What Constitutes Meaningful Participation?
Citation: Henry Jenkins, Sam Ford, Joshua Green (2013) What Constitutes Meaningful Participation?.
In this chapter of Spreadable Media by Henry Jenkins, Sam Ford, and Joshua Green, the authors address critiques of the idea of participatory media, critiques that argue that most people are not active creators, and that "mass creativity, by and large, is consumptive behavior by a different name" (Van Dijck and Nieborg 2009) . In this chapter, the authors argue that "audiences do important work beyond what is being narrowly defined as 'production' here-- that some of these processes marked as 'less active' involve substantial labor that potentially provides value according to both commercial and noncommercial logic." (154) In particular, the authors are keen to encourage us to see dialectic forms of responses, "evaluation, appraisal, critique and recirculation of material" as productive participation (154).
At the heart of this debate is what the authors call a corporate concept of participation (focused on production and consumers) and a political concept of participation (focused on our ability to exercise greater power as citizens).
Lurking versus Peripheral Participation
One way this tension plays out is in definitions of "lurking" versus "peripheral participation." In one view, "lurkers" are people who benefit from a community without giving back. Another is to imagine a pyramid of participation, where a small group is engaging in creation, a slightly larger group is commenting or tagging, and the widest circle are simply enjoying the work of others. The authors argue that this hierarchical model "masks the degree to which all participants work together in an economy" of activity, where "lurkers" provide value by expanding the audience and sharing the content. The authors then talk about Lave and Wenger's work on legitimate peripheral participation  and scholarship suggesting that people lurk for different reasons, and that this peripheral participation can be an important step towards greater participation .
Political Grassroots and Participatory Media
To unpack the political concepts of participation, the authors refer to the political histories of participatory culture in grassroots politics, from the work of the Ameteur Press Association in the mid-19th century to grassroots press among African Americans to home movie production and consumer activism in the late 20th century. They describe Brecht's vision of participatory radio, Enzensberger's idea of media production "in the hands of the masses themselves", and the influence on those ideas on cyberculture.
Resistance versus Participation
Participatory media activities are often framed in terms of a tension between the language of resistance to power, in tension with the language of participation (which corporate thinkers have tended to prefer). They argue that advertisers want to see audiences form "brand communities" which they court, but that these conversations miss the ownership that fans feel about these brands and the opposition they may show to the owners. Critics have tended to take the same view, fearing that participation simply reinforces marketing or fosters "publicity without publics" . The authors argue that "audiences are not simply pawns for commercial interests" (165). Instead of seeing participatory groups as audiences, we should think about them as publics or fandoms. When seen through the lens of fandoms, the authors argue, participation loses this core/periphery emphasis on content creation. Sharing the example of a storyine in soap show As the World Turns where a gay character comes out, the authors argue that gossip about characters or debates about their socio-political experience is widespread, and it forms an important part of relationship building and religious or civic reflection.
Within these participatory publics, sharing and spreading media is also a meaningful act with political consequences. The authors describe the fan activist group Racebenders to pressure M. Night Shamalyan to include actors who matched the ethnicities of the original cartoon. In contrast with the vision of participation as (mere) brand loyalty, "the franchise's most ardent supporters are also its harshest critics" (171).
Participation Versus Collaboration?
One way beyond metaphors of resistance is to see participation as collaboration, a "morally complex relationship in which collaborators may 'have taken up subject positions within an oppressive power structure, seeing it as the best means of serving their individual interests' and ultimately of creating new opportunities and tools 'for others to challenge the rules of an occupied social order" (Johnson 2010). Other examples of this include what Mary Gray calls the "boundary publics", groups that form when people "occupied a space owned and operated by others to engage in serious conversations for their own purposes" (173). One reason this may be seen as collaboration is that online, "fan labor may be exploited for the profit of the 'owners,' even as fans also benefit from what they create" (175).
Hearing Versus Listening
The authors are particularly concerned that platforms and brands might treat participation as a resource to be surveilled and processed rather than voices to be listened to. Companies ask for summary statistics "rather than soliciting new insights and forming new relationships (177). What makes the difference between these two approaches? "Listening demands an active response" (178).
Patterns of Co-Creation
How can we incorporate this participatory activity into our models of value? One approach by Axel Brum is the "produsage" model , where participants merge production and usage, and where curatorial and sharing activity is prominent. In the case of the entertainment industry, powerful narratives resist that idea and see participatory culture as theft. The authors argue that in participatory culture, strong copy protection limits the possibility of the sharing, discursive, and creative activity essential to participation.
Problems of Unequal Participation
Finally, the chapter concludes with basic information on the history of unequal access to the Internet and systemic biases associated with online participation n sites like Wikipedia. The authors discuss the growing role of transmedia mobilization among Latino and other marginalized groups
Theoretical and practical relevance:
This article is a great bridge between other readings on participation, linking literature on fandom with literature on civic participation, with literature on participation in online platforms. It offers a particularly nuanced and thoughtful engagement with and critique of many of the common models, particularly at the time of its writing.
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