The Participatory Cultures Handbook
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The Participatory Cultures Handbook

Aaron Delwiche, Jennifer Jacobs Henderson, Aaron Delwiche, Jennifer Jacobs Henderson

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eBook - ePub

The Participatory Cultures Handbook

Aaron Delwiche, Jennifer Jacobs Henderson, Aaron Delwiche, Jennifer Jacobs Henderson

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About This Book

How did we get from Hollywood to YouTube? What makes Wikipedia so different from a traditional encyclopedia? Has bloggingdismantled journalism as we know it?

Our media landscape has undergone aseismic shift as digital technology has fostered the rise of "participatory culture, " in which knowledge is originated, created, distributed, and evaluated in radically new ways. The Participatory Cultures Handbook is an indispensable, interdisciplinaryguide to this rapidly changing terrain. With short, accessible essays from leading geographers, political scientists, communication theorists, game designers, activists, policy makers, physicists, and poets, thisvolume will introduce students to the concept of participatory culture, explain how researchers approach participatory culture studies, and provide original examples of participatory culture in action. Topics include crowdsourcing, crisis mapping, grid computing, digital activism in authoritarian countries, collaborative poetry, collective intelligence, participatory budgeting, and the relationship between video games and civic engagement.

Contributors include: Daren Brabham, Helen Burgess, Clay Calvert, Mia Consalvo, Kelly Czarnecki, David M. Faris, Dieter Fuchs, Owen Gallagher, Clive Goodinson, Alexander Halvais, Cynthia Hawkins, John Heaven, The Jannissary Collective, Henry Jenkins, Barry Joseph, Christopher Kelty, Pierre Lévy, Sophia B. Liu, Rolf Luehrs, Patrick Meier, Jason Mittell, Sarah Pearce, W. James Potter, Howard Rheingold, Suzanne Scott, Benjamin Stokes, Thomas Swiss, Paul Taylor, Will Venters, Jen Ziemke

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PART I Introducing Participatory Cultures

1 Introduction What is Participatory Culture?

Aaron Delwiche and Henderson Jennifer Jacobs
DOI: 10.4324/9780203117927-2
Before you lies cyberspace with its teeming communities and the interlaced ramification of its creations, as if all of humankind’s memory were deployed in the moment: an immense act of synchronous collective intelligence, converging on the present, a silent bolt of lightning, diverging, an exploding crown of neurons.
(Pierre Lévy, 1997, p. 236)
In 2006, the MacArthur Foundation launched a $50 million initiative exploring the ways digital media were transforming the lives of young people. As part of this project, a research team headed by Henry Jenkins (2006) mapped the rise of “participatory culture” in contemporary society. In Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture: Media Education for the 21st Century, Jenkins and his colleagues explain that participatory cultures are characterized by “relatively low barriers to artistic expression and civic engagement, strong support for creating and sharing one’s creations, and some type of information mentorship whereby what is known by the most experienced is passed along to novices” (p. 7). “A participatory culture,” they add, “is also one in which members believe their contributions matter, and feel some degree of social connections with one another (at least they care what other people think about what they have created)” (p. 7).
One only need visit a local coffee shop or public library to see that people of all ages and backgrounds are increasingly active and engaged in participatory networks. Citizens around the world create and distribute messages via online and interpersonal networks at a rapid and ever-accelerating rate. Armed with inexpensive tools for capturing, editing, and organizing, people tap into a vast ocean of real-time data and multimedia content to promote personal and political interests. Functions once monopolized by a handful of hierarchical institutions (e.g. newspapers, television stations, and universities) have been usurped by independent publishers, video-sharing sites, collaboratively sustained knowledge banks, and fan-generated entertainment.
To date, communication scholars and media literacy educators have focused primarily on the implications of participatory creative cultures, but this is just one aspect of a much larger cultural movement. Our world is being transformed by participatory knowledge cultures in which people work together to collectively classify, organize, and build information—a phenomenon that the philosopher Pierre Lévy characterizes as the emergence of collective intelligence. In our daily life, we engage with this form of participatory culture each time we seek guidance from collaboratively updated websites that review books, restaurants, physicians, and college professors. Participatory knowledge cultures flourish on the Internet each time we exchange advice on programming, cooking, graphic design, statistical analysis, or writing style. These knowledge cultures have become an integral part of our lives; they function as prosthetic extensions of our nervous system and we often feel crippled when our access to these networks is curtailed. It is hard to believe that, for most of recorded history, human beings were unable to instantly find answers to questions such as “How long can I safely store cooked chicken in the refrigerator” or “What should I do about a second-degree burn?”
We are also witnessing the accelerated growth of participatory economic and political cultures. According to Yochai Benkler (2006)—former co-director of Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society—cooperative actions “carried out through radically distributed, nonmarket mechanisms that do not depend on proprietary strategies” are radically transforming the information economy (p. 3). Citizen journalists collect and share information to report on news affecting their local communities. Dissidents use distributed communication technologies to organize political opposition in repressive regimes. Humanitarian workers and activists around the globe use geomapping technologies to monitor elections, coordinate relief efforts, and identify looming environmental disasters. Proponents of information transparency have used websites such as WikiLeaks to disseminate formerly secret documents, sparking riots and toppling governments in the process.
These phenomena generate important questions. As individuals, have we lost the right to keep our personal lives and political opinions secret? What happens to anonymity and privacy in an age of ubiquitous connection? What about intellectual property laws that inhibit our ability to access and communicate within these networks? Is it possible that the illusion of participation in this brave new world cloaks fundamental passivity? What if people don’t want to participate? Where is the checkbox that allows us to opt out?

