Participatory Culture

Recently, while surfing the Web, I came across a great TED talk on participatory culture by Henry Jenkins. In less than 20 minutes, Jenkins provides an excellent overview of the history of participatory culture and a convincing argument why it is here to stay and the need to prepare our students accordingly. I highly recommend listening/watching.

We talk a lot about collaboration and the value of being globally connected–for ourselves and our students. Collaboration and connectedness are expressed by active participation in social networks/communities rather than passive consumption of information. According to Jenkins, a participatory culture is one:

  1. With relatively low barriers to artistic expression and civic engagement

  2. With strong support for creating and sharing one’s creations with others

  3. With some type of informal mentorship whereby what is known by the most experienced is passed along to novices

  4. Where members believe that their contributions matter

  5. Where members feel some degree of social connection with one another (at the least they care what other people think about what they have created).

The historical perspective Jenkins provides was the most interesting to me. He traces participatory communities back as far as the mid-1800s, when young people formed amateur press associations and used printing presses to engage in discussion forums. They were “social networks that existed around print.” In the 1920s, schools, boy scout groups, religious institutions, and others had amateur radio operators for communication purposes. In the 1960s, the underground press became the key voice of the counterculture. And in the 1990s it was the Super 8 camcorder activists who “build social networks to make a difference in the world.”

I’ve never really thought about the fact that once the technology was in place, it served to create various social networks throughout history. Obviously, information and communication technology provides a whole new scope to social networking. I do wonder if our students realize that they can be active participants on a global scale? If they understand the power provided to them?

Collaboration and networking is nothing new, but we now have the means to extend our reach further than ever before. In another venue, Jenkins states that

Participatory culture shifts the focus of literacy from one of individual expression to community involvement. The new literacies almost all involve social skills developed through collaboration and networking. These skills build on the foundation of traditional literacy, research skills, technical skills, and critical analysis skills taught in the classroom.

Preparing our students properly for this new version of participatory culture, leaves us teachers with an incredibly urgent task.


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