Oct 182014

In this week’s TECH3022 Lecture I wanted to introduce some concepts that would help us to situate the role of participation in the function of social and collaborative media. Our discussions are looking at developing our understanding about social media, and the way it has the potential to encourage civic or grassroots media engagement. I wanted to highlight some ideas, therefore, that have been associated with the way that public sphere has been used as a way to explain how civic discussion is understood. Coupled with this I also wanted to introduce the idea of hegemony and the critique of dominant ideas within society, and how they are controlled by ruling elites. To do this I wanted to introduce some examples drawn from DIY and alternative media, as well as thinking about the relevance of community media.

It is useful to keep in mind that despite what many voices in the mass media might want us to believe, it’s entirely possible to imagine alternative ways of communicating with media that aren’t dominated by corporate control and the dominant social discourses that define Western society. This challenge to the dominant monoculture of ideas and thinking in Western capitalism can be examined, on a number of levels. Either from the point of view of social movements and historical forces that might be argued to shape society, or, by paying attention to the daily life practices of ordinary people working on the day-to-day functions of living and interacting. In the context of social media we should remember, as Henry Jenkins points out, that “what people collectively and individually decide to do with [new media] technologies as professionals and as audiences, and what kinds of culture people produce and spread in and around these tools, is still being determined” (Jenkins, Ford, & Green, 2013, p. xiii).

I’ve been working and researching in the field of community media quite a bit over the last ten years or so, and I’ve developed a familiarity with the way that participants in community media can find the confidence to articulate their individual voices, nurturing and developing alternative ideas and practices. Community media has the potential to offer something different for participants that is not as fixed or determined by the controlling influence of mainstream corporate media. Follow this link to listen to one of my Community Media World Podcasts.

Kevin Howley notes that “community media represent a unique site to interrogate the process of identity formation through communication technologies, and to examine the dramatic impact of social and technological change on the everyday lived experience of disparate groups within a geographically based community. Put another way, attending to the institutions, forms, and practices associated with community media provides enormous insight into the relationship between people, places, and communication technologies” (Howley, 2005, p. 38).

So, a focus on participation, and the development of social media practices that promote participation, have the potential to afford us, as Delwiche & Henderson suggest, a mechanism by which individuals and grassroots groups can challenge the domination of centralised and hierarchically organised media organisations. According to Delwiche & Henderson:

“Armed with inexpensive tools for capturing, editing, and organising, people tap into a vast ocean of real-time data and multimedia content to promote personal and political interests. Functions once monopolised by a handful of hierarchical institutions (e.g. newspapers, television stations, and universities) have been usurped by independent publishers, video-sharing sites, collaboratively sustained knowledge banks, and fan-generated entertainment” (Delwiche & Henderson, 2013, p. 3).

This notion of a usurping function for community and collaborative media is echoed by Howley, when he explains how an “emphasis on ‘social-political policies’ is instructive insofar as it highlights the constructed and contested character of media systems. In other words, rather than view these systems as the natural or inevitable outgrowth of any given technology, this perspective illuminates the social, political, economic, and cultural dynamics involved in creating a media system” (Howley, 2010, p. 280).

Howley goes on to give an example and suggests that, “for instance, radio broadcasting operates in terms of a hierarchical, one-way flow of information between media producers and media audiences. This centralised form of message production and distribution positions audiences as relatively passive consumers of media messages. And yet, there is nothing inherent in broadcast technology that precludes decentralised communication between message producers and received. Indeed, in its early days, radio was a vibrant, participatory, and decidedly two-way medium of popular communication” (Howley, 2010, p. 280).

If we keep in mind that the choices that have been made to regulate broadcasting and media services in Western societies come from a particular set of ideological conventions and ideas, then we can start to examine how the process of organisation shapes and structures our wider expectations about media democracy. As Howley points out,  “terrestrial radio broadcasting, as we know it today, developed as a result of explicit policies – rules and regulations covering every aspect of broadcasting, from technical specifications governing spectrum allocation and transmission power, to the conditions for licensing, ownership, and financial support mechanisms – that favoured well-financed private ownership or some form of state sponsorship and control” (Howley, 2010, p. 280).

