Critical Information Studies For a Participatory Culture (Part One)

Last Saturday, I spoke at a conference being organized by the Media Studies Program at the University of Virginia, Connections: The Future of Media Studies. Among the others speaking were Jeff Alexander, Michael Delli Carpini, Henry Jenkins, Eric Klinenberg, Marwan Kraidy, Sonia Livingstone, Robert McChesney, Paddy Scannell, Jonathan Sterne, Lisa Gitelman, and Eszter Hargittal.

I thought I would share my remarks for the “critical information studies” panel through the blog since they represent a pretty good summary of some of the things I’ve been thinking about and working on over the past few years.

Tim O’Reilly’s concept of “web 2.0” was first promoted at a 2004 conference of key industry leaders and later spread via his “What is Web 2.0” essay. “Web 2.0” has become increasingly institutionalized as the definitive account of the business plans and cultural practices defining the digital realm in the early 21st century. O’Reilly’s concept is now spreading into discussions about politics and government, education, and grassroots cultural practices, becoming increasingly defused as it travels. There have been surprisingly few attempts to seriously understand its core assumptions or propose other models for describing the shifting relations between media producers and consumers.

O’Reilly’s original essay encoded the “best practices” of those companies (Amazon, Yahoo, Google, among them) which had survived the dotcom meltdown, offering advice for venture capitalists and entrepreneurs who wanted to seize the next new business opportunity. O’Reilly describes a world where companies are able to “harness the collective intelligence” and circulate “user-generated content” from their consumers, where the key component of any new digital service or platform involves designing an “architecture of participation,” and where user-led innovation fuels the ongoing innovation and retooling of new technologies. The term, “Web 2.0” arrived just in time to offer a handy explanation for Wikipedia, YouTube, Second Life, Facebook, and Twitter.

Initially, the discourse of “web 2.0” was embraced as offering a progressive alternative to the alienation of the consumer from the means of cultural production and circulation and these companies have been understood as enabling a more diverse media culture. Yet, over the past few years, struggles between users and owners (still operative distinctions in most web 2.0 companies), such as debates around FanLib (the attempt to commodify an existing participatory culture), Live Journal (the attempt to censor user-generated content), Facebook (shifts in privacy standards and the terms of service), and YouTube (automatic take-downs which impinge on fair use), are starting to reveal some of the contradictions and conflicts masked by O’Reilly’s “architecture of participation.”

There is an urgent need for serious reflection on the core models of cultural production, distribution, ownership, and participation underlying “web 2.0.” Almost everyone involved sees our culture as moving in a more participatory direction, yet struggles over web 2.0 will help to determine the terms of our participation.

As we seek to complicate and modify the “web 2.0” model, academic theory needs to move beyond blunt critiques, which read these new developments as “business as usual” and reflect a knee-jerk distaste for consumerism, towards more nuanced accounts which understand the specific mechanisms being deployed and understands the public’s stake in participation. The pitches of web 2.0 companies respond to real shifts in the ways that the general public understands their role in the culture or their political agency which need to be respected. The platforms represent a radical change in mechanisms for filtering and circulating media content which need to be acknowledged if we are to fully understand what’s at risk in these discussions.

At the same time, those of us who have long advocated for a more “participatory culture” need to better define our ideals and identify and confront those forces that threaten the achievement of those ideals. This should be a moment for renewed communication across theoretical paradigms and political perspectives so that we may frame cogent responses. As we learn from each other, we need to adopt a multifront perspective: offering critiques of the corporate web 2.0 model, shoring up the alternative grassroots model of participatory culture, promoting educational and political reforms which may empower more people to meaningfully participate in the production and circulation of culture.

Theory — both academic and vernacular — becomes a key resource in these struggles, but only if we can build bridges between university researchers and those involved in other sites of media change. Academics need to be engaging with policy makers, media producers, fans, citizens, educators, and other constituencies who are part of the ongoing conversations which will redefine our cultural future. Right now, our theories are struggling to keep up with the change and falling far behind what’s needed on the ground as people think through their own relationships to new cultural systems and emerging corporate practices.

