was ECREA Treasurer (2005-2012) and Vice-President (2008-2012), and IAMCR Treasurer (2012-2016). Currently, he is Chair of the Participatory Communication Research Section at IAMCR. His latest books are The Discursive-Material Knot: Cyprus in Conflict and Community Media Participation (2017, Peter Lang, New York); Cyprus and its Conflicts. Representations, Materialities, and Cultures 
(2018, co-edited), Critical Perspectives on Media, Power and Change (2018, co-edited), Respublika! Experiments in the Performance of Participation and Democracy (2019, edited), and Communication and Discourse Theory (2019, co-edited).



Participatory Politics in an Age of Crisis: Henry Jenkins & Nico Carpentier (Part I)



We launched this conversation about “Participatory Politics in an Age of Crisis”,  in part, as a way of celebrating our own decade long conversations around these issues within the Civic Paths research group and the Youth and Participatory Politics Network. In particular, I wanted to direct attention to the paperback publication of our book, By Any Media Necessary: The New Youth Activism. But, clearly, the topic struck a responsive chord, allowing us to bring together participants who wanted to share their own insights about the ways debates on participatory politics are playing out in many different national contexts and across multiple disciplines. And the series has brought forward a range of literature that might speak to these issues.

In my opening remarks for what is the closing exchange in this series, I want to share some of my own current thinking about the issues the political moment in the United States raises for our understanding of the potentials of participatory politics. I am delighted to have as my conversant, Nico Carpentier, with whom I had another generative exchange some years ago.  

This fall, when I was at the U.S. Library of Congress, I stumbled onto a largely forgotten book, George Huszar’s Practical Implications of Democracy (1945). Today, our popular memories see the 1940s as a golden age for civic engagement in America. The Second World War brought the United States together around a common cause -- to overcome fascism, to make the world safe for democracy -- and returning home, the “Greatest Generation” sought to build a stronger, more affluent, more forward-thinking country. These were the “good old days” in many of today’s narratives of civic decline. But, writing in the post-war period,  political scientist George B. Huszar, worried that the nation might soon experience the kind of “disintegration” of democratic culture which enabled the rise of dictators in Europe and Japan. And this was because democracy had become a thing of words rather than actions. Huszar writes, “Democracy is something you do; not something you talk about. It is more than a form of government, or an attitude or opinion. It is participation.”  (xiii)

Huszar made a core distinction between “talk-democracy” and “do-democracy,” arguing that democracy should be embedded into the practices of everyday life. Talk-Democracy, he suggests, is often top-down, as people consent to being governed by people who are all too ready to tell us what to do.  But, “Do-Democracy” emerges from “creative participation by intelligent human beings in the ongoing process of society.” He concluded “The problem of democracy is not merely how to obtain consent, but also, how to create opportunities for participation and a determination to participate.” (13) His goal was to create “warm, personal, satisfying human relationships that develop when men join together in groups” that are empowered to take meaningful action on decisions that directly impact their lives (17).

Looking backwards, scholars of civic engagement, such as Robert Putnam (2000), point to the bowling leagues, garden clubs, Parent-Teacher Associations, and other civic organizations as helping to foster a sense of neighborliness and meaningful participation during this post-war era which they argue has been lost in more recent years. Huszar  embraces similar groups, particularly those like the PTA which work together to solve shared problems: “The problem-centered-group is democratic in structure; it leads to the preservation of the integrity of the individual, nourishes his productive powers, and encourages participation. This structure is flexible, informal, stimulating and creative, with participant leadership. In contrast, the authoritarian social structure is rigid, formal, regimented, hierarchical, noncreative, and frustrating to the individual, with ‘leadership’ from the top down.” (26) Though largely forgotten today, Huszar’s concepts of “talk-democracy” and “do-democracy” have enormous relevance for our own time, where many are similarly worried about the disintegration of core democratic institutions and practices, the breakdown of civic ties within local communities, and a decline in our sense that there is any common ground to be identified amidst the sharp ideological divides between the country’s two competing political parties.  

To be clear, Huszar’s “problem-centered groups” can only move forward with a great deal of talking, exchanging ideas, identifying shared values, swapping stories, forging shared vocabularies, proposing solutions, and debating the merits of different plans.  But, he sees such talk as emerging among equals who understand themselves as empowered to participate, who are encouraged to contribute, and who have some expectation that their ideas will be respected by the others in their community.  In a community with strong civic engagement, these problem-centered discussions may spill over into their everyday interactions -- at the barbers, at the hairdressing salon, at the grocery store, at the bowling alley, in the taxi cab, at the coffee shop and tavern (to cite classic examples of civic spaces). Through such exchanges, we accumulate social capital and learn to respect each other as vital members of a shared community. Contemporary  political theorist Peter Dahlgren (2009) makes a similar point: “The looseness, open-endedness of everyday talk, its creativity, its potential for empathy and affective elements, are indispensable resources and preconditions for the vitality of democratic politics.” (90)  

His idea that civic dialogues paves the way for democratic politics is only partially true. Core distinctions between civics and politics often get elided. The civic represents the shared beliefs and values, the underlying trust, which makes collective action possible, while the political encapsulates struggles over power within the decision-making process. In a well functioning civic culture, people may disagree, fight hard for what they believe in, and then accept each other back as neighbors, because there is a core democratic infrastructure which allows us to resolve conflicts and agree to disagree so that we may continue to live side by side within a particular community. Sociologist Nina Eliasoph (1998) describes the ways we increasingly avoid politics as a topic in our everyday conversations with people we care about, fearing that political disagreements have become too divisive and that the heated disagreements may fray social ties in the absence of shared civic commitments. Because we lack such mutual understandings, the community fails to come back together again, wounds do not heal, in the wake of elections and other political events. Rather than developing the basis for a shared understandings, we end up locked in a permanent culture war. Here, the political destroys the exchanges which enable the civic to persist and it is in that sense that talk-democracy may ultimately result in a loss of civic agency. Right now, around the world, democracy needs our help. 

I never bought the idea that shifts in the technological infrastructure would, in and of themselves, lead in some inevitable way to a more democratic culture. For me, it has always been about how we use these communication capacities to enhance our civic and political lives. Technology offers us a set of resources and a new opportunity to renew struggles over who can speak, who can be heard, and what voices have impact on our everyday decision-making processes. Every day, I see new reasons for optimism about the potentials of participatory politics -- the ways the Parkland kids have had at shifting the ground around the gun control debate, a topic I recently wrote about with my PhD student Rogelio Lopez for The Brown Journal of World Affairs) or  the ways that Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC) has revitalized our political rhetoric (about which I will say more later) and everyday, I see more reasons to be worried about the state of the civic culture in my country -- as the practices or rhetoric of participatory politics are being deployed in destructive, anti-social, reactionary and even fascistic manners. I have never claimed that participation would always yield progressive results but my own optimism is more and more challenged by the prospect that we have expanded opportunities for grassroots participation without expanding or at least preserving civic norms and ethics. I had always assumed there would be a transitional period as access to the means of media production and circulation expanded and people figured out how to use those opportunities towards their own ends. I had supposed that a set of shared norms and ethical commitments would emerge as various subcommunities and subcultures experimented with alternative means of resolving conflicts and working towards shared goals. I had hoped that the expansion of voices would be included into a more diverse public sphere. So, how do we strengthen our shared understanding of the civic? 

My own current research initiatives have centered around the concept of the civic imagination, looking at the ways shared cultural resources and the intersubjective sharing of our aspirations, values, hopes, and dreams, may contribute to the creation and sustaining of shared civic norms. By civic imagination, I mean the stories we tell ourselves about our past, present, and future, as we seek to address some core functions of a democratic culture. We need to use our shared imaginations in order to: 

●     Describe what a better world might look like and thus define our goals for social change 

●     Recognize ourselves as civic agents capable of helping to change the world 

●     Identifying how we relate to a community of others who share common needs and interests and feeling solidarity with those whose experiences and perspectives differ from our own 

●     Developing models of social change that can shape our plans of action 

●     Sustaining (in the case of the most marginalized or oppressed groups) a struggle for respect, dignitiy, freedom, equality, before we have experienced them directly. 

My research team has generated two upcoming books which encourage deeper reflection around the concept of the civic imagination: Popular Culture and the Civic Imagination: Case Studies of Creative Social Change and Practicing Futures: A Civic Imagination Action Handbook. Our interest in the Civic Imagination started with By Any Media Necessary when we described the frustration expressed by many young activists who felt that the vernacular of American politics was failing their generation, not offering access to first time voters who were not already inside the political process, devolving into off-putting displays of partisanship at the expense of the shared public good, and dampening and dulling the civic imagination. We found that many of these young activists were drawn to cultural and educational mechanisms for social change and that many of them sought new vernaculars of political speech which drew upon popular culture. 

If AOC did not exist, we would probably have to invent her, since she so fully embodies the new kinds of political leadership required to speak to this new generation of citizens and activists. She has directly addressed the concept of the civic imagination in a recent tweet:

 As I travel across America, I often hear youth excitement about AOC. She seems to be offering new genres and vernaculars of political speech and new models of civic participation.

Consider, for example, this video where AOC joins up with Elizabeth Warren to discuss the ending of Game of Thrones and in the process, to call attention to the ways popular media narratives might provide an opening for discussions of popular feminism and misogyny. Political leaders of previous generation often only discuss popular culture within a cultural war frame  which sees cult media content as causing social problems rather than as offering a space where people can reflect on gender or racial equality. Here, AOC and Warren position themselves as fellow fans of a cult media franchise, seeing themselves as within and not outside or above popular culture, and this helps foster shared identities with their young supporters. Here, AOC is also lending her credibility to another female politician, who has sometimes  been perceived as a bit cold and policy wonky.

AOC frequently draws on the vernacular of popular culture to frame her policies, for example, borrowing metaphors from game shows in order to stage a public hearing concerned with campaign finance reform.

We might understand the underlying logic of the Green New Deal, of which AOC has been a major advocate, as similar to that of speculative fiction: much as Stephen Duncombe has described earlier utopian writing as providing a provocation for critical reflection, the Green New Deal is an aspirational framework meant to start discussion around how we take more decisive action in order to address climate exchange. The particulars of the framework are less important, the details have not yet been fully hammered out, but the mere existence of a document which dares to dream differently, which asks us to imagine what another path forward might look like, pulls us away from complacency and towards efforts to address these long-standing and deepening problems in our environment.

Almost every day, AOC generates a new video  which she hopes will become compelling content for her supporters to actively circulate through their social media networks. Here we see a segment of a congressional hearing where she seeks to educate the public about the differences between nonracism and antiracism and the consequences of white privilege.

Here, she creates her own dance video to thumb her nose at her conservative critics.

These acts of circulation strengthen and expand her network of support, and they encourage her followers to continuously monitor political developments and take rapid low-demand, high-impact action to address urgent problems.  Often, when I write about participatory politics, I am considering grassroots, bottom-up, models, yet AOC offers us an example of what participatory leadership looks like, how political figures can use their exposure and their power to foster a more participatory model of political life. No wonder she speaks so powerfully to younger Americans of diverse backgrounds. She seems to embody so much of what we learned in researching By Any Media Necessary.

All of this leads me to a question that has been hovering around the edges of our two month long collective conversation -- Is there such a thing as “bad participation? Nico Carpentier’s model offers one answer, as I understand it: he sets a high bar for what counts as participation, which remains an ideal rather than a fully achieved reality. Participation requires an equal distribution of decision-making power amongst all participants. My own work seeks to describe opportunities for participation across different institutions, communities, practices, infrastructures, as we transition towards, struggle for, negotiate around the hopes for a more participatory culture. Participation in Nico’s sense is something we imperfectly achieve at best. Mine speaks of varying degrees of participation. Indeed, I recently suggested an approach that asks of any given instance the following: 

Participation in what? How do the participants understand their own participation -- as part of a public, a market, an audience, a fandom, etc.? To what degree do they identify as part of a community or network which is larger than the individual? This focus on collective life sets a theory of participatory culture at odds with many critical accounts of neoliberalism which emphasize more individualized and privatized conceptions of public life. 

Participation for whom and with whom?   Who is included and who is excluded? What mechanisms of exclusion and marginalization persist despite the increased opportunities for participation? 

Participation towards what ends? What are our participatory activities trying to build? What do we hope to achieve in working together? 

Participation under what terms?  What constraints are imposed by the technological, economic, political, and legal  systems within which we operate? 

Participation to what degree? --  What are the limits on the power that comes from a more participatory culture? 

How we address these questions helps us to map the continuum of different degrees and kinds of participation. And it invites us to consider how these different forms of participation impact each other. Participation for some groups may come at the expense of others. Participation may even have as its goals banding together to restrict or disrupt the participation of others. Here, we might think about the kinds of troll groups that Whitney Phillips has documented or the ways that Russian hackers have sought to build on cultural divides in American culture or for that matter, the way some alt-right groups have hoped to insure the festering of these cultural divides in order to identify and recruit disaffected/angry white guys to rally behind their cause. 

Building on this framework, a simple response would be to say that bad participation comes at the expense of others, that bad participation seeks to deny others dignity and the right to have a meaningful voice in the decisions that impact their lives. Bad participation seeks to shut down participation rather than to advance it. Such a definition starts from a free speech imperative -- the best way to deal with bad speech is through more speech. It does not address the desire for safe spaces, necessarily, where it may be important to expel or punish some agents in order to create a zone where others feel free to speak and maintain hope that their contributions will be appropriately valued. Are there circumstances where excluding some bad actors from participation is the best or only way to insure more equitable participation for everyone else? 

Nico, what are you thinking about these days?


Henry Jenkins is the Provost's Professor of Communication, Journalism, Cinematic Arts, and Education at the University of Southern California. He is the author or editor of twenty books on various aspects of media and popular culture. He is perhaps best known for Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Culture and Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide. He is celebrating the paperback publication of By Any Media Necessary: The New Youth Activism, of which he is co-author. His forthcoming books include Popular Culture and the Civic Imagination: Case Studies in Creative Social Change (which he co-edited with Sangita Shresthova and Gabriel Peters-Lazaro), Participatory Culture: Interviews, and Comics and Stuff

Reality Girl: From Pakistan to the World

Reality Girl: From Pakistan to the World

Tyler Quick


Wealth inequality might be the single most defining issue of our moment, but it often receives scant attention from the media and popular discourses of activism. As globalization continues unabated, all over the world populations are segmented into economic classes that benefit from the 21st Century’s prosperity and those who are either unaffected or even exploited by it. However, it remains very difficult to motivate those who do benefit to even look up from their phones and acknowledge the injustice of the present economic order. Solutions proposed in academia have often been political, but the presence of economic justice’s great evangelists in popular culture might be pointing to a cultural solution to income inequality.

Enter Reality Girl, a super-heroine whose greatest power is to overcome globalization’s consumerist temptations to advocate for those left out of prosperity in her community. She is the creation of a team led by Abbas Saleem Khan and Khaya Ahmed of Optera Digital, an Islamabad-based transmedia company. Sarah’s (the protagonist and eponymous reality girl) story begins with a discarded coffee cup and the claim that, “some kid will pick it up anyway”—a fatalistic outlook common to urban dwellers all over the world. However, after watching the same street kid that eventually picks up her coffee be whisked away by an older man, presumably to be sexually assaulted, her empathy awakens. She exclaims, “I never want to see such pain again!” and transforms into an ass-kicking protector of the vulnerable.


Ahmed told me in an interview about a month ago, “A lot of what we injected into Sara’s personality was what we do on a daily basis, that lack of empathy that a lot of people nowadays have towards homeless kids and stuff.” But don’t mistake this attitude as something specific to the Global South. She went on to tell me that Sarah represents an international and multicultural phenomenon: “I recently went to San Francisco, and I even saw that divide between the middle class and the homeless crowd, there was a lack of empathy.”  

In Rich People, Poor Country, Syed Zaidi estimates that seven to eight percent of Pakistan’s population is wealthy by international standards. This wealth both insulates them from many of that country’s social problems, but also manifests as a kind of myopia sometimes. Khaya said, “Especially the upper middle class—they feel entitled. There’s a sense of entitlement that goes on. And that entitlement, we wanted to resonate in the comic book that we have this thing that, ‘No, someone else will do it. Why should we pick up the litter, someone else can pick that up for us?’ And we’ve already draw up on that. I know this is also something that’s very evident in our society and needs to change. The abuse is front and center. But these actions Sarah takes, we wanted to gauge upon them and show them that this is the real face, this is what people do.” Essentially Sarah is a humanization of the problem, a relatable but flawed protagonist, whom both Pakistanis and those who fill similar economic and class niches in their own cultures and societies can identify with. Her redemption is their redemption as well, so long as they act. This is why the comic is written in English as well. The creators wanted to give Sarah resonance with a specific audience—Pakistan’s English-fluent moneyed classes—but also a more general appeal. 


