Raising Children in the Digital Age: An Interview with Lynn Scofield Clark (Part Three)

Your book is full of evocative phrases and concepts. One of my favorite is that of “emotional downsizing.” When and where does “emotional downsizing” occur and what does it tell us about the context in which contemporary parenting occurs?

I used the term “emotional downsizing” to talk about parental expectations regarding family life and how media fit into these expectations. This comes up in a specific example about a mother who talks about how she wishes that her family could do more activities together, but they don’t due to the time pressures they face (the parents have demanding jobs and the teen and preteen children have school, activities, and for the younger child, time in child care rather than at home). The mother wished that they could engage in different kinds of activities together – like hiking or playing board games together – that would require them to be “unplugged.” Yet sometimes, the pressures of everyday life meant that she needed to lower her expectations about what was realistic and possible. This is how “movie night,” while not a preferred activity for this mom (and for many of the parents I interviewed), became nevertheless a positive instance of “family time.” Doing something together, even if it’s a less parentally approved activity, is still worthwhile and sometimes it’s the best we can do in what can be an exhausting schedule of family life. Parents therefore lower their expectations of an “ideal” family activity, or engage in emotional downsizing, coming to see the up side of engaging in mediated activities together.

Incidentally I discovered after writing my book that I use this term in a way that differs from sociologist Arlie Hochschild’s use of it, although I refer to her work on family life throughout my book (e.g., I use her term “emotion work” to talk about what parents go through when justifying the decisions they make in relation to emotions rather than rational decision-making). In her book The Time Bind, Hochschild uses the phrase “emotional downsizing” to refer to what happens when parents assume that their children need them less than they do, which is followed by “emotional outsourcing,” or leaving children in the supervision of hired caregivers. I observed both of these, but I wanted to highlight how television, movies, YouTube sharing and other mediated leisure activities – often discussed as less desirable than other activities – come to be part of something that family members view positively as “family time.”

At a time when many of us are writing about the values of “connected learning,” your book offers a “reality check.” What kinds of obstacles or challenges do you see in trying to create richer educational opportunities for youth through the informal learning sector or for connecting what takes place in the home with school-based learning?

That is a great question. U.S. families across the economic spectrum are so busy these days, whether that’s due to work and activities in the best of situations, or due to the chronic health issues, doctor’s visits, and inconvenient transportation and work schedules that tend to be part of the most challenging family experiences. I love the ideas involved in connected learning: the interest-powered, peer-supported, and academically oriented learning principles and the production-centered, openly networked, and shared purpose design principles. But I do see two key issues.

First, both parents and young people need to see how connected learning is in the interests of the young people themselves. This is obviously the point of developing case studies that demonstrate the effectiveness of learning in places like Quest2Learn and the Digital Youth Network. These will demonstrate that connected learning helps young people develop skills and literacies they will need to survive in education and beyond.

But secondly, both parents and young people need to see how connected learning is consistent with their goals as a family. How can programs of connected learning give parents opportunities to share their values and life experiences with their children? How can programs of connected learning help young people to feel that their experiences and perspectives are valued by their parents? Of course, connected learning isn’t a “program” so much as an approach, but parents may need to see specific programs in order to recognize how it is that their child’s school wants them to engage and will value their life experiences and familial goals in the process. I think that embracing a family-centric approach will move “connected learning” out of the headspace of “homework” or “youth after school activities” and into the space that I think the connected learning innovators want to go, which involves strengthening bridges between home and school life.

While the book is primarily descriptive of a range of different models of parenting in the digital age, you end with some normative advice about the ways parents might improve upon the quality of experiences they have with digital and mobile technologies. What philosophical commitments govern this advice for you?

I wanted to avoid giving very specific advice about hours spent in front of screens or with mobile devices. Instead, going back to your first question, I wanted parents to be able to think about the “parent app” that best fit their own situation and needs. For me, I think my primary philosophical commitments are to the inherent worth and dignity of every person and to the interconnectedness of all people and living beings of nature. I believe that we each need relationships of trust, mutuality, and compassion to survive, and we each have responsibilities to act in ways that foster those relationships. Maybe this is especially so in our primary relationships with our families. So I wanted to end the book with some suggestions rooted in the idea that all of us share a desire for meaningful relationships of mutuality and respect. I have a longer list in the conclusion, so here’s the edited version:

1. Be clear and fair about expectations regarding digital and mobile media, but be willing to change as children grow older and their needs change
2. Model the behavior you want, which includes prioritizing time together
3. Let children take the lead in teaching you about their media lives

But I also didn’t want to lose sight of the fact that for a lot of people, our experiences are related to and limited by not just what we can choose to do, but our cultural and social environment. So, I wanted to propose that collectively parents can work with others to shape an environment that better meets our desires for trust, mutuality, and compassion.

Thus, in relation to the bigger picture:
1. Change the situation for young people
2. Change the media to change the culture

As I write at the end of the book, the digital and mobile media that are so much a part of our lives may seem inevitable, but the particular forms they take and the organizational patterns governing the industries that make and distribute them are not. It is up to us to choose how these media will fit into our collective lives and how they will shape the lives of our children and families in the future.

 

Lynn Schofield Clark is Associate Professor, Director of the Estlow International Center for Journalism and New Media, and Interim Chair of the Media, Film, and Journalism Studies department at the University of Denver.  In addition to co-parenting two teens, she is author of The Parent App: Understanding Families in a Digital Age (Oxford U Press, 2012), From Angels to Aliens: Teenagers, the Media, and the Supernatural (Oxford U Press, 2005), and co-author with Stewart Hoover, Diane Alters, Joe Champ, and Lee Hood of Media, Home, and Family (Routledge, 2004).  She teaches qualitative research methods and journalism courses, and is currently involved in a community engaged youth participatory action study of news and story-sharing among high school aged recent immigrants to the U.S..

Raising Children in the Digital Age: An Interview with Lynn Scofield Clark (Part Two)

Another core theme running through the book has to do with different experiences and expectations about media depending on the economic class background of parents. How would you characterize those differences?

I describe two different ethics that guide family approaches to digital and mobile media: an ethic of respectful connectedness, and an ethic of expressive empowerment. I’m really building on a lot of work in sociology of the family in this area (see, e.g., Annette Lareau and Allison Pugh as well as Roger Silverstone, each of whom looks at how family economics shape everyday experiences). The term “ethic” is meant to signal that there are guiding principles that help parents and young people determine a course of action in relation to communication practices. I use the phrase “Ethic of expressive empowerment” to refer to those families that seek to use the media for education and self-development, and the phrase “Ethic of respectful connectedness” to refer to those families that want to use media in ways that honor parents and reinforce family and cultural ties.

The differences are most stark at the extremes. The ethic of expressive empowerment can lead parents to think of their children as in need of constant guidance and oversight. When parents assume that they need to ensure the most empowering activities and the most appropriate forms of expression for their children at all times, they can rather easily slip into using technologies for covert helicopter parenting.

On the other hand, parents who are very concerned about the ways that technology use might undermine respect for parents can be drawn to a sort of “tough love” approach, using their children’s social networking accounts to engage in publicly humiliating their children as a means of demanding respect, or being quite restrictive and “strict” about technology use.

Most parents fall between these two extremes, but each approach seems in some ways related to class-based ways of thinking about risk and technology. Upper income families in my study worried that their child might miss some opportunity that would secure their ability to compete in the increasingly merciless economic environment, and this drives the desire to oversee appropriate uses of time spent with technologies (and hence also supports covert helicopter parenting). Lower income families worry about their children’s futures as well, but because many in my study had experienced the failures of society’s institutions, they place more trust in close relations – which is why undermining respect for one’s closest family members can be so threatening (and why engaging in a “tough love” response of public humiliation or strong restrictions on technology seems appropriate).

I wanted to outline these different approaches not so much to tie one or another specifically to class, but to highlight the idea that not all families have the same concerns about how technologies are playing a role in the lives of their young people. I think that many of us in education tend to embrace an ethic of expressive empowerment and so we see the positive potential in technologies. But I wanted offer some clues as to how counselors, educators, and parent advocates might discuss technology and its risks in family life in relation to differing ethics that frame a family’s course of action.


You try to challenge and complicate prevailing myths about cyber-bullying. What advice do you have for parents who are concerned that their children may be being bullied?

First of all, parents need to resist the urge to jump in and “save” the child. Ultimately, our goal as parents is to raise children who have resilience. We parents need to see ourselves as resources who can help our children solve their own problems. We do this when we talk with them about different strategies of response and tell our own stories of how we respond when we feel bullied or harassed.

Of course, some incidents escalate beyond what a young person might be able to address on his or her own.

I’ve been doing another study specifically on cyberbullying among teens, and one of the things I’ve found is that teens don’t like the term “cyberbullying.” “That’s what happens to younger kids,” as several high school students told me. They prefer the term cyberharrassment, which suggests the seriousness of the issue.

