lardbucket: blog all dog-eared pages: participatory culture in a networked era

6/26/2017

Blog All Dog-Eared Pages: Participatory Culture in a Networked Era

Filed under: Reading — Andy @ 10:30 am

After acquiring a Kobo Aura One, I’ve started reading a lot more than I have over the past few years (which is probably a good thing). One of the things that I appreciate about Michal Migurski’s excellent blog tecznotes is his occasional series “blog all dog-eared pages”, so I figured I’d give it a go myself. (It’s not clear whether he or someone else coined the term, but that’s where I heard it first.) Note that I’ve culled some of my dog-eared pages, so the title is a bit of a lie, but the redacted ones are largely those where I wanted to look up a reference.

Up today, a book by Henry Jenkins, Mizuko Ito, and danah boyd, Participatory Culture in a Networked Era: A Conversation on Youth, Learning, Commerce, and Politics. The book is composed primarily of essays on each of seven topics, and a discussion following each essay. Each author has a different focus on what they’ve been researching, but all have interesting insights. (I found the book primarily as a follower of things danah boyd has written, including It’s Complicated: the social lives of networked teens, which was similarly interesting.) The book is generally targeted at adults, but focuses almost entirely on “younger” (sub-30s at least, and generally teen) activities.

In chapter 1, on the idea that communities frequently formed out of resistance, then shifted to participation:

danah: […] I want to take Henry’s notion of “Resistant to what?” seriously. Does participatory culture have to be resistant to the status quo? And do communities have to form out of participatory culture or can people be a part of participatory culture without developing the deep connections that both of you highlight in your work?

I hadn’t previously considered that many communities started primarily out of resistance, but Henry points out examples of punk, feminist, and queer appropriation of existing culture as opposition to an existing status quo. (To an extent, fan stories are also proposed in this light, being opposed to both mainstream interpretations of the original work and sometimes other norms, see slash or other fictions.)

In chapter 2, about concerns of parents of children online:

danah: […] Among parents of children ages ten to fourteen, those with girls are significantly more concerned that their daughter will meet a stranger who will harm them and somewhat more concerned that she will be exposed to violent content than parents of boys are. But a child’s sex plays no role in shaping parental concerns regarding exposure to pornography, being bullied, or being a bully. When we held for other factors, the sex of the parent also didn’t seem to matter as much as other factors such as race. Race is a very significant predictor of parental concern. These findings surprised us precisely because we hear gendered rhetoric all the time, but I’ve come to believe that what’s at stake is probably much more complicated than I thought.

In the same chapter, about the reactions to some such fears:

danah: For better or worse, studies regularly show that no increase or decrease in bullying is associated with the internet (Levy et al. 2012). When surveyed, youth consistently report that bullying happens more frequently at school, with greater intensity, and with more social and emotional costs. Parents, on the other hand, focus on the digital realm. This goes back to the issue of visibility. If a child comes home with a black eye, a parent knows that there was a fight at school, but a grumpy child doesn’t necessarily suggest that a bullying incident occurred. Online, where countless interactions leave traces, parents often jump to conclusions about what they see. Unfortunately, our society does not have a strong record in combating bullying – online or off. As a result, parents often want to “solve” the problem by making it less visible – by restricting children’s access to social media or pushing for companies to scan for negative content. But this doesn’t actually curtail bullying. It is only a Band-Aid on the fear.

In chapter 3, regarding status in online groups:

Henry: Within the female fan circles […], it was considered rude to ask another fan what they did in their “mundane life.” […] Many of these fans did not identify strongly with their jobs. They were housewives; they were “pink collar workers” – those working in jobs that have been feminized and devalued in our culture, despite requiring a high level of education for access. The attitude was built into the fannish concept of “mundane life,” life that lacked eep meanings or passions. This perspective reversed the “get a life” language that people often project onto fans. Instead, these women wanted to be valued within fandom based on what they could do as authors, artists, or critics. The result was an alternative and very fluid conception of status. It is a world where every reader is assumed to be a potential writer, and those who are not creating now are assumed not yet to have found the right story to share with the world.

In the same chapter, on how perceived responsibility changes based on framing:

danah: I will never forget the “aha!” moment I had when I read “Who’s Responsible for the Digital Divide?” by Dmitry Epstein, Erik Nisbet, and Tarleton Gillespie (2011). They look at two competing rhetorical moves – the narrative of access that dominated the early discussions and the issue of skills that underpins some of the participation gaps you describe. The argue that, in policy circles, when people talk about the issue as being one of access, there’s an assumption that the government should be responsible for addressing the issue. But when there’s a rhetorical shift to skills, the onus moves to the individual or the community to solve their own problem.

On political participation variance by race versus voting:

Henry: Specifically, 43 percent of white, 41 percent of black, 38 percent of Latino, and 36 percent of Asian-American youth participated in at least one act of participatory politics during the previous twelve months. The racial gap in terms of engaging in participatory politics is much narrower than the gap in voting, where there’s a 15 point divide between the most active group – African-Americans – and the least active – Latino/Latina.

In chapter 4, about dealing with a massive shift in the availability of information:

Mimi: It reminds me of when, for us as a species, calorie abundance (as opposed to calorie scarcity) became a problem. We had to learn new skills in order to manage the fact that fats and sugars are abundant and cheap in our diet, and there are definitely downsides in terms of our health that have resulted from it. We see a similar concern with negative effects of information abundance, but that doesn’t mean that we want to go back to a diet of starvation in terms of communication and information.

