Participatory Culture

“Creating knowledge together”
How many times do you look at Wikipedia or Youtube per week? The answer may vary, but most of us probably could not even tell. Why are we doing it? Is it for school? For work? For fun? For personal entertainment? Most of us use sites like these every day, several times a day. We are certainly able to find a lot of information on sites like the ones mentioned before, either for academic purposes or personal interest. Such sites are constructed with people’s knowledge and contributions. In a way, we could say that people are participating in them resembling the way that students participate in a class. Such participations can be associated with the concept of “Participatory Culture”.

What is Participatory Culture?

Today most of us rely on technology for our studies. We all use it for either completing any task, for our classes, studying before an exam or even to learn something we have an interest in.

There are different platforms on the web that allow us access to various types of information. If any of us want to have a broad idea about a topic we can just type it in the Google search bar. If we do that, then we are most likely to find among the first results Wikipedia articles, or even YouTube videos. Both of these sites are composed of massive quantities of information that users/humans like you and I input every day. Sites like these rely on the contributions of millions of users around the world. What we do when we add something to them is actually contributing to a whole system of shared and public information accessible to virtually everyone, everywhere.

A man who has spent several decades studying the participation of people in web sites that allow such contributions is Henry Jenkins. He is the “Provost’s Professor of Communication, Journalism, and Cinematic Arts at the University of Southern California”, former professor at MIT and author of several books among other numerous things.

Professor H. Jenkins used the term “Participatory Culture” to describe the way in which people communicated and shared their ideas with other people. The concept was well-executed way before the digital era even came into the worlds of the people who were eager to share their ideas, their writing, their personal creations, and etcetera. The digital era brought with it the wonderful opportunity of a new environment that was inclusive and friendly to those who wished to contribute and share information, even of their own craft, such as fan fiction for example.

People found on the web a medium to write down their ideas and have them without the risk of losing what they have written, like it would happen with notes, notebooks or letters. The medium of the web made it easier to revisit, edit and share those ideas. Unlike the other paper resources, the digital was also a way to keep them always in the same place (permalink) and available for anyone at anytime, anywhere. Ever since, the mediums and the forums where people write have become more and more common and diverse.

Defining P.C.

Let’s define participatory culture as one:

  1. With relatively low barriers to artistic expression and civic engagement
  2. With strong support for creating and sharing one’s creations with others
  3. With some type of informal mentorship whereby what is known by the most experienced is passed along to novices
  4. Where members believe that their contributions matter
  5. Where members feel some degree of social connection with one another (at the least they care what other people think about what they have created).

Not every member must contribute, but all must believe they are free to contribute when ready and that what they contribute will be appropriately valued.

Participation can take many forms. It can be found in diverse media forms, such as videos, images, programs, etc. One of the biggest platforms of our era is “Youtube”.

Media Platforms like YouTube

Now, discussing YouTube could take us a really long time, resulting in a really long paper. We could just discuss briefly about it since undoubtedly anyone reading this knows what YouTube is.

First of all, what is YouTube? Can any of you define it? Snickars and Vonderau, the editors of the book “The YouTube Reader” allude to a metaphor in the defining word “platform” of this website because of its social, economic and technological importance. In the extension of the word, YouTube can be a library, an archive collector, a laboratory or a medium like television (13). It is a database. A watchable database owned by people. Taking advantage of YouTube as an archival platform also entails some sort of media transfer and media creation from the people.

YouTube is the site where probably most of us find and watch videos. Its utility ranges tremendously. For example, students are able to find a lot of useful information about a topic they are doing research on with simply typing in a few words. For instance, let’s push this example and bring here a helpful source to understand more about participatory culture from Henry Jenkins’ words:


What we just did here was incorporate a video, someone else somewhere else did, and use it to exemplify and expand on the topic we are trying to discuss and understand more. Hence, the video provided by the user DMLResearchHub  which stands for “Digital Media + Leaning”, serve as an aid to comprehend the topic and watch a person that we would not be able to see speaking in our common lives outside in our schools or works. With the aid of a video, we have the chance to see and learn about something. Also, this video adds and supports the information presented about Participatory Culture.