Four Phases of Participatory Culture

Academics often think in terms of disciplinary boundaries, but participatory-culture studies are more properly thought of as an emergent, interdisciplinary project. As early tremors rippled across our global media and technology landscapes, scholars across disciplines noticed common patterns and began referencing each other’s work. In fact, some of the most useful research on this topic never uses the phrase “participatory culture.” For decades, researchers have been writing about contribution, collaboration, and collective knowledge. In an attempt to get a handle on recent scholarship that provides the foundation for this collection, we suggest that participatory culture studies can be divided into four distinct phases.

Phase One. Emergence (1985–1993)

During the second half of the 1980s, our global communication landscape was already beginning to manifest signs of impending transformation. Personal computers had found their way into the living rooms and offices of ordinary citizens, and networking these machines with one another was the next logical step. ARPANET (the precursor to the civilian Internet) grew exponentially on college campuses and military institutions, and virtual communities emerged in dial-up bulletin board systems (BBS), the Whole Earth ’Lectronic Link, and FidoNet. College radio stations, mix tapes, and independent record labels intersected with the underground music scene. Meanwhile, the advent of laser printers and page layout software put small-scale publishing in the hands of ordinary citizens, accelerating the growth of a vibrant zine subculture.
As these changes unfolded, a growing body of academic research challenged the traditional view of citizens and media audiences as largely passive. In the influential Television Culture (1987), John Fiske argued that television viewing audiences regularly resisted, subverted, and recoded the meanings of popular entertainment programs—a process he termed “semiotic democracy.” Within Fiske’s vision, “individuals can become both producers and creators, able to reinscribe and recode existing representations” in a public domain that invites everyone to participate “equally in the ongoing process of cultural production” (Katyal, 2006, p. 3). A similar vision of active audiences was articulated by a promising young scholar named Henry Jenkins—a graduate student who worked with Fiske. Analyzing the behaviors of mostly female Star Trek fan fiction writers, Jenkins (1988) argued that these women should be thought of as “textual poachers” who reshape the meanings of cultural products to serve their own needs. Deepening these arguments in his book Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Culture (1992), he became one of the most recognizable thinkers associated with fan culture studies. However, as Jenkins is quick to point out, he was part of a larger movement that included Ien Ang’s (1985)Watching Dallas: Soap Opera and the Melodramatic Imagination, Janice Radway’s (1984)Reading the Romance: Women, Patriarchy, and Popular Literature, and Camille Bacon-Smith’s (1991)Enterprising Women: Television Fandom and the Creation of Popular Myth.
Meanwhile, journalists, scholars, and science fiction writers were taking note of the nascent computer subculture. Anticipating themes that would emerge in subsequent definitions of participatory culture, Steven Levy’s Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution (1984) argued that computer hobbyists and the technology industry itself were influenced by a “hacker ethic” that celebrated access to technology, the free flow of information, decentralized networks, creative expression, and self-actualization. Howard Rheingold—a technology writer and cultural critic who participated actively in the Whole Earth ’Lectronic Link—coined the term “virtual community” in a 1993 book of the same name that explained on-line computer networks to a general audience. In 1987, Microsoft Press published an updated version of Ted Nelson’s Computer Lib/Dream Machines—a ground-breaking manifesto dedicated to the radical proposition that everyone is capable of understanding how to program their own computers.

