Participatory Politics in an Age of Crisis: Jonathan Gray and Paul Mihailidis (Part II)



I’m intrigued by your last line there. Could you elaborate and give an example?


Happy to kick us off with an elaboration and example. A lot of times, in my work with community groups, people interested in using media to engage in efforts to advocate for healthier school lunches, or for workers rights, or environmental awareness, want to start with creating media content and messaging, i.e. let’s get our FB page, YouTube page, Snapchat account, and start a campaign. For me, this is the result of people with great intentions but jumping quickly into the skills/solutions track, or the “how.” One good and popular example of this is the Standing Rock protests against the pipeline by the One Mind Youth group. At first, they went to the site of contestation, and set up social media accounts, and started to advocate, gaining some recognition, and a few thousand followers. People were supportive, but they also weren’t leveraging these technologies beyond the articulation of concern. This also opened space for the online dislike that you write about in your opening essay. To scale, One Mind Youth need to think about how to scale their activism with something that communities could relate to beyond what they were posting on line. So they staged a 500-mile run to the the Army Corp of Engineers, where they would pass through reservation towns and be able to engage other tribal communities around the issue of water, and show them the persistent efforts they were making on this behalf. As the rest of the story goes, that 500-mile run gained strong support, and turned into a 2000 mile run to the US Capitol Building, and support and presence for their activism that wasn’t reached before. Of course, this story is complex, with many different angles from which we can judge impact. But to me, this is a great example of a group helping to show a caring ethic that is relational, i.e. care for, beyond what they can share online, i.e. caring about. The media activism supports their run, and not the other way around. I think this is the value proposition that can move beyond the useful but often times shallow and contextless online spaces where people spend much of their time.



Thanks. Yeah, I guess I’m interested, too, in more work that explores how we get to the point of being activists making a difference. That’s what directed me towards satire earlier in my career, as I was really unhappy with the framing of satire being useless if its audience didn’t turn off the show and immediately march on Washington (heck, even when they did march on Washington, for the Stewart-Colbert thing, the journalists still judged that insufficient!), instead wanting to think about how a political mind grows, is fed and nourished, and works at the moments when it’s not in the streets demanding that X happens. My project about dislike is similarly interested in how these little moments work “before” (or after, or in addition to) activism. But I love that this work you’re discussing seems also to open up space to discuss “best practices” and strategy. It makes me think about “best practices” and strategy for dislike. How “should” one dislike, it’s making me wonder?


I’m really interested in thinking about how you activate “dislike.” We almost vilify the notion of dislike in our analysis of platform communications. That’s basically how people justify the bad depths of the internet: everything descends into some polarized dislike and expression of hatred. But it seems as if there can be value in that if channeled in an interesting way. Maybe that’s what your project is getting at? The other point you refer to that i’m interested in is how a political mind grows, is fed and nourished. For me this is key to thinking about how we use media in political or civic ways. And where values come into play. Political minds aren’t born from just going to march one day from out of nowhere. I think popular culture, formative life experiences, and media habits contribute more to our media activism than anything else. I’d like to put your question to the test, are there strategies for dislike, or civic pathways that direct dislike towards agentive action taking in the world (not the traditional marching kind, but the kind that is embedded in our current digital culture?


I’m laughing at the idea of a book that such an examination might generate, called something like How Best to Hate, or Disliking for Dummies. Joking aside, though, I’m also interested in ensuring that we’re very open-minded when it comes to thinking about the strategies or utility of dislike. Otherwise, we risk falling back into tone-policing. A proper mapping of how political minds grow and work, though, would show the many ways that dislike (or like, or love, for that matter) starts or contributes to all sorts of chain-reactions that lead to the sorts of actions that in and of themselves change things.

If I could shift focus a bit, though, how is this done? So much of the work on “political minds” and how they develop is quantitative and effects-based, in ways that privilege only the last few chains in a chain reaction. And/or they’re based on self-reporting, wherein we’re perhaps all more likely to privilege those last few chains. But the only way to back up and get a better sense of how this works would seem to require not just qualitative work, but longitudinal ethnography. So let me ask you, how do you do what you do? And/or is there a methodological golden fleece you’re envisioning that would do it even better?


