Chapter 5: The culture of participation – Information Services and Digital Literacy


The culture of participation


This chapter describes how the digital information culture creates and lowers boundaries of knowing by influencing our assumptions and expectations of participation, contribution, freedom and compensation. The contemporary culture of participation is penetrated by dichotomies of the culture of freedom and commercialism, expectations of participation, and the reality of non-participation. Contemporary culture embodies an expectation that people participate, but, as we see, different forms of participation can be very different from traditional ideas of what participation and engagement mean. Similarly, the rules of participation have shifted and a new economy of participation with new boundaries to withhold and intra has emerged.

Key words






It is hardly misguided to see participation as a fundamental key word of contemporary culture, but even though the notion of participatory culture or cultures of participation has become a mantra of the digital age, the concept remains very transient. The notion is based loosely on the idea of there being an evolution of information processes taking place on the web from earlier linear to contemporary social continuums. The web of the 1990s was characterised in the 2000s as a read-only web and the new social web as a read or write web (, 2004). Considering the technological advancements and the emergence of genuinely new configurations of working with information, it is tempting to emphasise the differences between past and present. In contrast to the read or write web, the earlier processes of publishing and communicating may seem to be highly linear and fenced by a series of authoritative institutions and individuals. A book was written by one person. Next it was laid out and printed by another, distributed by a third and read by a fourth person. Letters were written, carried and read as a part of a similarly linear process. In practice, however, the flows of publication and informing were never as linear as they are portrayed in the utopian internet literature. The idea of solitary authorship is a myth (Stillinger, 1991), as is the purported simplicity of information and knowledge processes of the past (Burke, 2001).

In addition to the conceptions of how people became informed in the past, the idea of a radically new configuration of the dissemination of information may be claimed to be another myth. Digital technologies have removed, lowered or changed many of the earlier impenetrable barriers of participating in the project of informing and knowing. Even if such catchwords as Web 2.0 are easy to criticise, they represent assumptions about communality, shared practices of information production and common values, as Hector Postigo (2011) suggests. Wikis represent a form of collaborative writing that gathers authors, editors and readers around a document and turns everyone into a potential author. People congregate around documents rather than produce and send them away. Rushkoff (2004) has described this type of congregation as a society of authorship where everyone is able to contribute to the larger body of knowledge – the Internet. A comparison with oral communication shows that the new configuration of communication is not perhaps quite as new as it may seem. An oral conversation has always been a participatory event. It has formed a society of oral authorship around a body of oral knowledge. At the same time, however, the existence of a certain continuum does not deny the significance of the change in how the boundaries of participation and congregation have affected the production and emergence of knowledge.

This chapter discusses the boundaries of knowing erected, lowered and reshaped by the changing forms and ideas of participation. The technical novelty in the new culture of participation is that the Internet has lowered the boundaries of participating in distance, both synchronously and asynchronously, to use a variety of forms and types of media and tools of cooperation, and potentially disseminate the results even faster than a major publishing house. The social and cultural novelty is something else, however. It might be described as another reconfiguration, that of engagement, with another set of implications to our incentives to intra the emerging boundaries of knowing.

Communal and individualist participation: ‘talko’ work and ‘broadcast yourselfism’

Manuel Castells (2009: 70) has described the form of communication in the social media as mass self-communication that is self-generated, self- directed and self-selected, but has a potentially global audience. The simultaneous individualisation and proximity, and globalisation and distance are central elements of the reconfiguration not only of communication, but also, in a broader sense, engagement in the social web. Caroline Haythornthwaite (2009) makes a distinction between two different models of peer production that epitomise the simultaneous convergence and dichotomy of an individual and a loose and evolving idea of communality. Crowdsourcing or a lightweight peer production model is based on the micro-participation of many unconnected individuals, while the second, heavyweight or ‘virtual community’, model of peer production is based on strong ties and intensive community action. The feasibility of the model is supported by an empirical classification of 1042 social web services conducted by S.S.C. Shang et al. (2011), even if they propose a slightly different categorisation of four different types of services. Haythornthwaite exemplifies the lightweight crowdsourcing model by referring to SETI@HOME and NASA Clickworks projects and software bug reporting systems of open and closed source applications. SETI@HOME uses crowdsourcing to analyse radio signals that might give indications of the existence of extraterrestrial life. Users are asked to install a small program on their personal computers; when the computer is idle, the program retrieves signal data from the SETI project servers, analyses it and submits it back to the system. Clickworks was based on a slightly different approach of lightweight participation. Instead of using idle computing capacity, it harnesses individual users to analyse photographs taken on the planet Mars and to classify craters that are visible in the images. As an emblematic example of the heavyweight peer production, Haythornthwaite points to the academic community and its practices of iterative knowledge production and peer review. Despite their distinctive characteristics, the fine line between the two models is far from unambiguous. There are plenty of examples of projects that use both models. Haythornthwaite gives Wikipedia as an example of a complex combination of light and heavyweight elements, a so-called dual-weight approach. The encyclopaedic project relies on crowds on entering, editing and updating entries and making them relevant by using the encyclopaedia, but at the same time the inner organisation of the encyclopaedic project is based on a virtual community approach with a complex set of rules and norms.