And so I also really like Common Sense Media’s approach to cyberbullying and in my book I echo what they suggest. It’s important for parents to encourage their children to stand up, not just stand by when they witness such harassment, and it’s equally important for those who are victimized to seek sources of support so that they are standing with others in response to the perpetrator.

You acknowledge throughout the book that some of your findings push against your own values as a parent. What would be some examples where you were forced to question your own assumptions about good parenting?

Even though I think of myself as someone who loves to spend time with my children, writing this book made me realize that this often comes into conflict with my sense that part of being a good parent is balancing work and home life appropriately. When it comes to children, there’s really no balancing or multitasking, there’s just the attention you can focus on one thing or another at any given time. In other words, if I really want to spend time with my children, I’ve got to put away my laptop and phone. And I’ve also decided to be much more intentional about spending time doing media-related things with them. Fortunately, we all like the Just Dance 2 DVD we received from a grandparent over the holidays!

In your discussion of teen’s online play with identity, you introduce the concept of “interpretive reproduction.” Can you explain this concept and discuss what it helps us to see about teen’s strategies for using social media?

Sociologist William Corsaro introduces the term “interpretive reproduction” as a way of challenging our tendency as adults to think about children in terms of “socialization,” or in terms of what they will become in the future rather than in relation to what they are doing presently. The term “interpretive reproduction” describes the process that young people go through as they interpret and then innovate as participants in society. They’re not just internalizing and absorbing culture; they’re actively contributing to how it is changing, even as they’re doing so in relation to existing social processes. I used this term as I was trying to sort out what was “new” about the context of digital and mobile media in teen identity work, and what was pretty consistent with the way teens had been engaging in identity work for a long time.

I think the term helps to remind parents that parenting is a process that involves not only parental intentions but also the creativities of young people as they respond to their environments. As parents it’s easy to feel nervous about the fact that we can’t control a lot of what happens in new media environments. I think it’s helpful for parents to look for patterns that relate to what came before, so that we can see that young people are using these new media to address needs that have remained remarkably similar from their generation to ours. At the same time, for sociologists interested in the role of media in social change, it’s important to see that the innovations of young people do matter. They are contributors to culture, which is why it’s important to look at their practices not just in relation to parental intentions but also in relation to how the collective uses of technologies among all generations are changing our social lives.

 Lynn Schofield Clark is Associate Professor, Director of the Estlow International Center for Journalism and New Media, and Interim Chair of the Media, Film, and Journalism Studies department at the University of Denver.  In addition to co-parenting two teens, she is author of The Parent App: Understanding Families in a Digital Age (Oxford U Press, 2012), From Angels to Aliens: Teenagers, the Media, and the Supernatural (Oxford U Press, 2005), and co-author with Stewart Hoover, Diane Alters, Joe Champ, and Lee Hood of Media, Home, and Family (Routledge, 2004).  She teaches qualitative research methods and journalism courses, and is currently involved in a community engaged youth participatory action study of news and story-sharing among high school aged recent immigrants to the U.S..

Raising Children in the Digital Age: An Interview with Lynn Schofield Clark (Part One)

A few posts back, I shared with you my interview with art historian Amy F. Ogata, author of Designing the Creative Child: Playthings and Places in Midcentury America. Ogata was nice enough to discuss with me her thoughts on the ways contemporary ideas about the digital child might have been informed by the thinking of the postwar era. Today, I want to push us to think even further about the nature of childhood and parenting in the digital age. My interviewee is Lynn Scofield Clark, author of the 2013 book, The Parent App: Understanding Families in the Digital Age.

The Parent App builds upon a rich tradition of work on the intersection of media and the family, going back to early work in this space by writers such as James Lull, Roger Silverstone, and Ellen Seiter, as well as more recent work by scholars such as Sonia Livingstone in the UK or the Digital Youth Project in the United States. Clark is clearly familiar with this literature,  but she also pushes well beyond it — not simply because of her central focus on digital and mobile technologies, but also because she is so attentive to the shifting conditions — economic, social, technological — which impact the lives of American families today. There is an admirable balance here between the broad view — an account of significant shifts in the relations between work and family — and a more focused attention to the specific narratives of the individual families she describes.

She has a particularly nuanced concern for notions of class, as they operate on much more ambiguous terms in Amercan culture than in the British tradition that informs her work. She helps us to understand how the choices which parents make about their children’s access and use of new media technologies are strongly shaped by class — in the literal sense, in terms of access to technologies, time, space, and cultural capital  and in the more figurative sense, in terms of very different ideologies of parenting that determine what value families attach to different kinds of activities within and beyond the home.

She is a gifted ethnographic storyteller: each segment offers a vivid portrait of the people involved, the choices they are making, the impact of the those choices on their lives, and the contexts within which these choices get made.  She does an admirable job here at moving between descriptive and normative agendas, being clear about her own stakes as a mother in researching and understanding how decisions get made about media in the context of family lives.  She makes it clear that some of the choices parents make clash with her own norms and expectations as a mother, but she looks at each of her subjects with sufficient sympathy and empathy that she can explain why these choices make sense to them, and she also observes that stricter regulation does not always result in estrangement between parents and children.

All told, this is important work, especially at a time when a growing number of scholars in the Digital Media and Learning field are seeking to understand the learning ecology — the ways that informal and participatory learning opportunities outside of school may become part of a “connected learning” system that supports children’s educational growth. She clearly understands the stakes behind this work, but she also brings a healthy dose of realism to the conversation, noting that even middle class parents who may buy into the ideology of participatory learning often do not devote much time to enhancing or contributing to these kinds of opportunities for their off-spring. She also offers us some insights into why lower income families suffer from diminished opportunities — not simply because of constraints on resources, but also due to hostility from others in their immediate environment towards certain goals or norms  they might associate with social striving and upward mobility. Clark finds that even professional, college education, upper middle class parents often lack the skills and knowledge to meaningfully mentor their sons and daughters about their online lives; she finds that even in close families youth often involve themselves in activities behind their parent’s backs, circumventing rules designed to protect them from exposure to risks. She suggests that parents still look upon their relationship to new media primarily in terms of regulating exposure, limiting time, and managing risks, much more than creating and sustaining opportunities.

What do you mean here by “parent app?” How does the title speak to parents’ expectations about the ways that digital and mobile media devices are impacting their relationship with their children?

I used the phrase “the parent app” in a tongue-in-cheek way, as in, “wouldn’t it be wonderful if there were an app that could provide parents with an answer to every possible dilemma that emerges in relation to parenting and technology?!”

The title also plays with the film title, “The Parent Trap,” in that I found that parents do often feel trapped, or at least overwhelmed, by the fact that they think that their children are growing up in a digital culture that they may not fully understand and to which they think they have limited access. This parental anxiety drives us as parents to want some neat-and-tidy way to address technologies in family life. So, I used the title to signal that mine *wasn’t* going to be a straightforward “advice” book, because I really believe that every parenting situation is unique and therefore I think it would be impossible to create such a book, let alone an app, that would address what is a constantly changing situation.

What I wanted to create was a book that was more like the kinds of conversations I participate in with parents and, less officially, with research friends, when we share stories and try to make sense of what they mean for our unique situations and dilemmas. So, the book itself is very story-driven in terms of its approach. My hope is that the stories help parents consider their own situations and to then build our own “apps.”

Throughout the book, you are attentive not only to what teens and adults say about their relations to and through these media, but also the contexts in which your interviews were conducted. In what ways did both teens and parents use the interview process to deliver messages to other family members?

We all live in such busy times that in U.S. families, it’s pretty easy to focus on the immediacies in our conversations with one another. The interviews for this book gave parents and young people a chance to sit together and discuss something important, and that in itself often made for a positive experience. The interview experience allowed parents to reinforce the message of how important it is to value the time we can spend listening to one another. Of course, this means that the parents who feel “too busy” to talk with their children didn’t participate in the interviews, and I believe that this skewed the sample somewhat. But it also gave the study a chance to explore what happens when those families that do prioritize being together actually focus attention on the sometimes-contentious issues that arise in relation to digital and mobile media.

Risk is a central theme running through the book. How do parents and youth understand the “risks” of networked communications in different ways? Why are we as a culture so often pre-occupied by these risks and so often disinterested in the potential value of teens online lives?

In the U.S. we live in a culture of fear, as sociologist Barry Glassner has argued. In my book I discuss the role that the news media have played in relation to appealing to this fear, which in turn contributes to our sense of risk. TV news in particular highlights unusual yet poignant occurrences that their viewers will find troubling – they have to do this because they need to appeal to the lucrative audience of young parents in the 25 – 40 age category in order to stay on the air. So stories about children and Internet-related concerns, while important, receive attention that tends to magnify the sense of risk in a manner that’s disproportionate to the actual risk.