Optera has a track-record of creating content that straddles generic and cultural boundaries. The Broken Banner, another project Khaya is working on, tells South Asian history through the generic conventions of both high fantasy and comic books, and will be a graphic novel. Their work has a distinct flair that is both South Asia-specific but also very fluent in transnational media jargons. They also have a flair for utilizing new technologies, such as their project working on a hologram of Muhammad Ali Jinnah, Pakistan’s revered founder, for Hive Pakistan’s “AIK – Better Together” campaign to foster pluralism and multiculturalism. Khan, the company’s founder, got his start in video games, before moving onto VR and AR.  


He told me that he saw the future of their work as continuing to focus on Pakistan, but left the door open to other collaborations in South Asia and across the world. Already, the simultaneous specificity and universality of Reality Girl is promising. After all, in an increasingly globalized world, their problems are increasingly revealed to be ours, whether that “they” entails people in a foreign country or the most marginalized in our own.


Tyler Quick studies the integration of queer counterpublics into the neoliberal public sphere, as well as how rhetorics of queerness shape contemporary pop culture and public life. After a decade of working in electoral politics, Tyler came to Annenberg to research the mainstreaming of queer theory in popular discourses. His dissertation project is an ethnography of queer nightlife in Los Angeles, paying special attention to the aestheticization of queerness as a branding mechanism and its political repercussions.

He holds degrees from the University of Colorado and the University of Chicago. His work has been presented at conferences including the International Communication Association, the National Communication Association, and the Cultural Studies Association annual conferences

Participatory Politics in an Age of Crisis: Tyler Quick and Frank O'Cana


RuPaul has this famous refrain that goes something like this: “We as gay people get to choose our family and the people we're around. I am your family. We are a family here.” However, like most gay people of my generation, the LGBTQ community was a family that I came into already being an adult. The learning process for how to be a happy and healthy gay person was often stymied by my actual upbringing in a culture that was homophobic outside of my parents’ home, and still heteronormative even within it. Moreover, other gay people, I quickly learned, aren’t always the best teachers for how to be gay. In fact, gay culture in the present era can often itself replicate the mechanisms of alienation and marginalization that produce queer subjects in the heteronormative cultures with which it is often juxtaposed.

Few are as marginalized in the gay community, in our present moment, than those living with HIV. The stigma surrounding what was once called the “gay cancer” is still powerful. But I’ve learned that fearing HIV will only lead to a culture that stigmatizes it, in turn decreasing information and increasing transmission. I owe that knowledge to Frank O’Cana, the Executive Director of the Boulder County AIDS Project (BCAP), and the founder of that organization’s Atlas program.


While an undergraduate at CU Boulder, Atlas was my queer family. Led now by Garrett Rose, an Atlas alumnus himself, the program is a service learning program, whose volunteers “actively participate in all aspects of producing and delivering program services, including advisory roles, administrative support, community networking, peer-to-peer discussions, resource distribution, HIV testing and counseling, event management, performance art, graphic design and curriculum development.” It has been compared to a queer fraternity or sorority by the countless people who have found their queer family through it. More importantly, it has been at the forefront of successful efforts to combat HIV stigma and lower transmission rates in Boulder and the surrounding area. What follows is an edited transcript of my interview with O’Cana about this program:


I was wondering if you could explain to people who don’t know what service learning is what that mean.


It’s essentially an approach or process to combine education and volunteerism and self-reflection to help enhance learning and/or from a program participant point of view, maybe even behavioral output depending on the program and what the actual intention is, but essentially to enhance a learning environment through those core components.


And also just to give our readers a little bit of background, what exactly are you all doing at BCAP in terms of service learning?



BCAP itself was founded by volunteers and have our core values aligned around volunteerism and civic engagement in terms of the work that’s done on a broad level. But service learning is quite specific to the Atlas program.

So, that is essentially the model in terms of recruiting and integrating core members, them going to orientation to both get some education, and start self-reflection and integration into the program. While in the program, they pick different volunteer points of engagement, and then either in real-time on their own or at different structured moments, they reflect on that, and then also just reflecting on perspective or introduction to engaging then it got large but then also one of the strategies around prevention, and it is your best team.


And what do you think is so important about that personal reflection of your own relationship in this specific case of HIV but for any activist project?


The two things that come to mind, one is just to align with engagement with purpose. And that typically drives motivation. When people are able to meet that connection, and if they’re looking at their own in the context of HIV, in terms of one’s own behavioral choices, for most people, that’s either not acquiring or not transmitting HIV when we’re specifically talking about HIV.

But just the both personal and social context in which people transmitting AIDS or exposure to HIV, it’s really complex. The more we can engage people or the more that we can engage people, increase education and community capacity, increase access to prevention strategies, including biomedical intervention and then also lower community viral load. Then we’re able to make progress for lowering HIV in the US and throughout the world.



And so, essentially when you say lower community viral load, what you’re talking about is a diffusion of the virus through fewer bodies and at a lower rate, right?


Yes. Just think HIV Prevention, right? There’s just a few things we have to do. Big picture: we have to raise HIV awareness, we have to decrease HIV stigma, we have to increase prevention strategy access.


Do you feel that Atlas has done more to diffuse throughout the community better knowledge about, say, what it means to be undetectable or PrEP, or do you have any examples of ways in which this learning process has spread from beyond Atlas and into the wider community?


Actually, yes. We have active members on the speaker’s bureau going into middle and high schools and other community-based organizations doing presentation. We have Atlas members and counselors. We give PrEP referrals and do PrEP outreach. And getting more information out there about the opioid epidemic.


That’s great. Do you think that a lot of people in Atlas would have a difficult time gaining the same avenues to access to nonprofits in general and to BCAP if they had not gone through the Atlas program?



I think for some, yes. I think some of the motivation to be involved is, there’s typically something that happened for people to get involved in that. That was either they got recruited by peer and they were connected to, they got connection with, they trusted that peer. And so, they gave Atlas a chance. Sometimes people get an HIV diagnosis or someone they love got one. And so, it’s driving that motivation to learn more about HIV. There’s a lot of reasons to why people are connected to Atlas, but I think the common denominator that has created a sense of connection between people coming with different motivations is that fundamental need that people have to be a part of communities and to contribute and to be a part and just have personal growth because I think our model prioritizes personal growth through service.


I also wonder to what extent Atlas ends up filling a social role especially given that there are no longer any real gay bars in Boulder– it certainly is a gay friendly city but it doesn’t have the most widely visible gay life and gay scene and gay culture. So, I was wondering if you though Atlas also providing a cultural good to people?


I’d say yes, it has – it has throughout history provided another point of social connection. I think that helps with retention. I think people either join the program for that very purpose or they stay in the program a bit longer than they otherwise might have. For some people, it’s part of how they’re engaging in community four times a year when they make that social event with Atlas.


Do you think that participation-oriented activism makes it easier compared to peer organizations to find volunteers for the more non-social aspects of what you all do there? It’s recruiting new testers or people to staff a booth somewhere?



Yes, we always have people. I think that’s because relationships get built through Atlas. Volunteer needs often take on another layer. It takes that relational component of giving back to the community.


That’s so interesting. And then another aspect of the whole community thing that I was thinking about is when I came to Atlas, I was an undergrad and a lot of people I know were also undergrad at CU Boulder. And I was wondering if you had any thoughts on how the program is different because it is so heavily engaged with college students, how is BCAP different since it’s so engaged with the college community? Does that affect at all your relationship with volunteers?


When we look at the actual demographics, it’s pretty broken up between college age and then post-college. However, the perception is that there’s a lot more younger people because I believe you have to really jump in front of those ones…


That’s true.


I think – and they’ll be more active if you do. They’ll have higher amount of service hours, volunteer hours. There are higher engagements. That all makes sense. And it is important to reach out to them. That’s where the epidemic is. A higher percentage of 18, 20 year old MSM are getting diagnosed and/or finding out they’re dealing with HIV in the US.

Retention is what keeps the numbers of men from the mid-20s and mid-30s relatively similar to people of age in the program. And they return after they’ve aged.


One of the last questions I really wanted to ask you is where do you see the future of HIV and AIDS activism. To what extent is it participatory, and what are its goals now in a post-PrEP world?



Well, I think there is the universal need to minimize/eradicate HIV transmission, but I think that we’re pretty far away from that. And I think the goal is going to look differently on a global level versus the national level versus. But, with PrEP, we still don’t have equitable access across the US. That’s one issue. That’s a big issue. If you live in the South, I think it’s a long way to go.

We have a long way to go within any state that didn’t support Medicaid expansion. It’s also just the whole issue of race relation in our country.I don’t know the exact number but Black folks are like 17% of people in our country, but 48% of people who have acquired HIV this year...


New diagnoses, right?


Yes. For the HIV epidemic, conversations about race relations help put equity at the core of trying to improve the outcome. I like that we’ve been able to contain HIV transmission rates in the country but we haven’t really lowered them. And yes, in New York there’s a very well-funded, aggressive program lowering rates but that’s not true throughout the US.


Do you think there’s been an impact since PrEP has come out on participation and involvement? Do you think people are deprioritizing HIV activism after PrEP or no?


I don’t know any studies around that. I don’t even know how you would study that.

For some people... they might move on to another cause because the perception is that there’s not as great of a need. There’s a lot to take to that. And a lot of activists either step away from the epidemic all together or they take a break from it because they live in the trauma of the history. And some people disappear for a period of time. It’s an issue that they can be passionate about and they can really invest for a period of time but then they’re moving on to other issues or family career, whatever, when they need to pay or take more time. It’s hard to say.

I think in some ways; our nation has stepped up at providing flat or increase funding or the biomedical piece. But I think this means a lot of foundations have shifted their focus. I think it depends on where you live and what kind of culture is happening around that.


You’ve been living in Colorado except for a few stints elsewhere for a while, and I’m sure you remember that it was once called the Hate State and known for being very anti-queer politically and that something has changed. I was wondering if you had any thoughts on if there’s an activist component too like how the culture’s changed so much in Colorado and what were – if other places could learn from that and if you think BCAP has had any part in changing the culture in Boulder specifically?


In Boulder particularly, there’s always been really cooperative and engaged relations between public health and law enforcement. And with BCAP and the city, county, university and Boulder Community Hospital.

Boulder County is often at the forefront of trying to address these issues and to try to bring resources to help people who are living in poverty and getting health disparity which is an odd thing to say because the rising cost of living has also created this disparity.

I think BCAP has been in the conversation and been very influential in advocating for a greater understanding of inclusiveness and health equity and specifically in raising awareness around HIV.




Participatory Politics in an Age of Crisis: Mark Deuze and Derek Johnson (Part II)



One of the key stories behind Brexit may very well be the deplorable failure of (or frustration with) participatory politics. What happens when people can truly participate directly in the decision-making process of political institutions (and, alternatively, in the creative process of media institutions)? It opens up the process to all kinds of (more or less) sophisticated manipulation online, by actors not even necessarily involved nor physically co-present. In our lives as lived in media - which perspective is at the heart of my teaching and research (see Deuze, 2012) - we can participate anytime, anyplace, anywhere (based on the ‘Martini media’ principle, as once articulated by the BBC in its strategy for the 21st century). So can anyone else - and that makes us, as well as the process we participate in, extremely vulnerable. In other words: these processes need (long-term) care, monitoring, support, investment - something clearly absent from the Brexit process, as it tends to be lacking in many of the media industry’s attempts to harness the creativity and participation of its audiences.

A second issue affecting participatory politics is the distinction once made by Michael Schudson between informed and informational citizens. The age-old ideal of an informed citizenry that will rationally make up its mind once in the voting booth (or is rational and deliberate about all its participations in public life) has always been somewhat of a puzzling concept - as people are generally not particularly rational, and even if they are, their rationality is deeply emotional, biased, shaped by subjective experience. Schudson furthermore suggests that being informed is of little use if the citizen is not empowered to do something with that information - beyond voting once in a while. We may lament the cacophony of voices online, but at least people express themselves. And the conflict-ridden, highly antagonistic space that speech online occupies perhaps comes rather close to the ideal - voiced by Chantal Mouffe - of an agonistic public sphere, where consensus is not the ideal, but rather the truly plural exchange of difference is. To paraphrase Mouffe: the institutional process - democratic, political, industrial, or otherwise - should create the conditions for conflict to find its expression in agonistic terms, avoiding that it becomes antagonistic.


Participatory politics is premised on this notion of an informational citizenry - people that do not become citizens when called on to do so by the system, but because they are compelled to do so through meaningful acts of participation (on the local, regional, national or even international level) - in and through media. Where I see this ideal fail, in the specific context of the Brexit example, is that the ‘media logic’ of journalism and institutional politics - amplified by the ‘platform logic’ of Google, Facebook and others with their algorithms and interfaces intent on the quantity, not quality of engagement - tends to reify antagonism (between the UK and the EU, between Leavers and Remainers), and does not invest in a plurality of voices. Both the UK government and the EU furthermore fail to create truly meaningful platforms for participation and engagement for citizens to express themselves about the process. Overall, all of this just seems such a waste of an opportunity.


I think your point about how the institutions of journalism reify antagonism is particular apt, and I see that same challenge in the work I do to understand the struggles over the reproduction of entertainment content.  At the end of the day, I am still most fundamentally interested in understanding industry and the institutions of (re)production. I am inspired and awed by work that my colleague Lori Kido Lopez does to make sense of activist communities, and while I hope to add to that in some small way, I think the real insights I have to offer contribute to a critical media industry studies that can make sense of how institutions respond to, manage, and even incorporate these activist voices.  

In that sense, the antagonism that I see in my work between the activist participation of communities invested in a politics of popular feminism versus that of men’s rights activists or fandoms informed by the discourses of popular misogyny is not quite a struggle that industry must face on two fronts.  Instead, it is grist for the mill of a franchise management logic built on multiplicity, where each opposing viewpoint in this antagonism might be served by parallel spin-off products. When Sony produced a female-led reboot of Ghostbusters, many detractors saw it as a “ruination” of a cherished past in which men sat at the privileged center of that story, engaging in all manner of participatory (but also sexist and racist) practice to make their objections heard.  Sony’s assurances that it would produce other male-focused Ghostbusters product in parallel and succession to that film demonstrate not so much the power of these would-be activists to effect change so much as their value in the existing frameworks of niche marketing and product extension upon which industry decisions are made.  The antagonism of participatory politics doesn’t have to produce real industry change if it is held in tension as a form of differentiated product marketing. This activism doesn’t produce change, it supports more product.

These terms of antagonism have always been useful to me.  One of the first things I ever published figured fan antagonism (“fantagonism”) not just as a conflict between competing communities of interest, but also as a site of institutional management.  


This is fascinating, Derek - and to me a clear sign that it is in best interest of the industry (as it generally operates) not to bring a plurality of voices into conversation with each other, nor to nurture any such encounter. Instead, profit is made out of market segmentation, pigeonholing people into to communities that can effectively be monetized. The same process works in politics. I am not advocating, nor expecting a politics or media industry policy of consensus, but simply find it regrettable that neither institution seems to be willing to embrace bringing people together with the risk that those people may truly be different and experience (each other’s) difference. I’d be interested in your work on how media professionals can really work together with and through different fan communities, and develop new creative practices, products and services in the process. Is there a ‘third way’, perhaps? One that could also inform the political process?


I share your ambivalence about appearing to endorse a model of consensus, but I still find Joseph Turow’s distinction between “society-making” and “segment-making” media to be a particularly useful way of thinking about the way that the institutions of politics and entertainment both have embraced a politics of division that sees the world as a series of distinct niches to be served through narrowcast appeals.  None of that should lead us to believe that broadcasting was ever “inclusive” or that we simply need to return to some nostalgic past when we all watched and read the same things. But it does remind us that these institutions don’t have to work this way--as “natural” as these market divisions may seem, they are historically and socially constructed, and we absolutely could imagine other ways for institutions to operate in ways that encourage dialogue, interaction, and resistance to boundaries.  

This is definitely a great opportunity to develop new practices, products, and services as you say, but unfortunately I think it is hard to find support for those new possibilities in institutions that embrace segmentation as commonsense.  There is most certainly a recognition of the economic value to be gained in nurturing a greater plurality of voices in the production of entertainment content. Just recent, CBS announced plans to create a Global Franchise Group for the Star Trek franchise, which seems to exist specifically to find new ways of building the brand and connecting with audiences (particularly for a franchise that’s typically struggled to find international success).  In his position at the helm of the franchise, Alex Kurtzman claimed that this initiative was aimed at “broadening ‘Star Trek’s’ brand reach by amplifying its core values globally: empowerment, inclusion, imagination, and above all, the exceptional storytelling that’s inspired generations of fans.”  This is all hype of the most hyperbolic sort, of course, but I think it’s notable that corporations like CBS look to broaden their appeals and see things like empowerment and inclusion as part of that mandate. But to deliver that empowerment and inclusion, it’s more likely than not that the spin-off strategies at the heart of franchise management will be used to create separate silos so that the same brand can appeal to different people in different ways.  Inclusion doesn’t necessarily mean sharing in the same things--it can operate by separate-but-equal principles.