The premise of Haythornthwaite’s (2009) model is to classify collaborative action from the point of view of the social density of production. Another similarly identifiable dimension of collaborative action is the impetus for participation. A rough categorisation can be made to two general types of motivations. First, a form of participation that has become iconic to the free digital age is the form of engagement that is common in the open source movement (Benkler, 2002), Wikipedia (Schroer and Hertel, 2007), OpenStreetMap (Lin, 2011) and, to a degree, traditional local communities. Benkler (2002, 2006) suggests that this type of participation functions as a basis for a new mode of production, commons-based peer production, that is fundamentally different from the earlier prevalent mode of production based on property and contracts. The form of participation made iconic by the open source and free software movement tends to induce rather heavy and thick collaboration. But this is not necessarily the case in all instances. Similar, but very minimalistic and mechanistic, types of participatory action such as SETI@HOME may be seen as a communal form of participation even if the concrete contribution would be very small and effortless.

In Finland a similar kind of voluntary lending of a hand is known as ‘talko’ (Swedish; in Finnish, talkoo, pl. talkoot) work. A typical talko project is a short, intensive, collective effort with a tangible goal. A classic example is that a person invites her neighbours and friends to paint her house. Volunteers are offered a meal and, in Finland, invited to bath in a sauna after the work has been completed. No one is paid, but the system incorporates an implicit assumption that the favour is returned in future talko events organised by other members of the community. The talko system can be used to organise other types of activities such as the maintenance of the common courtyard in a housing estate or construction of a shared shed for bicycles or garden tools. The roots of talko work may be traced back to rural communities, but in the wake of the urbanisation of Finnish society the tradition has been transferred to the cities (Hilger, 2006). Talko work has similarities with the commons of rural communities and the notion of commons-based peer production discussed by Yochai Benkler (2002), but as a directly (even if in an implicit sense) gift-based exchange it is closer to the practices of gift-giving in the classic account of Marcel Mauss (1925). The major difference between commons and talko work is that talko is not necessarily related to an upkeep of a shared resource. The principal shared resource is labour itself, not the object of the efforts. However, similarly to peer production (Bauwens, 2005), talko work is not limited by certain contexts of activity. It is limited by the economic realities that have to sustain continuing participation in a collective system that typically guarantees only indirect economic benefits. Talko participation is also limited by a need to reassert continuously the converging incentives to participate and to follow the rules of the system.

The resemblance of talko work and voluntary participation on the social web does not mean that the latter would be an extension of the first phenomenon or that all talko-like participation would lead to a collective peer production of common good. The same applies even to commons-based production. Gensollen (2007) emphasises that the similarity of voluntary action in commons and web communities is not as obvious as the literature (e.g., Benkler, 2002) tends to suggest. On the social web, participants and their collective action are more tightly controlled by a particular technological framework than by one outside the digital environment. Another equally pertinent aspect of talko work and the quasi-similar forms of collective participation on the social web is that they are not necessarily based on altruistic principles (Gensollen, 2007). Both involve seeking recognition and acceptance, implicit expectation of a quid pro quo and other forms of motivation and individual rewards that are external to the benefit of the community.

Even if the different modes of heavyweight peer production express characteristics that make them empowering and emancipatory for individuals who struggle with limited resources, the collective action is also constrictive. The expectation to participate in the collective effort and obligation to return a gift bind an individual to a specific community of collective practices. The benefits of tangible and informational outcomes of collaboration are considerable, but at the same time they delimit the economics of reaching out from within the boundaries of the particular community. An individual becomes entangled in the community and its normative boundaries of knowing and acting.

The second type of prevalent participation may be discerned in other types of social media contexts. Blogs, photosharing, microblogging and social music services such as Flickr, Spotify ( and ( contain functions for participation and interaction with other users of the services as well. Even if they are products of a collective action similar to Wikipedia or OpenStreetMap, they are less focused on a single tangible outcome and cooperation than creating individual value by concerted sharing of assets and information. The famous slogan of the videosharing site YouTube, ‘Broadcast Yourself’, demonstrates the type of participation epitomised by social sharing services. In contrast to the communalism of the open source movement, ‘Broadcast Yourself’ represents a rather extreme form of individualism. When individuals participate by writing a blog post or tweet, or by posting photographs and commenting on items posted by others, they participate in a simultaneous, but rarely precisely concerted communal action. Studies have shown that much use of the microblogging service Twitter ( is attributable to self-promotion rather than facilitating communication (Golbeck et al., 2010). ‘Slacktivism’, a form of non-contributory activism by joining Facebook groups, signing petitions or copying and pasting status messages, has been criticised as representing a form of egoism and self-promotion rather than genuine activism that makes a difference (Kazarnowicz, 2011). The media can be used to support and sustain communal action, but the principal mode of communication is based on casual remarks. These media clips and comments are not supposed to be as carefully considered and worked as books, but are not as personal as written letters. They invite attention, but it is not clear from whom. Although much ‘broadcast yourselfism’ is relatively lightweight on Haythornthwaite’s (2009) scale, the development of a MySpace profile or filming, editing and promoting a YouTube video can be very time consuming and involve a heavyweight type of socialising with the community.

A possible explanation of the emergence of this phenomenon is a co-occurrence of interest and possibilities. The simple possibility of being able to publish makes it attractive. A colleague explained his motivation for using social media by saying that he asked himself, ‘why should I post photographs on the web?’, until he reversed the question and asked, ‘why should I not post photographs on the web?’. Without figuring out a good reason for posting photographs on the web, he decided to share them. There might be someone who likes them and perhaps even comments on them. The same logic applies to many other types of services. Why do people post status updates on social networking sites? Because it is part of the fun of being a member. Many people think that it is nice to get occasional feedback on their activities. Another reason, which may sound like a non-reason, is that it has been made very easy to do this.