Therefore, and as Howley continues, “as media and cultural historians remind us, the policies and structures that set the terms of broadcasting in the first half of the past century were the result of a series of negotiations and bitter disputes over how broadcasting would be organised, regulated, and paid for. Critically, the level of public participation was constrained by a number of social, economic, and political conditions. As a result, powerful economic and political forces, representing an narrow range of interests, prevailed and established the foundation for present-day broadcast structures and regulations” (Howley, 2010, p. 280).

In this respect as Howley argues, media and political theorists would be well advised to acknowledge that “community media provide a unique site to illuminate hegemonic processes,” and that “community media demonstrate not only signs of resistance and subversion but evidence of complicity and submission as well” (Howley, 2005, p. 35). In this respect, it can be argued that “Social media breaks down the control and the hierarchy between the mainstream media and the population” (Hill, 2013, p. 53). Marking out spaces and territories that can be populated with alternative voices, contrary opinions and distinctive, and clearly non-mainstream, participants.

This argument rests on some assumptions about the role and the function of alternative and community media Firstly that the levels of control exercised by corporate media actively excludes people. Secondly, that the highly structured hierarchies that are set in place to manage corporate media encourage a largely one-way flow of information, and mark clear distinctions between producers and consumers which are absolute. All of which is held in place by state organised mechanisms and regulations that are designed to hold these economic, civic and social policies in place. What community media is useful for, therefore, is to gain some insight and sense of how an alternative model might work in practice and what it might mean when encountered in the life-worlds of different participants.

Underpinning many of the ideas and thinking about the role of community and participant media is the concept of the Public Sphere:

“The concept of the public sphere, as described by Jürgen Habermas, provides a robust theoretical framework to examine the crucial link between democratic self-governance and communication. Habermas (1993) argues that the public sphere is the foundation for civil society; it is a forum for the citizenry to reach consensus on the issues and policy decisions that affect public life. In Habermas’ formulation, the public sphere is a realm, insulated from the deleterious influence of state and commercial interests, in which citizens openly and rationally discuss, debate, and deliberate upon matters of mutual and general concern to a self-governing community. Isolated or ‘bracketed’ from both state and market forces, this public sphere is the space in which a public comes to understand and define itself, articulate its needs and common concerns, and act in the collective self-interest. In short, it is a space in which a social aggregate become a public” (Howley, 2005, p. 19).

In this sense then, “the concept of the public sphere [is] in a very general and common-sense manner, as, for example, a synonym for the processes of public opinion or for the news media themselves. In its more ambitious guise.” However, as the idea of the public sphere was developed by Jürgen Habermas, and according to Peter Dahlgren, “the public sphere should be understood as an analytic category, a conceptual device which, while pointing to a specific social phenomenon can also aid us in analysing and researching the phenomenon” (Peter Dahlgren in Dahlgren & Sparks, 1991, p. 2).

Howley points out that “according to Habermas, an effective and robust public sphere depends on two conditions: the quality of discursive practices and the quantity of participation within this discourse. The first requirement calls for rational-critical debate based not on the speaker’s identity or social standing, but upon the reasoned and logical merits of an argument. The second requirement entails opening up the debate to the widest public possible and encouraging the inclusion of competing opinions and perspectives” (Howley, 2005, p. 19).

Who constitutes a ‘public’ is one of the key questions to emerge from this line of thinking. Indeed, working out who in practice is capable or given permission to be included in this sense of civic engagement is one of the fundamental critical questions we can seek to establish.  As Habermass himself suggests: “we call events and occasions ‘public’ when they are open to all, in contrast to closed or exclusive affairs” (Habermas, 1994, p. 81). And the extent to which “the private sphere of civil society [is] no longer confined to the authorities but [is] considered by the subjects as one that was properly theirs” (Habermas, 1994, p. 89) is the foundation for much of the ethical interventions that are associated with participation.

