Donofrio, Theresa A. "Book Review of Participatory Culture in a Networked Era." PUBLIC: Arts, Design, Humanities 4, no. 1 (2017).
Book Review of <i>Participatory Culture in a Networked Era: A Conversation on Youth, Learning, Commerce, and Politics</i> by Henry Jenkins, Mizuko Ito, and danah boyd.


Book Review of Participatory Culture in a Networked Era: A Conversation on Youth, Learning, Commerce, and Politics by Henry Jenkins, Mizuko Ito, and danah boyd.

Participatory Culture in a Networked Era

A Conversation on Youth, Learning, Commerce, and Politics

Henry Jenkins, Mizuko Ito, and danah boyd

Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 2016


In line with this issue's focus on “digital engagements,” Jenkins, Ito, and boyd's Participatory Culture in a Networked Era: A Conversation on Youth, Learning, Commerce, and Politicswrestles with the relationships among technology, participation, and knowledge construction. As the authors acknowledge, the relationships among these constructs are far from harmonious, and they caution against the presumption that the emergence of new technologies inherently translates into more participatory forms of education, governance, or commercial enterprise. Although new media technologies may have the capacity to encourage interaction (11–12), the authors stress that the tools themselves do not guarantee participation (12–13). For this reason, Jenkins “avoid[s] the phrase ‘participatory media’” because, he states, “I do not think technologies are participatory; cultures are” (11). Thus, participatory cultures, not technologies, form the centerpiece of the book. Informed by the authors’ decades of experience studying participatory cultures, Participatory Culture in a Networked Era offers a balanced assessment of the text's titular terms, underscoring both opportunities for increasingly participatory practices and the constraints hampering their realization across numerous arenas of public life. Positioned against the backdrop of the text's discussion of educational practices, the authors call for and engage in efforts to expand and create more participatory forms of knowledge construction by presenting their text as a dialogue. Employing a conversation-driven format, this study inspired digital responses so that even in the act of writing a review, one is drawn into digital engagements with a community that spilled over the boundaries of a conventional “book.” By enacting their claims in this fashion, Jenkins, Ito, and boyd evince their commitment to the merits of participatory culture(s) and demonstrate the challenges and obstacles that make projects such as theirs necessary.

In Participatory Culture in a Networked Era, Jenkins, Ito, and boyd reflect upon Jenkins's notion of “participatory culture” by discussing the concept’s utility, providing examples of participatory cultures in action, and acknowledging the structural inequalities inhibiting the recognition and expression of participatory cultural practices. Appearing in print more than 20 years after Jenkins first penned the term (vi, 1), the book provides the authors the occasion “to critically examine the concept of ‘participatory culture,’ [by] tracing the ways our own thinking has evolved through the years in response to a changing media environment and to the shifting stakes in policy debates surrounding digital media” (vi). The first chapter explores the defining characteristics of participatory culture. Jenkins provides a basic explanation of the concept by drawing on the definition he offered in a coauthored white paper, Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture (and that has appeared subsequently in a number of contexts, see Hodgson 2016; Halverson et al. 2016; and Project New Media Literacies 2017 as select examples). Some of the cornerstones of the concept include “relatively low barriers to artistic expression and civic engagement, strong support for creating and sharing one's creations, and some type of informal mentorship whereby what is known by the most experienced is passed along to novices” (Jenkins et al. 2006, 3). 1 As noted earlier, by definition, participatory culture is not contingent upon access to new media platforms (10–13, 184) or disciplinary (vi) or ideological context (182). Indeed, the book's structure illuminates the concept's wide applicability. After foregrounding foundational concepts in its first three chapters (participatory culture in chapter one, youth in chapter two, and what Ito calls “genres of participation” [60] in chapter three), the remaining chapters explore education (chapter four), commerce (chapter five), and politics (chapter six). In the final chapter, the authors emphasize the major themes animating the text and stress the ways opportunities for participation are shaped by structural barriers and inequalities.

