From Participatatory Culture to Participatory Democracy (Part Two)

Yesterday, I ran the first part of the text of my keynote address to the Beyond Broadcast conference. I conclude the text in today's installment.

Vote Naked

An advertisement for the Webby Awards, given in recognition for outstanding contributions to digital culture, depicts a pair of feminine bare feet with what would seem to be a blurry bed in the background. Its slogan was "vote naked." Ever since I first saw that advertisement, I have been intrigued by what it might mean to "vote naked." Might this be what democracy looks like? The advertisement suggests that the computer now allows us to conduct the most public of actions within the privacy of our own home in whatever state of dress or undress we desire. More than that, the image and slogan invites us to imagine a time when we are as comfortable in our roles as citizens as we are within our own skins, when politics may be a familiar, everyday, and intimate aspect of our daily lives much the way popular culture is today. We watch television in our underwear; we dress up to vote. All of this is to say that we too often treat American Democracy as a special event (organizing around elections, bemoaning the outcome, and then crawling back into our holes for another four years) rather than as a lifestyle. Redrawing the lines between participatory culture and participatory democracy might give us a way to revitalize citizenship, making it a meaningful aspect of our everyday lives, rather than as something we try to ignore as long as possible. This is an idea that I flesh out more fully (no pun intended) in the final chapters of Convergence Culture.

Here are a few other key concepts that we might draw from Convergence Culture into the current discussion of Democracy:

1. Convergence is a cultural rather than a technological process. We now live in a world where every story, image, sound, idea, brand, and relationship will play itself out across all possible media platforms. As such, the system creates many points where it is vulnerable to intervention, appropriation, repurposing, and recontextualizing its contents towards political purposes.

2. In a networked society, people are increasingly forming knowledge communities to pool information and work together to solve problems they could not confront individually. We call that collective intelligence. The political potential of collective intelligence might be recognized through a closer examination of the Wikipedia movement. Wikipedia has developed strong ethical standards that enable people with wildly divergent beliefs to work together towards a common project; they focus on the shared infrastructure that they all need in order to achieve their aims rather than on the individual points of disagreement; the Wikipedia movement provides them with meaningful mechanisms that allow for the reconciliation between competing truth claims and the co-existence of differing perspectives.

3. We are seeing the emergence of a new form of participatory culture (a contemporary version of folk culture) as consumers take media in their own hands, reworking its content to serve their personal and collective interests. It will come as no surprise to regular readers of this blog that I consider Second Life to be one of the most powerful embodiments of this new participatory culture -- a whole world that is being constructed bottom up through the collective and individual efforts of participants.

In the white paper we wrote for MacArthur, I offer the following definition of a Participatory Culture:

1. there are relatively low barriers to artistic expression and civic engagement

2. there is strong support for creating and sharing what you create with others

3. there is some kind of informal mentorship whereby what is known by the most experienced gets passed along to newbies and novices

4. members feel that their contributions matter

5. members feel some degree of social connection with each other at least to the degree to which they care what other people think about what they have created.

Not every member needs to contribute but all need to feel that they are free to contribute when they are ready and that what they contribute will be appropriately valued if they do.

In such a world, many will only dabble; some will dig deeper; and still others will master the skills that are most valued within the community. But the community itself provides strong incentives for creative expression and active participation.

In the white paper, my focus was primarily on various communities of fans, gamers, and bloggers, many of whom are involved in creative expression, yet this description might also apply to various projects that are designed to promote real world civic engagement.

Don't let anyone tell you that participatory culture is new or that it has not made earlier contributions to the evolution of American democracy. We know, for example, that teenagers were using toy printing presses to produce what we might now call zines during the Civil War period, using them as vehicles to debate abolitionism and secession in publications that they circulated through an Amateur Press Association. We might similarly point to the various kinds of civic activities that young people were engaged with during the early history of American radio at a time when it was expected that there might be as many transmitters as receivers. Youth groups, such as the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, embraced amateur radio as a site of community service and civic engagement. The Radio Merit Badge was one of the very first created and was once central to what it meant to be a Scout. When the Federal Communications Commission sought to shift radio towards a medium of corporate broadcasting, they did so by vilifying the "boys in short pants," suggesting that young people had misused the public airwaves and that the experiment with participatory media had failed. Today, both of these earlier experiments in participatory culture have been written out of the history of American politics but they offer us valid historical antecedents for today's blogs, podcasts, and video-blogs. (For a useful history of the amateur radio movement, check out Susan Douglas's Inventing American Broadcasting, 1899-1922.)

