Tag Archive for 'Debate'

Social Media Production Development Themes

There is a useful and important question that we can ask about social media, and what we understand to be the emerging role of the social media producer. Does our view of people shape the methodology that we adopt in thinking about social media, or does our view of the available methodologies shape the way that we think about how people use social media? The reason that this is important is because if we adopt different approaches to the study of social media, then we will necessarily arrive at different conclusions and different expectations about the people who are involved in producing them.

I want to use this blog to sketch-out some ideas and principles that I hope to adopt when developing my studies of social media, and the associated creative practices that underpin them. To be direct, my starting point is humanistic and empirical, it is based on the idea that what matters most about the study of media is what people become in the practice of sharing and creating different media products and relationships.

This means thinking about the dispositions that people adopt, the patterns of behaviour that they exhibit, the accomplishments that they seek to achieve, and the conceptual framework and language routines that they articulate in the process of enacting their social presence. This is an approach that is informed by symbolic interactionism, which is a way of pragmatically thinking about our engagements in our individual and social life.

Herbert Mead, the renowned American anthropologist/sociologist, framed the pragmatic view of human life in these terms: firstly, we define ourselves as individuals in relation to our social encounters and situations; second, we define our social encounters in relation to our individual creative dispositions; and finally, we use symbolic forms, such as language, communication practice and media, to establish social relationships which are capable of creating new opportunities for mutual understanding.

This view sees social life, and the individuals that make up the social body, as the primary source of all human undertakings and accomplishments. This means that all the patterns of behaviour, all the concepts that account for our behaviour, and all the meanings that we negotiate between different agents acting in the social body, are observable, and are made meaningful as a process of negotiation, reflection and action.

Therefore, any study of social media has to recognise that it is people, themselves, who create the meanings that we collectively hold about the nature of the world, and so studying and accounting for the way that people make sense of the world is the primary purpose of our reflections on the way that things are, and how we fit with them.

It is the meanings that people create and negotiate that give us the options to act in particular ways, some established, and some emerging and different. And it is people who share the symbolic frameworks of language and mediated representation that are part of the cooperative and developmental process that results in our interactions with the world in purposeful ways.

Now, taking the symbolic interactionist framework at face value, it is possible to map-out some principles and themes that might help to form a view of social media, and the manner in which it is possible to study the forms and practices that social media represents.

This is a sketch and reflection on the practices that I’ve developed in two modules that I teach at De Montfort University, Leicester Media School. TECH1002 Social Media and Technology, and TECH3022 Advanced Social Media Productions. The first module is an introduction to media culture and social media practices, and the latter module introduces ethnographic principles of enquiry, combined with creative and collaborative working practices, suited to emerging social media production challenges.

Reflexive Learning
Symbolic interactionists regard human agency as a primary component of social life and activity, thereby adopting a view of human agency that is reflexive and contemplative, and which is able to retain memories of former practices and states of mind, either as habits or as narrative experiences, which we can learn from and reflect on. Thus, drawing inferences about the process of what makes personal and social development possible.

Blogging – Explaining to Others
I’ve been encouraging learners to write and produce blogs that account for their experience as they learn to make media and share their media socially. There are generally three levels of reflection that I have aimed to introduce. First, how does the process of creating and developing media products feel to the individuals involved? Second, how does this process feel to the group of people who are involved? Third, asking how might the products and the process look to other people who are not involved or committed to the repertoire of meanings that are being offered?

By breaking-up the process of reflection in this way, a mature learner should be able to switch from one perspective to another, and thereby they will be able to account for their own intentions in acting and communicating in the way that they do – before accounting for how these intentions might be operationalised with other people. If we get stuck in any one of these modes, the self-observant mode for example, and are unable to imagine what they might be like for other people, then we will be unable to fulfil our potential as participations in our social situations, or feel individually satisfied at the same time.

Vlogging – Personal Reflection
Reflection isn’t a zero-sum game, however, and so identifying our own individual needs does not necessarily mean a trade-off against what we are trying to achieve socially. A useful technique to make this process tangible is the use of video reflection. I’ve only started to do this properly this year, and yet have found it to be a rich and accessible form of reflection. There seems to be something about opening-up to the webcam on a computer that allows for a more extended set of expressions of what we are thinking about.

I’ve used this process through the year in the De Montfort University Universal Design for Learning requirements, that expect lectures to be recorded or summarised on video in order to assist learners make sense of the complex nature of the topics. I was reluctant to do this initially, but I soon realised that I was benefiting from recording a summary of the topic of my lectures, and then listening to it and watching it, before posting it to YouTube.

I was never sure that I was making sense previously. Now I feel more confident that I am using the terminology of the investigative method, and the vocabulary of the topics in a more purposeful manner. I can check-in with myself and find out how I am doing, rather than waiting for the approval of other people to offer this supporting acknowledgement. It seems that I am more independent and self-actualised as a result of adopting this simple practice and turning it into a habit.

Talkaoke – Structured Discussion
One of the challenges working with first year undergraduate learners, is to develop and nurture a more extended thinking practice. It takes a long time to get learners from the UK to engage in a discussion and conversation that stays on-topic, and which focusses on the subject and the issues at hand. Literally, my experience is that within thirty-seconds the conversation gets deflected and takes a track that is only relevant to the immediate and personal experience of the learner, but which doesn’t probe or explore any of the deeper and more intractable issues that might be related to a problem or social issue.

One helpful technique that I’ve explored this year to help to redefine this lack of focus is the use of structured discussions in the form of a Talkaoke. This is a basic exercise in passing a microphone and explaining a concept or an idea without being interrupted by other learners. This means learners are able to demonstrate that they can dig deeper into an issue that would otherwise be deflected and avoided when a conversation between friends takes place.

It’s a challenge to speak to a topic for a sustained period, and the focus by the speaker as they hold the microphone is more engaged, knowing that the discussion is being recorded requires an extra level of preparedness and depth. Not everyone can do this immediately, but it’s something we can all do with practice. As long as we a prepared to have a go and reserve judgements until we listen back to the discussion afterwards.

Increasingly I have an aversion to mass-produced and industrially distributed media. I’m getting bored with the sterile and limited repertoire of concerns that are voiced in much of what forms mass media these days. Instead, I’m drawn to more independent and DIY forms of media, because they offer an alternative framework of engagement that draws on the creativity of the people who are making it, and the alternative ways of thinking that they otherwise explore.

Engaging learning through doing.
DIY media is useful because there is no one telling individuals what it is that they should be making or saying. This is a form of media production that is self-determined and draws on the interests and the inquisitiveness of the people who are making it. There is no template, there is no right and wrong, no fixed path or pattern. This is about seeing what emerges as a creative expression and as a form of individual self-discovery.

It is also a form of expression that is directly connected with the process of making something and sharing it. The sense of achievement that comes from making something for ourselves, however limited or ramshackle this might be. The DIY ethos celebrates the achievements of everyone, requiring us to turn-down our sense of judgement, or professionalism, or business acumen, or whatever, and to value the personal achievement and the expression that has been invested in a media product by individuals, rather than simply viewing media products as the outpouring of a commercial process or a factory production line.