The problem isn’t just a top down one of how industry marketing works; it’s also how some fans and other participatory consumers experience and feel those appeals and develop a sense of exclusive ownership over particular cultural experiences.  There’s a zero sum game effect in play, where if someone else is now being served or newly recognized by the entertainment industries, someone who was already in the privileged position of market visibility feels like they have now lost something.  It’s not just that the institutions struggle to see other ways of thinking, but also that everyday consumers have their own investments in ideas about who media entertainment is and is not “for,” using their power to participate in the policing of these boundaries.  

I feel like you asked a question inviting me to be more hopeful and I dropped a lot more pessimism on our plate.  I don’t mean to suggest that these institutions aren’t trying to find a third way: I want to give Disney/Lucasfilm some credit for decisions with Star Wars that seem committed (regardless of backlash) to foregrounding new voices and perspectives in the main, shared story of the franchise rather than creating spaces for “inclusivity” on the margins (in terms of characters and story, perhaps; behind-the-scenes is a whole other story).  But even under the same Disney corporate umbrella, Marvel Studios’ efforts at inclusivity frequently depend on a logic of bounded separation (where individual films service different kinds of diversity). So I think there’s a lot more thinking to be done here, and I wonder, then, if you see any clearer path to a “third way” than I do?  Or perhaps more broadly, what do you think is necessary to support real change in these institutional contexts?


What I particularly appreciate in these examples you share, is the insight that a true commitment to diversity (with its attendant conflicts) is not anathema to the inner workings of multinational corporations. At the same time, independent, small-scale, local or minority media and groups are not necessarily more inclusive or plural simply because their primary logic does not tend to be one of profit. The same goes for a national and local politics.

The most recent research project I have been working on with my dear friend and colleague Tamara Witschge (University of Groningen) is called ‘Beyond Journalism’: a series of case studies involving fieldwork among 20+ journalism startups in 11 countries (including Colombia, Italy, Uganda, and Canada, to name a few). A book documenting this project is published by Polity Press in November 2019. One thing we have learned from this, is not that that upstarts, newcomers, younglings, entrepreneurs, and innovators necessarily have better, more inclusive or democratic ideas of what (good) journalism is. In fact: most of these newsworkers talk about the profession in similar, quite traditional (and ideological) ways as their counterparts safely employed in the newsrooms of corporate titles like the New York Times or the BBC. However, what is quite clear is that all of them do something quite different with these values and ideas. What journalism is to them in terms of practice is incredibly diverse and multiperspectival - both in terms of content and regarding format, interface, audience relationship, and business design. This teaches me, once more, that the core values and idea(l)s of a company or political party - or indeed any institution do not necessarily lead to ‘one’ way of doing things. The challenge is to image other ways of doing journalism (and politics).

Tamara Witschge is documenting her ongoing work in this area - exploring the boundaries of journalism, embracing its true potential for diversity - among other places in the online network Journalism Elsewhere. We are also involved with the journalist initiative Multiple Journalism, mapping inspiring ways and places of journalism all over the world. Ultimately, I find that what a possible ‘third way’ of doing participatory politics and media work boils down to is: relationships, and more specifically: the ways in which we invest, nurture, explore, allow for, and embrace relationships. Between colleagues (often separated by employment status, freelance or contracted), between politicians and constituencies, between media professionals and amateurs, between makers and users, and so on. We read so much about the failure or lackluster appeal of interactivity in politics and journalism, but do not appreciate how a true ‘engagement’ (to use a term co-opted by marketers) generally only comes to fruition after significant investment (of a material, but also and perhaps primarily immaterial nature: time, energy, emotions, respect, so on and so forth).

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When I was working on the Media Work (Polity Press 2007), Managing Media Work (Sage, 2011) and more recently the Making Media (Amsterdam University Press, 2019) books, I was always inspired by the ways in which the digital games industry engaged with its fans and audiences. I would tell media professionals in other industries to take their cues from game studios who significantly invested in their communities of gamers. Some studios still do a stellar job in this respect (Amsterdam-based Guerilla Games, responsible for the breakaway hit Horizon Zero Dawn, is a good example). I remember Henry Jenkins talking about the show creators of Lost as another example of this. Do you see currency in this approach?


Absolutely.  I see that institutional commitment to supporting this feeling of shared engagement and community across professionals and fans in the work I have done to consider how The LEGO Group cultivates relationships with its fan--particularly adult fans who are surplus audiences in the strictest sense of the company’s core target market, but whom LEGO still hopes to engage in meaningful ways.  In fact, in exchange for some access I was granted, I had agreed to share my findings with LEGO before finalizing the manuscript for Transgenerational Media Industries, and I learned that some of the analytical frameworks I used had not adequately acknowledged their felt sense of commitment to building genuine relationships with their consumers.  Using a term that each of us has embraced in our work, I had written about the ways in which LEGO “manages” their adult consumers, and the company took issue with this on the basis that this term stood in opposition to the efforts being made to cultivate engagement with audiences, listening and collaboration more freely in ways the top-down language of management obscures.  As much as I think these relationships can be a form of management, I understood where they were coming from and tried to acknowledge these values a little more in my revisions, because that kind of corporate value certainly seems better than ones based in control or discipline.

That said, as much as we can see and encourage these attempts to communicate and build relationships with fans and consumers more broadly, I think it matters who is being listened to and what relations are being supported through these bridges of communication.  The alt-right groups that I have studied have loosely attempted to organize boycotts of film franchises and studios that they see as complicit in the rise of popular feminism, and I’m quite satisfied to see the media industries ignore them. But when some of the misogynist and racist discourses that circulate in these alt-right spaces diffuse into everyday forms of fandom, sometimes entertainment companies do listen and cite the resistance of “fans” and the potential for backlash as a reason not to pursue greater inclusivity.  So I’m not sure that the willingness of media industries to listen and build relationships is enough. What also seems necessary to me is the need for relationships to be built across different fandoms and consumer groups, too. On the one hand, this could generate conversations that lead to empathy and recognition of others. On the other, fans communicating with one another across the lines of market segmentation by which media industries imagine them seems to me like it would have a lot of potential to challenge and disrupt those very industry constructions, rather than playing into them.

In talking about the potential for building relationships across the lines of social division, I wonder if we can see the questions we’re asking about both entertainment and politics intersecting in the case of Chris Evans, whose next post-Captain America project seems to be creating a political website aimed at putting multiple political viewpoints in dialogue with one another.  I’ve been thinking a lot more generally about the ways Evans has used his association with that franchise to claim moral authority as a political actor/activist; but this project seems more broadly relevant to both our interests in that his stated aims are not to provide consensus, nor an echo-chamber for a single political niche, but instead a dialogue and relationship between multiple perspectives (potentially, our “third” path).  Of course, it’s all very disappointingly limited, too, in that the aims of this new platform, at least so far, are described in the binary terms of getting “both” sides of an issue heard, rather than imagining a more diverse network of political participants. But this example seems to encapsulate a lot of what we’re identifying across politics and entertainment both. I don’t expect that this one website will change much, but in its aims I do see some possibilities.  


Mark Deuze is Professor of Media Studies at the University of Amsterdam’s (UvA) Faculty of Humanities. From 2004 to 2013 he worked at Indiana University’s Department of Telecommunications in Bloomington, United States. Publications of his work include "Media Life" (2012, Polity Press), and most recently “Making Media” (January 2019; co-edited with Mirjam Prenger, Amsterdam University Press), and “Beyond Journalism” (November 2019; co-authored with Tamara Witschge, Polity Press). Weblog: deuze.blogspot.com. Twitter: @markdeuze. E-mail: mdeuze@uva.nl. He is also the bass player and singer of post-grunge band Skinflower.

Derek Johnson is Associate Professor of Media and Cultural Studies in the Department of Communication Arts at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.  He is the author of Transgenerational Media Industries: Adults, Children, and the Reproduction of Culture (Michigan, forthcoming 2019) and Media Franchising: Creative License and Collaboration in the Culture Industries (NYU, 2013).  His other books include the edited volume From Networks to Netflix: A Guide to Changing Channels (Routledge, 2018) as well as the co-edited works Point of Sale: Analyzing Media Retail (Rutgers, forthcoming 2019), Making Media Work: Cultures of Management in the Entertainment Industries (NYU, 2014), and A Companion to Media Authorship (Wiley-Blackwell, 2013).  

Participatory Politics in an Age of Crisis: Mark Deuze and Derek Johnson (Part I)



In 2018 I moved to the UK from the continent - apparently as one of the few - as most people seemed to be moving in the other direction. As I am still working in The Netherlands (at the University of Amsterdam), it is fascinating to witness the way the news media in both countries respond to the political crisis premised on a key form of participatory politics: Brexit based on a people’s referendum. Most attention is paid to the particulars of the political process (in a definitive horse race frame: who is winning, who is losing), supplemented with human interest stories about communities and families affected in particular ways. Dutch media uniformly adopt the EU stance, writing with mild disdain about the perceived dysfunction of the British parliamentary system, while the UK press - more diverse in the range of voices it represents - often stereotypes the EU for being a meddling bureaucracy governed by France and Germany (hardly mentioning any of the other countries represented).

In the UK, and particularly in the Northeast where I am located, people absolutely do not feel their participation has mattered at all - regardless whether they voted Leave or Remain. The Remainers feel cheated and watch in horror how their country’s economy is declining, how xenophobic sentiments seem to be legitimized through the Brexit vote, and lament how the British culture is turning inward. Leavers feel cheated by the political process and blame any politician - both in the British Parliament as well as in Brussels - for corrupting their vote. In the meantime, journalists and scholars fret over the role of data and micro-targeting voters online, the influence of social media, the consequences of filter bubbles and echo chambers, and so on.


This is surely one of the most important political crises in the contemporary moment, and I’m very interested in exploring how, as you say, the idea of participation proves central to political and cultural struggle, no matter what the position or the ideological perspective in question, where it be Remainders or Leavers.  I’m not an expert in electoral politics or journalism, however, so I approach these questions from a somewhat different angle, asking how the production--and just as crucially, reproduction--of entertainment content becomes a site of between amongst different communities and stakeholders who feel that their participation might shape the future course of culture.  In my first book, I developed a critical framework for trying to make sense of “media franchising” as a process of industrial struggle in which intellectual properties were extended over time and across the space of different production contexts defined by their own identities and claims to authority. My new book aims to dig into the temporalities of the ongoing production of entertainment content a little more, revealing how media industries develop “transgenerational” strategies to reproduce markets, labor, and consumer identities over time.  The projects I’m working on now try to match these questions about the future and reproduction back to media franchising, where the industrial promise of perpetual reproduction for major media franchises like Star Wars, Ghostbusters, and more attracts the attention of consumer activists who see this arc of reproduction as one that can be bent either toward change or the reproduction of the status quo.  

So I’m interested both in how popular feminism turns its attention to the franchising and merchandising of major entertain brands as a way of pursuing social change (often looking to Suzanne Scott for her incisive perspective here), but at the same time I consider how parallel forms of popular misogyny equally identify media franchising as a valuable battleground for protecting hegemonic white masculinity and other entrenched forms of cultural privilege.  This has included attention to men’s rights activists from the alt-right, but also everyday forms of fandom that work to intervene in the management of media franchises as a means of extending the past into the industrial future. What’s at stake in media franchising to make it a target for activism, in my opinion, is that it represents a set of industrial strategies in the present that orient cultural reproduction in the future toward either change or disruption of the past.  Media franchises by their very definition have a certain future, and these politics seek to direct the still uncertain political and cultural orientation of that future.

Both our approaches, then, refuse the idea of a utopian politics of participation that is purely progressive. I wonder, then, what you think Brexit tells us about the virtues or of participation?


Mark Deuze is Professor of Media Studies at the University of Amsterdam’s (UvA) Faculty of Humanities. From 2004 to 2013 he worked at Indiana University’s Department of Telecommunications in Bloomington, United States. Publications of his work include "Media Life" (2012, Polity Press), and most recently “Making Media” (January 2019; co-edited with Mirjam Prenger, Amsterdam University Press), and “Beyond Journalism” (November 2019; co-authored with Tamara Witschge, Polity Press). Weblog: deuze.blogspot.com. Twitter: @markdeuze. E-mail: mdeuze@uva.nl. He is also the bass player and singer of post-grunge band Skinflower.

Derek Johnson is Associate Professor of Media and Cultural Studies in the Department of Communication Arts at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.  He is the author of Transgenerational Media Industries: Adults, Children, and the Reproduction of Culture (Michigan, forthcoming 2019) and Media Franchising: Creative License and Collaboration in the Culture Industries (NYU, 2013).  His other books include the edited volume From Networks to Netflix: A Guide to Changing Channels (Routledge, 2018) as well as the co-edited works Point of Sale: Analyzing Media Retail (Rutgers, forthcoming 2019), Making Media Work: Cultures of Management in the Entertainment Industries (NYU, 2014), and A Companion to Media Authorship (Wiley-Blackwell, 2013).  

Participatory Politics in an Age of Crisis: Mel Stanfill and Samantha Close (Part II)



Your opening post definitely drives home for me how much context matters. It would never occur to me to talk about teaching in the context of participatory politics these days because of the particular configuration of my current job. But I definitely used to ask students to make digital resources they’d then release into the world to get the information about whatever their research topic was--a Tumblr with resources for LGBTQ+ youth, a YouTube video on body image, Wikipedia entries addressing LGBTQ+ people in rural areas--out into the public. But I can’t do anything like that anymore, in large part because I simply have too many students.

The impulse toward community-based, participatory types of projects is a good one, but (and maybe this is end-of-semester cynicism), I wonder about the trade-offs. My university is opening a new campus downtown next year, and one of the cheer-leading squad talking points is about engaging with the community. On one hand, the university will inevitably gentrify the nearby historically Black neighborhood out of existence in a very short time, so trying to give something back is the least that we can do, and it will absolutely benefit the students to have the chance to actually apply their web or game design knowledge for a real client. On the other hand, there’s the White Savior factor, plus I know that my students already work long hours at their (sometimes multiple) paid jobs just to be in school--asking them to do more unpaid labor to clean up the university’s mess feels very squicky to me.

So really, what this emphasizes to me is that participatory politics requires resources. It doesn’t require as many resources as the massive campaign donations required to make a difference in traditional politics, of course. But it does need time at the bare minimum and often technological skills and good quality internet on top of that. How can we think about its (very real) potentials while keeping in sight those (very real) limitations?


Context and the location of your perspective are both absolutely key here, and that’s something your opening statement brought home to me as well in emphasizing that the same text can be both simultaneously racist and anti-racist. The same teaching practice, in two different institutional contexts, could bring students, university, and community into closer partnership--or make a mockery of such partnership through ignoring the impact of privilege.

To me, the way to work with the real potential of participatory politics while not forgiving or forgetting its limitations is to confront these questions head on and to live in their contradictions. All of our faves are problematic. And even if they weren’t, the way we squee over them might well be. What teaching can do as a practice is to leverage that existing love to take our faves seriously enough to be critical of them, a kind of tough love for media. Historically, this has been a strength of fandom’s engagement with texts but as people have fetishized, or over-emphasized and blindly relied on, simply being fannish as a way to be “progressive,” that strength has fallen by the wayside. This is as true of uncritical affirmations of transformative fandom, the fic-writing, art-making creative folks, as it is of the critiques that transformative fans often throw at affirmational fans. This has been particularly and painfully clear in recent Star Wars fandom, where (mostly white) fans have harassed fans of color, like Zina Hutton or Rukmini Pande, who critique that fandom’s racist neglect of Finn and Poe.


The problem that many of the necessary resources for participatory politics, particularly those based on capital like technological infrastructure, skill, and access, come from existing centers of privilege and power is very real. It’s also not new. The same issue can be seen looking back to countercultural US activism in the sixties, for instance, where most communes were supported by family money or friends and relations with “straight” jobs. Today, the awesome that is Black Twitter exists on, well, Twitter, with all of its associated problems of harassment and amplification of white nationalism. Once we acknowledge that, the only way I see forward is to direct our own and others’ participation to push our systems, our institutions, our communities, our fandoms into better versions of themselves.



In the spirit of “all of our faves are problematic,” one thing I’m thinking about lately is “pleasure isn’t innocent” or “desire isn’t innocent.” Sure, maybe Finn and Poe don’t do it for you (or, the fight happening in my side of the internet lately, maybe trans women don’t do it for you), but that isn’t just a neutral fact that exists out in the world. It comes from somewhere. It is the product of a particular configuration of what we’ve learned to enjoy--or not. That doesn’t mean anyone is forced to enjoy the thing. It doesn’t speak to whether you’re “a bad person” for not liking the thing. But it does need to be understood as arising from and enmeshed in the systems of power conditioning how we think about the thing.

