Networked Publics Group Tackles Participatory Culture

The Networked Public group at USC's Annenberg Center recently posted a fascinating new essay on participatory culture, written by Adrienne Russell, Mimi Ito, Todd Richmond, and Marc Tuters. The group has been conducting conversations with leading thinkers about contemporary media and is now putting its collective heads together to jointly author a new book for the MIT Press. I was lucky enough to be included in the process, having an animated two hour conversation with them after they had read an advanced copy of Convergence Culture.

I was pleased to see that they had taken some of my insights to heart, expanding and enlarging on some of my book's arguments about participatory culture and linking it in productive ways with ideas from Yochai Benkler's The Wealth of Networks: How Social Production Transforms Markets and Freedom.

Convergence and Media Change

Here's what they have to say in the essay's conclusion:

"Convergence culture is not only a matter of industry and technology but also more importantly a matter of norms, common culture, and the artistry of everyday life. Professional commercial media brought us a slick common culture that has become a fact of life, the language of current events, shared cultural reference, and visual recognitions that lubricate our everyday interactions with one another. Commercial media, for better and for worse provide much of the source material for our modern language of communication. The current moment is perhaps less about overthrow of this established modality of common culture, but more a plea for recognition of a new layer of communication and cultural sharing. At best, this is about folk, amateur, niche and non-market communities of cultural production mobilizing, critiquing, remixing commercial media and functioning as a test bed for radically new cultural forms. At worst, this is about the fragmenting of common culture or the decay of shared standards of quality, professionalism, and accountability. The history of networked public culture has opened with a narrative of convergence and participatory culture; we lie at the crossroads of multiple unfolding trajectories."

The group describes our present moment as one where both grassroots and commercial interests are adjusting to some profound shifts in the relationship between media production and consumption brought about by the rise of networked media. The new media landscape, they argue drawing on Benkler, is characterized by a proliferation of different groups (some grassroots and amateur, some civic or public funded or educational, some commercial) which are producing and distributing content and by new kinds of social communities which are emerging to produce, evaluate, and discuss new forms of culture and new forms of knowledge. The era when commercial media dominated the marketplace of ideas is ending -- even if the mass media continues to exert a disproportionate claim on our collective attention. The commercial industry is reacting with great anxiety and often limited foresight, trying to shut down many of the opportunities which are emerging as the public exerts a greater control over the circulation and production of media. Yet, they are being forced to give ground again and again as fan communities are beginning to operate as collective bargaining units. Those interests which can not adjust to the changes become increasingly imperiled.

Transforming the Music Industry

At the heart, the essay outlines a series of compelling case studies of the interface between commercial and public culture -- including discussions of how amateur music is being reshaped by new technologies of production and distribution, how anime fans are partnering with Asian media interests to get their desired content into the market, how Madison Avenue is learning -- mostly by making mistakes -- ways to tap viral marketing, and how the journalistic establishment is struggling to adjust to the competition and critique offered by the blogosphere.

For my money, the discussion of amateur music production was perhaps the most interesting, if only because it is the area that I know the least about going in. The authors argue that "music has always been a domain of robust amateur production, making it particularly amenable to more bottom-up forms of production and distribution in the digital ecology, and ripe for the disintermediation of labels and licensors....As late as 2001 the prevailing wisdom described local/amateur music being considered by fans, scholars, and musicians alike as 'something to get beyond.' In other words, the end game for the artist was still 'getting signed' and following the traditional industry model, with the time-honored decision-making chain. However as the lines further blur, remix becomes embedded into the culture (even beyond music), and technological changes continue to occur, it would appear that perhaps "getting beyond" might no longer be the goal."

The Saga of the Legendary K.O.

Reading this passage, I was reminded of recent news about how the hip hop community in Houston was using web distribution of music to respond to the aftermath of Katrina. The Legendary K.O., a little known Houston based group, used their music to express what they were hearing from the refuges that were pouring into their city. Randle lives near the Astrodome and Nickerson works at the Houston Convention center. Both found themselves listening to refuges tell their stories: "Not till you see these people face to face and talk to them can you appreciate the level of hopelessness. The one common feeling was that they felt abandoned, on their own little island." They found their refrain while watching Kanye West accuse Bush of being indifferent to black Americans during a Red Cross Telethon being broadcast live on NBC. The juxtaposition of West's anger and comedian Mike Myer's shock encapsulated the very different ways Americans understood what happened.

The Legendary K.O. sampled West's hit song, "Golddigger," to provide the soundtrack for their passionate account of what it was like to be a black man trying to make do in the deserted streets of New Orleans. They distributed the song, "George Bush Doesn't Care About Black People" as a free download and it spread like wildfire. The song has been perhaps the most powerful demonstration to date of Chuck D's prediction that free downloads could turn hip hop into "the black man's CNN," offering an alternative perspective to mainstream news coverage and thus enabling communication between geographically dispersed corners of the Black America. Within a few weeks time, the song had in effect gone platinum, achieving more than a million downloads, largely on the back of promotion by bloggers. And soon, people around the world were appropriating and recontextualizing news footage to create their own music videos. The song may have started in Houston, framed around both local knowledge and national media representations, but where it was going to end up was anybody's guess. They have since used their reputations to produce more songs which speak to topical concerns, especially those facing the black communities of Houston and New Orleans.

The Legend of Grizzly Bear

I was also reminded of the story of Grizzly Bear, one of the young artists which my student, Vanessa Bertozzi interviewed for a project we were doing together. Grizzly Bear created music in his own bedroom, making imaginative use of found objects, and deploying low-cost but highly effective digital tools to record and manipulate the sound. He tapped local networks to get his music out into the world via mp3 files and into the hands of a record company executive. He ended up getting a contract without ever having performed in public and then faced the challenge of putting together a band to go on the road and perform in public.

I suspect we will be hearing many more stories about groups like The Legendary K.O. and performers like Grizzly Bear in the years to come -- more groups coming from nowhere and exerting some influence on our culture. As these two examples suggest, sometimes these artists are going to be making and distributing music -- and building up a loyal fan base -- almost entirely outside the commercial sphere and beyond the control of record labels. In other cases, they are going to find labels to be effective allies in getting their sounds before a larger public. It is the hybrid nature of this new communications landscape which is central to Convergence Culture and to the Networked Public group's essay.