“Vernacular Creativity”: An Interview with Jean Burgess (Part One)

I recently had the privilege of being an outside examiner on a dissertation produced by Jean Burgess, a PhD candidate in the Creative Industries program at Queensland University of Technology on the topic of “vernacular creativity.” I’ve long considered QUT’s Creative Industries program to be a sibling of our own efforts in the Convergence Culture Consortium. Indeed, Joshua Green, who currently heads the C3 research team, is a post-doc who came to us from QUT. And we’ve seen a steady stream of visitors through the years (John Hartley, Alan McKee, John Banks, Axel Bruns, and Jean Burgess, among others) from down under. Burgess is now collaborating with Joshua Green, Sam Ford, and others on the C3 team on research centering on YouTube.

I was quite taken by what Burgess had to say about “vernacular creativity” and its relationship with participatory culture, media literacy, and civic engagement. She talks about these concepts in the following interview:

Your dissertation focused on what you call vernacular creativity. Can you give us a sense of what this concept means for you?

I used the concept to talk about everyday creative practices like storytelling, family photographing, scrapbooking, journaling and so on that pre-exist the digital age and yet are co-evolving with digital technologies and networks in really interesting ways. So the documentation of everyday life and the public sharing of that documentation, as in sharing photos on Flickr, or autobiographical blogging; these are forms of vernacular creativity, remediated in digital contexts. These are also cultural practices that perhaps we don’t normally think of as creative, because we’ve become so used to thinking of creativity as a special property of genius-like individuals, rather than as a general human — some would say — evolutionary process. I found the term really useful for focusing on the fact that there is much about the current explosion of amateur content creation online that has a long history, that isn¹t particularly revolutionary, and that relates to specific local contexts and identities. Vernacular creativity is ordinary.

But ordinary doesn’t mean generic or boring, not necessarily anyway. Each example of vernacular creativity is also a representation of a specific life, a specific time, a specific place. Because of this specificity, the ordinariness of vernacular creativity doesn’t necessarily equate to uninterestingness. The practices and artefacts of vernacular creativity are of course very rich and meaningful in relation to the social contexts in which they’re created, communicated, and disseminated: think of your own family photo album, and then a complete stranger’s family photo album from the 1960s that you stumble across in the back of a junk shop in a different country, for example. Both ordinary at the point of origin, both full of meanings and stories, but in different ways. The point is, culture doesn¹t have to be sublime or spectacular to be useful or significant or interesting to someone, somewhere. But what I find most interesting about vernacular creativity in the context of the new media generally and the Internet particularly is the potential to scale that immediate social context add up to social connectivity, and conversation, to individualistic self-expression. The two major case studies I explored in the thesis – the Flickr photosharing network, and the Digital Storytelling movement — each demonstrate how that might work out in practice, but in very different ways.

How might a focus on participation and creativity, rather than resistance, change the agenda for cultural studies?

The focus on cultural participation as a positive thing is entirely compatible with a long tradition in cultural studies that was concerned with empowerment and social inclusion through self-representation and education. I think this is an agenda that has always been there, but perhaps was overshadowed by an alternative relationship to power – resistance, even as resistance was located in the everyday. The important thing for me is that a focus on participation shifts the questions that we need to ask about the cultural politics of media slightly sideways from being only about power, exploitation and resistance to questions of voice, cultural inclusion, and so on and those questions seem to me to offer more hope for pragmatic interventions.

Symbolic creativity and agency in relation to media, particularly, has a long history in cultural studies. Henry, you would know better than anyone that fans were very important for earlier investigations into participatory media because they showed how creativity and agency were possible even within the media landscape of the broadcast era. At that stage, fans weren’t really understood as ordinary citizens, but rather as pretty extraordinary, intensively engaged media consumers. But at least the creative practices of fans demonstrated that there might be empowering uses of popular culture, and that audiences for broadcast culture were not — or at least not all — passive. And I also don¹t need to tell you or many of your readers that creative fan practices in new media contexts has often led the way for more mainstream forms of participation.

I thought it was time to consider the extent to which people who may have a much less intense relationship with mass media and popular culture than fans, might also be participating in culture through their own creative efforts.


What links do you draw between empowering people to create and share what they create with others online and the development of conceptions of citizenship and civic engagement?

