[iDC] Leave Any Noise at the Signal: Participation Art Online

Amber Frid-Jimenez amber at media.mit.edu
Sat Sep 6 17:50:27 UTC 2008

I met Trebor Scholz in the Spring when he came to the Visual Arts  
Program (VAP) at MIT to give a talk entitled "What the MySpace  
generation should know about working for free." I invited Trebor to  
give the talk as a part of Zones of Emergency (http://zonesofemergency.net 
), a lecture series that I co-curated with Ute Meta Bauer, Director of  
the VAP, where I am an instructor.

Prior to teaching in the Visual Arts Program I was a student of John  
Maeda in the Physical Language Workshop at the MIT Media Laboratory.  
Trebor suggested that I post my Masters thesis, entitled "Leave Any  
Noise at the Signal: Participation Art Online." The thesis documents  
experimental projects in the area of participatory media and social  
engagement. An abstract and complete text (plain text) follow below. A  
PDF with illustrations and diagrams of the projects can be downloaded  
at http://amberfj.com/participation.

I hope the ideas below contribute to the conversation at the iDC.

Best Regards,

Amber Frid-Jimenez
MIT Visual Arts Program
Adjunct Professor
Rhode Island School of Design
(617) 486-9840

Leave Any Noise at the Signal
Participation Art Online
by Amber Frid-Jimenez

In collaboration with Joe Dahmen

Advisor: John Maeda
Readers: Ute Meta Bauer, Walter Bender
Submitted to the Program in Media Arts and Sciences, School of  
Architecture and Planning, in partial fulfillment of the requirements  
for the degree of Master of Science in Media Arts and Sciences at the  
Massachusetts Institute of Technology. June 2007.


Online participatory media holds the promise of activating otherwise  
passive audiences by providing spaces that encourage creative  
collaboration among diverse participants. The thesis traces the  
history of participation in artistic movements and early networked  
communication to contextualize a series of projects at the  
intersection of performance and participation online. Projects include  
WikiPhone, in which multiple participants collaborate on soundtracks  
in real-time, modifying existing online videos; OpenBrand, a system  
that allows participants to rewrite advertisements; Emma On  
Relationships, a video blog inviting participants to call in for love  
advice; and several other projects, exploring aspects of creativity  
and collaboration. Commonalities within these systems are examined in  
order to define design principles governing the creation of  
participatory media, and to explore the potential of these systems to  
effect social and political change.


    * Abstract
    * Chapter One: Introduction
          o Motivation
          o Contributions
          o Structure
    * Chapter Two: Background
          o Definitions
                + Participation
                + Performance
                + Critical Collaboration
          o History of Participation in Computation and Art
                + Early Networked Communication
                + Participation in Art: 1960 to 1975
                + Performance Art
                + Appropriation
          o Contemporary Participatory Culture
    * Chapter Three: Experiments
          o Installations
                + Misty Dawn
                + Rain
          o Online Participatory Art
                + OpenBrand
                + OPENSTUDIO
                + Mini and the Story of Tiny
          o Online Performance
                + PLWire Telephone Tag
                + Emma On Relationships
                + Burak Hotline
                + WikiPhone
    * Chapter Four: Analysis
          o Playful Systems
          o Design Axes of Online Participation
                + Introversed v. Extroverted
                + Goal Oriented v. Aimless
                + Event-based v. Sustained
    * Conclusion
    * Bibliography
    * Acknowledgements

Chapter One: Introduction

In the past decade, online social communities and peer-to-peer  
distribution models have changed the landscape of mass media. As  
Russell, Ito, Richmond, and Tuters explain, in their book Networked  
Public Culture:

Amateur and remixed music distributed over the Internet, fans  
producing derivative works of fiction and art, marketers appropriating  
the idioms of viral amateur culture, and bloggers jawing about the  
latest news are all examples of, in the words of Hagel and Brown, ‘the  
edge becoming the core,’ where amateur content is threatening the core  
of commercial culture. (1)

The emergence of new methods for the digital exchange of media,  
coupled with the growth in popularity of online social platforms,  
represent a redistribution of power across society and geography. The  
systems and tools in Participation Art Online question how this new  
redistribution might affect creative collaboration online, and what  
new forms of participation the changing landscape might make possible.

The projects described are variations on the theme of online  
participatory media, defined as sites where participants contribute  
creative content. The projects can be divided into two groups: stand- 
alone networked applications that provide spaces for creative  
collaboration, and a number of smaller experiments that test specific  
aspects of the former. Networked applications include WikiPhone, in  
which multiple participants collaborate on real-time overdubbing of  
soundtracks from existing online videos, OpenBrand, a system that  
allows participants to rewrite advertisements, and Emma On  
Relationships, a video blog, which participants call for love advice.  
In general, the smaller experiments focus on encouraging  
participation, one of the main conditions governing participatory  

Collectively, the projects investigate the intersection of  
participatory culture and performance. This new online terRain, which  
I call performative participation, holds dual promises:

   1. Activation To motivate participants to take an active role in  
the production of creative content
   2. Collective elaboration of meaning To incite critical dialogue  
about existing social and political arrangements (Bishop 12).

The broad goal of the projects is to open spaces of creativity through  
which members can critique and rewrite culture as a collaborative  
affair. Rethinking the present relationship of content creator to  
cultural consumer transforms otherwise passive consumers into active  
participants in the creation of culture, both individually and  

Online participatory systems are unlike other forms of interaction on  
the web and are governed by three major axes.

   1. Introverted v. Extroverted Introverted systems that become  
microcosms of the outside world, in contrast to extroverted systems,  
which draw material from elsewhere on the web.
   2. Goal-oriented v. Aimless Systems that aim to achieve a specific  
goal, in contrast to aimless systems whose primary objective is to  
encourage the maximum amount of expression from the greatest number of  
   3. Event-based v. Sustained Event-based systems that take place in  
synchronous online encounters, in contrast to sustained systems that  
unfold over longer periods of asynchronous interactions.

These axes represent extreme cases; in practice individual projects  
fall somewhere between them.

Long before the technological advances that made participatory sites  
possible online, artists sought to harness participation for social  
and political ends. The thesis turns to the participatory art movement  
in the 1950s and 1960s to ask how their idealistic strategies might be  
updated to effect social and political change through online  
participatory culture.


The benefits of the shift toward participatory culture are partly due  
to the democratic nature of participation, which depends on polyglot  
contributions from many sources. The passive models of media  
consumption of the past protected the authorship of media companies  
who wanted people, “to look at but not touch, buy but not use, media  
content” (Jenkins 138). As Lawrence Lessig argues, the new forms of  
media creation challenge the sanctity of content, bringing with them  
legal questions about the right to use copyrighted material (Lessig  
18). The rise of peer-to-peer distribution and the growing popularity  
of online social platforms for sharing information has mobilized those  
people who would normally be passive consumers (Russell et al. 1).  
Moreover, the exchange of ideas and creativity between many  
participants sharing content amounts to valuable creative production.

Performance is one significant component of the rise of participatory  
media. Participants performing in front of their peers on sites such  
as YouTube often produce videos of little quality from the point of  
view of a film critic, but it is undeniable that the grassroots,  
creative impulse represents a powerful new force in media production.  
In the words of online performance artist and comedian Ze Frank:

A lot of people are focusing on the content that’s being produced  
right now. And I think it’s the wrong thing to look at. It’s actually  
the pursuit and the perception change [that we should] focus on and  
the thing to celebrate. (St. John 1)

As Frank points out, despite the wildly varying quality of the content  
on participatory sites, these sites manifest a perceptual shift from  
the idea of creative content as material to be consumed (e.g. in the  
form of television shows or Hollywood movies) to an opportunity to  
engage in amateur creation in front of an online audience.

These new forms of collaborative participation are capable of bringing  
about social and political change. In political terms, the perceptual  
shift toward viewing cultural content as something to be actively  
created rather than passively consumed suggests an engaged public  
actively participating in the determination of its collective future.

Politicians, more than most other members of the population,  
understand the importance of direct, personal communication in  
establishing a connection to constituents; all political speeches are,  
in essence, public performances. Performance media on the web that  
take advantage of peer-to-peer distribution and remix have great  
potential as a political tool. Wallace, paraphrasing Jenkins, writes:

    Politicians should not ignore the fun, frivolous side of the net  
because the web enthusiasms of the young: games, online video,  
machinima and mash-ups are the new online-tools that sooner or later  
will be used for political purposes ... [Henry Jenkins says] ‘No  
sooner is a tool put out than it’s taken up by citizens and turned to  
political uses’” (Wallace 1).

YouChoose ‘08, in which politicians solicit video responses from  
viewers on YouTube to influence voters, suggests that politicians are  
well aware of the power of performance on these new participatory  
sites. The projects described in the thesis aim to create critical  
dialogue among participants around current issues, not for the purpose  
of winning votes, but to arrive collectively at shared values.

Social theorist Jürgen Habermas describes the potential of  
conversation through which a thoughtful public is enlightened:

The modern public sphere comprises several arenas in which, through  
printed materials dealing with matters of culture, information, and  
entertainment, a conflict of opinions is fought out more or less  
discursively. (Habermas 430)

For Habermas, members reform their community through the free exchange  
of beliefs and intentions without the restriction of dominance. By  
providing a space for conversation, recent online participatory  
communities hold the promise of forming groups who collaborate to  
create political and social change.

The recent upsurge of online participatory communities represent new  
territories within the modern public sphere. However, technical  
innovations alone are not sufficient to change social and political  
structures unless they are accompanied by commonly determined  
objectives. Identifying common goals presents a major challenge to  
participatory culture, due to the many discordant voices speaking at  
once. As we will see in the Analysis section, a flat organizational  
structure offering an equal voice to all participants accounts for the  
appeal of these sites. The difficulty of organizing content created by  
a multitude of otherwise disconnected contributors is comparable to  
the arduous challenge of building consensus in a direct democracy.

Many contemporary participatory sites sidestep the difficult question  
of consensus by eschewing any sort of objective all together, focusing  
instead on generating high levels of activity (‘hits’), seeking  
popularity for its own sake. While the projects in this thesis also  
attempt to generate traffic as a necessary precondition of  
participatory media, the larger objective is to ask how this traffic  
might be mobilized to accomplish social and political reform.


The contributions Participation Art Online fit into two categories –  
artistic and technical. The artistic contributions of this project are  
as follows:

    * provide infrastructures for networked creative production, in  
which artistic methods and performance techniques can be shared in  
real-time and asynchronous collaborative environments
    * inspire critical dialogue between independent content creators,  
consumers, and companies

The technical innovations aim to:

    * create collaborative online spaces for simultaneous performance
    * enable participants to hear and respond to other participants in  
    * develop a networked application that allows participants to  
modify streaming, video, audio and text from anywhere on the web

The projects described are intended to facilitate a shift that is  
already taking place online. By designing and deploying software and  
network architecture that instigates online participation, we will  
begin to realize the social potential of collaboration in online  
participatory media.

Thesis Structure

Participation Art Online is divided into five parts: the introduction,  
background, experiments, analysis, and conclusion. The introduction  
provides the overall motivation, the goals of the investigation, and  
outlines the major contributions of the projects presented. The  
background section defines key terms, outlines a brief history of  
participation as it occurs in early networked communication, as well  
as participation within the performance art movements of the 1950s and  
60s, and gives an appraisal of contemporary participatory culture. The  
experiments section provides detailed descriptions of nine projects  
divided into three categories: installations, online participation  
systems and online performance. The design and implementation of each  
system is discussed, along with key concepts discovered through the  
deployment of the systems online. In the Analysis section, the thesis  
locates common themes linking the diverse projects, as well as defines  
a set of design principles governing online participation. The  
conclusion reviews the motivation behind the investigation in brief,  
and touches on key issues raised by the projects, making a statement  
regarding the future of online participatory media.

Chapter Two: Background

During the summer of 2006, a New York Times article about the online  
persona Ze Frank described a scene typical of Frank’s Fabuloso  
Fridays, in which he invited viewers of his daily video log to script  
a weekly performance.

    Mr. Frank thought that farming out his script would provide some  
answers. Which explains why at 11 a.m. on Friday, June 9, he was  
sitting before a video camera with freshly dyed red hair, wearing a  
fake mustache, puffing a fake pipe and stroking a stuffed cat, sitting  
in an armchair next to a globe, a rubber duck, two pieces of white  
bread and a framed portrait of Clarence Thomas, the Supreme Court  
justice – an absurd array of props mandated by the script. ‘The meta  
joke here is, see how hard you can shake the marionette,’ Mr. Frank  
said between takes. ‘There’s a violence to it.’ (Wallace 2)

Like Frank’s work, which is based on the interactions between his  
online persona and the contributions of visitors to his website, the  
projects described in Participation Art Online are participatory in  
nature. In The Long Tail, Chris Anderson identifies the potential of  
the Internet to create niche markets for cultural products by tapping  
audiences that were previously unreachable (53). Similarly,  
participatory sites enable people that might not otherwise be aware of  
each other to coalesce around shared interests or problems. Moreover,  
such sites allow them to discuss these issues with others in a way  
that can feel intimate and private despite being a public forum.