4. We are acquiring skills now through our play, which we will later apply towards more serious ends. Indeed, we are again and again seeing examples of entertainment technologies being repurposed for more citizenly ends. So, no sooner did the game, The Movies, hit the market with its promise of allowing players to create their own cinema than it was picked up by student activists in Paris and used to explain to the world their particular vision of French Democracy. Moveon's "Bush in 30 Seconds" contest took its model from the reality television series, Project Greenlight, and took advantage of the skills that young people had developed through the years putting together fan or skateboarder videos. Meetup was created as a vehicle for trading beanie babies and is today deployed by all kinds of interest groups, but it has also become a staple of political campaigns and was a hallmark of the Howard Dean effort in 2004.

YouTube may be the distribution channel for Lonelygirl15 and for college kids around the world who want to lip-sync with boy band songs, but it has also been a system by which amateur news footage of incidents like the tasering of the UCLA student by the campus police may gain much greater visibility and circulation. Indeed, we are just beginning to see the kinds of grassroots documentary work that can emerge in a world where almost everyone has both a camera and a video recorder built into their mobile phones and thus carries media production equipment with them where-ever they go. We can already point to the ways that these mobile cameras have changed public perceptions of the Bush administration's handling of Katrina. Early news reports were largely favorable since reporters were embedded in the teams of rescue workers but a different image of the events emerged as refuges started to tell their stories and upload amateur images of the same events. Others used Flickr and other photosharing sites to deconstruct and critique news media coverage of the incident, showing for example the different kinds of language used to describe the same actions taken by white ("finding bread and soda") and black refuges ("looting a grocery store.") These new communication platforms taught many of us to read past the official accounts and led to a significant decline in Bush's public support.

The Downsides of Participation

Of course, we should also look critically at some of the ways that these emerging models of participatory culture are being used in ways that are destructive to civic engagement. In many ways, as I discuss in the book, the candidates lost control of their own campaigns in 2004 to "truth squads" and bloggers who were often willing to be more negative than the official party spokesperson were willing to go. The result was an increasingly brutal campaign process, marked by partisan divisions that are very difficult for us to resolve once it comes time to actually govern this country. If participatory culture offers us a sense of empowerment as citizens take media in their own hands, there are also risks that it will prove more divisive as everyday people get sucked into the most negative aspects of the campaign.

An interesting case in point might be the use of photoshop collages as a form of political satire. We might see such transparently manipulated images as a kind of modern equivalent of editorial cartoons, translating political events into vivid, compelling, and amusing images which insure their wider circulation. In a high number of cases, these cartoons deploy images from popular culture to help the public understand the stakes of the political process. Already we are seeing images start to emerge of the candidates for the next campaign. A strikingly high percentage of them appeal to sexism (in dealing with Hillary Clinton) and racism, not to mention Xenophobia, (in dealing with Barack Obama). Some of these images are too offensive to be circulated in the mainstream media (though I wouldn't bet on it: the new Fox comedy news show had a skit about "B.O. [Barack Obama] Magazine" as part of its sample reel!) but they appeal to the urge towards politically incorrect speech that shapes so much of the participatory culture online. We will benefit as a society by broadening the range of perspectives on political life through tapping this new participatory culture but only if, at the same time, we foster civility and mutual respect as a cornerstone of our political discourse.

What We Should Fight For...

In the aftermath of the last presidential campaign, one widely circulated cartoon depicted America as divided -- more or less permanently -- between "Jesusland" and "The United States of Canada." At some point, we need to move beyond the cultural divide between Red and Blue States and try to provide some shared framework of values, some common social contract upon which democracy can function. I have personally found inspiration in the widely circulated image of the results of the 2004 elections not in terms of red and blue states but rather as a series of different shades of purple and maroon that reflect the mix of Republican and Democratic voters state by state.

Ideally, a participatory democracy supports the formation of coalitions across parties and across political categories, allowing people to work together to support those things which are absolutely essential if Democracy is going to thrive. We need, in other words, to work together to insure for the survival of participatory culture itself. (There will, of course, being other debates that are more divisive, debates which deploy the tools offered by participatory culture to try to sway voters in opposing directions, and this too is at the heart of a democratic culture.)