I found that even though parents and teens voiced many of the same fears about potential risks that you see in the news, young people in their teens and preteens tended to recognize and know how to avoid the most-publicized risks, such as predators and encounters with strangers. The preteens and teens in my study were concerned about risks that they related to identity: what you might call dissing, drama, and disregard (or being ignored). This is consistent with a lot of research that’s been done by Pew Internet & Microsoft’s danah boyd (who spoke of “drama” as a word teens prefer to describe what adults might call cyberbullying).

I think you’re right, Henry, that many parents are pre-occupied with potential risks and less interested than they might be in the value of their teens’ online experiences. Parents tend to see safety as their first order of business, so I guess that orientation isn’t surprising. Yet as digital and mobile media become more integrated into family life, parents are coming to see the benefits of such media, particularly in relation to parental goals of enhancing family connection in a time that’s characterized by our sense that we’re busier than ever.

Lynn Schofield Clark is Associate Professor, Director of the Estlow International Center for Journalism and New Media, and Interim Chair of the Media, Film, and Journalism Studies department at the University of Denver.  In addition to co-parenting two teens, she is author of The Parent App: Understanding Families in a Digital Age (Oxford U Press, 2012), From Angels to Aliens: Teenagers, the Media, and the Supernatural (Oxford U Press, 2005), and co-author with Stewart Hoover, Diane Alters, Joe Champ, and Lee Hood of Media, Home, and Family (Routledge, 2004).  She teaches qualitative research methods and journalism courses, and is currently involved in a community engaged youth participatory action study of news and story-sharing among high school aged recent immigrants to the U.S..

Hotspot3 — Civic Kickstarters

The Civic Paths Research Group, based at USC’s Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism, periodically issues “Hot-Spots,” clusters of short blog posts on related topics, which bring together as many of the members of our team as possible. I have shared previous Civic Paths Hot Spots around the “Dark Side of DIY”
and “Election Season Revisited“. Today, I am able to share the third in this series — this time focused around the civic implications of Kickstarter, a platform and process which has occupied a great deal of our attention this semester. The introduction is written by two of our PhD students, Andrew Schrock and Samantha Close. We hope that it will inspire further discussion among researchers. If it does, share what you are thinking with us. If you want to learn more about Civic Paths, you can do so here.

HOTSPOT3 — CIVIC KICKSTARTERS

If you’ve ever wished for a trebuchet that could fire erasers at the cubicles across the aisle–or wished you had the capital to mass produce the one you made in your garage, crowdfunding wants to talk to you. The basic idea behind crowdsourcing, as coined by Jeff Howe in a 2006 article for WIRED, is that a large task can be accomplished by parceling it out among a “network of people in the form of an open call.” Crowdfunding modifies this idea by making the “large task” the production budget of a project. People who answer the call for participation in crowdfunding, called backers, contribute small to large amounts of money so the crowd can collectively raise the needed sum. Yet, “crowds” are, ironically, probably the wrong way to think about what’s happening with crowdfunding in general and its most visible offspring, Kickstarter.com.  Rather, Daren Brabham, in his definitive book Crowdsourcing, links crowdfunding success to online communities, calling them “fertile sources of innovation and genius.”

To understand how all of this works, we need to meet Kickstarter.  Kickstarter.com hosts projects and campaigns by independent creators, organizing project pitches and facilitating payments. They also lay down rules for what kinds of things can be pitched. Backing typically takes place over a month, overt charities are not allowed, and projects must have a finite endpoint: producing an iSomething accessory, printing a comic book, or turning an abandoned house in New Orleans into a ball pit. Many types of goals and endeavors are therefore collapsed together as projects. Project backers are kept appraised of a project’s progress, consulted for key decisions, and get an exclusive channel to communicate with project creators through the Kickstarter site. Project creators become more committed to a project that they know has generated interest. This process is closer to co-creation, where  fans and producers come together with interest and enthusiasm around a shared culture.

Although a Kickstarter campaign invitation is open to anyone browsing the web, it takes a relatively small number of people to make a project successful: all funds donated (minus Kickstarter’s 5% fee) go to the project creator rather than being funneled through a foundation, production company, PayPal, or other edifice of red tape.  Kickstarter’s “crowd,” then, is more often an activation of a community or subculture than a random assortment of people on the virtual street. Once we re-frame Kickstarter as invoking community interests rather than those of a faceless crowd, we can start to more clearly think through how crowdfunding works.

Kickstarter.com argues strongly that they are not a store and designs their policies and site to avoid the appearance of being an online storefront. These are obviously muddy waters, particularly as one of Kickstarter’s most notable additions to the traditional investment funding model is a system of “backer rewards.”  These rewards vary tremendously from material to immaterial to symbolic to somewhere in-between, and are set up by project creators to thank backers who contribute different tiers of money.  Rewards can become an unexpected burden for project creators, who deliver them later than expected over 75% the time. The best rewards are intrinsically linked to the project at hand, rather than being unrelated additions that create unnecessary work rather than deepening the excitement among backers and commitment by creators.

Veronica Mars Kickstarter

Veronica Mars Kickstarter

The one particularly dedicated fan who found $10,000 to donate to Rob Thomas’ Veronica Mars Movie campaign, for example, will get a small speaking role in the film.  The more modest $10 donation level (selected by a less modest 8,423 people) receive a smaller reward (a digital copy of the film’s shooting script), but one that is still tied to the making of the movie.  The Veronica Mars campaign raised the most money of any project, ever, on Kickstarter and ignited both controversy and a lot of useful debate about the crowdfunding model. Today’s hotspot* features Civic Paths members diving into the fray and continuing the crowdfunding conversation.

One theme across posts is to follow the money:  Where is it coming from?  Where is it going?  How does it get there?  Why does it go?  Kickstarter projects complicate a simple dichotomy of commercial goals vs. creative endeavors, which were previously compartmentalized and personalized by such terms as “fans” and “producers.” According to Samantha Close, Kickstarter lays bare tensions that were always there in the entertainment industry but hidden by layers of production and distribution. Liana Gamber Thompson unpacks the implications of the new Donald Trump-branded site, Fund Anything. In true Trump style, it’s an extreme caricature of crowdfunding where anything goes, from medical procedures to a party for kids displaced by Hurricane Sandy. Its emergence provokes difficult questions about what gets funded and why in the larger crowdfunding world. Despite the prominence of project hosting sites like Kickstarter, all crowdfunding also requires the backing of a payment system.  As Lana Swartz reveals, these systems can have politics of their own, resulting in funds being frozen, reducing trust in crowdfunding platforms, and frustrating all participants.

Spreadability, discussion, and debate that bridges communities is another theme of interest. Unlike Surowiecki’s Wisdom of Crowds, where the number of jellybeans in a bowl can be most accurately estimated by taking an average across a large number of observers, there isn’t necessarily a best solution to find in crowdfunding. Rather, projects spark conversations and debates that take place elsewhere, often necessarily as Kickstarter has a fairly strict moderation policy on the site’s discussion sections that, for example, frowns on negative comments. Kevin Driscoll connects projects focusing on saving media with the politics of preservation, noting how debates about stuff are also difficult conversations about what should be archived, how, and by whom. Mike Ananny questions how crowdfunding is being incorporated into news.  It troubles existing dynamics of journalism that evolved to promote the spread of meaningful information at the same time as some have taken the cue to openly and explicitly focus on underserved communities. Benjamin Stokes makes the point that feelings of community affiliation are imagined as well as geographically-proximate.  Thus, online projects can also directly impact offline civic well-being. However, both Stokes and Ananny point out that there remain significant participation gaps on Kickstarter that affect how networks of privilege are connected to isolated communities, exacerbating the politics of financial support. Andrew Schrock provides examples of success stories in the spread of Hacker and Maker Spaces (HMSs) that act as centers for informal learning and creativity in geographically-situated communities. These democratically-run collective organizations buck the stereotype of HMSs being confined to western male geeks more interested in picking locks than helping others.

Kickstarter’s popularity has brought with it significant controversies and legitimate questions of who gets to contribute, how, to what, and who really benefits in the end. We hope that with careful consideration crowdfunding can be viewed as and truly become a way to connect backers and creators more closely over tables (made of robotically sculpted Zen sand or not) that are meaningful to all parties involved. Crowdfunded projects can drive awareness and, even in their imperfection, spark conversations about what needs doing across various communities. These emergent debates are vital for us to have in this moment of economic transition and cultural shift.

Enjoy, and we welcome your comments.

–Andrew Schrock and Samantha Close

[1] Why All Kickstarters are Civic Kickstarters, by Samantha Close

[2] Donald Trump and Dollar Bills: Crowdfunding for the Masses, by Liana Gamber Thompson

[3] Getting the Funds from the Crowd: The Politics of Payment Infrastructure, by Lana Swartz

[4] Crowdfunding an Archive: What’s Worth Saving and Who’s Gonna Pay for It?, by Kevin Driscoll

[5] Crowd-Funded Journalism and Dynamics of Visibility, by Mike Ananny

[6] Crowdfunding as Neighborhood Storytelling, by Benjamin Stokes

[7] Kickstarting a Hackerspace, by Andrew Schrock

 

* HOTSPOT PHILOSOPHY: These collections of mini-blog posts — “hot spots” — are organized around themes that cut across the diverse interests of participants in our research group. They’re about the things we love to talk about. And, like our in-person conversations, they play with ideas at the intersection of participatory culture, civic engagement, and new media. Our rules for the hotspot are these: No one gets to spend a million hours wordsmithing — these are idea starters, not finishers — and posts shouldn’t be a whole lot longer than five hundred words.  Check out our first hotspot intro to read more about the thought process behind these mini-blog posts.

