From Participatatory Culture to Participatory Democracy (Part One)

The following is my attempt to provide a written record of the remarks that I presented at the Beyond Broadcast conference that we hosted at MIT the other week. I would strongly recommend watching the webcast version of the talk to achieve the full effect since the talk depended very heavily on the visuals and I am not going to be able to reproduce very many of them here. You might also want to check out the interview I did for Thoughtcast in advance of the event. This post is intended, however, to provide links to all of the examples I presented during the talk.

Getting Too Close to Reality

Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide, my recent book, opens with the curious story of Bert and Bin Laden:

Dino Ignacio, a Filipino-American high school student created a Photoshop collage of Sesame Street‘s Bert interacting with terrorist leader Osama Bin Laden as part of a series of “Bert is Evil” images he posted on his homepage. Others depicted Bert as a Klansman, cavorting with Adolph Hitler, dressed as the Unabomber or having sex with Pamela Anderson. It was all in good fun.

In the wake of September 11, a Bangladesh-based publisher scanned the web for Bin Laden images to print on anti-American signs, posters, and T-shirts. Sesame Street is available in Pakistan in a localized format; the Arab world, thus, had no exposure to Bert and Ernie, but were very aware of a blue chicken who serves as one of the series mascots in Arabic-speaking nations. The printer thus didn’t recognize Bert, but he must have thought the image was a good likeness of the al-Qaeda leader. The image ended up in a collage of similar images that was printed on thousands of posters and distributed across the Middle East.

CNN reporters recorded the unlikely sight of a mob of angry protestors marching through the streets chanting anti-American slogans and waving signs depicting Bert and Bin Laden. Representatives from Children’s Television Workshop spotted the CNN footage and threatened to take legal action: “We’re outraged that our characters would be used in this unfortunate and distasteful manner. The people responsible for this should be ashamed of themselves. We’re exploring every legal option to stop this abuse and any similar abuses in the future.” It was not altogether clear who they planned to sic their intellectual property attorneys on – the young man who had initially appropriated their images or the terrorist supporters who deployed them. Coming full circle, amused fans produced a number of new sites, linking various Sesame Street characters with terrorists.

From his bedroom, Dino sparked an international controversy. His images crisscrossed the world, sometimes on the backs of commercial media, sometimes via grassroots media. And, in the end, he inspired his own cult following. Ignacio became more concerned and ultimately decided to dismantle his site: “I feel this has gotten too close to reality…. “Bert Is Evil” and its following has always been contained and distanced from big media. This issue throws it out in the open.”

In the context of the book, I am interested in the ways that this story illustrates the ways that contemporary media culture is being reshaped by the intersection of top-down corporate media and bottom-up grassroots media. Here, though, I want to invite us to reconsider what it might mean for citizens in a participatory culture to get “too close to reality” and whether this is a new kind of political power that we could deploy to transform society.

This is What Democracy Looks Like

One place to starting addressing this question would be to consider the case of This is What Democracy Looks Like, a feature length documentary that emerged from the Indie Media Movement in the wake of the WTO protests in Seattle in 1999. 100 media activists were issued camcorders and dispersed across the protest, each recording their own perspective on the action. The finished documentary shows us the experience in the street by pooling together the best of their footage into a 72 minute film, which was in turn intended to be a rallying point for further community building and activism. We might see the project as an example of the kinds of politically committed grassroots media production that was showcased throughout the Beyond Broadcast event.


Yet, I also want us to pause for a minute and consider the question posed by its title. What does Democracy look like? As Americans, we have a rich image bank to draw upon — dating back to the founding days of our nation, so often, when we depicted Democracy, we fall back upon images of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, various protest activities such as the Boston Tea Party, or various national icons such as the American Eagle or The Spirit of 76. More recently, the Popular Front movement of the 1930s revitalized many of these images, offering us new icons of American democracy from Frank Capra’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington to the paintings of Norman Rockwell. Yet, today, when we represent democracy, the images we construct have a vaguely and often an explicitly retro feel to them. It is as if democracy in this country has a past but not a future.

But, we might well ask what Democracy could look like for the 21st Century? It might, for example, look like the kinds of protest activities which are occurring within game spaces, such as Velvet Strike, a conceptual art project which involved “spray painting” any war graffiti inside Counter Strike, the recent gay pride march inside the World of Warcraft, or the massive protest rallies that took place in the Chinese multiplayer game world, Fantasy Westward Journey, or a broad array of activist uses of Second Life As someone who lives in Boston, it is worth recalling that the Boston Tea Party involved people adopting alternative identities (might we see the Native American garb as an early form of avatar?) and engaging in symbolic acts of political violence.