And that works both ways. It’s not that you can’t like CW DC Comics shows, say, just because they did a Nazi fanfic arc and some of their actors are bigots. It’s not like if you do like these shows you’re “a bad person”--whatever that might mean. But it is nevertheless true that supporting this media constellation isn’t just a neutral thing that exists in the world. It contributes to upholding these broader systems of power.


In the spirit of “all of our faves are problematic,” one thing I’m thinking about lately is “pleasure isn’t innocent” or “desire isn’t innocent.” Sure, maybe Finn and Poe don’t do it for you (or, the fight happening in my side of the internet lately, maybe trans women don’t do it for you), but that isn’t just a neutral fact that exists out in the world. It comes from somewhere. It is the product of a particular configuration of what we’ve learned to enjoy--or not. That doesn’t mean anyone is forced to enjoy the thing. It doesn’t speak to whether you’re “a bad person” for not liking the thing. But it does need to be understood as arising from and enmeshed in the systems of power conditioning how we think about the thing.

And that works both ways. It’s not that you can’t like CW DC Comics shows, say, just because they did a Nazi fanfic arc and some of their actors are bigots. It’s not like if you do like these shows you’re “a bad person”--whatever that might mean. But it is nevertheless true that supporting this media constellation isn’t just a neutral thing that exists in the world. It contributes to upholding these broader systems of power.

We can’t exempt ourselves from those systems in our fandom practices any more than we can opt out of white supremacy itself. You can sit with that reality, or you can work to change it, but it’s the place we’re standing either way. What we can do, as you point out, is push institutions and communities to be better.


Mel Stanfill is an Assistant Professor with a joint appointment in the Texts & Technology Program and the Department of Games and Interactive Media at the University of Central Florida. Stanfill’s book, Exploiting Fandom: How the Media Industry Seeks to Manipulate Fans, is available from the University of Iowa Press.

Samantha Close is an Assistant Professor in Communication at DePaul University. Her documentary, I Am Handmade: Crafting in the Age of Computers, and her peer-reviewed research articles on topics such as graffiti knitting and fan masculinity are available online. You can find her on Twitter @ButNoCigar

Participatory Politics in an Age of Crisis: Mel Stanfill and Samantha Close (Part I)



In the past year or so, something I’ve said often is that I keep trying to write a book called Fandom is Ugly. By this I mean that, though it’s not the project I’m supposed to be working on, I keep circling back to it. I’ve given talks about the harassment tactics fans used in response to the death of a queer character and the ways that fandom’s reputation as progressive may not be warranted; I’ve published about the role of whiteness in making fandom inhospitable to fans of color; among the work I have in preparation is a special issue organized around the concept “reactionary fandom.” So, when I think about participatory politics, it’s in that zone of how such politics are reactionary.

In her part of this series back in March, Ashley Hinck argued that “fans anchor their civic appeals in the ethical frameworks emerging from their fan object.” That usually runs one way: that Harry Potter fans, say, root their politics in opposition to Voldemortian genocidal policies. But texts can also support other belief systems. To keep going with the theme, this can be overt racist politics like memes about so-called “white genocide,” but it can also be the very same text that seems progressive from another angle: Rowling’s message may be ostensibly antiracist, but her representation of people of color is pretty marginalizing. Those are the cases that draw my attention--how does it change thinking about fandom as political when the object of fandom is racist (overtly or just centering whiteness), or sexist (overtly or just androcentric), or homophobic (overtly or just heterosexist)? How can we grapple with people’s passionate attachment, social media advocacy, and even more tangible activism being rooted in fandom of that?


Academia is a strange space to inhabit during a time of crisis. The university is simultaneously a non-profit, education-oriented institution where inhabitants have the time and freedom to analyze the world and an intense microcosm of the very truths, powers, and changes that we research. This is particularly clear to me as someone who both studies creativity, work, and digital society and works in a very creative, digitally-connected field, as I discussed when presenting my research on handmade craft entrepreneurship. It’s something I continue to reflect upon as the academic job season winds down and I see incredibly accomplished researchers and friends, people whose work I assign to my students, leaving a field that will fly them across the globe to give a 20 minute talk but won’t pay them enough to eat while they teach students in the regular week-to-week grind.

Completing my PhD at USC during Obama’s second term and beginning my first job as an Assistant Professor at DePaul during Trump’s first (only? Please let it be only.) term, I’ve tried to learn how to be an academic while waves of both highly progressive activism, like Occupy and Black Lives Matter, and highly regressive activism, like GamerGate and the resurgence of white nationalism, rocked both the wider nation and particular subcultural niches I inhabited. Throughout, I’ve vacillated between wondering whether my work analyzing popular culture (with its concomitant joys and pains) was utterly meaningless or incredibly essential. I empathized with a friend who described feeling like a robot when she was only able to reply “I’m focusing on my academic career right now” when a student making up material missed during a protest asked her “what are you doing for Occupy?” To have a hope of finding a sustainable place in academia, she (we) had to emphasize publications, research, teaching evaluations--but it’s an odd irony when what you’re researching are the very oppressions that activists outside your window are fighting against. I’ve also seen the lights go on in a student’s brain when they understood how the theories of power we deconstructed in the classroom live, breathe, and work in the world outside of it. One favorite moment was when my Gender and Popular Culture class visited the Ripped Bodice romance bookstore, an entrepreneurial enterprise by two sisters and romance fans to recognize and support women-centric literary culture, and they exclaimed “It’s just like in the reading!”

When I think about participatory politics now, my thoughts center around the kinds of politics that I participate in myself, particularly professionally. The most concentrated work I’ve done in this area is diving in to Community-Based Service Learning (CBSL), a teaching style that seeks to build partnerships between universities and the community organizations around them. CBSL courses aim for a balanced partnership where students, faculty, community organization workers, volunteers, and community members work together and learn from each other. For example, I teach an Introduction to Digital Skills class where students and I take a whirlwind tour through different arenas of digital media production skills. This year and last, we partnered with community organizations who had digital media-related projects that groups of students could work on throughout the quarter. The Benedictine Sisters of Chicago, for instance, had an incredible archive that they wanted to share with the community but weren’t sure how to go about it. One team of students went through the archive with archivist sister Virginia Jung, taking strong photographs and even videos of neat finds, and composing social media-aware copy to go with it.


Another team went to performance-based anti-bullying events created by the Free Lunch Academy to document their work. They research the best hashtags and photograph styles to increase the spread of FLA’s message online.


Beyond that, both groups created guides explaining how to produce more such content so that knowledge, not just objects created or time spent, could be shared between the privileged space of academia and the community. The students learned a great deal about working in the real world with actual communities—for instance, some of their very favorite ideas or material might conflict with what the organization was trying to do in their community and thus not work after all. That meant they had to let go of that idea and re-center their minds, setting aside their own viewpoints to understand why and how others might do things differently. We are in the midst of continuing these projects as I write these words, working this year with animal rescue organizations Tree House Humane Society and One Tail at a Time. Rather than just taking cute photographs of puppies and kittens, which can dramatically increase adoption numbers and website hits but ironically and cruelly contribute to the underlying problems of pet abandonment, the students are helping both organizations to sustain their work through focusing on processes like managing community cat colonies or fostering elderly and chronically ill dogs.

I’m lucky not only to have ended up in a position where I can teach like this but to actually be at an institution that, because of DePaul’s Vincentian mission for social justice, supports and recognizes it. And yet I often still find myself explaining the value of this work—sometimes to skeptical students or in official university contexts—using the terms and language of neoliberalism: partnering with a community becomes developing career skills. Learning to shift your viewpoint away from your own ego becomes learning how to meet client needs. This is painfully ironic because neoliberalism and a narrow focus on career and individual, rather than meaning and community, is responsible for many of the problems that both academia and our partners face. But it is also a recognizable central tenet of our academic, public, and private institutions, a language we often must speak in order to practically sustain ourselves. (these two points are not unrelated) Students certainly are developing job skills through my and other such classes--it is not an untruth--but it is a shifting of perspective that worries me. All of this is to say that I hope we can discuss how to live in a world that we know is broken, how to build a better future while still housing ourselves in the now.


Mel Stanfill is an Assistant Professor with a joint appointment in the Texts & Technology Program and the Department of Games and Interactive Media at the University of Central Florida. Stanfill’s book, Exploiting Fandom: How the Media Industry Seeks to Manipulate Fans, is available from the University of Iowa Press.

Samantha Close is an Assistant Professor in Communication at DePaul University. Her documentary, I Am Handmade: Crafting in the Age of Computers, and her peer-reviewed research articles on topics such as graffiti knitting and fan masculinity are available online. You can find her on Twitter @ButNoCigar

Surviving R. Kelly, Fandom & Collective Memory: 5 Avenues for Discussing Sexual Violence

Surviving R. Kelly, Fandom & Collective Memory: 5 Avenues for Discussing Sexual Violence

by Caitlin Joy Dobson­­­­­

For decades nearly anyone with a pulse could relate to R. Kelly’s music. From the nineties to the early 2000s Robert Sylvester Kelly has been the mastermind behind so much of the soulful “baby-makin” music fans of R&B bump at house parties, high school dances, karaoke, driving in the car.


My mind is telling me no

But my body, my body's telling me yes

Baby, I don't want to hurt nobody

But there is something that I must confess to you

Bump n’ Grind’ by R. Kelly (1993)


Age ain’t nothing but a number

Throwin’ down ain’t nothing but a thing

This thing I have for you, it’ll never

‘Age Ain’t Nothing But a Number’ by Aaliyah (1994)

produced by Barry Hankerson & R. Kelly

Let's go to the mall, baby

I'll pick you up around noon, lady

Don't you worry ‘bout a thing

Cause' I got all the answers, girl

To the questions in your head

And I'm gonna be right there for you, baby

‘Honey Love’ by R. Kelly (1992)

It is high time we hit the pause button and contemplate how much of our enjoyment as fans throughout the years has been served at the expense of young Black girls and girls of color. By the time of this post I imagine most readers in the US and beyond have viewed, read or heard about the 6-part docuseries (plus bonus clips) Surviving R. Kelly, the exclusive CBS interview with Gayle King, and the follow up special with Soledad O’Brien called Surviving R. Kelly: The Impact. Meanwhile, through a 2-part series called Leaving Neverland and an exclusive interview with Oprah featuring personal survivor testimonies of at least 2 men, Michael Jackson’s alleged years of sexual abuse against multiple boys have been brought back into the spotlight.

CBS’ Gayle King: “The R. Kelly Interview”

CBS’ Gayle King: “The R. Kelly Interview”

The conversation surrounding both cases is nothing new. Thanks to years of advocacy and the power of testimony, through the work of dream hampton, Tamara Simmons, Joel Karlsberg, Jesse Daniels, and Brie Miranda Bryant, in January 2019 Surviving R. Kelly aired on Lifetime to 2.1 million viewers. Since airing, radio DJs, Kelly’s record label, former fans, and entire countries  are increasingly motivated to #MuteRKelly. Regardless of where people stand in their opinion, from TMZ to social media to op-eds spanning multiple publications and platforms, the volume on the whisper network has officially been turned all the way up with respect to Kelly’s history of abuse, the truth of his survivors, and more broadly, the topic of rape culture.


No matter your current knowledge of or experience with sexual violence, there are numerous aspects of the series working to highlight some of the most important avenues for discussion we need to be having when addressing rape culture. Below I consider 5 important avenues in the context of fandom. By no means is this an exhaustive list. But it is vital to recognize the complexities of how fandom, public memory, and power dynamics influence and perpetuate the issue of sexual abuse, sexual assault, rape, and overall power-based harm. It is in this fashion we must keep the conversation going.

As a scholar and researcher of gender studies and sexual violence, my intent is to help generate discussion, with nuance but also in working to build bridges between intellectuals and multiple publics. As M. Jacqui Alexander states in Pedagogies of Crossing: Mediations on Feminism, Sexual Politics, Memory, and the Sacred, “no matter our countries of origin, decolonization is a project for all” (Alexander, 2005, p. 272). By extension this inevitably includes sexual violence as a side effect, as something learned through colonization, the ramifications of which remain relevant today. Because of existing, historical, systemic forms of oppression already in place, we must understand that although power-based harm affects us all, it affects us all differently. We must bear in mind the complexities of power in order to better understand unique experiences. While “rape culture,” concerning the ways in which society normalizes and trivializes sexual violence, deserves a focused intersectional lens, the case of Surviving R. Kelly lends itself to doing just that.

Fandom and the Power of Public Memory: Critical Engagement with Perceptions of the Past, Present, and Future

In terms of personal memory, my own fan status might be better attributed in the more general sense to Hip Hop, Rap, and R&B music. As a pre-Internet child of the late 80s and early 90s I read any XXL or Source Magazine I could find. My childhood bedroom floral wallpaper backdropped magazine cutouts of Tupac and Notorious B.I.G., with the words “Can’t we all just get along?” Shamefully, I recall snipping the title of DMX’s single Get At Me Dog and taping it to my puppy calendar. Somewhat understandably, I was as much of an avidly interested “Hip Hop Head” and consumer of a genre as being raised within a predominately white small town in Michigan allowed me to be. Through my portable CD player, stereo, television, and magazines, including this 1998 XXL issue featuring R Kelly on the cover, I kept this music on repeat.


This is not a proclamation of pride in my own personal fan status of Hip Hop, Rap, and R&B but rather an admission of fault. Very much a product of my environment, it is in this space and upbringing white kids like myself openly flirt with consumerism and the privilege of not having to endure much of the hardship and oppression, almost entirely at the hands of white supremacy, that influenced the creation of such art in the first place. It is to say white consumerism, which often self-identifies so personally yet ironically too often remains far removed from actual lived experience, makes white consumers even more complicit in the erasure of and perpetuated violence against Black women. 

In terms of public memory, for decades fans of R. Kelly have developed their own mediated memories through the consumption of his music. While these memories serve as a way for us to construct and inform individual identity, they also contribute to the formation of a collective, cultural identity (Van Dijck, 2004), which may not directly align with official histories. They function as an aid to making sense of the world around us, and in relation to one another, in the space where individual and culture meet. These “cultural acts and products of remembering” (Van Dijck, 2004, p. 262) span decades of R&B music as well as R. Kelly’s career.  

According to Houdek and Phillips (2017) public memory may be more “informal, diverse, and mutable” as opposed to more “formal, singular, and stable” official histories. In the case of R. Kelly, multiple narratives exist, often in contradiction with one another. For too long, established public memory revering R. Kelly as a musical icon has drown out discussions about the harm he has caused. A much deeper cultural and intersectional analysis is necessary (Crenshaw, 1990; Hancock Alfaro, 2016), in order to understand these complexities, with respect to both Kelly, as well as victims and survivors. In the docuseries Co-Founder Oronike Odeleye talks about the Black community’s reception of the #MuteRKelly movement.


She alludes to a form of cultural polarization, which is to say the way forward is complicated. We cannot discuss R. Kelly as an alleged perpetrator or person who has caused harm to others without discussing the unique experiences with oppression he himself has endured. This is not to say R. Kelly’s race is responsible for the harm he has caused multiple young girls. It is to say R. Kelly’s positionality as a Black man and celebrity in the United States works to inform fandom, in a way that might make it easier or more difficult to hold him responsible for his actions.

I argue we can have both. We can (and must) simultaneously recognize the pain R. Kelly has endured, as both a victim of sexual abuse and Black man growing up in the US, as well as the pain he has caused to others, particularly to young Black girls. The answer may or may not be found in fans turning their backs on R. Kelly, nor in media demonizing him. In the same vein, excusing or refusing to believe a person has caused harm, despite evidence, victim and survivor testimonies, and because you love what their art has meant to you or even an entire community, is also not the answer.


During my adolescence I do not recall being privy to R. Kelly’s alleged transgressions. What I am saying now, as an intersectional feminist scholar focused specifically on power-based sexual violence, is that regardless of our own gendered, racialized, classed experiences with fandom, we cannot let those personal memories disregard the individual and collective pain endured by Kelly’s alleged victims. While I was busy flipping through magazine pages to tear and tape, other young girls’ fan status led them toward coercion and mental abuse by a celebrity perpetrator. Aside from Kelly’s defense attorney, I have yet to encounter anyone capable of sitting through one episode of the docuseries and not believing the pain those women exude is real. In agreement with so much recent coverage this is all to say the same women deserve just as much collective rage as the affluent, white actresses who were victimized by Harvey Weinstein. The onus of making necessary changes in relation to rape culture falls on us, and it takes holding ourselves accountable. In this case this includes our own individual fan status. 

