Today’s use of the new media, such as social networks, has resulted in the emergence of a new type of culture: the participatory culture, where everyone can create their own content. This paper defines the participatory culture and compares it with broadcast culture, indicates some factors that allowed for the spread of the participatory culture, and identifies some aspects of its impact on the society. It has been shown that participatory culture plays an important role in democracy but has some significant limitations. This should be taken into account if it is to be used for democratic purposes.
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Definitions of Broadcast and Participatory Culture: Their Elements and Traits
The term “participatory culture” refers to a culture where the members of the public not only consume but also create the content of the media. Such a culture can be juxtaposed with broadcast culture, in which only certain people or institutions (such as public figures or governments) can publish content.
Jenkins et al. (2009) identify the following traits of participatory culture: (a) relative simplicity of artistic expression and participation in the civil processes and encouragement of such participation; (b) conviction of participants that the materials that they publish matter; (c) more experienced participants can teach less experienced ones; (d) participants feel socially tied to one another, at least when it comes to others’ opinions about the products they published. Clearly, broadcast culture cannot be described using these traits. On the whole, it might be possible to characterise broadcast culture as one in which consumers are clearly separated from publishers and which requires certain resources, such as the social capital or institutional affiliation, for participation.
While a broadcast culture requires that the representatives of the public have the means to consume the published products (for instance, literacy skills to read newspapers, radios or TV sets to listen to or watch programs, etc.), a participatory culture, in addition, requires the existence of the means of publishing one’s creations and sharing them with others. Such means became available with the development of the computer and the Internet (Williams & Zenger 2012).
Factors That Allowed for the Development and Diffusion of Participatory Culture
Certain elements of participatory culture might be observed throughout history. For example, in the 19th century, situations when people published and spread pamphlets among the public occurred. After the invention of the radio in 1907, broadcasting was born; the first television station was then started in 1928 (Winston 1998). However, while many individuals were now able to consume broadcast products, most people still had no means of publishing and sharing their own content with others.
A participatory culture truly developed only at the end of the 20th and beginning of the 21st century with the emergence of the Internet. Noteworthy is that the Internet was not created as a separate project; it spanned off from a “national security project” in the U.S. (Winston 1998, p. 325). In the 1990s, it started finding its way into the homes and PCs of civilian users, which was a crucial step that provided the technical basis for participatory culture. Also noteworthy is that further technological development and the spread of mobile phones allowed an even wider public to take part in the new media and increased the scale of this participation.
Thus, the mass access to the Internet possibly became the main factor that led to the shift from broadcast to participatory culture and its further diffusion. This is a complex factor, however; the Internet became the means for participatory culture because of some of its properties, such as the absence of a single centre, the absence of hierarchical organisation of users, availability, etc.
Importantly, the social and economic factors that permitted for this new type of culture should not be forgotten either. For instance, in Western countries, the participatory culture was allowed for by individual freedoms of people, such as the freedom of speech, whereas in totalitarian states such as North Korea, access to the web is still severely restricted (Lee 2012) and the broadcast culture dominates. In poor countries, where most people have no money to purchase computers, participatory culture is probably not well-developed either; thus, financial aspects also influence the spread of such culture.
The Impact of Participatory Culture on Society
The participatory culture had a profound and complex influence on society. As was noted in the Week 7 lecture, unlike the broadcast culture, the participatory culture allowed multiple users to also become producers of information. This sometimes becomes the basis for concluding that this culture allows for promoting democracy and increasing civic engagement because it lets anyone report, spread information, share their work, etc., and because it cannot be controlled easily.
This is probably true but only to a certain extent. On the one hand, some social movements and protest campaigns were indeed initiated and supported via the use of the means of participatory culture; for instance, social media played an important role in the Occupy Wall Street movement in 2011 (DeLuca, Lawson & Sun 2012). In addition, the presence of participatory culture might be a barrier to certain secret operations if there is a leakage of information; for instance, Tynan (2013) writes about nuclear weapons tests in Maralinga, the information of which was not spread through the media of a broadcast culture for a very long time. On the other hand, the media utilised in participatory culture can still be controlled; for instance, the government might adopt laws obliging the owners of servers to disclose information that the state desires. Also, the content spread via the new media is not always democratic; the Internet can easily be used to promote totalitarian ideologies, for example, and, interestingly, strictly censoring these might be viewed as a totalitarian act on its own.
Furthermore, there are numerous problems associated with participatory culture. For example, as was noted in the Week 7 lecture, filter programs might mean that each user remains within their own “filter bubble”. Next, while there is no formal hierarchy in this culture, the status of participants (e.g., number of “likes”) does matter. Also, the mass use of the new technologies results in significant restrictions on privacy; the information about users, their personal preferences, etc., is often sold for commercial purposes, promoting consumerism (Pariser 2011), and individuals utilising mobile phones can easily be tracked. Additionally, as is the case with journalists (Goldrace 2008, p. 207), users might often simplify certain phenomena to make their materials more easily consumable, etc.
Therefore, while participatory culture does allow for greater civic engagement, it also comes with a number of drawbacks that considerably influence the modern society and thus should not be ignored.
Thus, it was found that the transition from broadcast to participatory culture in the West occurred at the end of the 20th century and required certain technological means (the Internet) as well as some social and financial conditions (freedom of speech, ability to purchase computers). It was also shown that participatory culture could be a potent tool in the democratic process. However, it has significant limitations and can be used for other purposes as well; this should be taken into account if the numerous and common delusions about this culture are to be avoided.
DeLuca, KM, Lawson, S & Sun, Y 2012, ‘Occupy Wall Street on the public screens of social media: the many framings of the birth of a protest movement’, Communication, Culture & Critique, vol. 5, no. 4, pp. 483-509.
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