Technology and digital media are inseparable part of contemporary society. Most of the activities in industrialized countries today are digitalized or implemented through technology or a computer. Some see this as a simplification of work, but others criticize the uncertainties and challenges that technology and digital media might bring. A controversial digital phenomenon is the so called digital participatory culture.


Digital media enable mediaconsumers to play an active roll in new media. The freedom and opportunity to express themselves, to voice their thoughts and contribute to the creation of digital content is considered by many as a way to democratization and creation of active civil society. Some believe that digital media was the needed element that would enable offline processes that were already happening in the society. As such the invention of such technology would be seen as a symptom of other changes and development processes in the society, such as the need for more active civil participation. Digital media enables social activities that would otherwise be difficult without the help of digital media, like the involvement of individuals in the decision making process, or in the production of knowledge and information, or to express their political position and also fight for change of social and political order.


Photo by: Campbell Boulanger

The growth and existence of digital  participatory culture is not only a consequence of technical development but of different historical, political and cultural aspects. Freedom is an important aspect of participation. From a historical perspective, political freedom is a relatively new phenomenon in many countries, while being still problematic in some countries even today. The perception that the individual and every citizen is a free human, with rights, with his/her own will, ideas, thoughts, and thus right to claim something or fight for something, is to a large extent new social and political achievement. Therefore, participatory culture and digital participatory culture is a phenomenon that is more common in context where freedom is not problematic, where freedom of expression is not limited, where individuals who dare to “participate” and express themselves are not persecuted.


Digital media is not just a consequence of increased freedom in society, but it creates freedom. The media expert Henry Jenkins is one of the digital optimists who believes the pros overcome the cons when it comes to the democratising potential of digital media. Jenkins uses the concept of convergence to explain the merging of different medias into one. This is not only a technological process but a cultural phenomenon. A grassroots convergence, encouraging media consumers to participate and as such to be producers; to become more informed and active. This is why technology and internet provide power to media users to participate and as such even to challenge political power.


Digital media and participatory culture help citizens express themselves and reach other media consumers with similar interests and create communities together. The old media like TV, newspapers or radio do not give the opportunity to participate in such extends. It is primarily through digital media where users can participate. Participant culture thus is a phenomenon that has revolutionary potential and can change society and lead to democratization.


At the same time, it is a question whether participatory culture really contributes to democratization. The digital and participation gap show the risk that not everyone will be able to access internet, computer or smartphone, or that not everyone will catch up with digital media and technology’s rapid development. According to another big media expert Christian Fuchs digital media or social media allows to participate only a small part of society and what is considered to be participation is exploitation of users’ digital work. Internet culture is part of political economy and large companies play an important part. Fuchs sees participatory culture as community engagement where also media users with negative goals can participate, such as in radical groups. Some media users make use of the freedom that digital media gives to express themselves in a harming to others way.


Technology is actually something that has always created anxiety in the society about each major invention, constantly anticipating and wondering about the potential of it. Some are utopian about the opportunities to contribute to democracy and to positive development, but others are sceptical and worry about potential negative consequences. According to sociologist Stanley Cohen there has been such “moral panic” in each historical period and nowadays internet and digital media is what worries us. Some consider participatory culture as something that can contribute to democracy and to media users’ freedom to express their views and stand for their rights, but others consider this an opportunity for individuals with negative purposes. In the end, it is all a matter of people’s behaviour in general (i.e. offline). Internet and social media have great potential and give a lot of chances but at the same time digital media represents what’s already in our offline society, both positive and negative. We integrate our habits and prejudices in the online world and we transform internet. Digital media can contribute to positive development, but it should start with people sitting behind the screen.


Author: Antonia Trigueiros