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Creative Citizenship and Social Media

Posted In Publications - By On Friday, September 19th, 2014 With 0 Comments

I’ve had a wonderful time in an unseasonably sunny London this week, which has included a keynote presentation at the Creative Citizens conference at the Royal College of Art. As promised, below are the slides and speaker notes from my presentation, which covers the relationship between everyday creativity, citizenship, and digital media platforms over the past ten years or so.


From the beginning of my academic career up to now I have been investigating the way digital media is changing the face of cultural participation and public communication.

A decade ago when I started, in that early heyday of the ‘web 2.0’ and ‘participatory culture’, we looked to blogs, to image-sharing, to community-based digital storytelling workshops as ways that everyday creativity might find its audiences, and that ordinary people might find each other in ways that had not been possible on such a widespread and visible scale before.

I theorised that everyday, personal uses of digital media might be the key to participation in interest, issue and identity based publics.

My theoretical and ethical orientation was grounded in cultural studies, especially its approach to everyday and popular culture; and therefore my cultural citizenship definitions emphasised everyday, personal, even mundane practices of creativity like storytelling, photosharing, scrapbooking, graffiti, skateboarding, cooking or gardening – practices I collectively called ‘vernacular creativity’ – and the way these may serve to connect individuals and communities in the service of broader civic goals.

Coming from this distinctive disciplinary background, I can draw out some complementary and competing meanings of creative citizenship with respect to digital and social media specifically.

  1. Creative and collaborative approaches to solving civic challenges, using digital and social media; that is, creative ways of being citizenly – using digital media to organise and promote the community garden; the development of crowdsourced crisis maps on the fly
  2. Creativity that, through its enactment, visibility and connectedness in digital media contexts, enables certain modes of civic engagement as an often unintended consequence; that is, the civic benefits of creative participation – getting involved in an international community gardening association formed as a result of gardening and locavore food bloggers finding each other online
  3. Citizenship understood as the rights and responsibilities toward creative communities of which one is a member (e.g. a good citizen of the music scene; a good ‘netizen’ – or, being a citizen of digital media – what would that look like?)

Bearing in mind that creative citizenship, like all modes of group identification, can work to exclude as well as include; and that trolls and bullies can be fairly creative in their uses of digital media too.

The Web 2.0 Moment

The Web 2.0 ‘moment’ of the early to mid 2000s was a key period of optimism for creative citizenship and digital media understood in these ways. The Web 2.0 moment saw the rise of automated blogging software like Blogger and Movable Type, the widespread take-up of these tools, and the broader idea of Web 2.0 services focused on providing platforms for user-created content and connectivity – the barriers to participation in digital culture were now much lower, but participation was still very far from population-wide. This was a moment of artisinal, DIY creative citizenship, but still really the domain of the digerati not the masses.

But there was still a strong sense that the rules and roles of culture were changing. The academic field of research around participatory culture was marked by debates for and against the cultural and social value of user-created content. There were some early concerns raised about free labour in the context of proprietary platforms, but the market in user data, the algorithmic turn were largely yet to come, or at least they hardly registered for most of these critics.

The Social Media Moment
Fast forward to the end of that first decade of the 20th century, and I think we arrive at a different kind of moment, structured by a different set of relationships between the tech industry, the user, and culture – one that I have been calling the platform paradigm.

Indeed, returning to my third model, that of being a citizen of digital media, we might even think of platforms as in some ways analogous to city states – Mark Zuckerberg was infamously called the Sultan of Facebookistan in the media at one stage – but perhaps that’s stretching civic metaphors too far.

A crucial element of this work I have been doing is trying to understand the ‘digital’ elements of social media platforms as material elements, and understanding platforms as co-created. Unevenly and undemocratically co-created, but co-created nonetheless. it is through the interactions between all this ‘stuff’ that platforms are constituted, and that they do things; all these elements are co-influential in what each platform is and can be used for.

I do not think it hyberbolic to say that a very great deal of social life at the micro and macro level has become entangled with digital media – cf Mark Deuze’s book Media Life.

This moment is one characterized by the new ubiquity, legitimisation and normalisation of social media. Even in contexts where the penetration of digital devices is still growing, these dominant platforms will be inextricably part of the digital media ecology for new users – through the Facebook phone, the embedding of Google services into Android phones, and so on.