According to Howley, however, “the threat to the public sphere, as Habermas sees it, is the encroachments of the state and commercial interests into this realm. Habermas observes that as the public sphere shrinks, there is a marked increase in political apathy, a relentless pursuit of economic and material self-interests, and a rising tide of cynicism and social alienation” (Howley, 2005, p. 19). Therefore, “the concept of the public sphere has enormous relevance for the ongoing project of building and sustaining a more democratic media culture… As the nature of citizenship changes in an increasingly integrated world, the question of who deliberates has enormous implications… There is relatively scant popular participation in this deliberative process” (Howley, 2005, p. 20).

So, to recap, the public sphere is a way of understanding the role of the media in civic spaces. Participation is at the heart of what is said to constitute a healthy public sphere. Media participation formulates ‘publics’ that challenge ‘private’ interests, and therefore the public sphere cannot be thought of as free standing – it is challenged by the state and commercial interests, and therefore the he idea of the ‘citizen’ or ‘agent’ is vital to participation because it the actions of citizens that bring about change.

Across this debate it is widely asserted that “politicians whose views and policy recommendations challenge corporate interests are rarely seen or heard in the mainstream media.” And that, “conversely, those who are sympathetic to and support corporate policy tend to receive favourable coverage in the press. As a result, alternative positions on public policy and oppositional views on corporate culture are rarely publicised, let alone opened up for broad popular debate” (Howley, 2005, p. 23).

So practices do exist that point to an alternative way of thinking about and producing media. As Delwiche points out: “creative cultures flourished beneath the surface of the mainstream media; many of these cultures were nurtured and extended by mimeographed zines” (Delwich, 2013, p. 19). If, as Howley suggest, “corporate media depoliticises both the public and private spheres. In their efforts to deliver audiences to advertisers, commercial media socialise people to believe that health, happiness and the good life are to be found in the implacable, competitive, pursuit of consumer goods” (Howley, 2005, p. 24). Then alternative forms of media, such as zines elude to a different way of thinking about media and media participation, As Delwiche points out: “researchers have demonstrated that participatory cultures are characterised by commitment to access, expression, sharing, mentorship, the need to make a difference, and the desire for social connections” (Delwich, 2013, p. 11).

It’s worth watching each of these documentaries about zine culture to get a sense of how embedded the idea of participation is and what consequences it has for the development of a participation-based outlook.


If, as Howley suggests: “advertising was instrumental in engineering a shift from a producer ethic to a consumer ethic. In so doing, advertising and consumer culture divert the public’s attention, energy, and resources away from society’s fundamental needs like public education, health care, the environment, economic justice, and racial, ethnic, and gender equality that are essential to the institutions, needs, and values that are not based on capital accumulation or profit generation are all but ignored by commercial media” (Howley, 2005, p. 24).

One such example that is said to define online media and the notion and practices of virtual communities was The Well. “The Whole Earth ‘Lectronic Link, normally shortened to The WELL, is one of the oldest virtual communities in continuous operation” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_WELL. According to Delwiche the “WELL was firmly rooted in participatory cultures, with founding principles that included self-governance, community connections, user-driven design, open-endedness, and low barriers to access. Power was deliberately decentralised and the network’s programmers carefully embedded ‘a countercultural conception of community’ into the entire fabric of the system’”(Delwich, 2013, p. 19).

This optimistic and (sometimes) utopian view of participation, as an alternative to the corporate and consumerist notions of civic engagement, presents us with a conundrum, such that as Howley argues, when all is said and done “the commodification of public communication belies claims that the information age will free the minds and liberate the spirits of the world’s people” (Howley, 2005, p. 26).  As Jenkins points out: “the growth of networked communication, especially when coupled with the practices of participatory culture, provides a range of groups who have long struggled to have their voices heard” (Jenkins et al., 2013, p. xiv). And that these “new platforms create openings for social, cultural, economic, legal, and political change and opportunities for diversity and democratisation for which it is worth fighting” (Jenkins et al., 2013, p. xiv).

