[iDC] Participation in the Networked Public Sphere

Trebor Scholz trebor at thing.net
Sat Jul 15 10:36:33 EDT 2006

This fragment about participation in the Networked Public Sphere
responds in part to our discussion of the past two weeks. Perhaps this
could open up a continuation of this thread.


Mark Warschauer in his book ³Technologies and Social Inclusion² points
to preconditions for participation such as access to technology,
Internet access, ability to read, write, and author in a digital
environment (i.e. knowing how to use a wiki), remembering the URL of a
website, bandwidth, cost of equipment, the ease of use of the
technological infrastructure, time management, and vast issues of age,
race, and gender. 

>Is participation always desirable?

Participation refers to ³user² comments and reviews or, in sites like
Wikipedia, user-created and editable entries. But, Is participation in
sociable web media inherently valuable? 

 ³We even expect that someone leads us to a corner, hands us a
paintbrush and says: ŒHere, create, just do it!¹ and then we call this
civil society and participation.² (1)
-Christoph  Spehr

As this critique of the spectacle of participation in civil society
suggests, there is no inherent value in participation in sociable web

Not contributing on a mailing list does not constitute ³lurking.² It may
simply stand for ³listening,² which is a form of participation that does
not equal ³free riding² on community value. For example, subscribers to
lists may use the material and discuss it face-to-face with others.
However, in terms of contributions to a mailing list (to community
value, collaborative research) of a geographically distributed group it
is hard to see how listening (not posting) contributes to the group.

In asynchronous participatory environments such as the online
encyclopedia Wikipedia, high participation is certainly desirable as it
amplifies its additive quality, often referred to as collective


>>Determining Factors for Participation in the Networked Public Sphere

>The politics of the software architecture

The rules of participation are partially embedded in the technology
itself. The rules are hardwired in the 1) code of the software, 2) in
the settings configured by the host, 3) basic rules of most systems
(i.e. to have only registered members participate.) (2)

"Technology needs to support social and cultural practices rather than
determining culture. Technology is architecture and, thus, the design of
it is critical because the decisions made will have dramatic effects.
Digital architecture is unburdened by atoms but it is not unburdened by
human tendencies of control. ... Let the technology Š follow the desires
and needs of people."
-Dana Boyd (3)

>Low threshold engagement

The degree of engagement that particular sociable media require matter a
great deal.

³Digg is the archetype for low threshold participation.  Simply Favorite
something you find of interest, a one click action.  You don't even have
to log in to contribute value, you have Permission to Participate.
Del.icio.us taps both personal and social incentives for participation
through the low threshold activity of tagging.  Remembering the URL is
the hardest part, and you have to establish an identity in the system.
Commenting requires such identity for sake of spam these days and is an
under-developed area.  Subscribing requires a commitment of sustained
attention, which greatly surpasses reading alone.  Sharing is the
principal activity in these communities, but much of it occurs out of
band (email still lives).³ (4)
 -Ross Mayfield


In ³Collaboration Online: The Example of Distributed Computing² Anne
Holohan and Anurag Garg (5) write that

³...Abundant research since the 1960s shows that providing people with
specific, high-challenge goals stimulates higher task performance than
easy or "do your best" goals (Locke & Latham, 2002). The design
recommendation from the goal-setting literature for online communities
is that these communities should set specific and challenging
contribution goals for their members, both individuals and teams, and on
the project websites provide statistical information on achievement of
those goals by individuals and teams (Soares, Silva, & Silva,1998).²

>Social support

Participation in online environments increases a contributor¹s

³45 million participants in online communities say the Internet has
³helped them connect with groups who share their interests.² (6)

>Emotional support

People contribute to self-help groups online in order to find emotional
support. A large part of online sociality is taken up by this
phenomenon. Participation in these fori comes with process-based trust
that needs to develop. 


When joining an asynchronous forum such as a mailing list, newcomers
join a group of strangers and trust needs to develop. The issue of trust
also relates to that of the reputation economy. Participants may be
trusted because of previously archived documents that express the
reputation of the participant.  


