In 2006, I led a team of MIT researchers who wrote a white paper for the MacArthur Foundation, Confronting the Challenges of a Participatory Culture, which sought to define what literacy might mean in the 21st century.1 We argued that the emergence of networked computing was paving the way for an expansion of the communicative capacities of everyday people, including much greater access to the means of cultural production and circulation than ever before. At the core of that report was what we were calling participatory culture, which we defined as “a culture with relatively low barriers to artistic expression and civic engagement, strong support for creating and sharing one’s creations, and some type of informal mentorship whereby what is known by the most experienced is passed along to novices. A participatory culture is also one in which members believe their contributions matter, and feel some degree of social connection with one another (at least they care what other people think about what they have created)”2. We saw the new media literacies as those skills required for meaningful participation.
There were a number of distinctive features of our conception of the new media literacies:
– We were pushing beyond text-based notions of literacy to include the full range of different ways that people could express their thinking to the world – from drawing to digital modeling, from making music to recording videos.
– The New Media Literacies were shared capacities that existed within a “community”, rather than individual competencies. Strengthening our new media literacies involved strengthening our connections with each other, fostering an ethos where we are producing and sharing knowledge together on an ongoing basis and creating a system that supports individual and collective expression.
– They are “social skills and cultural competencies” (such as play as a form of experimentation, appropriation and remixing, negotiating across cultural differences, shaping the circulation of our materials, visualization and simulation, etc.) and not simply technical skills. We have found ways to teach these habits of mind in low tech as well as high tech contexts.
– The skills we valued are not simply defined as 21st century skills focused on economic productivity, as has often been the case with other formulations, but also stress means of cultural and civic expression.
I have been gratified to see that this report has stimulated discussion around the globe about what media -education needs to look like in order to foster a more participatory culture. Note the shift in terminology. I do not today write about Participatory Culture as if it was one unified thing or as if we had fully achieved the qualities our definition described.3 Today, we need to be skeptical about claims regarding participatory culture: first, many different groups – especially Web 2.0 – have embraced a rhetoric of participation designed to capture and commodify the desires of the public for more meaningful participation and second, while the report spoke about the participation gap (those factors which block people from meaningful participation), it is much clearer today how many obstacles would need to be overcome before we can achieve the ideal of a fully participatory society.
As I reflect today on what I would want arts educators to know about participatory culture, I am drawn back to some ideas proposed in the 1970s by Seymour Papert, who I was privileged to know at MIT.4 Papert was describing the Samba Schools in Rio, a remarkable site of collective creative expression, where working class and low income people gather regularly to eat, dance, and prepare for the carnival. The elaborate performances for which Rio is known emerge through an ongoing process of improvisation which is open to anyone who wants to participate, and as Papert notes, this includes young and adult, but especially people at various levels of accomplishment, in a context where there are many different mechanisms fostering participation, many different ways of participating, and many opportunities for people to learn from each other. I’ve often described participatory culture as what happens when we apply the logics of folk culture to the materials of mass culture in the context of a networked society, so as we think about the ways that the online realm might foster creativity, we should be looking for the ways that these communities might come to look more like the samba schools Papert described in the 1970s.
Yes, all cultures are participatory, to some degree, but we have been taught not to expect that same level of robust and democratized participation, we’ve been told we can’t sing5, can’t dance, can’t draw, let aside make and share videos with each other. We need to help students to unlearn those lessons, to see the materials and practices of our culture as open to all. As someone trained in the cultural studies tradition, I tend to think of culture, much as Raymond Williams suggested, in terms of both the most accomplished and cherished works of our best creative talents and a set of practices and norms that constitute the everyday lives of the entire population.6 My notion of culture encompasses both the high and the low.
Some art critics bemoan the emergence of a more -participatory culture because it is generating so much “bad art” and “bad writing,” yet for me, this is its beauty. We teach children how to make pots not because the world needs many more great potters, but -because they learn something through the process of molding clay about themselves and the world around them. A realm where art is only professionalized is one that makes creating something unimaginable for most people. But, a world where we can see people struggling to master their craft, where artists can be bad, get feedback, and improve over time, is one which is much more open to entry for a diverse set of creators.