The Background chapter will look at the intersection of three terms:  
participation, performance, and critical collaboration in art,  
computation, and online social media to provide a brief historical  
context of the projects.


This thesis defines participation as the activation of consumers in  
the production of mainstream culture. I define consumer broadly, as a  
consumer of cultural content. In the past hundred years, large  
companies and conglomerates have dominated the production of mass  
media. Historically, consumers have been given little power over the  
production of massively distributed content. For example, television  
is traditionally produced by large studios and watched by a complacent  
public with little influence over its content. In contrast, video  
sharing sites, such as YouTube and Revver, invite users to post their  
own videos. I refer to this shift, in which consumers change from  
complacent observers to take an active role in the determination of  
content, as the activation of the consumer. This activation extends  
beyond video production to include other forms of cultural production,  
such as music, software, and journalism. The term used by industry  
professionals to describe the material produced by activated consumers  
is user generated content (UGC). I take issue with this term for  
several reasons. ‘User’ implies a power dynamic between the user and  
whoever is supplying the product, e.g. the relationship of drug user  
to pusher. Furthermore, the term ‘generated’ reduces creativity to a  
mechanistic ends-based practice that belittles the value of the  
creative process as well as the content itself. Alternatively,  
Professor Henry Jenkins refers to forces creating these new forms of  
content as convergence culture. Specifically, convergence culture  
refers to the integration of online participatory media with new  
distribution models. Because this thesis focuses on participatory  
media rather than distribution models, I will use the term  
participatory culture to describe content created by an active public.


Performance is defined here as the real-time or recorded actions of an  
individual (the performer) intended to be shown to another group (the  
audience). Actions refer to utterances, speech acts and gestures that  
use the body as the primary means of expression, as opposed to other  
forms of creativity such as writing and drawing. Often the lines  
between performers and audience are blurred, especially in  
participatory art practices discussed in this thesis.

Critical Collaboration

Critical collaboration is a term that describes the exchange of ideas  
that comes about through the interaction of people through the  
creation of the work of art. Whereas interactive art consists of a  
relationship between a human and a machine in an isolated encounter,  
participatory art functions at the level of social experience,  
bringing individuals into dialogue with each other through the  
creation of the work itself, in its most successful manifestations.  
The work of art in participatory art is this relationship between  
participants. This kind of art opens a space for critical  
collaboration, in which the public mediates political and cultural  
disputes through the creation of the work of art.

Historical Context of Participation

Prior to its recent expression in online mass media, participation  
characterized movements in the disciplines of art and computation.  
During the late 1950s, the culture of participation led artists to  
consciously redefine the relationship of performer to audience. In  
computation, participatory system architecture was used to bring about  
the possibility of large-scale collaboration. In both cases, these  
shifts produced social groups with common interests that had a  
powerful effect on the larger community of which they were a part. It  
is instructive to trace the history of participation as it appears in  
early manifestations in electronic media and in artistic movements in  
order to understand its present day expressions online.

Two overlapping timelines describe the history of participation in art  
and media:

   1. Early expressions of networked communication
   2. Artistic movements focused on participation and performance
      After discussing the historical context of participation, we  
will turn to contemporary examples in games and online performance to  
provide the context for the experiments in the next chapter.

Early Networked Communication

One of the earliest examples of participatory systems online was the  
bulletin board system, or BBS, which consisted of a terminal program  
that connected people through a telephone line and provided practical  
functions like downloading software, reading news and exchanging  
messages. In addition to these practical uses, people used BBSs for  
explicitly creative projects, such as writing extended stories by  
posting one line at a time on a thread on a bulletin board devoted to  
that purpose. These stories often developed over several months, and  
call to mind the earlier projects of the Surrealists, who would gather  
in physical space to create collaborative drawings that they called  
“exquisite corpse” (Phillbrick 10). The members of BBS would also  
gather at irregular intervals at physical spaces. These gatherings  
were the early expression of an electronic network facilitating the  
alignment of social groups around shared interests.

Artists used BBS networks to distribute ANSI art during the 80s and  
90s, which was one of the most exciting uses of the network. Like the  
better-known ASCII art, which creates pictures from 128 letters,  
numbers and symbols, ANSI art was constructed using a set of 256  
characters, known more commonly as extended ASCII (American Standard  
Code for Information Interchange). Unlike ASCII art, which used  
characters themselves to create images, ANSI artists used MS-DOS to  
assign sixteen foreground and eight background colors to each  
character in extended ASCII. These colors dithered the foreground and  
the background, creating the illusion of depth. Looking at the  
pixelated images now with the profusion of high resolution graphics,  
it is hard to realize the impact that they had on their creators and  
their fans.

The ANSI artscene became widespread as result of distribution on the  
BBS networks. ANSI artists formed groups, whose names and aesthetics  
were similar to graffiti crews operating in physical space. The first  
of these was called Aces of ANSI Art or (AAA), which was soon followed  
by others with street-ready names such as ACiD (ANSI Creators in  
Demand) and iCE (Insane Creators Enterprises). The groups released  
their drawings as artpacks (or icepacks in the case of iCE) on a  
monthly basis, sometimes including over one hundred ANSI drawings  
along with news and member lists. The pieces were only digital, which  
created almost unbearable anticipation as the monthly installments of  
a hundred or more drawings painstakingly scrolled across the screen  
line by line. ANSI artpacks fostered a different kind of exchange than  
physical works of art; group members appropriated each other’s code,  
creating new collaborative drawings based on originals. Often this was  
done amicably, but sometimes images were appropriated by other groups,  
which caused long term and deep-seated feuds among different groups,  
reflecting similar disputes often found among rival graffiti crews of  
the same era.

An early example of ANSI art by Shaggy [of iCE, Insane Creators  
Enterprises]. ANSI art was distributed over BBS networks in artpacks  
of over a hundred hand-coded drawings. The members of the ANSI  
artscene dowloaded the artpacks in monthy installments. Each drawing  
could take several minutes to download scrolling down the screen line  
by line.

The formation of creative subcultures within BBS networks testifies to  
the potential of early networks to aid in the formation of new  
communities around common interests. As an anonymous AAA artist  
stated, “competition creates activity, activity creates a  
scene” (Scott 2006). This statement echoes Bishop’s claim that  
collective art projects create a social bond through “collective  
elaboration of meaning” (Bishop 12). Although their subject matter was  
not overtly political in nature, these content producers found ways  
through limited computational networks to promote their ideas and  
artistic beliefs. It is difficult to say if this little-known art  
movement had any effect on mainstream culture. In the long run, their  
aesthetic of low-resolution color graphics was overwhelmed by the  
trend toward high definition graphics supported by electronics and  
media industries. Nevertheless, their attempt to collect bodies of  
work and distribute them virally through an early electronic network  
foreshadows the recent popularity of online repositories and  
distribution methods of creative content.

A collaborative ANSI art piece by Lord Soth, Deeply Disturbed, and  
Shaggy of iCE. Often, ANSI artists borrowed each others code to create  
collaborative works. Like a scroll, this drawing was viewed in small  
sections, unfurling across the screen from top to bottom.

Usenet (USEr NETwork) is another early expression of an online  
participatory social network. The system, which was invented by Tom  
Truscott and Jim Ellis in 1979, is still in use today in slightly  
different forms, such as Google groups. By circumventing these  
traditional channels of distribution, Usenet can be thought of as an  
unrestricted forum for debate and informational exchange where many  
sides of an issue come into view (Lovink 14). Usenet is a global,  
distributed Internet discussion board where users post articles on a  
variety of subjects. The articles are organized into news groups that  
servers choose whether to publish. Usenet, like BBSs, are considered  
one of the first online systems for collaboration and interaction. One  
can make the argument that Usenet is an early expression of a more  
democratic mode of media distribution when compared to traditional  
distribution systems, which are often controlled by large corporate  
entities beholden to powerful interests.

De Digitale Stad (DDS) (1994-2001) was another early attempt to  
establish a social network on the World Wide Web. First presented at  
Ars Electronica in 1995, the site, whose name was translated as The  
Digital City was one of the first sites utilizing the web to create an  
online virtual community. DDS was created in HyperCard and written for  
Mosiac, the first graphical web browser. DDS was one of five  
communities at Ars that year, which invited members to navigate from  
place to place using the metaphor of the city. Based on the local  
activities and commerce of Amsterdam, the DDS community of 15,000  
members chatted in virtual cafés, met in town squares, built homes,  
and buried the dead in a special cemetery. Strangely, the Digitale  
Huiskamer or Digital Living Room project, a web page in which members  
gathered to watch television together (Lovink 21), was one of the most  
popular destination in DDS. DDS is an early example of a networked  
community utilizing a graphical interface to explore architecture and  
programmatic uses of virtual space. The designers of DDS hoped to  
foster conversation among members of the community, with the outcome  
of increased political expression.

Using the metaphor of a physical city, DDS was one of the first  
graphical expressions of an online community. The screenshots above  
show a few places where community members could gather – a post  
office, a police station and a café. DDS garnered 15,000 members  
during its hayday in the late 90s.

Finally, the free and open source movements are a paragon of community  
feedback negotiating issues of ownership, authorship and version  
control on a grand scale. These movements are mentioned here as an  
example of a long-standing, successful example of participation to  
build complex technologies cooperatively. The Linux kernel, GCC  
compiler and the Apache web server all owe their existence to the  
efforts of thousands of programmers and authors who work within the  
open source community. These community arrangements produce software  
and archives of astonishing complexity and scope.

These early trans-locative communication systems were elegant and  
minimal (low-bandwidth) expressions of the potential of participation  
and networked creativity. In addition to meeting a practical need to  
exchange information, they were used for large-scale creative  
projects. These include non-technical, creative endeavors, such as BBS  
stories and the ANSI artscene, incorporating multiple people as well  
as complex technical projects such as the GNU operating system, a  
complete system built through open source collaboration. These early  
networks and the uses that they inspired are the roots of contemporary  
social software.

Participation and Performance Art

Twenty years before the ANSI art movement and collaborative BBS  
stories and forty years before the current explosion of participatory  
media online, the participatory and performance art movement of the  
1960s investigated the potential of collaborative creation. The  
idealistic nature of many of these projects, which sought to effect  
social and political change, offers a unique perspective on the  
potential of online participatory media.

Participation in Art: 1960 to 1975

In her book Participation, Elizabeth Bishop identifies participatory  
art as having the following three motivations: activation, in which an  
active subject is empowered by the experience of participation,  
authorship, in which collaborative creativity is understood to emerge  
from a non-hierarchical social model, and community, which “the art is  
the restoration of the social bond through a collective elaboration of  
meaning” (12). These categories are no less true of online  
participatory media.

The work of many artists associated with participatory art movement is  
idealistic, attempting to bridge a perceived divide between art and  
life, and seeking to initiate critical dialogue among participants  
about dominant social and political attitudes. Participatory art is  
characterized by a feedback loop between system and participants,  
which results in dialogue between participants. In contrast to other  
forms of art making, participatory art pieces are not fixed, and  
evolve according to the contributions of the participants.  
Traditionally, the creation of art is wholly separated from its  
consumption; the public views completed objects in a museum or gallery  
setting. Unlike these traditional modes of the creation and  
consumption of art, participatory art blurs the line between the  
artist and the participants, whose actions create the piece. These new  
modes of production and consumption change conventional notions of  
authorship as well as ownership.

The desire to make active participants out of passive consumers of  
culture is one of the hallmarks of the Situationists, an artistic  
movement started by Guy Debord and others in Paris in 1957 (Ford 9).  
As stated in one of their founding manifestos, Toward A Situationist  
International, the Situationists sought to “awaken the audience from  
an attitude of consumption to the construction of situations” by  
disrupting everyday existence (Bishop 97). One of the Situationist’s  
preferred techniques for bringing about this sort of activation was  
détournement. Translated as somewhere between diversion, rerouting,  
corruption and hijacking (Ford 36), détournement is the process of re- 
presenting everyday ephemera, such as advertisements and other  
cultural products, in new artistic contexts. These contexts can often  
subvert the original meaning of the media in favor of a new reading  
that calls the original message into question in “an extreme form of  
the redistribution of cultural value” (36). Debord outlines the  
objective of détournement in his manual For a Revolutionary Judgement  
in Art:

    Revolution is not showing life to people, but making them live. A  
revolutionary organization must always remember that its objective is  
not getting its adherents to listen to convincing talks by expert  
leaders, but getting them to speak for themselves, in order to  
achieve, or at least strive toward, an equal degree of  
participation.” (11)

Raoul Vaneigem and René Viénet were two artists active in the  
Situationist International during the 1960s and 1970s whose pieces  
made strategic use of détournement. René Viénet, in La Dialectique  
Peut-Elle Casser Des Briques? (1973) superimposes subtitles and voice  
on a popular kung-fu film, re-purposing it as a critique of French  
politics. In La Survie Et Sa Fausse Contestation, Raoul Vaneigem  
rewrites a comic so that it describes a dire situation in which  
survival is reduced to economic imperatives (Ford 111). These pieces  
demonstrate the broad Situationist desire to jolt people out of  
complacency by activating viewers.