Is This the End of Television As We Know It?

The Future of Television- Annenberg Innovation Lab Summit from Annenberg Innovation Lab on Vimeo.

This video captures a really extraordinary and timely conversation that was recently hosted by the Annenberg Innovation Lab as part of its 2013 research summit. The panel was called “Transmedia and the Future of Television,” but it was really much more focused on exploring the future of television — particularly the future of the “program bundle” at a time of tremendous transition in the ways television operates within our culture. (If you want to know more about the research we are doing on transmedia, check out the “T is For Transmedia” report which the Innovation Lab released a few months ago in cooperation with the Joan Ganz Cooney Center).

I was moderator and the panelists were:

  • Gabriel Kahn, Professor of Professional Practice, Journalism, USC
  • Hardie Tankersley, VP of Platforms and Innovation, Fox Broadcasting
  • Aaron DeBevoise, Executive Vice President, Network Programming, Machinima
  • Howard T. Stein, Strategist for Entertainment, Facebook Inc.

The concept of “bundling” — that is, the selling of a package of networks to subscribers rather than offering them a la carte — has been a foundation of the cable television industry over the past several decades: cable companies advertise based on the number of channels they offer, lesser interest networks survive because they are attached to high interest networks, and industry insiders claim that this is an approach that supports diversity. Others argue that bundling is to television which block booking was to the Hollywood studio era and that sooner or later, disagregation, which has hit the music and newspaper industries, will hit television also. Part of the premise of the panel was that events over the past year or so have been transformative in how television content gets funded, produced, and distributed, and how we consume it. Part of the goal of the panel was to get people from journalism, from the television industry, and from some of the emerging digital challengers to talk about these changes and how they feel they will impact the future of the medium.

What follows are some of the key indicators that the nature of television is undergoing some radical shifts as we write (some of them are discussed here, some did not get talked about because of time limits, and some have occurred since the conference, but they all represent good background for watching this session).

 

  • YouTube announces that 100 media companies and celebrities have signed up to launch their own channels for content distribution and the company has solicited a broader and more diverse group of people to curate their own playlists, directing attention on content which Wired describes as having a “cable feel” but being “way more niche than cable ever could.”

  • Surpassing the speed and scope of the earlier Susan Boyle phenomenon, Kony 2012,  a 30 minute documentary about child soldiers in Africa, reaches more than 77 million views in under four days through grassroots circulation, drawing more eyeballs that week than the highest rated television series on American television and the top grossing Hollywood box office hit that week, combined. Its success has since been followed by the global circulation of Psy’s “Gangem Style,” which has helped to introduce KPop content into the U.S. Market.

  • Hulu is offering an extensive array of international television programs as exclusive online content to their subscribers, suggesting that national borders are increasingly arbitrary in terms of television consumption, even for U.S. consumers.
  • Amazon announces that it is commissioning eleven pilots for production as web-based television series, with the pilots to be available to the public, which will help decide which ones will go into full production.

  • Some media observers note that brands may have gained greater advantage over their spontaneous social media responses during the Super Bowl blackout than they did for their paid advertising during the event. In any case, most of the brands now release their spots to YouTube and other video sharing sites prior to the Super Bowl event itself.

  • According to the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism, “Among adults younger than age 30, as many saw news on a social networking site the previous day (33%) as saw any television news (34%), with just 13% having read a newspaper either in print or digital form.”

  • A federal appeals court in New York upholds a lower court ruling in favor of Aereo, Barry Diller’s Internet startup company, which streams content from local stations via the internet without compensating the original rights holders.
  • Cablevision and Verizon have filed legal action challenging the bundling of television networks as an unreasonable constraint on trade and a threat to innovation.
  • Facebook invests heavily in becoming the central vehicle for supporting mobile television around the world.

  • Participant Media announces that their new television network, Pivot, will be available to “cordcutters” through a mobile app, whether or not they subscribe to cable television.
  • Prospect Park has brought former ABC soaps, All My Children and One Life to Live, from cancelation via web distribution.

Taken collectively, these shifts represent a significant tipping point in terms of how television is produced, distributed, and consumed. Does this spell the end of television as we know it? What happens when “television” is less a technology than a set of programming practices? What happens when more people “cut the cord” or when the industry no longer depends on the “bundle”? What happens when the intensity of fan response may become as important as the quantity of viewers in shaping which programs remain in production?

The “Creative Child” Meets The “Digital Native”: An Interview with Amy F. Ogata (Part Two)

You write extensively in the book about the design of playrooms, suggesting that there is a shift in terms of children’s access to physical space within the home during this period. What factors led to the shift and what were the prevailing ideas about the design of play spaces for children?

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Yes, I spent a lot of time thinking not only about playrooms and playhouses of the domestic sphere, but also public schools and museums. In the single-family dwelling, the shift I am trying to trace is the growing belief that children, whose numbers exploded in the U.S. after World War II, needed their own spaces and that these were not just utilitarian leftover spaces but rather specially designed to promote their imaginations. In architect-designed houses, there were often playrooms on the plans. Even in builder houses, there were special places indicated for children’s activities. One of the main ideas was that children should have “correctly” outfitted spaces. The American Toy Institute commissioned a series of model playrooms to house numerous toys and make playing indoors attractive. Others, such as the anthropologist Margaret Mead argued that children should be left alone in their bedrooms to think and develop their own ideas. Isolation is one of the themes but proximity to the rest of the family, especially the mother, is also written into some of these houses. And the making of a “creative” home environment was stated in magazines and guidebooks as an expectation of postwar parents.

As you note, there was a dramatic increase in the number of children’s museums across this period, as well as a changing philosophy about what forms of creative engagement such museums should support. What has been the lasting impact of these ideas on current museum practices?

The form children’s museums take today is, in part, a result of the enduring notion that the sensory encounter of objects will enhance learning and stimulate new thoughts. Children’s museums as a type were not new, but they did increase very quickly during the Baby Boom. And while early museums emphasized nature study, their postwar versions were more likely to ask the child to experience something, whether it was being under a city street or climbing through a giant molecule. In the case of the Exploratorium, which was never specifically a children’s museum but engaged lots of children, visitors were encouraged to experiment with perception. Several museums I discuss look very different today–the Exploratorium, for example, has just moved to a new facility–they now attract a much younger child than museums in the 60s and 70s, and many of the exhibits are less open-ended or they go straight for entertainment, emphasizing dramatic play over, say, studying waves in a ripple tank. I think the most long-lasting aspect is the general belief that children should be active in the museum space.

It seems to me that some contemporary efforts to develop alternative kinds of spaces for children and youth still owe a great deal to the design approaches of this era. I was hoping I might get you to comment on what someone from the 1960s would recognize or find strange about two contemporary educational spaces for children? The first is the YouMedia Center at the Chicago Public Library

Sounds like a great space and in some ways it resembles the kinds of open school ideas of the late 60s and 70s. In that age, the push for large open spaces and team teaching was promoted as an answer to a teacher shortage, and to enable use of “teaching machines” and media (in that day it was film, television and sound recording), and a way of engaging children in hands-on projects, like producing TV shows for their schools. While architects thought that the spaces they created would ensure that teachers and students behaved in certain ways–smaller classrooms would encourage small group instruction, larger spaces might promote collaborative projects, moveable furniture would lead to flexible spaces–however, that didn’t necessarily happen. YouMedia is obviously not a space where core subjects are taught on a daily basis, but instead is an auxiliary space for exploration after school, perhaps more like the Exploratorium or the Brooklyn Children’s Museum as it was a long time ago. There, children and teens could operate machines, mix soils in a greenhouse, graffiti a concrete wall, or retreat to read in a library housed in a leftover gas tank.


The second is the Los Feliz Charter School for the Arts. Again, what commonalities and differences do you see between the ideal creative spaces of the 1960s and this school?

