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).