In La Dialectique Peut-Elle Casser Des Briques? (1973), artist René  
Viénet superimposed subtitles and voice over on a popular kung-fu film  
to re-purpose it as a critique of French politics, an example of the  
Situationist practice of détournement.

The movement toward participatory art occurred in part as a response  
to the rarefied work of minimalist artists whose art objects were  
traded as commodities in an art market that was becoming increasingly  
commercial (Goldberg 75). The term happening, coined by New York  
artist Allan Kaprow in 1959, refers to a gathering of people who come  
together for the purpose of creating an unpredictable ephemeral  
‘piece.’ The constructed situations explore the objectification of  
“mundane movements and play-related activities” (Spector 1). The  
interaction between participants constituted the piece; these  
interactions could not be easily bought or sold, which accounts for  
the appeal to artists who desired to challenge the increasing  
commercialization of art. Happenings often explored the notions of  
exchange through the construction of elaborate spaces intended to  
break the boundaries between art and life.

Raoul Vaneigem’s La Survie Et Sa Fausse Contestation is another  
example of détournement, in which content of advertising or popular  
media is rewritten according to new criteria calling the original into  
question. In this case, Vaneigem rewrites a comic to describe a dire  
situation in which survival is reduced to economic imperatives.

Nowhere is the shift from traditional modes of consumption and  
exchange of art more evident than in The Store, staged by Claes  
Oldenburg in an abandoned store rented by the artist in Lower  
Manhattan in New York in 1961. In a month-long series of happenings  
entitled Ray Gun Theater‚ Oldenburg filled the store with art objects  
whose composition mocked the preoccupation of the art world with the  
value of art. The Store was based on seemingly banal, but ultimately  
telling exchanges: people who made a purchase from Oldenburg received  
in return an inedible potato chip made of glue-caked muslin, or any  
number of candy samples. (Spector 1)

Claes Oldenburg created merchandise, advertising materials and store- 
front displays for The Store, the site of a month-long series of  
happenings called the Ray Gun Theater. The Store conflates creativity  
with commerce, foretelling the emergence of Pop art and its embrace of  
material culture. The Store, Study for a Poster (1961).

The Store conflates creativity with commerce, in a way that presages  
the emergence of Pop art, to which Oldenburg became a major  
contributor. Ironically, Pop art’s embrace and incorporation of  
consumer culture contradicted one of the principle motivation behind  
participatory art, which sought to challenge predominant notions of  
this commodification.

Artist Joseph Beuys’ 1972 piece, Bureau for Direct Democracy,  
investigates the potential of art to initiate dialogue about political  
structure. The piece forms a part of Beuys’ conception of the ‘social  
organism as a work of art,’ in which dialogue among participants is  
the piece itself (Bishop 120). In his manifesto entitled I am  
Searching for Field Character, Beuys discusses another participation  

Social sculpture will only reach fruition when every living person  
becomes a creator, a sculptor or architect of the social organism.  
Only then would the insistence on participation of the action art of  
Fluxus and happenings be fulfilled; only then would democracy be fully  
realized. (125)

The Bureau for Direct Democracy took place at Documenta 5 as a one- 
hundred day live installation in which the artist discussed with  
visitors how a democracy conducted through direct referendum might be  
brought about in contemporary politics. Participants in the piece, who  
were drawn more or less at random, joined the conversation, debating  
the effectiveness of the piece as well as the political changes that  
it intended to instigate. Eight-hundred visitors participated in the  
piece over the course of one day. One could argue that the piece was  
ineffective at bringing about real political change; the numbers of  
participants, while high for a participatory art piece, do not  
represent a large number in political terms, and it is impossible to  
point to any major political change that came about as a direct result  
of the piece. Nevertheless, the piece is an example of the sort of  
idealistic political belief in the power of participatory art that is  
a precondition of the work of Beuys and others. The work was  
characterized by an optimism about the capacity of participatory art  
to effect social and political change that is rarely seen in online  
participatory communities.

Performance art

Performance art is related to, but distinct from participatory art,  
which explores many of the same issues. Like participatory art, much  
performance art during the 1960s was informed by the desire to disrupt  
prevailing notions of how art is bought and sold, i.e. how culture is  
consumed; and both often function “as an irritant, a provocative  
weapon used to unseat a complacent public and its view of the value of  
art” (Goldberg 73). In the desire to disrupt the complacency of the  
art world, performance artists often moved away from the creation of  
discrete art works in favor of something less easily reducible to  
familiar terms. The nature of performance is temporal – when the  
performance is over the piece is complete – further creating an  
impediment to buying and selling.

If maintaining their material survival through the sale of art work  
was not in the interest of many of the radical performers of the  
1960s, what was their central concern? While it is impossible to  
identify a single preoccupation among a disparate group of artists,  
many performance artists looked to this new form to address the social  
and political issues of the day in a direct and powerful way. These  
issues included the war in Vietnam, violence in society, and feminism.  
Performance was a highly personal, raw and direct new medium through  
which these concerns could be explored with an eye toward effecting  
change inside and outside the confines of art. Like participatory art,  
performance art reimagines the relationship between artist and  
audience by destabilizing the separation of the two, creating  
memorable experiences through the direct presentation of edgy subject  

Yoko Ono, a member of Fluxus, a loose artist collective based in NY,  
was an important figure in performance as well as participatory art.  
Her pieces often range fluidly between the two forms. In Cut Piece  
(1964-5), the artist wrote an explicit set of instructions that  
instructed members of the audience to use a pair of scissors to cut  
from her body the expensive suit that she was wearing. The piece was  
considered complete when the suit had been completely cut away. The  
piece, which examined issues of sexual aggression, voyeurism, and  
gender subordination in a direct way, bridges between performance and  
participation because the participation of the audience was a  
necessary precondition of the piece, making the audience complicit in  
the act of undressing her (Haskell 91). The art existed at the  
intersection of the performer (Ono), the tool (scissors) and people  
(audience). The piece was performed in two locations: Kyoto, Japan and  
New York, and its completion consisted of nothing but the set of  
instructions and the subsequent interactions with the audience.

Yoko Ono’s Cut Piece (1964-5) Instructions: First version for a single  
Performer: Performer sits on stage with pair of scissors placed in  
front of him. It is announced that members of the audience may come on  
stage – one at a time – to cut a small piece of the performer’s  
clothing to take with them. Performer remains motionless throughout  
the piece. Piece ends at the performer’s option. Second version for  
audience: It is announced that members of the audience may cut each  
others clothing. The audience may cut as long as they want.

Performance artist Vito Acconci explores issues about personal space  
in a different way. In Theme Song (1973), the artist attempts to  
seduce the viewer in an intimate and perverse thirty-three minute  
performance. The piece offers commentary on the loneliness of the one- 
way transmission of broadcast television, where viewers’ responses  
never leave their living room.


Appropriation is the method by which pieces of culture are clipped  
out, modified and manipulated by artists within a different context.  
The aims of this practice vary widely from artist to artist but the  
form is widely practiced in contemporary art making, music, web  
mashups, and current remix culture. The use of appropriation and  
détournement by the Situationist artists is expressed in the work of  
Martha Rosler, who deals with the intersection of quotidian life and  
media. In her series, Bringing the War Home, the artist collages  
images from the popular magazine Better Homes and Gardens with  
pictures of soldiers in Vietnam, creating idyllic, domestic scenes  
interrupted with soldiers, and drawing attention to the distance  
between these two subjects in American culture. Rosler provokes the  
viewer to consider the violence of war within the context and comfort  
of privileged consumer status. This powerful juxtaposition brings  
faraway political situations closer to our everyday experience.

Contemporary Participatory Culture

We have looked thus far at the early origins of participatory networks  
online (Usenet and BBSs) as well as the changes that participation and  
performance wrought on artistic practices in the 1960s. We will now  
turn to participation culture, a term that I use to describe the  
current widespread popularization of participation forms, as  
exemplified by sites such as MySpace, YouTube and Revver. These sites  
are centered around music and video sharing, both of which would have  
been beyond the technical scope of earlier participatory systems.  
These new constellations of interests lead to new forms of creative  
collaboration and social groups, which are created as a result of  
these activities. The text-based exquisite corpse stories of BBSs give  
way to remix culture, in which small bits of information become grist  
for the remix mill.

Participation art shifted the creation of the artwork from the artist  
to an interaction between the artist and participants. Similarly, in  
online participatory systems, art exists as the interaction of the  
participants with each other through the tool that makes the  
collaboration possible. The term we-dia, coined by MIT Media Lab  
Director Frank Moss to describe the tools used in the creation of  
online participatory culture, is reinterpreted by John Maeda to mean  
broadly that Tool + People = Art in the online context. Professor John  
Maeda envisions the change this will bring about in art in this way:

    Imagine a future 15 years from now. An artist opens her show. It’s  
completely online. But it’s powered by its visitors. It’s interactive  
art – where the interaction itself is the art.

As a result of this change, consumers of culture are engaged in the  
act of producing more desirable products, interactions and exchanges  
through their participation in online social communities. In its best  
case, this engagement can lead to the same sort of re-affirmation of  
community among participants that Bishop mentions in the effects of  
participatory art movements.

Two contemporary performers, Ze Frank and Jane McGonigal, make use of  
the rise in popularity of participatory websites to make participatory  
performance art pieces, which demonstrate the power and peril of these  
new groupings. Ze Frank is a contemporary performance artist,  
humorist, and composer whose online performance was mentioned in the  
beginning of this chapter. The Show, in which Frank performed scripts  
written by visitors to his web site, was a one-year piece consisting  
of a daily video broadcast. As part of the piece, he acted out three  
to five minute improvised monologues recorded in his apartment. His  
witty performances combined world events with songs, observations, and  

A few months into the piece, his popularity growing, Frank began to  
engage audience participation. During Fabuloso Fridays he acted out  
different scripts written by viewers. Frank’s performance, in which  
the audience controls the performer are an inversion of the typical  
relationship of performer to audience. Frank extracts the potential of  
the feedback loops possible in online participatory pieces. Becoming a  
marionette controlled by his viewers, Frank illustrates the shift  
written about by Jenkins, who describes the center (in this case, the  
audience) folding in on itself. Frank’s work expresses the potential  
as well as the perils at the intersection of mass media and  

One of Frank’s contemporaries, Jane McGonigal, is a unique blend of  
performance artist and game designer. Her work merges art with life in  
a physical and virtual sense. McGonigal’s most ambitious project, i  
love bees, is an alternative reality game (ARG) that takes players,  
which she publicly calls agents, on a cross-media journey. Agents  
search for clues on cryptic websites in an event-driven game that  
consists of massive numbers of players distributed throughout the  
world. As part of the game, agents surf the web, leave voice messages  
from pay phones in dispersed locations, and meet in groups in physical  
locations, partaking in impromptu and unscripted performances as part  
of the game. i love bees intentionally blurs the lines between fiction  
and life, bringing art closer to life in a manner akin to earlier  
projects of participation and performance art. McGonigal claims that  
this disruptive game play is motivated by the desire to open up  
territory for new perspectives. Suspension of disbelief and the  
willingness on the part of players to spend their own time and  
resources are requirements to engage in the game with other players.

McGonigal defines her pervasive games as “performance-based  
interventions that use game imagery to disrupt the normative  
conventions of public spaces and private technologies” (McGonigal 1).  
The games re-contextualize cultural iconography, bringing about  
physical and virtual encounters between players in the game. Players  
are invited to perform in an improvisational way to advance game play.  
Jane McGonigal’s work shows the power of performance and game play to  
engage massive amounts of players in virtual and physical urban  

McGonigal employs the Situationist techniques in her pervasive games,  
which tend to be disruptive in the spirit of détournement. Massive  
numbers of people gather in urban settings to participate in  
performances involving visually arresting objects. The hideous design  
aesthetic of the games, which juxtaposes the homemade aspects of  
personal blogs with terminal style graphics intentionally contributes  
to the mysteriousness of the game, inspiring participants to follow  
the bread crumb trail. The games change and evolve during game play,  
creating a fluid feedback loop between the game and its participants  
that keeps the game dynamic from start to finish.

Participation culture, whose roots can be seen in the participatory  
and performance art movements of the 1960s, is now widespread on the  
web. However, unlike its artistic and technical precursors, which  
focused on specific responses to real issues, the most popular sites  
cast their net wide, creating a general framework with the aim of  
attracting as many people as possible. This approach has the effect of  
creating a democratic forum embracing the widest possible range of  
viewpoints, but can suffer from the lack of a clearly identified  
objective beyond getting hits to generate advertising revenue.

Participation and performance art of the 1960s demonstrates the  
possibility of using these forms to explore, challenge, and resolve  
socio-political issues in a directed way. This objective is lacking in  
much of contemporary online participatory culture. Contemporary  
artists such as Jane McGonigal and Ze Frank suggest ways in which new  
participatory forms can be harnessed to pursue specific objectives.  
This thesis will follow their lead, proposing frameworks that have  
predefined intention.