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This is another great example of the ways that progressive educational ideas are resurgent, however, this is a charter school with access to the kind of private funding that is not available to regular public schools that depend on tax revenue. The schools I discuss were all publically funded (some were in extremely wealthy neighborhoods and others in poor rural areas) and aimed to accomplish some (but certainly not all) of these same learning objectives. Many of them were small and have been changed over the years. It seems that the Los Feliz school has tried to use space to encourage curricular outcomes. Like some schools in the postwar era they have given over far more teaching space to projects like art, music and drama. Increasingly these are the subjects that are getting squeezed out of the public school day by constant budget cuts, emphasis on standardized testing, and in places like New York City, by demands on limited space. The sentiment that one teacher in this video conveys–that they are not trying to turn out artists but rather confident, well-balanced people–echoes exactly the discourse on creativity in the postwar years. The notion that creativity is a lifelong benefit that will eventually help children become competitive in the workplace has also found its way to college campuses. I don’t mean to sound skeptical of creativity itself (I am an art historian!), but I think that the schemes we adopt to instrumentalize it reveal that we lionize creativity as a cultural myth at moments when we feel insecure.

Amy F. Ogata is associate professor at the Bard Graduate Center: Decorative Arts, Design History, Material Culture in New York City. She is the author of Art Nouveau and the Social Vision of Living. Her new book, Designing the Creative Child: Playthings and Places in Midcentury America was recently published by the University of Minnesota Press.

The “Creative Child” Meets the “Digital Native”: An Interview with Amy Ogata (Part One)

 

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The Post-War American family turns out to have been a much more complex phenomenon than our stereotypical images of Leave It To Beaver might suggest. The Baby Boom generation, invested in critiquing the values of their parents, left us with an image of the era which is highly conservative, ideologically repressive, emotionally sterile, and materialistic — there’s some truth to these cliches, of course, but there was much more going on. In particular, there was an attempt, coming out of the Second World War, to embrace a conscious project of designing and developing a new generation which would be free of the prejudices of the old, which would be capable of confronting global problems and making intelligent decisions about the Bomb, which would be democratic to its core and thus resistant to future Hitlers, and above all, which would be free of inhibitions which might block their most creative and expressive instincts.

I’ve long been fascinated by this period but rarely have I seen it written about with the depth and insights that Amy F. Ogata brings to her new book, Designing the Creative Child: Playthings and Places in Midcentury America. Ogata brings a design/art history perspective to bear on the period, telling us more about the ways that ideas about children as expressive beings helped to inform the design of toys, playspaces, schools, libraries, museums, and other public institutions, and beyond that, she offers some glimpses in how these ideas about creativity helped to shape children’s books, television, and other popular culture texts. I came to the book for the insights that it might give us into the children’s media of the 1950s and 1960s, but I left with a much more immediate sense of how a deeper understanding of how ideas about childhood during that period might speak to our present concerns. As I wrote as a blurb for the book:

At a time when the news media is again concerned about a crisis in American creativity, schools are cutting funding for arts education, major foundations are modeling ways that students and teachers might ‘play’ with new media, and museums worry about declining youth attendance, Designing the Creative Child makes an important intervention, reminding us that these debates build on a much longer history of efforts to support and enhance the creative development of American youth. I admire this fascinating, multidisciplinary account, which couples close attention to the design of everyday cultural materials with an awareness of the debates in educational theory, public policy, children’s literature, and abstract art that informed them.

So, the following interview is designed to explore those points of intersection between the “creative child” as imagined in the post-war period and the “digital native” as conceived in the early 21st century. As a careful historian, Ogata was careful to make some nuanced distinctions between the two, yet she was open to exploring the ways that these older concepts about childhood might still be informing some of our current discussions about digital media and learning.

You open the book with a quote from Arnold Gesell who writes that “by nature” the child was “a creative artist of sorts….We may well be amazed at his resourcefulness, his extraordinary capacity for original activity, inventions and discovery.” This formulation reminds me of contemporary formulations of children as “digital natives” who “naturally” know how to navigate the online world. What do you see as some cornerstones of this belief in the “creative” child? Is the goal for adults to facilitate and support this creativity or to get out of the way and avoid stiffling it?

This is an interesting analogy and one I had not considered. Gesell is articulating a sense of surprise and admiration, and it resembles how we speak about children navigating digital devices. What the concepts of the “creative child” and the “digital native” share is an essentialist belief that children are somehow “naturally” inclined toward certain expressions or activities, and it is very hard to support these kinds of overwhelming generalities. Moreover, while we might praise the “naive” and untutored, behind these sentiments I also detect both a patronizing quality and a sense of loss or regret on the part of the adult. The idea of the creative child is one invented by adults and, as I argue, it serves many different interests, from toy manufacturers to art museums, Cold War ideologues to serious scientists.

The cornerstone of the idea of the creative child is that he or she possesses “natural” insight that comes out in play. Another related belief is that childhood creativity is a fleeting quality that has the potential to provide future gains for the child, her parents, and the nation. Because the idea of nurturing creativity in children was so widespread (and such a big business) after World War II, we tend to understand children’s creativity in limited, usually positive terms and we expect it to take certain forms. This, perhaps, is where the creative child and digital native part ways, given the lingering popular suspicion around children and the digital environment (the belief that kids might get themselves or others in trouble). In the historical case I outline, it is a parent’s responsibility to facilitate a child’s creativity by providing toys, amusements, and spaces for play. But the public was also invested in some of these notions, evident in new public schools, spaces for exploration such as museums, and in art education programs.

What connection existed between the ideal of the creative, expressive child and the growing consumer culture of the post-war period? What kinds of products were able to attach themselves to this particular construction of childhood?

The consumer dimension was a powerful one and has become even more so today. It’s hard to escape the rhetoric of creativity if you’re shopping for toys or games, or other things like clothing and schools. The child’s block, the cardboard box, and crayons were some of the most romanticized and widely prescribed amusements of the postwar age. In addition there were some objects, created by architects and designers, which were deliberately arty and were sold specifically as creativity toys.

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Magnet Master was a magnetic building toy designed by Arthur Carrara and developed as a product of the Walker Art Center. There were no instructions or diagrams because, the museum reasoned, children didn’t need them and would do better on their own. The Philadelphia architect Anne Tyng developed a building toy she attempted to market under the idea of stimulating children to build and explore. Charles and Ray Eames’s 1950s paper toys were similar but used different materials and were more widely available and for a longer time. But other products, once so ubiquitous, have now completely disappeared. The simple indoor fabric playhouse that draped over a card table is gone, in part because people no longer have those standard-sized card tables.

To what degree was the ideal of the creative child bound up with particular experiences of class, race, and gender? This is, was the expressive child more likely to be middle class, white and male, or did these writers offer a more multicultural understanding of what constituted creativity?

CPlaythings1The figure of the creative child in this historical era is extremely middle class, but not exclusively male and not exclusively white. In the early 1950s, white children are implied in the toy ads and housing schemes, by the early 60s, this is still dominant but less so. Creative Playthings placed ads in Ebony, for example, and the Brooklyn Children’s Museum’s 1970 renovation was very much designed with the local Crown Heights neighborhood in mind. The creative child is a construction that aims to overlook difference while simultaneously selling exclusivity. This is one of the paradoxes of the idea. Creativity is described as something that all children are supposed to possess “naturally,” but at the same time parents and teachers are told that it needs careful tending and stimulation, usually through specific kinds of toys and materials.

What role did television play in promoting and supporting this concept of childhood creativity?

 

 

Television was of course a central force for the representation of childhood in postwar America and had a role to play in helping to create the specific figure of the creative child. I spend most of my book describing material and spatial forms that do this work, but there are several programs that also had an important role in the making of the idea. Winky Dink, which asked the child to “finish” the story by drawing on a special screen affixed to the TV itself, is an obvious example for harnessing the child’s agency, but the character who, I think, best represents the image of the postwar creative child is Gumby.

Gumby’s energy and imagination are represented in the many physical forms he takes, and the way he and his sidekick Pokey move in and out of stories, eras, and places. His exuberant inquisitiveness sometimes brings havoc upon himself and his family, but this is of course resolved before the end of the program. The way creativity is constructed on television and in children’s books emphasizes the positive and tends toward happy endings.

Often, across the book, it seems that children’s imaginations are linked to various forms of abstraction. What was the relationship between childhood and the modern art world during this period?

You are right about this. Abstraction is one of the recurring motifs of the designed objects and spaces I discuss. Frank Caplan, who was one of the founders of Creative Playthings, believed that undefined shapes and unpainted forms would help to stimulate a child’s imagination. The company sought out artists to design toys and playgrounds to enhance their business and for cognitive developmental reasons, but also because they were genuinely interested in the links between modern art and design and objects for children; they collaborated several times with the Museum of Modern Art. This occurred at a time when abstract painting and sculpture was gaining prestige in both the U.S. and Europe, and had a propagandistic role in the Cold War. However, the twinning of abstraction and a child’s imagination (evident in forms like children’s drawings) is an older idea. Early twentieth-century European modernists deeply admired the representational strategies of children’s art. This notion comes back with new vigor in the “Creative Art” education curriculum that asked pupils to express their experiences rather than copy models. There was, then, a demand placed on children to be creative, and often abstract.

 Amy F. Ogata is associate professor at the Bard Graduate Center: Decorative Arts, Design History, Material Culture in New York City. She is the author of Art Nouveau and the Social Vision of Living. Her new book, Designing the Creative Child: Playthings and Places in Midcentury America was recently published by the University of Minnesota Press.