Phase Two. Waking up to the Web (1994–1998)

Twenty-five years after the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency began networking mainframe computers and military researchers, the American public began paying attention to what TIME magazine referred to as “the strange new world of the Internet.” No longer shackled by a clumsy text interface, the advent of graphical web browsers such as Mosaic made it possible for people to easily search the Internet and create their own web pages. Netscape was the most well-known of the new web browsers, and the company’s initial public stock offering was wildly successful, kick-starting a speculative technology bubble (the “dot-com bubble”) that lasted five years. These transformative years witnessed the birth of the Internet Movie Database (1993), Yahoo (1994), web-based electronic mail (1994), the Linux operating system (1994), Amazon (1994), streaming audio (1995), Craigslist (1995), eBay (1995), and Google (1996).
The scope and speed of these transformations in our media landscape captured the attention of scholars across disciplines. Working at a macroscopic level, the sociologist Manuel Castells mapped the rapidly changing global infrastructure in The Rise of the Network Society (1996), The Power of Identity (1997), and End of the Millennium (1998). His core message—the notion that decentralized participatory networks were transforming the ways we work, learn, and play—was indirectly supported by a series of more locally focused case studies. Stephen Duncombe’s (1997)Notes from Underground: Zines and the Politics of Alternative Culture argued that emerging networks of amateur publishers represented a “crack in the seemingly impenetrable wall of the system” and could be interpreted as “a culture spawning the next wave of meaningful resistance” (p. 3). Nancy Baym (1985) appropriated ethnographic research methods from the field of anthropology to document the norms, behaviors, and conversational themes of soap opera fans who posted in Usenet forums. In Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet (1995) the psychologist Sherry Turkle investigated the interactions of gamers in text-based virtual worlds, suggesting that these spaces could be used as tools for identity experimentation and personal growth. These seemingly disparate case studies were united by their authors’ bold insistence that seemingly frivolous social networks were worthy of serious scholarly analysis. Duncombe, Baym, and Turkle demonstrated that the practices and cultural expressions of these amateur publishers, soap opera fans, and computer gamers were both interesting and important. If the first wave of researchers had unlocked the door to participatory culture studies, this second wave kicked the door off its hinges entirely.

Phase Three. Push-button Publishing (1999–2004)

Although it is relatively easy to create web pages with HTML, the mystique surrounding computer programming frightened many people away from creating their own web sites. The advent of user-friendly web publishing systems such as Blogger (1999), LiveJournal (1999), and Xanga (2000) almost completely obliterated remaining barriers to entry, increasing the number of potential participants by several orders of magnitude. During these transitional years, we witnessed the emergence of Napster (1999), the game EverQuest (1999), the iPod (2001), the BitTorrent protocol (2001), the social virtual world Second Life (2003), MySpace (2003), Flickr (2004), Yelp (2004), and Facebook (2004). Though some of these platforms have already crumbled or mutated beyond recognition, each represented a significant step forward in the ability of citizens to share, annotate, publish, and remix digital information.
On the academic front, there were two noticeable strands of research on participatory culture during this phase. The first strand was composed of mostly qualitative case studies. Shifting attitudes about what constituted legitimate research topics, combined with increasingly refined tools and methodologies for studying on-line communities, generated a tsunami of fandom studies on topics ranging from Buffy the Vampire Slayer (Hill & Calcutt, 2001) and Doctor Who (McKee, 2001) to Hello Kitty (McVeigh, 2000) and Pokemon (Willett, 2004). A second strand explored macroscopic patterns, interconnections, and technological underpinnings of participatory culture. In the English translation of Collective Intelligence: Mankind’s Emerging World in Cyberspace (1999), the Canadian philosopher Pierre Lévy identified the existence of a “universally distributed intelligence, constantly enhanced, coordinated in real time, and resulting in the effective mobilization of skills” (p. 13). Pointing out that “no one knows everything” and “everyone knows something,” Lévy argued that it was now possible to create democratic political structures in which people could participate directly as unique individuals rather than as members of an undifferentiated mass. Howard Rheingold drew similar conclusions in Smart Mobs: The Next Social Revolution (2002), predicting that “large numbers of small groups, using the new media to their individual benefit, will...

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