The Web of Participation
MECO6936: Social Media Communication
Cherry Thursday 3-6pm
Hannah Lynch – 430313930
With the invention of Web 2.0 came many new opportunities for participation in social media including ‘popular and accessible ways to publish texts, images, and audio and video material’ (Carpentier, 2009: 410) and providing new and expansive learning resources (Lewis, Pea and Rosen, 2010) within networks of connected users. Today, the new forms of social media allow an intricate level of connectivity that encourages ‘participation’ and ‘sharing’ (Lewis, Pea and Rosen, 2010: 352) among users and their networks that results in ‘new forms of social life’ (354). According to Lewis et al., ‘people can “see” each other’s worlds’ more than ever before, through these new social media platforms that ‘enable, structure and call upon us to enact’ (2010: 352). The structure of these platforms focuses on sharing of personal information, user generated content (UCG), user created content (UCC), educational resources and other forms of data that are provided by the users. This abundance of information and connectivity, as a result of Web 2.0, ‘placed participation on centre stage’ (Carpentier, 2009: 408).
There are many conversations about the participatory element of social media that surpasses interactivity and becomes intricate participation due to the users’ ability to not only share content, known as User Generated Content (UGC), but also create their own content, known as User Created Content (UCC). This process of sharing and creating content creates a ‘wealth of information online’ (Hinton and Hjorth, 2013: 67), that is constructed, primarily, in users’ own time. This web of creating and sharing information within users’ networks deems the audience more than consumers of social media, instead considering the ‘audience as media producer’ (Hinton and Hjorth, 2013: 64). Web 2.0 users are no longer simply passive consumers of media, but are instead, creating, shaping, sharing and influencing the information online, and in the case of Digg, which will be explored below, they are also determining what information is considered most important.
There are many benefits to the participatory focus of social media within the new form of Web 2.0 including providing ‘various forms of agency’ (Hinton and Hjorth, 2013) through UGC and UCC that provide the user with a certain level of control and ability to create their own meaning. The participatory nature also provides a nurturing learning environment through ‘social contexts’ and ‘collaboration’ (Lewis, Pea and Rosen, 2010: 357), as learning, according to research, is heightened within social environments that promote networks of collaborative learning. This plethora of available information, according to Lewis et al., has provided, through ‘the interactive worldwide web… the greatest learning tool in human history’ (2010: 354). While Lewis, Pea and Rosen explore the potential educational benefits of social media that create ‘powerful dynamics for learning’ (2010: 357), there are also negative factors to the participatory element of social media that hide responsibility of content, value creation and workload, through disguised power relations.
For Carpentier, this new form of online media, allows for a ‘democratization’ of media through a ‘new communicative paradigm’ (2009: 408) that gives a voice to users and strengthens their voice through their connected networks. Yet notions of new media are often diminished to a ‘reductionist discourse of novelty’ (Carpentier, 2009: 408). Carpentier depicts a novelty discourse of new media as problematic, as it allows us to ignore the participatory capacity of “old” media, creating a sense of novelty around new media that biases the potential new media and ignores the elements of mass communication remaining in social media. While Carpentier establishes the ‘socially and politically beneficial’ element of social media he highlights the need to interrogate the ‘power relations’ (2009: 417) within social media practices that are disguised under the bias and novelty surrounding the concept of participation in Web 2.0.
So what hidden power relations are at play within the new forms of social media? Along with the problematic discourse of novelty, Carpentier highlights contrasting viewpoints on the form of participation as a ‘minimalist’ or ‘maximalist’ perspective (2009: 409). Through a minimalist lens, participation is conceptualised through ‘ritual and symbolic forms’, with a heightened sense of ‘communality’, where as a maximalist perspective is considered as ‘intense forms’ of participation on behalf of ‘non-professional’ users with the aim of ‘the mediated production of meaning’ (Carpentier, 2009: 409). In other words, participation is understood as either symbolic investment or imbalanced power relation leading to the exploitation of users through their one-sided investment into the production of meaning through creating content. Many users invest their own time into creating content for online social spaces, which is elicited through the foundations of the social media sites to share and contribute. Many of these sites, for Hinton and Hjorth, ‘exist only because of the content created by their users’ (2013: 67). This content creation and circulation requires ‘creativity’ as well as ‘time, emotion and various forms of capital’ such as ‘social, cultural and sometimes economic’ (Hinton and Hjorth, 2013: 67). Users are the ones to invest time and effort into creating profiles and pages, while the sites themselves reap the social, cultural and economic benefits (Hinton and Hjorth, 2013; Carpentier, 2009).
There is no doubt that participation is a fundamental element of social media, but who is benefiting more from the ‘social labour’ of participation (Hinton and Hjorth, 2013: 67)? Online platforms increasingly encourage ‘methods of actively providing information about what we are doing or what we think of something’ (Hinton and Hjorth, 2013: 62), ‘inserting textual statements about what one is doing’ while also ‘tracking and subscribing to other user’s statements and allowing others to do the same’, with a huge concentration on and promotion of ‘viewing and commenting on one’s own or other’s submissions’ (Lewis, Pea and Rosen, 2010: 353). Ultimately, the sites are functioning from the information provided by the users, and their interactivity with other users and their information. Beyond the initial contribution of information, social media platforms then require a constant maintenance, involving the ongoing investment of social labour. This process of labour, through providing and updating information, and networking through such information, provides many social sites the ability to ‘make money by selling attention, and that attention is gained through users’ creative and social labour’ (Hinton and Hjorth, 2013: 67).
Digg, a social news site, provides a clear example of an organisation benefiting from the labour invested by non-professional users. Digg works through users ‘submitting links to stories they find online’ and then reviewing and voting on the stories they prefer (Lerman, 2007: 1). The stories that get the most votes or “digs” are featured on the main page of the website. Such a ‘collective decision making’ process is termed ‘wisdom of crowds’ (Lerman, 2007: 1), as it is informed directly by what the audience prefers. The structure of user’s uploading and voting allows the user to maintain agency in deciding what is given preference, but at the same time, it is the users that are putting in all the labour to discover and present the articles. In terms of Digg, in 2007 when Lerman researched the site, there was ‘well over one million registered users and more than 2,000 stories submitted daily’ (1). That’s an enormous amount of free labour that would not be expected in any other area of social life.
So where does this leave us in our search to become social media managers? Are we doomed to abuse those who we depend on? As Hinton and Hjorth (2013) point out, is it insufficient to delve into the impacts of social media or try to understand them by just signing up to a social media site and start participating. Instead a consideration of the ‘economic, political and social dimensions’ (2013: 147) of the technology and the resulting changes to society must be acknowledged. Technology and therefore social media, are entrenched into our everyday lives both symbolically and culturally, so in order to achieve a balanced and mutually beneficial relationship between the producing users and the benefiting organisations, such elements of participation and labour must be considered.
Carpentier, N. (2009) ‘Participation is Not Enough: The Conditions of Possibility of Mediated Participatory Practices’, European Journal of Communication, 24(4), pp. 407-420.
Hinton, S., & Hjorth, L. (2013) Understanding Social Media, Sage Publications, London: UK.
Lerman, K. (2007) ‘User Participation in Social Media: Digg Study’, Proceedings of the 2007 IEEE/WIC/ACM International Conferences on Web Intelligence and Intelligent Agent Technology-Workshops, pp. 255-258.
Lewis, S., Pea, R. and Rosen, J. (2010) ‘Beyond Participation to Co-Creation of Meaning: Mobile Social Media in Generative Learning Communities, Social Science Information, 49(3), pp. 351-369.