“Vernacular Creativity”: An Interview with Jean Burgess (Part Two)

Some critics of the idea of participatory culture have argued that only a small percentage of people want to generate or share content with other people. Even advocates such as Bradley Horowitz have argued for a pyramid of participation in which a small group at top become creators while others help to circulate and critique what they create. Should we then accept that the new participatory culture is only modestly more democratic than what has come before? What do you see as the implications of these inequalities in participation? What does your research suggests about the steps which need to take place before someone begins to participate in these expressive cultures?

Absolutely, these issues are vitally important. If participatory culture is a site of cultural citizenship, but the most active participants are already a privileged elite, then we have a problem ­ a problem for democracy. You refer to this as the participation gap instead of the digital divide and reframing the problem this way is an incredibly important intervention. The unevenness of participation is not a consequence of lack of access to the hardware and software and internet connections, but a consequence of uneven motivations and literacies.

The digital storytelling movement is an explicit attempt to intervene in these issues creating situations where ordinary people can work with more experienced media producers to create considered works based on their own life narratives. Just a note for readers who may not have come across the Digital Storytelling movement before: the form of Digital Storytelling I talk about in my work is a specific tradition based around the production of digital stories in intensive collaborative workshops. The outcome is a short autobiographical narrative recorded as a voiceover, combined with photographic images (often sourced from the participants own photo albums) and edited into a short movie. For examples, have a look at the Centre for Digital Storytelling (www.storycenter.org), the BBC¹s Capture Wales digital storytelling project (http://bbc.co.uk/capturewales) and one of our projects
here at QUT, the Kelvin Grove Urban Village Sharing Stories project (http://www.kgurbanvillage.com.au/sharing/digital/index.shtm).

In comparison to Web 2.0 platforms for amateur creativity like YouTube or Flickr which rely on autonomous participation and peer learning rather than top-down training, digital storytelling works to broaden participation by connecting everyday vernacular experiences and practices (like oral storytelling) with professional expertise and institutional support. Common to all branches of this tradition is an ethic of participation: one of the core aims is to provide people who are not necessarily expert users with an opportunity to produce an aesthetically coherent and interesting broadcast quality work that communicates effectively with a wider, public audience.

But digital storytelling is mainly focused at the production end — the creation of artefacts, albeit in an intensely social workshop setting. Much of what is so interesting in new media contexts does happen on the web, though, and those who are able to participate most effectively in those spaces are highly skilled in new and emerging literacies. In particular, I talk about network literacy — understanding that participation in blogging, or vlogging, or in the Flickr community, or whatever, is not just about creating something great and broadcasting it ­ it’s also about being part of social networks. In fact, the social and cultural value that is generated by these online creative communities is very much a product of both social networking and creative practice, in a convergent relationship. It¹s not just great content, and it¹s not just connectedness, and it’s not just findability and relevance, it¹s all of those things. That’s what Flickr’s interestingness algorithm, as a way of re-presenting the most valuable images on the network, is all about. So the point is that ongoing, engaged participation in creative communities is just as vital for effective participation as the creative competencies and aesthetic literacies particular to your chosen artform, whether that’s photography, music, vlogging, or whatever. And at the same time, those who want to learn more about photographic techniques, say, couldn¹t do better than to actively participate in a social network that¹s organised around photography, like Flickr.

There has been a growing body of criticism focused on the discourse of web 2.0 and its concept of user-generated content from the perspective of creative labor theory. Flickr has been seen as emblematic of this new creative economy. How does the corporate construction of user-generated content differ from or resemble your concept of vernacular creativity?

Let me say to begin with that I don’t like the term user-generated content very much at all. First we’re masses and now we’re generators? Users isn’t great either, but it’s hard to think of a better term for the relationship it describes. I tried to use vernacular creativity as much as possible because it focuses on the practices of users in relation to their own lives; not as the sources of content in relation to online enterprises.

But to move on, I’m not really an expert in labour theory, but the debate around user-led content creation in relation to labour is really interesting because of how much it says about the unexamined assumptions of the left, more than anything else. I have to say here that some of the most interesting discussions of new labour theory in relation to network culture have been happening on the Institute for Distributed Creativity mailing list lately (https://lists.thing.net/pipermail/idc/2007-August/002698.html), and my colleague Melissa Gregg (http://homecookedtheory.com) is one of many
people doing very interesting work on affective labour in relation to new media technologies. I’m not talking about discussions that occur at that level, but the knee-jerk responses that frame almost any participation in commercial online spaces as just free labour. That kind of statement reveals how much of our thinking is still structured around the competing dynamics of oppression and resistance, not to mention industrial models of the economy, and doesn’t allow for the idea that we may be seeing the emergence of newly configured, dynamic and volatile economic and power relations between the media ÂŒindustry and ordinary consumer-citizens, which may afford new forms of agency and opportunities for human flourishing as much as they do new forms of labour.