Social networking sites such as MySpace are not short of sexual
predators and others who are genuinely driven to participate by their
search for a partner. (8)

>Relaxation/entertainment (³fun²)

Edward Banfield's text "Rioting Mainly for Fun and Profit" reflects on
the American race riots of 1965-70 and describes a certain excitement of
young males to confront police as an undeniable (however partial)
motivation for protest. Can such arguments be successfully applied to
participatory behavior in sociable web media? Perhaps the general
blogging hype of 2004 motivated some people to give blogging a try,
simply driven by the desire to share the experience of this huge
phenomenon and in order to contribute their voice to the times they live

>The joy of creating content establishes self-confidence

>Individualist and solidaristic giving 

Yochai Benkler refers to individualist and solidaristic giving as a
practice that takes place in teams that allow for the assertion of one¹s

>Sense of belonging to a group

Participants ask themselves if the context to which they are
contributing reflects them in some way.

    ³We can assume that people are motivated in order to achieve a sense
of belonging to a group; to build self-esteem through contributions and
to garner recognition for contributing; and to develop new skills and
opportunities for ego building and self-actualization.²
-Dan Gilmore , WeMedia, Chapter 4, p.1.

>To what extent does gender influence participatory behavior?

Do men contribute more on mailing lists than women? In new media art
circles this is easily confirmed when looking at lists like <nettime> to
which only few women contribute very infrequently. Newcomers enter an
already established list culture and are .
>Access to information

The enhancement of knowledge is a key motivation for much online
sociality. From collaborative research through the collection of web
references and citations on scholarly mailing lists to technological
forums, the enhancement of knowledge is a crucial reason for
participation in sociable web media.

>Social capital 

People contribute to create or increase their social capital by taking
part in sociable web media. It is an ego-driven motivation. (Also see:
Dan Gilmore¹s chapter ³The Rules of Participation² in ³WeMedia² (9).
Social capital is often understood to multiply on sites with high
traffic such as the meta-blog BoingBoing. Submitted and then published
entries may lead as many as 10.000 viewers a day to a featured website.
Such exposure to the online multitudes is often understood as success.
The promise of high traffic to one¹s site functions as motivation for

>Agonistic giving

Yochai Benkler sums up one motivation for participation with the
sentence "I give therefore I'm great." This attitude leads to an
openness to contribute to the commons. It is the opposite of a position
that is deeply weary of sharing information as it may lead to a loss of
power. An example of this behavior can be substantiated by many syllabi
in the field of new media that are password protected.    

>Hierarchies of gift exchange

The hierarchies of the gift exchange are an important dynamic in the
participatory process. Triumphant narratives of digital utopians often
accompany the openness and cornucopia of the commons. Today¹s utopian
belief in the liberatory power of access and the renewed rejection of
competitive and hierarchical structures had predecessors in concepts of
Œguerilla television¹ and Œpublic access¹ before and during the civil
rights movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s in the United States
(Mueller, Kuerbis & Pagé 2004).

For the digital utopian, Richard Coyne  argues, the Internet is the
technological equivalent of the gift of salvation or redemption, and the
gift is not yet with us but it is to come. In various ways Marcel Mauss,
Georges Bataille, and Jean Baudrillard have all argued that societies
are grouped around the notion of excess (and acts of generous gift
giving) rather than resource scarcity (Coyne 2005: 99-150). But the
ideology behind social software technologies is not purely based on the
idea of gift-giving. In the gift economy of the Internet, gift-giving
does not relate to loss or the reduction of excess. Sharing a digital
file only creates a copy while the giver retains the Œoriginal¹. What
was ours is still ours after we gifted it. Richard  Barbrook (1999)
refers to online gift-giving as cybercommunism. It is not without
amusement that he stresses that such acts are deeply at odds with the
military objectives for the invention of the Internet.

