Q&A: Henry Jenkins on Applying Methods of Participatory Culture to Traditional Civic Activism

Behind the Research

12.2.09 | SPOTLIGHT: You’ve been working with the idea of participatory culture for some time now. Tell me a bit about when this notion started dawning on you. Was there an ah-ha moment?

Henry Jenkins: Well, I wrote “Textual Poachers” more than 20 years ago, and the subtitle was “Television, Fans, and Participatory Culture.” At that time, I was trying to create a term that contrasted with the idea of spectatorship. It was taken for granted, the way we talked about mass media, that people were spectators, that they sat back and watched, that they were couch potatoes.
Those phrases were very much in the air in the 1980s when I was writing that book, and I was trying to argue that fans as a community had a very different relationship to media, one where they appropriated and remixed content, and where they were socially engaged in conversation around the media that they consumed. That’s the moment when I coined the term.
I didn’t think that much about it again until we started seeing what was taking place in the online world almost a decade later. We were starting to see a lot more creative expression finding its way out there, and I sort of rediscovered my own terminology. I recognized that participatory culture could indeed explain very well the behavior we were seeing online, and by that point other people had started to pick it up, in some cases not necessarily knowing where it came from. It was in the air.
So I started pushing and pulling at the term from many different angles. The work I did for MacArthur looks at it through education. I did an article on young artists that looked at museums as sites of participation. So as a concept it keeps cropping up in the things I’m looking at and it’s becoming more and more a unified theory. But going back to the origins, it was a catchy way of summing up the argument in “Textual Poachers.”

SPOTLIGHT: Was it intentionally taking a stand against the idea that we are all just a bunch of consumers?

HJ: Yes, or that consumption is simply a passive activity. When talking about fans, the tendency was to depict them as excess consumers. The stereotypes of fans all had to do with buying things or getting autographs, chasing stars down and stealing their clothing. The image was one of consumers run wild. And the argument in “Textual Poachers” was that in fact these were very productive communities, that they could be very active and creative.

I wanted to offer an alternative way of thinking about them to the world. So the term “participatory culture” really was intended to be in your face, pushing back against the idea of rampant consumerism or passive spectatorship.

SPOTLIGHT: A lot of people are still concerned that ours is a culture of rampant consumerism. Do you not really worry about that?

HJ: Do I think we spend too much money on stuff we don’t need? Probably. I think, yes, it’s a problem, in so much as consumerism is damaging the environment and leads to selfishness. But when we’re talking about media consumption, I’m not sure I see it in quite the same way.
A lot depends on how we conceive consumerism. I see the fans, and now the growing online culture, as an active vanguard who are refusing to simply take what they’re given and are insisting on their rights to reshape the material of their culture. I like to talk about people taking media in their own hands, and it seems to me that’s both a critique of consumerism and a redefinition of consumerism.

So if the definition of consumerism is passive and simply buying things, then I don’t think that’s a good thing, and I think we ought to challenge it. If, however, the notion of consumerism is that we are engaged in a critical and productive way, including with things that are produced by other people, then I’m not troubled by it.

SPOTLIGHT: Last time we spoke, you mentioned that you were moving your focus onto questions of participatory democracy. Isn’t the whole idea of democracy that it’s participatory?

HJ: Well, yes, to a point. You could talk about representative democracy, for example, as a category where participation is a fairly narrow pipeline. Every four years, we gather and we vote once; we pull a lever on our voting machine, out pops our political leadership, and we leave it to them to deal with the issues. So it’s that there are varying degrees of participation in democracy.
The goal would be to create a state where democracy is not just a special event but a lifestyle, something we take seriously on an ongoing basis, and where people are encouraged to actively participate in the decision-making of their society, joining forces to look critically at the decisions being made on their behalf and signaling their reactions to those decisions, thus helping frame the agenda of their society.
Someone like Robert Putnam [author of “Bowling Alone”] would tell us that the amount of civic participation has declined dramatically since the first half of the 20th century. I think we’re starting to see in the digital age some signs that it may be reversing itself, at least among some segments of the population. [For more on this trend, see CIRCLE, the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning.]