Avoiding expensive equipment.
To engage learners in the process of creating things we have to learn to value the most immediate forms of media production, craft and technology that we have to hand. Media production learners get well drilled in the art and craft of the mainstream and industrial production techniques, particularly those required for television or radio, for example. But they have fewer opportunities to explore their creative potential in the form of their own limited, hands-on, capabilities.

If everything can be achieved by applying a pre-determined filter, or by using a technology that makes an artefact look or sound like something else that already exists, then our media becomes sterile and lifeless. Knowing that there is a person behind the process makes it more meaningful, regardless of how ramshackle it might appear.

Promoting alternative and independent points of view.
It’s essential, therefore, that we have in place a structure for learning that promotes and exposes learners to alternative forms of media practice. Particularly those forms of media practice that offer alternative opinions, expressions of identity and dynamic forms of creative practice. Simply churning-out graduates who are capable of slotting into the already established and pre-existing employment and skills structure that is represented by mainstream media is no longer tenable.

All we will end up with is a sterile and flat media culture that offers no diversity of thinking or interest, and which can only reproduce that which we already have. Where will the innovation in media forms and practices come from if we are only teaching learners how to fit into the established mould of media producers? Don’t we have a responsibility break and remake the mould from time to time?

Social Learning
One thing that is clearly breaking the mould, even as we speak, is the requirement to learn the skills and attitudes of collaborative thinking and working. The tools that are available to us in the internet age are making it much more likely that we will have to collaborate in ways that we have never done previously, on a continual and a deeper level than we have done in the past.

Collaborations skills are going to need to be richer and more socially based than the old command-and-control models of organisation development will allow. It’s going to be essential that knowledge workers will have an outlook and disposition that is essentially social, and which enhances the network potential of new data-driven tools and communication practices.

Dominance of Skills & Roles Models
Presently we are locked into a model of learning that is process driven, in which the focus is on how we manage the techniques of project development, rather than focussing on the relationships that are fostered by the people involved. This means that we are continually turning-over the ground of set skills-pathways and skills-models that come from a previous age – the mass production and factory age.

The role-models that are advance in this model also tend to come from the same community of practitioners that are identified with tightly-defined set of production techniques. The value of people who can discuss social imperatives is not part of this grouping. How we feel and understand what things mean, is not necessarily something we focus on when putting a production team together, though in an age of increased anxiety, this might be worth pursuing.

Shift to Practical & Experiential Engagement
What we learn from practice and experience will be different from the kind of analysis that we can derive from our understanding of process and systems. While these systems are important and provide the backbone of a set of media practices, the social context in which they are enacted are equally important. One gives life to the other, and to focus on a purely rationalist or instrumental view of human activity and motivation produces a sterile and alienating experience.

Peer-Learning Practices
This is why continuous peer-learning techniques are essential in the development of a social approach to project management and development. Learning is no longer terminated upon graduation. It has to continue and continue to be undertaken for the rest of our lives. So, let’s make these learning practices as accessible and enjoyable as possible. The symbolic interactionist approach recognises that all social activity is learnt activity. We continually learn from one another. To learn in isolation is going against our natural dispositions, perhaps suited to less than twenty percent of the population. So why aren’t we accessing those social learning practices that work so well in informal play or recreation?

Playfulness and Alternative Learning Practices
There is a developing trend towards the use of gamification techniques to enhance learning and comprehension. Simply regurgitating the ‘tram-lines’ models of learning that have been imposed in the mass-media age will not suffice. We need to look again a co-learning and participation-based models of learning that foster and nurture a sense of engagement on multiple levels, not just those that are preferred by the inspectors and supervisors of the curriculum. Humans comprehend the world in many different ways. We approach problem-solving in equally diverse ways, so why not allow learners the opportunity to explore more diverse approaches and use a wider range of practical tools that are better suited to their divergent cognitive dispositions?

Collaborative Practice
If social media is to realise its potential, not only as a mode of promotion and conversation, it also needs to be articulated as a set of collaborative platforms that ensure that work can be developed on a shared, transparent and continually engaged basis. The silo mentality of development is a difficult one to shift in the mind-set of most organisations, as it seems counter to rationalist and efficiency models of social organisation.

Stepping back and allowing self-determined and interdisciplinary teams to take the reins of a project is anathema to most project managers and systems developers, who would rather work by dividing and conquering, as each task and resource that is deployed to focus on the task is optimally deployed on a unit-by-unit basis. Russel Ackoff critiques this approach, when he questioned the ‘systems-thinking’ mind-set. His argument was as simple as: take any single component of a car and see if it achieves anything like what the car can achieve when it is operational as a whole!

Wiki Development
The tool that I’ve been using most to develop this is an instillation of MediaWiki – the system that Wikipedia runs on, and which has been installed on the DMU Commons. It requires a change of mind-set to embrace wikis as a collaborative development space, because the lack of hierarchy, the open structure and the negation of status challenges many of the received models of knowledge development that are incorporated in our public institutions.

As the symbolic interactionist tradition acknowledges, it’s not the institutions that matter, but the perceptions and the shared experiences of the people who form those institutions that make the difference. If we separate the organisation from the people then we are left with a sterile and information-process-led approach which most people seem to find to be an anathema to a happy and fulfilled working life. So why keep doing it?

Social Production Tools
Fundamentally, we have to invest in the social tools that will enable us to maintain meaningful human contact when we engage in dispersed projects and try to achieve extended common goals. Yes, different types of jobs and tasks tend to attract specific types of thinkers, but they might be so much richer and quicker to resolve if they take a more pragmatic and inclusive approach to cognitive diversity. Simply employing people with the same outlook will only produce the same responses. If we paraphrase Einstein, the way to critique one system of thinking is to deploy an alternative system of thought that that can help us to shift our perspective and bring about fresh thinking.

Before Copernicus every expert was adamant that the Earth was the centre of the universe, and that when we looked at the sunset we saw the sun setting below the horizon. After Copernicus, it was possible to demonstrate that it was a false image, and that it was actually the horizon that was rising to obscure the sun. Sunsets, however, remain beautiful and prompt a sense of wonder – so it’s win-win to be able to think both ways.

Social Evaluation Tools
This means that we need to think differently about the evaluation tools that we use to demonstrate that we are engaged in a common endeavour of value. How we look at meaningful social communication has to be understood in different terms than simply measuring the interactions and the number of people who flick a switch and stare at a screen. What are the wider outcomes that we are trying to achieve? What is the context of need and social development that we are trying to cope with? How can change and shifts in disposition be accounted for?

Either we continually try to chase our tails, and keep-up with the numbers and the metrics, or we step back and ask questions about the ethics, the value and the meaning of our social forms of communication. In my work with community media, the challenge is never to measure the audience of a community media project, but instead to ask what people become in the process of developing the relationships they establish in their practices?

