Adam Fish certainly knows how to get people’s attention. While still a PhD student at UCLA, he fired a shot off my bow — a challenging blog post critiquing my discussion of critical utopianism and critical pessimism in the concluding chapter of Convergence Culture. It certainly got my attention — he was fearless, a bit merciless, but for the most part, right in his critiques, and I found myself responding through the blog in ways that forced me to rethink my own positions.
We’ve remained in touch off and on since, and I’ve had the pleasure to watch him develop into an important and distinctive voice at the intersection between critical studies, cultural studies, and media industry studies. When Nick Couldry and I pulled together a large-scale academic conversation around the participatory turn in cultural studies for the International Journal of Communication, Fish was one of the people we included, even though he was one of the most junior participants, because we knew he would have important things to say and he did not disappoint.
He has now released his first book, Technoliberalism and the End of Participatory Culture in the United States. As with his original blog post, the title got my attention and as you will see, it is one of the first things I asked him about in the interview which follows. We do have somewhat different understandings of the scope and limits of participatory culture — not surprisingly — but I really admire what he accomplishes in this book, which I suspect is going to be one which many of us will be engaging with in the years to come, whether because of its contributions to the debates around media policy, its nuanced interpretation of different modes of participation, its rich ethnography in the production studies tradition, or its historical analysis of the evolution of opportunities for grassroots contributions to American television as it undergoes technological change.
We need critical, skeptical voices within the context of debates around participatory culture, but what I value about Fish is that he does not throw the baby out with the bathwater. He does recognize what is worth fighting for in the struggles around participatory culture. He proposes more rigorous criteria in terms of what counts as meaningful participation; he demonstrates the forces we work against when we advocate for more grassroots participation in the production and circulation of media; he doesn’t mince words when something falls short, but at the end of the day, I walk away with a sense that we are both engage in the same struggles from different tactical and theoretical vantage points.
I threw some challenging questions his direction and he responded with the usual thoughtfulness and originality. Enjoy!
While the book’s title describes the “end” of participatory culture in the United States, a more nuanced reading of the book suggests that your predictions are a bit less dire than that. After all, you begin with some discussion of the ways that videos of racialized police violence has fueled the #blacklivesmatter movement. So, is it more accurate to say that the book describes the struggle of some forms of participatory culture to survive or have an impact in a world of increasingly corporitized digital media? What do you see as the stake for those of us who advocate a more participatory media scape in the face of the trends you document and analyze throughout this account?
Hi Henry, thanks for inviting me to talk with you. I need to begin by speaking to this funny experience I just had with my 4 year old. It is a good segue into different concepts of participation. Her favorite thing to do is this YouTube kids yoga class called Cosmic Kids, wholesome stuff for a family of techno-hippies from California stuck in northwest England! When it ended she came to ask me to start another episode. When I said, “No, honey you can’t watch another,” she retorted with a consternated brow, “Daddy, I am not watchinganything, I am doing something, I am doing yoga!” This illustrates my graded categories of participation. In my opinion, watching is OK, doing is better, and making is the best. (I let her do another one because of this sophisticated answer.)
This hierarchy can be interpreted as elitist, I know, but it is based upon ethnographic work with amateurs and activists stretching their skills, pushing their technologies, and challenging themselves to make things usually only made by paid professionals: television.
Following the typology of Nico Carpentier there is a difference between interaction and participation, as there is between slacktivism and activism, as this spoof video recently parodied. As you and Nico correctly note in a recent discussion, it is a question of intensities, engagement, and ultimately effectiveness. I celebrate intense forms of participation, not interactive engagement, but robust maker culture. If the only option that exist for amateur and activist participation with television is the rare inclusion of the witty tweet or a few seconds of a witness video in a newscast, just to add a bit of cinema verite and social media marketing to a newscast—that to me isn’t participation but rather the circulation of affect or what Jodi Dean calls communicative capitalism. My book, Technoliberalism and the End of Participatory Culture, is about those exceptional and short-lived moments when television was opened up by new technologies for radical participation—citizen-produced documentaries designed to foment political action.
