Cultures of Participation and Collaboration: a Discussion

Cristian Collini

   Common and recurring rhetorical strategies for opposing Web 2.0 and proposing a model of cultural decline are the subject of this blog.

   At each stage I have attempted briefly and tentatively to outline alternative approaches. Please comment at the end, if you have time: your views are valued.

Common strategies used to attack the proponents of social media collaboration are:

(1) attack the most outrageous and unrepresentative claims for new digital media. Thus Jaron Lanier’s brilliant but sour book You are not a Gadget pours over an attack on the Singularity, the global virtual brain, the noosphere, and the nonsense peddled by Ray Kurzweil. Science fiction is a healthy entertainment but when it’s married to conspiracy theory on a grand scale the appropriate response is mirth and indifference, not a fist fight with imaginary monsters. But it’s worth admitting, absurdly, that Kurzweil’s global alien fantasy almost approximates to the uprooted madness that is our global system. As it turned out, it was not the covert actions of reptilian aliens that were the origin of our present slavery, but the virtual worlds of elite financiers who evolved systems that suspended value and referentiality.

(2) bemoan the loss of affect, sincerity, personhood, family (as though these were not already undermined, in a sense, by the forward march of consumer capitalism). Let’s admit that we are fortunate to have the virtual networks as a support structure for the material relations that our overworked anxiety-ridden reality seeks constantly to undermine. Web 2.0 has meant less isolation for many minorities, and those with a minority interest of some sort – and that’s all of us. Since the industrial revolution people have feared for the effects of machines, mass production, and speed, on our core values. But I’m not sure how well these arguments work in the transition from technological to digital and virtual cultures. As I say, the virtual increasingly and helpfully underpins the material, and vice versa.

(3) assume that the notion of art and creativity are the sole preserve of a transhistorical romantic discourse of genius, self, and originality. That’s a big topic. One response is that its time and culture-specific. Oral cultures, for instance, can be marvellously complex and poetic, as well as being collaborative and open-ended. Some of our greatest works, such as the Old Testament; the King James VI Bible; Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey were collaborative works of multiple authorship. For Lanier, collectivity can only mean inefficiency and mediocrity:

But when a collective designs a product, you get design by committee, which is a derogatory expression for a reason. (56)

Let’s grant that some tasks are hampered by too many cooks spoiling the broth, etc. But it really depends on how the task is managed, planned, conducted, and the nature of the output. We don’t really know who the architects of our great Gothic cathedrals were, but the skilled guilds of stonemasons and freemasons continue to be a living example of shared action for the common good.

We might also note that works of art are not created in isolation. Our renaissance painters and sculptors operated with the atelier, school, or workshop that permitted a sharing of tasks and skills.

Our greatest writers have created a sublime synthesis of many of the works that preceded them. Take a look at Milton’s ‘epic’ Paradise Lost as an intertextual interweaving of a community of poetic styles, materials, and subject matter.

Collaboration happens as a kind of synchronicity but it is also diachronic; a community and fellowship of collaborators and contributors across time. As Isaac Newton famously said “If I have seen further it is only by standing on the shoulders of giants.”

Nor did Shakespeare ever worry about the originality of his source story but plundered widely. We know that many Renaissance plays were also written collaboratively. Often one genre is parasitic, or borrows material from another, such as criminal biographies and novelistic fiction.

Modernism and postmodernism in the arts provide ample evidence of imitation, parody and collage. Hypertexts, community commenting, sampling, mixing and mash-ups are not signs of contemporary malaise (Lanier’s ‘demeaned interpersonal interaction’ p. 4) but a living tradition that runs from Alexander Pope’s Dunciad through to Eliot’s The Wasteland and the subversive and engaging energy of the Dada movement.

(4) label collaborative and collective action as mob rule; the folly of the crowd. (The dust jacket of Lanier’s book You are not a Gadget begins “It’s early in the twenty-first century, and that means that these words will mostly be read by non-persons – automatons or numb mobs composed of people who are no longer acting as individuals.” Lee Siegel’s book Against the Machine is subtitled “Being Human in the Age of the Electronic Mob.” These strategy of turning common folk and popular forces into destructive crowds and mobs is long-standing as human have congregated together in unequal environment. From the Roman mob to Shakespeare’s many-headed-Hydra monster, to the crowds of revolutionary France, and Burke’s eulogy for the little platoons of community we have a recurring fear expressed by the elite that the people will destroy their well-deserved privileges.

(5) mourn the demise of the professional classes.

