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Nov 262007

At the Cross-Media Storytelling conference a few days ago I witnessed a strange event with one of the categories of speakers. There were three groups of speakers, forward thinking practitioners, catch-up heritage media representatives and theoretical, reflective academics. The last group had one or two useful observations wrapped up in PhD-like presentations but the two hundred strong continental European audience requested a little less complex rhetoric – I have talked about this problem before and upset a few in the process. But, that was not the strange element, it was that each academic, and I forcibly recall four in particular, were keen on de-constructing and putting forward the view that participation in and around web 2.0 is a myth. This ‘opinion’ would have been fine as a short two minute statement, but being academia they spent hours analysing it from many angles, backed each other up and of course gave many citations from esteemed writers and colleagues.

Now. Is it currently fashionable in academia to take the opposing view to popular media, industry? Probably, it gets you noticed. Is it common for several similar ‘theories’ to pop-up in one conference, a sort of academic zeitgeist? Most importantly is there any truth in what was being said? I don’t have time to write a long article on this (I am travelling – hence some probable typos and bad grammar) but I threw together a little diagram to support MY simple viewpoint. This diagram grew out my frustration of this one dimensional view (that only those who post/upload content are valued participators) and also from a live, real time, question I asked the last speaker who had put the theory forward for a fourth time. So I tried to get him to clarify what he meant, I paraphrase the question…
Gary: “Am I participating in this conference by asking this question”,
Speaker: “Yes of course”
Gary: “Then why are those who comment, rate, share, recommend, mash-up not considered participants in online social networks?”
The speaker then went onto to say academics have to draw a line in the sand between involvement those who may change the title of a podcast they downloaded for example and those who submit truly original content. Afterwards I said why do you have to draw a line when we are talking about ‘degrees’ of participation? He said academics like defined lines and specificity to be able to hang theories on – yet none showed any kind of digram or quantification of those lines. So here is my ‘line’ in the sand stating that participation in society, politics, online social networks etc: is not either on or off it is a continuum of degrees of influence. It is an analog and not a digital 0 or 1 as the academics represented seem to propose.

Myth of Non-Participation

All the speakers on the other side of the participation fence (I was one amongst the web 3.0, cross-reality stuff, putting forward simple concepts of co-creative communities and participation) talked about over mediation, moderation and artificial constructs that gave the ‘users’ (yuck word) a perception of participation in which there was none. My diagram above takes a different view. Anyone and everyone can have significant influence in the social network. Whether you simply share a video (The Sharers) with a friend or create one from scratch (The Creators), makes a statement and you are influencing. You can also have significantly more influence by commenting (The Critics) than by creating sometimes. You make a video that has ambiguous socio-political stance and the first comment may actually draw attention to what it is actually saying. I know many of ‘The Critics’ who fall into this. The other thing I was trying to represent on the diagram was scale, numbers and level. So we obviously have more of ‘The Consumers’ (passive watchers/readers) than say ‘The Editors’ – those who will take content and ‘modify it’ before presenting it. Also the potential ‘level’ of influence of each group is indicated in the right triangle, and one would imagine a focused blog post or moving YouTube video would have more influence – but as I said before if enough people rate it highly the actual influence is generated by the community, not by the original piece.

A few of the academic presenters talked about the environment the perceived participation exists in. That something like a TV show that utilises video stories from its community is filtering and doesn’t really allow them to participate – but who said Broadcast TV is about participation in the first place – especially the example from 1993 given! Another one said that a social network run by a commercial company is controlling and is naturally inhibits due to complex, proprietary interfaces the natural course of participation. My simple answer is, if any ‘environment’ allows the community to communicate with each other freely and have at least some degree of co-creation then it is totally valid. Open source is one end of this spectrum, but even then open source is still a ‘tool’ created by a small group of people for much larger members of the community that use it. One thing I referred to in my talk relevant to perception of involvement is something I call ‘pushed interactivity’. This to me is the real problem with so-called interactive services, point and click, pots of content. I have many tens of posts on this topic in the archive on this blog (which is founded on personalization of course) and its relevance here is the word ‘resonance’. To me participation is about resonance, what you do changes in whatever way the environment or system you are participating in. Period. When you perform any action in society (online or real world) you are participating in it.

My blog time is up. Duty calls and I have real time, real life conversation interrupting. You can participate in this particular discussion by being The Critic (comment), The Sharer (forward it to your peers), The Editor (copy paste bits, nick the diagram, write a nice soundtrack to it and re-present it to the world) or become The Creator (by writing an original piece on this topic, vs a fashionable one). An interesting question – is this post a comment? An original creation? Sharing? An edit? Whatever it is I believe it is participation and have some small influence.

Posted by Gary Hayes © 2007

  17 Responses to “Web 2.0 and the Myth of Non-Participation”

  1. Gary – I couldn’t allow myself to read this post without participating in some format… 🙂 Although I was tempted to just nab that diagram outright, I’ll chime in instead. It sounds like a bizarre week you’ve had and glad to see you’re not afraid to stir the pot a little.

    Quantitative data sets are the juiciest morsels of academic rigour and a spectrum of yours tend to buck these systems – I can see where the resistance persists. There are just so many counter arguments to this concept: call-in radio shows, guest appearances on television, etc. I’m not sure renaming files on a private computer would count but republishing a newly renamed file would definitely be on the thin edge of reinterpretation.

