“Participating in what? And for whose benefit?”. Notes on collective participation and creation


[Versió catalana] [Versión castellana]

Antoni Roig

Faculty of Information and Communication Sciences
Universitat Oberta de Catalunya


As the title of an essay written in response to Martin Butler's discussion of the "precarious alliances" that constitute participatory cultures, cultural theorist Henry Jenkins's pithy "Participation? It's Complicated" (Jenkins, 2015) makes the situation particularly clear: there can be no simple definition of what we mean when we talk about participation and no single explanation about how participatory discourse impacts on our lives. This paper will consider that complexity and conclude by examining it in one specific area of participatory activity: the collective projects that are being increasingly undertaken in a certain area of creative reading and writing.

On the one hand, participatory discourse has permeated every level of our society and has managed to make itself indispensable in the debate on our cultural and civic identity. The cooperative and collaborative projects that characterize Web 2.0 are now commonly defined in terms of participation. Indeed, it is so natural to describe new cultural practices and projects as participatory that one of the most popular ways of referring to contemporary culture is to call it participatory culture, a term proposed by Jenkins himself. At the same time, however, because there are so many varieties of participation, each characterized by its own type of agent, interests and agendas and all forming what we call participatory processes, we run the risk of trivializing participatory activity and reducing it to the involvement of groups of people in any venture, regardless of how, why and to what end they might be working.

With due caution, therefore, participation should be understood as an activity that makes access to any given project more flexible but is also conditioned by other factors, such as who directs the process, makes the rules and defines the calendar and terms (which also means who ensures that the process is transparent and participants' efforts are recognized). In short, we need to know who will actually own the results of the process, how decision making is to be structured and, therefore, what impact the involvement of the participants will really have. As Literat observes (2012), in some projects participants play little more than a token role or else contribute unwittingly to a smokescreen of avowed intentions while other factors remain undisclosed. This is typically one of the dangers of the crowdsourcing practice known as crowdfunding (where a promoter makes an open call, generally to a large network of potential participants, defining an objective and encouraging the public to make monetary contributions to reach an effective, inexpensive solution). And in general terms, this is essentially the logic of Web 2.0 that Tim O'Reilly describes as channelling collective intelligence through an "architecture of participation" (O'Reilly, 2007), which itself suggests the particular control platforms exercise over user-generated content in the service they offer. That control is especially evident in mainstream Web 2.0  platforms like YouTube (Van Dijk, 2009; Kim, 2012; Morreale, 2014) and was recently revealed in the controversy about the censorship of YouTube content creators through the demonetization of their videos. Finally, we should also remember that the economic design of many supposedly "participatory" projects actually tends towards implicit participation, where participants contribute with content, activity and interaction (i.e., data) which companies then convert into value for their own purposes, perpetuating a basic power imbalance. And this is helped, in some way, by the tendency to blur the lines between the concept of participation and the notions access, interaction or engagement, which are all necessary for but not synonymous with participation (Jenkins and Carpentier, 2013).

Carpentier holds that participation in any setting should be informed by theories of democracy (also see Pateman, 1970) so that we may simultaneously identify two basic attributes: the opening of access to the process that is the object of participation; and the presence, during the process, of a series of decision-making mechanisms designed to compensate for imbalances of power between participants. In short, an ideal participatory project prioritizes egalitarian decision making. Without this, it might be argued, access, interaction (understood as the mutual action of different agents) and engagement (understood in subjective terms as invitation, involvement and empowerment) may favour participation but cannot guarantee or replace it because they do not make provisions for the existing power dynamics (Jenkins; Carpentier, 2013; Dahlgren, 2011).

Of course, the danger of pursuing this line of thought too far is that we only accept as truly participatory those projects which meet every prerequisite associated with access and with decision making power—a practically unfulfillable ideal, not only in participatory processes per se but in many other collective arenas in democratic society. To avoid doing this, Carpentier proposes that we broaden our notion of what constitutes decision-making processes in the form of a continuum that can straddle both "minimalist" and "maximalist" (i.e., increasingly ideal) understandings (Carpentier, 2011). Instead of attempting to define what is or what is not participatory, he argues, we should focus on "the extent" (his words) of access and of the distribution of control and power between participants. And we should naturally be aware that a certain number of so-called participatory processes will always fall beyond even the most minimalist end of the continuum.

This should help us to value negotiation and exchange processes in an environment where power may not be egalitarian but is not stable, either. More than a decade ago, Marshall had already defined that new environment as "a dance of control and chaos" (Marshall, 2002). As Jenkins observes in Jenkins and Carpentier (2013), we see this most in the activities of collectives like activists, informal organizations or independent creators, who use the social networks as a channel to reach other communities and broaden their impact, harnessing the affordances of such networks (diffusion, visibility) and consciously accepting the limitations and concessions that have to be made, in exchange processes, in order to find a point of compensation.

A typical example of this search for a balance, even an unstable one, is illustrated in participatory processes in the (widely researched) subculture known as fandom, where fans of a specific exponent of popular culture come together to generate contents inspired by their favourite book, film, series, fictional character or real celebrity. In their most sophisticated form, these contents are usually associated with a specific community of interest and revolve around a certain cultural product or area (genre, series, literary saga); in many cases, they serve as notable examples of participatory organization where the individual participants adopt different roles that strengthen the legitimacy and the quality of what is produced (e.g., the collaboration between fan fiction writers and authors' editors). In this context, libraries have a very important mission as settings for informal learning and as organizations that are ready to curate the various documents—literary and sound-based texts, audiovisuals, interactive and game-based materials—which together comprise the main source of different fandoms. And information professionals can become indispensable as the archivists, curators and organizers of the far-reaching activity of collective creation that is fuelled by fandom and generated in graphic art, written fiction, video and other forms of more instrumental production like tutorials and subtitling. As already demonstrated by certain cutting-edge projects, libraries can become the perfect arena for optimizing creative encounters, exchanges and mentoring. They can also help make the creative participatory processes in fandom more visible and so legitimize practices that were traditionally consigned to the margins of recognized cultural activity but which in recent years have become increasingly important. Indeed, many commercial content producers who once saw these fans as a potential threat to their own authorship have begun to value them as ideal arbiters and consumers who can in fact maintain the public's interest in the official brands. On the one hand, it is true that most corporate participatory processes still only offer such fans restricted access, interaction and engagement, and that they focus on stimulating sales rather than promoting effective participation at levels like those described earlier in this paper. But for that very reason, and remembering Carpentier, it is still particularly important for our society to have spaces and dynamics which reinforce the recognition of collaborative and participatory processes at the maximalist end of our cultural continuum.



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