Although each chapter contains rich insights from the authors’ extensive bodies of research, the book's fourth chapter deserves special focus given that the authors' discussion of learning in this chapter provides context for understanding the authors' choice to create a conversation-driven text. Here, the authors highlight the frictions among institutionalized forms of knowledge production and more participatory forms of pedagogical practice. For example, Jenkins, Ito, and boyd argue that educational institutions often fail to incorporate the aptitudes students demonstrate in other participatory contexts into class curriculum (see, in particular, Ito's discussion of “connected learning,” 85–86, 94, and “broker[ing],” 93, as well as 7, 68, 95–97, 115–119). 2 Furthermore, when media and new communication technologies become the subject of curriculum, some instructional approaches reinforce illusory and damaging notions that audiences sit “outside” of the media they study, hindering students' ability to develop a sense of accountability and ethics needed to navigate the contemporary media landscape (104, see also 97, 102, 108–112). Additionally, if educational institutions celebrate participatory cultures, they often do so in ways that reflect academic biases. To use Ito's words, the groups lauded by the academy tend to be “close to home” such that extolled examples often represent “the kinds of participatory cultures with which academics feel affinity—white, intellectual, geek leaning” (170, see also 70–73). The authors punctuate the ways educational institutions include and exclude different participatory cultures (7, 67, 71–72) and critique the predominant theoretical (mostly critical) orientations toward media and technology (92, 99, 109, 134, 144–145). These claims, among others, paint a picture of an institution in need of change and support a case for innovation.

The authors respond to these exigencies by using the format of the book to model a more participatory approach to knowledge generation. Outside of the preface and conclusion, each chapter unfolds as a dialogue organized around thematic subheadings. The authors are explicit about their decision to “[depart] from scholarly convention” (ix) and position their choice to structure the text in this fashion as a deliberate attempt to demystify knowledge production (Jenkins 2015b, 187) and enact an approach that reflects the spirit of the content. Jenkins, Ito, and boyd explain:

Unlike a typical scholarly manuscript, this book is about our willingness to reveal the limitations of our knowledge and our collective struggles to work out what we're privileged enough to witness. Research is a process, and all too often we tend to emphasize the final output. As scholars committed to participatory culture, we're also committed to opening up our practice and thinking. This book is our attempt to do just that. (ix)

Echoing this theme in a conversation about the book on Jenkins's blog, boyd describes the book as “the backstage of research into participatory culture,” and Ito claims that the “very dynamic” nature of this content area demands that authors “be methodologically innovative, and collaborate across geographic and disciplinary boundaries” (Jenkins 2015b). In light of the authors' critiques of extant institutionalized approaches to education, their choice to practice what Ito terms a “kind of dialogic knowledge production” through the book's form attests to their conviction in the importance of exploring more participatory approaches to teaching and learning (Jenkins 2015b). 3

Many responses to Participatory Culture in a Networked Era commend the authors' decision to enact their arguments through the book's form, and even the impediments accompanying attempts to translate the authors' calls for more participatory approaches to knowledge generation into practice affirm the authors' claims and demonstrate the need for more projects like Jenkins, Ito, and boyd's text. A number of writers have underscored or applauded the authors' structural choices (see Rheingold 2015; Hodgson 2016; and Holterman 2015). As Jenkins highlights on his blog, all three of the reviews on the back of the book celebrate the text's conversational form; in particular, Jean Burgess praises the authors for “br[inging] the ethos of dialogue very much to the surface,” by drawing upon familiar conceptions of scholarship as an extended conversation (Jenkins 2015a). Taylor's review accentuates the correspondence between the authors' ideological commitments and methods, heralding their structural choices as “perfectly suited to the themes … pertaining to the interactive and dialectical opportunities offered by collaborative participation” (2017, 398).

Nevertheless, a printed text containing the authors' conversations may be an imperfect vehicle for accomplishing the authors' objectives. First, readers' expectations for the form may create disappointment, or, as boyd puts it bluntly, “If you're looking for classic academic output, you're going to hate this book” (2015). Conversations are seldom linear. They often include departures that lead in new directions, and they can be difficult to summarize in terms of an overarching thesis. Although the authors have anticipated some of these critiques and have tried to guard against them (see both Jenkins's [2015a] and boyd's [2015] discussion of the editing process), the book is likely to frustrate some readers, as boyd (2015) notes, looking for a singular thesis for each chapter and expecting the text to culminate in one summative claim as a result of the expectations such readers bring to the form.

