Why Participatory Culture Is Not Web 2.0: Some Basic Distinctions

The following is excerpted from the Afterword I wrote for the recently published book, Colin Lankshear and Michele Knobel's DIY Media: Creating, Sharing and Learning with New Technologies. Next time, I will begin an extended interview with the book's editors about their views about DIY Media, Informal Learning, New Media Literacies, and Otaku Culture. Do It Yourself rarely means Do It Alone. For example, much of what youth learn through game playing emerges from "meta-gaming," the conversations about the game play. Trading advice often forces participants to spell out their core assumptions as more experienced players pass along what they've learned to newcomers. This "meta-gaming" has many of the dimensions of peer-to-peer teaching or "Social Learning." As John Seeley Brown and Richard P. Adler (2008) explain, "social learning is based on the premise that our understanding of content is socially constructed through conversations about that content and through grounded interactions, especially with others, around problems or actions."To call this "learning by doing" is too simple, since we will not learn as much if we separate what we are doing -- making a podcast, modding a game, mastering a level -- from the social context in which we are doing it.

I have always felt uncomfortable with the phrase, "Do It Yourself," to label the practices described in this book. "Do It Yourself" is too easy to assimilate back into some vague and comfortable notion of "personal expression" or "individual voice" that Americans can assimilate into long-standing beliefs in "rugged individualism" and "self-reliance." Yet, what may be radical about the DIY ethos is that learning relies on these mutual support networks, creativity is understood as a trait of communities, and expression occurs through collaboration. Given these circumstances, phrases like "Do It Ourselves" or "Do It Together" better capture collective enterprises within networked publics. This is why I am drawn towards concepts such as "participatory culture," (Jenkins et a, 2009l) "Affinity Spaces," (Gee, 2007) "Genres of Participation," (Ito et al, 2009) "networked publics," (Varnelis, 2008) "Collective Intelligence," (Levy, 1999) or "Communities of Practice," (Lave and Wenger, 1991).

While each reflects somewhat different pedalogical models, each captures the sense of a shared space or collective enterprise which shapes the experience of individual participants/learners. Each offers us a model of peer-to-peer education: we learn from each other in the process of working together to achieve shared goals. Many of these models emphasize the diverse roles played by various participants in this process. It is not that all participants know the same things (as has been the expectation in school); success rests on multiple forms of expertise the group can deploy "just in time" responding to shifting circumstances and emerging problems. It is not that all participants do the same things; rather, these practices depend on the ad hoc coordination of diverse skills and actions towards shared interests.

We need to understand the specific practices discussed here as informed by norms and values that emerge from their community of participants. We see different things if we focus on the practices or on the communities that deploy them, and in my remarks here, I hope to shift the lens onto the communities. Focusing on practices first, the editors write in this book's introduction, "Podcasting, for example, involves using particular kinds of tools, techniques and technologies to achieve the goals and purposes that podcasters aim to achieve, and to use them in the ways that people known as podcasters recognize as appropriate to their endeavor in terms of their goals and values." While saying something important about the nature of these practices, this description assumes that the operative identity here is that of the podcaster and that podcasters enjoy a shared identity as parts of a community of practice regardless of the content and functions of their podcasts. And this may be true for some, especially at the moment they are first learning how to podcast or are passing those skills and practices along to others, but for many, podcasting is a means to an end.


On the ground, these practices get embedded in a range of different interest-driven networks and what motivates these activities may be less a desire to make a podcast than an urge to create a shared space where, for example, fans can discuss their mutual interests in Severius Snape or where church members can hold prayer circles or where comic book buffs can interview writers and artists or... The Digital Youth Project (Ito et al) drew a useful distinction between "messing around," tinkering with new tools and techniques to see what they can do, and "geeking out," going deep into a particular interest that may in turn lead you to engage with a range of social networks and production practices. There is some risk that as educators organize class projects around the production of podcasts, they risk divorcing these practices from the larger cultural contexts in which they operate.

We might think about different interest-driven networks as mobilizing somewhat different clusters of interlocking and mutually reinforcing practices. Consider, for example, Mimi Ito's (2005) description of the literacy skills within Otaku culture, the fan community around anime and manga:

"Anime otaku are media connoisseurs, activist prosumers who seek out esoteric content from a far away land and organize their social lives around viewing, interpreting, and remixing these media works. Otaku translate and subtitle all major anime works, they create web sites with hundreds and thousands of members, stay in touch 24/7 on hundreds of IRC channels, and create fan fiction, fan art, and anime music videos that rework the original works into sometimes brilliantly creative and often subversive alternative frames of reference.... To support their media obsessions otaku acquire challenging language skills and media production crafts of scripting, editing, animating, drawing, and writing. And they mobilize socially to create their own communities of interest and working groups to engage in collaborative media production and distribution. Otaku use visual media as their source material for crafting their own identities, and as the coin of the realm for their social networks. Engaging with and reinterpreting professionally produced media is one stepping stone towards critical media analysis and alternative media production."

