#creativecitizens keynote: slides and speaking notes

I’ve had a wonderful time in an unseasonably sunny London this week, which has included a keynote presentation at the Creative Citizens conference at the Royal College of Art. As promised, below are the slides and speaker notes from my presentation, which covers the relationship between everyday creativity, citizenship, and digital media platforms over the past ten years or so.


From the beginning of my academic career up to now I have been investigating the way digital media is changing the face of cultural participation and public communication.

A decade ago when I started, in that early heyday of the ‘web 2.0’ and ‘participatory culture’, we looked to blogs, to image-sharing, to community-based digital storytelling workshops as ways that everyday creativity might find its audiences, and that ordinary people might find each other in ways that had not been possible on such a widespread and visible scale before.

I theorised that everyday, personal uses of digital media might be the key to participation in interest, issue and identity based publics.

My theoretical and ethical orientation was grounded in cultural studies, especially its approach to everyday and popular culture; and therefore my cultural citizenship definitions emphasised everyday, personal, even mundane practices of creativity like storytelling, photosharing, scrapbooking, graffiti, skateboarding, cooking or gardening – practices I collectively called ‘vernacular creativity’ – and the way these may serve to connect individuals and communities in the service of broader civic goals.

Coming from this distinctive disciplinary background, I can draw out some complementary and competing meanings of creative citizenship with respect to digital and social media specifically.

  1. Creative and collaborative approaches to solving civic challenges, using digital and social media; that is, creative ways of being citizenly – using digital media to organise and promote the community garden; the development of crowdsourced crisis maps on the fly
  2. Creativity that, through its enactment, visibility and connectedness in digital media contexts, enables certain modes of civic engagement as an often unintended consequence; that is, the civic benefits of creative participation – getting involved in an international community gardening association formed as a result of gardening and locavore food bloggers finding each other online
  3. Citizenship understood as the rights and responsibilities toward creative communities of which one is a member (e.g. a good citizen of the music scene; a good ‘netizen’ – or, being a citizen of digital media – what would that look like?)

Bearing in mind that creative citizenship, like all modes of group identification, can work to exclude as well as include; and that trolls and bullies can be fairly creative in their uses of digital media too.

The Web 2.0 Moment

The Web 2.0 ‘moment’ of the early to mid 2000s was a key period of optimism for creative citizenship and digital media understood in these ways. The Web 2.0 moment saw the rise of automated blogging software like Blogger and Movable Type, the widespread take-up of these tools, and the broader idea of Web 2.0 services focused on providing platforms for user-created content and connectivity – the barriers to participation in digital culture were now much lower, but participation was still very far from population-wide. This was a moment of artisinal, DIY creative citizenship, but still really the domain of the digerati not the masses.

But there was still a strong sense that the rules and roles of culture were changing. The academic field of research around participatory culture was marked by debates for and against the cultural and social value of user-created content. There were some early concerns raised about free labour in the context of proprietary platforms, but the market in user data, the algorithmic turn were largely yet to come, or at least they hardly registered for most of these critics.

The Social Media Moment
Fast forward to the end of that first decade of the 20th century, and I think we arrive at a different kind of moment, structured by a different set of relationships between the tech industry, the user, and culture – one that I have been calling the platform paradigm.

Indeed, returning to my third model, that of being a citizen of digital media, we might even think of platforms as in some ways analogous to city states – Mark Zuckerberg was infamously called the Sultan of Facebookistan in the media at one stage – but perhaps that’s stretching civic metaphors too far.

A crucial element of this work I have been doing is trying to understand the ‘digital’ elements of social media platforms as material elements, and understanding platforms as co-created. Unevenly and undemocratically co-created, but co-created nonetheless. it is through the interactions between all this ‘stuff’ that platforms are constituted, and that they do things; all these elements are co-influential in what each platform is and can be used for.

I do not think it hyberbolic to say that a very great deal of social life at the micro and macro level has become entangled with digital media – cf Mark Deuze’s book Media Life.

This moment is one characterized by the new ubiquity, legitimisation and normalisation of social media. Even in contexts where the penetration of digital devices is still growing, these dominant platforms will be inextricably part of the digital media ecology for new users – through the Facebook phone, the embedding of Google services into Android phones, and so on.

And the global shift to mobile media greatly extends the meaning of ‘ubiquity’ into our workplaces, our homes, schools, our pockets, and with the rise of wearables, the datafication of even our bodies.