We’ve seen voter participation starting to go up again, young people getting involved in volunteerism to a much higher degree, and average Americans contributing to political campaigns more than before. By a lot of different measures, we’re seeing an increase right now in civic participation after a period when a number of social critics said participation was in decline.

SPOTLIGHT: A lot of people have pointed to the public’s engagement with the Obama campaign and to the Obama campaign’s use of new media as way of saying, “Here’s participatory culture at work.” Do you buy that? Was that really a direct translation of what you’ve been documenting in pop culture starting to happen in the political sphere?

HJ: I think what we had was a campaign that finally understood these new models of participatory culture and how they might impact the political process. If we go back four years to the Dean campaign, they started to get it.  They started to understand what digital media could contribute to the political process, but I don’t think they had the full picture. It was understood as a shift in technologies rather than a shift in culture and social practices. (For a review of Dean’s efforts and their impact, see “Not Your Father’s Internet: The Generation Gap in Online Politics” (Xenos & Foote), in Civic Life Online, a MacArthur Series volume published by MIT Press.)
So if we look at the Obama campaign, the fact that many young people already were involved with social networking meant that it was fairly easy to use social networks to draw them in. The fact that so many young people had already produced videos or done Photoshop of images made it easier for young people to reshape media content and circulate it in support of the Obama campaign.

That they were familiar with mobile platforms made it easier for them to use mobile communication to reach out to voters wherever they might be and to allow voters to make contributions whenever they had time. So there was a social and culture infrastructure in place which allowed the Obama campaign to do what it succeeded in doing.
But it was also a case of Obama and his staff having a vision of the political process that was bottom up, which grew out the tradition of community organizing Obama came out of. So it was a combination of those two factors, I think.

SPOTLIGHT: So is it that there’s a shift taking place that is leading both toward participatory culture and perhaps to participatory democracy, or is it that the experience of participatory culture is leading us towards participatory democracy?

HJ: That’s the big question. And I’m not sure we know the answer yet. My hypothesis is that at least some people are learning the skills now, through play, that they’ll later apply towards politics and government. [Mills College professor Joe Kahne talks about this more in the video interview, “Civic Participation Online and Off”]
We often play around with skills we’ll need later. In a hunting and gathering society, people learn by playing with bows and arrows; in an information society, people learn by playing with information. We talk about the magic circle in game theory. That’s the idea that there’s a kind of magic circle that allows you to experiment with things that might feel high-risk in another context. I think as people master the skills [of an information society] and gain confidence and find their voice publicly, then they are in a much stronger position to venture into civic participation.
That said, I don’t think there’s anything magical that helps people move from playing to being civically engaged. How we make that transition is a vital question for research at this point. I think we could begin by looking at the Obama campaign on one side and various forms of fan activism on the other. I think looking at this more closely can give us real insights into how we can more consciously build a bridge for people from participatory culture to civic participation.

SPOTLIGHT: How do do you approach work like this? How do you study something like, “Is participatory democracy happening?” How do you measure something like that?

HJ: I think in the long term it’s going to require quantitative and qualitative work, which is why I’m excited to participate in this hub that the MacArthur foundation is putting together around issues of civic participation. I think as we put our heads together—humanists and social scientists—we’ll be looking at different bodies of literature, we’ll be applying different tool sets to observe the world around us, and we’ll be critiquing and debating each others’ conclusions. I think that’s probably the best way to arrive at real insights.
For my part, what I want to do is start by looking at existing forms of activism within the participatory culture space -activism by fans, gamers, hip hoppers, a variety of spaces that might seem on the surface to be cultural but that often have strong political dimensions. I want to look at what we might call proto-political behavior, behavior that if it were applied to the civic sphere, we’d recognize it fully as activism, but because it’s applied to the space of popular culture, there’s some ambiguity about it. 

I recently gave a talk where I mentioned the campaign to keep “Chuck” [the TV show] on the air, and someone on Twitter said, “Well, it’s activism, but is it civic activism?” And my point is no, it’s not in and of itself civic activism. But to mobilize large numbers of people to take action to support a TV show that’s about to be cancelled, you have to do everything than an activist group would do.

