Making Things in a Digital World – Gauntlett on Small Steps

David Gauntlett is a long-time advocate of the democratic power of the internet and the affordances that digital technology brings for human beings to be creative through participation. According to Gauntlett, “you are what you make” (Gauntlett 2011), with your personal and social sense of identity in the networked and mediated world increasingly defined by, and through, the power we have to produce things. Gauntlett suggests that while we inhabit a world in which “digital technologies and the internet have not initiated creativity… they have certainly given creative practices a boost” (Gauntlett 2014). So it is interesting to read his article ‘The Internet is Ancient…’ which is based on a forthcoming book chapter to be published next year.

The challenge of the internet, Gauntlett argues, is in recognising the ways in which creativity is enabled and the ways that creativity is played out through different conversations, through different material manifestations, and through different opportunities for collaboration. In his article Gauntlett draws attention to the perception of a fundamental schism, that he believes divides thinking about the internet and digital media technologies. This is a schism “between those who say positive things about the value of the internet for culture and society, and those who are broadly critical or negative”.

Gauntlett’s view is that there is a positive and constructive potential inherent in internet and digital culture. A potential that will ensure that “constructive alternatives can be offered” that will by their very nature represent a challenge to the established and legacy notions of identity and social order that we have inherited from the modern, mass forms of social organisation and media. In his own words Gauntlett recognises that he is on the “optimistic side of the fence” in this debate. Gauntlett suggests that he has taken an interesting position, vis-a-vis, the wider expectation that academics have about critical debate and discussion in relation to internet culture and digital media participation – in that he is so clearly an advocate.

While Gauntlett recognises the need to be sceptical about the take-up of social media and digital participation tools, he makes the clear suggestion that we should avoid the “recklessly giddy” spin that accompanies much of the critical language and counter-claims that are made about digital and internet culture. The argument has been compromised, Gauntlett says, by those who want to make money from our online endeavours, and those who want to aggrandise and bathe themselves with “academic professional kudos.”

Perhaps for reasons of space Gauntlett condenses the complex and contested debates about online and digital thinking, into what feels like a simplistic choice between being ‘pessimistic’ and a feeling of being ‘optimistic’ about the “democratising” potential of the internet. In Gauntlett’s view it is essential to challenge the “elitism” and nostalgia of those who “wish we could go back to a world where professional people made professional media which professional researchers knew how to deal with.” The question is, though, does Gauntlett’s optimism offer any more certainty than previously held regimes of critical scholarship, or is he merely offering a different kind of [un]certainty in its place?

Gauntlett’s draws up his thinking around six points, which are:

  • “The internet is ancient” – meaning that it brings together things that we could already do and which we already value.
  • “A world with lots of interesting, creative things is always better” – meaning that it’s in our interest to stop being hung-up about texts and practices that are final or finished, and instead embrace a world in which meaning are always in motion.
  • “People doing things because they want to is always better than people watching things because they are there” – which is a challenge to the culture of reception and the separation of performer and audience.
  • “The distribution and funding possibilities of the internet are better” – which means that the potential for new publics to be built around new funding and revenue streams, as enabled by the internet, challenges the gatekeeper principles of much of modern capitalist communication practices.
  • “Small steps into a changed world are better than no steps” – which means that having a go, and testing the water on a micro-scale, are likely to lead to innovations that can’t be imagined by large-scale, macro and modernistic thinking.
  • “The digital internet is good, but hands-on physical things are good too” – which is a reminder that we exist in a physical world and not simply a virtual world, and that we should seek to understand how once plays into the other.

Overall, there is much to be applauded in these guiding principles, and Gauntlett is thorough in his examination of the relevance of each of the axioms he sums up. I have problems, however, with the intervening conjunctions and slips that are deployed by Gauntlett in order to make these ideas fit into a working pattern. For example, there is a recurring sense throughout the article that many of these ideas are good-in-theory, but there is little to suggest that they are being tested-in-practice? For instance, is it true that the “internet certainly offers possibilities of building social connections”? Certainty is one thing, perhaps, that we don’t have the luxury of! Is this certainty guaranteed in all cases and for all examples of internet use? Or is this certainty simply a rhetorical and optimistic turn of phrase that executes a well disguised slight-of-hand covering-up for the opposite, a lack of certainty?

If we are to engage critically with participation culture and social media production then we have to examine in more detail, and raise questions about the nature of these social connections? In what way are these social connections played-out and developed over time, in different locals, by different actors, in the context of different social and cultural milieu? While I’m happy to accept the assertion that there is a phenomenon of social media production that is founded on a strong set of participation based affordances, that is being played out in these circumstances; it’s necessary, however, to go beyond the issues we are presented with at face-value here, and to ask, instead, what the empirical evidence is that supports these social connections? How are socially mediated connections laid-down, used and validated? How do we learn to recognise that participation with digital media production tools is capable of delivering something useful for participants? Is all participation of equal value? Just because we can participate, does it mean that we should? Are their hierarchies of ethical and moral potential that aren’t yet being identified?

Perhaps I’m deploying a receiver-received model of communication that is outdated and is not attuned to the different types of activities that Gauntlett explores? Perhaps it would be more appropriate to tune into, what Gauntlett calls the “substantial shifts” that have taken place in the worlds of “politics, protest, economics, news, entertainment, and war, to name but a few.” I would be keener, however, if this discussion was the starting point that gave rise to further debate, and that the case studies that are used to represent them, did so on the basis of empirical evidence, and not just a desire to rebuff a so-called “cynical” and “self-serving” stance by critics who wish to cross-examine the consequences of this shift more critically.

Gauntlett, D. (2011). Making is Connecting. London, Polity.

Gauntlett, D. (2014) The internet is ancient, small steps are important, and four other theses about making things in a digital world [WWW]. Available from: [Accessed 25/11/13].

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