And with the new ubiquity comes the new legitimacy – social media is part of the communicative infrastructure of global society now. And at key points social media has quite visibly been legitimated by government and community uses for practical purposes in undeniably serious situations like the 2011 Queensland Floods. Research has aided this legitimation process by doing large-scale data driven research only made possible by access to the Twitter API, which is really intended for commercial third-party development; and access to such data is a highly controversial and politicised issue right now.

The mainstreaming of social media platforms like Twitter has made possible communities of interest like agchat oz. Weekly Twitter Q&A sessions use the #agchatoz hashtag to capture discussions of interest to the self-identifying agricultural community, ranging from personal issues such as succession planning and rural mental health, to work matters including sustainable farming methods and how to manage natural disasters, as well as more public concerns such as animal welfare and live export. Most discussions solicit a range of perspectives from producers, consumers, scientists, journalists and other professionals; sometimes discussions connect to other issues and their hashtags (like #banliveexport for the issue of animal welfare in the meat industry), thereby causing a collision of constituencies. …not to mention #felfies (short for farm selfies) – which are perhaps an instance of what Lance Bennett calls personalised inclusive collectivity – where the #felfie meme is doing network-building work as well as self-representation for global rural citizens.

And social media has its own popular cultures that support practices of what John Hartley has called silly citizenship – memes, viral culture of the web (Shifman), which are a vital part of political discourse today – where by political I mean both Big P and small p politics (e.g. gender and sexuality issues). The David Cameron on the phone to Barack Obama meme-fest is a great example of this – it is silly and funny but also enacts a strong critique of the contemporary mediatization of politics and the dominance of superficial PR over political communication.

Competing Futures

But despite or even simultaneously with all this flourishing of activity, the affordances of the dominant platforms we associate with social media have changed in complex ways that at least according to some critics, do support mass take-up in the service of business interests, but may not support user creativity and innovation as they once did. (Always bearing in mind the counter-example of the Kodak camera, which created a mass market via the enclosure and automation of key aspects of the photographic process, but at the same time opened up access to photographic production to the masses).

I do think there have been some significant shifts in the way that users and their agency are being repositioned as these platforms grow and mature and seek profit ever more urgently as the venture capital runs out – and here I use the shorthand ‘the self and the world’ to think about the axes along which this repositioning occurs.

and as these platforms evolve and the technical means to advertise and market to us become ever more sophisticated, our experiences of them are ever more heavily mediated by the corporate interests of these platforms – even when the corporate interest is to serve us content we perceive as ‘relevant’, keeping us coming back for more.

How then do the politics of platforms, data ownership and access, the algorithmic turn, filter bubble, advertising-driven etc affect the creative citizen?
e.g. FB newsfeed algorithm might mean that organisations increasingly need to pay to get messages through such channels; and there are pretty serious consequence for global citizenship of the tendency of these platforms to encourage us to associate with and consume the content of people who we like and who are like us, as this visualization by Gilad Lotan of hashtag co-occurrence in Instagram images associated with the Gaza conflict shows.

Provocations: the Digital Creative Citizen

I conclude with some suggestions about how digitally native strategies and tactics for engaging in social media platforms might become part of the apparatus of community-based creative citizenship initiatives as well:

1. Exploit social media logics with playful and ‘silly’ citizenship
2. Adopt adaptive, multi-platform strategies & avoid delegating everything to one or two platforms
3. Develop critical engagement with platforms and their cultures as part of digital creative citizenship

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New blog: Mapping Online Publics

Just a quick note to say that I’ve started blogging elsewhere as part of the 3-year ARC Discovery project I’m working on with Axel Bruns.

The project’s official title is “New Media and Public Communication: Mapping Australian User-Created Content in Online Social Networks”, and the blog is called Mapping Online Publics. We’ve been posting mainly about ways of working with public Twitter data around the rapidly-approaching Australian election (and Masterchef!) since setting it up last month, but we’ll be covering a much wider range of topics once that’s all over.

So far I’ve posted a few bits of analysis of the most tweeted election-related YouTube videos, the most tweeted URLs, and an experiment using Gephi to visualise @reply networks in the Twitter conversation around Masterchef.

I might stick my head up here from time to time if something gets me sufficiently excited or riled up, but no promises…

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Out now: The Video Vortex Reader

The Video Vortex Reader is a new collection of critical essays on online video, edited by Geert Lovink and Sabine Niederer published by the Institute of Network Cultures. It has just been launched, and it’s available for free download as a pdf!