Most of the time, when we hear terms like citizenship and civic engagement, we think of participation in the processes of formal politics ­ democratic deliberation, elections, and so on. These forms of participation are thought of as separate from everyday life, consumption, popular culture, and pleasure. But I think some of the most interesting forms of civic engagement occur where the everyday and popular collide with the political — look how much there is going on in the Obama Girl video, for example. So as a way of getting at those ideas, the term I use most of the time is cultural citizenship, which is a way of talking about the ways in which cultural participation and citizenship might be the same thing, in certain circumstances.

So one of the core concepts I work with in the thesis is this idea of cultural citizenship¹. It¹s used in several different ways by different theorists, but what I mean by it is that culture is the means by which we, as individual citizens and communities, experience what the world is like, how we fit in it, and importantly, how we relate to others who are different from us at the same time as we seek out opportunities for belonging. Where participatory media opens up space for us, as ordinary citizens, to speak and represent ourselves and our ways of being in the world, and to encounter difference, then it¹s also a space for the everyday practice of cultural citizenship ­ in that context, everyday creativity is civic engagement, in a sense. This idea — that networked individualism in participatory media might actually be good for society in some way — really seems counter-intuitive to those who have been convinced by people like Robert Putnam, who argues that the increased privatization and commodification of social life weakens the social fabric, e.g. of neighbourhoods.

One of the things my research emphasised in relation to Flickr was that cultural citizenship was not only constituted online, but through the articulation of the online social network with everyday, local experience. A lot of my research focused on the Brisbanites group within Flickr, and there¹s a good illustration of this from an apparently insignificant event that occurred there. At one stage last year, an Italian user known on the network as Pizzodesevo, who had lived in various cities around Australia in the 1950s and 1960s, started posting scans of old slides taken in the 50s to the group. Other group members showed interest in the photographs by leaving comments that ranged from expressing appreciation to offering technical advice about scanning, to discussion of the locations of the photographs and how much they had changed in the past 46 years. What was really interesting to me was that the connections made between users as part of this discussion resulted in one Brisbane-based member of the Brisbanite groups spontaneously creating a kind of game around the images: he began going out specifically to capture images of the same locations as in the old slides, and uploading them to his own Flickr photostream. Pizzodesevo then combined some of these new images side by side with the old ones in a series of double images. The simple act of combining them revealed some of the dramatic changes to the Brisbane cityscape that have occurred over the past few decades. This led in turn to more discussion about the ways in which the city has changed, blended with nostalgia for a past that many of the discussants had never experienced themselves. So there on a microscopic level you have vernacular creativity, remediation, social networking, and civic engagement threaded back and forth and adding up to something much more than just sharing photos.

Joke Hermes refers to the texts and practices of popular culture as providing some of the “wool from which the social tapestry is knit.” I think of each of these apparently insignificant moments of participation in online social networks and creative communities as being very much like that “where they start to knit together,” you see how the everyday individual practices of vernacular creativity could add up to something beyond the individual level. It’s in making those forms of personal expression available as part of public culture — however small the public turns out to be — that the digital remediation of vernacular creativity starts to look like it has real potential for propagating cosmopolitan forms of cultural citizenship, albeit at a modest scale.

Jean Burgess is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the ARC Centre of Excellence for Creative Industries and Innovation at QUT. She works within the Federation Fellowship program ‘Uses of Multimedia’, led by Professor John Hartley, and her research interests are in cultural studies, media history and the social and cultural implications of new media technologies, especially issues of cultural participation and new media literacy. With Joshua Green (MIT), she is undertaking a major project called The Uses of YouTube, which combines large-scale content analysis with fine-grained qualitative methods. She is co-author of The Cultural Studies Companion (with John Banks, John Hartley, and Kelly McWilliam, to be published by Palgrave, 2008/9), Reviews Editor of the International Journal of Cultural

Studies and co-editor of “ÂŒCounter-Heroics and Counter-Professionalism in Cultural Studies” (2006, Continuum 20.2). As part of her research, Jean has regularly worked as a facilitator in community-based digital storytelling projects. Before entering academia, Jean worked for 10 years as a classical flutist, music educator, and occasional composer-producer.