By returning to the triad of pragmatic communication, associated with Pearce, we can complete the cycle of development and understanding. What are the forms of communication helping us to become? How do they help establish a sense of ‘self’? How are they valued and understood in the context of the community of practice and interest in which they are expressed? The pragmatic symbolic interaction tradition is an anti-essentialist form of thinking. It doesn’t see language as a universal trait of human nature, rather, it looks to practice and activity as the formation of our language.

The need to collaborate and meet shared social goals is what leads us to formulate language and symbolic representation. What, then, are the shared aims and goals that our present forms of symbolic representation seek to address? Our tools of symbolic communication are always shifting and changing, and in the process our goals and aims also change.

Social life is never static, it is dynamic and changing. It evolves in practice, and our reflection on that practice gives us new insight into how we can change and evolve our goals and aims continually. We are restless in this respect, because we remember that we have lived our lives one way before and we are drawn to the creative practice of trying new ways to live, new ways to interact and new ways to see the world.

Pragmatic Models of Communication
Pragmatism, then, takes the dynamic process of interaction and social engagement and asks: what do we become in the process of applying these emergent forms and practices of communication? Accounting for change is the primary need of all social enquiry. We are continually faced with change. We remember the habits of the past, and sometimes we long for those habits with a force that is deeply held within our being.

Periods of rapid social change are always challenging, and they displace the equilibrium and harmony that we previously established. But in time we adapt. In time we establish and incorporate fresh perspectives and the harsh lessons of life get incorporated in our language repertoires and routines. It is impossible for us to live in a word of no memory, though it is often difficult for us to move on from the past. We are driving into the future with our eyes firmly fixed on the rear-view mirror, (to steal an analogy).

Affordances & Constraints of Technology
Of course, technology plays an important part in the development of our dispositions and sense-making capabilities. As technology changes, so does our ability reflect on the mechanisms by which we engage with the world, recall information about the world, and engage with one another. The McLuhan’esque determination that it is the technology which shapes our comprehension of the world is only partly true. Technology plays a role, but it does not exist in isolation, and humans still have to make sense of the technology that they engage with and use.

A pragmatic approach to technology seeks to understand the relationship between our sense of self, our sense of the social group in which we operate, and the media and symbolic forms that we have to hand, that allow us to go beyond our immediate bodily senses and capabilities. Any examination of the technology of communication cannot be deterministic. Technology and media practices do not define the human experience. They may help to shape that experience, but they do not totalise it or finalise it.

There is no universal fulcrum on which the world rests. Our experience is the product of the social construction of meaning, which is shifting and developmental, emergent and partial. We never have the full picture and we never will make sense of everything. Our experience is a process of negotiation, and technology and media forms are only one aspect of that process.

Dispersed Meaning Processes
In a sense, the preponderance of social media technologies has helped us to see the world in a different light. We are no longer embedded in mass-media models of subject-object dualisms, and instead can locate the evidence that humans are creative, inventive and generative. Yes, to a large extent we learn by imitation, but if encouraged and supported appropriately, we have the potential to follow richer streams of generative intent.

Mainstream media organisations now spend much of their time mining social media interactions to figure out if they can offer potentially meaningful content to a broad audience. This is a significantly different process than the mass media model of industrial media production. It looks to people and publics to find out what they regard as meaningful, rather than simply imposing content on a uniform and mass audience.

Adapting to these changes is taking time. The levels of collaborative and co-production are emergent, as Henry Jenkins attests, this is a model in which meanings are circulated by users or agents in a network, moving beyond the simple producer-audience binary that has been the mainstay of mass media entertainment through the Twentieth Century.

The task, then, is to prepare for the post-transmission age, in which dispersed and distributed meanings networks are the norm, and the experiences of humans within these networks are given primacy. This will take us beyond the institutions and industry practices of the present, and open a dynamic and shifting mediascape that is driven by individual and unique expressions of belonging, participation, creativity and difference.

Diminution of Importance of Transmission Models of Communication
Gone are the days of reliance on fixed communication pathways. Media will have to work harder to establish a presence within the plethora of social worlds and multiple reality-frameworks that people experience. We might not yet witness the full effect of this change, but it’s becoming more apparent in the dispersal of micro-gestures that make up social media communications platforms and systems. Being able to tune in and out of these reality frameworks is going to be the required skill of future generations.

Rhizomic vs Arbolic forms of Media
Deleuze and Guattari signify this shift in the concept of de-territorialisation, and the contrast between the ‘arbolic’ and the ‘rhyzomic’ structures underpinning knowledge and information exchange and development. Eric Raymond describes this as the ‘cathedral and the bazaar’ model of thinking. We may well continue to invest in long-lasting structures and social spaces, as they serve a functional purpose, but they are slow to respond to social change and aren’t based on flexible forms of thinking. Whereas the rhyzomic forms of collaboration and co-development are fluid and continually emergent, offering change many times over, at a rapid pace and in unpredictable ways.

Practical Tools
The challenge, then is to build a practical set of tools that can help us to adapt to these generative models of social experience, and which help us to realise the potential of participative models of media engagement. These are often labelled as part of the digital literacies model of thinking, and there is a great value in exploring this framework of practice. It will be more effective, however, if we can tie these ideas to the symbolic interactionist methodology, because a lot of the groundwork has already been done, and the simplicity of the precepts have been established.

The challenge is to keep thinking, to keep reading, to keep writing and to keep exploring and making points about how all of this works, what difference it might make in practice, and how we can adopt forms of analysis and evaluation that aren’t fixed to speculative or deterministic ideas. Let’s form a view of people that respects agency and then find a methodology that can account for the creativity that is associated with being human.

Issues in Developing Curriculum for Media Technology and Production

There is an ongoing debate about the status of media studies as a subject and set of learning activities that suggest that the traditional focus on textual, institutional and political areas of interest are no longer the sole area of concern for academics and practitioners who are developing learning and teaching strategies that make sense in the highly changing social, economic and technical environment. For example, William Merrin suggests that models of media study and practice need to go beyond the ‘broadcast’ and ‘transmission’ age models of production and distribution (Merrin, 2014), something that David Gauntlet reflects by calling for a “media studies 2.0” framework based around creativity and participation (Gauntlett, 2015).

This is a debate that is ongoing and has real implications for the way that media courses are structured, planned and promoted. What might the intended outcome of a media studies or media production programme be when seen in the context of rapid and advancing change? How can media studies and media production programmes meet the challenges and needs of the future, such as the “Great Disruption” (Moore, 2016), with its requisite impact on social resilience, adaptation and planning for environmental change, increased urbanisation, technological automation and information management, as well as fundamental changes to the communications model, passing from the arbolic to the rhizomic mode of generative media (Deleuze & Guattari, 2013)?

This is a quick sketch of issues that I believe are important if we are to address future needs in the development and promotion of the media studies and the media production curriculum. This can best be summed up by asking if anyone needs media studies and media production courses? There has to be a point to our undertaking, such as addressing pressing social problems? This entails going beyond a market-based supply of skills needs, and addressing future concerns of sustainability and participation in communities of practice and interests.

How Focussed on skills are the courses we manage?

