In an age defined equally by technological innovation and techno-pessimism, scholars have come to question the role that literature can and should play in the digital world. Fans can interact and immerse themselves in media like never before, dawning the phrase “participatory culture,” a counter to consumer culture. Participatory culture is ambiguously defined by communities that encourage free artistic expression, civic engagement, and social connection. These notions long precede the internet; the Amateur Press Association of the mid-nineteenth century and zines of the twentieth century are early examples. Social media has introduced new forms of participation, such as blogs, fan fiction, literary video games, and countless other forms of electronic literature. Kelley Kreitz, a professor at Pace University, graciously offered me her time to discuss the possibilities and limitations of digital storytelling and participatory culture, which she explores in her course, Participatory Literature.
Kreitz was inspired to create this course after noticing how many of her students cited digital literature, such as Wattpad, for inspiring them to pursue literary studies. Participatory Literature was designed with student engagement in mind. Kreitz says, “The course itself is a way to create a kind of participatory classroom culture. I think of it as an experiment in increasing participation in the production of knowledge. We all have our own experiences with social media and with various forms of literature in our digital age.”
Participatory culture has blurred the line between mindless consumption and active production. Media scholar, Axel Bruns, coined the term ‘produsage’ to describe the user-led content creation in Web 2.0. This rise in fan participation and production challenges our preconceived notions of the power dynamic between producers and consumers. I was forced to confront my own biases throughout this course, such as my schema of the almighty author – a mysterious hermit, a tortured genius, a manic mastermind, wholly devoted to their craft. Though some authors are born hunched over a typewriter, others such as E.L. James, the author of the 50 Shades of Grey trilogy, are born on fanfiction websites. This Twilight-based fanfiction has topped best-seller lists across the world and endowed James as one of the top earning authors of 2013. The series emblemizes the power of produsage, and James’ success retaliates against the typical conventions of authorship.
Kreitz explains that the dismissal of fans and amateur-created content may stem from the fact that, “Fans challenge the idea of the literary — as a privileged, separate sphere of prestigious or professional writing — that shaped the literary discipline in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Fans, particularly the kind of participatory fan culture that rewrites and remixes cultural texts as we have discussed in class, cross the lines on which that idea of literature relied: professional vs. amateur, producer vs. consumer, isolation or escape vs. community.” This creates a paradoxical stigma around fans. They must be condemned as hysteric, pathetic, or childish, lest we acknowledge their power in shaping popular culture, or question the necessity of a strict producer-consumer hierarchy.
It is easy to view modern technology as an omnipotent power; a catalyst to a surveillance state, which has become less of a dystopian nightmare, and more of an inevitable fate. Kreitz contests this idea with her hope that media can be “a means of empowering democratic participation and pursuing social justice.” This is evident through social media activism, or campaigns such as Get Out The Vote, both of which encourage citizens to engage in politics. Additionally, digital mapping technologies are increasingly being utilized to highlight the neglected history and document complex socio-political data. For example, the non-profit organization, Southern Poverty Law Center, created an interactive Hate Map to track hate groups across the United States. In my semester of Kreitz’s course, our class had the honor of collaborating with Pace University Art Gallery to create a digital map for their upcoming Chinatown Art Brigade exhibit. Students researched and documented the underrepresented history of Chinatown, which emphasized the persistent issues of gentrification and discrimination.
New forms of mass communication are often met with protest. The invention of the printing press and the telegraph was once considered too radical, and social media has sparked similar cultural panic. Kreitz empowers her students in the face of technological cynicism, reminding them that, “Technology is not inherently isolating or community building. It depends on how we determine to use it, and that is a matter not just of technical knowledge, but also of collaborative and creative capacity. In the past and today, the literary provides one of the sites where we can prototype new directions.”
Participatory culture can manifest through the creative expression fostered in digital literature and online forums or through grassroots movements fighting for social justice and equality. Its core values of artistic freedom and civic engagement provide a promising framework for the future of technology. It can be difficult to resist defeatism when social media is widely infiltrated with negativity. It is our responsibility as users to combat hate speech and isolation with activism and collaboration. Emerging platforms and shifting consumerist attitudes indicate that the latter is possible, so long as we recognize and utilize our power in forming our fate.