Besides being the home of the slogan ‘Broadcast Yourself’, YouTube and its fundamental idea of providing a platform on which anyone can participate by submitting their videos, and albeit rather theoretically getting their 15 minutes of fame, demonstrates the characteristic type of collective action in social sharing contexts. But even though the YouTube slogan is perhaps the best way to epitomise the phenomenon, there are plenty of similar examples. YouTube is not the only internet service that invites everyone to broadcast themselves. ( uses the slogan ‘Express yourself. Start a blog.’ The number of friends or followers on different social networking sites tells us about the imagined audience of any broadcasting. Lists of status messages and news feeds on the same sites are a part of the same phenomenon. The most plain and minimalistic form of broadcasting yourself is probably the microblogging sites, with a small space of 160 or 140 characters to be clever and make an important statement. The desire to broadcast and be famous that prevails in social media is not limited to the Internet; it is part of the everyday life of mass media. Reality shows such as Idols or Big Brother, and diverse series that follow the work of customs officials, police officers, property developers and families with multiple twins or extreme financial troubles, are very fundamental expressions of the same aspiration to become or be famous.

Broadcast yourselfism is characterised by an interplay of rather extreme forms of individualism, self-assertion, and the fragmentation and existence of a myriad small and large communities and sub- communities. In contrast to talko work and gift-giving, it is closer to the notions of collective individualism of Alexis de Tocqueville (1866: 158) and Emile Durkheim (1990). Tocqueville saw collective individualism as an intermediate state between the organic solidarity of aristocratic societies and the true individualism of democracy. In the participatory culture of the social web, collective action is fragmented into small communities having their own corporate interests, which resemble the observations of Tocqueville (Tocqueville, 1866: 143). The communities are necessary for broadcast yourselfism. As Alain Caille (2007) suggests, extreme forms of seeking approval (like broadcast yourselfism) also draw from a Maussian exchange of gifts, the same phenomenon that underpins the radically different kind of communality, the talko work. In addition to serving as collectives of participatory production, communities are necessary also as audiences by forming imagined and real contexts of the relevance of an individualistic action.

Simultaneously with the Tocquevillean tribal kind of individualism on a community level, broadcast yourselfism is characterised by the form of collective individualism discussed by Durkheim (1990) in his classic work on suicide. Durkheim sees that individuals can be truly free to express their individuality if the individuality is constrained by society and moral norms. A total, anomalous form of individualism (suicide, Durkheim’s study) may be caused by four factors. Suicide in a sense of egoism is caused by a lack of social cohesion, or in a sense of anomie is caused by the lack of moral norms. It may also be an expression of altruism or fatalism. It is an exaggeration to see broadcast yourselfism even as a form of cultural ‘suicidal’ behaviour, because it is aiming at the opposite, an accented form of existence on the social web. But as an extreme form of collective (positive and negative) self-assertion its underlying premise bears striking resemblance to those proposed by Durkheim. The new configurations of communality has changed social cohesion and in some cases diminished it, and as a new playground the moral norms of the environment have not been properly established. Fatalism, a belief of the inferiority of life outside the social web as an unknown anybody, is probably the most fundamental incentive of the behaviour. Altruism, on the other hand, may be seen as more characteristic of the forms of communality that prevail in the open source culture (the opposite form of participation), but even the self-assertive broadcast yourselfism is occasionally veiled in altruistic ideals of giving and receiving in different services based on the sharing of files, bookmarks, images or other media.

Even though the social web may be seen as a place with underdeveloped social norms, it is not a complete anomie. Online communities develop social norms and internal codes of conduct. Some of the norms have become almost universal in the online world even if there are numerous variations of the ‘netiquette’. The norms are most apparent in closely knit communities. Wikipedia has a complex set of policies, and World of Warcraft has a set of behavioural norms (Barnett et al., 2010) similar to the virtual world of Second Life (Huvila et al., 2010). But even the most openly egoistic expressions have certain limits that are not supposed to be intraed. MySpace and other social networking sites (Södergård, 2007) have their own codes of conduct. There are patterns of appraising certain types of content even on sites like the photosharing service Flickr (Huvila, 2010a).

Despite the strong emancipatory vein of the broadcast yourselfist and talko types of participation, the new modes of being and working together have erected new boundaries. The most significant one is probably the obscurity of expectations and shifting norms between different forms of participatory culture. Even if it would be a gross exaggeration to suggest that in the past all forms of being together were more stable, the physical limits of participation made it more predictable. The boundaries were more tangible and there was less physical and social room for broadcasting yourself or participating in socially and geographically remote communities.

It is easy to see broadcast yourselfism in a negative light as egoistic non-participation. Despite the temptation to seize upon its negative implications, broadcasting is also an important form of taking part in the culture of participation and intraing boundaries. A study conducted at Georgetown University shows that even if ‘slacktivism’ can be criticised for self-promotion, ‘slacktivists’ are inclined to take action also in other arenas than the web (Dixon, 2011). Broadcast yourselfism crystallises the fundamentally performative nature of participatory culture where the performance itself can be more significant than its subject. Palfrey and Gasser (2008: 113–14) emphasise that creation does not have to be creative. Similarly, there is no reason why ‘participation’ has to be conscious and broadcast yourselfism a mere extension of egoism. The idea of people broadcasting themselves and seeking recognition in the broadcasts of others is essential to broadcast yourselfism, but an individual participatory act such as taking a photograph from a home window need not be primarily an act of creativity or selfishness. Several major incidents – from the crisis of Gaza and Kenyan elections in 2008 to the terrorist attacks in Mumbai, hurricane Katrina and the tsunamis of 2004 and 2010 – have shown that broadcast yourselfism can make a difference. While some participants have taken an active role as talko working citizen reporters, many people take pictures and describe their experiences because they have an opportunity; they feel that it is important and hope that someone else might be interested in their photographs, texts and videos. The transience of individual acts does not diminish their significance as shapers and redefiners of the boundaries of how we come to know things and what assumptions we have about the conventional economics of ordinary knowing.

