Learning Through Practice: Participatory Culture Civics

The Media, Activism and Participatory Politics Project, which I direct, released a new working paper this week: Neta Kligler-Vilenchik and Sangita Shresthova's "Learning Through Practice: Participatory Culture Civics." The report is based on extensive interviews with members and leadership of two innovative organizations, The Harry Potter Alliance and Invisible Children (the group responsible for Kony 2012), which won the Chase Manhattan Bank's Community Giving Competition on Facebook on two consecutive years. The report describes these organizations as providing an important bridge between the expressive and social dimensions of participatory culture towards some more active engagement in civic and political life. As the summary of the report explains:  

We present the civic practices of the HPA and IC, defined as activities that support organized collective action towards civic goals. We group these civic practices into four clusters. The distinctive cluster of “Create” practices (including Build Communities, Tell Stories and Produce Media) strongly builds on the organizations’ foundation within participatory cultures. The other three clusters (Inform, Connect, Organize & Mobilize) have more in common with traditional civic organizations, but remain informed by the unique nature of PCCs. All of the practice clusters make extensive use of media, and particularly new media. In fact, engagement with media is a crucial dimension of PCCs.We argue that, while different in many respects, both HPA and IC combine civic goals with the shared pleasures and flexible affordances of participatory culture.

This research was funded by the Spencer Foundation as part of their initiatives to better understand mechanisms for promoting civic learning, but it has also been developed in dialogue with the work of the MacArthur Foundation's Youth and Participatory Politics network. I featured the initial survey data from YPP here on my blog a few months ago, and we will be sharing more reports emerging from our involvement in that network in the next year, including further research on the fan activist networks around Nerdfighters and Imagine Better, the Students for Liberty Movement, and the political lives of Islamic-American youth in the post-9/11 world. These reports will compliment our previous released study of the DREAMer movement. This report was also meant to extend upon earlier analysis we've developed around HPA and IC, including this essay published as part of a special "Fan Activism" issue of Transformative Works and Culture, and this report on Kony 2012 published here on Confessions of an Aca-Fan.


You can read the full report via the pdf embedded below:

Some of the key conceptual breakthroughs of the report are represented by a series of models, reproduced below, which describe some of these organization's core civic practices. For us, it was striking how much central forms of networking, storytelling, media production, and other communication acts were to the ongoing operations of such groups. We have been struck all along at the ways that these groups have been effective at recruiting youth who may already be active in other kinds of interest-driven and friendship-driven networks, tapping and enhancing their existing skills and social connections, and then deploying them towards social change agendas.

We began this research, and had completed our field interviews, prior to the events surrounding Kony 2012, though it has taken us a bit later to fully analyze our data and produce this report. In some ways, Kony 2012 forced into sharp relief both the strengths and limitations of these emerging kinds of Participatory Culture Civic Organizations. Here's how the report's conclusion addresses these concerns:

The events surrounding IC’s release of KONY 2012 revealed the limitations of IC’s “outward facing” abilities. On the one hand, the film’s incredible “spreadability” was a testimony to IC’s ability to speak to a much wider public than previously imagined. On the other hand, the criticisms directed at KONY 2012 challenged members, often forcing them to adopt new practices. For example, while IC members were usually well-versed in spreading the word, they sometimes had difficulty moving beyond the official story told by the organization and usually did not critique its representation of events and issues. In the days following KONY 2012, we observed highly engaged IC members forced to “drill deep” to respond to difficult questions concerning the campaign. Collaborating with each other and often without support from the organization’s leadership, IC members struggled to research questions concerning IC’s relations to the religious right or its stand on gay rights. They then used social media to share their findings with each other.

IC members’ struggles around KONY 2012 call attention to an additional civic practice, which seems largely absent within IC and perhaps other PCC organizations -- “rebuttal”, or defending your own position in the face of opposition. In more traditional political organizations, members are socialized to perceive their position as opposed to another political party. In internal discussions, members may discuss counter-arguments to their position, and learn how to defend their beliefs, ferociously if needed. The HPA and IC tend to operate differently. These organizations rely on community relations, friendship and fun. They thrive in environments that are generally perceived as supportive and welcoming. Members tend to offer polite feedback, not sharp critique. They often try to avoid discord. These characteristics are part of what makes PCC organizations so inviting and hospitable to young people. At the same time, IC should have anticipated some of the criticism it received, yet it failed to prepare its rank and file to respond to the push-back on its KONY 2012 campaign. Their training in personal and collective storytelling, say, had not given them the background they needed to engage in the less consensual political debate. Moving forward, we suggest these organizations may have to consider how to cultivate this ability, while at the same time maintaining the warm environment that usually renders it unnecessary.

We hope that these closing critiques offer some ways forward for the new kinds of Participatory Culture Civic organizations we are studying and we plan to be spending more time looking at the ways such groups might foster stronger critical literacy skills, especially those around investigation and argumentation, in the future.


Sangita Shresthova is the Research Director of Henry Jenkins' Media Activism & Participatory Politics (MAPP) project based at the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at USC. She is a Czech/Nepali international development specialist, filmmaker, media scholar, and dancer with extensive interdisciplinary qualitative research experience. She holds a Ph.D. from UCLA's Department of World Arts and Cultures, and a MSc. degree from MIT's Comparative Media Studies program where she focused on popular culture, new media and globalization. She also earned a MSc. in Development Studies from the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE). Her work has appeared in several scholarly journals and her book on Bollywood dance and globalization (Is It All About Hips?) was published by SAGE Publications in 2011.

Neta Kligler-Vilenchik is a Doctoral candidate at the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at USC. She works with Henry Jenkins and Mimi Ito on the Media, Activism, Participatory Politics (MAPP) project, as part of the Youth & Participatory Politics (YPP) Network, where she is investigating how youth’s involvement in participatory cultures and new media encourages their civic engagement. The case studies she works on focus on organizations and groups building on networks of fandom, online and off-line, with the aim of encouraging and sustaining young people’s involvement in civic life. Neta is currently working on her Doctoral thesis on alternative citizenship models and their potential for youth civic engagement. She holds an M.A. in Communication from the University of Haifa, Israel.