Chapter Three: Experiments

In the Background chapter, we looked at various precursors of the  
participatory movement online. BBS, Usenet, and the participatory art  
movement of the 1950s and 60s all contextualize the functioning, as  
well as the potential, of these systems. The Experiments chapter  
contains work exploring online participatory spaces directly. Before  
we get to those projects, we will look at several physical art  
installations that investigate many of the same issues.


Installations can be interactive, but interaction differs from  
participation in at least one significant regard. Interactive art  
generally presupposes a machine with which the participant interacts –  
in most cases, this machine is the art. In contrast, in participatory  
art, the art is the interaction between people that occurs as a result  
of the system. The collection of relationships formed among  
participants is both the distinguishing characteristic and necessary  
prerequisite of participatory art. Rain is an example of an  
interactive piece that is not participatory in this sense of the term.  
On the other hand, Misty Dawn is a physical installation that is both  
performative and participatory. Both of these installations are  
experienced in physical space, where design elements include the body  
and gesture. These different parameters suggest valuable new  
approaches to the design of online spaces.

Misty Dawn

Misty Dawn is a video installation developed with Philip DeCamp during  
the fall of 2005. Misty Dawn was installed in the Joan Jonas  
Performance Space at MIT in December 2005, at Art Interactive, a  
gallery in Cambridge, MA in February 2005, and at the MIT Media Lab,  
at a presentation for filmmaker Michel Gondry in April 2005.

The custom software of Misty Dawn utilizes real-time image  
segmentation, superimposing video recorded seven seconds in the past  
onto video captured in real-time. The video software is an integral  
part of the installation; it consists of a projected image opposite a  
sofa and coffee table set, and is intended to evoke a domestic living  
room. A camera concealed in the coffee table points toward the sofa,  
recording the motions of gallery visitors who sit within the camera’s  
field of vision. The physical setting of the piece invokes a place  
where socializing occurs within a private home, so that would-be  
performers would feel less self-conscious as they interacted publicly  
with the piece. Visitors see an image of themselves projected on the  
screen in front of them in which the time-delayed foreground is  
layered on the current video to produce a doubling effect. The piece  
creates an uneasy spatial relationship in which viewers interact with  
versions of themselves seven seconds in the past.
Technical specification

The program, written in C++, processes video input from a camera with  
an adaptive algorithm that can distinguish between the foreground and  
the background of the scene after approximately ten seconds of  
analysis with a steady camera shot. Following this analysis, the  
system continuously subtracts the background of the frames seven  
seconds in the past. The process produces a real-time video output in  
which the active foreground figure seven seconds from the past is  
superimposed on the present frame in its raw form. The real-time image  
segmentation generates fluid interaction between the actual person and  
her projected images.

Misty Dawn explores privacy issues raised by surveillance in an  
artistic context. Moreover, the piece deals with issues of body,  
memory and gesture, as viewers are confronted with images of  
themselves in ways that disassociate them from their own body in a  
public setting, which has the trappings of private, domestic space.

Composing the piece suggested that interactive art can also be  
performative, requiring people to perform as a precondition of the  
piece. Misty Dawn confronts people with their own image in a public  
setting inspiring a number of different reactions. The piece inspired  
performances on the part of some and caused others to shy away  
completely. Because the installation allowed the rest of the viewers  
in the gallery to see the current reaction to the system without the  
superimposed image, we were able to observe people’s behavior with the  
system. One person sat for a long time in front of the piece without  
talking and moving while others used the system as an opportunity to  
perform in front of the group that gathered around the piece. One  
woman occupied the audience’s attention for a ten-minute unrehearsed  
performance with the system. Others interacted with each other,  
attempting to synchronize their movements so that their real and  
delayed images on the screen would dance together, or hide behind each  

Misty Dawn makes use of a Brechtian interruption of chronology to pose  
questions about identity and memory. The method of the piece calls to  
mind aspects of the work of filmmaker Michel Gondry, who visited the  
Media Lab for several days shortly after the piece was completed.  
After spending an hour interacting with the work and discussing its  
meaning, he maintained that the piece successfully investigates  
questions of identity by using a visual doubling effect and went on to  
suggest that the piece might be even more effective were it to  
incorporate an audio component, which would allow participants to  
converse with themselves seven seconds in the past. We wondered  
together how the incorporation of audio in Misty Dawn might change  
speech, and whether the incorporation of audio in the piece would  
simply result in chaos or meaningful self reflection.

Regardless of the possible future addition of audio, Misty Dawn was  
considered a success in inspiring impromptu collaborative  
performances. Negotiating the conditions that would help people who  
were not otherwise performers become comfortable enough to act out in  
front of other people foreshadowed the preoccupation with barriers of  
entry that also govern the lasting relationships enabled by online  
social communities.


Rain is a sound installation developed in the Spring of 2006 with  
Philip DeCamp. The piece was part of Sound Around, a series of  
immersive sound installations and performances, performed in June 2006  
at the Media Lab. A second iteration of the piece was also installed  
in the Lewis Music Library at MIT in January 2007 as part of Silence  
Into Sound, a series of audio installations curated by Tod Machover.  
Collaborator DeCamp and I were interested in the spatially orienting  
potential of synthesized sound. Rain was made as a response to two  

   1. How can we compose a synthesized space suggestive of a physical  
space that we cannot see and that never existed?
   2. How does sonic experience relate to memory, aesthetics and  
visual communication?

In addition, Rain can be thought of partly as a response to Misty  
Dawn, whose soundless video led to questions about the potential of  
audio to capture memories. Looking into the relationship between the  
spatial characteristics of sound and participatory culture was a  
challenge as I am primarily a visual artist and had never done any  
work with sound.

Rain synthesizes the sound of Rainfall on a virtual 3D environment. On  
a Rainy day, Raindrops produce millions of tiny sounds from every  
direction. Together, these sounds create a sonic map of the  
environment that allows us to sense the objects around us – the  
location of nearby buildings, the edges of overhangs where streams of  
collecting water fall to the ground, and pedestrians walking by  
holding umbrellas. Rain explores the spatial and contextual aspects of  
sound by synthesizing the sound of Rain in a virtual environment. The  
piece required the design and development of a compositional tool for  
the purpose of a physical and aural installation. The tool, which  
enabled others to participate in the creation of the synthetic  
Rainfall, was an integral part of the installation.
Technical specifications

The software behind Rain is custom Java-based program. The Rain  
simulation software models the geometry, material composition, and  
moving objects within a space in order to adjust accurately the sound  
of each falling Raindrop. The resulting sound piece is composed of  
more than a thousand clips of individual drops of water on skin,  
metal, wood and an umbrella. The system uses a floor plan to establish  
where each drop of water is placed in the imagined space, and on what  
type of material each drop of water falls. The red lines drawn through  
the plan above represents the path of a sprite, an object that passes  
through the synthesized space. Physically, the installation consists  
of an array of four speakers set up in a 12 x 12 x 12 foot  
installation space. The sound of Rain fall is localized, separated  
into four channels and sent to a Firepod which in turn delivers the  
audio to the corresponding speaker.

Rain was a successful interactive art piece. It was not, however,  
participatory. I include Rain because it demonstrates an important  
difference between interactive and participatory art. In Rain, people  
interact with the system, composing their own synthesized Rain. The  
installation requires very little on the part of participants; they  
merely use the software to create a specific sonic experience. The  
piece requires no performance on the part of participants and has an  
easy-to-use graphical interface; these lowered barriers of entry  
ensure high rates of participation. The ease of use comes at some  
price, however. Even as Rain participants engage an a direct way with  
the piece, there is little in the way of social interaction between  
participants. Unlike Misty Dawn, in which transgressive performance  
inspired conversation and laughter among those gathered around the  
piece, Rain was a more solitary experience. Generally, participants  
came in, used the piece quietly for ten or fifteen minutes, and left.  
The lack of social relationships created by the piece highlights the  
difference between participatory and interactive art.

Online Participatory Art

In contrast to the physical installations of the preceding section,  
which use technology to foster interaction between people and machines  
in physical spaces, online systems facilitate people interacting in  
virtual space.

Several definitions will clarify the work discussed below. Online  
social systems coordinate interaction and communication among multiple  
people. These include software that facilitates specific relationships  
and exchanges between people, in a myriad of areas, such as in  
commerce, education, creativity, friend networks, and dating. Sites  
that are participatory by nature encourage people engage in specific  
ways. As is the case with participatory artwork, we talk about online  
participatory art pieces existing at the intersection of the system,  
in that they are created by the artist, and require the engagement of  
the audience (in this case, online) with it. That is to say, if there  
is no participation there is no ‘piece.’

The online communities created around successful participatory sites  
can lead to meaningful dialogue, affecting more than just online  
spaces. That said, the space of online participatory media is uneven  
terRain that can be difficult to navigate. Garnering attention on the  
web is unpredictable and can be frustrating; predicting how people  
will behave when testing new modes of communication in an online  
environment can lead to immediate failure. When visitors do not show  
up, it is often difficult to say exactly why a site does not generate  
the hits that were expected. Moreover, when the medium is the  
communication between people, the designer’s job is even more  
difficult. In a sense, the artist attempting to generate online  
participation is akin to an advertiser who is constantly trying to  
comprehend how or why people will not pay attention to their new  
product. Often finding the right approach is a matter of trial and  

Despite the unsavory advertising comparisons, the online mechanisms  
within which people congregate to communicate in a free way online is  
an important step toward mobilizing these new constellations toward  
social or political ends. When an online participatory site is  
successful, the feeling of having helped individuals gather to express  
themselves around common creative interests makes the enterprise  
satisfying in its own right.


I developed OpenBrand with Kelly Norton, my colleague in the Physical  
Language Workshop (PLW), along with Media Lab Director Frank Moss, and  
Time Warner liaison Peter Meirs during the annual Simplicity prototype- 
athon in January 2006. Six months later, we showed a working prototype  
of the system to a room full of Time Warner executives at the Time  
Warner Building in NY. OpenBrand is an ongoing collaboration with Time  
Warner and Johnson and Johnson to develop a new open marketing  
strategy in which consumers have a voice in advertising content and  
product development.

OpenBrand is intended to enable public contribution to online  
advertising by allowing consumers to re-configure banner  
advertisements and share those modification with a community. Banner  
advertisements are the typical form of visual advertising on the web  
in which a portion of a given web page is devoted to a paid  
advertisement. OpenBrand utilizes a custom script to enable consumers  
to post text comments on banner advertisements, using Greasemonkey, an  
open source scripting layer written for the Firefox browser. The text  
comments posted by visitors are displayed just below the ad and are  
saved to a central database on the PLW server at MIT, becoming  
publicly viewable for all those who have installed the script. In  
addition, the comments are linked to a forum where participating  
companies can respond to them. This forum acts as a new costumer  
service model where the companies have the opportunity to converse  
with their consumers.

The project grew out of the Organic Marketing discussion, in which  
students, sponsors and faculty discussed how marketing can be more  
‘humane.’ This approach was a response to growing resistance among  
Media Lab students to sponsors mining their work for ways to broadcast  
marketing messages to consumers. Characterizing humane marketing  
precisely is difficult, but through conversation we identified trust  
as the key issue. With the complex profusion of identities and  
relationships online, trust has become a scarce commodity – something  
that advertisers are just beginning to realize. Traditionally, a one- 
way transmission was the only way for an advertiser to get their  
message to a consumer. This strategy does not work as effectively  
online as it did in older media forms, because it is invasive and  
inspires little trust where the value of trust is a premium. In  
contemporary participatory culture, the advertiser competes for  
attention in a landscape of bloggers and amateur content creators.  
Instead of focusing on how to transmit messages about products to  
consumers, the question that companies should be attempting to answer  
is: what do consumers think of my product? OpenBrand creates a  
structure for consumers to voice their concerns in an unfiltered way,  
and for the companies to listen to them.

The dialogue between advertising companies and consumers is a feedback  
loop that makes it possible for consumers to transform products, or at  
least, the way they are marketed. The desire to activate participants  
that might otherwise be passive consumers is inspired in part by the  
Situationist projects discussed in the preceding chapter. The  
reappraisal of the Situationist project to develop a system that, in  
the last analysis, will be used to sell products, is no small irony  
given the Situationist’s general disdain for consumer culture. After  
all, the advent of culture defined increasingly by consumption was  
just what the Situationist were fighting against. However, the  
Situationist International oversimplified a complex issue in service  
of their polemical argument. Instead of viewing all consumption as  
meaningless operation of market-driven culture, OpenBrand, which is  
one part provocation and one part marketing strategy, asks how we  
might change the way consumption occurs to make it a meaningful  
activity for all involved.