Commercialism and freedom

The dichotomy of talko work and broadcast yourselfism is a sign of a clash between two types of incentives to participate and of a more fundamental divide between two ideologies in contemporary culture. The present social web is dominated by commercial actors and interests, but the commercialism leans towards non-commercial and even openly anti-commercial forms of socialising by absorbing ideas, for instance, from open source and free culture movements.

The world of the Internet is deeply rooted in the ideology of a noncommercial sharing of everything, freedom of use and the general lack of constraints (Whitworth, 2009: 165), but in the 1990s it did not take long for commercial actors to assume their positions on the web. The popular breakthrough of the WWW immersed the Internet in the sphere of consumerism that Bauman sees as a type of social arrangement that integrated mundane human desires and longings to become the ‘principal propelling and operating force of the society’ (Bauman, 2007: 28). The social web has further amplified commercial discourse. Participation and creativity are possible because someone pays for them. In the early days of the Internet, government agencies and universities paid for the maintenance of the infrastructure. Nowadays, commercial actors pay the direct costs, and make a profit from their investment out of those who participate. Business 2.0, Web 2.0 and related phenomena such as Library 2.0 and Archive 2.0 have been discussed using an explicitly commercial choice of words. Referring to Library 2.0, Michael Casey and Laura Savastinuk (2006) write that ‘administrators and taxpayers are seeking more efficient ways of delivering services to achieve greater returns on financial investments’, ‘Library 2.0 could revitalize the way we serve and interact with our customers’ and ‘technology can help libraries create a customer-driven, 2.0 environment’.

The rhetoric of techno-deterministic commercialism and boundless opportunities may be criticised as being inflated and uncritical of its consequences both in its original context of business administration and commerce, and later especially in the domain of public services (Jacobs and Yudken, 2003) and even in elementary school education (Komulainen et al., 2010). The Internet provides multiple opportunities to economise on communication costs, to reorganise and outsource work and to remove unnecessary intermediaries from production and delivery processes, making it a seemingly perfect environment for boundless capitalism. Despite the many success stories and failures in the digital industry there is still a fundamental uncertainty over how the economics of the participatory culture function in practice (Gensollen, 2006). As David Jacobs and Joel Yudken (2003) remark, the capitalist opportunities rest on voluntary cooperation, innovation and a culture of sharing that are in direct contrast to attempts to economise on the effectiveness of work. The conscious downplay of direct transactions and the possibility of doing what most people do, using only free digital media, obscure the paradox. Part of the success of the commons-based peer production described by Benkler (2002) might rest equally on the blurring of the effective contract and property ownership as on the emergence of commons. In some special cases, such as in ‘modding’ (amateur modifications of and add-ons to popular computer games), the initially (in a sense) anarchist activity has become an accepted form of participation in the commercial product (Kow and Nardi, 2010).

In most cases, however, the contract as a boundary and the boundaries of the contract have remained quite vague. Hardly anyone reads the endless terms of service documents of different web services, but almost every one of us accepts them by pressing a button or ticking a checkbox. We agree to a blank contract and pass the ownership of our data to an unknown actor. At the same time, the companies that make us agree to these contracts are equally unsure about what the contract should be and whether they can enforce their views in practice when facing a community action. Facebook has an explicit contract with its users in its terms of service document, but the implicit contract of the general idea of what Facebook is, what it should be and what it should not be is equally significant for both parties. This is also the reason Chris Saad (2010) gives to explain why Facebook is struggling to be open and private at the same time. As Peter Jakobsson and Fredrik Stiernstedt (2010) argue, the social web is a legislative anomie. Some contracts and legislation are enforced as actual boundaries and ‘illegal’ services are shut down, but at the same time other equally ‘illegal’ contracts are quietly accepted as boundaries. The choices to ‘non-apply’ law (Agamben, 2003), to postpone legal actions, are strongly biased towards large corporations and the most popular commercial web services. The convergence of everything on the Internet has made it difficult to understand what the current contract is, who owns what, and what difference ownership makes in practice. The lack of clarity over the contract is a central reason why Lessig argues that our ‘culture has lost its sense of balance’ (Lessig, 2004: 261). No one, not the corporations nor the representatives of the other extreme, seems to understand why there are certain contracts and what their implications are.

