What is Participatory Culture?
Participatory culture is a term that refers to the culture in which individuals not only act as consumers, but also as contributors or producers. The audience or users are therefore prosumers, and are more or less actively involved in the design of culture and content (see Fuchs, 2014, p.52). Examples are the creation of published media, such as joint editing of a Wikipedia article, uploading images and texts on Facebook or releasing videos on YouTube. This concepts stands in opposition of the consumer culture, where recipients of mass media simply consume without being part of it.
Henry Jenkins suggests that the active role consumers play in sharing spreadable media is a positive aspect of the participatory culture. Along with other scholars he argues that society becomes more democratic due to the possibility of sharing, co-creating, and remixing media content. Jenkins sees social media as an expression of participatory culture, since consumers or fans can participate in the creation and circulation of new content, as well as interact with each other. The infinite artistic expression and civic engagement enable the combining of the individuals’ skills to collective intelligence, so Jenkins (Fuchs, 2014, p.54).
Criticism by Fuchs
While Jenkins has a rather positive or even utopian view on the participatory culture, Christian Fuchs highlights that social media also raises issues that Jenkins oversees completely. In Social Media: A Critical Introduction (2014) Fuchs points out the main critical aspects of participatory culture by analysing Jenkins’ arguments. Firstly, he states that Jenkins forgets to include the broad notion of participatory democracy – including political and economical dimensions. Instead Jenkins reduces the notion of participation to a cultural dimension, which does not entail “questions about ownership of platforms/companies, collective decision making, profit, class and the distribution of material benefits” (Fuchs, 2014, p.55). Fuchs claims that neither the users nor the employees of Facebook, Google and co. participate in any kind of economic decision-making, which increases inequality of ownership and wealth. Jenkins also fails to acknowledge aspects of class and capitalism.
Secondly, Fuchs points out that Jenkins confuses politics with popular culture by assuming that online participation and fandom automatically equal political protest. Fuchs calls Jenkins’ interpretation of participatory culture and social media ” a form of cultural reductionism and determinism” (Fuchs, 2014, p. 66). According to Fuchs he also fails to recognise the downsides of the participatory culture, namely privacy violation and surveillance. In addition, there are also many radical ideas promoted by social media that can give rise to revolutions, positive as well as negative ones. An example could be the Egyptian revolution in 2011 that was mostly organised through social media. Furthermore Fuchs criticises that Jenkins does not grasp the importance of money in an economy based on instrumental reason, and therefore fails to detect that the users’ digital labour is exploited by big corporations. Jenkins argues that users get social benefits from using social media platforms, which would make up for economical or political losses. Fuchs strongly disagrees with this argument.
Criticism by Van Dijck & Nieborg
In their paper Wikinomics and its discontents: a Critical Analysis of Web 2.0 Business Manifestos (2009), José van Dijck and David Nieborg draw a critical perspective to social media. They analyse how marketing experts use the notions of “collectivism”, “participation”, “creativity”, and “prosumtion”. They focus especially on the rhetorics of We-Think and Wikinomics and, in addition, they criticise Jenkins’ Convergence Culture (2006). Their main criticism draws on the utopian view that we live in “a brave new world where the spirits of commonality are finally merged with the interests of capitalism” (Van Dijck & Nieborg, 2009, p.870). The authors ask for more critical awareness of the social and economic implications of participatory culture. Like Fuchs they point out that participatory culture is not always as positive as it seems to be. They claim that only 13 percent of the social media users are actual participants that create, which means that the majority are the ones watching and downloading content instead of actually contributing (Van Dijck & Nieborg, 2009, p. 861). The term collectivism is also misleading, as the motivations behind the use of social media platforms are rather individual. To conclude, Van Dijck and Nieborg claim that we should neither attack nor defend the culture of participation, mass creativity or co-creation, but rather develop a critical understanding of the brave new world we are facing in this century.
Fuchs, C. (2014) Social Media: A Critical Introduction. London: Sage.
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.