The barriers for consumer participation in OpenBrand are very low. The  
system requires no performance on the part of participants, and  
entering text is easy. Posts are entered in an asynchronous text  
format that has been familiar to people since the advent of the BBS,  
and posts can be anonymous, which further lowers the barrier of entry  
to participate. Various incentives exist to use the system. In  
addition to the possibility of improving products to better suit one’s  
own needs, the system allows participants to talk back to advertisers,  
or engage in the catharsis of simply vandalizing the advertisements  
that assault us daily. The wealth of sites devoted to consumer  
reflections on the quality of products (CNet, Epinions, and others)  
offers ample evidence that consumers tend to engage in this activity  
even when the only likely incentive is to warn or encourage other  
consumers about products. Needless to say, giving up valuable ad space  
while also making themselves vulnerable to critique could discourage  
many advertisers from implementing OpenBrand. However, in practice,  
the possibility of instilling trust in the consumer outweighed the  
initial suspicion with which advertisers approached the project.  
Having the courage to implement OpenBrand would make it clear that a  
company trusts the consumer and values her input enough to enter into  
an unfiltered, public conversation. Normally, when we think about  
trust in advertising, we ask how the marketer can gain the trust of  
the consumer. OpenBrand turns the problem on its head, asking instead  
if the marketer trusts the consumer enough to put the marketing  
message in their hands.


OPENSTUDIO is an open-ended experiment in creativity, collaboration  
and capitalism that explores new economic models for the creation and  
exchange of digital media. The system couples a simple drawing tool  
with an economy composed of artists, curators, dealers and viewers.  
Members create drawings using a light-weight Java webstart application  
and save the drawings in their individual repositories on the PLW  
server. Members then buy and sell those drawings in an online community.

The system was designed and built by a team of researchers in the PLW  
including Kelly Norton, Brent Fitzgerald, Burak Arikan, Annie Ding,  
Kate Hollenbach and this author over the course of four months. Our  
work was built on research conducted previously by Carlos Rocha, Noah  
Field, Marc Schwartz and others as well as countless undergraduate  
researchers who worked on the project from 2003 to the launch in 2007.

OPENSTUDIO was launched one month after it was announced at the AIGA  
conference in November 2005. Initial entrance to the system was by  
invitation only with new members given one hundred buraks, the  
OPENSTUDIO currency, at the time of joining. During its first few  
months, a core group of PLW members and their friends were actively  
producing and trading drawings. In the Spring of 2006, we implemented  
a viral invitation system, where each new member could invite ten new  
members. The site was opened to the public one year later in the Fall  
of 2007. We received an immediate spike in membership, when the site  
went public.
Collaboration and authorship

The OPENSTUDIO community interacts primarily through the exchange of  
the drawings that members create in the system. When a participant  
buys a drawing, the buyer is encouraged to build on it, creating a new  
piece whose connection to the original is visible through a  
transparent authorship system. The transparent authorship, called  
‘provenance,’ allows for an open environment of collaboration where  
all contributing parties can see clearly the artistic transformation  
of the piece. By formalizing the act of appropriation inherent in  
digital works of art, OPENSTUDIO legitimizes derivation and  
appropriation, an essential component of creative production in  
networked online communities. Within a few weeks, members began to  
exchange drawings with the understanding that any buyer could open the  
drawing and alter it however they saw fit. This type of exchange  
confirms ties between members of the community.
Tags and reputation

Online galleries bring individual recognition to members, who display  
their drawings and those of others before an audience of online  
community members. OPENSTUDIO members can tag drawings with a word or  
set of words, using a system called ‘artsonomy.’ The set of tags  
associated with an individual’s original drawings forms a description  
of the kind of work the artist makes. Likewise, the set of tags  
associated with an individual’s collection (the pieces she buys and  
displays in her gallery) forms a description of the kind of work she  
collects. In some instances, members have used an uncommon tag to  
create an informal meta gallery. For example, Ben Dalton uses a +  
symbol for his tag designating pieces that he likes. His mark travels  
with the piece even after he loses his association with it. Other  
members have also adopted the + tag, associating them with Ben and his  
collection of work. In addition to bypassing prescribed ownership  
models, these members bond through the creative use of the system. In  
this way, members find unique ways to form alliances that were not  
intended in the original design of the system.
Open Economics Confirms Community Values

One of the main objectives of OPENSTUDIO is to investigate how  
creativity affects economic exchange through an online community. To  
satisfy this objective, we implemented a simple economic system  
resembling an art market. Each transaction in the system is saved in  
the member’s profile and made publicly viewable. This open banking  
system allows other people to see their own buying habits as well as  
those of others. The open transaction system is coupled with an list  
of social connections between buyers, sellers, and exhibitors on the  
profile page, which lists social groups and tracks them as they  
evolve. These social groups reveal informal or formal collaborations  
between members. In the strictest sense, collaboration is mediated  
through the monetary exchange of bits of finished drawings. The  
attempt of some members to form larger institutions like museums  
reveals an interest on the part of members to form larger and more  
powerful subgroups within the system.

Using a currency that exists only in the system has several  
advantages. First, it lowers the barrier of entry to buying and  
selling. People may feel more inclined to be active in a system where  
they are not spending their own money. On the other hand, the value of  
the currency is proportional to the time invested in the system. The  
valuation of the burak aside, developing our own currency enables us  
to build systems in a way that would not be acceptable given real  
world implications. For example, we were able to experiment with  
transparent system revealing all transactions and monetary attributes  
of members. It is still a question how an open banking system would  
change the interactions of members in a system. We took the view that  
the system should reveal as much as possible publicly about each  
participant, including the value of each transaction as well as the  
account balance, total volume, revenue, and expenses and profit. The  
decision to make as much data as possible public knowledge was made to  
see how members might behave differently under conditions of  
Openness and Unexpected Collaboration

Creating a system that allows for creative collaboration among members  
was the second objective of OPENSTUDIO. The openness of OPENSTUDIO  
encourages collaboration and play among its international membership.  
The flexibility of the system allows members to act in ways that we  
did not foresee. In addition to making the drawings using the Draw  
tool, members used the system to create advertisements, write  
contracts, and communicate intimate messages through publicly visible  
drawings. The community has the spirit of participatory art where  
members are asked to contribute to a collective expression. Designing  
a system to encourage derivative drawings and open economic exchange  
were the motivations for naming the system ‘OPEN’ STUDIO.
Technical Specifications

OPENSTUDIO is a complex system with many interdependent parts drawing  
on the research of many people involved in the project. I will touch  
only briefly on the components to give an overview of the complexity  
of the system. The community activities are centered around a web  
application built with Ruby On Rails, a popular framework for  
developing online community-based projects. The web application is  
seamlessly integrated with SMPL, PLW’s flexible communication protocol  
written in Java, to manage saving and retrieving documents from the  
document server. The system also uses a high-speed renderer, written  
by Kelly Norton, to deliver images at a wide variety of display sizes.  
In addition, the system has an API that we use to mash up the site  
with other sites. This will be discuss this later when I talk about  
the Burak Hotline system. The Draw application is a simple vector  
based drawing application developed using the Treehouse client  
framework. Treehouse, the predecessor of OPENSTUDIO, is the client  
side code base for OPENSTUDIO.


Mini, an application originally intended for deployment within the  
OPENSTUDIO environment, enables people to create 8-, 16-, 32-, and 64- 
pixel icons from images automatically downloaded from the Internet. I  
built Mini in 2005 during my first summer in PLW with the help of  
Philip DeCamp, whose expertise in hacking Google was critical to the  
deployment of the system. We based the program on work done by  
previous members of the PLW. Mini was my first experiment in designing  
tools for visual expression. The project inspired Tiny, a  
participatory project developed by fellow researcher Brent Fitzgerald  
and Luis Blackaller for release on the web, which is described in  
greater detail below.

The idea behind Mini is simple. The tool works by querying Google  
images in search of a term entered by the user. The system  
automatically generates icons of the first 800 images as a result of  
the query. The tool gives rise to several extensions. Old Standard is  
an extension of Mini that functions as a local art installation using  
the iMac array in the PLW. Old Standard uses 200 words from the  
Fleshbot website as query terms to perform a Google image search. The  
resulting images are then automatically iconized and displayed in a  
grid on the iMAC array. Old Standard acknowledges that a large  
percentage of the content on the Internet is posted by the porn  
industry. It was important to me to draw attention to this part of the  
Internet because the PLW uses online culture as the starting point for  
research. A second, sanitized version of Old Standard allows users to  
draw a pattern, like an American flag, and then fill in each section  
with iconized images from the search. For example, to fill in the  
stripes of the flag, you might use the query term ‘blood’, ‘apple’ or  
simply ‘red’ and Old Standard would automatically queries Google and  
fills in the strips with icons of the resulting images. To fill in the  
white stripes you might query ‘clouds’‚ and so forth, until the final  
image was completely filled in.
Technical Specifications

Mini uses the Treehouse client framework and the SMPL framework to  
save documents to the document server. The search function tricks  
Google into thinking the query is coming from a Firefox browser. The  
Old Standard implementation does an automatic query using 100 terms  
from fleshbot.com, a popular online magazine devoted to pornography  
and online sex culture, in order to automatically generate icon that  
are displayed on the 9 x 9 array of iMacs in the PLW.

In Mini, participants generate icons merely by querying Google. A  
similar project called Tiny, launched by PLW members Brent Fitzgerald  
and Luis Blackaller, garnered 10,000 hits in a one-month period,  
attesting to the participation levels that low barriers of entry can  
create when coupled with intelligent design. Tiny’s entry barrier is  
even lower than that of Mini. Written as a Rails/AJAX application,  
Tiny makes drawing small pixel icons anonymous and easy. Using a web  
interface to make black and white icons, Tiny requires only a ten- 
second commitment on the part of the participant. The resulting icons  
are creative and sometimes indecent, offensive or humorous. Even  
within the limits of a 13 x 13 pixel icon, people are able to conduct  
conversations through the system. In its own modest way, Tiny  
testifies to the potential of massive visual collaborative expression.

Online Performance

The following experiments explore performative media through the use  
of the telephone to contribute content to the web.
The telephone

The purpose of using the telephone as input device for content is  
twofold. First, the telephone requires people to make public  
statements using their own voice and second, it lowers the technical  
barrier of entry. In the words of artist Kelly Dobson,

    The telephone offers an extension of our voice. It is an extension  
of ourselves and it overlaps, blurs, and allows us to mix together.  
(Dobson 36)

The telephone is a familiar technology for sharing intimate moments,  
stories, opinions and reactions. Using our voice instead of text can  
strengthen emotional connections, add entertainment value and lead to  
more intimate community ties.

These experiments use the telephone to explore barriers of entry.  
Using a familiar device makes contribution easy, but the low technical  
barrier to entry is offset by the raised emotional or performative  
barrier as a result of asking people to broadcast with their voice. It  
takes a confidence to speak before the indeterminate audience of the  
web – the call could be heard by thousands or no one at all. Either  
way, the prospect of calling sites on the Internet can be daunting.

Because broadcasting your voice using the telephone turns the device  
into a performative medium, this raises the social barrier of entry.  
The experiments investigate whether lowering the technical barrier of  
entry works to entice people to engage in online performance. Except  
for nationwide conference calls, phones are normally used as a private  
or intimate mode of communication between two (or, at most, three or  
four) people, not as a tool for broadcast.

PLWire Telephone Tag

PLWire Telephone Tag invites visitors to the PLW website to use their  
telephone to leave messages about objects they see there. The system  
was designed and built on the new PLWire site in the summer of 2006  
shortly after the new site was launched. PLWire Telephone Tag allows  
visitors to the site to express their opinion about what they see  
there, potentially opening up a dialogue between visitors and members  
of the PLW who administer the site. PLWire Telephone Tag functions  
like text commenting on a blog, except that the comments are sound  
files called in by telephone instead of text. The system uses  
telephone tags in keeping with PLWire, which functions as a text-free,  
visual blog for projects done in the PLW. The site is set up so  
members of PLW can post videos, graphics, and links as modules, or  
mini-windows on the site.

Visitors call the PLWire telephone line, which is revealed to them by  
clicking on a telephone icon at the top of each video module on the  
site. A recorded voice prompts callers to enter in the unique four  
digit code for the object that they would like to tag. The first digit  
corresponds to the datatype, e.g. 0 for video, 1 for graphics, etc.  
The following three digits auto-increment to ensure a unique code for  
each module. After entering the appropriate code, callers are  
instructed to leave a seven second message, which is automatically  
associated with the corresponding object and posted on the site.  
Visitors can listen to all messages for each object by clicking on an  
audio icon at the top of each module, which plays the audio tags  
automatically in reverse order, with the last message received played  
first. The objective of the system is to open up a space for dialogue.  
Public visitors to the web site can leave messages offering advice,  
critique or opinion about what they experience on the site. The hope  
is that contributions by phone would inspire comments that were at  
once intimate and expressive.
Technical specifications

PLWire Telephone Tag system employs Asterisk, an open source PBX  
(Private Branch Exchange), and a telephony toolkit, which is free to  
download, working on top of PLWire, a Ruby On Rails application. An  
Asterisk server routes telephone calls from an outside VOIP carrier to  
the PLW server. The Asterisk server is configured to run on the PLW  
server. After registering with the external VOIP carrier, the Asterisk  
server waits and receive all incoming calls. For each call Asterisk  
launches a RAGI (Ruby Asterisk Gateway Interface) to communicate with  
the Rails application. The RAGI process runs as its own server and  
enables callers to interface with the PLWire web application  
framework, which means that RAGI allows people to access information  
through the data models defined in the Ruby on Rails application.  
PLWire Telephone Tag system requires the operation of seven servers:  
one Asterisk server talking to a remote VOIP server, one RAGI server  
to interface between the telephone call and the Ruby On Rails  
application, one Apache server, two Mongrel servers to split the load  
of incoming requests from the web application, and a Mysql database  
server. This was my first realization of the complexity behind  
networked systems especially when they integrate old (telephone) and  
new (online social) technology. Every server crashed at least once  
during the first week of deployment; keeping them all functional over  
the life of the system presents a major technical challenge.