Beside this internal dichotomy of freedom and exploitation, the hyperbole of commercial interests bypasses the fact that the Internet provides similar affordances (qualities that allow individuals and communities to perform particular actions; see Gibson, 1950) for commercial and non-commercial action. The potential of a social-media- based community action has been demonstrated in multiple cases. The use of the Internet by the Zapatista Army of the liberation movement of Chiapas in Mexico in 1994 and the protests at the World Trade Organization (WTO) ministerial conference in Seattle in 1999 are often mentioned early examples (Bruns, 2009). Since then, an array of social grassroots movements has exploited the social web around the world. Opposition parties use social media to coordinate action in countries like Iran, Burma and Moldova. The Camp for Climate Change ( organises camps as an action on climate change. CarrotMob focuses on positive customer action by rewarding ‘businesses who are making the most socially responsible decisions’ (carrotmob. org). Several organisations offer platforms for grassroots action like Australian GetUp! ( The paradox and uneasy coexistence of commercial, non-profit and directly anti-commercial interests is an apparent and, it seems, unavoidable aspect of the culture of participation. The Internet can be used as an instrument of democracy as well as commercialist domination, as Pyati (2010) observes. Despite the promise, a ‘true’ critique of participatory culture may be difficult to realise on the Internet because of the intertwined nature of the infrastructure and competing ideologies. The simultaneously imagined and real culture of freedom and voluntary action and the economies of communication and organisation of work benefit commercial and noncommercial actors, making them increasingly dependent on the perennial contradiction.

During the last decade, the dichotomy of commercial and free has been supplemented in a number of countries by authoritarian ideologies of control and restriction. Control is not restricted to totalitarian countries, but some forms of censorship extend to the USA, Britain and the Nordic countries. Censorship is simultaneously executed by governments and corporations. At present digital culture is a bizarre cocktail of communitarian and individualistic ideologies, the commercial seeking of profit and censorship. The Internet is perhaps fundamentally an open network, but large parts of the infrastructure and major services are run by commercial actors, and governments have shown that they can enforce control and surveillance far better than has been assumed. The feelings of freedom and communitarianism nourish incentives to participate even in commercially driven enterprises and services, and maintain an illusion of unlimited freedom. Commercial actors provide services without direct costs to their users like search engines, email and instant messaging services, blogs, file sharing and even office software suites. Censorship is very subtle and often disguised. At the same time, non-profit projects provide various opportunities for profit seeking in the form of consulting, professional support, repackaging of open products and even the creation of tools that help others to enforce censorship.

Despite the semi-peaceful coexistence of contradictory ideologies, the dichotomies unfold constantly in open debates and the transition of identities on the Internet. As Olivier Ertzscheid (2010a) writes in a commentary of the New York Times Magazine article ‘The Death of the Open Web’ by Virginia Heffernan (2010), it is not said that a boutique, cathedral and bazaar – with commercial, regulatory and collective ideals – can coexist on the same territory. Consumerism is in too sharp opposition to all earlier forms of life (Bauman, 2007: 31), including the egalitarian ideology. The free and egalitarian outcome of the social web is not given. Even if disguised under the hood of an ideology of freedom and participation, commercial actors and governments have reasons for and means of directing the outcome in other directions. As Ertzscheid (2010a) warns, it is possible that corporations and public authorities continue to build similar visible and invisible walls around different services on the Internet to those people have begun to build around their neighbourhoods and homes in many countries. Filtering and monitoring of web traffic by government and private organisations, but also by individuals, erect boundaries for our pursuits of knowing and constrain us directly and indirectly from using information. Closed technological ecologies like the iPad and the appstore model of distributing software and information have been heavily criticised for compromising the freedom of the Internet (ibid.). Tim Berners-Lee (2010) has also emphatically disapproved of the emergence of similarly closed information ecologies like Facebook and Twitter, and argued for the need for open standards and the benefits of similar but open services like Diaspora (a social network) and (a Twitter-like service).

The influence of corporations, states and some bodies may be seen as a form of Habermasian colonisation of the life world (Whitworth, 2009: 126). Even if the explicit discourse emphasises participation as an antithesis of commercial and governmental control, the participation does not necessarily lead to involvement and influence on the hegemonic authorities. Although the difference between users and customers may seem small, it is key to the question of the role of users and their responsibilities on the social web. Habermas (1984b) made a clear distinction between four different roles an individual may have in global economic and administrative systems: consumer, employee, citizen and client. The communitarian ideology of the participatory web calls for genuine participation and responsibility as a condition of freedom. Participants are ‘netizens’: net citizens who have both rights and obligations like other citizens (Aberbach and Christensen, 2005).

Within the communal frame of reference, the social web can be used as an instrument for empowering political participation and advancing democratic ideals, as Serge Proulx (2007) suggests. The commercial aspirations of participation focus on people as user-consumers who seek value for their money or, in the context of the social web, mostly for their contributions in the form of information, media and time spent under the direct influence of advertising. The roles of employee and client are not entirely absent from the participatory culture, but the proactive idea of participation and commercialism that aims at simplifying the relation between organisations and individuals seems to favour the extremes of both economic and administrative roles. Consumerism tends to divest communities of the need for shared values and norms, the very ingredients of communal participation (Bauman, 2007: 88–9). The dualism of citizenship and consumerism is a dividing line between broadcast yourselfism and talko participation. The boundary line is fine and is intraed in many projects, so it is difficult to distinguish whether the driving force of participation is desire (as in consumption and broadcast yourselfism) or rules and norms (as in production and talko work) (Bauman, 2000: 76). Commercial actors participate in talko work on the social web by contributing to an open source software project. A corporation may be in a citizen-like position in a particular project and at the same time nurture another kind of an idea of participation on other social web services with its paying customers. The coexistence of two conflicting ideologies is explained partially by their apparent mutual dependence. David Halpern (2005) remarks that communality is a precondition of individualism even in its most ultimate form. Similarly it might be assumed that besides historical reasons, the individualistic, almost egoistic, ideals of commercialism explain why the competing ideologies have stayed and become so much emphasised on the social web.

