Haythornthwaite on Participatory Transformations

Caroline Haythornthwaite examines participatory culture in the modern technological age. She distinguishes between the variation in the degrees of participation among users and offers a cautious but optimistic view of digital citizenship and community development.

Learning, in its many forms, form the classroom to independent study, is being transformed by new practices emerging around Internet use. “Conversation,” “participation,” and “community” have become watchwords for the processes of learning promised by the Internet and accomplished via technologies such as bulletin boards; wikis; blogs; social software; shared Internet-based repositories; devices such as laptops, PDAs, cell phones, and digital cameras; and infrastructures of Internet connection—telephone, wireless, and broadband. Early discussion of the Internet extolled its transformation potential for democracy, perhaps best demonstrated by the U.S. presidential nomination campaign that developed around Howard Dean in 2000 and contemporary political blogging. This kind of inclusive, participatory action has now spread to many other aspects of daily life….

In education—in learning and teaching—participatory trends herald a radical transformation in who learns from whom, where, under what circumstances, and for what and whose purpose. They bring changes in where we find information, who we learn from, how learning progresses, and how we contribute to our learning and the learning of others.

While there are great benefits to be obtained from online action and interaction, it is also important to consider what is being overlooked in this process, as these unexpected outcomes may become barriers to successful learning experiences. Many transformations act at the periphery of the general movement to ubiquitous learning. Trends that accompany distributed practices include outsourcing, offshoring, disintermediantion, networked individualism … , and the downstreaming of processes and responsibilities to individuals. Autonomous learners become responsible for, and are often alone in creating, their own learning context and content as they search the Internet for materials to support their needs. Although writers such as Jenkins extol the virtues of students learning to engage in “collective intelligence” in a “community that knows everything and individuals who know how to tap the community to acquire knowledge on a just-in-time basis” … , such an ideal can overstate the knowledge that may be present in such communities, the imbalance in who does the work and who benefits, and the actualities of altruistic contribution necessary to maintain critical mass and to support working knowledge communities. It understates the work needed to sustain useful and usable resources and ignores the efforts and techniques embodied in certain roles and practices now swept away as every individual is his or her own teacher, journalist, librarian, and publisher.

Participation connotes contribution to a community and, in particular, contribution that furthers the goals and agenda of the community. It signals engagement and identity with the whole, demonstrated through attention and, in most cases, conformance to community norms and practices. Nonconformist contributions have their place but entail participation on where eventually accepted as furthering the group agenda rather than that of the individual … .

To participate requires knowing how to provide a contribution, which is predicated on knowledge about the reach, content, and extend of community membership, behaviors, and concerns. It shares commonalities with ideas of collaboration … , and in many sense a “collaborative culture” may be synonymous with a “participatory culture.” If there is a distinction to be made, it is that they former tends to be used in referring to smaller working groups, particularly in the sciences; in interdisciplinary collaborations; and in the more general conception of “communities of practice” … . Collaborative culture tends to refer to groups that do the (often hard) work of learning to work with each other toward common goals and outcomes. By contrast, participatory culture signals a trend to societal practice, used more widely to encompass youth as well as adult practice, arts and humanities as well as sciences, and low barriers to entry.

In embracing participation, both light- and heavyweight engagement need to be considered, in parallel to ideas of weak-and strong-tie social network formation … . Each kind of participation has its own merits. Mobility affords the opportunity to engage in information tourism, visiting sites, treading lightly in the online venue, viewing without making a mark, and retrieving without making a contribution. Mobility also allows finding the site where you want to settle, put down roots, and engage with community values and directions. Each has its own informational, social, and communal merits—weak ties for wider exposure to opinions and ideas; strong ties for personal commitment and motivated contribution. They exist in parallel, and the spectrum of engagement is a constituent part of what is participation. Thus, each space depends on some heavyweight users and the many more lightweight users who connect this space to other venues.


Haythornthwaite, Caroline. 2009. “Participatory Transformations.” In Ubiquitous Learning, edited by B. Cope and M. Kalantzis. Champaign, IL: University of Illinois Press, pp. 31-32, 35, 37. || Amazon || WorldCat


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