Of course, mainstream technophilic commentators like Wired and so on are
just as guilty ­ the hype around the idea of crowdsourcing as a source of free or cheap labour was not only pretty insulting to the agency of users, but pretty unimaginative, I thought. I think too much focus on the idea of free labour might obscure some of the most interesting and challenging problems around user-generated content. For example, considering that there
is no alternative at scale, at least right now, to the big commercial social network services and platforms, like YouTube, Flickr, Facebook, and so on; what about the challenge of getting the interests of the service or platform provider and their user community to align in a way that maximises the public good they produce as side effects? Is it possible to show that this care for social and cultural value is essential for the commercial success of the platform provider as much as it is for the interests of the community? And where do commercial imperatives create barriers to the public good? Flickr is really interesting in this respect because they have very
open feedback channels between the user community and the company ­ for better or worse! The moments where that cosy, we’re all in this together relationship between service provider and user community appears to break down is the moment where any hidden problems in the relationship come to the surface (think of Flickr’s recent issues around localisation and censorship, for example), and at least in theory they can be explicitly discussed and even transformed for the better. Or not!

You describe your stance as one of critical optimism. What did you learn in your research which left you more optimistic? What did your research show that forced you to become more critical of the prevailing rhetoric about a DIY revolution?

When I was first planning the research project that eventually became my PhD, back in 2003, a lot of the hype about amateur creativity seemed to be saying that ordinary people were overthrowing the expertise of the media industries and creative professionals within them ­ and for some people that was seen as a great thing, a revolution; for others, it has been seen as a very dangerous thing. And by the way, it seems little has changed, if Andrew Keen’s impact on public discourse is anything to go by.

I didn¹t like that overblown revolutionary and/or apocalyptic rhetoric, because it seemed to be making a grave and ahistorical mistake–we always, always have to be very careful about what is actually ‘new’ about ‘new media’. And I was just intuitively convinced there was something more subtle and interesting going on. I also wanted to get away from that amateur-professional dichotomy and think about the actual practices and social uses of user-led content creation, in their own terms, without serving a polemical agenda.

The main thing I wanted to explore and understand was the extent to which both lower barriers to production, especially because of cheaper and more available technologies like digital cameras, in tandem with networked mediation, especially online, might be amplifying those ordinary, everyday creative practices so that they might contribute to a more democratic cultural public sphere. I guess I was optimistic in that I went looking for evidence that might support that hope, and not defeat it.

But this is happening very imperfectly, of course, and it¹s not yet clear whether the mass popularisation of participatory media platforms will improve matters or not. The encounters that occur in the most populous, democratic media platforms, like YouTube, are not always a pretty sight. Just as much as YouTube supports the self-representation of minorities or the popularisation of evolutionary science, for example, it also supports hate¹ speech and religious fundamentalism. It isn¹t clear yet how the cultural normalisation of spaces like YouTube will turn out.

I found that the spaces that were most rich in examples of vernacular creativity were at the same time constrained in certain ways, and each context was shaped towards forms of participation that served the interests of the service providers as much as they serve the interests of the participants. So in Flickr, the most active, intensive forms of participation seem to be taken up mainly by already-literate bloggers, gamers, and internet junkies. In the digital storytelling movement, there is a certain kind of polite authenticity that is valued, and the workshops are incredibly resource-intensive, so that they aren’t open to the ongoing, everyday participation that something like blogging is. There are always constraints and compromises, no matter how open a platform appears to be. So, I suppose, that’s the ‘critical’ part.

Jean Burgess is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the ARC Centre of Excellence for Creative Industries and Innovation at QUT. She works within the Federation Fellowship program ‘Uses of Multimedia’, led by Professor John Hartley, and her research interests are in cultural studies, media history and the social and cultural implications of new media technologies, especially issues of cultural participation and new media literacy. With Joshua Green (MIT), she is undertaking a major project called The Uses of YouTube, which combines large-scale content analysis with fine-grained qualitative methods. She is co-author of The Cultural Studies Companion (with John Banks, John Hartley, and Kelly McWilliam, to be published by Palgrave, 2008/9), Reviews Editor of the International Journal of Cultural
and co-editor of “ÂŒCounter-Heroics and Counter-Professionalism in Cultural Studies” (2006, Continuum 20.2). As part of her research, Jean has regularly worked as a facilitator in community-based digital storytelling projects. Before entering academia, Jean worked for 10 years as a classical flutist, music educator, and occasional composer-producer.