Fandom and the Power of Celebrity: Authenticity vs. Accountability in the Face of Adversity 

R. Kelly’s stardom is a peak example of what P. David Marshall describes in his book Celebrity and Power: Fame in Contemporary Culture, when authenticity converts into power. For decades R&B fans have been able to personally identify with the authentic, even explicitly sexual nature of R. Kelly’s music, and as Marshall states, “at the center of these debates concerning the authentic nature of the music is the popular music performer” (Marshall, 2014, p. 150). As one of the more enduring transformations in popular music, R. Kelly has been an artist who writes all of his own songs. Coupled with the mass distribution of his music, R. Kelly’s talent effectively infiltrated the hearts and minds of the masses.  

Broadly speaking, the effectiveness of Kelly’s ability to display this level of authenticity informs and upholds his celebrity power over a mass of fans, who for years have largely overlooked the fact that he was writing and singing about people he simultaneously victimized.  

R. Kelly remained untouchable, cloaked in his ability to produce hit after hit, to generate revenue for the music industry, and to invade dance floors and head phones. His way of surviving was to pass on the pain to undeserving young Black girls and girls of color, thereby desperately attempting to reclaim the power he (to this day) feels he never had. Meanwhile, I am aware of very few R&B fans from the 90’s and 2000’s who did not embrace his music to some extent.


For a child who never learned to read or write, who has opened up in bits and pieces about his own history of sexual abuse at the hand of a family member, music was his outlet. Fast-forward to R. Kelly’s stardom, and it’s as if his musical genius has afforded him the ability to do no wrong. In this respect it becomes all the more necessary to ground discussions of rape and sexual assault in a conversation about power. Generally speaking, we know molestation, sexual abuse, sexual assault, rape, and sexual harassment have so much less to do with sex than with power. Power dynamics existing between a celebrity and their fans can easily lead to an abuse of such power.  

Throughout his career Kelly has referred to himself as the “Pied Piper of R&B,” a phrase which now, in the eyes of former fans and regardless of his own awareness of its historical meaning, only further postulates him as a perpetrator of child abuse.


But that’s the thing about R. Kelly and the power of his celebrity. His self-identified Pied Piper persona is yet another example of the many ways in which R. Kelly hid his alleged offenses in plain sight. Operating as a form of camp, through which a predatorial, misogynistic “badge of identity” (Sontag, 1964) is embraced, it is in this fashion the power of celebrity works to inform public memory. Perceptions of authenticity incite selective memory. Behavior is attributed to style of music. Fans look the other way. 

Although memory may not be mutable, it is malleable. Attributing hampton’s documentary, Tarana Burke’s #MeToo movement, and years of relentless dedication to #MuteRKelly, fans are more capable of collectively flipping the script on memories of R. Kelly. Learning the true meaning behind so many of those historically beloved songs helps to demystify. Applause for musical genius can be converted into holding a perpetrator accountable. Peeling back the layers of abuse in the public eye and openly discussing them in such a way that humanizes a person who has caused harm can also serve as a way of dismantling the facade of celebrity power. 

Fandom and the Power of Media: Traditional Journalism, Social Media, and Black Twitter

Media can cause a great deal of harm as well as good. As Manuel Castells argues in Communication, Power, and Counter-Power in the Network Society, mass media functions as a social space within which power is strategized, negotiated, and determined [MOU1] (Castells, 2007). It is through this framework we must consider the case of Surviving R. Kelly, through which narrative power is established and to some extent depends on the medium. The most obvious example is found through the docuseries itself, in which the multi-layered power of testimony shines light and counters longstanding dominant narratives. It is particularly interesting to juxtapose (rather than conflate) Surviving R. Kelly with discussions concerning Leaving Neverland, as well as many of Harvey Weinstein’s accusers. In this case, hearing directly from survivors in such an explicit way has had a substantial impact on public opinion, including fans.

The power of media inevitably includes traditional journalism, particularly decades of coverage of R. Kelly by Jim DeRogatis.


For journalists it seems increasingly important to demonstrate responsibility through rhetoric. As a case in point, this calls for reconsidering the use of terms like “sex cult” and “sex slaves” when discussing R. Kelly’s treatment of women (I’m looking at you, Buzzfeed and TMZ). This is not to understate the gravity of R. Kelly’s alleged actions. It is one thing for Jonjelyn and Timothy as parents of Joycelyn Savage to refer to their daughter’s situation as such. It is another for Jim DeRogatis, Buzzfeed, and other mainstream news outlets to sensationalize a story at the expense of victims. It undermines the importance of mental coercion, influencing a victim to stay with their partner at their own “free” will. More often than not, clickbait terms like these do little to advocate for victims, nor are they necessarily effective in demonizing R. Kelly in the public eye. Instead, this type of misrepresentation trivializes the pain victims and survivors will continue to endure for the rest of their lives. And it erases the potential for understanding thus addressing the complexities of sexual violence. 

Beyond the scope of multiple op-ed pieces and news articles influencing public perception of the case, social media, the #MuteRKelly campaign, and particularly Black Twitter are spaces where power is negotiated daily. The power, influence, and mere presence of social media is unique from much of the history of allegations against R. Kelly. The immeasurable power of Black Twitter alone is notable, in that voices otherwise stifled by systemic racism in the US speak volumes. Social media exchanges, and often the virality of a particular perspective operate as a reflection of public opinion, and in this case, polarization. Not only do social media discussions, as a ground-up form of citizen journalism, steer some of the power away from traditional news outlets, it provides necessary nuance. It affords a topic like this a much-needed critical lens in real time, often disrupting the status quo thus more accurately reflecting public opinion. 

Fandom and the Power of Victim Blaming: The Psychology Behind Attitudes Toward Victims and Survivors 

Arguably the most important aspect in need of unpacking and dismantling is the role of victim blaming, through which Chicago Sun Times Journalist Mary Mitchell expresses frustration in her coverage of R. Kelly.


The psychology behind victim blaming runs deep, and it is much more common than we think. Through the following #Decoded #MTV video, Franchesca Ramsey explains the Just World Hypothesis, and why people default to blaming victims in moments of crisis and helplessness.

Focusing on perpetrators of rape and sexual assault can not only serve as an antidote to victim blaming, but it can help us better understand perpetrators, thus more effectively working to prevent future occurrences. While recognizing the psychology behind victim blaming must remain a staple part of conversations about sexual violence, and while misogyny in Hip Hop, Rap, and R&B music is a complex, multi-layered conversation deserving of its own focused attention, both point to a broader discussion of culture and context. Considering the ways in which young Black girls and girls of color who are victims of sexual violence are not considered as important as victims of sexual violence who are white, brings us a step closer to standing up for all victims and survivors. In the same vein we must refrain from suggesting how people can avoid being raped, and instead focus on how people can stop committing sexual violence.

Fandom and the Power of Believing Victims: Intersectionality, #MeToo, and Why Black Girls Matter 

Critically contemplate the power dynamics between R. Kelly and young girls who are fans, and it becomes easier to understand how abuses of power can occur. Simultaneously, by way of empathy and placing ourselves in the shoes of victims, to the extent we are able, we might better understand their own feelings of powerlessness. Couple this with the experience of moving through a world where Black girls and girls of color are already systemically, institutionally, and socially shoved into the margins of society, and it becomes easier to understand the power of believing them. 

When it comes to attitudes toward victims and survivors, as well as perpetrators, again I suggest it does not have to be one or the other. The answer is not in slut shaming or victim blaming the women, girls, and parents of Azriel, Joycelyn, and Dominique. Nor is the answer in demonizing R. Kelly. Perhaps there are more answers to be found in remaining steadfast in genuine, authentic discussions about culture, about gender norms, about the devastating impact of mental abuse, about the very forms of toxic masculinity people of all genders embrace that perpetuate the cycle of violence.


As numerous women throughout the series mentioned, they have involuntarily carried their trauma with them through life. Regardless of the amount of quality professional help received, quite often survivors must commit themselves to a lifetime of processing their trauma. Based on their survivor testimonies, it seems these women would leave the past in the past, if only they could. It also appears sharing their truth through this docuseries may be an act of freeing themselves, of reclaiming their autonomy and sense of agency. When the majority of instances of rape go unreported, when less than 2-10% of rape reports are false , when legal definitions and policies surrounding sexual violence are perpetually flawed, the least it seems victims and survivors are asking for is to be believed.

Lizzette Martinez, Survivor

Lizzette Martinez, Survivor

In mapping and continuing these important discussions, it is important to acknowledge the connection between R. Kelly fandom and aspects of public memory resulting in: a) society-wide failure to acknowledge the cyclical form of violence continuing to occur- from R. Kelly as a victim of child sexual abuse to an accused serial abuser himself, b) the ability of fans to excuse R. Kelly’s widely-known history of abuse against young Black girls in particular, as he has only recently been formally charged, and c) the audacity of fans to resist believing survivors, to victim blame and slut shame, and turn the other way rather than address the ways in which systemic racism erases Black women who are victims and survivors of sexual violence. When a celebrity, already oppressed in his own right, is implicated, it serves no one to dehumanize anyone. Quite the contrary, the solution is to be found in conversations about accountability, including our own role as fans in perpetuating societal harm. In times like these we must finally recognize fandom, selective public memory, and celebrity status were never an excuse.



Alexander, M. J. (2005). Pedagogies of crossing: Meditations on feminism, sexual politics, memory, and the sacred. Duke University Press. 

Castells, M. (2007). Communication, power and counter-power in the network society. International journal of communication1(1), 29. 

Crenshaw, K. (1990). Mapping the margins: Intersectionality, identity politics, and violence against women of color. Stan. L. Rev.43, 1241. 

Hancock, A. M. (2016). Intersectionality: An intellectual history. Oxford University Press. 

Houdek, M., & Phillips, K. R. (2017). Public memory. 

Marshall, P. D. (2014). Celebrity and power: Fame in contemporary culture. U of Minnesota Press. 

Sontag, S. (1964). Notes on camp. Camp: Queer aesthetics and the performing subject: A reader, 53-65. 

Van Dijck, J. (2004). Mediated memories: personal cultural memory as object of cultural analysis. Continuum, 18(2), 261-277.


Caitlin Joy Dobson is a Ph.D. student at the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. Her current research focuses on intersectional feminism, gender and sexuality studies, and power-based sexual violence. She is specifically interested in the issue of multiple perpetrator rape on a global scale, through a comparative, transnational, decolonial, intersectional lens. Through an interdisciplinary lens Caitlin’s work focuses on issues of sexual violence which concern synergistic opportunities between communication, cultural studies, media studies, sociology, forensic psychology, global health, masculinity studies, and international human rights law and policy. Grounded in a wide range of international experience, a background in public diplomacy, a decade of professional experience working in travel, as well as the human rights nonprofit world, currently Caitlin works, volunteers, and conducts ethnographic research throughout multiple organizations, whose layers of expertise address domestic violence and sexual violence. Her current and future research call for a mixed methods approach, from participant observation and depth interviewing to survey, network analysis, and archival research. Her work has been shared through the International Communication Association conference, the International Intersectionality conference, and soon the National Women’s Studies Association conference. She is active in the creation of multiple collaborative endeavors on campus, working to connect the shared interests of peers, colleagues, students, faculty, staff, and community partners. The breadth of Caitlin’s intellectual interests includes critical theories of race and culture, media representation as it relates to rape culture, bridging divides between feminist theory and queer theory, critical whiteness studies as it pertains to popular feminism, white feminism, generational feminist divides, tokenism, cultural appropriation, and most importantly, theories of power. Please feel free to connect with Caitlin at cdobson@usc.edu or on Twitter @caitjoydobson.



Participatory Politics in an Age of Crisis: Melissa Brough and David Nemer (Part II)



I completely agree with you that it is “magical thinking” that social media would bring more social equity. As I discuss in Youth Participation in Precarious Times (forthcoming, Duke) the Web 2.0 (and some digital media scholars’) version of “participatory media” was technologically deterministic, assuming that a platform that could be used for participation would necessarily promote meaningful participation. In other words, it anthropomorphized internet technology by ascribing a social behavior to it. While the unprecedented access, interactivity, networked distribution, and speed of internet, mobile, and Web 2.0 technologies have reduced barriers to communication and participation for many of us, the history of participatory communication -- e.g. community radio; community television; participatory theater; participatory art; etc --  around the world (including in Brazil) problematizes this attribution of participation and equity to social media.

I’m also drawn to your examples and analysis because they illustrate how grey the spaces between hegemony (like social exclusion / racism) and resistance can be -- often, the two are operating simultaneously and may even be intertwined. One person’s act of resistance may be another person’s reaffirmation of a social hegemony, and vice versa. Certainly, participatory politics is not only the playground of progressive social justice advocates.

Your examples underscore the need for greater emphasis on cultivating the skill of listening (and ‘moving over,’ to borrow from feminist critique). Western (especially U.S.) culture incessantly places emphasis on ‘voice’ in a way that often over-values the expression of individual voice at the expense of the equally -- if not more -- important need to deeply listen to the experiences of others. Mainstream social media culture has only exacerbated this. It’s primarily about “broadcasting yourself” (YouTube), with very little discussion of listening to other voices. Organizations and projects like Global Voices and Witness offer important exceptions to this.

I wonder, do you think the Brazilian cases of participatory politics have anything to teach those of us in the global North about cultivating cultures of listening?


I really appreciate the cases you bring to the discussion, Melissa, as they push us to think outside the Western norms of participatory politics and social media use. You hit the nail on the head when you claim: "what has made media participatory was how they were used and by whom, not the technologies themselves"- and that's exactly what I have noticed in the  favelas of Brazil, especially in the case of the Protests of 2013. Even though the marginalized were not able to actively participate in defining the agenda of these protests, they helped these demonstrations grow to something the country has never seen before. The protests were still sounding progressive, a bit inclusive and nonpartisan, where people were demanding from politicians better schools, health care, an end to violence and corruption. I have to confess that I did have some hopes for better days after my first experience following the protests. However, looking at what is currently happening in Brazil, given the election of Bolsonaro, the question that I have been exploring is: how did Brazil go from social demonstrations in 2013 that seemed progressive and nonpartisan, to today, with an impeached left-wing female president to a far-right white man as president? (I think the answer to this question connects very well to your question about what can be learned from participatory politics in Brazil).

In my understanding, many things happened, but one in particular caught my attention: as I was doing follow-up fieldwork in 2014 and 2015 when I observed the rise of extreme groups and leaderships that piggybacked on the enormous sense of change to skew the discourse of these protests. They brought rhetorical claims such as that the political class, or the establishment, didn’t represent them, that the common men were being crushed by political correctness and bureaucracies in order to get the protesters' sympathy. Extreme groups are somewhat known to do that, for example they have piggybacked on the Occupy Movement to promote the idea of the forgotten white common men, and we are currently seeing a very similar phenomenon with the yellow vests protests in France.

Paulo Freire (2018) once said that "certain members of the oppressor class join the oppressed in their struggle for liberation, thus moving from one pole of the contradiction to the other. Theirs is a fundamental role, and has been so throughout the history of this struggle." The oppressors or exploiters, in this case the far-right groups, as they join the people in protests, they bring their prejudices and their deformations, which include a lack of confidence in the people’s ability to think, to want, and to know, to take over the leadership of these movements in order to make the demands about what they (far-right groups) think is best for the country, or for themselves.

The interesting thing is that these extremist groups in Brazil, disguised as non-partisan, took advantage of their tech savviness to engagement with new media to recruit and convince new members, and kill any attempt to deconstruct their groups on social media. These groups, such as MBL (Movimento Brasil Livre), started on Facebook, with the spread of sensational short clips and memes. In 2016, with the decline of new users on the platform, they moved their channels of communication to YouTube, and then finally, in 2018, during Brazil’s elections, these groups moved to WhatsApp where they were able to join organically built WhatsApp discussion groups in order to pass on their ideology (see my article in the Guardian).

As we acknowledge these events, I'm left with many questions and very few answers: how do we protect progressive participatory politics and protect them from extreme groups? How can we promote digital literacy and skills for an empowering participatory media and not an oppressive one? Is "participatory" just an illustrative term where in fact we actually need some sort of higher level command to protect the participants from extreme forces? All I know is that, based on my research, the solution will not be found in technology, but in the voices and actions of people who still believe in a more inclusive future. However, to move forward, we have to understand the depths of the desperation that members of extreme groups have tapped into, and given voice to, in their own conceptualization of participatory politics.


I’m so glad you brought up the need to “understand the depths of the desperation” experienced across all points on the political spectrum. At the end of the day, participatory politics is just another way in which individuals and groups are expressing their hopes, fears, pain, and desires. Perhaps one small way forward is for all of us to work on being better listeners, and on respecting and holding space for the individual and collective experiences of fear and pain that are currently polarizing societies worldwide, as we work to transform the underlying structural and cultural dynamics causing them. Thank you, David, for this conversation!


