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Participatory Culture and the Democratization of Information

An example of the trend towards information democracy is the democratization of culture.  “Participatory Culture” is the modern trend of many individuals contributing to the mass of popular culture rather than culture being broadcast from a small elite of performers.  By analogy, Hollywood’s hegemony over movies and television represented a communist politburo where a small group had the power and responsibility to control the cultural experiences of the masses.  Today’s information technology is tearing down this monopoly that broadcasters held, and thus democratizing culture through three mechanisms: easier content creation, distribution, and a better editorial process.  We’ll look at each of these three aspects after a brief review of other aspects of the democratization of information.

Broadly, the concept of information democracy is that an increasingly large number of people are able to influence how information is aggregated.  Wikipedia is a clear and simple example of allowing anybody to contribute to what used to be authored by a select few — “The Encyclopedia.”  Google’s Pagerank algorithm democratized web search.  Today’s most successful software is democratizing the feature set by allowing users to vote on how they want to use it.  The general principal is that large numbers of individuals can together make better decisions than any small group.  Applying this principal to culture, we can predict that a cultural democracy will produce “better culture” than what was available before.

Information technology makes it cheaper and easier to both create and to distribute culture.  With the right software, any laptop today has all the power of a professional music or video studio.  Sure the quality won’t be as good without professional inputs (microphones, cameras, etc) but the cheap stuff is good enough for a lot of things.  Obviously the internet makes distribution of this content trivially easy, which is disrupting traditional media businesses.  Easy creation and distribution of cultural content is an important part of creating a cultural democracy, but it is not the critical enabling step.

The key to democratizing culture is in the editorial process.  If everybody is contributing cultural content that is easily distributed, but there’s still a small group deciding which pieces everybody watches, we’re still in a cultural dictatorship.  Enabling the mass public to “vote” on content is the democratizing step.  That enables the collective intelligence of all media consumers to help choose what should become part of mass culture.  So instead of some programming executive trying to guess what will be popular, the question almost becomes moot — whatever is popular becomes popular culture.  Actually making this work is not at all straightforward.  I’ll save a full description of the necessary ingredients for another post, but we can look at a couple examples.

Youtube does this quite well.  It blurs the line between sharing a video clip with your friends and publishing it as a piece of mass culture.  Any video that isn’t marked private is submitted into a kind of massive popularity contest.  Videos that get millions of views are undeniably bits of popular culture.  For music, last.fm does a good job of being inclusive, but hasn’t quite taken off.  When I started building social features into Rhapsody I hoped they could democratize the music editorial process but that hasn’t happened yet.  Like many things in social media there’s a chicken and egg problem with scale which Youtube has clearly gotten past, but music is still struggling with.

Cultural Democracy is “retro”?!

This post is inspired by a recent story by Heather Chaplin that NPR aired describing participatory culture in video games.  The surprising part of the story for me was the assertion that this trend is not modern but in fact “retro.”  The story points out that before analog broadcast media, most culture was participatory — singing, dancing, crafts, etc.  Analog technology created the possibility of cultural hegemonies, and digital technology is breaking them down. A fine point, implying that the 20th century will likely be unique as the only period in human history when popular culture was dictated by an elite group of editors.  Thanks for the interesting tidbit.

  1. Aaron says:

    As an political science (and economics) student at the University of Washington I specialized my major in "Political Economics". Part of that is rational choice models.

    I'd add to "The general principal is that large numbers of individuals can together make better decisions than any small group" that group decisions are also more rational and predictable than individual actions.

    The principle above is also the core driver of the success of free markets. Consumers voting with their wallets will outperform D.C. car czars every time in directing society's resources best.

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