The Video Vortex Reader is the first collection of critical texts to deal with the rapidly emerging world of online video – from its explosive rise in 2005 with YouTube, to its future as a significant form of personal media.

After years of talk about digital convergence and crossmedia platforms we now witness the merger of the Internet and television at a pace no-one predicted. These contributions from scholars, artists and curators evolved from the first two Video Vortex conferences in Brussels and Amsterdam in 2007 which focused on responses to YouTube, and address key issues around independent production and distribution of online video content. What does this new distribution platform mean for artists and activists? What are the alternatives?

Contributors: Tilman Baumgärtel, Jean Burgess, Dominick Chen, Sarah Cook, Sean Cubitt, Stefaan Decostere, Thomas Elsaesser, David Garcia, Alexandra Juhasz, Nelli Kambouri and Pavlos Hatzopoulos, Minke Kampman, Seth Keen, Sarah Késenne, Marsha Kinder, Patricia Lange, Elizabeth Losh, Geert Lovink, Andrew Lowenthal, Lev Manovich, Adrian Miles, Matthew Mitchem, Sabine Niederer, Ana Peraica, Birgit Richard, Keith Sanborn, Florian Schneider, Tom Sherman, Jan Simons, Thomas Thiel, Vera Tollmann, Andreas Treske, Peter Westenberg.

That’s a very good line-up of scholars and practitioners coming from a range of disciplinary perspectives, so check it out.

I have a chapter in it called ‘All Your Chocolate Rain Are Belong to Us? Viral Video, YouTube and the Dynamics of Participatory Culture.’ I used the creative activity that occurred around two of the most popular videos of 2007 – Chocolate Rain and Guitar – to reconsider the dynamics of popular culture in YouTube, according to a distributed and participatory framework rather than a ‘producerly’ one.

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What is Flickr Video For?

So Flickr finally ended the years of rumour-mongering and actually rolled out video. I was interested to see the way the official announcement carefully positioned the purposes of video on Flickr within the company’s (tasteful, cosmopolitan, playfully grown-up) brand identity, and its focus on self-created content:

we thought long and hard about how video would complement the flickrverse. If you’ve memorized the Community Guidelines, you know that Flickr is all about sharing photos that you yourself have taken. Video will be no different and so what quickly bubbled up was the idea of “long photos,” of capturing slices of life to share. [emphasis added, which possibly comes across as me being a bit pedantic]

They even give a carefully diverse range of quotidian examples–covering cats, places, events and people, of course.

There’s some really interesting protest going on within the sections of the Flickr community who are really invested in capital-P Photography, including this well-populated anti-video group, with some surprisingly hostile comments about the company. A lot of people seem to be worried that somehow the introduction of video will directly cause a ‘flood’ of banal, crass, and unlovely content, and will turn a photography-oriented community into ‘just another YouTube’. The controversy is tremendously interesting to me in its own right, of course–there’s technological determinism combined with symbolic boundary work and a fair amount of amnesia about Flickr’s mundane origins–at least as far as I remember there was a lot more emphasis on lifelogging using the (then) newly available camera phone than there was on digital camera arms races, fine art techniques, and so on.

So, controversy aside, how is it turning out? What do you really get when you start with a mature online social network with social and cultural norms increasingly organised around ‘quality’ content, introduce the ability to upload very short video clips (but only to Pro members), presented within the often carefully cultivated ‘photo streams’ of individual users, combined with a way of accounting for value that takes into account far more than the number of people who been tempted (or tricked) into viewing a particular piece of content?

I’m sure there will be some silliness, and unlike the Fotografrs who are protesting the move, I also really hope there will be some very cute cat videos.

But there will also be lovely slideshows designed to curate and exhibit small sets of photographic images, like this beautiful video–which is much more than a slideshow–by Timo Arnall [thanks anne, again]

And, I will bet, increasingly elegant innovations on observational and personal photography like what Photojojo is calling the ‘long portrait’:

The thing about the best portraits is how they capture the essence of a person.

Maybe the wrinkles on their hands, or the expression in their eyes, tell you about the life they’ve had.

So what if you had 30 seconds to capture that person, instead of a nanosecond shutter-click? And what if the person could talk? Whoa. Crazy, we know. We call it a long portrait.

Which sounds a lot like a micro digital story: a focus on the personal and first-person, within elegant aesthetic constraints, done with attention to detail and respect for the co-creator. Photojojo even links to the interviewing guide on the StoryCorps website to assist newbie micro-documentarists in learning the art of capturing these snapshots of individual human lives.