Across a range of recent projects, I have been returning to a term I coined very early in my career, participatory culture, and seeking to refine it into what might be considered an alternative model for understanding the shifts in cultural production and economic relations. “Web 2.0” is not the same thing as “participatory culture,” though its promoters often seek to absorb grassroots expression fully into its business model. In Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide, I made the case that our current cultural landscape is being changed as much by bottom-up pressures from consumers and citizens as from top-down pressures from media conglomerates. Across the 20th century subcultural deployment of emerging technologies have paved the way for a greater public expectation that they will be able to meaningfully reshape the media they consume. The rise of digital networks is facilitating new forms of “collective intelligence” which are allowing groups of consumers to identify and pursue common interests. Alternative forms of cultural production, such as those surrounding fandom and other subcultural communities, are gaining much greater visibility as they move through emerging platforms. Skills acquired through participation in popular culture are spilling over into education, politics, and religion, reshaping the operations of other core institutions.

In Confronting the Challenges of a Participatory Culture: Media Education for the 21st Century, a white paper drafted for the MacArthur Foundation, I develop a framework for thinking about educational policy which reflects these changes, identifying eleven social skills and cultural competencies we believe need to be fully incorporated into educational practices if all young people are going to become full participants in this shifting media landscape. There, we offer one definition of participatory culture:

“A participatory culture is a culture with relatively low barriers to artistic expression and civic engagement, strong support for creating and sharing one’s creations, and some type of informal mentorship whereby what is known by the most experienced is passed along to novices. A participatory culture is also one in which members believe their contributions matter, and feel some degree of social connection with one another. Participatory culture shifts the focus of literacy from one of individual expression to community involvement.”

More recently, I have been seeking to better understand the mechanisms by which consumers curate and circulate media content, rejecting current discussions of “viral media” (which hold onto a top-down model of cultural infection) in favor of an alternative model of “spreadability” (based on the active and self conscious agency of consumers who decide what content they want to “spread” through their social networks. This work argues that what I am calling participatory culture might best be understood in relation to ideas about the “gift economy” developed by Lewis Hyde in The Gift. “Web 2.0” might then be read in terms of negotiations around value and worth which occur at the intersections between commodity culture and the gift economy. Richard Sennett’s recent book, The Craftsman, offers a rich account of how cultural labor has historically been motivated by forces other than pure profit, reflecting desires for personal achievement and expression and for a “job well done,” which might help explain what motivates the pro-am productivity within our current digital economy.

This new emphasis on “participatory culture” represents a serious rethinking of the model of cultural resistance which dominated cultural studies in the 1980s and 1990s. Cultural resistance is based on the assumption that average citizens are largely locked outside of the process of cultural production and circulations; De Certeau’s “tactics” (especially as elaborated through the work of John Fiske) were “survival mechanisms” which allowed us to negotiate a space for our own pleasures and meanings in a world where we mostly consumed content produced by corporate media; “poachers” in my early formulations were “rogue readers” whose very act of reading violated many of the rules set in place to police and organize culture. Increasingly, audience participation is factored into the business plans and are central to the design of media franchises; media companies alternatively seek to court and control an increasingly unruley audience as fans and other consumers recognize that collectively we exert much greater influence on the cultural agenda and are helping to generate the content that others are consuming.

As consumers and citizens have taken media into their own hands, they are becoming more aware of the economic and legal mechanisms which might blunt their cultural influence and are defining strategies for using these new platforms in ways that promote their own interests rather than necessarily those of their corporate owners. In this new context, participation is not the same thing as resistance nor is it simply an alternative form of co-optation; rather, struggles occur in, around, and through participation which have no predetermined outcomes. Both producers and consumers may now be understood as “participants” in this new media ecology, while recognizing that they do so from positions of unequal power, resources, skills, access, and time.

Next time: I will identify some of the core conflicts/issues which are shaping media policy and critical information studies in the early 21st century.


  1. Henry, This is very helpful and significant.

    Would it be correct if I extended this: “As consumers and citizens have taken media into their own hands, they are… defining strategies for using these new platforms in ways that promote their own interests rather than necessarily those of their corporate owners” to also say, “in ways that promote participation in collective interests rather that personally empowering, but private, resistance”? I am trying to better understand the core difference in your critique at the end between participatory culture and “the model of cultural resistance which dominated cultural studies in the 1980s and 1990s.”

