Studying Participatory Culture: Reflection on Recent Media Conferences

When I started his blog, it was not only with the idea to document fan events and discussions better and form a small portal for my research, but also to write about the state of the art in media studies. Especially now that the humanities are up for discussion in different European countries and there’s an increasing emphasis on the output of our research and their relevance, I want to communicate about our research even more and make it visible somehow. What are the struggles and what are the questions we raise? I went to a conference in Utrecht on Citizen Science and a summer school in Groningen of our media network, focussing on ethnographic methods. I also attended some lectures of EPET. These require more reflection because I saw some interesting lines here on what being a cultural citizen means today.


Knowledge in a participatory culture

The Citizen Science conference concluded the GATE project ran by University Utrecht (game research for training and entertainment) that focussed not only on obvious issues like serious games and educational games but also on the identities created in games and their different affordances. An important research point was also reconceptualising the concepts from game studies as an analytical tool to view other practices. A good example of this is the research of Michiel de Lange who discussed the urban landscape as a play ground or René Glas and Sybille Lammes who re-framed ‘cheating’ as a way of testing knowledge and creating hypotheses that scientists might benefit from. (This was especially funny since academic fraud and plagiarism, negative concepts often aligned with cheating, are criticized a lot in Dutch academia after two Dutch scholars invented their data).

The application of play concepts resulted in rich cultural analyses, though I am still sceptical about what this lens enables. We often ignore many different aspects of reality by calling everything playful. Indeed, many social practices are playful, as Huizinga showed, but there’s the danger of stopping there. The good thing is that the speakers were very reflexive about their application of play and often used the conference as a testing ground. What it also showed me is that play is also a concept that works well because it balances so well between agency and structures and how we might appropriate or re-interpret those structures. Many talks revealed anxieties about this. Hackers, bloggers, players, they all have expertise that goes against existing structures but also affirms them. Finding the ‘citizen scientist’ (or the scientist as a citizen) turned out to be a difficult job and often meant highlighting hat certain forms of expertise, knowledge and education should not be forgotten. ‘Using a scalpel does not make me a surgeon’, Mirko Schaeffer for instance mentioned.

The speakers covered different ideas of how knowledge should and can be produced in today’s participatory culture. Scott Osterweil discussed the traditional (curated) games and scavenge hunts that he’d designed for children and sketched their value in terms of freedoms. The freedom to experiment, to fail, of effort and of identity, is what he called them. Interestingly, he gave the kids quite some liberty during his games to solve particular problems through different types of texts and visits to the museum. This acquainted them with cultural institutes, internet sites, and many different media. Particularly, he felt that games should be more liberal, a sliding scale between storytelling (with some structure and improvisation) and the way we make up stories as we go (more like mimicry).

Others envisioned new roles of participatory journalism or wondered about citizens engagement with politics. Do new media really make us more democratic? Not really. However, they do enable new types of communication through which we might pack together. Alex Gekker’s talk on Anonymous was refreshing in this sense. He discussed the way Anonymous uses different apps to make political points and described these current trends as ‘casual politicking’ (borrowed from Jesper Juul’s Casual Revolution). Fluid, easy, accessible political content is the trend nowadays, with different social platforms through which citizens voice their concerns. Jeroen Jansz, then, showed how the persuasive content of new media creates a type of citizenship that is voluntary and more actively engaged. Through this participation, awareness might increase. He quoted Van Zoonen: ‘Citizenship must be done!’ Though it is impossible to track what people actually do, his studies did show that games and new media fostered at least an intent be more politically informed.


New or old modes of participating

Still, the media practices of hackers, activists and participatory journalists are nothing new. New media do not necessarily create new cultural practices. Urrichio focussed on the documentary and changes within this genre (that was once tied up to social critique of a few individuals and now more socially produced but perhaps less critical). Perhaps the best practices from new media are those inspired by old media or adopted by them (e.g., good UGC broadcasted at film festival).

Many speakers raised concerns about forms of surveillance through new media (by Facebook and Google, notably but also by smaller companies) and the way in which citizens were exploited. The alternative practices of hackers and others were compared to older groups. Indeed, audiences have always appropriated technology or showed resistance to particular media content. Audiences don’t just take what they get. Here, older theories were clearly used as a template for new practices to spot commonalities. They were nuanced through new data however.

Still, one can wonder whether it suffices to look at media through older methods and means of analysis. Especially Mark Deuze critiqued new media as something that is all around us and is almost too transparent. New ideas are needed to analyze media. Separating media and life becomes almost impossible or text and context for that matter. ‘We live in media not with them. They are us and we are them.’ Deuze’s new book might be an interesting new direction for our field, especially for those of us that do audience research.


Studying audiences and producers

At the research school for media studies (RMeS), a day after Citizen Science, I hear similar noises and especially doing research on new media is put to a test. It no longer suffices to look at individual platforms because users migrate across the internet. Similarly, only looking at either media production or consumption is not enough, but comparisons should be made between the two, depending on your topic. Especially ethnographic methods are discussed as being fruitful methodological tools to move through to the big, diffused networks and to unearth meanings online as well as offline.

In her workshop, José van Dijck argued that old theories (e.g., Foucault’s ideas of surveillance or even Habermas’  ideas of the public sphere) should not be applied rigorously on different media contexts. I am reminded of the application of play that I saw in Utrecht and what the scholars there gave back to this older theory. Updating theory according to your data or combining them with other theories is the obvious way to go. Tom van Hout and Isabelle Awad show us ethnography in practice and some new tools. What I found very exciting was that we actually went into a news room and got to interview people. Of the tools we used especially deedoose seemed very promising.

At EPET, a small conference in Maastricht on techomoral change, I sneak into the keynote speech by Colin Milburn. He explores how gamers pick up alternative meanings from games and express these in fan practices and activism. Especially his account of players’ involvement with Bioshock and Portal is interesting and he does a good close-reading of the role of technology in these narratives. The sacrifice of the companion cube gets much attention and how players subvert this with cheats.

The inspiration of Portal for Anonymous is discussed by Milburn as a result of these subversive morals. Though this peeked my attention, I don’t really buy into this. Even though Portal has a very interesting moral, it’s memes and irony are what these activist picked up, not its ethics or its idea that technology is dangerous. I get that these two are related but it’s something different to buy into the jokes and one-liners of Portal (The cake is a lie) and its atmosphere and puzzles than to say that the game inspires directly to action. In fact, these Anons are part of an extensive internet culture and dabble in technology and new platforms all the time. But the idea that we shouldn’t blindly follow certain political morals, such as the ones put forward by scientology, is obviously a big thing here and certain popular symbols or stories, like V for Vendetta, help underline this.

Future prospects

So what does being a citizen scientist mean today? Many things, obviously, and it can be related to very different groups. All in all, it feeds into wider ideas about our current participatory culture and what is happening in it. This raises many issues; how the industry  – be it television networks, Facebook or Sony – taps into its audiences; how we are connected and network today; how we express meaning  – related to politics, narratives, technology – through different channels and find likeminded individuals; how we stage grassroots action within fiction (e.g., through modding or vidding) or outside it. I find it exciting to see that much is happening in our media landscape but I doubt that we have the right concepts at the moment to fully account for it. New grants, like the Creative Industries fund by NWO, might make exactly the connections possible that we hope for with the industry itself. The next step should be a theoretical move but it should include detailed empirical data because without it, we keep repeating old concepts that share commonalities with what we observe today. However, what we should be looking at are the differences.

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