The freedom ideals uphold an image of participants as independent, cowboy-like figures, and the web as a new frontier that has some resemblance to the American west of the 1800 s. Authorities try to fence the digital prairie by restricting freedom of access to the Internet. The freedom fighters of the Internet, metaphorical ‘digital cowboys’, are not riding horses: their steeds are piggybanks of commercial actors, which offer the economic basis for maintaining the prairie as a simultaneously open and limited common space for hegemonic and anti- hegemonic interests. The analogy is intriguing, but there are also many differences. Both prairies are populated by newcomers and are spaces with seemingly unlimited possibilities and few predefined rules. On the other hand, the social web is not a physical otherness. It is a part of the same reality with the old world, its social norms and laws without hundreds of miles of prairie between the cowboy and the civilisation. On the social web, a cowboy cannot be completely a man without a past, because of his digital dossier, which is never far behind and is very difficult to control, as we are going to discuss in more detail in Chapter 6. In the flux of control and freedom, one of the major boundaries is the lack of firm constraints. As Proulx (2011) has remarked, together with his colleagues, the dichotomous commercial and emancipatory coexistence means that participation can simultaneously close us in and out, alienate and liberate. In contrast to the Wild West, on the social web, man is not against nature. The infrastructure of the social web is a highly complex, but still man-made, socio-technical system.

Roles and rules of participation

There are many motivations to participate in the social production of knowledge and they straddle each other, as studies of virtual communality have shown (e.g., Cheng and Vassileva, 2005; Schroer and Hertel, 2009). It is possible to seek recognition and be altruistic at the same time on both individual and collective levels. Participation in question and answer communities, such as Yahoo Answers, or the broader ecology of ‘how to’ documents (on diverse topics from computers to everyday life), provide means to be helpful and seek recognition for one’s expertise. Even if many online activists work in collectives and not as individuals, they are still engaged in broadcasting themselves and seeking recognition for their cause. Even if phenomena like citizen journalism are based on democratic ideals to provide alternative news coverage of various often controversial events, such as the anti-WTO protests of 1999, the aim of the actions is to seek publicity and recognition for particular movements and their causes. In such cases broadcast yourselfism can be collective and the broadcasting can have multiple purposes. The ideas of imagined and real audiences, social comparison and reputation are important even in the more altruistic talko work. It is impossible to be altruistic without someone who benefits from the act and recognises its significance.

The notion of real and imagined audiences is a fundamental aspect of the culture of participation. We discussed earlier that the idea of participatory culture builds on a convergence of audiences and producers. Unlike the traditional, linear model of information flow, the culture of participation is based on an assumption that, quoting the Wikipedia slogan, ‘anyone can edit’ (Wikipedia, 2010b), but several studies have shown that not everyone edits after all. Wikipedia has millions of users, but only 150 000 active editors (Wikipedia, 2010a). Many open source software applications are developed by a handful of people and used by millions. The concept of ‘anyone’ as a potential participant is an imaginary but powerful category, which defines participatory culture. Although only some people participate by making contributions, contributions have become a cultural default. Web services invite people to participate, join and contribute. If you open the front page of the mainstream social media service of your choice, there is an abundance of invitations to participate: ‘What are you doing right now?’, ‘Sign up now!’, ‘Express yourself’ or ‘Share and discover what’s happening right now’. Participation is legitimate and expected. In contrast, non-participation has become almost an anomie, a boundary that may not be intraed.

In very simple terms, editing Wikipedia or contributing source code to an open source project makes an individual a participant. According to Pew Internet & American Life Project, 38 per cent of American teens and 30 per cent of adults shared self-created content online at the time of the research (Lenhart et al., 2010). However, content creation does not always (or even very often) equate with the rather stereotypic view of hyperactive consumption and production of web content sometimes promoted in the literature (Chu, 2010). But even if voting, ranking or tagging something is not necessarily equally creative, it is also clearly a form of participation and production, similar to the rapidly increasing (Lenhart et al., 2010) and often rather unconscious form of production of liking and then clicking that prevails on social network services. Even if these relatively facile forms of participation are easy to take as a source of a superficial participatory involvement, the participation itself serves a purpose. The assumption that low-commitment participation is not significant is similar to Wynne’s (2001) observation that it is assumed that civic engagement in the local community is not significant. The participation of non-sharing users and the important incentive brought by these people – sometimes millions, sometimes only a handful – who read, watch and use content on the web should not be underestimated. The altruistic motivations of Wikipedia contributors make sense for themselves, because their work can benefit others who participate by using Wikipedia (Schroer and Hertel, 2009).

Depending on one’s viewpoint, some or all users have become producing users or customers. A Forrester study suggests that 61 per cent of online adults in the USA are open to co-creating with industries (Williams et al., 2010). To be open for participation is not the same thing as participating, but the result clearly shows how deeply the expectation to participate has penetrated contemporary culture. Already in 1970 Alvin Toffler (1970) discussed how electric technology was about to turn consumers into producers. A decade later, he coined the term ‘prosumer’ to refer to these hybrid producer-consumers (Toffler, 1980). Don Tapscott (1995) and the authors of The Cluetrain Manifesto (Locke et al., 2000) have since discussed and elaborated the same ideas. Axel Bruns (2008; Bruns and Schmidt, 2011) later coined a similar notion of ‘produsers’, for user producers, and ‘produsage’, an amalgam of production and use that underlines aspects of community and freedom instead of commercialism.