In my most recent book, Reading in a Participatory Culture, my co-authors and I share the story of Ricardo Pitts-Wiley, an African-American actor, playwright, director, and educator, who went into the prisons of Rhode Island to work with incarcerated youth.7 His goal was to get them to read Moby-Dick, one of the more difficult works in the American literary tradition. He challenged them to rewrite, reimagine, and remix the world that Herman Melville described, speculating on who these characters would be in the 21st century. These young men were almost all in prison because as a consequence of the war on drugs, so they rethought the story not as about the whaling trade but as about the drug trade. Pitts-Wiley, in turn, was inspired by their insights to create a stage play which combined an adult cast performing Melville’s original narrative and juxtaposed it with the story of a female gang leader, hell bent on vengeance for harm done to her family, and the men and women in her gang who need to decide how far they are willing to follow her down a path that insures everyone’s destruction. Pitts-Wiley models for us what it might look like to empower our students to remix core elements of their culture in the name of making meaning of their lives and the world around them.
My team of researchers at the University of Southern California have been tracing the paths through which American youth are becoming more politically engaged, research which has left us with a deeper appreciation of how creative expression may be an early stepping stone towards civic engagement.8 Again and again, looking at a range of different political movements and networks, we see that these groups have become enormously successful at tapping core stories in our culture as a set of shared frameworks for motivating social change. We are observing the capacity to produce and circulate video as a key means of spreading the word about shared concerns and we are witnessing the ways that the civic imagination – the capacity to imagine new and alternative worlds – can enable young activists to envision the change they hope to make. We are seeing feminists using yarn to lay claim to more public space, undocumented youth tap into the mythology of superheroes to retell their stories in ways that open people’s eyes, and youth produce videos that use Hunger Games to call out inequalities in economic opportunities.
A vision for a more participatory culture offers an alternative role for thinking about 21st century skills, one which is not about building the creative economy alone, but is really focused on creating a more expressive society. Arts educators have a vital role to play in that process.
1.) Henry Jenkins, with Katie Clinton, Ravi Purushotma, Alice J. Robison, and Margaret Weigel, Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture: Media Education for the 21st Century. Chicago 2006.
2.) Op. cit., p. xi.
3.) For more on the challenges of fully theorizing participatory culture, see Henry Jenkins, Nico Carpentier, “Theorizing Participatory Intensities: A Conversation About Participation and Politics,” Convergence, 19 (3), 2013, pp. 265–286.
4.) Seymour Papert, “Some Poetic and Social Criteria for Education Design,” talk delivered at the HUMRRO Conference, Sept 16–18, 1975, www.papert.org/articles/SomePoeticAndSocialCriteriaForEducationDesign.html [30.9.2014]
5.) For a useful discussion of how our culture teaches us we can’t express ourselves, see Robert Drew, “‘Anyone Can Do It’: Forging a Participatory Culture in Karaoki Bars,” in: Henry Jenkins, Tara McPherson, and Jane Shattuc (Eds.), Hop on Pop: The Politics and Pleasures of Popular Culture, Durham, NC 2003, pp. 254–269.
6.) Raymond Williams, “Culture is Ordinary,” Resources of Hope: Culture, Democracy, Socialism, London 1958, pp. 3–14.
7.) Henry Jenkins and Wyn Kelley, with Katie Clinton, Jenna McWilliams, Ricardo Pitts-Wiley, and Erin Reilly, Reading in a Participatory Culture: Remixing Moby-Dick for the Literature Classroom. New York 2013.
8.) Henry Jenkins, Liana Gamber-Thompson, Neta Kligler-Vilenchik, Sangita Shresthova, Arely Zimmerman, By Any Media Necessary: Mapping Youth and Participatory Politics. (forthcoming)
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