Certainly, within Otaku culture, one can gain an identity as a fan-subber, a vidder, a fan fiction author, a community organizer, or an illustrator, but these practice-based identities do not supersede one's larger identity as an Otaku.

What Ito observes about Otaku culture is consistent with what researchers have observed in a range of other subcultures. Consider this description from my field work on female-centered science fiction fandom in the early 1990s (Jenkins, 1992):

"Four Quantum Leap fans gather every few weeks in a Madison, Wisconsin apartment to write. The women spread out across the living room, each with their own typewriter or laptop, each working diligently on their own stories about Al and Sam. Two sit at the dining room table, a third sprawls on the floor, a fourth balances her computer on the coffee table. The clatter of the keyboards and the sounds of a filktape are interrupted periodically by conversation. Linda wants to insure that nothing in the program contradicts her speculations about Sam's past. Mary has introduced a southern character and consults Georgia-born Signe for advice about her background. Kate reviews her notes on Riptide, having spent the week rewatching favorite scenes so she can create a 'crossover' story which speculates that Sam may have known Murray during his years at MIT. Mary scrutinizes her collection of 'telepics' (photographs shot from the television image), trying to find the right words to capture the suggestion of a smile that flits across his face....Kate passes around a letter she has received commenting on her recently published fanzine....Each of the group members offers supportive comments on a scene Linda has just finished, all independently expressing glee over a particularly telling line. As the day wears on, writing gives way to conversation, dinner, and the viewing of fan videos (including the one that Mary made a few weeks before)....For the fan observer, there would be nothing particularly remarkable about this encounter. I have spent similar afternoons with other groups of fans, collating and binding zines, telling stories, and debating the backgrounds of favorite characters....For the 'mundane' observer, what is perhaps most striking about this scene is the ease and fluidity with which these fans move from watching a television program to engaging in alternative forms of cultural production: the women are all writing their own stories; Kate edits and publishes her own zines she prints on a photocopy machine she keeps in a spare bedroom and the group helps to assemble them for distribution. Linda and Kate are also fan artists who exhibit and sell their work at conventions; Mary is venturing into fan video making and gives other fans tips on how to shoot better telepics. Almost as striking is how writing becomes a social activity for these fans, functioning simultaneously as a form of personal expression and as a source of collective identity (part of what it means to be a fan). Each of them has something potentially interesting to contribute; the group encourages them to develop their talents fully, taking pride in their accomplishments, be they long-time fan writers and editors like Kate or relative novices like Signe."

At the time, I was interested in what this scene told us about how fans read television and how they deployed its contents as raw materials for their own expressive activities. Rereading the passage today, I am struck by how fully the description captures the strengths of a DIY culture as a site for informal learning. Sometimes the women are working on individual, self-defined projects and sometimes they are working together on mutual projects but always they are drawing moral support from their membership in an interest-driven network. Each plays multiple roles: sometimes the author, sometimes the reader; sometimes the teacher, sometimes the student; sometimes the editor, sometimes the researcher, sometimes the illustrator. They move fluidly from role to role as needed, interupting their own creative activity to lend skills and knowledge to someone else. Their creative interests straddle multiple media practices: they write stories, they take telepics, they edit videos, they publish zines, each of which constitutes a complex cultural practice combining technical skills and cultural expertise. Leadership, as Gee tells us, is "porous": the space is Signe's apartment; Kate is editing the zine to which they are each contributing; and Mary has the expertise in fan video production which she shares with her circle in hopes of getting more of them vidding. And we see here a conception of culture as a series of "processes" rather than a set of "products." Fan work is always open to revision, expansion, and elaboration, rather than locked down and closed off from other's contributions. As a more recent account of fan cultural practices (Busse and Helleckson, 2006) explains:

"Work in progress is a term used in the fan fiction world to describe a piece of fiction still in the process of being written but not yet completed....The appeal of works in progress lies in part in the ways... it invites responses, permits shared authorship, and enjoins a sense of community.....In most cases, the resulting story is part collaboration and part response to not only the source text, but also the cultural context within and outside the fannish community in which it is produced...When the story is finally complete and published, likely online but perhaps in print, the work in progress among the creators shifts to the work in progress among the readers."

Similarly, Kevin Driscoll (2009) has discussed how Hip Hop's diverse practices around music, dance, the graphic arts, video production, and entrepreneurship associated with Hip Hop encourage participants to master a range of cultural and technological skills. He describes, for example, the different participatory practices that got mobilized around the circulation of a single song:


As the figurehead of 2007's "Crank Dat" phenomenon, Atlanta teenager Soulja Boy exploited social-networking and media-sharing websites to encourage a widespread dance craze that afforded him a level of visibility typically only available to artists working within the pop industry. "Crank Dat" ... began as a single commodity but grew into a multi-faceted cultural phenomenon.... Within just a few months of the first "Crank Dat" music video, fans had posted countless custom revisions of "Crank Dat" to media-sharing sites like YouTube, SoundClick, imeem, and MySpace. In each case, the participants altered the original video in a different manner. They changed the dance steps, altered the lyrics, created new instrumental beats, wore costumes, and performed in groups. Some created remix videos that borrowed footage from popular TV programs and movies...."Crank Dat" welcomed diverse modes of participation but every production required considerable technical expertise. Even a cursory exploration of the various "Crank Dat" iterations available on YouTube provides evidence of many different media production tools and techniques. The most basic homemade dance videos required operation of a video camera, post-production preparation of compressed digital video, and a successful upload to YouTube. For some of the participants in "Crank Dat", the dance craze provided an impetus for their first media projects. This lively media culture is representative of a spirit of innovation that traverses hip-hop history."