Absolutely agree, Melissa. Thank you for this enlightening conversation.


Melissa Brough is Assistant Professor of Communication & Technology in the Department of Communication Studies. Her research focuses on the relationships between digital communication, civic/political engagement and social change. Much of her work considers the role of communication technology in the social, cultural, and political lives of youth from historically disenfranchised groups. Her research has been published in Mobile Media and Communication, the International Journal of Communication, and the Johns Hopkins Guide to Digital Media, among others. Her book Youth Participation in Precarious Times: The Power of Polycultural Civics is forthcoming from Duke University Press.  

David Nemer is an Assistant Professor of Media Studies at the University of Virginia. His research and teaching interests cover the intersection of Postcolonial Science and Technology Studies (STS), Information Anthropology, ICT for Development (ICT4D), and Human-Computer Interaction (HCI). Nemer is an ethnographer whose fieldworks include the Slums of Vitória, Brazil; Havana, Cuba; and Eastern Kentucky, Appalachia. Nemer is the author of Favela Digital: The other side of technology (Editora GSA, 2013). He holds a Ph.D. in Informatics (track Computing, Culture, and Society) from Indiana University and an M.Sc. in Computer Science from Saarland University. Nemer has written for The Guardian, El País, and The Tribune.

Participatory Politics in an Age of Crisis: Melissa Brough and David Nemer (Part I)

Indigenous woman creating a participatory video with the Chiapas Media Project. (Photo courtesy of the Chiapas Media Project)

Indigenous woman creating a participatory video with the Chiapas Media Project. (Photo courtesy of the Chiapas Media Project)


I came to participatory politics through Henry Jenkins’s Civic Paths research group at USC, but more historically from participatory media -- not the digitally-determined kind, but the kind of participatory media that has been practiced for decades in marginalized communities, using photography, radio, theater, video, etc. My first experience with participatory media was as an intern for the Chiapas Media Project in 2000, supporting Zapatista-affiliated indigenous communities to produce their own documentaries about human rights abuses, collective organic coffee farming, and the impacts of privatized eco-tourism on indigenous communities.

To me, the proliferation of discourses of participation that occurred with the marketing of Web 2.0 was both exciting and suspect; exciting, because participation, citizen journalism, and other forms of what Manuel Castells calls “mass self-communication” were becoming the new norm -- and this seemed promising for direct civic/political engagement. Suspect, because social media corporations were using the trope of participation to sell Web 2.0, and in doing so the term lost some definitional clarity and practical meaning -- particularly as a tool for social change and democratic practice. (For instance, Zuckerberg’s 2009 video address to Facebook users compared Facebook to a nation state that needed a “more open process” with users having “a voice in governance”. Uh-huh. Or for fun, check out this description of the “participatory marketing” campaign for Mountain Dew called “Dewmocracy”.)

“DEWmocracy” on Facebook. [Source:  https://www.facebook.com/DEWmocratic/ ]

“DEWmocracy” on Facebook. [Source: https://www.facebook.com/DEWmocratic/]

Historically, what has made media participatory was how they were used and by whom, not the technologies themselves. Similarly, if we construe participatory politics as a mostly new phenomenon, implying that digital technology is what makes participatory politics participatory, we overlook a longer history of participatory politics that have been forged in a variety of other contexts. These concerns -- along with the fact that much of the work on digital age participatory politics has been focused on the US and the global North -- prompted me to carry out my dissertation research in Latin America. I spent a year studying participatory communication, culture, and politics as they played out in Medellín, Colombia. While Medellín first became famous on the world stage for being the home of Pablo Escobar’s drug cartel in the 1980s-90s, in recent years (particularly 2004-2011) the city gained international recognition for its urban renaissance based largely on discourses and practices of participation. Decades of narcotrafficking, paramilitary violence, and the urbanization of Colombia’s civil war (including violent military operations carried out indiscriminately in some of the most densely populated parts of the city), had shredded the social, civic, and political fabric of Medellín. But the crisis also created a political opening and sparked a shift in civic engagement.

Sergio Fajardo and the Compromiso Ciudadano party (Citizens’ Commitment, an independent alliance of community leaders, academics, local business leaders, and activists) won the 2003 mayoral election. This administration brought an unprecedentedly diverse group of actors into city government, including academics and community activists, rather than the traditional elites who had governed the city. The new administration’s first strategic priority for stabilizing and developing the city was entitled “Medellín, governable and participatory”.  They launched a participatory budgeting process which allowed any citizen age 14 and up to participate in allocating a percentage of the city’s annual budget to priorities set by citizens at the local subdistrict level. Along with private sector and other partners, they also invested in public spaces such as the now famous Park Libraries (a series of strikingly designed libraries with public spaces intentionally located in some of the poorest parts of the city). And they invested significant resources in prosocial youth programs, including some youth-led colectivos (collectives).

Santo Domingo Library Park and metrocable, Medellín, Colombia. [Source:  http://www.nomads.usp.br ]

Santo Domingo Library Park and metrocable, Medellín, Colombia. [Source: http://www.nomads.usp.br]

So I spent most of a year studying how discourses and practices of participation were wielded by a wide variety of actors in Medellín during the two Compromiso Ciudadano administrations (2004-2011), from government officials to youth activists in the city’s poorest and most violent neighborhoods. I studied a range of cases, from the municipal government’s digital citizenship initiative and participatory budgeting, to citizen media and youth hip hop activist projects. What I learned is detailed in my forthcoming book, Youth Participation in Precarious Times: The Power of Polycultural Civics (Duke University Press).

As we have seen elsewhere, I observed instances where participatory politics were being enacted in an authentic and empowering manner, and instances where rhetoric of participation was co-opted to maintain a status quo that could not rightly be described as participatory. But the picture wasn’t that simple. What I found in Medellín (but is not exclusive to this city alone) was what I have come to describe as a civic polyculture. In agriculture, the term “polyculture” refers to the practice of cultivating distinct crops in the same place to enhance the ecosystem. I use the term to draw attention to the potentially productive relationships that can be cultivated between grassroots activist networks and institutions. While research has shown (and we commonly hear of) a significant disconnect between public institutions and today’s youth in most of the world, Medellín illustrated a highly participatory civic life in which many youth -- particularly low-income, marginalized youth -- were engaged in grassroots activism at the same time as they interfaced with government processes and institutions.

The result was a rich civic polyculture in which youth voices were having remarkable impacts on the city. For instance, one of the hip hop activist youth collectives I studied participated in the city’s participatory budgeting process. Each year they would work strategically to place their youth members as delegates who could vote on key sub-committees to advocate for funding for youth programs such as youth-led hip hop “schools” and other activities that were providing effective alternatives to gang membership for children and teens by creatively engaging them in public life. In 2010, through its participation in various participatory budgeting working groups, this youth collective helped channel nearly US$120,000 toward a hip hop festival promoting non-violence and prosocial youth engagement. In another instance, following the gang-related murder of a hip hop peace activist in their neighborhood, this and other youth collectives used Facebook and Twitter to call out and demand action from the municipal government. Within a couple of days, they organized a march and concert, with logistical resources provided by the municipal government.

Members of youth-led hip hop collectives in Comuna 13, Medellín, Colombia. [Source: author]

Members of youth-led hip hop collectives in Comuna 13, Medellín, Colombia. [Source: author]

To be clear, the relationships between grassroots youth collectives and the local government were both productive and conflictive; their perspectives were often times opposed or at least in tension. But the ecology of participation that was the result of the work of these and other actors was very rich -- and as a result, young people’s voices were having a much greater, prosocial influence on public life in the city than ever before. There was not always consensus between grassroots and institutional actors, but there was interconnection and a mutual interest in building a stronger civic ecosystem.

I’ve come to see polycultural civics as a lens through which to think about how relationships between different civic and political actors can exist in both symbiosis and tension. I am excited to join this blog series because I wonder if others in this conversation might see polycultural civics as a way to think through the (dis)connections that prompted this series. I see resonance with similar ideas that have already been expressed in this series, such as Andrew Schrock’s discussion of tech geeks acting as “tempered radicals” (borrowing from Debra Meyerson) to bring about change within public institutions. Or Eric Gordon’s discussion, drawing on Hannah Arendt, of the significance of trust in public institutions at a time when institutional uses of digital technology is undermining public trust. (And for more on the current Colombian context, check out Andres Lombana-Bermudez’s conversation with Arely Zimmerman.)

More recently I’ve been shifting away from thinking about participation as an expression of voice (as in Paulo Freire’s writing that participation is “an exercise in voice, in decision making at certain levels of power” (1999,p.88). Instead, it feels like it’s time to think about participation in its most potent form as a way to cultivate connection. Not surface-level connection, as in ‘social media connects people’; I mean participation that cultivates connection that feels meaningful to participants, and that enriches their lived experiences -- connection that both validates and challenges (or opens) participants’ perspectives and forges a deeper mutual respect for their differences and commonalities. Clearly these are not the current design goals of the social media platforms that are often referred to as “participatory media”. As several others in this series have pointed out, one of the most pressing questions of our time is how to connect across vastly different, and increasingly polarized, perspectives and ideologies. Doing a better job at designing and cultivating communication -- and civic -- ecologies conducive to these kinds of connections is the task at hand.


My first experience with participatory politics happened through the teachings and guidance of David Hakken. I remember our meetings, during my PhD program, where we used to discuss the “culture question in participatory design.” The question is a critique to the field of participatory design which tends to conceive of culture as a single, unified “thing” with ontological status. Hakken used to argue that cultural perspectives were produced via use of analytic constructs, and participatory design could develop culturally appropriate senses of both participation and design by learning to decompose totalizing notions of culture (see Hakken & Mate, 2014). Hakken’s claims stayed with me during my ethnography in the favelas (urban slums) of Vitoria, Brazil, as I was trying to understand the engagements of Favela residents with social media. I brought these same claims in order to critically examine the affordances of participatory media in the process of social inclusion and/or exclusion.

It was 2013, and the actors behind Web 2.0 platforms had proliferated the discourse of participation, as highlighted by Melissa. Even though scholars had already raised concerns about the promises of the Web 2.0, it still led the general public, especially the late adopters, such as Favela residents, to the notion that Web 2.0 platforms would bring some grand authoritative social change, in which they would promote democratic and inclusive discussions and activities. Although Web 2.0 platforms may afford a more democratic and decentralized process of producing, sharing, and consuming information, they don’t necessarily bring such emancipatory promises to those who face social and digital marginalization. In the following, I describe three cases of participatory media engagements that didn’t end so well for those who needed the most: favela residents.

During my fieldwork, I noticed that Facebook groups were popular especially with favela teenagers, as they perceived it as a way to freely communicate with friends and other teenagers from the same social class without fear judgment. Some teenagers went beyond the communicative aspect of groups and shared self-made digital content in order to become what was called famosinhos. Famosinhos were the most popular teenagers from the favelas. They dictated fashion trends among teens within the favelas, and actively cultivated their reputation by producing videos and content to promote ostentation. Such access to material good put them in a higher power position when compared to other teenagers, some of whom became fans. Famosinhos from the favelas organized meetings on Facebook so they could hang out with friends and meet their fans. These meetings were called rolézinhos (meaning “little strolls”) and later became a phenomenon throughout Brazil.

At first, the rolézinhos were taking place in public squares in the peripheries of the city, but they turned out to be popular enough that the famous teenagers dared to organize the strolls in local shopping malls, or just “shoppings” as they were called. In Brazil, shoppings functioned as a situated activity where the upper class demonstrated their purchasing power and social location. Based on my observations, favela residents perceived shoppings as a place to feel more included in society. These places allowed them the opportunity to show that they also had money (purchasing power) and access to expensive, trending goods, and not just cheap and old garments. The shoppings were located centrally in the cities and not in the favelas. Since this meant to cross social if not political boundaries, it was not well received, and the famosinhos and their fans were soon labeled as troublemakers, thieves, and rioters because they were in big groups and were targeted as favelados (favelado is a derogatory term to refer to favela residents. It implies that a favela resident is uneducated and uncivilized) (Nemer, 2016).

The rolézinho of November 2013 didn’t end well. What was supposed to be a fun stroll, ended up with the cops being called to arrest and repress the participants: poor and black bodies were tamed and humiliated as a statement that Brazil was a place that diversity was celebrated, but diverse bodies should stay in their designated space. Rolezinho was a phenomenon that helped me understand that favela residents were not only marginalized due to their social conditions, but they were also marginalized by place — both online and physical. In summary, this case highlights how favela residents were able to creatively and actively engage with social media in a way that made sense and was of value to them, however, it did not help them cross social boundaries through rolézinhos.

In June 2013, an avalanche of protests led more than one million people to take to the streets in over a hundred cities in Brazil. The wave of protests began in early June in the city of São Paulo and spread throughout the country. The protests were motivated by an eight percent increase (R$0.20) in fare for public transportation. The protests grew to include a much larger set of issues faced by Brazilian society. For instance, the protesters were dissatisfied with the government due to either a perceived or real increase in corruption and impunity. They were also frustrated by the cost of hosting the upcoming World Cup and Olympic games in light of this economic disparity and the lack of decent public services, such as health care, education, and security. In Vitória, the first protest took place on 17 June 2013. University students and members of the Brazilian middle class organized it; they used Facebook to form two popular groups: “Utilidade Publica — ES” (referred to as UP; translated as Public Utility — ES) and “Não é por 20 centavos” (referred to as N20; which translates as “It’s not just 20 cents”). The initial protest attracted 20,000 people, and the protestors started marching at the Federal University of Espírito Santo (UFES). They marched 11 kilometers, passing through the most important avenues in the city until reaching the official residence of the Espírito Santo’s governor, Renato Casagrande. I was not able to identify anyone from the favelas. The protesters were mostly white and wore clothes that resembled typical upper-class citizens. The following day I went back to the favelas and questioned some of the residents about the protests. Most of them knew little about the protest.

Due to a large number of participants on June 17, the protest organizers gained interest and attention from channels of mainstream media, and they announced the new protest for June 20. Since the information about the new protest was available through less exclusive and mass channels, favela residents became interested and organized their own group on Facebook. The protests of June 20th made history by gathering more than 100,000 protesters in the streets of Vitória. This formed the largest public demonstration ever registered in the state of Espírito Santo. I also joined these protests with 21 favela residents. They demanded better living conditions in the favelas, more respect as citizens, and they called for an end to the drug war in their communities.

The protests of June 2013 were a good example of social segregation. The organizers of the first protests belonged to an upper class that did not overlap with lower classes, online and offline, and thus the marginalized joined in late to the streets and their voices and requests were not as privileged as the ones shouted by the rich- who already had the protest agenda set since June 17. In Vitória, when the favela residents joined the protests, they joined a group that already had demands stipulated by members from upper classes, who were the first adopters of the protests. Also, besides the lack of social ties between people from different social classes, the social conditions in which the poor lived also influenced their political engagement.

As these two cases illustrate, participatory politics empowered the marginalized to organize to protest and cross social boundaries, but when this happened, they faced something much stronger — a social exclusion marked by police brutality against blacks and the poor, and limited civic engagement. Which leads me to believe that, although “participatory media” seem to be a more democratic approach to engaging with media, it will not fix these social problems because it did not cause them. These problems are rooted in deeper issues that go beyond the domain of media.


Freire, P. (1999). Education and community involvement. In M. Castells, R. Flecha, P. Freire, H. Giroux, D. Macedo, and P. Willis, eds. Critical education in the new information age (pp83-92). Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield

D., & Maté, P. (2014, October). The culture question in participatory design. In Proceedings of the 13th Participatory Design Conference: Short Papers, Industry Cases, Workshop Descriptions, Doctoral Consortium papers, and Keynote abstracts-Volume 2 (pp. 87-91). ACM.

Nemer, D. (2016). Rethinking social change: The promises of Web 2.0 for the marginalized. First Monday, 21(6). doi:https://doi.org/10.5210/fm.v21i6.6786


Melissa Brough is Assistant Professor of Communication & Technology in the Department of Communication Studies. Her research focuses on the relationships between digital communication, civic/political engagement and social change. Much of her work considers the role of communication technology in the social, cultural, and political lives of youth from historically disenfranchised groups. Her research has been published in Mobile Media and Communication, the International Journal of Communication, and the Johns Hopkins Guide to Digital Media, among others. Her book Youth Participation in Precarious Times: The Power of Polycultural Civics is forthcoming from Duke University Press.  

David Nemer is an Assistant Professor of Media Studies at the University of Virginia. His research and teaching interests cover the intersection of Postcolonial Science and Technology Studies (STS), Information Anthropology, ICT for Development (ICT4D), and Human-Computer Interaction (HCI). Nemer is an ethnographer whose fieldworks include the Slums of Vitória, Brazil; Havana, Cuba; and Eastern Kentucky, Appalachia. Nemer is the author of Favela Digital: The other side of technology (Editora GSA, 2013). He holds a Ph.D. in Informatics (track Computing, Culture, and Society) from Indiana University and an M.Sc. in Computer Science from Saarland University. Nemer has written for The Guardian, El País, and The Tribune.