New Media Literacies

Along with Participatory culture we find the discussion on New Media Literacies. What is it? You may think, well, the answer is simple: “Media literacy is the ability to access, analyze, evaluate, and create media” which is an effective and engaging way to apply critical thinking skills to a wide range of matters. What is the use of having a computer if we don’t know how to use it? Well, what is the use of having a lot of resources available online if we don’t know how to give them a good use? It is important for kids, for students, and for everyone to know how to engage and develop the necessary skills to participate actively in different spaces on the digital world. The project of New Media Literacies recognizes a list of skills that not only apply the nature of a class but also applied to real life. Such list include: play, performance, simulation, appropriation, multitasking, distributed cognition, among a few others. The whole list and the definition of each one can be found on their web page. NML is a project that seeks to spread knowledge by adopting and evolving into a new form of teaching and learning that moves away from strictly traditional and embraces the new digital facilities everyone lives with today. As Jenkins describes, words move through various contexts, they assume new associations and face direct challenges, but they also gain broader circulation (180). Participatory culture needs the new media literacies, people to start engaging and being active contributors of collective intelligence. Because this kind of participation does not happen automatically, we have to construct it. One way is by academic approach where professors take action in classes and encourage students to think critically and reflect on web content they are exposed to. Professors and educators are taking the acceptance and the steps by reflecting on the new ways that young people are engaging with the world around them by designing different kind of courses. As an example, take the course UNIV 200 “Thought Vectors in Concept Space” imparted by professors at the Virginia Commonwealth University. The official name of the course at Virginia Commonwealth University is UNIV 200: Inquiry and the Craft of Argument. The first time it was offered, during the summer of 2014, it was designed in six fully online sections. “The rest of the internet was invited to join along as open participants.” For fall 2015, there were also hybrid classes. One of those sections was called “The Spirit Of 76’ “. “And, as last time, the rest of the internet was invited to join along as open participants.”

Such course is an illustration of what new media literacies project is directed to. With this following video we can learn more, (and shortly) about this project that addresses the social skills and cultural competencies needed to fully engage with today’s participatory culture.


Engaging in Participatory Culture

Fan Communities, Activism, Fan Culture, Culture Jamming, Cultural Acupuncture… do any of these words sound familiar? Probably any of us can identify at least one thing that we really admire, something that we really like or we are interested in. Being a fan means having an admiration for something, and being an advocate of something or someone. Henry Jenkins studied fan culture for several years. He wrote books on that topic, fandoms, gamers, everything like that. You may be wondering, what does fandom have to do with the new media literacies and hybrid classes? Well, everything! Fandoms are the perfect example for participatory culture. Henry Jenkins has been studying fandom culture for decades, even before the digital era came.

“Fandom is born out from fascination and frustration” both feelings keep the person engaged. Engagement is what is needed to achieve something. Whether it is pass a course, create software, complete a painting or a sculpture or build a machine, to mention some examples. Engagement keeps the person creating and producing something. For example, teens are producing media, every day, everywhere, all of the time. From taking casual selfies to developing social and political strategies in game sites that may help the country and even the world in real life. The impact that individuals can have when they get interest in something and learn in an untraditional way is incredible. For instance through their participation in the informal learning communities of the web, such as fans and gamer sites, they can develop a series of strategies and skills that can be applied to other areas of education and life in general. Ted Nelson, a “dreamer” stated “The human mind is born free, yet everywhere it is in chains. The educational system serves mainly to destroy for most people, in varying degrees, intelligence, curiosity, enthusiasm, and intellectual initiative and self-confidence. We are born with these. They are gone or severely diminished when we leave school.”  Jenkins mentions that the individuals that happened to do something remarkable and outstanding in the informal learning communities sometimes do not feel a strong bond towards school or are even dropouts. Jenkins discusses in one of his blog posts about the new media literacies and how a girl gained a lot of political and social learning by playing the popular simulation game “The Sims”. The remark on his research and findings is not exactly on the individuals (that were the exception to the norm in each case) by earning different achievements online and off line, but on how they stood out of the crowd due to their particular interest and their engagement in certain digital platforms demonstrating “the emergence of a cultural context that supports widespread participation in the production and distribution of media”.

Youth, mostly, but not always youth (it could be anyone), tend to recognize, idealize and get fascinated by products. Sometimes people really appreciate something, like a movie, a comic book, a band, or some other creative or entertaining product. Some of those people become a fan of something and they start producing other creations around it. Continuations, second parts, creating alternative endings and stories within the same worlds or characters differing from the original story line are created and shared in digital spaces. And it is important to remark that by that point, the story, characters, or whatever the original products was, moves to the hands of the fans. The fans are those who transform it and play with the original idea creating derivations of it, which sometimes result in very interesting productions.

As an illustration of this, we can mention the recut film trailers, which are discussed in different essays about fan culture and participatory culture.

