I went to the above-named event at the New School Friday night, and have been shooting emails left and right since then with questions…
Trebor Scholz raised a question that from my vantage point can be reformulated as: how would it be possible to identify the distinction between participation and exploitation on the basis of what people contribute to one process, event, or organization? When are you working to make a difference, when are you working for someone else? This is obviously very important if one is to assess the potential of participatory political campaigns, where the pro and pols’ urge to control has to find a way of co-existing with the less calculated jolts and spouts of activism.
Trebor argued that seen through an updated understanding of work as self-creating performances, a lot of social networking is a something-for-nothing deal, where site-owners make money out of participants’ creative contributions. I have asked him a couple of questions about what would follow from this if one accepts his point, you can see the questions here.
In a sense, the question I send to Ethan Zuckerman is even more fundamental to my interests in participatory politics. Take the context of the United States, and think about the examples of networked politics – recent citizens’ contributions include the 1984-Hilary video and McCain vs. McCain undressing him for his ‘straight-talk’ slogan. Both have attracted a lot of attention. Both are activist initiatives. Both are prime examples of the crowdsourcing of negative campaigning, and the one thing we know about negative campaigning is that it drives people away, make them not take part, not vote, not care. Maybe we are looking at a paradox, more citizens ‘negative’ participation will feed the spiral of cynicism and discontent, and breed less participation…? I asked Ethan for examples of ‘positive’ participation through social media, and he named perennial favorite MoveOn.org, a good example. I would add the Bush-Cheney ’04 campaign too – but those seem to be outliers, and especially MoveOn an outlier structured around resistance, not a positive project. On his suggestion, I have forwarded my question to David Weinberger and Dan Gillmor, and hope to return with input from them. While I wait, and think, this cute little video from an Obama meetup in New York will hold up the beacon of hope for a positive participatory politics. It is all volunteer made, every second of it.