Participatory Politics in an Age of Crisis: Jonathan Gray and Paul Mihailidis (Part II)



I’m intrigued by your last line there. Could you elaborate and give an example?


Happy to kick us off with an elaboration and example. A lot of times, in my work with community groups, people interested in using media to engage in efforts to advocate for healthier school lunches, or for workers rights, or environmental awareness, want to start with creating media content and messaging, i.e. let’s get our FB page, YouTube page, Snapchat account, and start a campaign. For me, this is the result of people with great intentions but jumping quickly into the skills/solutions track, or the “how.” One good and popular example of this is the Standing Rock protests against the pipeline by the One Mind Youth group. At first, they went to the site of contestation, and set up social media accounts, and started to advocate, gaining some recognition, and a few thousand followers. People were supportive, but they also weren’t leveraging these technologies beyond the articulation of concern. This also opened space for the online dislike that you write about in your opening essay. To scale, One Mind Youth need to think about how to scale their activism with something that communities could relate to beyond what they were posting on line. So they staged a 500-mile run to the the Army Corp of Engineers, where they would pass through reservation towns and be able to engage other tribal communities around the issue of water, and show them the persistent efforts they were making on this behalf. As the rest of the story goes, that 500-mile run gained strong support, and turned into a 2000 mile run to the US Capitol Building, and support and presence for their activism that wasn’t reached before. Of course, this story is complex, with many different angles from which we can judge impact. But to me, this is a great example of a group helping to show a caring ethic that is relational, i.e. care for, beyond what they can share online, i.e. caring about. The media activism supports their run, and not the other way around. I think this is the value proposition that can move beyond the useful but often times shallow and contextless online spaces where people spend much of their time.



Thanks. Yeah, I guess I’m interested, too, in more work that explores how we get to the point of being activists making a difference. That’s what directed me towards satire earlier in my career, as I was really unhappy with the framing of satire being useless if its audience didn’t turn off the show and immediately march on Washington (heck, even when they did march on Washington, for the Stewart-Colbert thing, the journalists still judged that insufficient!), instead wanting to think about how a political mind grows, is fed and nourished, and works at the moments when it’s not in the streets demanding that X happens. My project about dislike is similarly interested in how these little moments work “before” (or after, or in addition to) activism. But I love that this work you’re discussing seems also to open up space to discuss “best practices” and strategy. It makes me think about “best practices” and strategy for dislike. How “should” one dislike, it’s making me wonder?


I’m really interested in thinking about how you activate “dislike.” We almost vilify the notion of dislike in our analysis of platform communications. That’s basically how people justify the bad depths of the internet: everything descends into some polarized dislike and expression of hatred. But it seems as if there can be value in that if channeled in an interesting way. Maybe that’s what your project is getting at? The other point you refer to that i’m interested in is how a political mind grows, is fed and nourished. For me this is key to thinking about how we use media in political or civic ways. And where values come into play. Political minds aren’t born from just going to march one day from out of nowhere. I think popular culture, formative life experiences, and media habits contribute more to our media activism than anything else. I’d like to put your question to the test, are there strategies for dislike, or civic pathways that direct dislike towards agentive action taking in the world (not the traditional marching kind, but the kind that is embedded in our current digital culture?


I’m laughing at the idea of a book that such an examination might generate, called something like How Best to Hate, or Disliking for Dummies. Joking aside, though, I’m also interested in ensuring that we’re very open-minded when it comes to thinking about the strategies or utility of dislike. Otherwise, we risk falling back into tone-policing. A proper mapping of how political minds grow and work, though, would show the many ways that dislike (or like, or love, for that matter) starts or contributes to all sorts of chain-reactions that lead to the sorts of actions that in and of themselves change things.

If I could shift focus a bit, though, how is this done? So much of the work on “political minds” and how they develop is quantitative and effects-based, in ways that privilege only the last few chains in a chain reaction. And/or they’re based on self-reporting, wherein we’re perhaps all more likely to privilege those last few chains. But the only way to back up and get a better sense of how this works would seem to require not just qualitative work, but longitudinal ethnography. So let me ask you, how do you do what you do? And/or is there a methodological golden fleece you’re envisioning that would do it even better?


Okay, I’ll take the slight shift of focus, and move away from the enticing option of a Dislike for Dummies TOC - preface: why I hate. Chapter 1: dislike in the womb, 2…... I’m in complete agreement that quantitative methods predominate in this work, and they certainly have value. My work in this space has been qualitative through interviews, critical ethnography, and deep case study analysis. Case studies have helped I think to look at the ecosystems of how people persist and commit to support and create/use media to advocate for causes. I’ve often looked at cases through the lens of what resources -- human, technological, and social -- that young people use when building or support civic action taking with and through media. In looking at impactful cases, like 9 year old Martha Payne and her quest to reform school lunch in Scotland, or the more popular Pimp my Carroça initiative in Brazil, one can see the intersection of media skills and civic values that guide this work. Obviously there are limitations to this inquiry, but it helps to build emerging ideas and narratives, and to also provide a counterbalance to quantitative approaches that often rely on self-reporting attitudes and behaviors.  My golden fleece, I think we need more anthropological approaches to this work. Deep embedded with activist communities, to not only see how they organize but also who they are, their backgrounds, identities, etc. I’m sure this has been done, but it would help greatly in our field. I’d like to pose that question back to you. How do we get to more interesting spaces through methods? Or do we just go to that Dislike for Dummies book idea…..



For me, it’s about broadening what we ask about. That’s at heart why anthropological-ethnographic accounts can be great, because the researcher has an abundance of context from which to draw when trying to make sense of what they’re seeing. Now, “true” anthropological-ethnographic approaches may be impractical or downright impossible for many of us, but all of us could start asking about more things. Let me offer two examples from this project of mine, one planned, one accidental:

The planned one: I didn’t want my interviews simply to talk about dislike and to start there. Rather, I wanted to hear first and in addition how people talked about and with their fandoms, too, so that I had better context to understand the terms they were using to discuss their dislikes. And that reaped rich rewards, as I was regularly hearing people shift registers and employ a wholly new vocabulary and way of speaking about their dislikes, while also hearing them bounce their dislikes off their earlier-stated fandoms. Sometimes they became aware of contradictions they’d offered in doing so, and needed to work them through. Or because we’d talked about fandoms, they felt a need to connect the dots and look for patterns themselves. The point is that my data is so very much richer, and I have a much better sense of their dislikes’ pasts, presents, and futures because I didn’t just ask about dislike.

The unplanned one: most of my interviews were conducted by one of several awesome research assistants. But I wanted to ensure they all got something out of the project, too, so I encouraged them to twin the project with any of their own interests, mixing my questions with theirs. What I didn’t predict, though, is that by doing so, they’d each -- and especially in tandem -- end of providing a much richer account of dislike, precisely because each of them was situating it differently, approaching it from a different angle, providing different contexts.

Admittedly, asking for more than you think you need involves a nightmare on the transcription end. But for me that’s where the “interesting spaces” lie: through asking about way more. Maybe we can’t all do full-on ethnography, but we can all start asking about more, “going off-topic” for a while, and letting the discussion wander a bit. All good therapists must learn the art of letting their patients wander a bit, and our qualitative interviews should do the same. I’m a real fan of Nina Eliasoph’s Avoiding Politics: How Americans Produce Apathy in Everyday Life, which is based on bona fide ethnography, but many of its key offerings about how we discuss politics could have been replicated by interviewers who allowed their subjects to wander a bit. If we want to understand the political, and where media fits in it, we too need a bit more wandering in our interviews.



I’m really taken by the wandering context for qualitative research, and finding creative and unique ways to approach the research questions we’re trying to answer. I think participatory design offers a similar approach to this, where through co-design with communities of research, and the iteration process, we can come to some interesting insights without just sitting and asking people about their attitudes towards a certain idea. In the same way, we should also acknowledge how our discussion of methods necessarily includes questions of power and resources, and how those also impact the realities of the subjects in our inquiry. A recent project I’m involved in is working with Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests as a mechanism to build community engaged local journalism projects. It’s been super interesting to use FOIA to bring journalists and communities together, and to learn about communities’ dispositions towards local issues (in our case gun procurements in the state of Massachusetts) but also journalism. We’re able to explore our research questions through participation in and documentation of our community workshops, and the dialog that emerges from those sessions.

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Thinking about fandom, like, dislike and activism through methods is really important. Perhaps we can build on this by offer some closing thoughts on where we think work is/should be heading in the space of media studies about fandom, young engagement and activism in digital culture. What are the big questions, or methods, that we should be exploring, that we haven’t? Where do we go from here???


I like where things are going, so I don’t have too many big demands. Instead, I’ll be more specific about what I like, and why that work might help discussions of the political in general. I like that we’re talking about the warts and wars within fandom -- maybe that could help us to better understand the warts and wars within the Democratic Party and its base(s), for instance? I like that fan studies is talking more and more (if still not enough) about race and about transcultural, transnational fandoms: if the democratic subject has long been imagined (across many disciplines) in white Western terms, any meaningful attempt to look at fandom, affect, activism, and politics will need to consider citizenship that isn’t just white and American, white and English, or white and Australian. And I like that a lot of people are now talking about dislike, anti-fandoms, and such.

But asking me that question is a bit boring, since I’ve had two intros in two edited collections of Fandom to answer it already (and have benefited immeasurably from having Cornel Sandvoss and C. Lee Harrington offering smarter answers than mine as I do so!). So how about you? What do you want to see more of? What’s next? If someone needs a dissertation topic, what should it be?


I think we’re emerged from a wave of studies that have been looking at the impact of social media on how people engage in civic life. I’ve been involved in media literacy work, and in there I’ve felt somewhat constrained by the work that produces similar results about young people and the need to better prepare them to critical consume and create media. I think that’s important but it’s not captured the potential of media to harness human stories and their potential for positive social change. I just read Mimi Ito’s new book, Affinity Online, and I think there’s some really interesting space there to harness for future work. What do our personal stories, interests and ideologies do to impact our media use and engagement in daily life. Instead of looking at the impacts of the technology or expression within, I think there’s a host of research that can explore more of the ways that affinity networks impact civic engagement, and what types of values drive these networks.

I also am captured by the concept of Care. There’s more attention needed to take the work of Nell Noddings and Joan Tronto on Ethics of Care and Caring Democracy that could be applied to digital culture. I think caring is such an important part of our approaches to online participation, and we haven’t done enough on that front.

Lastly, along with my colleagues Christopher Harris and Moses Shumow, I’m working on a book now about the concept of Persistence, which focuses on how pedagogies can contribute to persistent media engagement for social impact in a culture of transaction, which is prioritized by our digital environments and increasingly our institutions of higher education.

I’d love some dissertations on this work! Would be helpful to me at the very least...


Jonathan Gray is Professor of Media and Cultural Studies at University of Wisconsin, Madison. He is author of Television Studies (with Amanada D. Lotz), Show Sold Separately: Promos, Spoilers, and Other Media ParatextsTelevision Entertainment; and Watching with The Simpsons: Television, Parody, and Intertextuality (Routledge, 2006; and co-editor of books including Keywords for Media StudiesA Companion to Media AuthorshipSatire TV: Politics and Comedy in the Post-Network Era, and Fandom: Identities and Communities in a Mediated World. He also co-edits NYU Press’ Critical Cultural Communication series, and is Chief Editor of International Journal of Cultural Studies.

Paul Mihailidis is an associate professor of civic media and journalism in the school of communication at Emerson College in Boston, MA. He is founding program director of the MA in Media Design, Senior Fellow of the Emerson Engagement Lab, and faculty chair and director of the Salzburg Academy on Media and Global Change. His research focuses on the nexus of media, education, and civic voices. His work has been featured in the New York Times, the Washington Post, Slate Magazine, the Nieman Foundation, USA Today, CNN, and others. Mihailidis holds visiting professorships at Bournemouth University in England and the Catholic Univesity of Argentian in Buenos Aires. He co-edits the Journal of Media Literacy Education, and sits on the advisory board for iCivics. He earned his PhD from the Phillip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland, College Park.

Participatory Politics in an Age of Crisis: Jonathan Gray and Paul Mihailidis (Part I)

Opening Statements


For a while now, I’ve been working on a book project about dislike and media. Media, communication, audience, and fan studies have asked a lot of questions about how and why people like or love the media they do, and what this can tell us. But we’ve asked comparatively much fewer questions about how and why they have impassioned dislikes, and what those tell us. So that’s what this new project is about. And that’s also therefore from whence I’m coming in this discussion.

I’ve been excited to see, over the last decade, not only more fan studies work on politics, but it’s also cool to see more political communication and/or journalism scholars also realizing the degree to which questions about affect in politics may profitably be answered by studying how affect works in the realm of fandom. Thus, even though my book project is less explicitly political per se, a guiding force has been a desire to nuance and improve media and communication studies’ understanding of how negative affect works, in the hopes that this too may establish structures of meaning that we can apply to questions about dislike, anger, alienation, disavowal, and annoyance in the political realm. On one hand, there’s a whole lot of hate and bile out there in the political realm, such that we might be tempted to retreat all the more decisively to more “positive” expressions of political purpose. But respectability politics have long been used to bludgeon society’s most marginalized and to shut them up. It’s too easy to devalue the experiences of the oppressed by asking them to please state their objections in a calmer, “more rational,” more positive, upbeat tone, preferably while smiling. Anger, dislike, and disgust can make us uncomfortable to the point of not engaging with what’s being said, or to concentrating entirely on tone over substance. And thus as much as, yes, the world is worryingly filled with outright hate spew, we need also to be willing to listen to what’s being said through other forms of dislike, even (especially?) when its tone is disruptive, its speaker isn’t calm, or it’s not being voiced in what we might deem an “appropriate” venue.

Fandom and discussions of popular culture are a great place to go looking for such expressions, some individualized, some very much participatory and group-based. And whereas I’ve used the term “anti-fan” in the past, I’m gravitating away from that word, given the risk that it suggests a diametric opposite to the fan, when in fact fandom is full of expressions of dislike, disappointment, and alienation. By mining those, and by moving beyond what has become a media and cultural studies Pavlovian response of applying Bourdieu to any and all statements of dislike (seeing all dislike as snobbery), I hope to contribute to a larger project of appreciating the many ways in which dislike can be a wonderfully generative space for creating political action, political ethics and objectives, and group identity that isn’t just about Othering and hate. I really do mean “contribute,” since it’s cool to see how many people are engaging such work now (see Melissa Click’s superb edited collection, Anti-Fandom: Dislike and Hate in the Digital Age, for example).


There’s admittedly a very fine line to walk here. I don’t want to sound like I’m pleading for us to really, really listen to the angry privileged old white dude. That dude is President, so he has his listeners already. But when we hear expressions of intense dislike, they’re not all from him and his frat brothers; a lot are from marginalized viewers, and a lot are from people who might not otherwise be speaking in the language of fandom, love, and like. Even fans aren’t “only” and always-only fans. We all speak in a variety of modes, and some of those modes are more readily available to some of us – as gestured to by fan studies’ binary of affirmational and transformative fandoms that regularly sees a similar binary of privilege and under-privileged mapped onto it – and as much as I highly value the work of fan scholars who’ve explored how affect and love map onto the political, I want us to add to that picture an awareness of how affect and dislike/disappointment map onto the political. And before we get to the more politically volatile topics of why people dislike Trump, Hillary, or Nigel Farage, maybe there’d be a lot to learn by asking what’s going on when people share impassioned screeds of dislike about popular television, film, celebrities, and so on.


In my recently published book Civic Media Literacies, I spent considerable time exploring the conditions that motivate young people to actively engage in their communities, and the media-environments that are needed to support their engagement. In the process of discovery and research for this book, I uncovered what I call agency gaps between people’s willingness to share concern and how they envision their capacity to act. These agency gaps are fueled by two phenomenon of digital culture. The first is spectacle. The concept of spectacle, introduced by critical philosopher Guy DeBord, and central to the situationist movement, uncovers the role of representation and imagery in the space of human dialog and social structures. Spectacle today drives much of young people’s daily information and communication routines on platforms. This is largely because the platforms themselves are designed to prioritize that which is most shareable and spreadable, which is oftentimes that which is spectacular.

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Alongside the re-emergence of spectacle has been an increasing distrust in public institutions, and in particular media institutions. Distrust, we found, emerges largely because young people are increasingly distanced in their connection to media institutions, and trust in peers has long outweighed trust in institutions. Platforms that prioritize homophilous peer group engagement render institutions less core to one’s daily information and communication routines. Those things that we are less reliant on or familiar with, we trust.