Bastard Culture!: An Interview with Mirko Tobias Schäfer (Part Two)

Your more recent work on Twitter has deployed the concept of a gift economy, building off some of the ideas in our original white paper on Spreadible Media. How are you defining gift economy? Why is this appropriate for talking about digital media? How do contemporary forms of gift economies in the context of capitalism differ from more classical understandings of this context?

It is less the ‘economy’ in gift economy than the ‘gift’ that interests us. The gift as a ‘public recognition’. And this initial public recognition with the intention of more exchanges in the future, is a key aspect in gift economies as Boris Malinowski has pointed out. Together with my colleagues Johannes Paßmann and Thomas Boeschoten we looked into Twitter data to retrieve patterns of communication (The Gift of the Gab. Retweet Cartels and Gift Economies on Twitter). When investigating two samples, the MP’s of Dutch parliament and the German top Twitter accounts, we noticed clusters of users who were retweeting each other frequently, so called retweet-cartells, similar to citation-cartels in academia. We argue that the retweet equals a ‘public recognition’ and it can serve as an ‘opening gift’ with the intention to receive retweets in return.

What does the notion of the gift economy help us to see when we look at patterns in how content travels through Twitter?

We explicitly refer to your recent work on spreadable media where you employ the notion of gift economy to explain spreadability. We agree with you that this concept provides more plausible explanations for the distribution of online content than the notion of ‘viral distribution’. The retweet, the repin, the favourite are intrinsically related to attention. However, they are ‘cheap’ gifts as they are abundant. But such a gift can gain more value through the status of the user retweeting a less popular account and hence drawing attention to it. Therefore it is unsurprising that we find politicians mostly retweeting their own party members. Members of the Favstar scene frequently retweet accounts that are equally popular. They form a retweet cartell, very similar to academic citation-cartels. However, when we look at the @replies within our sample of Dutch MP’s we can see that they do not limit their communication to their own party members but with colleagues from all parties. Therefore, we conclude that if attention is drawn to messages through retweeting, users become selective in whom to award the ‘gift’ of a retweet.

I do not know how Paßmann and Boeschoten feel about it, but I would not necessarily stick to the strict economic understanding of the ‘gift economy’. I think it will prove even more useful to adapt the term. It is most likely a feature of stimulating communication and connection. With communication, I mean ephemeral communication, not conversations. The ‘gift’ is important to fuel initial contact making. Features as the retweet, the favourite, the repin, the +1 etc. are the grease of initial social interaction on large platforms. They facilitate low threshold communication; communication is the wrong word, and even contact is not covering it. It is something between a mere ping, recognition and contact. But it is crucial to enable interaction of users and spreadability of content in social media.

Your research is interesting for the ways that it combines large-scale/quantiative “sentiment analysis” tools with more qualitative use of cultural theory. Does this reflect different skill sets within the team of researchers? Are there any insights you’d like to share about mixed methods research growing out of this project?

I’m teaching at a media studies department within the Utrecht University humanities faculty, where usually qualitative research methods are paramount. But researching new media where any user activity produces data that can be analyzed stimulates to employ those data for research. These digital methods -as Richard Rogers has dubbed them- are invaluable expansion of our tool set. In the meantime many applications are available and many more are underway. Commercial platforms provide tools, but also the two main pioneering groups in this area, Manovich’s Cultural Analytics  and Roger’s Digital Methods Initiative  provide handy tools on their websites. For our Utrecht Data School  we teamed up with Buzzcapture  as a technological partner that supports our research actively with tools for data aggregation and social media data analysis. We conduct research concerning specific questions for our partners from public administrations, NGO’s and corporations. However, we take the liberty of asking different questions than the partners posed, or approach things from different angle.

I can see that student teams quickly develop a sort of division of labor, where scraping of data, working in spreadsheets, visualizing data and networks are carried out by different members of a team. We try to prevent this as far as possible, because we want all students to be involved in the entire process of the research project from scraping the data, cleaning up the data and preparing them for analysis and visualization to interpretation and contextualization. However, this is not easy, as there are indeed many specific tasks that require specialized knowledge and skills.

This work is inherently interdisciplinary. Software developers, computer scientists, data scientists, statisticians and also data journalists are great to team up with for different research projects. We frequently invite colleagues from very different areas to participate in the Utrecht Data School, either through directly contributing to a project or to teach students.

To the humanities researcher this development is exciting for two reasons: data analysis and visualization produces new insights in the online phenomena we are investigating. But through conducting these tools and methods we learn also about their role in epistemic processes. Our knowledge society increasingly thrives on computed results and automated information processing. The computer generated infographics appear persuasively convincing. It is therefore important to develop literacy that allows us to use the tools but also to be informed about their limitations and their persuasive effect. In view of your concerns about techno-determinism -which I share- I want to emphasize that we deliberately want them to develop critical understanding for the role of information technology in our epistemic processes.

We also want them to experience how unstable, how experimental and exploratory our research activities are. Although we think the results are often compelling, we want to keep up a healthy skepticism and remain open for doing things differently. We are also aware that we are in a data-rich environment, but that unfortunately research can appear analysis-poor. And I think it is necessary for the emerging ‘digital humanities’ to make this skepticism an inherent part of their use of information technology.

Mirko Tobias Schäfer is assistant professor of new media and digital culture at the University of Utrecht (Netherlands) and research fellow at Vienna University of Applied Arts. He blogs at www.mtschaefer.net.

Bastard Culture!: An Interview with Mirko Tobias Schäfer (Part One)

It says something about the compartmentalization of academic culture that I only belatedly discovered Mirko Tobias Schäfer’s Bastard Culture!: How User Participation Transforms Cultural Production (published by Amsterdam University Press in 2011) — a work which poses some important critiques of the concept of participatory culture, especially as it relates to recent developments around Web 2.0 and social media. Schäfer, based in the Netherlands, represents an important tradition of critical theory about new media which has emerged most emphatically from Europe and which should be better known among those of us working within the United States.

As we discuss here, he is especially interested in the ways that technological designs constrain or limit our participation, rendering it less meaningful, commodifying it, in ways that run directly counter to the explicit rhetoric about expanding participation and empowering users. Read closely, Schäfer’s work still embraces the value of democratic participation, yet he wants to hold companies, and scholars, to a high standard in terms of what constitutes meaningful forms of participation, and he is eager to push us beyond the first wave of enthusiastic response to these new affordances in order to look more closely and critically about how they are actually used. As my interview here suggests, there are points of disagreement between us, but there is also much common ground to be explored, and there is an urgent need for researchers from different critical and disciplinary perspectives to be working together to refine our understanding of the current media landscape. I had the pleasure of sitting down with Mirko at the recent Media in Transition conference at MIT and look forward to many future exchanges.

Having last week featured an interview with the editors of The Participatory Culture Handbook, I want to continue this focus on new theories of  participation by sharing this recent exchange I had with Schäfer.  I have come away with an even deeper respect and admiration for Schäfer’s nuanced critique of digital participation. The first installments of this interview involve looking backward to his Bastard Culture book, exploring the convergences and divergences in our thinking, and reflecting on how the debates around digital media have shifted since 2011. The closing segment shares more recent work Schäfer and his colleagues at Utrecht University have been doing using “big data” processes (in combination with more qualitative approaches) to better understand the kinds of social relations that are taking shape on Twitter.

The title of your book, “Bastard Culture,” is meant to suggest the ways that the worlds of users and producers, consumers and corporations, are “intertwined” or “blended” in the era of Web 2.0. I suspect we would agree that understanding the relations between these terms remains a central challenge in contemporary cultural theory. The goal is, as you suggest, to “provide an analysis that is not blurred by either utopian or cultural pessimistic assumptions.” Are we any closer to developing such an analysis today than we were when you first published Bastard Culture? If so, which contemporary accounts do you think help us to achieve this more balanced perspective?

It was indeed my goal to point out the general heterogeneity of online culture as well as to deconstruct the overly enthusiastic connotation of participation. Especially in academic discourse the unconditional enthusiasm for the so-called social media has cooled down by now. We can see important contributions criticizing social media platforms for their lack of cultural freedom (e.g. strict content monitoring), breach of privacy and their commercial use of user activities and user data.

I like to distinguish this critique in three general approaches, which separately focus on a) free labour, b) privacy issues and c) the public sphere quality of social media.

Drawing from Marxist theory these authors -among others Trebor Scholz, Mark Andrejewich, Christian Fuchs and partially Geert Lovink- criticize social media platforms for generating an unacknowledged surplus value from user activities and for determining effectively the scope of user activities in order to maximize commercial results. Scholz’s programmatic publication The Internet as Playground and as Factory is a strong example of this approach.

