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Volatile, stable and extractive participation

At a conference on the theme of ‘Participatory Cultural Citizenship’ in Aarhus, Denmark last November, Participation Now asked keynote speaker Chris Kelty about questions posed by his current research project: Who gets to decide what participation should be like? Who should be deciding? How might they decide this? Interview.

Chris Kelty: The participation project I’m currently researching has a story to it. I have always been interested in free and open source software, have written a book about it, and as a result a few students have come to me wanting to continue to study free and open source software and what it inspires. With one student in particular, I had a long set of conversations about new initiatives to engage the public with the model of free software, and there were several interesting ones. One that particularly comes to mind was Current TV, this Al Gore-funded model to create citizen journalism. 

The student was extremely enthusiastic about it, and went to work for Current TV, producing a series of videos about political events. We organised a debate about it.  He told us he was watching the project go from being a radical participatory citizen journalism intervention into essentially, another cable television channel in the media sphere.  So we wanted to try and understand how it is that you can characterise the difference between something like Current TV and a free software project, and also understand why things might be going in that direction. Part of the response was to create this research project around participation and ask whether we could empirically arrive at some sense of how participation really works by looking comparatively across a lot of cases. We have 102 cases now and probably at least that many planned for the next couple of years. 

I thought it was going to be relatively easy to get a handle on the concept of participation. I’d done research on other similar concepts, like freedom for instance in relation to free software, where I simply thought, well, we’ll go and find out what philosophers have said about freedom. And, they’ve said a lot. There’s a tremendous amount of pretty structured work. But that’s not true of participation. It turns out that the more you dig, the more you find people saying very different things about it and the more different cases come up. That’s fascinating in itself: I don’t understand why participation is so resistant as a concept, but it clearly is. 

Hilde: You talked about three different styles of participation in your talk earlier today. Tell us about those.

Chris: As part of the project, we hypothesised different ideal types. For example, what does it look like if it is a free software project, what are the characteristics of that? We ended up with a few different kinds of ideal types that allowed us to sort through the cases and come up with clusters. Once we went through that process iteratively a couple of times, we settled on three: volatile, stable and extractive. The point of putting a label on these three styles of participation is that volatile captures one aspect of participation which we all intuitively recognised in free and open source software: that every aspect of an organisation or a project or an event is subjected to participation. So not only is the event itself conceived as being open and participatory but the technology to support it might also be conceived as open and participatory. This connects to my notion of recursive publics: with free software, everything is open for free thinking. So, volatility is one way of designating those projects that are super-engaged with participation, see it everywhere and want to extend it. Another example would be the Occupy movement, which very clearly had this volatility, wanting to extend participatory democracy to everything.  The flip side of volatility, of course, is that it’s not stable.  It can fly off the handle, it can disappear, it’s unsustainable, all of those things. 

The stable category is meant to capture those participatory projects that start from a base of stability – institutional stability or historic stability – or that need to remain sustainable and so make compromises in order to do so.  Scientific projects are probably the most interesting case. When we talk about citizen science projects, for instance; a lot of them have involved scientists and engineers who want public participation, they want to draw people into the project, but they don’t want to draw them in too far. They are drawing a line around the project and saying ‘here’s where you can contribute and we would love to have your help, but you don’t get to design the project’.  So that stability is core to it, and I think that’s quite legitimate.  We might actually not be able to create science by making it completely volatile. So that leaves us with an open question. 

The extractive model is a way to capture what a lot of the critics of contemporary participation are noticing: when we say something like Facebook or Twitter is participatory we don’t really mean it. What we mean is that it produces a particular segment of participation, which is an affective experience of being part of something larger than yourself; but what those entities do is extract some kind of resource that’s valuable to them by offering another kind of resource that’s valuable to the people who participate. This creates an arbitrage opportunity, in which data produced by your actions, for instance, is saleable to an advertiser.   

Hilde: You closed your talk by offering some suggestions for making participation more volatile.  Can you say a little bit about that?

Chris: I thought at this conference it might be useful because so many people here have projects that are participatory, and have tried to make it work in some way or another. If our model of participation (with these three modes) is correct, my suspicion is that a lot of the folks at this conference would see themselves as tending towards the volatile – not towards the extractive, obviously – and maybe resisting stability in some cases or embracing it in others. 

So I imagine, for instance, some of the museum participation people might say, ‘Oh well, maybe stability is our goal.’  But a lot of other people – artists, for instance, or folks doing media activism or social movement stuff, or public administration participation – might want to say, ‘Okay, let’s see how we can make things more volatile.’  So I took a couple of examples to work with that I thought might be provocative.

One was just to point out that the movement from volatile to stable to extractive always involves a restriction on the control or ownership or circulation of resources. It’s very clear, not surprising, that that’s what is happening. But it’s actually surprising how many participatory projects don’t focus on the resources at all. They may not know what the resource is that they’re producing and they may not know or have thought about the kinds of constraints that pertain as a result. This is especially true if we’re talking about intellectual property. If we produce any kind of data software, cultural materials, media materials, that’s governed by the legal constraints of intellectual property and there are good and bad ways to govern that if you want it to be available to the participants. 