I really think the idea of the ‘long portrait’ is quite brilliant.

Aside from that, the collective shaping of the meanings and uses of video within Flickr’s existing community of practice is going to be extremely interesting to watch.

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valentine’s day, postsecret style

I don’t think I’ll ever get tired of the PostSecret thing, now ported to YouTube for Valentine’s day as a video montage complete with hipster ‘home-made’ animation:

[the video is an advertisement for the books, btw, which is entirely appropriate for this made-up ‘holiday’]

Happy Hallmark Card Day.

Update: I didn’t realise how many Postsecret fanvids there were until just now. Such a nice change for me from the Jonas Brothers. Some of them are masterful examples of the ubiquitous Ken Burns effect, some of them have entirely too much pink cursive writing and Tori Amos. But I liked this one:

And after watching about another 20 of those, I am at least a little bit sick of the postsecret thing now.

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can haz viral video?

The other day I had the pleasure of participating in this week’s episode of Spark, a CBC Radio One show on tech culture news and ideas. It was a lot of fun being part of such a smart show – yay, public service broadcasting, long may it reign.
The full show and related info, links etc is now available at the Spark website.

I was there to provide some comments from a cultural research point of view on Dan Ackerman Greenberg’s now-notorious ‘secret strategies’ for manufacturing ‘virality’. My main point really was that I didn’t think you could use the virus metaphor to simply describe a piece of content becoming very popular through word-of-mouth or peer-to-peer distribution. However I do think it is tremendously interesting to think about the ways in which ideas, recipes, and practices become available for re-use via mass replication and variation; to try to understand what these little units of knowledge actually are, and how it all works.

It’s the difference between talking about the Crank That music video ‘going viral’, and the Crank That dance steps.

Actually, moving away from video and to mix the metaphors, it is so-called ‘internet memes’ like the lolcats that are the best examples.

With those, you have a form, a set of essential elements, and a set of constantly evolving ‘rules’ for practice, producing apparently infinite lol-possibilities. These ‘rules’ are like cultural building blocks that can be re-used, remixed, and re-combined to produce new ideas, always hybrid, always – in a particular sense of the word – creative. This is far more interesting to me than the banal quest to get more eyeballs onto your piece of ‘content’.

The catch is, it seems to be almost entirely unpredictable which of these ideas will be repeated and built on to the extent that they go truly ‘viral’.

Do you doubt me?

Oh, and by the way, Joshua Green and I are very busily writing a book about YouTube that draws on our collaborative research project. It will be out on Polity Press later this year, and, to misappropriate physics instead of biology, it will hopefully provide some useful angles to think through the politics of participatory culture, using YouTube as a lens through which to refract the competing dynamics of user-created content, expertise and agency. That’s keeping me quiet and away from the blog a bit, but I’ll be posting updates (and attempting to generate enough hype to make the book go ‘viral’) later on.

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Oprah, YouTube, and the YouTubers

[cross-posted at Propagating Media]

So, Oprah has her own YouTube channel. I was very interested to see how the user community would respond to Oprah’s debut on the site, given the stirrings of discontent I’d been detecting recently around a perceived ‘dumbing down’, sensationalising or mainstreaming of the content that makes it to the top of the YouTube rankings lately.

There’s a good roundup of the discussion on the excellent blog YouTube Stars, including a whole bunch of videos responding to this development:

The YouTube community has reacted with ambivalence to Oprah’s new channel. Some think it will bring new viewers for everyone’s videos. But others object to Oprah’s apparent “one-way conversation” – she seems to want to advertise to us without accepting feedback. It has also been lamented that the “golden age” of YouTube is over. With the corporate accounts racking up lots of viewers, its hard to get on the most discussed or most viewed lists without resorting to histrionics and sensationalism. YouTube seemed more like a community of videomakers before “partners” came on to advertise to us. But, all this was inevitable. YouTube was spending millions on the computer power and bandwidth necessary to provide this free service to the uploaders and viewers of the thousands of new videos posted weekly on the site.

I’m not sure this trend really is inevitable. When I spoke to the Convergence Culture Consortium partners at MIT earlier in the year, I tried to argue that it would be a mistake to think of user-created content as a placeholder for ‘real’ (quality, industry-produced) content. I argued that we now have sufficient evidence to say that ‘ordinary’ people are interested in each others’ content, and that it is the social practices around content creation, and not just the ‘content’ itself, that actually cause the platforms designed around user-created content to grow in a sustainable way. It is the collective activities of those users who are engaged in both creative practice and social interaction, wherever they are along the ‘continuum of participation’, that produces the value of each network, and that is what in turn creates loyalty.