Most media courses have a strong sense of planning to meet existing skills needs, but to what extent are we investigating the potential skill needs of the future? As the media production and development working environments shift, so to are the skills expectations. As technical and social change occurs we have to try to anticipate, investigate and experiment with patterns of future skills requirements that are relevant for diversified media ecology.

Cognitive Diversity

Well-structured courses draw on strong emphasis of production, reflection and investigation, while also being mindful that it pays to be a generalist when planning for the future, and thus avoiding a too narrow focus on a limited and conforming set of ideas and core practices. The single-mindedness that academics and media practitioners bring to the development of their courses is admirable, but it is at the risk of failing to recognise and exploit the potential that is offered when we bring together mixed learning experiences and contributions. By introducing diverse learning opportunities, and using interdisciplinary and multiple modes of engagement and practice, it should be possible to enhance the learning experiences that address emerging technologies and practices, in a more collaborative mode of delivery than those that are addressed in the traditional linear and abstract forms of knowledge development.

Cognitive Expectation

It is therefore necessary to draw on different scholastic and investigatory traditions of practice and learning, exploiting and experimenting with interdisciplinary methodologies and approaches. If we avoid the narrowing of our expectations, and the conforming of our practices and routines of enquiry, then we can avoid the pitfalls of monological thinking that removes opportunities for discovery and investigation – with the associated limited range of cognitive expectation that accompany these practices and dispositions. Promoting interdisciplinary, collaborative investigative approaches and structured challenges, means that it will be possible to enhance the expectations of learners, while keeping them engaged in a rewarding and stimulating learning experience for its own sake, and not one that promotes deferred reward, status or approval as their primary outcomes.

Experiential Engagement

What we gain from these developmental learning traditions, which sees the cycle of learning as driven by an integrated sense of learning through practice and concept, is a reinforcing cycle of engagement that opens-up the learner’s expectations, rather than limiting their opportunities and potential for diverse outcomes. A narrow mode of engagement and participation only short-changes the potential that cognitive diversity offers. The potential for problem solving is enhanced if those who are engaged in the activities are able to recognise the inherent strengths of different cognitive approaches, while also being open to multiple opportunities for divergent and reflexive thinking. We are all enhanced if we use the multiple cognitive modes of engagement that problem solving requires, as we are more than the sum of our parts when we collaborate.

Reflexive Improvement

A more reflexive approach is one that utilises learner-centred development processes that are situated in practice and supported by appropriate concepts and ideas. The impulse to normalise this experience into pre-structured roles and expressions, limits and restricts the level of engagement that can be achieved if we simply view media practice as a purely functional task – usually learnt by rote and practiced with a limited sense of self. This classical mode of ‘banking’ learning leaves learners with poor techniques for self-actualisation, and undermines their ability to explore alternative forms of engagement and expression that would otherwise promote growth and self-awareness.

Participatory Engagement

The challenge, then, is to design learning programmes that allow learners to develop social engagement skills and to maximise their contribution to the group enterprise. In the collective intelligence models that promote learning through shared practices and shared understandings, learners are oriented away from classical models of learning that promote engagement as atomised and transactional. This means taking every opportunity to provide social and collaborative learning practices that enhance learners sense of belonging as part of a learning community, and thereby able to explore techniques for co-development and co-production that support innovation and problem solving learning.


However, it’s pointless trying to promote participatory forms of learning if they are not appropriately scaffolded with clear expectations that are drawn from ‘real-world’ projects. Partnerships that raise expectations, and are of an international standard, will be increasingly prized in the future, as they will give learners a sense that their individual learning experience is not being designed in isolation, but has a viable sense of meeting raised expectations based on the status of the partners and their progressive and forward-thinking dispositions. Leaving learners with local and limited expectations is no longer sustainable.

Collaborative Practices

The need to develop and enhanced collaborative practices, therefore, is something that can help to give a greater sense of externalised engagement to a learning programme, and thereby minimises the potential negative effects of a ‘bubble’ mentality. This ‘bubble’ mentality is on in which self-confirmation and self-regard limit the opportunity for realistic externalised engagement. The self-reinforcement of expectations promotes brittle and weak learning opportunities that are unattractive and require sustained (and wasted) investment in internal organisation politics and resource battles. It’s better to be seen to be working with external partners because they bring a different perspective to the learning experience, in the way that they enhance expectations for independent working relationships, founded on a future needs analysis, and a diversity of problem solving techniques and technologies.

Social Disruptions

To this end a needs analysis must address how challenges of social, economic, environmental, technological and cultural change and going to impact on future expectations of media production and media communication. If we only frame our learning practices in terms of what we already know, and not in terms of what we need to know, then we will miss the opportunity to prepare learners for the challenges that lay ahead of them, and the roles that they will be expected to perform as media-producers who are capable of meeting these challenges. Diversification of expectations of use of media, to include wider range of technologies and social uses (i.e. gamification, data management, social participation, virtual reality, digital mapping, media-supported-learning, etc.) should be regarded as a key strategic aim of all media courses.

Sustainability Needs

Diversification, then, is necessary because there is an ongoing requirement to addresses the significant and impending challenges of social and organisation development.  By introducing relevant problem-solving approaches to environmental, social and technological change, it should be possible to promote a sense of engagement with sustainability agendas, such as climate change, urbanisation, automation, globalisation, personalisation, data-integration, ethics, social and civic accountability (among many others). As the oncoming waves of change approach, we will need thinkers and producers who won’t be overwhelmed due to lack of preparation, fixed as they might be in a monological thinking pattern. It’s incumbent on all course planners, therefore, to build-in a sense of evaluation of their proposed learning practices, focusing on future resilience and sustainability, and the practical issues of communication and mediation, the use of technology and social engagement, and so on.

Technical Change

If we can’t promote a strong impulse for the exploration and utilisation of technology for social accomplishment, then we are simply narrowing the expectations and value of technology, design and engineering practices, leading to limited cognitive and practical experiences that won’t keep-up with technological change due to lack of support, investment and advocacy of the technical development process. If we promote the pragmatic and continual re-evaluation of the support that is built-in to our taken-for-granted technological practices, then we also engage learners in progressive and creative methodologies and practice that utilise diverse and experimental methods of investigation and problem solving. Why should we cut off the opportunity for continuous learning?

Innovation Expectation

So, media courses that are going to be fit for purpose in the future must therefore have a strong focus on discovery and engagement with emergent and open development practices. They must avoid any narrowing of expectations that would otherwise lead to a reinforcement of the existing solutions that are commonly available, which, over time, may prove to be insufficient and lack a sense of sustainability, resilience and future-proofing. It’s certain that many organisations are thinking about these challenges, and these organisations undoubtedly will become more attractive because they have a more explicit focus on future potential and possibilities of technological practices and media know-how. Therefore, if we comprehensively review our expectations about the media curricula that we offer, then we can begin to develop the supporting methodologies that will be defined by more open learning experiences and practices, and which are better suited to the emerging affordances of media technology innovation.

