The importance of understanding participatory media

For the past 3 1/2 years I have been looking at the impact the web has had on the practices of Academics who are highly engaged in virtual environments. This inevitably takes me to explore the social side of their professional enterprise as the web has become a place of active participation. Engagement is the glue that brings people together online. For it to work, there are some (invisible) rules that need to be observed. These include exchange, mutability, transparency, and trust through socialisation. They make us bond.

As a form of understanding the wider picture, I have also – even if informally – been taking a look at how businesses and services operate online, and how institutions and members of the public represent themselves in the same space. The misunderstandings are common to those in Academia. Some people do get participatory media. The majority does not.

Hence, I must say that I am far from being impressed with what I have observed! With the exception of well conceived strategic examples – A shout out to AVAST! and its Head of communication @Jas who truly understand modern forms of communication – I come to think that we are still a long way from getting the social component of the web.

To start with – online hierarchy is structured differently. It would be naive to say that there are no power relations on the web , or that participation is not driven by personal and commercial interests. In many cases it is! Yet, there is scope for collective participation. The individual is also entitled to a voice. You would think we would be capitalising on that. In most cases, we are not!

With the possibility of mass participation new forms of communication and access are enabled. Twitter is a great example of it. Only in my wild dreams did I ever think I would be able to access celebrities with a tweet, let alone a Professor! Now it is possible, although only rarely!

I especially liked the exchange between James’ Singer and a fan who points out he doesn’t really get twitter. This is the same as to say you don’t really get social media. You are still in broadcast mode! Would it hurt to follow some fans? It’s a form of reciprocating appreciation; being open to engagement. After all, they help pay your bills! The same applies to some intellectuals and their publics. This instance represents a misunderstanding of the medium.  It also conveys the preconception that it suffices to transfer past practices into a new channel. Participatory Media is not about transferring practice to a new platform; it is about engaging with our audiences differently. There is a need to combat the legacy of the past when information was transmitted, not co-created.

However, the use of social media doesn’t only get confused with this idea of feeding individual Egos. It goes beyond it. Some people, and organisations, see it as a form of exploiting and benefiting from other people’s work. Again – practicing one way communication, with one audience as beneficiaries: them! For instance, it happened when Academics wrote for  magazines and journals. In an attempt to pass on knowledge and raise their profile, they gave away copyright of their own work in exchange of it being published. Today, we have the possibility to keep both. Different forms of publication permit not only wider access to the information we produce; it also allows for more inclusive licenses. Creative commons come to mind. Yet, we still comply with old standards. Tradition dies hard!

This happens, for instance, when people ask you to contribute to their website and in exchange keep copyright of your work. Notice the irony?! You give your time and work away for free to suit the commercial purposes of others. It seems a bit hard to believe we do that. But we do.  What makes people think they are so great other will come? But most importantly, what makes contributors think they are not good enough that they submit themselves to such rules?

Every individual is a potential contributor to knowledge in an environment that requires less formalities. So why give our work away when we get nothing in return?  Everyone is asking themselves What’s in it for me? – and they often don’t find an immediate answer. Yet, what we should all be really asking is: what’s in it for us?

Participation is about exchange. And that is what many of us often forgets. When we give our copyright away, we are not only separating ourselves from our work, we are also denying others the right to re-use it.

I could go on and on with this, but I’ll stop here. For once, I wanted to provide a less positive and vibrant image of the web and its forms of participation. Tension and selfish interests are a significant part of this environment. They model practices; they shape beliefs, and above all they stall genuine innovation and initiative.

We need to consciously decide on which side of the game we want to be. Since Willets came to announce that it does not matter where researchers publish their research, as long as they publish quality work, I think this is a great opportunity to take a chance to publish wherever it is right for us (according to our ideology and what we think our mission in academia is). It my case it will be in Journals and sites that observe the Open Access philosophy and allow me to choose which licenses I can use to share my work.

[apologies for random thoughts - they might not connect from beginning to end - but they have been populating my mind as I plough through my Literature Review sections]