At the time, I argued that Flickr was a model of best practice in this regard – cultivating loyalty among its users, deliberately instilling (and if necessary enforcing) social and creative norms designed to maintain the integrity of the community even as it scaled, preserving and respecting the rights of its users, and being selective about who it partners with. I’m not saying there hasn’t been any trouble in Flickr-land, but I still stand by the ‘best practice’ idea, even if it’s “the best you can do if you’re owned by a big company like Yahoo!”.

Going back to the matter at hand, it doesn’t surprise me that the core participants in the YouTube community – the YouTubers – might see the entrance of the Oprah brand, and the way YouTube has responded to it, as something of a disappointment. As many of the comments by dissenting YouTubers demonstrate, the complaint is not really about sharing the space with the mainstream media, it’s about the way that attempts on the behalf of the mainstream media and YouTube itself to exploit the scale of the network are causing ecological changes to YouTube’s economy of attention, so that it is becoming harder and harder to find quality grassroots or niche content. That’s the perception, anyway – it’s hard to say for certain without doing some tracking over time.

Another point made by several YouTube commenters is that Oprah is importing the celebrity + control mentality of big media into the social media space (e.g. by disallowing or filtering comments) and therefore ignoring the cultural norms that have developed over the life of the network; a situation only exacerbated by YouTube’s practice of featuring and partnering with mainstream media companies and celebrities who haven’t done the ‘hard yards’ in the subculture. See this vlog entry by Hughsnews for an example of this kind of critique:

Star vlogger Renato (aka Paul Robinett) is having none of it, suggesting that the lead users might know better than the company what this thing called YouTube is actually for:

Renato may have a point, despite the whiff of sour grapes in the air, and despite the fact that as a YouTube partner himself he is viewed by some users as a bit of a sell-out.

But then last week I noticed this announcement on the official YouTube blog:

Today marks the first day of a new project aimed at better understanding the needs and wants of our users. The “YouTube Community Council” consists of a handful of volunteers (who will rotate every six months) eager to share their opinions about the site and the community with us on a consistent basis. They’re kicking off their tenure by visiting us in San Bruno over the next few days, giving feedback directly to the team that makes it happen behind the scenes.

There’s also a video that introduces the team and a link to their channels. I’ll be interested to see how this goes – and I’d love to know what other community engagement/management strategies are in place already, because on its own this initiative looks like a case of too little, too late.

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to get better art we just need more love songs

I’ve been thinking again about relational aesthetics thanks to Kris Cohen who has been shooting me some of the discussions occurring around it and related matters in art theory, and generally hurting my brain, in a really good way. Being the intellectual dilettante I am, I’m just genuinely interested, but as before, I’m also trying to think through whether there’s any mileage in reworking art or literary theory concepts for popular culture and/or “vernacular creativity”. Not just whether I could do it, but whether I should bother.

Because maybe I’ve just got it back to front. Not for the first time, it’s crossed my mind that maybe cultural studies approaches to the active audience in relation to both television and music already has me where I need to go. I’m really just talking about identifying media that constitutes the relationship between the ‘producer’, the ‘text’, and the ‘audience’ in a particular way – a way that respects the audiences’ intelligence, demonstrates an understanding of the dynamics of engagement as social practice, and constitutes textuality as a vehicle for that engagement, and not the other way round. That is the juice that participatory popular culture runs on, and this beautiful video does just that, with grace, warmth and a sense of humility. It represents audienceing quite literally as the practice of folding music into individual but shared social experience.

And hey, it helps that it’s one of my favourite love songs.

Direct link for RSS readers.

Plus, it’s the best acting performance I’ve ever seen from Daniela Sea.

Meanwhile, I will persist with my book larnin’ about relational aesthetics and art theory.

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a spot of vernacular creativity on the street

Given that busking paid my rent over several summers back in the day, I have a special place in my heart for buskers, and street drummers are super cool. I captured this video (on my phone, sorry!) while out strolling around sunny Boston with all the other tourists this afternoon. Enjoy. Here’s a direct link in case the embed doesn’t work in your feed reader.

If you want to try this at home, all you really need is a couple of sticks, some old paint cans, good coordination, a killer sense of rhythm, and years and years and years of practice.

Here’s a video of a different Boston street drummer with a much more esoteric style. Hope he’s still around!

There are heaps of other great busking videos on YouTube, too.

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