Second, the path from reading Jenkins, Ito, and boyd's conversations to practicing a participatory approach to knowledge construction is neither clear nor straightforward. Though the text may model a process of invention and collaboration, the reader, of course, is not a participant in this process in quite the same way as the three authors, given that the reader must seek out other platforms in order to engage in exchanges either with the authors or other readers. And this process of fostering such collaboration can be challenging. In late 2015 and early 2016, one community of readers and writers attempted to experiment with novel ways of promoting participation through a collaborative process of reading and responding to Jenkins, Ito, and boyd's text. Through a series of asynchronous exchanges, the participants staged their conversations across an impressive number of platforms, ranging from YouTube videos (Elliott 2015) and blogs (McVerry 2016) to annotation platforms such as (see Elliott 2017). Authoring reflections on this experiment on his blog, one educator named Kevin Hodgson (2015) expressed some disappointment with the results, noting both problems with organization and coherence as well as momentum. Hodgson highlights “the danger of too much dispersion of interaction,” pointing to the confusion that can be created by the open-ended dialogues and fearing “that someone entering now will think, I've missed it all and don't know where to begin.” (Indeed, as an outsider coming to these exchanges months removed, I struggled to piece together the conversation and worried that I was missing key parts of their project. I appreciated the group's effort to compile an organizational Google Document to help remedy this problem. [Elliott 2016].) Additionally, Hodgson cites struggles “to keep something like a slow-read book talk moving forward” and questions whether these conversations are “truly participatory” if the bulk “of the energy [expended to move the project forward] falls to the organizers” (2015). In many ways, this community of writers attempted to enact a process of reading and exchange that would embody the principles of a participatory culture; yet, their difficulty in doing so illuminates some of the obstacles that may hamper more participatory forms of learning and knowledge construction.

Neither of these issues detracts from Jenkins, Ito, and boyd's project; to the contrary, both attest to the importance of their arguments regarding the uneasy relationships among institutionalized forms of knowledge production and more participatory forms of pedagogical practice, and support the need for more experimentation. In the first instance, frustration with the text for deviating from expectations for an academic book serves to reveal the strength of established approaches to knowledge production in defining the parameters for such texts. Thus, such frustration constitutes an opportunity to reflect on Jenkins, Ito, and boyd's claims about the limitations of conventional ways of knowing and learning and the constraints they create for promoting more participatory approaches (7). And, as Jenkins's subsequent comments and response to Hodgson's project make clear, the challenges this group of writers encountered should be viewed productively as an invitation for additional experimentation. Jenkins reminds Hodgson and his community that they “are asking the right questions” and urges them to continue to consider “how our existing platforms promise but do not fully support the forms of participation we are talking about” (2016). The goal for Jenkins is to continue to experiment and discuss. In an article by Sarah Holterman about the book on USC Annenberg's website, Jenkins situates Participatory Culture in a Networked Era as potentially his “most ambitious project” within a history of “experimenting” with “how we can foster interdisciplinary conversations between scholars” (Holterman 2015) and, through his blog, he calls on scholars to continue this work, noting the insufficiency of existing ways of having academic conversations (Holterman 2015; Jenkins 2015b). Jenkins acknowledges that the “book poses more questions than we can address” and urges readers of his blog to, “as they used to say on Saturday Night Live, ‘talk amongst yourselves’” (2015a). The path forward, Jenkins’s comments suggest, is through more experimentation and dialogue.

Throughout Participatory Culture in a Networked Era, Jenkins, Ito, and boyd underscore the tremendous potential as well as the structural inequalities and other limitations that mark the unfolding relationships among participatory cultures, media technologies, and economic, educational, and civic practices. For readers interested in knowledge construction, or for readers who are part of educational institutions, Jenkins, Ito, and boyd's project illuminates the complexity of efforts to meld the pedagogical dimensions of participatory cultures with extant educational institutions and academic practices. Participatory Culture in a Networked Era does not quite surmount all the hurdles on the path to creating more participatory forms of educational practice. Yet, by rendering visible the authors' struggles to build and share knowledge in ways that capitalize on the pedagogical power of participatory culture, the book serves as a crucial testament to the challenges that may inhibit participation, and in turn, the importance of efforts to build and sustain the conditions for participatory cultures to flourish and exercise influence across more arenas of public life.



1 Given the nature of the book, the authors are often drawing on their previous studies and published arguments. Readers interested in the provenance of these claims will find the authors’ past work in their references.

2 Many scholars are engaged in efforts to address these disconnects, including Jenkins. Although it is beyond the scope of this review to detail those efforts, see Project New Media Literacies (2017, Jenkins et al. (2013), and Halverson et al. (2016) as select examples.

3 In addition to the extended discussion of method on Jenkins's blog, the authors have detailed the many merits of adopting this conversation-driven format on other sites. See boyd (2015) and Holterman (2015).


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