Okay, I’ll take the slight shift of focus, and move away from the enticing option of a Dislike for Dummies TOC - preface: why I hate. Chapter 1: dislike in the womb, 2…... I’m in complete agreement that quantitative methods predominate in this work, and they certainly have value. My work in this space has been qualitative through interviews, critical ethnography, and deep case study analysis. Case studies have helped I think to look at the ecosystems of how people persist and commit to support and create/use media to advocate for causes. I’ve often looked at cases through the lens of what resources -- human, technological, and social -- that young people use when building or support civic action taking with and through media. In looking at impactful cases, like 9 year old Martha Payne and her quest to reform school lunch in Scotland, or the more popular Pimp my Carroça initiative in Brazil, one can see the intersection of media skills and civic values that guide this work. Obviously there are limitations to this inquiry, but it helps to build emerging ideas and narratives, and to also provide a counterbalance to quantitative approaches that often rely on self-reporting attitudes and behaviors.  My golden fleece, I think we need more anthropological approaches to this work. Deep embedded with activist communities, to not only see how they organize but also who they are, their backgrounds, identities, etc. I’m sure this has been done, but it would help greatly in our field. I’d like to pose that question back to you. How do we get to more interesting spaces through methods? Or do we just go to that Dislike for Dummies book idea…..



For me, it’s about broadening what we ask about. That’s at heart why anthropological-ethnographic accounts can be great, because the researcher has an abundance of context from which to draw when trying to make sense of what they’re seeing. Now, “true” anthropological-ethnographic approaches may be impractical or downright impossible for many of us, but all of us could start asking about more things. Let me offer two examples from this project of mine, one planned, one accidental:

The planned one: I didn’t want my interviews simply to talk about dislike and to start there. Rather, I wanted to hear first and in addition how people talked about and with their fandoms, too, so that I had better context to understand the terms they were using to discuss their dislikes. And that reaped rich rewards, as I was regularly hearing people shift registers and employ a wholly new vocabulary and way of speaking about their dislikes, while also hearing them bounce their dislikes off their earlier-stated fandoms. Sometimes they became aware of contradictions they’d offered in doing so, and needed to work them through. Or because we’d talked about fandoms, they felt a need to connect the dots and look for patterns themselves. The point is that my data is so very much richer, and I have a much better sense of their dislikes’ pasts, presents, and futures because I didn’t just ask about dislike.

The unplanned one: most of my interviews were conducted by one of several awesome research assistants. But I wanted to ensure they all got something out of the project, too, so I encouraged them to twin the project with any of their own interests, mixing my questions with theirs. What I didn’t predict, though, is that by doing so, they’d each -- and especially in tandem -- end of providing a much richer account of dislike, precisely because each of them was situating it differently, approaching it from a different angle, providing different contexts.

Admittedly, asking for more than you think you need involves a nightmare on the transcription end. But for me that’s where the “interesting spaces” lie: through asking about way more. Maybe we can’t all do full-on ethnography, but we can all start asking about more, “going off-topic” for a while, and letting the discussion wander a bit. All good therapists must learn the art of letting their patients wander a bit, and our qualitative interviews should do the same. I’m a real fan of Nina Eliasoph’s Avoiding Politics: How Americans Produce Apathy in Everyday Life, which is based on bona fide ethnography, but many of its key offerings about how we discuss politics could have been replicated by interviewers who allowed their subjects to wander a bit. If we want to understand the political, and where media fits in it, we too need a bit more wandering in our interviews.



I’m really taken by the wandering context for qualitative research, and finding creative and unique ways to approach the research questions we’re trying to answer. I think participatory design offers a similar approach to this, where through co-design with communities of research, and the iteration process, we can come to some interesting insights without just sitting and asking people about their attitudes towards a certain idea. In the same way, we should also acknowledge how our discussion of methods necessarily includes questions of power and resources, and how those also impact the realities of the subjects in our inquiry. A recent project I’m involved in is working with Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests as a mechanism to build community engaged local journalism projects. It’s been super interesting to use FOIA to bring journalists and communities together, and to learn about communities’ dispositions towards local issues (in our case gun procurements in the state of Massachusetts) but also journalism. We’re able to explore our research questions through participation in and documentation of our community workshops, and the dialog that emerges from those sessions.