Later, about getting people to participate in communities, rather than simply produce something:

Mimi: It is even more challenging to support the cultivation of a mindset of social responsibility about the sharing and circulation of media. When we work with kids who have had limited access to digital tools and networks, it’s not difficult for them to pick up skills in media creation. The bigger challenge is for them to take a leap to being an active contributor to the online world and develop an identity as someone who has real contributions to make.

On the vulnerability of sharing new experiences:

Henry: I had a student who was performing at a C level and never said anything in class. One day, we started talking about Batman, and he came alive, making many contributions, dominating the discussion. […] This was an incredible, intense moment, where his interests were being valued. Then, two of my literature department colleagues walked down the hall, heard what we were discussion, stuck their head into my office, and said, “What are you doing talking about Batman? This is a literature department!” They were joking with me, but the student’s face turned ashen. He stopped talking almost instantly; he wandered away and he said nothing else in the class for the rest of the term.

So, bringing such knowledge into the classroom can be deeply empowering. But this is also an incredibly vulnerable moment, when the slightest negative message will be heard loudly. Schools often give this message – that what matters to young people doesn’t matter in school.

In chapter 5, about Facebook’s [leader’s] intent and structure:

danah: Zuckerberg genuinely believes that everyone will benefit if everyday people openly share in public. He sees transparency as the solution to inequality, dishonesty, and intolerance. And he feels that the best way to make this happen is by creating a piece of technology. He also believes that capitalism incentivizes the best minds to work hard, which is why he has structured his business the way he has.

Regarding the sustainability of online communities:

Henry: We need to have a critical response to the current media environment that reflects both our hopes for the possibilities of collective action within a networked culture and our concerns at the ways that any data we shed can and will be used against us in the marketplace. So many of the academic critics of Web 2.0 stop short of proposing viable alternatives that might allow us to seize some of the opportunities many of us recognized in the early days of the Web. If you start from the premise that everything companies do is by definition evil and corrupt, then you’ve opted out of participating in the conversation about what ethical, sustainable, community-oriented uses of social networking tools and media-sharing platforms might look like. If you fall back on ideals about the purity of public media, that’s probably not going to be what sustains large numbers of experiments in the long run. We need to ask what happens when communities that began by seeing themselves as alternative to dominant social, political, economic, or cultural practices are becoming so dependent on an infrastructure that’s driven by commercial motives.

In chapter 6, about the Harry Potter Alliance, a group I’d never heard of before:

Henry: They start with an empowering fantasy and then link it to real-world concerns – a great example of the civic imagination at work. […] The HPA partners with NGOs and governmental agencies, brokering relationships between fandom and various kinds of political elites. […]

There have been many such campaigns across the history of fandom. […] But they may well have understood this activity in purely cultural terms and not yet understood its potential political implications. By contrast, the HPA has been very effective at helping participants to map their identities as fans onto their identities as citizens or activists and to organize an effective network committed to ongoing social change.

On how to empower people to make a positive difference in their communities:

danah: [We] recognized that there were three key pillars: safety, skills, and opportunities. First, youth need to feel strong as individuals. They need to have structural supports for dealing with everything from family difficulties to mental health issues. […] Next, youth need to develop skills. We talked a lot about “soft” skills, such as social-emotional learning, as well as “hard” skills, such as the ability to make media and communicate messages. Finally, we focused on creating opportunities for diverse youth to use their skills and channel their resilience to make change. […] There’s no doubt that specific experiences often trigger engagement that can lead to becoming an empowered activist, but people don’t simply wake up one day empowered. Activism is cultivated.

On how Kony 2012 / Invisible Children (IC) failed:

Henry: IC proved very effective at creating spreadable media – media that circulated widely across the web – but they were less effective at building drillability – ht ecapacity of people to drill down and develop a more in-depth understanding of the issues. […] Some of this was a consequence of a highly centralized leadership meeting a highly decentralized network, but many young people got caught in the crossfire as IC came under attack from more established activist organizations, policy think tanks, editorialists, and political leaders. IC lost control of its message, and young people were the ones on the ground who lost face with their friends when they couldn’t explain what was going on.

On when “safe spaces” can be most useful:

Henry: I think that there’s a tendency among writers discussing activism to dismiss the importance of this idea of a safe space – a zone where young people can find their footing as citizens and activists before they are shoved into confrontation with other opposing forces. This need for a safe space is especially true for youth who may not have a strong sense of safety in other aspects of their lives – who may not yet feel secure in their social identities, say, or who may confront hostile conditions in their schools and homes to begin with.

In chapter 7, the group discusses their ideals for participatory culture:

People participate through and within communities: participatory culture requires us to move beyond a focus on individualized personal expression; it is about an ethos of “doing it together” in addition to “doing it yourself.”

Finally, on when participation may be the most effective:

We know that, historically, revolutions occur not when conditions are at their worst but, rather, when conditions are improving and when newly enfranchised groups start to develop a shared vision of what a better society might look like. The same may be the case with participatory culture. A rhetoric of participation raises expectations and often forms the basis of more active resistance to constraints that might have seemed acceptable under other circumstances.

In retrospect, I may have dog-eared too many pages. Nonetheless, the book is definitely worth a read-through if you’re interested in the history and future of young people’s interaction with society, particularly online. The discussions are particularly interesting where the authors disagree, and give multiple perspectives on a number of subjects. Despite ostensibly being largely the result of in-person discussions, the book comes with an in-depth references section if you’re interested in following up on nearly any of the claims made. (I’ll be looking at “The Relevance of Algorithms” by Tarleton Gillespie and Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture by Henry Jenkins, although likely skimming the latter due to its length.)

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