[ no 2 in a series of posts reflecting on here comes everybody - for no 1 see here comes everybody 1: sharing, co-operation and collective action ]
i participate therefore i am
this isn't actually a quote from clay shirky's book here comes everybody. it comes from john taylor's discerning of the worldview in african primal religion in his amazing book the primal vision. but it has stuck with me and i finally get to bring it out...
participation is one of the big themes of the new cultural environment that we are in and i find it an exciting and hopeful one. in the world that is passing identity has been constructed around taste and consumption, what we are into. we often connect with people of similar taste and make snap judgements on the basis of the stuff people are into - i consume therefore i am. we may hate it but it happens all the time. i'm not suggesting this is entirely going away but in the world of new media passive consumption is not what it is about. if it was youtube wouldn't exist or it would just have a few slick hollywood promos and independent short films. all youtube did was to create a space for self publishing and creative production, sharing and interaction. most of the movies on there are pretty poor quality but it turns out people love to be able to produce and share and interact with friends. they just didn't have the tools so cheaply and freely available (all you need now to publish a movie is a phone). the interaction is often only with a small group of friends (see my next post on this - small worlds) but that interaction with a small group is in itself a participative environment. one of the examples i can think of how we used youtube was to publish a movie of joel's friends wishing him happy birthday for his eighteenth. the point of that movie was that it was fun and a surprise but it is about particpating in creating, sharing and interacting in a small community of friends and family. it's been viewed 150 times or something...
i've heard and quoted the adage about web 2.0 that 'content is king' - i.e. because there is so much stuff being put out there actually good stuff rises to the surface so if you have good content that is key. but shirky quotes cory doctorow who says
conversation is king, content is just something to talk about
both are true but this one shifts the emphasis to much more relational as opposed to the new media being an environment to simply publish good content (though i still think good content does rise to the surface).
this is a bit geeky but hang in there as i think it's very insightful. with the availability of the tools for contribution you might expect a huge increase in equality of particpation. but shirky says you'd be wrong. research into participation shows that almost across every type of participation there is a huge imbalance. if you were to plot this as a graph it would come out as a power law distribution. he gives an example of photography shared on flickr of an event - the coney island mermaid parade. rather than an even number of photos from contributors there are one or two very high contributors, a few a bit lower down but by far and away the largest contribution is one photograph. in fact this is the mode (the most frequent way of contributing). this graph is in the book.
this probably isn't a huge surprise. but there are a few things about it that are interesting. one is that we assume that equality would be much more ideal but actually the imbalance drives things well. if there were only a few high participators it would be much weaker. those contributions of one photo, or one change to a word on wikipedia make so much difference when added together. the second is that we shouldn't underestimate the feeling or importance of participation by the lower participants. they are part of the network/community of relationships without having to do loads.
i was looking at asbojesus the other day which is hugely popular and has a community that participate in and around it - there are 30 or more comments on most posts. but if you look at the comments over a period of time there are a few very high contributors - carole, dennis, rob, jon, becky for example. i think i have contributed once but i feel connected and there are plenty of others like me who enjoy and participate at a low level. but it clearly has this power law distribution going on.
in grace one of our values/ethos words is participation. we really want participation to be part of the air we breathe. but i recognise the same thing in practice. we don't have equality of participation and never will. i recognise i am one of the high end contributors but then there is a whole range and plenty who join a group to plan worship occasionally and some who just participate by showing up a few times a year. our challenge is always to encourage involvement - it helps belonging apart from anything else. but this power law distribution has helped me see that actually a spread of participation is fine, it works. and don't underestimate the importance of it for those who only participate at a low level.
so what? the challenge of the new environment isn't just about the new social media tools and making the most of them (though that is of course a good thing to explore). but the wider change is actually about how the new environment is remaking us or our instincts. and i think there is a wider cultural shift towards sharing and co-operation and interaction - participation. this is great news for churches and christian communities - it sounds like a description of church as an organic relational body. somehow many churches have got stuck in a provider/client relationship between leader/congregation, expert/dumb disciples, priest/laity preacher/passive listener. it's a very dependent world. this new environment affords the possibility of recovering something that has been lost. it is also a resurgent theological theme at the moment - participation in god - in whom i participate therefore i am!