Brewster Kahle, the founder of Archive.org, defines his goal as
provision of  Œuniversal access to all of human knowledge.¹
Massachusetts Institute for Technology Open Courseware (MIT OCW) claims:
ŒWe will inspire other institutions to openly share their course
materials, creating a worldwide web of knowledge that will benefit
humanity.¹ MIT reinforces its leadership position and status based on
its openness to publish all its syllabi online. The act of gift giving
does not cost MIT anything except the operational costs of the site.
Openness functions as Public Relations. MIT¹s gift leads to a defeat for
other educational communities that cannot reciprocate this generosity. A
small college would not benefit from such openness. Reflecting on this
Coyne puts it this way: ŒIf I can withstand all this giving, then I am
indeed stronger than you¹ (2005: 99-150). Georges Bataille associates
the gift with capitalist domination. He associates Marcel Mauss¹
reference to the potlatch with emerging class struggle and oppression.
Jean Baudrillard talks about exchange of signs rather than goods (i.e.
knowledge) in the gift economy (Coyne 2005: 202 126).

The perceived and widely praised generosity of initiatives such as MIT
OCW has to be re-examined and differentiated in light of these
considerations.  The AOLs, Hotmails or Yahoos cannot match the quantity
of contributions to free and uncommercialized content environments by
multitudes of users/producers. People just love all that free content.
It is very hard to police or stop these acts of sharing. There is almost
no limit to what is shared. Crucially, the material that is made
available is not only Œopen access¹ and Œfree¹ but also licensed under a
Creative Commons or GNU Public License. By contrast to materials stowed
away in online gated communities, this allows the material to be
creatively re-purposed, edited, and shared.

>Reciprocity (p2p networks)

In the context of sites like CiteUlike, del.icio.us, and others,
contributors are driven by a hybrid set of motivations. People are not
exclusively in it for themselves but they are also not completely driven
by the idea of the greater good.

>Individual vs. network value

The social bookmarking site del.icio.us is a suitable example for the
debate over individual versus network value. On del.icio.us,
contributors save bookmarks not solely because they support an imagined
"del.icio.us collective;" they don't primarily want to support the
Yahoo-owned project: they contribute out of self-interest. Adam Smith
talked about individual action that benefits the collective as the
"invisible hand;" every individual contribution to the general
productiveness of society intends to foster individual gain and is "led
by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his
intention. By pursuing his own interest he frequently promotes that of
society more effectually than when he really intends to promote it."

While Smith is controversial, his notion of the invisible hand is useful
here. A closer look at the invisible hand reveals that it does not
exclude a simultaneous conscious support of a collective. The number of
frequent contributors to Wikipedia, for example, is relatively small and
their motivations for participation are not completely non-agonistic
(pure sharing; higher goals; help humanity).

>Does the gender, and race of people who are facilitating determine the
gender of those contributing?

(Does a mailing list facilitated by a woman get more input from women?)
This is a research question that needs further investigation. The
author¹s intuition is that this probably correct.


Time is a key factor and precondition for contribution. Participation in
sociable web media is yet another thing to do for already busy people.
Time is time to consider the issues, and time to figure out the software
(how to contribute), and time to author a contribution. In addition, a
large scale of participation on a mailing list creates an influx of
messages with which not all subscribers may be willing to deal. This
will keep them from participating in a discussion. Scale is an
additional key concern.


In synchronous sociable media such as chat rooms or mailing lists the
number of contributors is crucial for the success of the project. Too
many posts, for example, and ³private² discussion between two list
members will turn many away from contributing. 

>Instrumental aid 

(finding a job, making money)/people want to establish themselves as an
authority on a topic)

Mailing lists function as platforms on which people can establish
themselves as experts on a topic. People get jobs and book contracts
based on this visibility of their work.

    At a university in Manhattan a scholar recently applied for a job
that had over one thousand applicants. His qualifications elevated him
to the short list of ten people who got interviewed in person. All ten
interviewees were very knowledgeable and each one of them would have
probably filled the position well. He got the job because people on the
committee were more familiar and impressed with his work because of his
posts on a large mailing list.  

>Mobile contributing

It's still hard to read or write lengthy entries on mobile devices
because 1) screens are too small on most mobile devices, 2) low
bandwidth makes it still hard to contribute on mobile devices

>Format of contributions 

In email and on web pages information that is concise and broken up into
short paragraphs motivates people more to get engaged in a text. In
addition, technological formats like chat rooms and Instant Messaging
motivate different writing styles because of the frequency and
instantaneity of such synchronous sociable media.

