Wednesday, February 11, 2015

On Participation: A Socratic Dialogue

Jenkins: I would like to discuss participatory culture with you, Fuchs. I think that would be good. I believe that I could learn so much from you. You are so smart.

Fuchs: Nice. Let’s get started.

Jenkins: Now, I personally like to believe that a fanbase (or audience) has a large amount of control in participatory culture when it comes to media. This can be seen in fan creations and fan communications with producers. This shows that the people have a large amount of control when it comes to participatory culture. Would you not agree?

Fuchs: Actually, I would not agree, Jenkins.

Jenkins: And why is that, Fuchs?

Fuchs: I find your understanding of the purpose of participatory culture to be a naïve and your assumptions of how much power the audience has to be too optimistic. Culture is not truly participatory unless it aims to change oppressive political and social structures that shape the media. The “fanbase” of which you speak only has the illusion of control through their fan creations. There is no actual change being made in the fabric of society and culture itself, but entertainment of those privileged enough to have the time and voice to make these fan creations. If anything, this is just more fuel for the oppressive capitalistic machine.

Jenkins: But it’s not just fan content! Everyone has a voice now through social media like Facebook, and the internet in general. Anyone can become a content creator!

Fuchs: Everyone, you say? Because it’s pretty hard to be a content creator and have a voice when you’re being exploited for media and technology corporations. Users of social media services such as Facebook and Twitter are being unpaid for the content they create, which is then exploited by the companies to create revenue for the excessively wealthy executives at the companies. Even worse than that are the conditions that low-paid factory workers must endure in order to make the iPhone in your pocket. And the materials that were used to make that iPhone? They were mined by people in slave-like conditions in places like the Democratic Republic of the Congo. There are many layers of oppression at play here when it comes to the use of social media and technology. It’s hardly a matter of freely creating content and expressing oneself. It all plays into the hand of exploitative capitalism.

Jenkins: Well, when you put it that way, I guess I should have some ethical qualms with the commercialization of what should be public expression and content. But still, the Internet is an ideal space for consumer participation. We have a higher diversity of voices publicly expressing themselves than ever before! Not bad for a capitalistic society, right?

Fuchs: Are you even listening to me? Yes, marginalized persons have the opportunity to express themselves through the Internet, but, because of media corporations controlling the visibility of content, some voices are privileged over others. There is a strategic hierarchy on the web governed by the almighty dollar. A person can express themselves on the web all they like, but because of this media control, they will be so ignored that they might as well have said nothing at all.

Jenkins: You’re being a downer. Can you even provide an example of that?

Fuchs: Well, for starters, the most popular videos on YouTube are not political, but entertainment. This is a result of media corporations (such as Universal) buying ad space on the website (as well as many other websites) in order to increase visibility. Smaller content creators on YouTube are unable to pay the price for this kind of visibility, so their videos have significantly lower view counts than the videos posted by major media corporations. This undermines your optimistic view of an Internet by the people, for the people, so to speak.

Jenkins: But it’s not like this stops people from using YouTube as a means of expression. There are plenty of people who are able to gain visibility without ads!

Fuchs: Yes, but normally it’s for entertainment purposes. Political videos do not have as high a view count. This is a serious problem because what is the point of participatory culture if we are not using it to make the world a better place? We need not only be critical of the media we consume and create, but also the platforms, technologies, and systems we use to create it. We have to use our voices to stop the oppressive forces of capitalism as opposed to playing into the system and aiding it.

Jenkins: So, what you’re saying is that we should use our participatory abilities to subvert the hierarchy that encourages unjust systems of power. Kind of like using media as a form of democracy, right?

Fuchs: Precisely. Participatory culture is not simply a matter of culture itself, but also the political and economic factors that play into media.

Jenkins: I can see what you’re getting at. Thank you for sharing your views! I’m sorry I ever doubted you.

Fuchs: We all make mistakes, Jenkins. I’m sure you’ve learned your lesson. Now, let’s go get some lunch.

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