As a former classroom teacher who worked with inner city and minority youth, Driscoll directs attention towards the technical proficency of these Hip Hop fans, to challenge assumptions that often position African-American males on the wrong side of the digital divide, assuming that they have limited capacity and interest for entering STEM subjects. Rather, he argues that educators need to better understand the ways that their cultural attachments to Hip Hop often motivate them to embrace new technologies and adopt new cultural practices, many of which could provide gateways into technical expertise.

Or consider what James Paul Gee (2007) tells us about the "affinity spaces" around on-line gaming:

" A portal like AoM [Age of Mythologies] Heaven, and the AoM space as a whole, allows people to achieve status, if they want it (and they may not), in many different ways. Different people can be good at different things or gain repute in a number of different ways. Of course, playing the game well can gain one status, but so can organizing forum parties, putting out guides, working to stop hackers from cheating in the multi-player game, posting to any of a number of different forums, or a great many other things."

Indeed, for Gee, the idea of multiple forms of participation and status are part of what makes these affinity spaces such rich environments for informal learning. Unlike schools, where everyone is expected to do (and be good at) the same things, these participatory cultures allow each person to set their own goals, learn at their own pace, come and go as they please, and yet they are also motivated by the responses of others, often spending more time engaged with the activities because of a sense of responsibility to their guild or fandom. They enable a ballance between self-expression and collaborative learning which may be the sweet spot for DIY learning.

These examples represent four very different communities, each with their own governing assumptions about what it means to participate and about what kinds of cultural practices and identities are meaningful. Yet, all of them embody the pedagogical principles I have identified within participatory culture:

"A participatory culture is a culture with relatively low barriers to artistic expression and civic engagement, strong support for creating and sharing one's creations, and some type of informal mentorship whereby what is known by the most experienced is passed along to novices. A participatory culture is also one in which members believe their contributions matter, and feel some degree of social connection with one another." (Jenkins et al, 2006)


There has been a growing tendency to describe the application of these participatory culture principles to the classroom as "education 2.0" and as we do so, to take the highly visible corporate "web 2.0" portals not simply as our ideal model, but also as the source for these new participatory practices. Look at the way Brown and Adler's (2008) influential formulation of "Learning 2.0" ascribes agency to corporate platforms and technologies rather than to communities of participants:

"The latest evolution of the Internet, the so-called Web 2.0, has blurred the line between producers and consumers of content and has shifted attention from access to information toward access to other people. New kinds of online resources-- such as social networking sites, blogs, wikis, and virtual communities-- have allowed people with common interests to meet, share ideas, and collaborate in innovative ways. Indeed, the Web 2.0 is creating a new kind of participatory medium that is ideal for supporting multple modes of learning."

The DIY ethos, which emerged as a critique of consumer culture and a celebration of making things ourselves, is being transformed into a new form of consumer culture, a product or service that is sold to us by media companies rather than something that emerged from grassroots practices.

For this reason, I want to hold onto a distinction between participatory cultures, which may or may not engaged with commercial portals, and Web 2.0, which refers specifically to a set of commercial practices that seek to capture and harness the creative energies and collective intelligences of their users. "Web 2.0" is not a theory of pedagogy; it's a business model. Unlike projects like Wikipedia that have emerged from nonprofit organizations, the Open Courseware movement from educational institutions, and the Free Software movement from voluntary and unpaid affiliations, the Web 2.0 companies follow a commercial imperative, however much they may also wish to facilitate the needs and interests of their consumer base. The more time we spend interacting with Facebook, YouTube, or Live Journal, the clearer it becomes that there are real gaps between the interests of management and consumers. Academic theorists (Terranova,2004; Green and Jenkins, 2009) have offered cogent critiques of what they describe as the "free labor" provided by those who chose to contribute their time and effort to creating content which can be shared through such sites, while consumers and fans have offered their own blistering responses to shifts in the terms of service which devalue their contributions or claim ownership over the content they produced. Many Web 2.0 sites provide far less scaffolding and mentorship than offered by more grassroots forms of participatory culture. Despite a rhetoric of collaboration and community, they often still conceive of their users as autonomous individuals whose primary relationship is to the company that provides them services and not to each other. There is a real danger in mapping the Web 2.0 business model onto educational practices, thus seeing students as "consumers" rather than "participants" within the educational process.