Outcome Diversity                       

Overall, then, it is my belief that media courses should manage the expectations that graduates so that they are better suited to a wide range of innovative practices, such as media production, research, technology development, teaching, campaigning, performance, R&D, independent media employability, and so on. If we keep narrowing and conforming our expectations to a limited set of established media practices and technologies, then we will reduce the ‘pool’ of ideas and expectations we have to draw on in the future. By reinforcing the methodological monology, we will only achieve what we already have.

Our focus should be on the way that graduates deal with change, how they are able to account for change, and how they can assess and evaluate the future potential of a diversified and emergent set of media technologies and practices. This means reviewing the status of our current curriculum and methodologies, and positioning ourselves and our learning partners in a direction that is more focussed on open learning experiences, supported by practices that anticipate changing social roles in media, and thus beyond in learning practices, research and development approaches.

Deleuze, G., & Guattari, F. (2013). A Thousand Plateaus. London: Bloomsbury Revelations.

Gauntlett, D. (2015). Making Media Studies: The Creativity Turn in Media and Communications Studies. Oxford: Peter Lang Publishing.

Merrin, W. (2014). Media Studies 2.0. London: Routledge.

Moore, S. A. (Ed.) (2016). Pragmatic sustainability – Dispositions for Critical Adaptation (2nd ed.). London: Routledge.


Community Media & Community Development

One of the underlying and emerging themes of my teaching practice and research work is the potential for the development of communities of interest, practice and association.

I’m predominantly looking at this in the context of Community Media, however, the net is getting wider all the time, to include community development issues, civic participation issues, and social sustainability challenges.

There is a very good article in the Guardian today from George Monbiot, in which he describes the impact of community development projects.

What is interesting, and I’ve pointed this out to colleagues I work with in the Community Media Association, is that Community Media is not mentioned in the list of activities and accomplishments.

I’ve been contemplating this for some time now, and I’ve been asking myself if we are doing enough with our courses and the research we undertake, to develop and enhance the social and civic contribution that we make, both with and through, media and participatory media activities?

Hopefully I’ll get some time soon to write and post some regular blogs about these challenges,  and the potential insight that media scholars and practitioners can contribute that goes beyond the narrow skills and industry straight-jacket that is so dominant at present.

Media Engagement – Looking at What People Do with Media

These are my notes for a presentation I’m giving at the University of Westminster, Media Engagement symposium.

The Problem with Media Studies

David Gauntlett & William Merrin – Media Studies 2.0. Focus on Media Production activity and DIY Media:

“The discipline… faces a choice. It has the potential to be one of the most important subject areas going into the 21st century, at the forefront of debates around digital technologies and their remaking of the world. But equally it has the possibility of being left behind, its focus on reception and content and broadcast forms and concepts condemning it to an increasing irrelevance for everyone but itself” (Merrin, 2014, p. 188).

“So media studies now is not so much about media content and is more about platforms – media as things you can do something with, and the platforms and supports that can be arranged to stimulate that. It’s about building creativity in society – and the thiungs that can get in the way of that. This means we are still engaged with institutions and organisations, and more generally with issues of social change and culture, learning, and power in society – but in a different way, with a more active role for creative individuals to make a difference” (Gauntlett, 2015, p. 188).

Henry Jenkins focuses on Participatory Culture, arguing that changes in expectations about participation in networks of media engagement require a rethinking of the concepts of consumption and assimilation that presently dominate the study of media (Jenkins, 2006; Jenkins, Ford, & Green, 2013).

This paper argues that the study of participation-based media must prioritise the pragmatic concept of community-through-conversation, thereby rejecting critical stances and models of media determination (Oakeshott, 1975; Rorty, 1982, 1989).

Pragmatic Approach
This pragmatic approach suggests that people who are active media participants and activists are faced with a series of translation issues that occur when agents are operating from different frames of symbolic reference. Of practical importance is the idea that it is difficult to achieve operational sustainability if these translation differences are ongoing.

“The notion of culture as a conversation rather than as a structure erected upon foundations fits well with the hermeneutical notion of knowledge, since getting into a conversation with strangers is like acquiring a new virtue or skill by imitating models” (Rorty, 2009, p. 319).

The point of the study of media, therefore, is to seek ways to resolve the incongruities faced by participants and agents in the different symbolic reference frameworks, as they are articulated and negotiated in practice by the different communities, organisations and agents.

According to Rorty by mapping out the commensurable and the incommensurable terms within our languages and social routines, we should be able to identify and distinguish what is new from what is old, what has changed from what remains the same, and what is useful from what is unnecessary.

This is a pragmatic approach in which the adage, that we can strip away anything that doesn’t make a difference applies at all times.

And while this might not seem to be particularly ‘deep’ or ‘critical’ set of aims or conclusions, when compared with other, more classically or critically oriented forms of social analysis, the degree to which this analysis provides insight as part of a wider discussion of emerging cultures of community and collaborative media, is significant.

The aim of pragmatic social thinking, according to Rorty, is to provide a space through which “commonsensical practical imperatives” can be validated against “the standard current theory about subjects” (Rorty, 2009 p.385).

As McCarthy and Wright affirm, “pragmatists theorising is a practical, consequential activity geared toward change, not representation” (McCarthy & Wright, 2004 p.20).

Hence, the task at hand is to link and validate the commonsensical practical imperatives of people who are working in communities and networks, with the standard ideas and concepts that are associated with the analysis of media, and then come up with some practical suggestions that might help in pursuing change on the ground – both in practice, and in the formulation of the prevailing ideas and concepts associated with the study of media (Forster, 2010).

As Etienne Wenger notes, the core of media practice is now based on the ideals of participation and direct experience, enabling those who take part, and who form their communities, to gain “radically new insights” as they “often arise at the boundaries between communities” (Etienne Wenger in Lesser, Fontaine, & Slusher, 2000, p. 12).

Leonidas Donskis suggests that by “radically changing everyone’s field of reference and system of concepts would make it easier to take away the dimensions of the past” (Donkis in Bauman & Donskis, 2013, p. 134).

Therefore, if we shift our perspective about media and consumer transactionalism, to that of community and collaborative media, based on a sense of participation and agency, then we might be able to open-up some opportunities for some innovative thinking about the future development of our social engagements.

Contingencies & Transience
Richard Rorty suggests that instead of looking for fixed and immovable accounts of social experience, we should instead be seeking out those things that are historically contingent, that can be described in their transience, and which can be theoretically revised.

With its heightened emphasis on collaboration and shared techniques of production, that are not expected of more conventional forms of media, participatory media, or forms of community and collaborative media, occupy a territory that is distinctive and challenging.

This distinction is characterised as a set of working and conceptual practices that are grounded in a real-world environment, in which individual and collaborative knowledge is blurred and indeterminate.

Our understanding of the importance of the every-day practices and experiences of the participants who volunteer in participatory media situations can therefore be usefully explained, on the one hand, as a form of social knowledge that is exchanged within a ‘societas,’ that is a group of people who share their corresponding life experiences together; or alternatively, as a set of social arrangements that takes the form of a ‘universitas’, in which there is a mutual self-interest between a group of people who want to achieve a particular goal or outcome (Oakeshott, 1975).