>Tone, style, passion, humor, personality

Quite contrary to writing for print, a humble personality, passion, and
an engaging, conversational, and revealing writing style with a sense of
humor, and intimate tone is central when it comes to writing for the


The urgency of the topic matters a great deal for participatory
After the events of September 11, 2001 more than 35% of Americans who
were part of online communities posted to them, for example. 


Participation and Œopen access¹ in the networked public sphere is
hindered by the fact that most open knowledge repositories exist
predominantly in English. For non-native speakers it is hard to retain
subtleties such as ironic connotations of certain expressions. Flaws in
translated texts may also make the author appear less insightful. While
tools like GoogleTranslate or BableFish are constantly improving, they
still do not produce accurate translations.

>Rhythm, length

Very long texts posted on a mailing list may discourage some people from
contributing. Judith Donath in her definition of sociable media writes:

³The speed at which a medium can convey a message affects the type of
information that is exchanged and the communication style.  As
communication frequency increases, messages become more informal and
intimate.  This is true even within the same medium ­ rapidly exchanged
papers notes are more informal than a letter with weeks of travel to its
destination.   Written letters, which at their fastest are still slower
than computational media, are relatively formal, with conventional
greetings and closings and a body with at least nominal content. ³ (10)

>Permanence and privacy

    ³Permanence (persistent or ephemeral):  Media can be persistent or
ephemeral.  Any physical medium is persistent, as are all asynchronous
media, since they must be stored in some form. ... Persistent
conversations among multiple participants are a new phenomena which
became feasible on a large scale only with the advent of the computer.
In their various formulations (private mailing lists, public newsgroups,
bulletin boards, etc.) they enable a large number of people, often
initially strangers, to converse about almost any imaginable topic.   
    The permanence of a medium has important privacy implications.  Upon
delivery, an ephemeral message is gone, except in the participants¹
memory.  It cannot be subsequently conveyed to others except by creating
a new message telling about it.  A persistent message, however, can be
conveyed to others who were not privy to the original conversation.³ 
- Judith Donath


Do anonymous contributions take away credibility thus discouraging
people to contribute?
Anonymous weblogs area good example. not knowing to whom a potential
comment is addressed will discourage people from contributing. Also on
mailing lists it is awkward to respond to an online identity like
³flying_gringo07.² It is hard to establish trust in content that suffers
from such identity split. Peter Giger describes reasons for this
identity split:

    ³I have a plural identity on the web. Most often my identity on the
web is pgiger, but in more formal settings I am identified by my full
name, Peter Giger. I have a Swedish language blog called Sommarmoln, and
an English one called Participation Literacy and I participate in
several blogs and communities. All these blogs and communities reflect
parts of my identity: my Flickr page reflects my photo and art identity
and Last.fm reflects my music identity and so on. [...] My music
identity at Last.fm is not a way of hiding something about myself; it is
more like a focusing lens of one side of my self. By saying one side of
myself, I do not mean that in a countable sense. The one side of myself
is more like a cluster of nodes in the context I call I.² (11)

In contexts such as Wikipedia the ant-like anonymity of the many
thousands authors is, however, motivating for many contributors.

>Power law of participation

³In Wikipedia, 500 people, or 0.5% of users, account for 50% of the
edits.  This core community is actively dedicated to maintaining an open
periphery.  Part of what makes Flickr work isn't just excellence at low
threshold engagement, but the ability to form groups.  Participation in
communities plots along a power law with a solid core/periphery model --
provided social software supports both low threshold participation and
high engagement." (12)
-Ross Mayfield


In their study ³Virtual Community Attraction: Why People Hang Out
Online² Catherine M. Ridings and David Gefen point out that:

³The interactivity achieved with chat rooms, instant messaging, and
bulletin boards, and the various search facilities available on the
Internet provide a way for individuals to search for and to communicate
with others for the purpose of establishing and continuing friendships.
The structure of the Internet makes it easier to find others in similar
situations and meet with them than it is in real life (Igbaria, 1999;
Wellman & Gulia, 1999a), especially when the interest may be highly
unusual or unique. 

