When Big Media Aren’t the Biggest

One of the key aspects of my PhD research is the practice and theory of participatory media, which I originally took to be more self-explanatory than it apparently is.

For me, the term participatory media has always encompassed and been greater than the term Web 2.0, which I find reflects old paradigms of thinking about technology and, perhaps more importantly, human interaction with technology1. For starters, Web 2.0 is technological determinism in its most bizarre and insidious form. Whereas it might seem Web 2.0 puts emphasis on the social aspects of the web, to me it places the emphasis on the medium (the Web) while deliberately attempting to obscure that fact. Take, for example, this definition of Web 2.0:

a collection of Web tools that facilitate collaboration and information sharing. (Casey and Li 2012, p.204)2

This clearly places the primacy on the technology in use. Such a construct is insufficient for the nuances of participatory media as I imagine it.

Participatory media needs to include aspects of shared knowledge making, where the users are in dialogue with each other. Penman describes it as being a situated interpreter, or “to engage in sense-making in our relation with others” (2000, p.45)3 This is very much a Bakhtinian sense of dialogue, which recognises the essential joint (or social) nature of human relationships and language (Penman 2000)34. This understanding of dialogue is important also for conceptualising how I see participatory media articulating with existing structures of Web 2.0. Participatory media is in a dialogue with Web 2.0. As such, without a solid understanding of what Web 2.0 is and where it comes from (the topic of another blog post), participatory media cannot be fully articulated. Suffice to say that Web 2.0 is both too restrictive and discursively destructive to play too great a role in underpinning understandings of participatory media.

Aside from being a shared process of knowledge making, mediated though it is, participatory media is also in a superior dialogue with theories of participatory culture. Indeed, it would be plausible to argue that participatory media are absolutely integral to the modern participatory culture. Here’s how Henry Jenkins describes participatory culture:

A graphic showing Henry Jenkins' typology of participatory culture

(Jenkins 2006)5

If this is a participatory culture, than we can assume participatory media to be those electronic tools that are used (as opposed to ‘enable’) to participate. In my research, the method and form of participation is that enabled by local government authorities. For Casey and Li, this is only effective if it is “sought early, often and ongoing and utilized at multiple phases of the decision-making process.” (2012, p.198)2

The implications of participatory media (in a participatory culture) include the rewriting of old concepts like citizen, consumer and audience. Clay Shirky puts it this way:

Just as social tools are creating members of the former audience, they are creating legions of former consumers, if by “consumer” we mean an atomized and voiceless purchaser of goods and services. Consumers now talk back to businesses and speak out to the general public, and they can do so en masse and in coordinated ways.” (2008 p179)6

The citizen too was “atomized and voiceless” but now has the ability to “talk back… and speak out”. How local governments respond to this, and whether/how they use participatory media to do so, is essentially the core of my research.

  1. See my post on The Human Internet for some of my thoughts on that aspect. []
  2. Casey, C. & Li, J., 2012. Web 2.0 Technologies and Authentic Public Participation: Engaging Citizens in Decision Making Processes. In K. Kloby & M. J. D’Agostino, eds. Citizen 2.0: Public and Government Interaction Through Web 2.0 Technologies. Hershey, PA: Information Science Reference, pp. 197–223. [] []
  3. Penman, R., 2000. Reconstructing Communicating: Looking to a Future, Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates. [] []
  4. See also Bakhtin on Wikipedia []
  5. Jenkins, H., 2006. Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture : Media Education for the 21st Century, Chicago. Available at: http://www.macfound.org/media/article_pdfs/JENKINS_WHITE_PAPER.PDF []
  6. Shirky, C., 2008. Here Comes Everybody, New York: The Penguin Press. []