PLWire Telephone Tag investigates the possibility of creating dialogue  
between visitors of the site and PLW members. The goal of opening up  
the PLW website was to break down the exclusivity of the group and  
engage critical discussion around projects, leading to collaboration  
with people outside the group. In practice, the system received fewer  
calls than I had hoped for. We will discuss the reason for this in the  
analysis section. PLWire Telephone Tag received 65 calls since its  
deployment in September 2006. It would have been nice if the site felt  
like a crowded room of strangers, but the call rate was too low for  
PLWire to feel rich with new voices.

Burak Hotline

The second telephone-based project, entitled the Burak Hotline, is an  
online application added to OPENSTUDIO. Burak Hotline tests members’  
willingness to call and leave a message on the Internet. The  
application was launched in January of 2007, several months after the  
launch of PLWire Telephone Tag. The parameters of the system arose in  
response to the relatively low call volume generated by that system.  
In contrast to PLWire Telephone Tag, which provided no outward  
incentive for people to call the system, the Burak Hotline rewards  
calls by OPENSTUDIO members with buraks, the currency of OPENSTUDIO.  
The only other way to earn buraks is to make and sell drawings, which  
is a time-consuming process. In contrast, for a short time investment  
(under two minutes), callers could make up to 100 buraks, depending on  
the quality of their phone call.

A text advertisement on the front page of OPENSTUDIO announced to  
members that they could earn buraks in exchange for calling the Burak  
Hotline. Members who are already logged in click on a link in the  
announcements section of the front page, taking them to the front page  
of the Burak Hotline where they are given a phone number and a unique  
code that corresponds to their membership in OPENSTUDIO. The Burak  
Hotline offers a simple three-step text instructions explaining the  
system. The instructions read as follows

   1. Call (617) 606-4278 and enter your code: 039
   2. Tell us why we should give you the Buraks.
   3. Listen and rate your message and others.

The site consists of only one other page, which was a table of calls  
received and an interface to rate calls. After members call and leave  
messages explaining why they should receive buraks, the calls are  
logged on the site for others to rate. Callers can choose to be  
anonymous (the calling interface gave callers a chance to mask their  
names). All calls automatically receive five buraks. Once the calls  
are logged, they are subject to peer review through a custom star  
rating system implemented on the site. The more stars a call received  
from listeners, the more buraks are awarded to the caller. Each star  
is worth one burak. Each call can be rated up to twenty times, and  
members can call as many times as they would like.
Technical Specifications

The Burak Hotline uses the OPENSTUDIO API to access and change data in  
the OPENSTUDIO database. To do this, I added a web service method to  
the API to allow developers to add buraks to OS members’ accounts. The  
web service allows other members of the group to create applications  
and pay OS for their participation. Jun Sato, PLW member and Toshiba  
researcher, used the web service payment method for his OPENSTUDIO  
license system. Like the two previous systems, the telephone system  
that runs the Burak Hotline uses RAGI and Asterisk to interface with  
the Ruby On Rails and AJAX application.

Within hours of launching the Burak Hotline, OPENSTUDIO member Dara  
Kilicoglu emailed me, concerned about how the Burak Hotline might  
effect the OS economy. I was able to convince him in a few emails that  
the Burak Hotline was good for the OPENSTUDIO economy. The following  
is a transcript of the conversation

    hello amber, i know hotline project from burak. he told me and i  
liked it very much. but i don’t like the idea of giving people buraks  
generated outside of the studio. i believe burak for OPENSTUDIO is  
different than burak for hotline and you can’t add them together.  
because they belong to different economical systems processing buraks  
will cause inflation in the OPENSTUDIO. previously burak was thinking  
to transfer STOCKMARKET buraks to OPENSTUDIO and i was strongly  
against that idea for a similar reason. finally i was able to convince  
him that the idea was wrong and bad for OPENSTUDIO people. as an  
OPENSTUDIO creator/developer final decision is yours. i just wanted to  
share my ideas with you. thank you for your time. +D,

    Hi Dara,
    Thanks for your response. I appreciate your thoughts and feedback  
on the project. I thought about inflation quite a bit before launching  
and discussed it with an economist here who felt that small scale  
inflation while a project is getting off the ground spurs activity. I  
think anything that gets people to be active in the OPENSTUDIO  
community is a good thing. Performance, like drawing is an important  
creative activity. Adding a phone-based system to OPENSTUDIO (or as a  
os add-on) is a way to invite the members of the community to express  
their creativity in a different way. Is audio less creative than  
    Right now, the Burak Hotline is only open to OS members, so it is  
not like giving buraks to people outside of the system. I think of it  
as an extension of the studio. I hope you are convinced that the Burak  
Hotline is a good addition, but I would be happy to continue the  
discussion if you are not. BTW, I am a big fan of your drawings. Amber

    hello amber,

       1. i am totally convinced that ‘Burak Hotline’ is a good  
addition to OPENSTUDIO. it is breathing. i loved it. will people be  
able to tag or better to audiotag the audio? for me audio is as  
creative as drawing. i love music. i love sound. it’s very abstract  
when you form things with it. peer to peer audio trading would be so  
much fun. i would like to spend some of my buraks for buying some  
audio recordings. how do you plan to extend it?
       2. thank you. i am a big fan of your drawings too. i also love  
your paintings too (i saw them on your site.) really nice series.

    have a wonderful one,

    2/7/07 Glad you like my drawings. One more question though: Why  
haven’t you called the Burak Hotline? Amber

    2/7/07 amber hi, my reason for not calling ‘Burak Hotline’ is very  
personal. actually i am really dying to call Burak Hotline BUT i  
didn’t mention before that i am sick for a week now. my voice exactly  
sounds like a robot modulated with sawtooth waveform. but i will call  
tomorrow morning. inspiring the visual community to work with audio  
image shouldn’t be hard. you mean inspiring to experiment? actually  
not just visual community anyone can be inspired to do audio stuff. if  
the tool is simple and fun and also served in a social environment...  
many of my friends from OPENSTUDIO are not coming from visual  
backgrounds. i know them from istanbul and i know many of them havent  
done anything visual before OS in their life somehow they like to be  
there and draw. keep on advertising the project. i am %100 sure that  
it will rock! +D,

Dara called the system two days later. He received an overall rating  
of 4 stars to earn him 80 buraks for his call.

Morgan Sutherland, another OPENSTUDIO member, called 11 times on the  
March 5, 2007. He experimented with narrative, sound, film clips and  
outright begging. He made a total of 274 buraks for his calls.  
Overall, the Burak Hotline received 35 calls, 22 unique calls from a  
total of 171 members who visited the site. 12% percent of members who  
visited called the system since it was launched on February 3, 2007.

Emma On Relationships Call-In Show

Emma On Relationships (EOR) is an online call-in show featuring a  
series of short videos hosted by Emma Lindsay, a filmmaker, as well as  
a Computer Science (Course 6) major at MIT, who works as an  
undergraduate researcher in the PLW. The project was developed in the  
Fall of 2006, with ongoing series of episodes released every few weeks  
during the following Spring, and is currently gaining popularity due  
to links connecting it to the popular sites YouTube and MySpace.  
Japanese translation was done by Toshiba Researcher Jun Sato, and the  
cast of EOR includes Emma’s collaborator and ex-boyfriend, Chris  
Bisignani, who now maintains the web site, her current boyfriend  
Eugene, her brother, and other MIT students, mostly undergraduates.

EOR consists of a website that hosts short videos made by Emma. After  
watching two- to four-minute videos, viewers use their telephones to  
leave messages on the website for Emma or the rest of the cast. In  
typical episodes, Emma interviews her friends from her room at Senior  
House, a dormitory on the MIT campus, about issues such as sexuality,  
gender and fertility. Each episode is centered around a single  
question, such as “How do Average Guys Get with Hot Girls?” or “Should  
You be Gay?” and the calls are accessible to anyone who visits the  
site. Emma’s attitude toward these intentionally inflammatory subjects  
is deadpan, and the conclusions that she draws from the comments of  
her friends often fly in the face of conventional logic. For example,  
the best way to get with a good-looking girl, Emma tells us, is for an  
average guy to pursue more than one at once and not tell any of them  
that they are attractive. Emma answers questions in short video  
responses that are also posted to the site.

After each episode is posted, viewers call a dedicated telephone line  
to leave messages for Emma or other characters in the show. Callers  
typically ask questions that they have about the show. Their messages  
frequently flirt with the edges of decency. Visitors can listen to all  
messages, which are immediately publicly accessible on the web site.  
Emma responds to messages through a short one minute ‘video response’  
episode addressing callers concerns directly. Often, her video  
responses to various individual callers are more provocative and  
interesting than the original show itself. In response to a caller who  
asked about abstinence as a form of birth control, Emma clarifies her  
religious beliefs, uses sock puppets to demonstrate sexual positions,  
and offers her unorthodox opinion about the statistical  
ineffectiveness of abstinence as a viable method of birth control. Her  
candid remarks and the responses they inspire suggest the power of  
traditional modes of communication when used in concert with new form  
of conversation, by telephone, web and video.
Technical Specifications

Like PLWire Telephone Tag, EOR is a Ruby On Rails application that  
interfaces with an Asterisk VOIP telephony service through a RAGI  
server. The Ruby On Rails application supports multiple episodes,  
multiple casts of characters and their corresponding audio messages  
and video responses. When visitors call the site they hear the  
following prerecorded message as garage-band style music plays in the  

    Hi, welcome to Emma On Relationships. This is Emma. Leave a  
message for me or one of my friends. To leave a message for me, press  
1, for Chris press 2, and for Jamie press 3.

Callers choose which episode and which cast member for whom to leave a  
message. Telephone messages are immediately routed to the site through  
the RAGI interface, so callers receive instant feedback that their  
message has been recorded and can be heard publicly.

The aim of EOR is to create a medium in which participants’ comments  
build a feedback loop, something which was largely missing in PLWire  
Telephone Tag. Over the course of four months, EOR received 241 calls  
out of 2,408 visits, or roughly a 10% call to hit rate. Momentum is  
picking up for the site now, so it appears likely that the site will  
continue to receive calls as Emma makes new episodes and the show  
grows in popularity. The calls that she has received have varied from  
thoughtful questions to sexually explicit suggestions to a request  
from a Red Hat journalist interested in writing a story about the  
show. An anonymous source made the following comments about the call- 
in show after trying out the system, “Talking is much more intimate  
than typing, so there is a built-in inhibition to participation. And  
calling to comment on how average guys can hook-up with hot girls is a  
lot to ask.”

EOR is a provocative forum that incites the audience to become a  
public part of the performance. The sexual content emphasizes the  
intimacy of the telephone and web interface. Qualitative results  
suggests that intimate subject matter raises the barrier of entry  
while the technical barrier remains low. Many of the callers so far  
have been from Emma or other cast members’ groups of friends, so this  
is likely to have increased the call rate. It will be instructive to  
see how this affects the system as it grows beyond these established  
social networks.


The last system that we will discuss is WikiPhone, an experiment in  
online collaborative audio performance. The aim of WikiPhone is two- 
fold: one, to develop an online environment for the fluid creation,  
composition and exchange of audio, and two, to formulate a new set of  
design principles for participatory media enabling creative  

WikiPhone was developed in the Spring of 2007 with Philip DeCamp. The  
networked system blends performance and composition, allowing  
participants to create soundtracks collaboratively online. WikiPhone  
is designed to stream popular videos and news clips from YouTube,  
which multiple participants remix with audio contributed via telephone  
calls to the system. The audio data from these calls is recorded and  
added to the existing pool of data from which participants can compose  
new remixes in a real-time networked performance. All contributed  
audio is available to all participants during the performance. The  
system encourages participants to borrow the techniques and content of  
others freely by allowing them to listen to and see how other people  
compose. The performances and remixes form a conversation among  
participants engaged in a single creative virtual event-space. In the  
best case, the creative dialogue resulting from this playful game-like  
environment can serve as cultural critique in which participants  
gather and rewrite the content of clips to reflect their own interests  
and desires.