    Perhaps what you’re running up against is a signal/noise stigma. I’d agree that a staggering majority of casual participation doesn’t capture the public’s interest but that’s a purely qualitative assessment. And the serpent swallows its tail again…

  2. Hey Evan, sorry I missed replying to this sooner. Thanks for the post and good to see you spotted my little can-of-worms shake, to mix metaphors. I have nothing wrong with rigour but at some point the analysis of data has to have a human interpretation layer – and this is where it often falls down. The thing that is missing for me is the web 2.0 Butterfly Effect (which I am currently writing about), whereby a comment on a blog, just like this one, may on the surface when seen in isolation have virtually no effect on governments, culture, media or society but read by 100, 200, 10 000 people over the space of months will sow the seeds of significant influence. It is difficult to measure, but to be honest that should be part of the rigour, follow the bread crumbs. History shows us a few words can start a war or free a nation. Thanks again!

  3. hey, gary. i’ve responded to your dare: futurepresent.typepad.com/blog/

    (one of the infamous academics to which you refer)

  4. Thanks Claudia,

    All good points mixed in with a few personal slights? “How old school”, “Traditional journalist” and one of my predictions as “Kakotopia” 😉 Will overlook those! Also good to see which side of the non-existent line you stand on – “that doesn’t make me anti-corporatist in and of itself. Though I am.”

    My main point in the talk I gave was about online (and offline – I showed real world LAMP project examples too) collaboration and participation becoming more real time vs, your take on it, wearing VR helmets. Easy target. One trend that is evident, from my old school, traditionalist, (backward perspective?), is for collaborative story-making becoming more a live, shared experience which is manifest and evident in Social Virtual Worlds. I then talked about the cross-media implications of this to get people thinking beyond dynamic websites, YouTube and mobile sms.

    But your mis-interpretation of my point here is perhaps indicative of why there is actually a divide between academia and industry/production. When I was a BBC senior producer of cross-media I actually did come into contact with many edus in the UK (including Bournemouth) all wanting some steerage on curriculum, to make it more relevant to industry. This is still the case now. Why is that? To me it is simple. The difference between those who produce and those who comment/study. I used in my talk a few real world examples – one was of the avatars in real time in a quiz show, a metaphor, a portent of where we might be headed based on existing production – not as the only direction?!. I talked about the evolution of form (and stressed lessening the importance of distribution and tech). To my point, producers who make and deliver cross-media content are best placed, IMHO, to predict those incremental innovative steps from where we are now – because they have to look at existing services (on-which they will evolve) from a delivery perspective. A commentator can only respond to what is placed in front of them. This may in itself open another can of worms – but better that than what I perceive as a bit of a vacuum in really getting to the heart of good cross-media service design.

    I just had a major macbook pro disk crash on New Years Day but am in the process of putting all my slides onto slideshare and will link to this Belgium presentation which will help clarify my points.

    Best Gary

    BTW LAMP is run through the Australian Film TV and Radio School an academic institution of renown. So I am by definition an academic and this may just be semantic confusion which has happened before. The real differential for me is about production vs research I suppose – a constant battle in all organisations I have ever been in. Finding people who can work effectively in both areas is the real challenge.

  5. you’ve missed the entire point of my response to your dare (again). many of us exist as practitioners AND academics, producers AND researchers. this divide you speak of IS semantic AND old-school 😉

  6. you continue to miss my point, Gary. many of us are practitioners AND academics, producers AND researchers. the line of which you speak IS semantic AND old-school 😉

  7. Sorry just spotted this one – been busy. Yes I know this world indeed. Directing an academic R&D Lab, LAMP (albeit audience/industry focused) AND heading up a commercial company, The Project Factory – but I live/do them in parallel. My point (in this small area of the discussion) would now be about doing both effectively. Context: Emerging/New Media is a fast changing world and any research has a shelf life of only a few months, also any production is only relevant to an audience in a similar time frame before trends/fads move on. Most of the PhD/Researcher types that I know often don’t have the time to run a blog (you just stated that on yours!) never mind get heads down into a 6 month production. Most of the professionals in new media often don’t have time to scan their RSS feeds never mind get heads down into serious research.

    If your talking about 2 years in academia then 2 years in industry then sure – you can do both but 2 years is a very long time in or out in this field. If your talking about dabbling in each then sure, a few websites, short films or casual games here and there for a handful of people alongside the MA/PhD – but from my experience which is very NOW school, those in academia are constantly saying they never have enough time to produce effectively and those in industry never enough time to study or research/sandbox ideas effectively.

    This is something that is not, “oh that’s how it used to be”, it is now and real and those who say it isn’t are living in kakotopia, wherever that is 😉

  8. Hello Greg, very interesting debate! I made some rather super partes remarks on my blog if you care to take a look. all best


  9. i see, gary. so what you’re really saying is that only YOU can do this effectively, hey? 😉

    beyond my own practice work (which *includes* my phd and goes *beyond* my blog), have you had the time to have a look at neal white and sean street’s work, to which i refer in my post?

  10. [Link] Web 2.0 and the Myth of Non-Participation tinyurl.com/69xqz6

  11. Jenkins shows great graphic from bit.ly/dk7bBy about web participation #Fiske10

  12. RT @jmittell: great graphic bit.ly/dk7bBy about web participation #Fiske10 // makes me think about phillies blogs, esp @zoowithroy

  13. the myth of non-participation in web2.0 t.co/XN1Nnu2U from 2007 but still good. anyone have other references on this? #km4d #socmed

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