As Richard Rorty explains:

E”pistemology views the participants [of a community] as united in what Oakeshott calls an universitas – a group united by mutual interests in achieving a common end. Hermeneutics views them as united in what he calls a societas – persons whose path through life have fallen together, united by civility rather than by a common goal, much less by common ground” (Rorty, 2009 p.318).

Communities of Interest
It is possible to establish the basis on which participants in these communities of interest, identity and practice are able to understand their role, their identity and their accomplishments.

Furthermore, identifying the extent to which these communities of interest and correspondence are able to reflexively understand themselves in a way that can be described usefully as either a universitas or as a societas, or a blending of both.

The aim of our studies, therefore, should be to develop a pragmatic picture of the casual correspondence and contingent relationships that ‘fall together’ within fieldsites of community and collaborative media, with the assumption that this picture would open-up space for further discussion about the basis on which collaborative purpose is arrived at in accommodating communities.

In attempting to locate this presumed sense of common purpose, either as a society based on shared goals that are sometimes articulated in radical dreams of critical emancipation and utilitarian efficiency; or alternatively, as a society of correspondence, in which people just rub-along together. It is necessary to focus on the practical tasks that were useful as a wider example to people undertaking similar tasks or study.

These include: “predicting the behaviour of inhabitants” of the unfamiliar cultures of community media groups, learning to talk with different agents within overlapping community media groups,  despite the “incommensurability of [their] language” (Rorty, 2009 p.350); and the development of practical models that participants, students and supporters of community media can reflect on to improve the effectiveness and efficiency of their ethical and practical operations.

As Rorty argues,

“The notion of culture as a conversation rather than as a structure erected upon foundations fits well with the hermeneutical notion of knowledge, since getting into a conversation with strangers is like acquiring a new virtue or skill by imitating models” (Rorty, 2009, p. 319).

According to Rorty, moreover, by mapping out the commensurable and the incommensurable terms within our languages and social routines, we should be able to identify and distinguish what is new from what is old, what has changed from what remains the same, and what is useful from what is unnecessary.

This is a pragmatic approach in which the adage, that we can strip away anything that doesn’t make a difference applies at all times. And while this might not seem to be particularly ‘deep’ or ‘critical’ set of aims or conclusions, when compared with other, more classically or critically oriented forms of social analysis, the degree to which this analysis provides insight as part of a wider discussion of emerging cultures of community and collaborative media, is significant.

The aim of pragmatic social thinking, according to Rorty, is to provide a space through which “commonsensical practical imperatives” can be validated against “the standard current theory about subjects” (Rorty, 2009 p.385).

By extension, therefore, if we shift our perspective about media and consumer transactionalism, to that of community and collaborative media, based on a sense of participation and agency, then we might be able to open-up some opportunities for some innovative thinking about the future development of our social engagements.

Put simply, it is not what academics and theorists say in their studies of media that matter, but what people living in different communities and lifeworlds achieve and accomplish with media that is important.

Symbolic Interaction
Therefore, it is in reintroducing Symbolic Interaction to the study of media that we will be able to make sense of how human beings act and achieve things on the basis of the meanings that they negotiate, and the potential lines of action that these meanings open up (Blumer, 1969; Prus, 1996).

Symbolic interaction proposes that the meanings that humans hold are themselves borne from social interaction, and that these interactions are modified and negotiated in an interpretative process as reflective agents interact with one another.

The social world is a world of social experiences that have been created in the process of interaction, and the meanings that individual agents hold are themselves shaped by their interactions and self-reflections.

“Any human event can be understood as the result of the people involved (keeping in mind that that might be a very large number) continually adjusting what they do in the light of what others do, so that each individual’s line of action ‘fits’ into what others do. That can only happen if human beings typically act in a non-automatic fashion, and instead construct a line of action by taking account of the meaning of what others do in response to their earlier actions. Human beings can only act in this way if they can incorporate the responses into their own act and thus anticipate what will probably happen, in the process creating a ‘self’ in the Meadian sense. (This emphasis on the way people construct the meaning of others’ acts is where the ‘symbolic’ in the ‘symbolic interaction’ comes from). If anyone can and does do that, complex joint action can occur” (Becker & McCall, 1990, p. 3).

This study has been able to demonstrate that the value of the ethnographic model lies in its ability to reflexively identify information from within complex, dynamic and transient social activities (Schensul, Schensul, & LeCompte, 1999).

While quantitative research methodologies are able to distinguish and characterise large-scale social issues, through a process of calculation and statistical analysis, what is not readily identified when using these techniques is the process by which social actors find meaning in their activities (Sim, 1999).

As a qualitative form of research, ethnography aims to narrate how social groups negotiate and allocate legitimacy for the meanings that they build-up in practical usage.

Moreover, ethnography is primarily concerned with the process of accumulated meaning as derived through social practice and experience. Ethnographic study puts a particular emphasis on how these meanings accord to contingent relationships, between different actors in temporary social groups, and how this changes and shifts as social norms change and shift.

This means that ethnographic study is able to ask questions about social relationships, such as how perceptions of on-going social and symbolic status are founded and regulated through, for example, power-related discourses of domination or subordination.

Or, what happens when new technologies are introduced to a social environment that changes the productive and cognitive capabilities of different participants of emergent communities?

In short, “ethnography tries to understand practices, relationships, and cultures from the inside” (McCarthy & Wright, 2004 p.34), with the provision that qualitative research, as Uwe Flick notes, does not seek to study “artificial situations in the laboratory, but the practices and interactions of everyday life” (Flick, 2009 p.15).

Symbolic Interactionism & Media Studies
Symbolic interaction, however, is not commonly taught as an orthodox research method in British media and cultural studies, although it is in many ways related and shares many common ideas and preconceptions.

The approach of media studies in the United Kingdom rests largely on political, industrial, economic, cultural, content, textual, discursive or archival analysis (Cobley, 1996; During, 1999; Hartley, 2011; Lievrouw & Livingstone, 2002; Livingstone, 2006; Long & Wall, 2009; Thornham, Bassett, & Marris, 2009). David Gauntlett suggests that “for a couple of decades, from the 1980s, media studies had settled into a reasonably stable cluster of subject areas, such as ‘institutions’, ‘production,’ ‘audiences’ and ‘texts’ (Gauntlett, 2015, p. 1).

Gauntlett argues, there are few opportunities to develop practice-based forms of media analysis grounded in the day-to-day experience of people, especially in the way that they use, create and experience media. Consequently, there is a clear lack of commitment to the training and schooling that is required when undertaking forms of investigation that can encompass the newer forms of participation and experimental media.

However, there is a useful affinity with the cultural studies tradition. Norman Denzin describes how Stuart Hall’s view of the cultural subject is “in part symbolic interactionist,” because people are defined as being able to work out the conditions in which they operate for themselves. According to Denzin, Hall explores how

“The meanings [a] subject brings to his or her situation are shaped by the larger ideological forces in the culture, for consciousness is ‘always infused with ideological elements, and any analysis of social frameworks of understanding must take account of the elements of ‘misrecognition’ which are involved’” (Hall quoted in Denzin, 1992, p. 118).