The interface can be broken down into two components: the Editor, in  
which people compose pieces, and the Online Gallery, where  
participants show the completed pieces.
The Editor

The Editor is a Java application that is launched from the site. The  
interface consists of a video display and a series of audio tracks.  
 From the Editor, participants can access an existing project or  
create a new project by giving it a name and a URL to an existing  
YouTube video. To compose pieces in the editor, participants perform  
the following five activities: watch, annotate, record, compose, and  
remix. Although these often happen sequentially, they can be done in  
any order.

    * WATCH Participants navigate through the frames of the video  
while listening to the original audio track.
    * ANNOTATE Participants annotate portions of the video with text  
subtitles. The subtitles function as directions given by the initiator  
of the project to other participants. This is the only special  
privilege given to the project initiator.
    * RECORD A telephone number and extension is assigned to each  
individual session and displayed in the interface. Participants call  
the number to record audio of their own to fit into the track.
    * COMPOSE Participants arrange recorded clips on their audio track  
to correspond to the video.
    * REMIX Members of the WikiPhone community can remix the audio the  
audio contributed by any other participant in the project. Anyone can  
choose to see what anyone else is doing and can incorporate sounds  
from other participants’ track in their own clip by dragging in clips  
from other members. Remixing can occur while audio is streaming into  
the interface. Each version of the remix attributes the main author  
and a list of contributors attached so that all authorship is  
accounted for.

WikiPhone utilizes a flat structure to make the project space feel  
like a crowded room in which the creation occurs fluidly among many  
participants. While two or more people are in the ‘editing room,’  
everyone can see who is present and whether others are actively making  
contributions. No other video editor offers this model of networked,  
real-time collaboration with streaming content.
Web Interface

The system consists of a minimal web interface that acts as a gallery  
of completed pieces and gives access to the Java web start  
application. From the central website, participants initiate new  
projects, browse current projects and view completed collaborative  
projects. Individual participants have accounts and, in the full scale  
web application, will be assigned profiles, which will allow them to  
receive credit for the pieces that they have worked on in a manner  
akin to OPENSTUDIO. Members meet new people, make connections and  
develop alliances within the community.

Technical specifications

An extensive networked architecture was required to accommodate the  
fluid collaboration of the system. Philip DeCamp was the principal  
researcher in this area and instrumental in accomplishing the onerous  
and technically demanding task of system design and implementation. A  
full discussion of the technical innovations in the project is beyond  
the scope of this thesis, but the following description offers a basic  
overview of the primary components of the system.
Networked Architecture

The server code consists of a command structure, a pipeline for  
streaming data from the project server to multiple client canvases; an  
interface to route calls from an Asterisk Telephony server; and a  
relational database that organizes member accounts, projects and audio  
and video meta data. A Java-based custom active record class handles  
database management. The client-side consists of a command structure,  
audio/visual decoders, and a mixing GUI that utilizes OpenGL for the  
audio tracks and other interface components.

The original infrastructure for streaming content from the web is one  
of the most impressive accomplishments of the application. WikiPhone  
is a networked application built for audio and visual streaming over  
the Internet. It also uses a custom protocol for streaming audio  
content from the server to multiple client canvases. This allows  
participants to respond quickly to new content posted anywhere on the  
web, although for WikiPhone, we focus specifically on streaming  
content from YouTube servers.

Without the streaming architecture developed by Philip DeCamp, people  
would have to download the video, edit it in a stand alone  
application, and upload the new edited video in order to share it  
online. Our system lowers the barrier of entry to edit video content  
from the web, allowing participants to work along side of the video,  
as it is streaming in from the YouTube server. The system was built to  
accommodate multiple servers with the addition of a parser to obtain  
the video URL from a given web page. By the same token, the streaming  
interface routes the incoming audio from multiple telephones into the  
interface real-time.

A series of C libraries decodes FLV files and incoming audio from the  
telephones. Decoders strip the meta information, accessing the raw  
audio and video directly.

An impromptu performance was staged with four actors from a local  
college who used WikiPhone to reconstruct the trailer of Tennessee  
Williams’ Night of the Iguana, using WikiPhone. The actors spent  
several hours playing with the system before settling on a cut that  
incorporated all of their voices in a comical interpretation of the  
original film.

Overall, the comments were generally positive. However, some  
participants questioned the relevance of using the telephone as the  
primary input device:

    I’m still not sold on using a phone over a microphone. As you  
know, oftentimes nowadays mics are built right into the computer, and  
the computer itself is becoming more and more of an extension of  
someone’s person. Why go through the trouble of erecting a new  
networked community with telephones when people are already connecting  
through the Internet?

A point well-taken, although this opinion was contradicted by another  
actor, who appreciated the easy access that the telephone interface  
provided, claiming that “the phone is my favorite part.” After using  
the system, all agreed that its most promising application is for  
remixing political speeches.

The variety of systems described in this section look at participation  
in a variety of performative, participatory sites online. The next  
chapter will look at the factors governing participation online, which  
we can draw from these experiments.

Chapter Four: Analysis

The projects that comprise Participation Art Online explore the space  
of participation online from various perspectives. The Background  
section looked at the roots of the participatory movement in art and  
computation; in the Experiments section that followed, we discussed  
experiments in participatory online spaces in order to better  
understand how these systems function in practice. In the Analysis  
section, we explore the commonalities among the projects. By outlining  
the principles that govern online participatory space, we hope to draw  
some general conclusions about the functioning of these spaces, the  
incentives that inspire participation, and the behavior of members of  
online communities. The objective of the analysis is to develop a set  
of design principles that can be used as a point of departure for  
further experimentation in the field of online participatory media.

Half of the experiments described in the previous chapter use the  
telephone as the primary tool of expression. In PLWire Telephone Tag,  
Emma On Relationships Call In Show, the Burak Hotline, and the  
WikiPhone, participants contribute content to websites by calling the  
site and leaving a voice message that is accessible online.  
Implementing these systems has given me an opportunity to reflect on  
the power of performance in online participatory media. An inherent  
part of entertainment and media, performance creates potentially  
meaningful interactions through the raw, intimate and playful  
engagement of participants. However, designing systems that require  
participatory performance is hazardous: performance requires a great  
deal of courage on the part of the performer, which can discourage  
participation. On the other hand, performing members and online  
audiences alike respond positively to this style of participation.  
Watching one person shrug off self-consciousness to perform can be an  
incentive for others to do the same.

The other half of the experiments described are participatory but do  
not require performance on the part of the people to engage with the  
system. These projects include Rain, OpenBrand, OPENSTUDIO, and Tiny.  
These non-performative participatory projects engage participants  
through other creative means – drawing, creating soundscapes and  
reacting to advertising in clever ways. Because performance is not a  
prerequisite of participation, they are at once a less threatening and  
a more familiar way for participants to express themselves without  
leaving comfortable territory.

Playful Systems

One commonality linking the performative and non-performative systems  
is play. Each project makes strategic use of play in its own way. Some  
projects engage participants in competition using tools that reduce  
expression to primitive forms. OPENSTUDIO, for example, features a  
Draw tool that requires members to draw with a mouse or stylus. The  
Draw tool registers human gestures in raw form, allowing no refinement  
of the lumpy, misshapen forms after they are made. Moreover, the lack  
of an undo function encourages members to accept accidents as a part  
of the process of drawing. Drawing made with the Draw tool evince none  
of the refinement of other popular drawing programs, whose control  
points and bézier curves smooth lines and leave no trace of the human  
hand that made them. In OPENSTUDIO, all members are subject to the  
same limitations provided by the Draw tool, which makes it easier to  
overcome self consciousness and diminishes their concern about how  
their creations appear in the eyes of others. By relinquishing their  
ability to control their output in the ways to which they are  
accustomed, members must overcome their egos in order to operate  
within the parameters of the system.

Similarly, Tiny reduces creative expression to a 13 x 13 grid of  
pixels. Participants post the best icon that they are able to design  
within those parameters. Competition is not formalized in either  
OPENSTUDIO or Tiny, but outdoing other contributions on the site  
provides a strong incentive for using the site.

The Burak Hotline limits expression through the use of the telephone  
for a specific purpose. Asking members to call and tell the public why  
they should receive buraks encourages participants to outdo previous  
posts in order to be rewarded more buraks than other contestants. In  
practice, nearly all participants resorted to comedy in an attempt to  
beg for buraks.

The way play functions in the systems described above can be clarified  
by looking at popular summer camp games. In games such as the potato  
sack race or the dizzy race, children climb into sacks or spin in  
circles before running to the far end of a field. These handicaps  
remove natural ability, evening the playing field and diminishing  
competition in favor of the collective experience of participation. In  
short, play builds community, emphasizing empathy instead of personal  

Another way play is expressed in the projects is through an irreverent  
attitude toward serious subject matter. Bertolt Brecht noted that  
inspiring empathy and pleasure through humor can be an effective way  
to address serious concerns. In Emma On Relationships, Emma initiates  
a conversation about relationship issues among college students. While  
the tone is deadpan comedy, the issues discussed include birth  
control, body image, and straight and gay relationships. Other systems  
make it possible for people to rewrite serious content in humorous  
ways. In WikiPhone, the content is political speeches and news clips.  
In OpenBrand, participants rewrite banner advertisements, often using  
humor to highlight the shortcomings of products and the way they are  
marketed. Jane McGonigal, who describes play as “an embodied, social  
and highly consequential ritual, always already grounded in the  
practices of everyday life,” uses alternative reality games to inspire  
discussion about issues, such as societal violence and oil consumption  
(McGonigal 1). Engaging play can help us overcome our fear of self  
consciousness, opening up a space of critical dialogue without the  
fear of seeming ridiculous. Play can be used as a vehicle to discuss  
serious subject in a fruitful way.

Design Axes of Online Participation

Looking at all of the participatory projects of the thesis together,  
it is possible to identify three major axes pertinent to the design of  
participatory systems. All participatory systems must negotiate these  
axes, falling somewhere between these two extreme positions on either  
end. The three axes can be described as follows:

    * introverted vs. extroverted
    * goal-oriented vs. aimless
    * event-based vs. sustained

In practice, any participatory project will contain gradations of both  
extremes, but identifying the extreme ends of the axes is instructive  
as it tells us about the factors governing participatory systems. The  
axes are not mutually exclusive – projects are governed by all three  
simultaneously, and their intersections also provide valuable  
information about member interactions.

AXIS 1 / Introverted v. Extroverted

Like a parasite to its host, extroverted systems depend on others,  
while introverted systems survive completely on their own, without  
direct affiliation to anything outside themselves. This section will  
locate the projects along a continuum between extroverted or  
introverted in order to discuss the strengths and weaknesses of each  

Participants in extroverted systems operate on content drawn from  
sources outside the system. For example, the commentary of OpenBrand  
is spread virally on existing banner advertisements across the web.  
Likewise, WikiPhone streams content from YouTube and other sites,  
encouraging participants to rewrite published content drawn from these  
sources. Both systems give individuals power to rewrite content in a  
public, unfiltered, creative forum, by creating a feedback loop with  
outside entities. Often extroverted systems can establish a link  
between big entities to small ones through this exchange. OpenBrand,  
for instance, inspires dialogue between corporate advertisers and  
individuals who rewrite their advertisements. WikiPhone disrupts  
current modes of production by borrowing content from YouTube.  
Extroverted systems implemented by others include Google Will Eat  
Itself (GWEI), a popular example that acts like a parasite and takes  
advantage of vulnerabilities in Google’s AdSense program, disrupting  
modes of economic control. Mashups are also good examples of  
extroverted systems, aiming to combine existing systems to produce new  

 From these examples it is clear that extroverted systems almost  
inevitably raise copyright issues. Taking content from sites across  
the Internet without permission makes trademark infringement a  
constant danger. Opening up new spaces for creativity by exposing  
protected content, these extroverted systems can redefine power roles  
in the creation of content, activating consumers and raising important  
questions about the ownership of information. Moreover, as  
participants pull content from various sources on the web, they often  
confront the topical issues that comprise the content. This engagement  
in the world is another positive attribute of extroverted systems,  
bringing to mind Habermas’ concept of communicative action, in which  
members of a community join together in a debate centered around  
published cultural material (Habermas 197). Extroverted systems can be  
an effective way to create critical dialogue about topical issues  
among participants.

At the opposite pole of the axis are introverted systems, which build  
communities that do not refer directly to anything outside of system  
itself. Introverted systems are generally insular, as their name  
implies, and do not latch onto existing communities. Introverted  
systems are exclusionary by nature: even if they have an open  
invitation policy, once members have joined, they are in and everyone  
else is out. Although it would appear as if the isolation of these  
systems does not offer opportunities for cultural critique, the  
opposite is true. In many cases, the safe spaces of introverted  
systems are ideal locations in which to engage in cultural critique.

Examples of introverted systems include OPENSTUDIO, which establishes  
a closed community where members experiment with ideas about  
creativity and economics. Because of its isolation from the rest of  
the web, community members are free to experiment with many of the  
issues that extroverted systems face, such as copyright infringement  
and the value of art. Its relative isolation does not prevent serious  
political discussions from occurring in OPENSTUDIO. These discussions  
are carried out through the creation of content using the Draw tool  
and the tagging system. Another system utilizing an introspective  
approach is EOR, which uses a world of its own to take up issues of  
sexuality and femininity safely. Finally, Tiny and the Burak Hotline  
are introverted systems that provide a space for play without  
concerning participants with outside issues. Even Tiny, whose 13 X 13  
pixel grid would seem to preclude political expression, inspired a  
heated visual debate when one participant began posting drawings of  
swastikas and other inflammatory material.