I’ve wanted to clarify the title of the book in particular to you because it does contain the phrase, “participatory culture,” which you have advanced in media studies. I’ll be the first to admit that “The End of Participatory” part is a bit hyperbolic and the result of some pressure from the publisher. The book does not hypothesize the end of the convergence of bottom-up and top-down collaborations you describe in your book Convergence Culture. Such a statement would be far too normative and universalizing—there is no single “participatory culture” to end or begin.
Furthermore, definitive beginnings, ends, causalities, and dualities seem increasingly unlikely—a theme I’ll take up later. A better title would be “the end of a participatory culture in cable and satellite television production”—doesn’t quite have the same ring, the editors thought. That more nuanced title gets a bit of the irony I hope would be apparent.
Readers of your book Textual Poachers and Sonia Livingstone and Peter Lundt’s earlier work understand that television did provide abbreviated apertures for audience interactivity. But many consider participatory culture to be something that began in earnest with social media. There were brief moments of amateur and activist involvement in television production that usually coordinated with the first few months of the development of a new platform—8mm film, portapak cameras, satellite, cable, camcorders, mobile phones etc. Much of this history in thebook is potted from the excellent historical research of Patricia Zimmerman, William Boddy, Lauri Ouellette, and Lisa Parks and the idealistic work of guerilla television producers such as Michael Shamberg.
So the book looks at the origins and ends of participatory culture in television production during those historical moments as well as the more recent amateur and activist involvements in television production facilitated by the internet. So while the video evidence of police brutality–Eric Garner being choked to death or Walter Scott shot in the back—might be featured as part of a nightly news segment, there does not exist an activist or amateur network where these videos and the public sphere and activism they inspire can develop into social movements.
Its old news now and probably a bit romantic, but this was something Al Gore’s user-generated network Current was at times and what Participant Media’s Pivot network could have done with Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s HitRecord on TV program. As you know, both Current and HitRecord are dead, Current in 2013 in HitRecord in 2016, and with them the idea that television production could and should be democratised.
The media democratisation thesis will emerge again but only in the early halcyonic days of a new transmission medium. One point of the book is that the opening of television provoked by the internet has ended and with it a robust form of participatory culture on television. This concern, however, has provoked me to look for the beginnings of new transmission/networking systems capable of creating that rupture where amateurs and activists can again gain entry into the hegemonic public sphere.
My new book, co-written with Ramesh Srinivasan, After the Internet poses the question: what comes after an internet that is thoroughly surveilled by the NSA, increasingly centralised into gated communities like Facebook, monopolised by corporate mergers like AT&T and Time Warner, unshackled from network neutrality regulations, and manipulated by Russian bots and hackers? We look at activists, indigenous people, politicians, and programmers who are attempting to re-make an internet that is more in-line with their cultural and political ideals and ontologies.
My new research funded by the Leverhulme Trust is looking at how new atmospheric information infrastructures—mesh networked drones, balloons, and the like—can be mobilised by formerly occluded communities to generate new possibilities in participatory networked communication. So I have always studied the more engaged forms of participation which requires higher forms of socio-technical expertise and understanding of policy. Elites, probably, but that is the tribe who create the platforms and affordances that structure communication.
The consequences during periods of participatory closure are that this level of inventiveness, experimentation, and playfulness will decline. As far as diverse content in the hegemonic public sphere is concerned, this will create a deficit of the type of voicefulness Nick Couldry describes. So I see a materialist, softly deterministic and dialectic relationship between the transmission hardware and the messages they transmit. Open systems create the opportunities for radical speech, it isn’t that controversial of a thesis for a student of open source software or a participant in Burning Man.