The pragmatist challenge to this notion of ideology as an extrinsic or determining force should be clear by now, but it is worth noting the significant differences that remain between the approach taken by Hall (hegemony) and that suggested by Rorty (interpretivism).

Communities of Practice
More recently, however, audience studies have gained currency in media studies approaches, combined with the expansion of the study of virtual communities and with the shift toward participative forms of ICT and social media.

Configurations of communities of practice and fan communities have shifted the focus of media studies away from the singularly textual approach, to the participative and experiential.

Therefore, is a contribution to the developing field of participative enactment that argues that it is not what academics and theorists say in their studies of media that matter, but what people living in different communities and lifeworlds achieve and accomplish with media that is important.

This places the use and development of symbolic interaction in a contested but central position. If symbolic interaction and participant observation are approaches that can be usefully applied to the study of people using media, then they need to be embedded in the mainstream media studies curricula. Symbolic interaction is a well-established methodology and field of study in its own right.

One that is time-honoured and proven to give meaningful insights into the operation of cultural and social activities.

Symbolic interaction, moreover, has the advantage that it recognises agency and diminishes ideology in its founding principles, and that these principles are expected to be enacted on the basis of pragmatic practicality. Norman Denzin summarises the predicament faced by the symbolic interactionist, however, when he explains that

“Of course, there are no real biographical subjects, independent of the stories told about them, and even these texts, in the telling, displace the teller. We can never get back to raw biographical experience. The closest we can ever get is when a subject, in an epiphanal moment, moves from one social world to another. In these instances the subject is between interpretative frameworks. When this happens, experience is described in words that are yet to be contaminated by the cultural understandings of a new group” (Denzin, 1992, p. 19).

The challenge then, is to define a set of tools and approach that can look at practices of media participation, engagement and the contingent, localised meanings that are articulated and accomplished within the lifeworlds and communities of people as they engage with media on a day-to-day basis.

Media & Ethnographic Study
At its most basic level, then, ethnography emerges from a series of anthropological and sociological investigative traditions, and can be thought of as a disciplined form of social enquiry that seeks-out accountable and practical approaches to the study of culture.

As Boellstorff et al suggest,

“Cultures, as shared systems of meaning and practice, shape our hopes and beliefs; our ideas about family, identity, and society; our deepest assumptions about being a person in this world” (Boellstorff, Nardi, Pearce, & Taylor, 2012, p. 1)

It is therefore incumbent on ethnographic investigators to continue to “attempt to develop an understanding of how a culture works” (Bell, 2005, p. 17), and to describe and explain the many factors and historical movements that shape our cultural and social interactions. Put simply, “ethnography is a method for understanding culture” (Hine, 2005, p. 8).

An understanding that is founded in a shared affinity with the people being studied, and a sense of responsibility toward the use that those studies might be applied.

As Boellstorff et al specify, in ethnographic investigation

The goal is to grasp everyday perspectives by participating in daily life, rather than to subject people to experimental stimuli or decontextualized interviews. Ethnographers often speak of their work as ‘holistic’. Rather than slicing up social life according to variables chosen for their contribution to variance in a statistically drawn sample, ethnographers attend to how cultural domains constitute and influence each other (Boellstorff et al., 2012, p. 3).

If the mediatisation process has shifted to incorporate the practices and accomplishments of people, then the study of media must mark this with a shift to its focus of inquiry and exploration. This is about looking at what people ‘do’ with media all over again.

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Ending Email Tyranny?

I caused some consternation earlier this year when I told my students that I did not want them to email me unless it was an emergency. At the start of the academic year I made an announcement in one of my lectures and labs that I would not answer any emails unless the senders arms or legs where falling off – yeah, a genuine emergency.

This caused something of a rumpus, because it seems students are expecting, or have grown used to the idea, that a lot of their contact with their tutors will be done by email. When they have a question or need to solve a problem, often the first thing that students expect is to be able to email their tutor.

This seems reasonable on the face of things, but as Cary Cooper points out in an excellent article in The Guardian, we are in danger of allowing email to become an “unending electronic overload” that damages our work-life balance, and therefore our mental health.

I explained to my students that I would not be sitting at home checking my emails while I watch Strictly Come Dancing (not that I do). Nor would I be issuing guidance and instructions for the completion of assignments as I sit in bed with my novel before I go to sleep.

Instead, I suggested that we do what every other generation of scholars have done, and that any questions anyone might have gets written into a notebook, and then the questions are asked in our workshop sessions, either as part of our group discussion or in an individual basis. Or, if that wasn’t felt to be appropriate, students could come and see me at one of my three office-hour sessions I had available each week.

I can’t blame my students for their reaction, because like most workplaces and universities, email has become the default form of communication. The problem is that it has reached the level of absurdity, with thousands of emails being sent, complex instructions being issued, and a general lack of face-to-face contact as a result. As Gary Cooper makes clear

“Email and social media have served a very important purpose in the workplace, and have been an enabler in communications and virtual work relationships. The downsides, however, now outweigh the benefits, and these include: unmanageable workloads (when faced with an excessive email inbox), the loss of face-to-face relationships with colleagues; and the misuse of emails to avoid having face-to-face discussions about difficult work-related issues. As Einstein once wrote: ‘I fear the day that technology will surpass our human interaction, the world will then have a generation of idiots.’”

In ditching email as a primary form of contact with my learners, however, I’ve been able to focus on the direct, face-to-face interaction. This works so much better. Being able to speak directly with one another, being able to look in each other’s eyes, questioning and double-checking what’s being said, rather than assuming that we have understood each other in the flurry of electronic messages.

There is a very important lesson for us all in recognising that remote-control learning and email management doesn’t work, and so I will be pursuing this approach in the scholarship experiences that I design for next year’s learners. Lets get people talking directly to one another, then our learning will be less overloading and we can, most importantly, directly acknowledge our personal successes.

Standardistation Isn’t Innovation


I’m reading Eric Schlosser’s book Fast Food Nation about the rise of the junk food industry in America and how the multinational corporations have taken over the global market in food for themselves. Schlosser describes in vivid detail how the McDonalds fast food chain pioneered the use of production line techniques in their restaurants in order to drive down employment costs. Rather than employing chefs and ‘carhops’ the kitchen was divided into units of production, with ‘team members’ working one section only and working to a proscribed set of routines. This factory model has been used in numerous other places and industries since. According to Schlosser, Walt Disney’s innovation was to turn the art studio into a production line for his animations. Subsequently everything from tele-sales to dentists to funeral care has been standardised and homogenised.

