Monday, 20 July 2009

Much Ado about Participation

It seems to me that in today's public and scholarly discourses about the media the underlying issue is always about 'participation' .

To start with, there's the aspect of a kind of media (form & content). The term 'Participation Media' is frequently used to refer to cross / multimedia content production and products, as well as to interactive possibilities for consumers to take part in the production. Most often, the presumption still seems to be that the framework of participation media is provided by specific, conventional media institutions, and a great part of the content is produced by professionals -- such as in so called 'reality programming' where individual audience members vote by mobile and chat online.

At the same time, we know how 'informal' media outlets and social media tools facilitate informal new agency functions and serious political activism (here's an example of an
interesting analysis on the US). Facebook and Twitter provide for the most current, and infamous, examples regarding Iran, but for instance professor Ullamaija Kivikuru has analysed the Tsunami news coverage in 2005 in Finland and noted the importance of Finnish diving sites in providing the most up-to-date information about Finns in Thailand.

Yet another mutation of the theme is a
certain crowd-sourced encyclopedia (we know what I mean) or often short lived projects of crowd sourced online journalism (see also the PEW report), or Facebook-directed animation, or a collaborative translation service for TV shows... The central aim is the joint production, and while there is a hub that gathers the information, the production is not facilitated by and/or channelled through conventional , professional media production and distribution means.

Then there are the more scholarly, conceptual and abstract discussions about how audience members are addressed
by the media and/or how they position themselves. The conventional dichotomy of citizens versus consumers still lurks in the background, but (as I noted in the previous post) some researchers have come up with new roles (or modes of address) such as that of a customer, player (Syvertsen), or 'enjoyer' (Costera Meier). To be sure, for example my analysis of Finnish television journalism some five years ago already revealed that within that relatively formatted genre (or generic programme family) there were several very different and distinct way to address the (imagined) recipients of journalistic contents.

In broader terms, some scholars want to bypass the idea of audiences and talk about 'audienceship' as referring to the very interface between audiences and texts (Li; as opposed to, I guess, the subject positions of audience members); while others note that the idea of mass communication and 'the work' of its audiences, are still valid concepts, when appropriately reconfigured (Napoli).

It is clear, however, that the slogan of 'participation' -- audiences as 'participants' in (or even 'in partnership' with) the media -- is a marketing strategy of both conventional commercial and public ('mass') media organizations. In terms of (internal and external) public service ethos, clients and prosumers have already a while ago bypassed the core idea of citizens (regarding the Finnish case, this is noted by researcher Johanna Jääsaari, in a forthcoming article by the research team of the project
Media, Citizenship and Circuits of Power).

A White Paper on
Public Media 2.0 by the Center for Social Media notes laconically that 'The people formerly known as the audience are now at the center of media'.

At the same time, it is curious that some recent surveys on the topic, in the US (
PEW) and in Finland (the Circuits of Power project, by Karppinen & Jääsaari), seem to indicate audiences' criticism towards the media. The US/PEW survey on citizen-based media verified that citizens are mostly used as sources rather than given opportunities to really produce journalistic contents. The Finnish respondents felt that the least likely parties to have any influence on media contents were audiences.

Two things come to mind, one completely practical (and normative), the other theoretical (but to be operationalised in research, for instance).

While content, distribution and the related roles of those (formerly?) known as audience members are important in the participation discussion, there's yet another sphere which is becoming increasingly crucial, in terms of content and access. IMHO, participation in (or, just to begin with, the awareness of) media policy making is a crucial aspect of the entire participation process. And I mean real engagement.

The situation is analogous to participation in content-making. The ability to send an SMS comment to the current affairs TV show is not an incredibly radical solution. Some years ago, I did a brief analysis of the content of a website by the Ministry of Communication. The site was set up to allow citizens the possibility to comment on 'Radio and TV programming in 2010', read: how they think about the role of public service. What emerged, among other things, was a lot of resigned skepticism on decision-making processes.

I'm not an expert on contemporary political climate and participatory modalities -- this may be the case every time when citizens are asked to comment or participate in such informal manner. I'm just thinking, by the way of an illustration, the momentum when organizations like
Prometheus Radio and the Free Press were able to mobilize millions of Americans to challenge the FCC regarding ownership regulations in 2003-4. And I'm thinking the hundreds of transnational advocacy and activist organizations that are interested in rethinking and challenging media policies, nationally and globally (see, e.g., the Resource Database of the Mediaresearchhub).

If I were employed by any European public media organization, I'd probably work on launching a mega campaign on behalf of PSM. I'd reach for grass roots allies of all kinds (from social justice NGOs to consumer organizations), I'd use all kinds of social media campaigning tools. And I'd work on media literacy so that people would understand the questions of diversity and access, net neutrality, and the like. And what PSM and related policy-making have to do with them.

Another point that I'd work on, as a scholar, would be how to assess participation. As Bridget Griffen-Foley has so humorously proven, 'audience participation' has existed at least over a century -- so what can be new and revolutionary? And don't give me new media platforms as the explanation
. While all kinds of texting, chatting and blogging can be fun, I'm still an old-fashioned believer of the possibilities of mediated communication to build up and strengthen democratic societies.

The most sober, and ethical, and suitable for the foundation of PSM, and useful conceptualisation that I have come across (but I may be biased) is Peter Dahlgren's (2005) idea of Civic Cultures (see also this article). If it is claimed, as it seems to be, that participation is now the key to a democratic mediated communication (and perhaps even to related public sphere/s), then what kind of participation really counts? While scholars like Liesbet van Zoonen have celebrated the immense power of the engagement and participation fostered by reality shows, that format, and the kind of aspects it brings out in the participants, may not be transferable to all kinds of contents and purposes of communication.

I claim that the five circuits of what Dahlgren labels as civic cultures are quanti -or at least qualifiable, researchable concepts, that is:

Does participation (participatory possibilities) foster:
1) knowledge and competencies (related to democracy)
2) values (procedural and broader)
3) affinity and trust (providing 'minimal sense of commonality among citizens in heterogeneous late modern societies')
4) practices (those necessary for democracies), and/or
5) identities (as participants in a democracy).

Did I just set up a postdoc challenge to myself?

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