You describe in your introduction a shift from the internet delivering “community theater” to the internet delivering “Hollywood” entertainment. Is this necessarily a zero-sum game? Does one preclude the other? You describe here historically cycles between amateurism and professionalism in media production, but one could argue that there is still much more amateur media being produced and circulated today than ever before and that this grassroots media content is gaining a level of visibility and impact in the culture that would not be matched by earlier versions of this cycle. Without being naive about the ways corporate ownership of platforms and delivery channels potentially restricts what is taking place with amateur media makers, should we also acknowledge that some ground has been gained as a result of the struggles over media access and power your book documents?
This duality between “community theater” and “Hollywood” came from one of the unrecognized historians of media participation, the cybernetician JCR Licklider, who criticised television of the 1960s for not being participatory. Licklider understood that the affordances of television would create a path dependency leading not to greater participation, increasing diversification of voice, and a more robust democratic dialogue but less of each. Licklider was writing in the 1960s, and cable in the 1970s, satellites in the 1980s, camcorders in the 1990s, and the internet in the 2000 did, indeed, provide new openings for robust, generative participation online for active individuals and communities.
But as the once opened windows provided by those technologies closed, television returned to being a much more closed media ecology wherein professional ruled not only entrance into studios and networks but, more ominously, a professional logic also ruled the imagination.
Patricia Zimmerman in her history of the different marketing logics between 8MM film and 16MM film cameras showed how the camera manufacturers truncated the realm of possibility in order to sell more cameras. 8MM users were branded as incapable of producing film or television grade footage, while 16MM cameras, those were for the aspirational and would-be professional. Had this of been different there could have been the first citizen film journalists in the 1950s, instead we waited until the 1970s or more likely the 2000s for the idea of politically-motivated moving picture production democratization to occur.
There are always outliers but technological path dependencies and socio-cultural expectations cornering the imagination plays a large part in determining the possible future. Again, I admit this is elitist. I celebrate all forms of robust participation but I am also cynical about banality.
Take YouTube for instance, I don’t see “haul videos” and make-up tutorial vlogs as hallmarks of a renaissance of cultural creativity. I understand from reading Brooke Duffy that there is some important gender work going on in these videos but I am concerned that the convergence of bottom-up hype and top-down algorithmic promotion make it seem like this style of video is one of few options for would-be creative individuals. I know there is more than this on YouTubre, but I worry what this limiting of possibility does to the diversity of politicized voices in the public sphere.
YouTube now thinks itself ready to be a proper television network in five cities with branded, syndicated, commissioned, and sponsored content and it is ready to charge subscription fees like a regular cable network. As the book describes, YouTube got to this point of confidence not by empowering citizen video journalists, activists, community organisers, etc. but by patiently pairing simple content creators and advertisers and professionalizing the look of this content through multichannel networks, talent agencies, revenue sharing deals, and building small studios around the world.
The content for the most part is safe for sponsors—when it is not a backlash and public shaming occurs such as with PewDiePie. In this age of fake news, climate change denial, and economic nationalism I doubt this is the tenor of the public sphere the present needs. Unfortunately, this is the kind of content that emergent television networks—even those that come from the grassroots of participatory culture like video sharing sites like YouTube—are producing.
Adam Fish is cultural anthropologist, video producer, and senior lecturer in the Sociology Department at Lancaster University.He employs ethnographic and creative methods to investigate how media technology and political power interconnect. Using theories from political economy and new materialism, he examines digital industries and digital activists. His book Technoliberalism (Palgrave Macmillan, 2017) describes his ethnographic research on the politics of internet video in Hollywood and Silicon Valley. His co-authored book After the Internet (Polity, 2017) reimagines the internet from the perspective of grassroots activists and citizens on the margins of political and economic power. He is presently working on a book about hacktivist prosecution called Hacker States and a book and experimental video called System Earth Cable about “elemental media”–atmospheric and undersea information infrastructures in the United Kingdom, Denmark, Iceland, and Indonesia. This project deploys drones to map the undersea fibre optical cable system as seen here at Landeyjasandur, Iceland.