The strict regulations imposed by platform providers in combination with excessive data aggregation on users and their online activities sparked criticism concerning the lack of privacy by Michael Zimmer, Christian Fuchs and others. The general threat of surveillance -exerted by state authorities- has been convincingly addressed and criticized by Ronald Deibert, Evgeny Morozov, Wendy Chun, Jonathan Zittrain and others.

The public quality of interaction and communication on social media platforms has been described by Stefan Münker as “emerging digital publics”. Framing social media as a public sphere is not highly developed, but it provides in my opinion the most intriguing approach to understanding social media platforms and their impact on society.

Yes, I think we have made some progress in describing media practices more accurately and to give up on media myths that constituted the legend of new media as emancipating users. And this plays even out in the realm of the more general public. In Germany, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung -a conservative/market-liberal newspaper- calls for a society-wide debate on technology and provides a platform for members of Computer Chaos Club to criticize technocratic policies and short-sighted understanding of technology and media. Evgeny Morozov is also doing an excellent job with his crusade against techno-populism; or think of Jaron Laniers superb critique of imprudent media use and hasty enthusiasm. It is absolutely crucial to have these debates within the popular discourse, as it is the popular discourse that shapes the general understanding of technology. That is why I have tremendous respect for scholars who are able to reach out to general audiences and to translate complex issues in accessible language.

As you note, participation has become an increasingly problematic word that is used by many different people in support of many different and often contradictory claims about the relationship between new media technologies and consumer empowerment. What steps can we make to reclaim participatory culture as a productive category for cultural analysis?

My objective was to deconstruct the ideological connotation as well as the emotional charge of ‘participation’. Recently, we can see a similar problem with the metaphor ‘social media’. It fuels a misunderstanding of media and media practices and it structurally obscure the agency of technology (the back-end as well as the user interface), power structures and economic factors.

In my opinion, it would be already helpful to pay close attention to the language we use to describe media and media practices. Many scholars can easily identify with emancipation, anti-hegemonic attitude and political activism. However, in our enthusiasm we tend to overestimate certain practices and misrepresent media use. We have therefore to take off our blinkers. I often tell my students, that if you really like your object of research, the chance is high for making mistakes and for neglecting important facts that would distort your picture.

That’s funny. I tell my students that when you start from too critical perspective, it will be easy to flatten or simplify the phenomenon you are studying, to not look very deeply for redeeming or contradictory features, and to not take seriously what the activity might mean for those who embrace it.

Of course I agree. Being too critical is just as distorting as being too enthusiastic. What is needed is curious interest and willingness to get to the bottom of things, even if it will change your previous view of them. And research methods provide useful ways to do so.

‘Participatory culture’ can serve as productive category for cultural analysis if scholars distance themselves from their personal appreciation of media practices that might be close to their hearts but not necessarily representative for online culture. This would help to recognize the heterogeneity of the phenomenon we call participation as well as the ambiguity of technology. Taking technological aspects thoroughly into account, using ‘digital methods’ and putting case examples into perspective of the broader picture will help to do so.

The forms of participation which interest me the most are explicit participation — that is, places where people are making conscious decisions to create media or otherwise communicate with each other about issues of mutual concern. Can you explain what you mean by implicit participation and how it relates to the claims being made by Web 2.0 companies to support participation? In what sense is it meaningful to describe “implicit participation” as participation? What are we participating within?

With implicit participation I describe how platform providers have integrated user activities into easy to use interface design and eventually implemented into business models. Implicit participation describes how user activities are channeled through the platform provider’s design decisions. This ranges from interface elements as the like-button, the incentive of views on Flickr or YouTube to strategies where user unknowingly participate in additional functions of the feature they are using on a platform. The reCAPTCHA is an example of implicit participation where information provided by users for accessing a web feature is re-used in a completely different context. Many so-called gamification practices are examples of implicit participation.

I would argue that the popular ‘social media’ platforms thrive on implicit participation. It reduces consequently their dependence on intrinsic motivation, which is so crucial in explicit participation. Explicit participation becomes merely optional. The key is to lower the threshold and encourage the generic production of content, through creating data by simply using the platform’s features or by spreading or multiplying content through the easy-to-use features of reproduction: retweet, repin, share etc. or to interact through ephemeral features as the like button. We will see many more and far better forms of implicit participation integrated into web platforms in future.

A key difference between our perspectives is that you place a much greater focus on the ways that technologies enable or constrain participation, where-as I primarily discuss the social and cultural motives which shape how people use technologies. Let’s assume we both believe that both technology and culture have played a role in defining the present moment as one where issues of participation are increasingly central to our understanding of the world. I would argue that there is a difference in understanding technology in terms of affordances and in terms of determinents, given the degree to which technologies are, as you note, subject to various forms of appropriation and redefinition once they have been designed and given that digital media can be re-coded and reprogrammed, even at the grassroots level, by those committed to alternative visions of social change. I worry, though, that ascribing too much power to technology results in models of technological determinism, which make certain outcomes seem inevitable. There has been such a strong tendency in this direction over the past several decades, whether critics worrying that Google has made us stupid, or advocates talking about the democratizing effects of the internet. Thoughts?

I am also worried about a simplified view of ‘technological effects’. Especially in the popular discourse. there is a plethora of short sighted publications on the potential benefits or downsides of technological development. However, I would not argue that those perspectives inquire the technology but abuse it as a black box that facilitates whatever effect they wish to see unfold. In opposite to scholars, those writers are in the business of selling books, not in the business of conducting research.

I do not think that I am supporting a techno-determinist perspective by investigating technological qualities and by paying attention to the way design affects user activities. The popular ‘social media’ applications teach us, that we have so far underestimated the role of interface design, back-end politics and API regulation in the cultural production and social interaction playing out on these platforms. I can’t possibly neglect that power also comes in shape of technology or as Andrew Feenberg put it: “technology is the key to cultural power”. I am not focused on technology as determining on its own account, but on its agency in close interrelation with designers, users, ownership structures, and media discourses, and others actors.


While my primary emphasis in talking about participatory culture might be described as symbolic appropriation (i.e. the manipulation of narratives, characters, symbols, icons, or brands), the central focus of your analysis is on “hacking” the material dimensions of technology, including, for example, game modifications or free software efforts. We might extend this focus to include a broader array of other material practices — including Makers and Crafters — who are central to current discussions of digital culture. What do you see as the consequences of this shift in focus in terms of our understanding of how participation works or what a more participatory culture looks like?

What I really liked about Textual Poachers was that you compellingly showed how open media texts are, not only to interpretation as Fiske had pointed out, but directly to ‘material’ appropriation and how it contributed to an entire field of cultural production. The world wide web then made the textual poachers explicitly visible, for marketeers and the general public. The second aspect I find important, and unfortunately this aspect is frequently overlooked, is that you outlined the history and the predecessors of today’s read-write culture. With the maker culture similar debates concerning ‘poaching’ will unfold. We will see a new debate on copyrights and corporations will go out of their way to protect their designs from being ‘printed’. There will be attempts by providers of 3D printers to control the device and its use. I would assume that the dynamics which I have dubbed confrontation, implementation and integration will play out in relation to the makers culture as well. The recent debates on MakerBot’s decision to deviate from the open-source model indicate an attempt of implementation.


As you note, the initial wave of excitement about participatory culture has been met with strong critiques focused on issues of free labor and data mining as forms of exploiting the popular desire for more meaningful participation. Can you describe some of the ways that users have sought to assert their own claims on the technology in the face of their ownership and exploitation by the creative industries?

It’s remarkable that dissent with a corporate platform plays out in quite traditional forms of protest and petition. On Facebook users ‘like’ petitions that represent their claim for better privacy regulations, or they formulate a Social Media Bill of Rights, call for a QuitFacebookDay etc.

There are other examples such as the Social Media Suicide Machine which allows users to delete their profiles. Then there are alternatives to the commercial web platforms and services. Diaspora was heralded as the Facebook killer and is now depict as a barrel burst. The UnlikeUs conference has been established as a platform for critics of ‘social media monopolies’ to connect and to discuss alternatives. But we can also see that civil right groups and privacy advocates lobby on behalf of users. However, I am afraid that the majority of the users can’t be bothered with these issues.

You conclude the book with this important statement: “We must not sit on our hands while cultural resources are exploited and chances for enhancing education and civil liberties are at stake.” This seems like a powerful statement of what’s at stake in debates about participatory culture. So, what forms of action do you think we can or should take as scholars and as public intellectuals to respond to this situation?

The easy to use interfaces of the social web stimulated a new large group of users to use the world wide web. It also put the web again on the agenda of policy makers to regulate, to control and to monitor user activities. Designed as advertiser-friendly platforms, social media inherently provide the possibility for user assessment and control through API’s which are already routinely used by law enforcement. We can also see how the powerful companies as among others Apple, Facebook, Google and Amazon affect cultural freedom on the web. Facebook’s prudery appears (especially to us Europeans) as astonishingly weird and hostile to culture and freedom of expression. However, since social media platforms have emerged as an expanded public sphere, the censorship of items that might distort the rosy world-view of advertisers and the naivete of uninformed users is appalling. I would not mind if those platforms were a shopping mall somewhere in the margins of the world wide web, but they increasingly become a center part of the web and therefore an important role in our public sphere.