The organizers had to understand the power structure they were working with, identify a base of supporters, frame the issues, educate their supporters about what kind of tactics could make a difference, and motivate people to go out in the world and do something. So the line between that and activism is a very thin one.

What the “Chuck” fans did was organize a buycott. They went into Subway, which is a sponsor of the show, on a particular day, bought sandwiches, and left notes saying they came in support of “Chuck.” That put economic pressure on the network, because Subway increased its sponsorship, which gave the network more of an incentive to support the show. And the show stayed on the air.
At the same time we’re watching that unfold, there’s a piece in Time on “Carrot Moms,” which are groups of environmentalists who are going to stores and saying “If you agree to give a certain percentage of your proceeds to fix the carbon footprint of your establishment, we can mobilize lots of people to buy things from you.” And they organize a buycott. They get massive amounts of people into the store, and some of the proceeds go to whatever it takes to make the store more green.

Tactically, the Carrot Moms and the “Chuck” fans are involved in pretty much the same activities. And buycotts, which are related to boycotts, are easily recognizable as a civic action.  

SPOTLIGHT: I find myself thinking how interesting it is that in the commercial sphere, people have picked up tactics that helped define the last generation’s civic activities. So I guess the big question now is: Will that loop of sharing and learning keep going around?

HJ: I think we’ve seen a blurring of the lines between the civic and the cultural. Both sides are learning from each other. And it’s in part because they’re sharing common spaces, like Second Life or YouTube, where there are people with a range of motives, not just commercial and amateur, but public service, educational, activist, and governmental. They’re all using the same tools and platforms and learning approaches for making meaningful change in the world from each other.
So we’re likely going to see tactics move back and forth between the activist community and the fan community. What the fan communities seems to be good at is motivating people emotionally in much more powerful ways than many of the activist groups, which fall back on a kind of rational vision of the political process. 

I think the political world can start to learn from popular culture. What I want to see is participatory culture communicating to its members the need to rally and take collective action. And how can the methods of participatory culture be applied to more traditional kinds of civic participation? How do we help make a bridge between those two spheres of activity? I think that’s what we’re trying to do.

SPOTLIGHT: I know you haven’t done the work yet, but do you suspect that the “thin line,” as you said, between a buycott for “Chuck” and a buycott for some sort of social purpose will be crossed?

HJ: I think it’s already happening. The example I use most often is the Harry Potter Alliance. This is a case that clearly started in fandom, and is now clearly in the activist world. It’s what got me really interested in this issue.
A comedian named Andrew Slack started this organization because he was so inspired by the Harry Potter books, and we wanted to figure out how to use them to fuel social change in the real world. He talks about building a Dumbledore’s Army for the real world. Dumbledore’s Army is a group of kids [in the book] who gather in Hogwarts and teach each other skills they’re going to need to take on Voldemort. Slack’s argument is that the books are about young people questioning authority, standing up against evil, and politically organizing.
So what issues would Dumbledore’s Army be concerned with in our world? Slack has gotten this group engaged in the politics around Darfur, workers’ rights at Wal-Mart, and issues around Proposition 8. So far he’s been able to mobilize about 100,000 young people who identify as Harry Potter fans, but who are also involved in activist work.
And he’s done it by using things like the Wizard Rock Band world, which produces Harry Potter-themed music and distributes it by mp3. That’s become a publicity channel for the activism. The band talks about it at their concerts; they do songs about it. Slack also worked with fan podcasts, some of which get half a million listeners, using them to reach out to fans of Harry Potter and motivate them to be more involved in making political change.
Now he works with Amnesty International and Free Press and a number of groups who in the past would have been pretty resistant to the idea of such a playful approach to politics. To work with a group that grew out of an imagination space might not have been their idea of what meaningful political change would look like, but Slack’s now gotten a seat at the table with those groups, and they ally with him in trying to raise awareness around certain issues. So that’s a kind of example I’m really interested in.

The reality is we are just beginning this research. I don’t know everywhere it’s going to take us. But the early signs are that there is some interesting stuff going on out there that really hasn’t been looked at closely and does have a promise of offering some new models for how you build public engagement with the political process.

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