In film terms the debate is frequently framed by the Hollywood versus YouTube, and the professional versus amateur debate. The disproportionality of the terms of reference hinders opportunities for a more nuanced approach. How do we assess the impact of different media on a postcolonial world that is nonetheless addicted to globalisation, consumer commodity fetishism and hitherto unknown levels of inequality? How do we measure the impact of well-meaning films such as Avatar against thousand of micro-narratives of lived locality experiences? A billion dollar blockbuster against a DIY film project?

(6) evacuate and emasculate popular culture by employing a model of apathy and degeneration: “Pop culture has entered into a nostalgic malaise. Online culture is dominated by trivial mashups of the culture that existed before the onset of mashups, and by fandom responding to the dwindling outposts of centralized mass media. It is a culture of reaction without action.” (20) I guess then that the global youth-led movements around environment and globalisation were media fictions? That rap cannot be a witty and irreverent force for political transformation?

(7) keep mourning. “Spirituality is committing suicide. Consciousness is attempting to will itself out of existence.” (20) The judgment is so sweeping and general I’m not sure where top start. So let’s begin by agreeing, rather than attempting to offer a trenchant critique. Parts of the population are entrapped by the captivating force of electronic games, violent and de-humanizing cinema, and the cult of celebrity and the opium of televisual entertainment. We are more captive than the performing animals in a 1970s exploitation circus. Mobiles, tweets, gadgets and apps are forever demanding our attention like parasitic monster doubles. Vile outgrowths that stick to use like leeches an sap our vital energies. They are vampires on our time; replacing the mystery of real encounter with all the sad banality of the click.

Are we becoming mere accessories of Machines (as Marx imagined) or victims of Mobs (as Burke feared)?

I enjoyed reading the comments from Gareth Edwards recently:

“then there's storytelling - telling a story that people care about. There's no shortcut or magic trick to that. Getting that right is stupidly rare. It's a competition everyone can enter but your chances of winning are still the same. It probably has more repercussion, this digital revolution, for current affairs than cinema. Any event that kicks off, whether it's a secret war crime or something that happened in a dictatorship, you've got an HD video camera that you can use, distribute and put online to the entire world a few seconds after taking it. That's the digital film revolution that everyone is missing. Everyone seems more obsessed with someone making a monster in their bedroom. You can fight the monsters with a camera but not necessarily in the cinema."

Typically, I find myself with more questions than answers.

Are we beginning to see the end of a romantic notion of cinema; the demise of a fairy-tale Hollywood; the shrinking power of the Director as Auteur? Tales of the death of traditional popular cinema entertainment (an awkward, contradictory bundle to unpack) have often been exaggerated. Are we living in a time of radical renewal for radical film manifestos, and technologically empowered innovation? What do you think?


  1. A new revolution in DIY film-making?
    By Kev Geoghegan

  2. Fantastic post. Agree on the utter unsatisfactory critiques offered by the critics of social media and the continuing dualism they posit between a 'real' and 'virtual' existence as if the two are mutually exclusive. I live a life which contains f2f interaction, extended by virtual interaction - and enhanced by the latter. I can choose when to switch from one to the other, when the public interfaces with the private and when either impedes my ability to live the life I want. In a university context, the scaremongering is exacerbated by the fear of institutional conservatism towards the 'new' and the reputation risks (our students will diss us in 'public' affecting the brand message we've spent millions creating). We need to realise our students are complex users of new media and embrace the possibilities for deepening their educational engagement.

  3. Nice to see a blog and posts that challenges the myths and moral panics targeted at the evolving cultural content of cyberspace. As you allude to (and Dave McGillivary stresses) the virtual and material are intertwined and it's folly to privilege one over the other. We are engaged in the ongoing ontological and epistemological debates we have seen from Plato, Kant and through to post-structuralists of Foucault or Derrida. Of course we can see this as a discursive battle and, echoing Dave, universities can be pretty closed on this front. I have argued that education is a viral activity and Web 2.0 breaks the self-interested knowledge silos we call universities. Also it unmasks crap academic practice if we go online, are seen, heard and the quality of content we deliver assessed by all.

    Of course Web 2.0 (neve mind the semantic Web.3) should be critiqued. Sure I can see the masses of web junkies hooked on 'commentary cocaine',
    gaze of governance of Google, Facebook or the repressive state apparatus or how it intensifies spectacle, thus, binding and blinding us to the power of
    consumer capitalism (I am writing a DeBord Zizek paper on this). However,
    and as you point out, it opens avenues for democracy, resistance and new
    forms of creativity. The interesting thing for me is that this is an embryonic technological shift. It will continue to transform our worldview and embodied reality so, understandably, there will be some pain/resistance/abuse.

  4. Thanks for those thoughtful comments from fellow-traveling collaborators


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