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Thinking about fandom, like, dislike and activism through methods is really important. Perhaps we can build on this by offer some closing thoughts on where we think work is/should be heading in the space of media studies about fandom, young engagement and activism in digital culture. What are the big questions, or methods, that we should be exploring, that we haven’t? Where do we go from here???


I like where things are going, so I don’t have too many big demands. Instead, I’ll be more specific about what I like, and why that work might help discussions of the political in general. I like that we’re talking about the warts and wars within fandom -- maybe that could help us to better understand the warts and wars within the Democratic Party and its base(s), for instance? I like that fan studies is talking more and more (if still not enough) about race and about transcultural, transnational fandoms: if the democratic subject has long been imagined (across many disciplines) in white Western terms, any meaningful attempt to look at fandom, affect, activism, and politics will need to consider citizenship that isn’t just white and American, white and English, or white and Australian. And I like that a lot of people are now talking about dislike, anti-fandoms, and such.

But asking me that question is a bit boring, since I’ve had two intros in two edited collections of Fandom to answer it already (and have benefited immeasurably from having Cornel Sandvoss and C. Lee Harrington offering smarter answers than mine as I do so!). So how about you? What do you want to see more of? What’s next? If someone needs a dissertation topic, what should it be?


I think we’re emerged from a wave of studies that have been looking at the impact of social media on how people engage in civic life. I’ve been involved in media literacy work, and in there I’ve felt somewhat constrained by the work that produces similar results about young people and the need to better prepare them to critical consume and create media. I think that’s important but it’s not captured the potential of media to harness human stories and their potential for positive social change. I just read Mimi Ito’s new book, Affinity Online, and I think there’s some really interesting space there to harness for future work. What do our personal stories, interests and ideologies do to impact our media use and engagement in daily life. Instead of looking at the impacts of the technology or expression within, I think there’s a host of research that can explore more of the ways that affinity networks impact civic engagement, and what types of values drive these networks.

I also am captured by the concept of Care. There’s more attention needed to take the work of Nell Noddings and Joan Tronto on Ethics of Care and Caring Democracy that could be applied to digital culture. I think caring is such an important part of our approaches to online participation, and we haven’t done enough on that front.

Lastly, along with my colleagues Christopher Harris and Moses Shumow, I’m working on a book now about the concept of Persistence, which focuses on how pedagogies can contribute to persistent media engagement for social impact in a culture of transaction, which is prioritized by our digital environments and increasingly our institutions of higher education.

I’d love some dissertations on this work! Would be helpful to me at the very least...


Jonathan Gray is Professor of Media and Cultural Studies at University of Wisconsin, Madison. He is author of Television Studies (with Amanada D. Lotz), Show Sold Separately: Promos, Spoilers, and Other Media ParatextsTelevision Entertainment; and Watching with The Simpsons: Television, Parody, and Intertextuality (Routledge, 2006; and co-editor of books including Keywords for Media StudiesA Companion to Media AuthorshipSatire TV: Politics and Comedy in the Post-Network Era, and Fandom: Identities and Communities in a Mediated World. He also co-edits NYU Press’ Critical Cultural Communication series, and is Chief Editor of International Journal of Cultural Studies.

Paul Mihailidis is an associate professor of civic media and journalism in the school of communication at Emerson College in Boston, MA. He is founding program director of the MA in Media Design, Senior Fellow of the Emerson Engagement Lab, and faculty chair and director of the Salzburg Academy on Media and Global Change. His research focuses on the nexus of media, education, and civic voices. His work has been featured in the New York Times, the Washington Post, Slate Magazine, the Nieman Foundation, USA Today, CNN, and others. Mihailidis holds visiting professorships at Bournemouth University in England and the Catholic Univesity of Argentian in Buenos Aires. He co-edits the Journal of Media Literacy Education, and sits on the advisory board for iCivics. He earned his PhD from the Phillip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland, College Park.