If privacy was in many ways the central political struggle of the late 20th century, manifested in a range of different political debates (from Gay Rights to Abortion), then participation may be the core battle of the early 21st century. Our right to participate in our own culture is being held hostage both by big government and by big industry and we need to adopt a multiple front strategy that will allow us to hold open a space for participation. The current media reform movement is focused on empowering the government to regulate media concentration but has had much less to say about the ways that the government itself encroaches into our rights to participate. This struggle manifests itself in a variety of different debates. On the one hand, we might point to struggles over the regulation of youth access to digital media in the face of regulatory efforts, such as the Deleting Online Predators Act or its revamping as The Protecting Children in the 21st Century Act. We might point to struggles to redefine copyright law in terms which enable us to comment upon and debate core aspects of our contemporary culture. We might point to the debates around Net Neutrality as centering around preserving the technical infrastructure necessary for allowing all perspectives to be heard and the ongoing struggle against the Digital Divide (understood in terms of technical access) and the Participation Gap (understood in terms of access to core social skills and cultural competencies) as one which allows all citizens to fully participate in the new media landscape.

As we do so, we need to challenge the culture war discourse and the politics of fear which disempowers many from political participation by dismissing core aspects of their cultural identities. For many of us, popular culture offers us the most meaningful language for talking about our political identities and it may offer us a space for conversations across ideological and cultural differences in part because these conversations don't come precoded in partisan terms. To paraphrase Obama, we watch 24 in the Blue States and The Daily Show in the Red States and by discussing these programs together, we may start to identify common values and frames of references out of which we might achieve important political compromises. So, for example, we might deploy Survivor as the focus for a conversation about race in America or 24 to talk about the ethics and effectiveness of torture in the war on terror. Some activist groups have already seen such cultural events as key rallying points for political activism as when the environmental movement used the release of The Day After Tomorrow to educate people about global warming. We have seen a range of voter registration votes, such as MTV's Rock the Vote or the World Wrestling Entertainment' s Smack Down Your Vote, prove effective at getting young people registered and engaged with electoral politics. We are seeing the emergence of a range of other groups, such as Games for Change, The Entertainment Consumers Association, and The Video Game Voters Network, tap our identities as gamers to mobilize us for political action.

As we do so, we need to recognize the value of fantasy for empowering political action. In my book, I discuss Muggles for Harry Potter, a free speech organization that emerged to rally opposition to the censorship of the Harry Potter books in schools and public libraries. I also suggested, however, the irony of this effort, given how many of the young people involved felt compelled to recant their fantasies as "meaningless" in order to demonstrate that the books had no "effect" on them. Instead, we need to value fantasy as part of the process of political transformation and respect the kinds of cultural politics which emerge from the fan community. Consider, for example, the ways that Sequential Tart, an organization of female comics readers, has helped to impact both comics production and retailing practice by providing a space where women regularly discuss what they like and dislike about the comics they read.

There is real political power in this new participatory culture. We know this because of the emergence of Astroturf, fake grassroots media, created by major political groups or advertisers but circulated through bottom-up media channels. A classic example of this was the attempt of Al Gore's Penguin Army to debunk An Inconvenient Truth: the video tried to pass itself off as coming from amateurs when it was in fact produced by a major advertising firm which regularly worked for major oil companies and the GOP party. The story teaches us two things:

1) a decade ago, these groups would have taken advantage of their greater access to the channels of broadcast media to reach every American with a common message. Today, they are recognizing that many of us put greater trust in grassroots media than in mainstream media and so they feel the need to pass themselves off as powerless.

2) in an era of collective intelligence, citizens are becoming more effective at seeing through these Astroturf strategies, alerting the larger public to these frauds. And the public is becoming increasingly outraged by such efforts seeing Astroturf as morally akin to spam, an abuse of the participatory channels of communications.

Ask a Ninja?

If I was asked to identify a group which had been the most imaginative at seizing the potentials of politics in the age of participatory culture, it would be the movement to promote the concept of Net Neutrality. For starters, this effort attracted supporters from a range of different political traditions and encouraged them to suspend their disagreements long enough to work together to achieve a common cause -- that is, to protect the diversity of the internet. The Save The Internet organization provided a space for video makers, both commercial and amateur, to generate new works that helped to educate the public about these core debates. Many of these videos mobilized images from popular culture to help people to understand the stakes in this policy discussion and to capture the sense of the little guys banding together to battle major corporate interests. These videos move us beyond the policy wonk language that has frequently surrounded media regulation discussions and instead embraced a playful discourse that encouraged more widespread participation. We get some sense of what this politics looks like by examining some of the videos that were produced behind these efforts by groups such as Ask a Ninja and Rocketboom. I suspect we will be studying these efforts for some years to come as we try to imagine new relationships between participatory culture and participatory democracy.

Want to know what democracy looks like in the 21st Century? Ask a Ninja!