Participatory Culture and Civic Engagement: Interview with Henry Jenkins, Part II

Tuesday, December 28, 2010 at 8:27 am

This post is the first in a series of interviews highlighting leaders in the field of New Learning (what we call “NLI at Inquiry”). A couple of weeks ago, we interviewed USC professor Henry Jenkins about his research, trends, and his thoughts on the future of civic engagement in education. Because Professor Jenkins answered our questions so generously and thoughtfully, we’ve separated the interview into three parts. In Part II, he discusses the depth of civic engagement among youth today.

Professor Jenkins, how does the act of “liking” a cause relate to calling a senator? Does changing your Facebook photo to reflect a cause reflect an increased or deeper engagement than clicking and “liking” it?

For starters, I’d argue that an action performed online does not signal more or fewer levels of political engagement than the same action performed off-line. So, clicking “like” on a social network profile is more or less equivalent to signing a petition on a street corner, a political act you may forget ten minutes after you do it. Writing an email or a blog post may be no more or less politically engaged than sending a letter to the editor of the local newspaper or writing to a congressman. And so forth. There’s a bit more likelihood of the act having more impact online if only because you are performing it, most likely, in front of a somewhat larger number of friends. But its impact still rests on your ability to be persuasive rather than on which platform you are using to perform it. 

This is not the model of activism we are studying. Contrary to what you may have heard about Facebook or Twitter activism, very few of these new groups work only online (or as those phrases suggest, work only through a single platform). These groups use new-media tools alongside more traditional kinds of face-to-face meetings as part of an array of resources through which their political activities are being conducted. They are making nuanced decisions about which platforms may offer the most promise to perform particular functions. The use of new media may allow them to expand the base of support for their activities, linking together efforts across local communities to expand their potential impact. Working online may allow them to lower the costs of soliciting support and may allow them to amplify their own voices as they tap in to the spread of messages through social networking sites. But in many cases, these efforts build on contacts made off-line, with people they know and work with face to face. These new-style politics are intended to expand rather than displace what can be done through more conventional channels.

What constitutes meaningful engagement? Where do we draw the line in terms of its meaning? Is there a difference in how online and offline communities define meaningful engagement, and what effect is it having on civic matters today?

Whether we are talking online or off, meaningful engagement requires people to become informed about the issues, requires them to be connected with others and exerting an ongoing effort to make a difference in the world, requires them to find their voice and exert it in the cause of change-making. The tactics may be different for groups which leverage some of the affordances of the online world alongside more traditional activities. They may involve producing and spreading YouTube videos alongside designing and printing signs and buttons. They may involve participating in buycots (which use consumer power in support of particular groups and businesses) alongside participating in boycotts (which involve withholding purchases from groups one seeks to change).

Our work started with the recognition that fan organizations, for example, have had a long history of mobilizing their supporters in letter-writing campaigns to keep their favorite programs on the air. To be successful, they have to identify an issue and the pressure points which might change the outcome, educate and motivate their supporters to get involved, develop tactics for mobilization and outreach. All of this involves civic skills which can later be mobilized towards efforts in support of human rights and social justice. What’s distinctive is that these spheres of activity are merging. We are seeing fan groups seeking to change the world through putting pressure on media companies in regards to how they represent racial minorities or resisting constraints on fans’ use of intellectual property. And we are seeing groups like the Harry Potter Alliance using the fan infrastructure and the language of popular culture to educate young people about political involvement and to motivate them to try to take action in regards to issues that matter to them.

Ultimately, for me, what is new here is not the tools they use, but the cultural language and political models which shape their efforts. It’s interesting that these groups often team up with more conventional political organizations as they seek to move into the political arena, suggesting that, at the end of the day, both groups are willing to do what needs to be done to make a difference.

To be continued...

How do you see trends of civic engagement changing in the future for young people? If it were up to you, what would the “perfect” school look like? How would the school use digital and social media to meet the needs of its students? In the future, how do we see ourselves influencing young people to be more civically engaged in the classroom?

Next week we will publish Part III of our interview with Professor Jenkins, focusing on his thoughts about the future of civic engagement.

Additional Resources on Professor Jenkins’ work: