Participatory Culture?

There has been an effort to understand Youtube's relation to Web 2.0 and democratization of the internet on the part of many. Popular culture, as an object of study, is considered both 'ordinary' and a potential site of symbolic struggle, empowerment, and self-expression (Burgess et al., 2009). Because of its quotidian content, YouTube, like other forms of 'bottom up' culture is often overlooked by academics unless it can be seen as a part of a revolutionary political trajectory. Those interested in writing about YouTube and like phenomena are quick to espouse either a utopian Web 2.0 vision of the wonderful latent democratization of communication, or a dystopian vision focusing on the failure to create significant change.

Participatory culture is a term often used to discuss the apparent link between more accessible digital technologies, the surge of user-created content, and a potential shift in the power relations between media industries and their consumers (Jenkins, 2006 in Creeber and Martin, 2009). Jenkins defines participatory culture as one in which 'fans and other consumers are invited to actively participate in the creation and circulation of new content'. The study of YouTube as it truly exists is complicated by its double function as both a 'top-down' platform for the distribution of mainstream popular culture, and a 'bottom-up' platform for vernacular creativity (Burgess et al., 2009).

 In YouTube's own words, it "provides a forum for people to connect, inform, and inspire others across the globe and acts as a distribution platform for original content creators and advertisers large and small". It is the last portion of the self-description that brings into view the rising use of YouTube for advertisers and the traditional commercial media. The pervasiveness of consumerist culture has a solid establishment on YouTube that seems unlikely to disappear anytime soon. So-called "participatory video ads" that look identical to the rest of the content have been sold spots on YouTube's front page since August 2006 (Keen, 2007). This creates an interesting dynamic that, on one hand supports the traditional supposition that YouTube is a democratic system, and on the other hand, undermines it by revealing the unlevel playing field fashioned by economics (Burgess et al., 2009).

Alexandra Juhasz summarizes this paradoxical state of YouTube astutely: "A people's forum but not a revolution, YouTube video manifests the deep hold of corporate culture on our psyches, re-establishing that we are most at home as consumers (even when we are producers)".

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