And the global shift to mobile media greatly extends the meaning of ‘ubiquity’ into our workplaces, our homes, schools, our pockets, and with the rise of wearables, the datafication of even our bodies.

And with the new ubiquity comes the new legitimacy – social media is part of the communicative infrastructure of global society now. And at key points social media has quite visibly been legitimated by government and community uses for practical purposes in undeniably serious situations like the 2011 Queensland Floods. Research has aided this legitimation process by doing large-scale data driven research only made possible by access to the Twitter API, which is really intended for commercial third-party development; and access to such data is a highly controversial and politicised issue right now.

The mainstreaming of social media platforms like Twitter has made possible communities of interest like agchat oz. Weekly Twitter Q&A sessions use the #agchatoz hashtag to capture discussions of interest to the self-identifying agricultural community, ranging from personal issues such as succession planning and rural mental health, to work matters including sustainable farming methods and how to manage natural disasters, as well as more public concerns such as animal welfare and live export. Most discussions solicit a range of perspectives from producers, consumers, scientists, journalists and other professionals; sometimes discussions connect to other issues and their hashtags (like #banliveexport for the issue of animal welfare in the meat industry), thereby causing a collision of constituencies. …not to mention #felfies (short for farm selfies) – which are perhaps an instance of what Lance Bennett calls personalised inclusive collectivity – where the #felfie meme is doing network-building work as well as self-representation for global rural citizens.

And social media has its own popular cultures that support practices of what John Hartley has called silly citizenship – memes, viral culture of the web (Shifman), which are a vital part of political discourse today – where by political I mean both Big P and small p politics (e.g. gender and sexuality issues). The David Cameron on the phone to Barack Obama meme-fest is a great example of this – it is silly and funny but also enacts a strong critique of the contemporary mediatization of politics and the dominance of superficial PR over political communication.

Competing Futures

But despite or even simultaneously with all this flourishing of activity, the affordances of the dominant platforms we associate with social media have changed in complex ways that at least according to some critics, do support mass take-up in the service of business interests, but may not support user creativity and innovation as they once did. (Always bearing in mind the counter-example of the Kodak camera, which created a mass market via the enclosure and automation of key aspects of the photographic process, but at the same time opened up access to photographic production to the masses).

I do think there have been some significant shifts in the way that users and their agency are being repositioned as these platforms grow and mature and seek profit ever more urgently as the venture capital runs out – and here I use the shorthand ‘the self and the world’ to think about the axes along which this repositioning occurs.

and as these platforms evolve and the technical means to advertise and market to us become ever more sophisticated, our experiences of them are ever more heavily mediated by the corporate interests of these platforms – even when the corporate interest is to serve us content we perceive as ‘relevant’, keeping us coming back for more.

How then do the politics of platforms, data ownership and access, the algorithmic turn, filter bubble, advertising-driven etc affect the creative citizen?
e.g. FB newsfeed algorithm might mean that organisations increasingly need to pay to get messages through such channels; and there are pretty serious consequence for global citizenship of the tendency of these platforms to encourage us to associate with and consume the content of people who we like and who are like us, as this visualization by Gilad Lotan of hashtag co-occurrence in Instagram images associated with the Gaza conflict shows.

Provocations: the Digital Creative Citizen

I conclude with some suggestions about how digitally native strategies and tactics for engaging in social media platforms might become part of the apparatus of community-based creative citizenship initiatives as well:

  1. Exploit social media logics with playful and ‘silly’ citizenship
  2. Adopt adaptive, multi-platform strategies & avoid delegating everything to one or two platforms
  3. Develop critical engagement with platforms and their cultures as part of digital creative citizenship

About the Author

- Jean Burgess (@jeanburgess) is a Professor of Digital Media at Queensland University of Technology, where she is also the Director of the Digital Media Research Centre (DMRC) - see http://qut.edu.au/research/dmrc. Her research focuses on the cultures, politics, and methods for studying social and mobile media platforms. Her books include YouTube: Online Video and Participatory Culture (Polity Press, 2009), Studying Mobile Media: Cultural Technologies, Mobile Communication, and the iPhone (Routledge, 2012), A Companion to New Media Dynamics (Wiley-Blackwell, 2013), and Twitter and Society (Peter Lang, 2014).

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