The notion of prosumer contains an uneasy dialectic of expertise and amateurism. Many advocates of the social web have emphasised its egalitarian potential. Terry Fisher (2006) has seen the present era as a golden age of amateurs. William Dutton (2007b) sees the network of content creators forming a fifth estate. Shachaf (2009) has shown that Wikipedia Reference Desk is comparable to a library reference service. The encyclopaedia of the Wikipedia project is perhaps the most often used example of how amateurs can together create something that is comparable to expert produced counterparts (Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2006; Giles, 2005, 2006; Nature, 2006).

One of the strongest advocates of the opposite view has been Andrew Keen, the author of the polemic The Cult of the Amateur (2008), which makes a strong case for the continuing relevance of expertise. Despite the rather extreme outcries for and against the advantages of amateurism, there is evidence that the participation of anybody can be beneficial and the wisdom of crowds, aggregated opinions of a large mass of people, can provide answers to certain issues. The pro-am (professional-amateur) argument (Leadbeater and Miller, 2004) has shown that the contradiction is not that much about expertise itself, but rather of established hierarchies and their relation to expertise. There is a difference between perceiving expertise as a given boundary and taking it to be an emerging characteristic of an individual or community. Even if the argument that there has been a paradigm shift should not be taken lightly, there is meaning in the analysis that amateurs are a new group of noble savages. As Keen notes, experts tend to have had a long education and years of experience investigating their topics. Professionals focus on the subject of their expertise full time while amateurs have to compromise between their day-time work and hobbies. Achieving the reputation of being an expert also signifies something, although – as the pro-am discourse and for instance Wikipedia policies emphasise – titles are not in themselves significant (Wikipedia, 2010c). It is likely, however, that both extremes are too extreme. The question of who pays makes a distinction between a professional and an amateur, but there is no equally clear distinction between experts and non-experts, and a reason to assume that an amateur could not be an expert. From a perspective that acknowledges the possibility of achieving a state of perfect knowledge, the proposed shift from titular expertise to one of pure meritocracy is laudable. A nominal expertise is replaced by the best knowledge. At the same time, the undermining of the hierarchies of expertise deprives us of the possibility of economising in knowing by relying on a powerful set of secondary indications of the plausible goodness of a piece of information. Even if the deprecation of formal expertise undoubtedly breaks a major boundary of knowing, it does not escape from erecting a new one.

Economy of participation and non-participation

The dissipation of the boundaries of nominal expertise and the emphasis on the enlightened everyman raises a question about the reasons for participation and non-participation. The discourse of the participatory culture nurtures an ideal of universal participation and expresses a concern of digital divides between countries and groups that lack equal opportunities. In practice, the digital divide is not necessarily a question of equality but rather the opposite, a question of inequality. The digital divide is only seldom the principal boundary that hinders people from participating in contemporary culture, but rather a consequence of other social boundaries. It has been argued that an internet connection makes everyone a potential Wikipedia contributor (Tapscott and Williams, 2006), but in reality empirical studies tend to show that the determinants of participation tend to be rooted in the level of human development and other often social factors (Brandtzaeg et al., 2011; Rask, 2008). Brandtzaeg et al. (2011) showed that in a study of Internet use in five European countries, 30 per cent of the people with access to the Internet were non-users. Caroline Haras (2011) has made similar observations in Los Angeles. In contrast, Jeffrey James (2011) found that the digital divide tends to increase in countries with lower average income and decrease when average income is relatively higher. Pekka Rasanen (2008) presented similar findings on the effects of the growing inequality of income in the Nordic countries.

Without undermining the significance of access and having concrete opportunities to intra the boundary of digital participation, it seems that the divide is largely a question of perspective. In this sense the anatomy of the divides resembles the paradox of use and non-use, which will be discussed in Chapter 6. Epstein et al. (2011) posit that the rhetoric of how the divide is depicted and whether it is claimed to be a question of access or skills can be a significant explanatory factor in how the digital divide is perceived. In the same way, potential participants may see additional imaginary and preferential obstacles and incentives to get involved in the digital environment and the participatory culture. Participation is a process of learning and adaptation. Users monitor each other’s activity and adopt behavioural patterns that are common in the context in which they are operating. People add applications and upload photographs to Facebook when they see other people adding and viewing them. Asimina Vasalou et al. (2010) have shown that the motivations to participate in social networking sites tend to be similar, independent of the length of the experience of using a site or the country of the origin of the participant. The difference is in how people fulfill these motivations. Beginners may prefer to participate by using gameplay and applications. The decline of the significance of games and applications may be because users become familiar with the general norms of participation (ibid.), but also because they feel themselves ready for deeper and more direct engagement with the community. Even if the level of engagement in social networking can be largely independent of the country of origin, there are significant differences in how users choose to participate. In Vasalou et al.’s study (ibid.), Italian Facebook users preferred games and applications and groups, Greek and French users were less interested in status updates, and British users were least interested in games and applications.

Clay Shirky (2010) argues that the boom of digital participation is related to the notion of what he calls ‘cognitive surplus’. According to Shirky, as residents of developed countries spend less time earning their living than those in non-developed countries they have a considerable surplus of free time and capacity. In contrast to watching television, the prevalent pastime of the late twentieth century, in the digital milieu there are countless opportunities for active participation and contribution for the common good. As Shirky remarks, according to an estimate he quotes, Americans could produce 2000 new Wikipedias a year using the same amount of time they spend watching television. Even if it is a mere estimate, it is probably correct enough to give an idea of the figures involved. Shirky may be criticised as having unwarranted optimism and a relative misuse of the word ‘cognitive’ in ‘cognitive surplus’, but his way of seeing participation as a function of people’s opportunities (a relative abundance of time), instruments (the means to get involved), aspirations (a desire to participate) and choice (ability to turn to the Internet instead of watching television) is insightful. The paradox is that only a huge optimist would assume that such passively used time could necessarily be harnessed to something ‘productive’. Shirky’s point is that only a small portion of this time can make a difference in the form of new Wikipedias and other projects with equally impressive outcomes.

From the point of view of participation, the question is not how many new Wikipedias Americans or indeed the entire population of the world could produce in a certain amount of time, but one of the innate rationale of the seeming absurdity of spending billions of hours passively watching television instead of doing something ‘useful’. A major difficulty of understanding the digital divide is that the concept is based on the same implicit assumption as the notion of participatory culture. It is assumed that everyone has incentives to participate and is inclined to engage whenever possible, without considering our tendency to be economic in our pursuit of knowing, as suggested by Hardin’s theory of ordinary knowledge. The idea of harnessing cognitive surplus is based on an equally common assumption of what constitutes meaningful engagement (participation) and what is essentially non-participatory engagement (watching television). Without attempting to discredit the sublime vision of Shirky, its footing is not entirely unproblematic. Social theory and especially social constructivism place social exchange at the centre of human experience and perceived reality. As Ike Picone (2011) suggests, it makes sense to consider participatory practices such as ‘produsage’ also as a form of social practice instead of merely conceptualising it as a form of information processing. In a sense, participation is meaningful as a central aspect of humanity, but the salience of collective action does not necessarily imply that it would have an unconditional intrinsic value. People decide to participate and not participate for various reasons beyond the relatively simple condition of opportunity. Etienne Wenger (1998: 164) makes an important point by underlining the significance of non-participation:

We not only produce our identities through the practices we engage in, but we also define ourselves through the practices we do not engage in. Our identities are constituted not only by what we are but also by what we are not. To the extent that we can come in contact with other ways of being, what we are not can even become a large part of how we define ourselves.

Like participation, in the light of the theory of the economy of ordinary knowledge non-participation also serves a purpose and can be as ‘rational’ and meaningful a choice for a human being as any other action. Somewhat paradoxically, the pervasive ideal of universal participation has emphasised the intentionality of non-participation. Non-engagement has become a more and more conscious choice. The ideal has been embraced in concert by corporate communications, governmental policy programmes and grassroots level activists, which all solicit it for their own aims. There is no neutral participation that has not been colonised by the competing ideologies. The economy of the choice between participation and non-participation is not a simple question of opportunity or benefits. It depends on the interplay of participants and the infrastructures of participation in a complex network formed by the engagement of human and non-human actors (de Paoli and Storni, 2011). As an activity, participation has become a question of cultural obligation that changes the economy participating in knowledge production and use whether you participate or not.


The participatory culture is a playground of paradoxes. The rhetoric of involvement emphasises freedom, but at the same time the attempt to make autonomous and individual choices has become a cultural obligation. Paraphrasing the reading of the notion of the ‘information society’ by Armand Mattelart (2001), the singular assemblage of a widespread experience of cultural change can be described as a social or cultural construction. There is no culture of participation and it is not a single entity, even if at the same time there is certainly something that is meaningful to describe as the culture of participation. The democratic, commercial and governmental ideologies of participation have colonised each other to such a degree that there is now sometimes an uneasy coexistence of hegemonic aspirations and frontier ideals. Instead of referring to a single idea, participation emphasises an unresolved dichotomy between communality and individualism, and different meanings of the various forms of participation and non- participation.

Even if technology has provided us with the capability of overcoming some of the major boundaries of taking part in a collective authorship of knowledge, the notion of the ‘author’ as being at the centre of the production of knowledge is hardly disappearing. Instead it seems more plausible to suggest that the notion of authorship is evolving (Gensollen, 2006). The role of an author as a demiurge-like self-sufficient figure has been contested (Wirtén, 2004) and may be fading, but as the emerging services from YouTube and blogging to collective forms of information production such as wikis have demonstrated, the social significance of being an ‘author’ as an individual or an individual member of a collective is hardly going to disappear. Authorship may not be conceptualised as a form of ownership, as in the culture of solitary authorship, but rather as a form of an attribution (Love, 2002) and a sign of certain rights and liabilities (Biagioli, 2006). The boundaries of participating in authorship have generally become lower, but the boundaries of playing a meaningful author role in a particular context have changed less.

Together with paradoxes, participatory culture is one of performance and imagination. A customer is right, but is a participant all wrong and a non-participant a total outsider without a right of existence? It is unclear who has responsibility for whom. The new forms of participatory culture do not imply a return of the old culture of local participation and exchange of rural communities with similar obligations and rights to those typically associated with citizenship. In contrast to a physical proximity, the new culture is based on the existence of a limited set of assumed and advocated rights. The explicit obligations on both sides are few, but they are accompanied by a myriad of implicit and imagined obligations and communality, and practical necessities that lock the participants within the confines of common cultural boundaries. The convergence of consumerism and egalitarian ideals, the paradox of individualism and communalism, and participation and non-participation seem to make it necessary to redefine social participation as something that is not directly comparable to any earlier forms of being together. The old boundaries of participation – expertise, altruism and commercialism, participation and non-participation – seek new forms. Participation has its own economy and boundaries are emerging, but most likely in a very different sense from that of Esther Dyson (1998), who urged us to define our lives and role as the citizens of local communities and the global society.