“Participatory culture is a term often used for designating the involvement of users, audiences, consumers and fans in the creation of culture and content” (Fuchs, 2014). As Henry Jenkins characterizes social media and web 2.0 as “spreadable media”, which empowers consumers and make them an integral part of a commodity’s success. Social media are also an expression of participatory culture, in which defined by Jenkins as culture “in which fans and other consumers are invited to actively participate in the creation and circulation of new content”. He defines participatory culture as:
1) relatively low barriers to artistic expression and civic engagement
2) strong support for creating and sharing creations with others
3) some type of informal mentorship whereby what is known by the most experienced is passed along to novices
4) members who believe that their contributions matter
5) members who feel some degree of social connection with one another
However Fuchs (2014) has pointed out a few criticisms of Jenkins’ proposition of participatory culture. Firstly, participation is a political science term that is strongly connected to participatory democracy theory (Fuchs, 2014, p. 54). He mentions that the use of the term “participation” in participatory culture is vulgar, and that Internet Studies should instead relate themselves to participatory democracy theory in which it has more political dimensions of democracy. Fuchs (2014) suggests so because Jenkins’ definition and usage ignores certain aspects, such as ownership of platforms/companies, collective decision-making, profit, class and the distribution of material benefits. These aspects are important as Jenkins’ definition suggest equality in ownership with everyone connected on the internet, however that is not true to Fuchs (2014) as he notes that huge platform owners such as Facebook and Google strongly mediate the cultural expressions of Internet users. Fuchs (2014) criticizes that Jenkins has a reductionist concept of media participation, and also essentializes exclusion when he put forth the argument that participation is a relative concept.
Fuchs (2014) also criticized that Jenkins’ notion of participatory culture is mainly about expressions, engagement, creation, sharing, experience, contributions and feelings, while not so much about how these practices are enabled capital accumulation. Jenkins ignores the broad notion of participatory democracy, and fails to realize that an Internet dominated by corporations that accumulate capital by exploiting and commodifying users can never be participatory in nature. Jenkins celebrates participatory culture without engaging the downsides of the Internet, such as E-waste, privacy violations, user exploitation, or even workers who produce hardware that are engulfed in a toxic environment.
Fuchs (2014) acknowledges that Jenkins is aware that corporations exert greater power than consumers, however notes that Jenkins still wants to assert the reader that contemporary media empower consumers to successfully resist corporatism. Jenkins is criticized that he overlooks the inequality of power in voices, and that frequently voices are marginalized because visibility is a central resource that powerful media corporations can buy. He fails to realize that as long as corporations dominate the Internet, it will not be participatory. A participatory Internet can only be found in areas that resist corporate domination such as projects like Wikipedia.
Finally, Jenkins, Ford and Green’s (2013) book Spreadable Media seem to give the impression that the world is only inhabited by fans, as if the Arab Spring, WikiLeaks, Anonymous, the Occupy movement and widespread protests and revolutions all of which originated or propagated from the Internet did not exist. It is a form of elitism that privileges fans and disregards activists and citizens.
Van Dijck and Nieborg (2009) agree with Fuchs (2014) largely in that they paid detailed attention to the aspect of ownership in the culture of “co-creation”. They emphasize that users who contribute content are indirectly sending personal information to corporations, who may extract and use this information for advertising and marketing. Van Dijck and Nieborg have also criticized the authors of Wikinomics and ‘We-Think’ for overlooking issues of ownership, similar to how Fuchs (2014) criticizes Jenkins for his celebration of participatory culture.
Like Fuchs (2014), Van Dijck and Nieborg (2009) also criticized the overstating of users’ creativity and activity. They criticized the authors of Wikinomics and ‘We-Think’ for the assumption that users have the equal amount of creativity and all users are motivated by self-expression, while only a small minority are actually content creators. Most of the web 2.0 users only wish to be self-entertained, and not creating content for others.
We can thus observe that Fuchs, Van Dijck and Nieborg propose the importance of critically examining the concept of participatory culture, considering important aspects such as ownership, economy and reductionistic thinking.
Fuchs, C. (2014) Social Media: A Critical Introduction. London: Sage. (chapter 3)
Van Dijck, J., & Nieborg, D. (2009). Wikinomics and its Discontents: A Critical Analysis of Web 2.0 Business Manifestos. New Media & Society, 11(5), 855- 874.