Recut Film Trailers

Sometimes people like to create their own version of film trailers or remix footage, just like the example above. Sometimes, people produce funny things. The author Kathleen Williams states “Recut trailers have become a recognizable and popular form of video on YouTube. The trailers involve “cutting” or mashing up footage from one or more source texts in  order to create a new trailer for a film, or a version of a film that will never exist […] to inform and reflect cinematic desires” (48). Rather than reading the trailer only as an advertising text, recut trailers allow audiences to see an old film in a different perspective, drove by nostalgia and their own personal desires (Williams, 47). Some of these recut trailers can be modifiers of the original film and the story line as a product of any fan’s creativity or imagination. For example, Mary Poppins as a horror movie, or “The Sinning” as a romantic comedy. Some recut trailers, such as these example, demonstrate the enjoyment and the playfulness of the fans that like to change and mess with the original product. This, is a big characteristic of fandoms too.

One of the best examples found in the internet could be the mash-up fake trailer of a blockbuster sequel, “Titanic, two the surface”. What we have here is a clear example of somebody taking footage from different cinematic works from different intellectual properties and mixing them together to create something new. Most of us, regardless our age, are familiar with the movie Titanic, and we recognize that this ‘sequel idea’ seems almost ridiculous yet hysterically funny. What the person who uploaded this video did, was provide us with entertainment and a different way to look at things. We see a different aspect that we probably did not think about before. It modified what was created before and worked that idea of the romance between two people to create a new spin off involving different scenarios. The idea behind this is simple: take something from that that existed before, (such as inspiration, material, ideas…), and make something new out of it, modify it, improve it and transform to create something new that can be appealing, helpful or useful for people in your era, age, or stage. It is not only about YouTube videos and mash up footage, but the concept can be applied for different issues addressed in the media nowadays. The important point here is- create something new that is going to have an impact on your receptor, while it is entertaining, informative or denouncing.

Author Paul Booth mentions in his book how a “philosophy of playfulness” is a useful lens to analyze digital mediated fan productivity and interactions:

“One key characteristic we can witness in Digital Fandom is how fans use of technologies brings a sense of playfulness to the work of active reading. The work that fans out into creating fan fiction, fan videos, fan wikis of other fan works can all be boiled down to the fact that they are fun to share. What these examples illustrate is an approaching trend in contemporary media to ludicize texts, or for audiences to create a philosophy of playfulness in their writing to each other” (12).

In response to this, author Williams expresses that fan creations are fun to share (emphasis in the word share) “to participate in a culture that facilitates and promotes sharing and creation is a type of playfulness within media systems” (55). It is noteworthy to mention that not all admirers of films, comics, cartoons, TV shows, etc, are fans or part of a fandom. Some may have an attitude towards a film, but doesn’t mean they are part of the fan culture. Anyhow, the point is that recut trailers are a useful vehicle through which to discuss the relationship audiences have to cinema and their engagement in media allowing them to participate sharing their creations. (Williams, 59)

Impact of Participatory Culture and the Future

So, if we already have the mediums, have the tools, have the creativity, and we have the ways to do whatever we want, then why are we not further in our advance? Well, we are far from where we would like to be but we are making progress. Today many individuals start to engage more and more in creating and sharing knowledge to every one curious enough to read it. We are part of the generation of change makers. “Over the past two decades, a growing portion of the general public has expanded its communication capacities, exerting a much greater degree of control over the production and circulation of media than ever before. In the process, they have been participating in the culture around them in powerful new ways” (Jenkins, 35).

Participatory culture allows us to explore the different ways in which people communicate and share what they want to share for a common purpose. Participatory culture benefits us all including students and professors, scholars and random internet users in general, formal and informal websites, communities and bloggers. We all become benefited from what each one of us share on the web with each other. Because at the same time we are walking together to a more conscious society while passing along collective knowledge and intelligence that we need for a better world.


Works Cited

Booth, Paul. Digital Fandom: New Media Studies. New York: Peter Lang, 2010. Print.

Jenkins, Henry. Fans, Bloggers, and Gamers Exploring Participatory Culture. New York: NYU, 2006. Print.

Jenkins Henry. Participatory Culture: From Co-Creating Brand Meaning to Changing the World. GfK Marketing Intelligence Review 6.2 (2014): 34-39. Print.

Media Literacy Project. Access. Analyze. Create. Web. 1 December 2015.

Williams, Kathleen. Recut Film Trailers, Nostalgia and the Teen Film. Fan Culture. Ed. Barton and Lampley. Jefferson: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2014. 47-59. Print.





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