Participatory Culture, Participatory Democracy? (John Palfrey)

The second speaker at Beyon Broadcast 2007 was John Palfrey from the Berkman Center at Harvard Law.

He presented a mind map covering a set of topics, all around the question of whether participatory culture leads to participatory democracy.

I’ll try to reproduce some of the ideas here, but for best effect just watch the movie.

Participatory Culture might be positively associated with Participatory Culture becase:

A. Open Information Environment

Participatory Democracy benefits from an Open information Environment (such as is created by blogs, video podcasts,

  • Tools for individual activities
  • Productivity tool for campaigns
  • Attracting New participants

BUT (Cons):

  • This can lead to too much information (the babel metaphor), which will lead us to create the same hierarchies over time to sort the info, which will resilt in the same problems. (ie, the professional editor will be reborn in new forms).
  • The daily me phenomenon – we will filter down to stuff we already believe, in order to not be overwhelmed by noise. (The ultimate personalization system would never expose you to anything you didn’t like – but that’s also ominous).
  • The kinds of participation will be less meaningful – if we make voting so easy that people do it, we’ve lessened the value. (We already see this in the way that actually sending someone a printed letter seems more meaningful than just emailing them).
  • There’s a participation gap – 1billion people who are on the net in some fashion, out of 6 billion on the planet, but even those who are online only have limited access
  • Some states are fighting back – using the same techniques for surveillance, censorship, etc.
  • Some argue we shouldn’t be trying to gradually improve representative demoracy – we should be looking for a post-democratic global older where multistakeholderism is the norm


  • Context Matters a lot
  • It depends on which baseline you choose (is the goal to be better than not having participatory culture, or is the goal to be revolutionary)?

B. Economic Democracy – Participatory culture and democracy are related to each other in terms of the emergence of a middle class – able to and with incentives to advocate

C. Semiotic Democracy – Participatory Democracy is related to participatory democracy through what is called a “semiotic democracy”

  • Control of cultural goods by many not by few
  • More You Tube, more Second Life, less Disney

BUT (cons):

  • But how many people will participate?
  • See Babel argument above

His list of takeaway items:

  • Creativity, innovation, power are all available now at the edges
  • This is a global phenomenon – do not forget that much interesting activity on this front is outside the US and Europe
  • Big Media Companies are struggling with how to participate and play in this culture
  • The legal and political battle over the future of the internet is where much of this will play out in the US – this is far from settled.
  • Read Zittrain on The Generative Internet, Benkler on the Wealth of Networks, Jenkins on Convergence Culture
  • Hopefully this conference can be where theory meets practice.

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