    Barry Joseph

  2. says:

    (My english is poor, but I want tell you thank for share your thinking. I am very exciting with “Convergence Culture”, and to can read your job in this blog is amazing. Thank you very much. Norma Cabrera, Argentina)

  3. Steven Devijver says:

    I appreciate your insights and concerns. I think the answer to much of what you address has been given recently by Keith Hart. I share his believe that the anthropological method is the only sensible way to advance humanity’s struggle forwards a better society. His views on this topic can be found here:

    The same ideas are also part of this lecture:

    I recognize many of your ideas and concerns in his anthropological framework for the 21th century. We can start with an easy question: is the point of web 2.0 to further the goals of a more democratic human society?

    Any further discussions on web 2.0 – academic or other – will have to depart from the answer to that question. I know what my answer is and I try to do what I can to make a difference. Yet I’m not sure other people share my views.

    I believe that any use of web 2.0 ideas can only be fruitful after we answer a simple by revealing question: what are we trying to achieve?

    Thanks for your insights.


  4. Barry,

    It’s a little more complicated than this. The old model of resistance in cultural studies did include the possibility of resistant subcultures. My early work on fandom in Textual Poachers would have framed fans in this way. But the assumption was that whatever meanings, or culture, were produced largely stayed within that community. The public lacked the means of cultural distribution which was even more crippling than the lack of the means of cultural production. People made media in many cases but had no way to show it. The Web 2.0 platforms have expanded our capacity for distribution and thus expanded the publics for amateur media, which is why it has some progressive potentials. That’s one of many reasons to think of participation as different from resistance. Another would be that the resistance model assumed a simple opposition between the interests of the public and those of business, where-as the new Web 2.0 model holds open the possibility that these interests may be at least temporarily alligned. If nothing else, the companies need our content and we need their distribution channels. More is coming in the morning.

  5. Thank you for this great summary, Henry. Would be interesting to get your thoughts on how participatory culture and participatory democracy relate to each other – is the latter a subset of the former, or is the former an extension of or the next phase of the latter?

    Anyway, with regard to participatory culture, I’m going to say something that might sound strange coming from an advocate of children’s online safety (but also a journalist and advocate of free speech and participation): I’m concerned that – because of the techno or predator panic to which our society has been subjected (still not over) and ensuing school policy – “online safety” is becoming a barrier to young people’s full participation in participatory culture (are you seeing that?). I’m concerned about this for a lot of reasons, the most urgent one being that I’ve been asked to serve on the NTIA’s Online Safety & Technology Working Group, and I could use the help of those who share my concern in shifting the discussion – to consider youth online safety in the context of youth access to participatory culture.

    Not only is online safety – because of its m.o. to date – widening the participation gap, but so are schools that block use of social media out of safety and legal concerns, as are parents out of fear for their children.

    What I think would help advance the discussion would be to: 1) put safety into context, as a means to the end of full participation, and 2) redefine it – broaden our understanding of what restricts youth from free expression and civic engagement through social technologies and media. It seems to me there are three forms of “safety” that enable full participation: physical safety (the one that policymakers and online-safety advocates have been disproportionately focused on but that research shows does merit inclusion), psychological safety (in the face of online harassment, flaming, bullying etc.), and – for lack of a better term at the moment – reputational safety (everything from defamation and impersonation to self-produced child porn). What fosters all three forms of safety FAR better than any technological or parental/school controls (if such controls help much at all) is youth training in new media literacy, citizenship, and ethics (and possibly even copyright and First Amendment law for fuller understanding of their rights). Does this make sense to others? I think I’ll blog about this soon! If anyone agrees, pls let me know. Strength in numbers!

  6. Thanks for the comments, Anne. I think you will be pleased by part two — to be posted soon — there’s a section there which emerged from our earlier exchanges around these issues and I look forward to seeing if you think the approach I am taking is helpful from your perspective.

  7. Yesterday, coworker Paul B Hartzog and I discussed which, in my opinion, may actually show that if you try to spread information in any way that resembles a “virus”, that the network will become resistant over time to your “virus”. Enough people will learn to detect the “virus”, and will start to ignore it, so that it won’t even spread to those who cannot yet detect it.

  8. Henry, Thank you for your response; it’s much clearer now.