It has been suggested that some people whose jobs are lonely and
isolated seek others in virtual communities not only to exchange
opinions and request advice about problems, but also just generally to
engage in small-talk with people around the world (Filipczak, 1998;
Lowes, 1997; Wellman, 1997). In Baym¹s (2000) ethnographic study of a
Usenet newsgroup discussing soap operas, she found that people were
initially drawn to the wealth of information on the topic, but
friendliness also emerged strongly in the community.² (13)

>Combination of embodied with networked sociality 

When combining online collaboration with face-to-face meetings the
project can be speed up and sustained contribution is motivated by the
personal relationship.

>Openness of rules, and power dynamics

In 1970 feminist Joe Freeman wrote ³Tyranny of Structurelessness² argued
that if the structural rules of a group are not acknowledged, that the
power is taken over by friendship groups:

³These friendship groups function as networks of communication outside
any regular channels for such communication that may have been set up by
a group. If no channels are set up, they function as the only networks
of communication. Because people are friends, usually sharing the same
values and orientations, because they talk to each other socially and
consult with each other when common decisions have to be made, the
people involved in these networks have more power in the group than
those who don¹t.² (14)

(thanks to Charlie Gere)

>Sharing the experiences of one's time and place

Russel Hardin talks about participation in demonstrations, driven by the
desire to be part of history; it is propelled by the desire "to share
the experiences of [one's] time and place." Harding focuses on the civil
rights movement, a time when people took to the streets to participate
in a social movement that they believed in. They participated, in
addition to moral reasons, because the civil rights movement was a
hugely formative series of events that they wanted to be a part of.
Demonstrating can be a pleasurable experience. While these examples
refer to embodied participation, disembodied contribution may also be
driven by the joy of conflict. Much of an online discussion, for
example, is driven not by consent but by conflict. 

In his book "Collective Action" Russell Hardin writes:

"That we are social creatures is not only a philosophical thesis; it is
also a commonsense realization. We become more than we are by reading
Shakespeare and the Greeks, by listening to Bach, Beethoven, and
Bartok-- and by participating in certain events and movements, for
example, by going to war or refusing to go to war. Whether it is called
moral or self-interested, the urge to participate is a fundamental
motivation."  (15)


In their study ³Predicting Continued Participation in Newsgroups³
Elisabeth Joyce and Robert E. Kraut analyzed that first-time posters to
lists were more likely to post again if they received a response to
their contribution. Neither length nor tone (friendly or aggressive)

>Philosophy of the website to which one contributes is aligned with
one¹s own

If a media author just produced a short video that she wants to upload
to an online space, than it will matter for some people if the site to
which she contributes supports the ideas of the Creative Commons and if
it¹ll make commercial use of the content by embedding it in

>Signal-to-noise ratio

A high signal-low noise ratio will under most circumstances entice
people to contribute to an online environment. On the other hand, a
small number of highly edited and reflective posts can also be
discouraging as it intimidates people.

-Trebor Scholz

(1) In ³The Art of Free Cooperation,² forthcoming with Autonomedia, NYC,
(2) http://www.hypergene.net/wemedia/weblog.php?id=P40
(3) http://www.zephoria.org/thoughts/
(4) http://ross.typepad.com/blog/2006/04/power_law_of_pa.html 
(5) http://jcmc.indiana.edu/vol10/issue4/holohan.html
(6) http://www.pewinternet.org/report_display.asp?r=47
(7) http://www.tnr.com/user/nregi.mhtml?i=20060306&s=hajdu030606
(8) http://www.hypergene.net/wemedia/weblog.php?id=P40
(9) Judith Donath In The Encyclopedia of Human-Computer Interaction,
2004. William Sims Bainbridge (ed), Berkshire Publishing Group
(10) Ibid.
(11) http://fyad.org/fac9
(12) http://ross.typepad.com/blog/2006/04/power_law_of_pa.html
(13) http://jcmc.indiana.edu/vol10/issue1/ridings_gefen.html#s2
(14) http://struggle.ws/pdfs/tyranny.pdf
(15) http://fyad.org/fac8

More information about the iDC mailing list