Introverted systems often act as microcosms of the outside world.  
Granting participants the ability to act in safe spaces according to  
experimental rules allows people to define and test their own  
identities, controlling their own reputations through their  
contributions. At best, introverted systems can allow participants to  
experiment with limited consequences in a safe community.

AXIS 2 / Goal-oriented v. Aimless

The goal-oriented vs. aimless axis describes whether the system takes  
on a specific issue to generate directed dialogue about it (goal- 
oriented), or simply tries to generate a broad range of content  
without dictating the subject area (aimless). Even the so called  
aimless systems are motivated by a higher order objective which is  
usually to generate as much content as possible. In service of this  
objective aimless systems often cast a wide net, rarely eliminating  
submissions on the basis of content. The more narrowly defined goal- 
oriented systems can be a productive way to generate dialogue about  
specific social or political issues, but on the other hand, aimless  
systems often lead to unexpected uses that prove beneficial. Both  
approaches have advantages that will be discussed in the following  

Like a honeycomb providing the structure into which individual bees  
deposit honey, aimless systems supply the framework into which  
participants contribute content. While aimless systems often must  
privilege certain forms over others for practical reasons (e.g.  
YouTube is primarily oriented toward video), they solicit  
contributions from participants without a strong ulterior objective or  
purpose. The designer of such a system has implicit power over  
participants through system design, but this power is not expressed  
through overt content selection. Typically, the organization of these  
systems is flat, meaning that all participants within the system are  
roughly equal to each other.

The issue most commonly raised in the design and implementation of  
aimless participatory systems regards authorship. Authorship in  
participatory systems can be described on two levels: authorship on  
the part of the system creator, who decides to make an online  
participatory space to begin with, and authorship on the part of the  
participants, who contribute content to the system once it is up and  
running. In aimless systems, contributors garner the most recognition;  
the system designer generally remains in the background. By way of  
example, the creators of YouTube, an aimless system, made their first  
public appearance on the site only the day after it was sold. Aimless  
sites create the feeling that the authorship of participants is more  
important than the system designer because participants are free to  
contribute material whose content is not overtly dictated by the  
system designers.

Aimless systems tend to be democratic or flat, granting all  
participants equal rights and powers. For example, in OPENSTUDIO, all  
member have the same privileges, starting with 25 buraks and  
accumulating more or less wealth based on their activity in the  
system. Ideally, these systems function as a sounding board, in which  
the contributions of participants point to the issues most pertinent  
to them, rather than the system creator overtly imposing her own  
priorities. Aimless systems are open-ended and can indicate the values  
and beliefs of its participants through the content that they  

Goal-oriented systems are characterized by strong ulterior objectives  
on the part of the designer, who seeks to address specific issues by  
soliciting a narrow range of content from participants. This control  
results in a hierarchical arrangement, in which the author of the  
system expresses overt control or delegates this control to specific  
participants, who then exercise it over others.

Like aimless systems, goal-oriented systems raise important issues  
regarding authorship. Typically, these highly scripted projects  
diminish the importance of authorship on the part of the participants,  
due to the control that the system designer expresses over content.  
This control can result in hierarchical systems that turn participants  
into anonymous semi-contributors. For example, blogs establish a  
structure in which a single person is in control of the content, with  
all other contributors restricted to the role of commentators. Call in  
radio shows, in which the control of the host is never in question  
even as she invites participation from the audience, illustrates this  
principle. Emma On Relationships has a similar distribution of power,  
inviting participation through a limited commenting forum that never  
challenges her ability to dictate the issues the show will tackle  
next. Likewise, PLWire Telephone Tag invites outsiders to call and  
respond to content posted on the PLW website, participating only in a  
limited way. The hierarchical structure of goal-oriented systems may  
function as a barrier of entry, as participants lack a sense of  
control over the material to which they are responding. However, goal- 
oriented sites rarely suffer from the formlessness that can affect  
aimless sites. They are often effective methods of addressing specific  
issues within a community.

The goal-oriented vs. aimless axis highlights one of the principle  
difficulties of participatory media: making sense of a multitude of  
voices. Aimless systems represent the truest expression of the  
fundamentally democratic aspect of participatory media, in which every  
participant is given an equal voice. However, it can be difficult to  
distinguish intelligible speech from the many overlapping  
conversations in a crowded room where everyone is speaking at once.  
Goal-oriented systems differentiate the signal from the noise by  
dictating the topic of conversation. Unfortunately, by limiting the  
range of acceptable expression, goal-oriented systems short-circuit  
the democratic potential of participatory media in exchange for  
directing participants toward a clear goal.

An initially aimless site that arrives at objectives by examining the  
contributions of the participants might be one way to negotiate  
between the poles of the goal-oriented vs. aimless axis. This approach  
has been implemented successfully in open source projects such as the  
development of Linux, but has yet to be tested extensively in  
participatory performance media.

AXES 3 / Event-based v. Sustained

The final axis refers to the way participatory projects exist in time;  
either as short event-based actions, or in a more sustained,  
continuing manner.

Event-based systems require real-time interaction between people. The  
roots of these systems lie in the happenings discussed in the  
background section. The happenings were brought about by artists who  
sought a direct and powerful artistic practice whose ephemeral product  
could not be bought or sold. The events occurring in online  
participatory space have a predetermined beginning, middle and end,  
and take place over a relatively short period of time with expiration  
dates, all of which distinguish them from sustained events on the  
Internet, which often unfold over years and have no clearly defined  
time-structure. Historically, most event-based systems involved  
synchronous interaction between participants, but online spaces are  
changing this by enforcing norms of asynchronous socializing. Rain and  
Misty Dawn are traditional event-based exhibitions. Misty Dawn was  
installed in a gallery for a fixed amount of time. The power of event- 
based systems is in the collective -- many people come together to  
experience the same event at the same time. Real-time systems lend  
themselves to collaboration, as people create and react to the efforts  
of other in a swift, intuitive way. WikiPhone attempts to capitalize  
on the power of event-based systems by inviting people to collaborate  
simultaneously from various locations. Event-based systems aspire to  
function like physical meeting places, such as cafés, concert halls or  

The relatively short periods of time in which creation takes place in  
event-based systems have the advantage of focussing the energy of  
participants. However, because the memory of a significant event can  
rarely match the experience of the event itself, the power of event- 
based pieces often diminishes rapidly once they are completed. The  
limited duration of event-based artworks was their primary appeal for  
many early participatory artists, who sought to prevent the sale of  
artworks as commodities on the art market. However, the same  
ephemerality of event-based pieces make it difficult to develop  
lasting relationships.

In contrast to the fleeting nature of event-based participatory  
systems, sustained systems operate over a long period of time,  
unfolding through the unpredictable accumulation of asynchronous  
interactions. Sustained systems intentionally encourage these  
asynchronous interactions in order to provide a framework for  
powerful, long-term relationships. All of the online experiments  
described in the thesis are examples of sustained systems, except for  
WikiPhone and Burak Hotline, which contain elements of both extremes.  
For instance, OPENSTUDIO aims to create a community through  
asynchronous interactions between people. The most lasting  
relationships appear to have been developed through the exchange of  
multiple drawings over a period of months. EOR is another sustained  
system, in which participants return to the web site to view and  
respond to new episodes. The Burak Hotline exists on the middle ground  
of the axis between sustained and event-driven systems. The project  
uses the lasting community of OPENSTUDIO in a semi-sustained contest.  
Burak Hotline may have been more successful if it had been event- 
based, such that members of OPENSTUDIO were only invited to call for a  
short, one time offer, similar to a holiday sale.

Sustained systems can become stale, stalling out or withering away,  
like any long-term relationship. However, sustained relationships can  
also strengthen over time through the accumulation of small actions by  
individual members. Deployed effectively, sustained systems have the  
potential to create strong community through the agglomeration of  
multiple asynchronous encounters.

It seems that the online spaces with the most potential combine both  
event-based and sustained systems. This is the case with WikiPhone,  
which is a long term sustained meeting ground for event-based  
collaboration, offering the most potential for community building in  
online spaces.

In this chapter, we have concluded that playful systems strengthen  
ties between participants, building community. We defined three axes  
and located the projects along each of them in order to develop an  
understanding of the principles governing the design of participatory  
media. By identifying the advantages of various approaches, this  
analysis lays the groundwork for future research into participatory  

Chapter Five: Conclusion

The creation and distribution of online content is changing. Remixes  
and mashups are traded back and forth among participants in a  
seemingly endless loop that at once bewilders and hints at the  
potential of the new modes of creation and distribution.

 From the trading of smaller and smaller pieces of information, the  
next logical step is to network the act of real-time creation itself.  
Instead of trading bits of completed creative capital, we will trade  
information as we are creating it. The move toward collaborative  
creativity will depend as much on participation from sources dispersed  
across the web as it will on the software and network architectures to  
support it.

Participatory media capitalize on the growing trend toward independent  
production by formalizing the structure of participation among these  
dispersed groups. Encouraging participants to contribute content to  
publicly accessible sites occurs for various reasons. It can be the  
purpose of generating traffic to the sites where content is posted,  
for its own sake or for economic reasons, e.g. to sell advertisement  
space on the sites generating the traffic, or for more idealistic  
ends, such as providing new spaces for people to engage collectively  
in the creation of culture, or providing spaces where participants can  
gather around common interests, and engage in critical dialogue about  
them. Perhaps it is possible that creativity and commerce could merge  
in a way that would permit these activities to occur simultaneously.

At the moment, however, it would seems that the majority of online  
participatory sites are focused more on generating hits than on the  
more idealistic ends that could realize the social potential of these  
systems. The participatory art movement of the 1950s and 60s  
demonstrated that performance and participation can be a powerful  
medium for addressing contemporary social and political issues. This  
will only increase with the broadening of the base of participants,  
from the small number of people that were engaged in the rarefied art  
world to the millions of people that are online every day in  
contemporary online communities, combined with recent technological  

Although it is tempting to see online participatory spaces as the  
manifestation of something altogether new, these spaces represent a  
new location for an activity as old as human society: the collective  
elaboration of meaning. Online participatory spaces are the  
continuation of a public sphere where society mediates its disputes  
and examines its values. We looked at a number of creative online  
participatory projects. The projects explore the potential of these  
new online participatory spaces by engaging with them directly,  
providing frameworks in which members can gather to engage in creative  
acts. These playful experiments establish participatory performance  
spaces online where people can discuss and critique social and  
political structures. We can distill the following design axes for  
online participatory media from the experiments:

   1. Introverted v. extroverted Introverted systems that become  
microcosms of the outside world, in contrast to extroverted systems,  
which draw material from elsewhere on the web.
   2. Goal-oriented v. aimless Systems that aim to achieve a specific  
goal, in contrast to aimless systems whose primary objective is to  
encourage the maximum amount of expression from the greatest number of  
   3. Event-based v. sustained Event-based systems that take place in  
synchronous online encounters, in contrast to sustained systems that  
unfold over longer periods of asynchronous interactions.

The hope is that the outcome of the experiments will lead to a better  
understanding of the design principals governing participatory  
performance online, in order to better capitalize on the powerful  
impact that these systems can have as vehicles enabling social and  
political change.


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    * Spector. Guggenheim (http://www.guggenheimcollection.org/site/artist_work_md_121_1.html 
    * Happenings: http://happenings.ccnmtl.columbia.edu/index.php/  


This thesis is about collaboration, and it is fitting to speak of the  
project itself as a collaboration. The thesis was written with Joe  
Dahmen, whose intelligence and enthusiasm for the theory and practice  
of participatory art were instrumental in formulating these thoughts.  
Many of the projects were developed with my colleague at the Media Lab  
Philip DeCamp, who taught me a great deal about technology and has  
been a valuable collaborator as well as a good friend.

The artistic vision of my advisor and friend John Maeda is a constant  
source of inspiration.

I would like to thank my thesis readers, Ute Meta Bauer and Walter  
Bender for their inspiring conversations and feedback.

I am grateful to the members of the Physical Language Workshop at the  
MIT Media Lab with whom I have shared creative ideas and work: Burak  
Arikan, Kelly Norton, Takashi Okamoto, Brent Fitzgerald, Kate  
Hollenbach, Kyle Buza, Luis Blackaller, Noah Paessel, Carlos Rocha,  
and Henry Holtzman. To Lab friends: Noah Vawter, Kelly Dobson, Ben  
Dalton, Hayes Raffle, Amanda Parkes, Cati Vaucelle, Josh Lifton, James  
Patten and Tad Hirsch. To the professors who have guided me: Chris  
Csikszentmihalyi, Krzysztof Wodiczko, Hiroshi Ishii, Deb Roy, Tod  
Machover and Joe Paradiso.

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