To echo our starting point for this discussion, and as Jenkins et al suggest “the terms of participation are very much up for grabs, though, and will be shaped by a range of legal and economic struggles unfolding over the next few decades” (Jenkins et al., 2013, p. xiv).

So, to summarise, the terms of this discussion suggest that it is possible to challenge corporate interests through creativity. That participation that is based on access, expression and sharing will make a difference to the quality of social and civic engagement in the public sphere, and therefore the producer ethic needs to be nurtured. Self-governance, networking and user-generated content are the principles that will drive participation, and that new platforms as well as giving us a wider range of affordances also change our expectations about how, and who, can participate.

Kevin Howley uses the work of Martin-Barbero to “demonstrates how mass media are embedded in the everyday lived experience of local populations and illuminates the distinct role various cultural forms (e.g., theatre, cinema, radio dramas and telenovelas) play in the construction of national and cultural identities. In this way, the concept of mediation encourages the examination of both micro and macro level processes of cultural production from a socio-historical perspective. As such, mediation provides a valuable analytical perspective from which to consider community media” (Howley, 2005, p. 34).

According to Howley, community media is “akin to the practice of appropriation so often celebrated by cultural analysts, community media form and content is a bricolage of artefacts and routines generally associated with the culture industries. Like textual poachers (e.g. Jenkins 1992), community media producers glean bits and pieces of media culture and invest this material with their own social experience in attempts to make sense of their lives. And, like the fan culture commonly associated with textual poaching, community media represents distinctive cultural practices that create and nourish affective relations” (Howley, 2005, p. 34).

Likewise, “the culture industry’s dismissive attitude toward the technical abilities of ‘non-professionals’ and the social value of their work underscores the adversarial relationship between dominant and community media. All too often, the work of ‘amateurs’ is marked as esoteric, frivolous, and apolitical. Rarely do commercial or public service broadcasters even acknowledge the existence of community media organisations. More often than not, when community media is acknowledged, it is invariably depicted as a refuge for outsider artists, hatemongers, pornographers, and the radical fringe: a perception some community media producers enthusiastically embrace” (Howley, 2005, p. 36).

And that “community media also represents strategic alliances between social, cultural, and political groups mounting and organising resistance to the hegemony of dominant media institutions and practices. As a resource for local service agencies, political activists, and others whose missions, methods, and objectives are antithetical to existing power structures, community media publicise oppositional messages that are either distorted by or altogether omitted from mainstream media coverage” (Howley, 2005, p. 35).

“These initiatives” according to Howley, “diminish the debilitating effects of political-economic systems that cater to well-heeled special interests by enhancing the capacity of local communities to organise themselves and participate in political processes” (Howley, 2005, p. 35). And, “as a result, producers and audiences alike are complicit in accepting and circulating the notion that community media are aesthetically inferior to mainstream media form and content, and socially and politically irrelevant for popular audiences. Perhaps the reluctance of communication scholars to engage more thoroughly with the phenomenon of community media” (Howley, 2005, p. 36).

As Howley describes, “This emphasis on participation, local content, and especially the impulse to revitalise the civic life of place-based communities is the motivation behind yet another strain of the community networking movement, so-called civic networking” (Howley, 2005, p. 78). Any that of equal importance are the ‘civic networks that are “designed to encourage and facilitate discussion within and between local residents, thereby promoting participatory democracy at the community level” (Howley, 2005, p. 78).

