Does a participatory culture exist on the internet?

As part of my PhD I’ve been reading about online participatory cultures. Slightly off piste when it comes to dating apps (my main topic), but I’ve been interested in whether or not dating apps are social networks and whether people do participate in a culture when they interact on them. Some of the key pieces of literature around participatory culture are written by Henry Jenkins, Mizuko Ito and danah Boyd - and their book, Participatory Culture in Networked Era (2016) is an easy to read introduction and exploration of the key topics. Written as a discussion between the three of them, it functions as a text and a representation of participation.

Jenkins first referred to “participatory culture” in 1992 in relation to his research on fandom in particular the, “blurring between forms and of cultural production and forms of social exchange; fans understood fandom to be an informal ‘community’ defined around notions of equality, reciprocity, sociality and diversity.” (page 2) Since then the explosion of a digital age has seen the growth of participatory cultures online, and Jenkins initial utopian version of a participatory culture has morphed and changed. Online communities engage in forms of cultural production and social exchange but the equality, reciprocity, sociality and diversity that we first imagined would come hand-in-hand with the internet has not eventuated - instead social inequities have been “baked in” to platforms and networks.

Jenkins, Ito and boyd demonstrate the tension between the notion of social networks and communities formed on the internet and the inherent duality with the individualism of being able to select that network. We choose to follow and see content - the individual is at the centre of the network, and as a result reinforces or replicates existing social structure, exposing themselves to virtually the same network as in real-word. The intent here of cultural production and participation is also of interest - does the individual create content to participate in the group in a form reciprocal exchange, or simply for self-promotion? The narcistic values created as a result of social media have long since been explored - however are somewhat mono-dimensional, and at extreme odds with the initial intent of the internet in linking people and communities, reinforcing sociality and diversity.

Jenkins raises the issue around the privatisation of infrastructure, content and relationships, indicating “Each layer represents a significant set of struggles between the historic practices associated with various forms of participatory culture and corporatiziation” (page 149). The privatisation of relationships is particularly relevant to dating apps. Jenkins refers to the privatisation of relationships particularly in relation to social networking platforms (Facebook in this case) where the user brings themselves and their relationships, as well as content, but later finds it difficult to export the data relating to these social interactions elsewhere. Similar to this, the user brings themselves and content to a dating apps - interactions then occur on the dating app with subjects of interest (social interactions) and cultural content is created (messaging / discourse) - but the platform retains this cultural content. When it comes to dating apps the cultural content becomes almost a means to an end - the instigation and navigation of a relationship - nonetheless the ownership of the content shifts from the individuals to the platform.

Participatory culture is examined through the lens of “digital natives” (young people who have always had access to the internet) and “digital immigrants” (older people who have had to adapt to the internet). Jenkins, Ito and boyd all identify these terms as unsatisfactory and limiting in terms of describing these participatory groups. Both terms are indeed loaded - as boyd notes, "I’m fascinated by the ways in which adults use this language to imply that being ‘native’ is a more illustrious position. As Genevieve Bell has noted, the natives never win. They have historically gotten enslaved, killed or ‘harmonized’ by powerful ‘immigrants’ (a.k.a colonisers) (page 48). An interesting point to note, but perhaps what needs to be examined here is the use of the words native and immigrant in a 2019 context, and how they too have morphed and change. It would be difficult to ascribe the word immigrant with the same connotations. The debate in relation to “natives” and “immigrants” however is incredibly relevant to the normative practises that are ascribed to each group and the moral fear associated with youth participatory culture online. In my case, I’m interested to see the way “natives” and “immigrants” participate on dating apps, and whether the characteristic associated with each of the groups - natives (oversharing), immigrants (conservative-use and inept) is actually accurate from an online relationship perspective. I would also be interested in re-christening the controversial terms.

The main point of interest for me in relation to participatory culture is the notion of systemic inequity. When the internet and communities first came to being there was a sense that this was a place for everyone to participate, share their views and be welcomed. There was the vision for a social fluidity which might not have been possible in a real life context. However, some twenty to thirty years later the barriers to participatory culture from a social, political and cultural stratification perspective still exist. As boyd writes “the rhetoric surrounding social media often highlights that technology is an equal opportunity platform; ‘everyone’ supposedly has the ability to have their voice heard. I think that this is seriously deceptive. I would argue that true participation requires many qualities: agency, the ability to understand a social situation well enough to engage constructively, the skills to contribute effectively, connections with others to help build an audiences and emotional resilience to handle negatives feedback, and enough social status to speak without consequences. (page 22)”

This is such an important point - we often focus on the “digital divide” and access to technology, but there are so many other elements that constitute that digital divide, many of which mirror participation in a real-world environment. The capacity to create cultural content often relies on the confidence to have a voice, a value which is often instilled in the privileged. It also relies on the notion that the user has access to networks where their cultural content will be “heard” - again a barrier given the individualisation of social networks. This makes me wonder if there is indeed a way to create a more equitable participatory culture, or if as flawed human beings  we are simply mimicking existing structures which are culturally and socially understood as the norm?

Open to your views.