How do these phenomena support agency gaps. Agency gaps have emerged in a digital culture that promotes sharing of things the inspire, disgust, or agitate. This is particularly the case with issues of political and social significance. The platforms themselves, thus, promote caring about, which is to signal affiliation with a topic of concern. What the platforms don’t promote is caring for, which is the relational work that one must do to move beyond the expression of disgust. The dichotomy of caring ethics was made popular by education scholar Nel Noddings, and seems to fit nicely with the reality of many of our disaffected youth today.

In the conclusion to this work, and in follow up research, I’ve been exploring the concept of civic intentionality. As a scholar exploring media literacy over the past decade, civic intentionality is something I think about more and more in light of what Arthur Brooks calls our culture of contempt.[1] In my work I’ve noticed that a focus on skills and competencies to prepare people to better critique and create media, has served to polarize our society as much as help to reform it. Civic Intentionality can shift the focus from media to what our goals are with media use to what values we want to prioritize in media use for civic purposes. Of course I’m not speaking about all media use, but media uses for the purposes of civic and political engagement.

With regards to participatory culture and fandom, I think there’s a lot to learn about the ways in which people engage with and support popular culture, and how that relates to how they choose to engage with local issues that matter. I’ve seen again and again that those who use media to advocate or participate meaningfully in civic life do so from personal identity and affinity with the issue. And popular culture is a strong way to find pathways of connection. Henry and his colleagues have shown this in their work over the last decade. Media literacies need to be more connected to the motivations and values that guide people’s media use and intentionality. Without that, we may be continuing to provide skills for critical engagement with media, but without the context to situate these skills into a strong civic frameworks. Perhaps we’ve been focusing on the how and not the why for too long. Maybe it’s time for us to think about what values guide people’s media preferences and uses, and not just about smart and responsible consumption of media.


[1] https://www.nytimes.com/2019/03/02/opinion/sunday/political-polarization.html

Jonathan Gray is Professor of Media and Cultural Studies at University of Wisconsin, Madison. He is author of Television Studies (with Amanada D. Lotz), Show Sold Separately: Promos, Spoilers, and Other Media ParatextsTelevision Entertainment; and Watching with The Simpsons: Television, Parody, and Intertextuality (Routledge, 2006; and co-editor of books including Keywords for Media StudiesA Companion to Media AuthorshipSatire TV: Politics and Comedy in the Post-Network Era, and Fandom: Identities and Communities in a Mediated World. He also co-edits NYU Press’ Critical Cultural Communication series, and is Chief Editor of International Journal of Cultural Studies.

Paul Mihailidis is an associate professor of civic media and journalism in the school of communication at Emerson College in Boston, MA. He is founding program director of the MA in Media Design, Senior Fellow of the Emerson Engagement Lab, and faculty chair and director of the Salzburg Academy on Media and Global Change. His research focuses on the nexus of media, education, and civic voices. His work has been featured in the New York Times, the Washington Post, Slate Magazine, the Nieman Foundation, USA Today, CNN, and others. Mihailidis holds visiting professorships at Bournemouth University in England and the Catholic Univesity of Argentian in Buenos Aires. He co-edits the Journal of Media Literacy Education, and sits on the advisory board for iCivics. He earned his PhD from the Phillip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland, College Park.

A Conversation with Terry Marshall (Intelligent Mischief, Wakanda Dream Lab)


A Conversation with Terry Marshall

Intelligent Mischief, Wakanda Dream Lab)

Terry Marshall has been involved in social justice movements for over 20 years and founded Intelligent Mischief in 2013. Terry's work has spanned a range of intersecting creative and social justice endeavors including cultural organizing, creative production, curation, writing, cultural research, dance, event production, design, and political strategy.  Terry is interested in traveling and developing an international network of creatives that share a vision of transforming the world through communications and making their beliefs real.  Prior to Intelligent Mischief, he founded Streets is Watching and the Hip Hop Media Lab. He is an affiliate trainer and consultant for the Center for Story-based Strategy (CSS), a Beautiful Trouble trainer, co-founder of The BlackOut Collective and sits on the board for the Center for Artistic Activism.


Hi Terry. Thank you so much for doing this with me.


No problem. Thank you as well.


Let me begin by introducing myself. I’m a fourth year PhD student at the University of Southern California, and a member of the Civic Paths Research Group run by Henry Jenkins. This spring, the Civic Paths group is trying to run a series on participatory politics, reaching out to activists and practitioners who work with new media, and trying to start a dialogue between the people who are actually doing this kind of work on the ground and those of us studying your methods. On a more personal front, I’m writing my dissertation on humor and political discourse, trying to understand how people use humor and laughter to talk about serious political issues. Last spring, I was writing a paper on the use of humor in Black Lives Matter, and I came across the “Black Body Survival Guide” on Intelligent Mischief, which became a great resource for my paper. Later that same year, I signed up for the Fan Activist Town Hall on Google Hangouts where I found out about the Wakanda Dream Lab, and I realized that your name was coming up over and over again in all of these organizations and endeavors that I was so interested in, and I knew that I wanted to reach out to you and talk more.


Cool. Yes, thank you.


To start, could you tell me a little bit about your background as an activist, and the idea behind an organization like Intelligent Mischief.


The origin story! I’ve been doing organizing stuff since I was about 17. I was fortunate enough to go to a private Muslim school called Sister Clara Muhammad School in Boston, and they instilled a lot of social justice sensibility in me. We used to watch the Eyes on the Prize civil rights documentary every year, and a lot of Black pride as well as school social justice. From ’95 I got involved with youth organizing, community organizing and labor organizing. Then about 2013, I started what became Intelligent Mischief. I always involved arts and culture in the traditional organizing stuff that I did, no matter where I did it. I was talking to other cultural activists/organizers, and we realized that every time we had off-the-beaten-path ideas and creative projects that involved arts, pop culture and local culture, they would always get shot down by supervisors above them who couldn’t understand their ideas. So I decided that I need to create a space that allows for experimentation and movement building involving arts and culture. And that was the inception of Intelligent Mischief, which we describe as a creative lab for injecting creativity and arts and culture, and realigning action logic among movement organizations. Over the years, due to some activations and experiments, we’ve been moving more, but we still keep ourselves as a lab – a room for experimentation. But we’re moving more to a directly producing culture ourselves, and create an overall culture shift through multimedia interventions.



You use satire and humor in Intelligent Mischief as a way to talk about serious issues like police violence, and you tap into the Black Panther fandom in the Wakanda Dream Lab to describe a vision of social change. Could you describe your approach to media in these organizations? Do you see media amplifying or helping your own political vision?


It’s funny because it just feels so intuitive to me. I come from a particular generation that’s really been steeped in media, we’ve been bombarded with media since we were born, and it seems like that’s the language, that’s the way. If we want to reach a massive number of people, particularly in the US, but also all over the world, you have to use different forms of media in some shape or fashion. That’s the main tool of change. A friend of mine used to say, “We’re not going to door knock our way to the revolution.” Community organizations are where you are doing that door knocking work…one workshop at a time, one talk at a time. Those are key to building relationships. You don’t eliminate those things, but living in a country that has 305 million people, we can see that we need to reach the scale quickly, and we need to involve the new media tools that are around. I think that’s something that’s implicit in activist strategies. Media and pop culture are essential to achieve culture shift right now.


I’m particularly fascinated by the “Black Body Survival Guide” created by Intelligent Mischief, where you crowdsourced tips and created a satirical guide for an African-American person to survive this political climate of police brutality. The one that resonated with me the most showed people of color always having their hands up no matter what they were doing. It’s so funny, but also not funny, because you realize what absurd extents people have to go to just to survive. Why do you think humor is an appropriate vehicle to talk about these serious issues?


It felt like it was the only way to actually truly break through, completely break through. I think humor relaxes people’s defenses. Across the board, no matter what end of the political spectrum you are, humor always relentlessly brings people’s walls down. That’s number one. I think humor is also a way where we could use character archetypes like the jester. And a jester is the only one that could tell the truth to the king, because he’s using humor. The point of humor is to lift the veil, to get to the core of things, right? And that’s the reason why humor and jokes connect with people. A joke to be successful has to connect with the audience; it can’t only connect with the person telling the joke. So humor automatically has to deal with some type of truth, or something that everyone can relate to, in order for people to get the joke. We started the “Black Body Survival Guide” because of the murder of Trayvon Martin. Watching the trial, and then seeing George Zimmerman get off…what is humorous is that when black people are killed – even when they’re unarmed – they’ll find any little thing to discredit this human being who’s done nothing wrong against a paramilitary force. Trayvon tragically is almost the perfect victim. Even when we’re presented with someone who’s so innocent, you could discredit them. There’s no other way to go but to be absurdist. The reality that we’re living in is absurdist when it comes to Black people’s lives. When reality gets absurd, it’s time to get surreal. And we just turned to Afro-Surrealism – which is just really redundant, because Surrealism is just African – to combat this.



Afro-futurism and The Black Imagination seem like such strong influences on your political vision


Yes, the imagination. Trayvon was killed largely because of what we call imagination battle. The White Imagination of someone like George Zimmerman tends to imagine innocent black people just having deadly bodies. That’s a threat to whiteness, a threat to property, and Trayvon is killed because of this man’s imagination. Based on all evidence, it’s simply his imagination. To combat the White Imagination, we rewrite the narrative of the deadly black body in the “Black Body Survival Guide”, using surrealism and humor to rewrite the narrative of black bodies being dangerous. The pop culture reference we went with was the “Zombie Survival Guide”, and we equated that with Trayvon. We were like, “What are the bodies so dangerous that you would kill whether it was actually doing something to you or not?” Zombies could be minding their business, and you have to kill the zombie because it’s a zombie. If you listen to Zimmerman’s defense arguments, they’re literally saying, “Trayvon didn’t do anything, but there was the possibility.” So he’s just collateral damage. If reality is this absurd when it comes to black people’s lives, there’s no other way to combat it but with absurdism and surrealism, which we had turned into humor. That’s when we started coming with the idea of there being rules, a guide that black people need to follow. Just follow the logic of what the police say: it’s always the innocent black person’s fault no matter what. So we thought it would be helpful to place some rules so people don’t get shot and killed anymore. And obviously satirical.


And you said that this was a multimedia project? You’re trying to use media in a variety of ways to get your message across to people?


Yes the first thing we did was a pop-up art exhibit at Boston University, where we created a store where we could buy the tools from the book. On the other side of the store, we created this secret agency with a whole backstory of how agents from a free black nation actually wrote the book, and sent agents to free black people in other countries. They were supposed to have set up an office behind the store, and it had maps and everything, and books they were reading. We created cards, videos, we created tools and things to be come real. Right now, we’re talking about creating a clothing line that has the messages from the book. So it’s a far-reaching multimedia project,


That sounds like a completely immersive imaginative experience! I love the idea of a clothing line, because hoodies have become so closely associated with police violence against black bodies ever since Trayvon Martin’s death. I remember watching the Key and Peele episode titled “Hoodie” where a black man is walking down the street wearing a hoodie, and a white police officer pulls up next to him, looking suspicious. So as a protective measure, he flips up the hood, and there is a white face painted on the side. And the police officer immediately relaxes and smiles and drives away.  That episode resonates so strongly with what you said about the absurdity of these lived experiences. Less than a year ago, Stephon Clark was shot for using an iPhone in his grandmother’s backyard, and the police officers that shot him got away with it. So in this political climate, what strikes you as being some of the biggest challenges to the kind of work that you’re doing.


It’s actually gotten more surreal with the election of Donald Trump. Trump used so many similar tactics to get elected – using media, using humor, using satire. But I also think the media itself has significantly changed. There’s more independent media outlets and different social media tools that people have been using to help get messages across. A lot of the Movement for Black Lives could not have spread as quickly as it did without the use of social media. There are some more overtly liberal media channels like MSNBC, independent channels like The Young Turks who show more in-depth interviews with movement leaders than networks like NBC or CBS. Our use of media as a tool includes looking at different ways of what we consider media: considering clothing as media messages, developing our online videos. We’re dwelling more into developing our own thought pieces as well. I think we’re really expanding our understanding of what multimedia can do for activism.


Just to add to that…how do you see fandom and popular culture affect the changing nature of activism? You run the Wakanda Dream Lab, which uses the affective connections that fans have with Black Panther, and uses the narrative to segue into Black Lives Matter. I remember the WakandaCon poster featuring Shuri using the Wakanda salute to create a shield that provides protection from bullets and police violence. It reminded me of Luke Cage in a way, because the Netflix version of Luke Cage came out right in the middle of Black Lives Matter. It was so fitting but also ironic that a black superhero’s most useful superpower was the ability to deflect bullets. At Civic Paths, we have researched fan activism around other pop culture texts, like Harry Potter and Superman, and we try to understand how fans take themes and concepts from the texts themselves, and apply them to real-world social and political issues. Do you see pop culture as being a helpful resource in the imagination battle.



With the release of Black Panther, Jordan Peele’s Get Out and Us, and Atlanta, Insecure – these kinds of black representations have greatly helped with addressing social justice issues and developing fanbases of people who, at the core, are attracted to social justice issues. I mean, everything you said is perfect, is what we saw in it. When we developed the backstory for the “Black Body Survival Guide”, that was our beginning into storytelling and world building, which is the core of fandom. When we first started getting involved in the early days, we didn’t know that there were whole fields of study around this. We were looking at Afropunk and festivals and seeing the fandom of Afropunk was so intertwined with social justice. Afropunk tipped us off to know all the possibility with Black Panther and other pop culture fandom that could lead to civic action. No one could have predicted the hype around the Black Panther movie, but as soon as I saw that Marvel was making a Black Panther movie, I thought, “People are going to lose their minds if they could see this on the screen”. A futuristic African nation and a black superhero with that. We actually get to a place where people could imagine beyond surviving and thriving and living. And we saw, particularly Afro-futurism, there was hope in that. Black Panther coming out was really like a gift. After the “Black Body Survival Guide” we were already looking for a way to go beyond just survival, and into renaissance and thriving and the future. And we saw Black Panther and we said, “This is perfect.” We created a Facebook group to help people self-organize all-black movie goings and gatherings, and we created a movie guide to help people connect some issues in the movies to social justice issues. We produced an anthology with different activists and fans. We’re taking the issue of immigration and applying that to Wakanda and having people imagine stories just to envision, “Hey, well, we did have a nation without borders. What would that look like?” And use Wakanda as the example. We put out a second anthology with the same premise, using Wakanda as the world, but talking about transgender women. We’re planning to do an immersive Wakanda-con in Oakland at the end of this year. People are really fans of the world of Wakanda. And people keep going to the movies because they want to live in that world, and right now, that’s the only way they can do that. And so now, we’re using the project of Wakanda Dream Lab to recreate experiences for folks to live in Wakanda, but also to make Wakanda real, by going to the experiences, and what does that mean to make Wakanda real? What issues do we have to address? What solutions do we have to come up with?



It is so amazing to hear you say that, because it aligns so closely with what Henry calls the “civic imagination”. It’s basically the idea that before we can go out and change the world, we need to collectively imagine what a better world looks like. In your case, if you could imagine yourself and this group 20 years from now, what are some of the things that you would have liked to accomplish? How would you imagine a better world?


We would like to see how social justice movements operate reimagined, and operating in liberatory spaces, using all our resources for imaginations. And not holding back on anything, making anything possible. I think we would like to see people saying they came together at Wakanda-con and came up with solutions to various problems, through their fandom. It’s almost like I can imagine people asking, “How are we going to really defend our communities and completely shut down police violence towards those communities?” Or how can we have self-governance? How can we reimagine the government? How can we reimagine the government that actually loves Black and indigenous people? Can we see this in the worlds we’ve built? In the world of Wakanda, we see that. In the worlds that we imagine and the stories that we build and follow, we see those things. Then if we could imagine it, we could make it real. So yes, being able to shift culture, shift policies and government structures and work structures in daily practice. Uniting imagination and reality in a way that makes people think: if I can imagine this, I can also do this. I don’t know if that sounds too vague.


It sounds really incisive, actually. A social movement is always working towards something, but your work is premised on being able to imagine something that you’re working towards. I would also argue that it’s always better to start out from vague, because you can always add details as you move along. Making it vague makes it easier for other people to tweak things to suit their own social justice issues, and makes these ideas so much more accessible to wider communities.


Totally agree.


Thank you so much for your thoughts on this, Terry. This is really useful for my research, because I’m coming at it from such a theoretical perspective, but I’m not a practitioner, I’m not an activist. I’m not the person on the streets who’s actually campaigning to make this happen. It’s so great to actually be able to talk to someone who has that knowledge and experience. I would love to stay updated as you move forward with this project, and talk more at a later date.


Thank you. Thanks for doing this work. We’ll keep you updated.