And it is through this process of facilitation that we are able to observe how communities and participants are able to underpin the “creation of new cultural territories,” and work for the “preservation of existing cultural spaces.” According to Howley, this “takes on enormous significance in light of the ease with which people, sounds, imagery, and cultural practice circulate about the globe.” Community media, according to Howley contributes to the “reterritorialization of culture by establishing new structures and creating new spaces for local cultural production. In this light, community media can be viewed as a dramatic expression of the felt need of local populations to exploit as well as contain these forces in their efforts to make sense of the dramatic, and at times traumatic, upheavals associated with globalisation” (Howley, 2005, p. 38).

The question at hand, then, is how do we build the capacity for participation? On what basis should we plan and support the necessary social and symbolic resources that extend participation as a general social process. As Christopher Keilty points out, “those who provide the capacity for participation expect something as well. Participation is now a two-way street. Government now provide participatory democracy, citizens are engaged by the government or corporations, and publics are constituted, consulted, and used to legitimate decision-making” (Kelty, 2013, p. 23).

And as such, “participation is now expected to have an effect on the structures, institutions, organisations, or technologies, in which one participates. Participation is no longer simply an opening up, and expression, a liberation, it is now also a principle of improvement, and instrument of change, a creative force. It no longer threatens, but has become a resource: participation has been made valuable” (Kelty, 2013, p. 24).

So we can see that community media is a useful way to examine how media functions. It is also a useful for building a picture of how our own social experience is essential to defining how we participate in different types of social process, both media and intersubjective. We can see this in the way that the amateur has become central to participative media, and how the subsequent resisting of the dominance of corporate culture is played out through oppositional messages in alternative and community media projects. Generally, community and participation-based media is poorly thought of, but if civic-life is to be invigorated, then participation must be given more status.

To summarise: “community media are strategic initiatives to counteract a climate of political apathy and social alienation that confounds a sense of belonging in local communities” (Howley, 2005, p. 35). “The challenge of building a participatory medium hinges upon the extent to which a diverse user population can not only access the system, but also make safe and productive use of it” (Howley, 2005, p. 250). And likewise, “without full consideration of the enormous variations within a given user population, community networks are unlikely to meet the needs, competencies, and preferences of heterogeneous users” (Howley, 2005, p. 250).

It is necessary, therefore that we take a closer look at the “institutional configurations of the public sphere” so that we can make sense of the participative phenomenon, both at the macro-level of structures and at the micro-level of structures. In this sense, and as Peter Dahgren points out, “an understanding of its dynamics requires that we also consider the processes and conditions of sense-making, whereby subjects link experience and reflection to generate meaning (political or otherwise)” (Peter Dahlgren in Dahlgren & Sparks, 1991, p. 16).

If we are to ask one question as a consequence of this process it would be, as Kelty proposes that we ask: “What is participation like today? How has it become newly important with respect to yesterday? Are participatory democracy, audience participation, user-generated content, peer production, participant observation, crowdsourcing all the same phenomena? If they are different, what characterises the difference” (Kelty, 2013, p. 23).


Dahlgren, P., & Sparks, C. (Eds.). (1991). Communication and Citizenship – Journalism and the Public Sphere. London: Routledge.

Delwich, A. (2013). The New Left and the Computer Underground – Recovering Antecedents of Participatory Culture. In A. Delwich & J. J. Henderson (Eds.), The Participatory Cultures Handbook (pp. 11-21). London: Routledge.

Delwiche, A., & Henderson, J. J. (Eds.). (2013). The Participatory Cultures Handbook. London: Routledge.

Habermas, J. (1994). The Emergence of the Public Sphere. In Polity (Ed.), The Polity Reader in Culutral Theory (pp. 81-90). Cambridge: Polity.

Hill, S. (2013). Digital Revolutions – Activism in the Internet Age. Oxford: New Internationalist Publications.

Howley, K. (2005). Community Media – People, Places and Communication Technologies. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Jenkins, H., Ford, S., & Green, J. (2013). Spreadable Media. New York: New York University Press.

Kelty, C. M. (2013). From Participation to Power. In A. Delwiche & J. J. Henderson (Eds.), The Participatory Cultures Handbook (pp. 22-31). London: Routledge.