So we use obvious examples like Wikipedia or Global Voices. These are places that will use a free software license on the material that’s contributed and that means it’s collectively available to anybody who contributes, and the impact of that is if you’re a participant and you contribute something not only do you know that it’s going to be open and out there, you also know that it’s permanently that way, that you don’t have to worry about someone taking it and boxing it up and removing it from the public sphere. That actually has a strong effect on peoples’ willingness to contribute. It’s not incompatible with being paid to do so, it’s just a different model for how you might do that.

Another provocation was to think about how we use metrics in participation. What kind of metrics does the participatory project use and how does it display them?  Often this is a real site of anxiety because you’re talking about the extraction of data from individuals. Especially today in the age of big data, we can collect all kinds of data that can be used for good or for evil. 

The good part is if you can use data and metrics to produce a sense of being part of a collective and if you experience the collective as participatory and as solving a problem. If you can then have the effectiveness of that participation displayed to you by those metrics, it’s a very powerful motivator and sign of progress. 

If, on the other hand, you extract all of this data and it’s only used by an organisation to assess how well participation is being used and if it’s not shared with the participants, then all you are doing is monitoring people, you are basically spying on people. 

So pushing towards the use of those metrics in a public sense – in an accessible, available, transparent, open sense – is more valuable to the participants than keeping it closed.  I think a lot of organisations think about data collection or metrics as something that they have to do in order to justify themselves to a government agency, to a funder etc. whereas there is another use for that kind of data.  And I think that’s actually something that people in a lot of participatory projects don’t really think about, designing the metrics for participation.

Nick: In your talk today you started out with the problem of theorising participation and you arrived at the idea that there isn’t yet a central or founding theory of participation. Maybe the term participation is recalcitrant to theorisation for very good reasons? Perhaps it’s like the idea of “the public”, which keeps iterating, moving around and being performed in different ways, a quality that constitutes part of its potency and its resilience. Maybe there is a tension here: researchers interested in conceptualising participation could be accused of trying to create a theory to fix the process and make participation settle down. What are your thoughts on this?

Chris: I have schizophrenic thoughts about that, actually, because on the one hand I’m doing exactly what you suggested, which is trying to give participation a theory.  But on the other hand I do have an approach to such concepts, which comes out of philosophy, and anthropology and it’s more clearly associated these days with Charles Taylor - this idea that there’s a kind of social and conceptual background that helps people to do their work.

Out of that background people imagine how to do things like engage in democracy: we understand what it means to protest, we understand what it means to participate.  It’s not a precise theory – Taylor calls it a ‘social imaginary’, because he wants to convey the sense that we imagine ourselves doing it, we have an understanding of how it works, and it’s only when we do it and it doesn’t work that we are confronted with the possibility that maybe we don’t understand how it works.

And so that background is what I think is operative in my research into participation. It may very well be a vague and recalcitrant concept, but it’s there in the background and people take it up all the time and they think they know what they can do with it, and think they know what it should achieve.  The interesting things happen when that fails, what do people do when it fails? 

One sign that this sort of process is under way is that people are very concerned, today, about the abuse of the term ‘participation’. One of the speakers at today’s conference was talking about the way in which participation is taken up to mean essentially neoliberalism: you should be responsible for yourself and you should get more involved in your community, and let’s retreat from any kind of state support for x, y or z and instead hand over the burden to individuals.

We all recognise that particular kind of political rhetoric and yet here we have the language of participation legitimating it. I think you are seeing a lot of people react badly to that because they know that’s not what participation means.  It can go in two directions.  One is people standing up and saying ‘that’s not participation’, but the other is that it could, in some ways, ruin the term; people will hear ‘participation’ and say, ‘No, I don’t want that because I know what that means.’  And so you have both possibilities circulating through the world today, and that’s a cause for concern.

Further details about the project discussed here can be found at:

This contribution has been commissioned for an editorial partnership between openDemocracy and Participation Now, a project that aims to support exploration, innovation and debate about contemporary forms of participatory public engagement. Participation Now is an Open University project supported by OpenLearn, the Creating Publics project in the Centre for Citizenship, Identities and Governance, and the RCUK-funded Public Engagement with Research Catalyst project. Explore the initiatives here.


About the authors

Christopher M. Kelty is an associate professor at the University of California, Los Angeles. He has a joint appointment in the Center for Society and Genetics and in the department of Information Studies. His research focuses on the cultural significance of information technology, especially in science and engineering. He is the author of Two Bits: The Cultural Significance of Free Software (Duke University Press, 2008), as well as numerous articles on open source and free software, including its impact on education, nanotechnology, the life sciences, and issues of peer review and the research process in the sciences and in the humanities.

Hilde C. Stephansen is a Research Associate in the Centre for Citizenship, Identities and Governance and PoLIS at the Open University. Her research focuses on how communication practices can contribute to the formation of publics and to processes of knowledge production. Her role at the Open University is connected to the Creating Publics project and the Public Engagement with Research Catalyst project.

Nick Mahony is an independent researcher and lead organiser of DemFest 2016 for the Raymond Williams Foundation. Until last year Nick was a Research Fellow at The Open University, where he investigated the mediation of contemporary publics and emerging forms of engagement and participation.

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