Unsurprisingly, Facebook is the poster boy for policy makers when thinking about eGovernance or other fancily dubbed forms of harmless civic participation. Facebook promises a dangerously safe way of dealing with citizens as their implicit participation features render participation into an easy-to-handle commodity that provides participation as a mere lip-service. Something, that even in democratic societies is still very appealing to policy makers.

What we need, is a society-wide debate on technology and its role in society. We need to discuss to what extent we accept platforms to distort the view upon reality by creating an controversy-free and advertiser-friendly filter bubble.

Mirko Tobias Schäfer is assistant professor of new media and digital culture at the University of Utrecht (Netherlands) and research fellow at Vienna University of Applied Arts. He blogs at www.mtschaefer.net.

What Do We Know About Participatory Cultures: An Interview with Aaron Delwiche and Jennifer Jacobs Henderson (Part Three)

As your book illustrates, participatory culture is a global phenomenon, but so far, most of the research has focused on participatory culture in the English speaking world, and mostly, in the United States. What might we learn about participatory culture if we expanded our investigation to consider, for example, the Global South?

At one time, we had an excuse for such oversights.  We researched where we lived because it was physically and financially prohibitive to do otherwise.  This is no longer the case. There is no doubt that some of the most interesting participatory cultures are situated far beyond North America and it is time we all start looking closely at those cultures.

We are also optimistic that this imbalance will begin to be righted during the coming decade as youth across the globe synthesize social awareness, fluency in multiple languages, and expertise in communication technologies.  We predict (or at least hope for) a flood of research efforts on participatory cultures in the next ten years.

Addressing the geographical research gap is essential if we are to better understand and act upon the potential power of participatory cultures.  Since the emergence of fan studies in the 1980s, we (academic researchers) have built a robust body of literature on participatory fan cultures.  The same can be said for research on participatory democracy and budgeting as well as online gaming cultures.  There are enormous gaps in the literature, though, as far as other participatory cultures are concerned.

This is one reason that we chose to expand the boundaries of our book beyond the field of communication and invited authors who could speak to fields and cultures with lengthy and diverse research agendas – for example, poetry and literature, science, social action.  If we are lucky enough to publish a second collection, currently under-researched geographic locations and topical areas will be a primary focus.

What do you see as some of the major hurdles before we are going to be able to achieve a more participatory culture? What are the most important battles right now in terms of defining the terms of our participation?

As with other institutionalized problems, we must change the perceived value of participation.  This shift must occur in everything from education to economic structures.  For example, students are told they have violated the Honor Code if they work with others to find solutions to a homework assignment.  Team members are rarely rewarded equally for workplace outcomes (team “leaders” always get paid more).  Diplomacy is seen as less valuable than conquering.  We don’t expect participation to gain value overnight.  Power is diminished or at least transformed when it is divided, and we all know there are many people who would like to hold on to their power.

Altering the perception of participation is particularly challenging in cultures that value individualism over collectivism.  We do believe this perception is shifting, if only slightly.  In recent years have we begun to hear public figures talk about the possibility of making money and doing good, of elected officials articulating a basic standard of health and opportunity, and of parents questioning the value of memorization rather than participation in their children’s education.

How might we increase the value given to diversity and dissent within participatory cultures? Is there a danger that such communities tend to be consensus-based and thus are more apt to exclude people who persistently disagree with shared goals and values?

We do not value diversity and dissent as much as we can and should in participatory cultures. Many people do not see online spaces as open and inviting.  In fact, “incivility” and “nastiness” are the concerns most often voiced in opposition to participatory engagement.  Honestly, it’s hard to convince people otherwise when the “comments” sections of spaces such as YouTube and CNN are filled with illogical, unsupportive, and hateful commentary.

Consensus is hard to come by these days; in fact, it is much harder than in years past. This is both a good thing and bad thing. Our touch points of shared experience (mediated and otherwise) are far less than even one generation ago.  Reading and relying only on opinions with which we agree has become commonplace.   Combine this echo-chamber reality with online anonymity and you face an impressive foe.

So, on one side we have an age of disagreement mingling with anonymity and on the other we have cultures that derive success from consensus.  Diversity and dissent can get lost on either side.  Only a culture that can instill the value of listening survives this war.  And we all know that listening is tough, especially when people feel they have something important (or more insightful) to say.

This delicate balance of agreement is what sustains hope in some participatory cultures and destroys others. The strongest participatory cultures are ones in which all voices carry the same weight, all opinions are heard, and all ideas are deliberated.  The weakest participatory cultures are those that allow the crush of consensus or the minority voice to dominate.  Participatory cultures are difficult to build and maintain but, when they work, they are extremely powerful forces in the lives of their participants and across society at large.

 

The book closes with an ethical framework for thinking about participatory culture. What do you see as the core values which might govern an ethics of participation? What mechanisms might exist for inspiring greater ethical reflection within existing and emerging participatory cultures?

 

Almost all ethical frameworks are grounded in the concept of selflessness.  Almost all activities in online participatory cultures are inherently self-centered.  We read. We search. We post. We share.  Most often we do these things for us, not for any greater good.  It might not be easy to flip the switch from selfishness to selflessness in these spaces, but we do see stronger communities where the balance has tipped.

We could begin a movement toward selflessness by gently nudging participants in online communities to consider others in their visual and rhetorical choices.  The ethics chapter of the Handbook calls on people to start standing up for each other in online communities – to take on flamers and to support those who are ridiculed.  Encouraging constructive responses would also help with this move from selfishness to selflessness.  We see this work well on fan fiction sites where member read, help edit, and provide encouragement to fellow writers.

Quite honestly, ethical reflection occurs infrequently.  Most ethicists would claim you need at least five steps to make a good decision: identification of the ethical problem, acknowledgment of the parties involved and your loyalties to each, conscious deliberation, purposeful action, and reflection.  The current ethical decision-making process is most often reduced to just two steps: act and justify those actions. We could make participatory cultures more ethical if we could convince people to engage in even the briefest contemplation prior to posting, uploading, or commenting.  This is something few people do and more should.

Critical studies writers, including the Janissary Collective, featured in the collection, express concern that participation is illusionary and coercive, that we only participate on the terms which powerful groups allow us. What might those of us advocating for a more participatory culture learn from those critiques? 

If one believes that human history provides examples of ever-greater participation, and if one accepts that there are more opportunities for political, economic, and cultural participation than ever before, it is easy to get caught up in idealistic fervor. If we drink too deeply of our own theoretical Kool-Aid, we become irrelevant at best and tyrannical at worst. Critiques such as those authored by Janissary Collective and the British cultural critic Paul Taylor are invaluable because they remind us that things are never that simple.

There are many version of pessimistic critique in cultural studies and critical theory. One variant argues that that democracy is hopeless. According to this view, attempts to foster greater participation and inclusion are the enemy of individual freedom. As expressed by the Janissary Collective, this position holds that “participatory culture can never provide the basis for the good life – in fact, it can be its worst enemy” (p. 264).

A second form of pessimism presents itself as even more negative about participatory culture, but there is a glimmering ember of optimism lurking beneath the surface. This view does not argue that democracy is intrinsically flawed. Rather, it unleashes withering criticism of those thinkers and activists who gloss over the many ways that participatory culture and participatory technologies are abused, exploited, and farcically celebrated by political and economic elites. When Paul Taylor observes “whether interacting in a self-consciously local fashion as consumers of lattes or technologically as hackers of computer systems… we are all perhaps still ultimately passive” (p.255), he implicitly mourns the loss of authentic participatory culture.

Both critiques are essential. The “democracy is hopeless” position reminds us that we must respect the individual right to resist participation. The “participatory culture is a web of false promises” position helps us diagnose where the dream risks becoming a nightmare. Embedded in the passionate prose of Taylor’s piece, participatory culture activists can tease out guideposts that will help us determine our next steps.

Aaron Alan Delwiche (Ph.D., University of Washington) is an associate professor in the Department of Communication at Trinity University. His research interests include participatory culture, intergenerational gaming, and wearable computing. In 2009, with support from the Lennox Foundation, he organized the lecture series Reality Hackers: The Next Wave of Media Revolutionaries. In 2010, he delivered a talk titled “We are all programmers now” at TEDx San Antonio. He is also co-editor of the The Participatory Cultures Handbook (2012).

Dr. Jennifer Jacobs Henderson (Ph.D., University of Washington) is an associate professor and chair of the Department of Communication at Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas.  Her research addresses the boundaries of speech in media and participatory cultures as well as the ethics of this speech.  Jennifer is the author of the 2010 book Defending the Good News: The Jehovah’s Witnesses and Their Plan to Expand the First Amendment and co-editor of the The Participatory Cultures Handbook (2012).