Democracy in the 21st century might look something like “George Bush Doesn’t Care About Black People.” A Houston-area hip hop group, The Legendary K.O., used their music to express something they were hearing from the refuges that were pouring into their city. Randle lives near the Astrodome and Nickerson works at the Houston Convention center. Both found themselves listening to refuges tell their stories: “Not till you see these people face to face and talk to them can you appreciate the level of hopelessness. The one common feeling was that they felt abandoned, on their own little island.” They found their refrain while watching Kanye West accuse Bush of being indifferent to black Americans during a Red Cross Telethon being broadcast live on NBC. The juxtaposition of West’s anger and comedian Mike Myer’s shock encapsulated the very different ways Americans understood what happened. The Legendary K.O. sampled West’s hit song, “Golddigger,” to provide the soundtrack for their passionate account of what it was like to be a black man trying to make do in the deserted streets of New Orleans. They distributed the song, “George Bush Doesn’t Care About Black People” as a free download and it spread like wildfire. The song has been perhaps the most powerful demonstration to date of Chuck D’s prediction that free downloads could turn hip hop into “the black man’s CNN,” offering an alternative perspective to mainstream news coverage and thus enabling communication between geographically dispersed corners of the Black America. Within a few weeks time, the song had in effect gone platinum,

achieving more than a million downloads, largely on the back of promotion by

bloggers. And soon, people around the world were appropriating and recontextualizing news footage to create their own music videos.

Democracy in the 21st century might look like some of the ways that citizen journalists have deployed photosharing sites like Flickr to circulate ground-level images of public events such as the London subway bombings.

Democracy in the 21st Century might even look like some of the activities surrounding the selection of the American Idol. As I noted here last summer, critics who claim more people voted for the last American Idol than voted in the last presidential election are confused. More votes were cast for American Idol to be sure but then, the system allows and even encourages people to vote as many times as they want. The Vote for the Worst movement around American Idol, on the other hand, does represent an interesting model for how people might pool knowledge and deploy shared tactics to shape the outcome of the selection process, trying to negate the expectations of mass media companies and use their power to select to keep bad contestants on the air.

Escaping the Culture War Rhetoric

These new forms of activism may not look very much like the classic images of democracy. Indeed, there has been a tendency for activists to look down upon these kinds of activities, seeing them often as distractions from rather than incitements towards civic engagement. The result has been a kind of culture war between old style activism and the emerging participatory culture. We know more or less the kinds of images which cultural conservatives — and indeed, the mainstream mass media deploys to dismiss and often demonize the new participatory culture. On the one hand, there are images of tarnished innocence — wide-eyed children staring slack jawed at the television or computer screen, being imprinted by its toxic content and on the other hand, there are images of savages, youth run wild, and the feral children of the boob tube. Indeed, as Justine Casell pointed out to me recently, these fears are heavily gendered with a tendency for us to fear for our daughter’s innocence and to fear our son’s savagery. What strikes me, though, is that the images promoted by the Media Reform movement and by the Culture Jamming/Ad Busting world of progressive activism falls back on almost entirely the same kinds of images to condemn young people for their interests in popular culture. Once again, there are images of young people being brainwashed by television or driven wild by the seductions of popular culture; the content they consume gets described as “bread and circuses” or “weapons of mass distraction”; brand messages are written more or less directly onto their hearts, minds, and bodies; the public is depicted with faceless conformity; consumers are described as “idiots” who lack any critical judgment and told to “get a life.” Such images grossly overstate the power of mass media and underestimate the agency of media consumers. The result is a politics focused on victimization rather than empowerment.

I have never quite understood how we are supposed to found a democratic movement on the premise that the public as a whole is stupid and has poor taste. And I am reasonably convinced that such images and rhetoric has the effect of turning off many people who might otherwise support many of the policies being advocated by the Media Reform movement. What I want to do in this talk is suggest ways that we might reimagine the relationship between participatory culture and participatory democracy, embracing new political language and images that mobilizes us as fans as well as citizens.

To understand what such a politics might look like, I would suggest picking up a new book by NYU professor Stephen Duncombe — Dream: Re-Imagining Progressive Politics in the Age of Fantasy. Duncombe’s previous work has included Notes from the Underground: Zines and the Politics of Alternative Culture and The Cultural Resistance Reader, work that has offered a range of models for how popular culture can be deployed for democratic activities. In his new book, he argues that the left has seemingly lost the ability to construct a utopian vision for the future or convey such a vision through popular fantasy. The left, he suggests, has developed a powerful critique of what Noam Chomsky calls “the manufacture of consent” but it has not developed any fresh models for the “manufacture of dissent.” He urges us to reconsider our relations to popular culture before it is too late:

Progressives should have learned to build a politics that embraces the dreams of people and fashions spectacles which gives these fantasies form – a politics that employs symbols and associations, a politics that tells good stories. In brief, we should have learned to manufacture dissent…. Given the progressive ideals of egalitarianism and a politics that values the input of everyone, our dreamscapes will not be created by media-savvy experts of the left and then handed down to the rest of us to watch, consume, and believe. Instead, our spectacles will be participatory: dreams that the public can mold and shape themselves. They will be active: spectacles that work only if the people help create them. They will be open-ended: setting stages to ask questions and leaving silences to formulate answers. And they will be transparent: dreams that one knows are dreams but which still have power to attract and inspire. And, finally, the spectacles we create will not cover over or replace reality and truth but perform and amplify it.

