AoIR Panel

[Apologies for loooooong blockquotes]

I recently received word that the AoIR 7.0 panel I’m organising with Melissa Gregg, Sal Humphreys, David Berry and Christina Spurgeon has been accepted. The title of the panel is ‘Creativity and its Discontents: Critical Perspectives on the Cultural Economy of New Media’, and here’s the abstract:

In recent years there has been a growth in ‘cyberbole’ (Woolgar, 2002) that insists that the increased availability and power of digital technologies for production and distribution represent a revolution that will allow ‘everyone’ to be an active and creative media participant. The perceived effect of this is that media users are able to evade the ideological dominance and commercial imperatives of the mass media. However, this democratisation discourse converges persistently with emerging neoliberal business and economic models under which consumers (or ‘users’), particularly of technology, are considered to possess and exercise more creativity and agency than before. This is often combined with a rhetoric of the surge in the power of voluntary work and ‘productive’ leisure. Leadbeater and Miller view the current surge in non-professional creativity as a ‘new ethic of amateurism’ that ‘could be one of the defining features of developed society’ (2004, p. 22). In a much more general sense, Richard Florida (2002) argues that more-or-less ubiquitous creativity (ubiquitous, that is, to the ‘developed’ world) is central to the present and near future of labour and cultural citizenship.

This panel aims to provide detailed accounts of the limits of these discourses. We will examine the complexity of agency and the constraints on it within the cultural economy of new media, particularly in relation to neoliberal economics and what ‘creative industries’ and their users, consumers, or co-creators are actually doing. We deliberately choose to focus on examples within the demographics and fields of practice that are most frequently invoked as exemplary by these discourses (MMOG players and other online communities, DIY media, the ‘new economy’ worker). We critique from a number of angles the rhetoric which insists these instances are proof of the transformative effect of the convergence between the conditions of cultural production and consumption. The prevailing structures of power impose often unacknowledged constraints on the agency of the neo-liberal ‘empowered consumer’. The frictions caused by the intersection of commercial interests, citizenship, and the affective and/or creative investments made by media users must be examined.


Bowman, Shane, and Willis, Chris (2003) WeMedia: How Audiences Are Shaping the Future of News and Information, Reston, Va.: The Media Center at the American Press Institute.

Florida, Richard (2002) The Rise of the Creative Class, New York: Basic Books.
Leadbeater, Charles, and Paul (2004) The Pro-Am Revolution: How Enthusiasts Are Changing Our Economy and Society, London: Demos.

Woolgar, Steve (2002) ‘Five Rules of Virtuality’, In Steve Woolgar (Ed.), Virtual Society? Technology, Cyberbole, Reality (pp. 1-22), Oxford: Oxford University Press.

And this is my own abstract – I’d be grateful for any comments that come to mind:

DIY, the Digerati and the Digital Divide: The Cultural Politics of New Media Literacy

In cultural and media studies, it is becoming orthodox to say that content creation is as essential to higher orders of new media literacy as writing was to print literacy. Content creation is also seen as key to ‘voice’ in the digital mediascape, and to participation in the networked cultural public sphere. Indeed, Sonia Livingstone (2004) has recently argued that attention to content creation as a component of literacy is ‘crucial to the democratic agenda’, positioning new media users ‘not merely as consumers but also as citizens’ (p. 11). In this paper, I am specifically concerned with interrogating the idea that everyday creative uses of digital technologies are a freely available point of access to such participation. On the continuum of participation, why is it that most Internet users are still lurkers rather than creators?

It is a fact that easier-to-use and more powerful tools are, in theory, available to anyone with physical access to a PC (or, increasingly, a mobile phone); but creative consumer hype, invoking the technological sublime, constructs the tools themselves as reified ‘magical solutions’. This shallowly utopian perspective correlates in philosophical terms to the model of lack represented by technologically deterministic ‘have-or-have-not’ concepts like ‘the digital divide’. With Warschauer, I argue that ‘digital inclusion’ is a much more useful term of critique and analysis than ‘digital divide’, which implies a binaristic and linear model of access, rather than a complex ecosystem of privilege, access and participation. Secondly, it is not possible to understand the unevenness of active and effective participation in digital culture without a critical and empirically grounded theory of literacy and the way it articulates to the dynamics of cultural capital, education, and class.

Livingstone (2004) proposes that most discussions of new media literacy are characterised by historically unresolved tensions between ‘critical’ or ‘enlightenment’ views of literacy – polarised philosophical positions that see literacy as a normative and exclusionary construction on the one hand (the ‘critical’ view); or as an aid to progress and equality that we should aim to extend to all people on the other (the ‘enlightenment’ view). In this paper, I propose a position that critically evaluates and balances these two available approaches. Drawing on cultural and media studies perspectives and methodological concerns, the paper will analyse the emerging patterns of cultural competencies and cultural value that work to construct new media literacy for cultural participation; and evaluate the potential and limitations of programs (such as the Digital Storytelling movement and classroom blogging) that aim to address the unevenness of access to new media literacy.

Using textual analysis, ethnographic and interview data, I demonstrate that, on the one hand, the ‘digerati’ – A-list bloggers, for example – share a particular class location, and that the emerging aesthetic and ethical norms of online ‘DIY culture’ map onto the tastes and values of this demographic. Equally, it is undeniable that the tools for democratic participation in new media are in fact available and at least theoretically accessible to a much broader demographic; and the pragmatism of participatory ethics dictates that it is urgent that non-elite members of society learn to use them in the effective service of diverse social and developmental goals. Such a view is represented by work such as that carried out by community Digital Storytelling programs and the emphasis on ‘creative literacies’ in e-learning. The paper ends by assessing the potential for such interventions to work effectively in the service of digital inclusion.

Livingstone, Sonia (2004) ‘Media Literacy and The Challenge of New Information and Communication Technologies’, The Communication Review, 7: 3-14.

Warschauer, Mark (2003) Technology and Social Inclusion: Rethinking the Digital Divide, Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press.

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