I found Duncombe’s description of what a progressive popular culture might look like to be inspirational, though I might be inclined to describe this as a democratic popular culture since many of these traits he is discussing might also be embraced by at least some conservative groups as well and we would have a better society if these virtues were shared by both the right and by the left. We might sum up his key claims through the following terms:

Participatory: Dumcombe’s example of this new kind of playful activism is Billionaires for Bush, a group which showed up in costumes and staged street theatre during Bush’s appearances in the last presidential campaign, trying to remind reporters and citizens of what they saw as links between the Republican Party and corporate greed. Another example might be the Sorry Everybody website where many individuals posted snap shots and messages to the planet after the results of the election as a way of acknowledging what they saw as the damage Bush was doing to America’s image around the world.

Active — We might consider the ways that Alan Moore’s graphic novel, V for Vendetta emerged as a response to Thatcherism, was produced as a film in time to be read as expressing dissent against the Bush administration, and has been literalized within participatory culture through a series of YouTube videos that link the film’s dystopian future with the rhetoric and tactics of the current War on Terror. V offers progressives both a dystopian fantasy of where today’s policies might logically lead (thus providing the basis for a critique of the manufacture of consent) and a fantasy of resistance (thus offering some idea of how we might manufacture dissent.)

Open-Ended — Consider the kinds of political dialogue being sparked by comedy news shows such as the Daily Show, Politically Incorrect, or Colbert Report, which often call attention to topics that have been under-covered by the national news and encourages viewers to reflect on the mechanisms by which the news constructs our understanding of the world. I wouldn’t turn to such programs for answers but I would see them as posing questions that might lead to further reflection and inquiry. The politics of this style of news comedy is clear at that moment when Colbert spoke truth to power at the Washington Press Club Dinner, directly confronting the president of the United States with what many see as fundamental contradictions in his world view. This style of news comedy has proven so effective at manufacturing dissent that Fox News has decided to create its own right wing alternative, The Half Hour News Hour.

Transparent — Here, we might cite, for example, the kinds of progressive fantasies of an alternative America constructed on The West Wing. I wrote for Flow a few years ago about the ways that the program’s construction of an alternative presidential campaign between essentially a maverick Republican in the John McCain mold and a progressive minority candidate of the Barack Obama school gave the program a chance to model what an alternative framing of the two parties might look like.

Transformative — My example here was the work of JibJab, a group of animators who use borrowed and manipulated images to spoof the political process.

If we put all of these pieces together, the resulting organization might look something like True Majority, the pro-Democratic Party group created by Ben Cohen (of Ben and Jerry’s fame), which is perhaps best known for circulating a video during the last election during which The Donald fires George W. Bush as if this were an extra-special episode of The Apprentice. As I discuss in Convergence Culture, this group embraced the concept of “serious fun” as a form of progressive activism, designing videos that people wanted to pass along not simply because of what they said but how they said it.

Comments

  1. Great post, enjoyed the Bert is Evil case study.

    “Given the progressive ideals of egalitarianism and a politics that values the input of everyone, our dreamscapes will not be created by media-savvy experts of the left and then handed down to the rest of us to watch, consume, and believe. Instead, our spectacles will be participatory: dreams that the public can mold and shape themselves. They will be active: spectacles that work only if the people help create them. They will be open-ended: setting stages to ask questions and leaving silences to formulate answers. And they will be transparent: dreams that one knows are dreams but which still have power to attract and inspire. And, finally, the spectacles we create will not cover over or replace reality and truth but perform and amplify it.”

    Could it be that the Web 2.0 tool called wiki might be a very good starting point for the above quote ?

    We already see this happening in initiatives like WorldChanging.com (book and site) and change.org. A wiki is open, transparent, active, partipatory and transformative in my view.

  2. Alison Engwall says:

    The Chorallaries held their Nth Annual Concert In Bad Taste this weekend, and as I enjoyed it I started thinking that this was one of MIT’s own yearly expressions of participatory entertainment. Pop tunes are rehabilitated into a capella expressions of student culture, broken up by cute skits like Survivor: Afterlife (starring recently deceased celebrities) and a picture book spoof of Green Eggs and Ham (about Sherley’s hunger strike). Dynamic audience inclusion is supported through both LSC traditions and rolls of toilet paper flying around the lecture hall. People camp in line for days to see this free concert; it would be really interesting to look at similar spectacles around the country (if there are any), and how it’s evolved over time.

  3. I loved your talk, but I would like to underline an issue with one word you used several times: bipartisan. To most European viewers (who are used to debates that are not strickly confrontational) you obviously used it in three distinct meanings:

    - all-encompassing, as in ‘Rock the vote’;

    - bridging, as in the purple states;

    - not following the usual lines, as for the Net Neutrality debate, where there is another party, but like many other value-debates, however much more so, it wasn’t following the usual Democrat-Republican frontier.

    In a multi-party system, the first in civil, the second is a coalition, the third is a new question.

    And, now I’ll take time to read your post (’cause video have no comments).