In higher education at the moment there is a drive towards the standardisation and industrialisation of learning. The model is similar to the McDonalds principle of management, you have a set of highly trained and motivated managers who are given a set of clear instructions and routines that they must enforce – in this case in the name of academic quality – and then reduce the skill levels of all the subordinate contributors. So there is no individual academic judgement to be made about the performance of learners, rather academics work towards an algorithm that churns out a degree classification at the end of a students studies. Higher education isn’t much different now than the fast food industry. We are in show business. We find out what the dreams, hopes and desires are of our market and we turn it to our advantage, much in the same way that the processed food industry sells us health by making us by products that are making us fat and giving us diabetes.

And yet, the result of all this standardisation has actually been counterproductive – for ordinary people at least. For the corporations it has embedded their power as a corporate oligarchy and driven their profit margins ruthlessly. Even in times of crisis the corporations can’t fail because they have socialised risk to the rest of us. But working peoples income hasn’t risen over the last forty years. We feel richer because more of us work, and we have access to more credit, but the proportion of wealth that goes back to working people continues to decline.

So all of this makes me wonder, why are we so inthrall to the process of standardisation and centralisation that the corporate management model promotes? On the one hand we have the marketing people telling us it’s all about choice, but then the only places that you can get a coffee is Starbucks, or to get something to eat is McDonalds or to buy your groceries is Tesco, who only supply a limited range of foods anyway. Obviously something isn’t working or we’d all be getting fitter and healthier, spending more time dedicating our lives to higher pursuits and enjoying the families and friends that we are bonded to. Instead we are running around trying to pay the bills, to compete and keep up with our neighbours and to keep hold of our jobs by being compliant and following the charismatic corporate leaders we are told have all the answers.

The process of standardisation has to be obdurately resisted, then, and only then, might we create some space for some real innovation to happen.

What to Do with the BBC? Turn it into a Members Co-Op

A curious article in Today’s Sunday Telegraph by Johnathan Maitland, argued that the BBC should be butchered and broken up so that only the news division remains, and all other content production and services are put out to the private sector. According to Maitland we should “Transfer all in-house radio and TV production – bar news and current affairs – to the independent sector.” Keeping only a “skeleton staff of essential personnel.” Maitland thinks we should pay no more than £20 for this residual service, and that the private sector would be able to innovate as part of a free market in ways that the stuffy-old Beeb cant because of it’s layers of Bureaucracy.

Here’s a more radical alternative. Why not turn the BBC into a network of members co-operatives, each with a local membership based on their existing local radio station profile, that are then federated regionally and nationally. Everyone who pays their licence fee gets a voice at a local level, and the chance to elect representatives at a regional and national level.

The BBC is funded by a tax and yet there is no direct representation. There has been a whole lot of centralisation over recent years, both in the public sector and in the private sector, that has diminished the independent local identity of our counties, towns, cities and regions. The programmes and services that the BBC offers are subject to the market forces that drives global media in the same way that Amazon and Netflix are hammering home with their on-demand programming.

The sorry state of BBC Local Radio and Television, however, with it’s generic programming, limited involvement of the public and standardised marketing, means that it’s almost impossible to innovate and provide local service that people actually want, and that are distinctive in this new pluralistic and plentiful media age.

If each individual station was an autonomous members co-op, with the right to withhold part of their funding to the regional and nation networks, then they would have a lot of clout. They could involve people in their local area more directly in programmes and programme making.

The BBC could become the first national media organisation to encourage mass participation in making and producing content. The BBC could become a local media training provider for media, working with colleges and universities to give room for alternative and marginalised voices that are presently excluded at the moment.

We’d have to do away with the Ofcom Broadcasting Regulations, mind. I’m sure that would be a relief given that they are a straightjacket on democratic and civic representation. Instead we’d have to put a system in place that would allow ordinary people to challenge the powerful in their own words and without the threat of legal action or hefty fines being imposed by the censor. With all the knowledge and expertise that the BBC attracts, that shouldn’t be hard to work out how to do it responsibly and ethically though.

So, Jonathan, rather than resorting to the tired-old thinking that only the private sector and the market can sort out the BBC, lets have some genuinely radical thinking and put the decision making power in the hands of the people who pay for it – or don’t you trust them?

City of Dreams – What Next for Leicester?

Last night I attended the recording of the BBC Leicester debate ‘What’s Next for Leicester?’ after its bid to become the UK Capital of Culture 2017 failed. As a structured debate the BBC are expert at bringing people together to consider a controversial subject in-depth. This should have been a vibrant and dynamic discussion about the cultural activities that matter, not only to ordinary citizens and residents, but also to people who want to push ahead and take a lead in arts and culture in the city. Instead, this debate was sterile and had about as much passion as a group of accountants trying to settle a bill at a business development seminar.

The panel included Sir Peter Soulsby, Leicester’s mayor; Cllr Nick Rushton, the leader of Leicestershire County Council; Fiona Allen, chief executive of Curve theatre. Aminata Kimara, Artistic Director of Unidentified Drama theatre company, and James Bowen, MD of the Belmont Hotel.  The recording was tucked away on the top floor of Curve, in one of the private seminar rooms, with an audience that was brought together by invitation only, based on a carefully controlled list of attendees. Perhaps this is representative of the wider issues of cultural and economic debate in Leicester?

There was no strong creative voice expressed on the panel, and no testimony by grassroots creative practitioners to relate this debate to the experiences of creative artists and activists who struggle to get by in Leicester. The debate and discussion focussed, instead, on the problems of booking hotel rooms and planning a ‘brand’ for the city. Important as these things are, I can’t help but think that this is putting the cart before the horse. Where is the creative leadership? Where are the artists, and writers and producers and developers of creative content, performers, activists and events planners? Surely an ethos of creative ambition and intention – dare I say a manifesto – needs to be articulated before the debate is turned to models of organisation, business planning and marketing?

There was no mention during the discussion of what actually takes place in Leicester. Look at Pedestrian, Off The Fence, Leicester Peoples Photographic Gallery, Handmade Festival, among many other groups. Then there is FD2D, The Monograph, Arts in Leicestershire, and [the bizarrely titled] Leicester: It’s Not Shit, who are telling the story of how Leicester’s arts and creative communities work and what makes them interesting – and have been doing so for a long time. Did any of these groups get given any acknowledgement or recognition in the official debate? If I was being unkind, I’d say that the expectation is that the community arts and grassroots creative champions are expected merely to sit in the audience and listen to the executive managers devise a strategy on their behalf, and then they are expected to act as ‘brand ambassadors‘ for something that they don’t feel they belong to, didn’t help form, and yet are still expected to be grateful for, even when it doesn’t work in their interest.

Would the debate be stronger if it brought together people who practice art and creative performance in the city? Would it have been a stronger debate if the people who administer and manage the infrastructure had taken seats in the audience instead? Who is empowered to speak in this debate is as important as what they speak about? Where are the young people? Where are the voices that are marginalised? Where is the challenge to the people who hold the purse strings and make the spending decisions?

I wonder, though, that Leicester has missed the boat when it comes to the creative economy debate? Does there need to be a de-coupling of the economic and the cultural regeneration debate in the city? Would Leicester be better served by cutting its arts and culture free from the professional management organisations and allowing them to find their own feet? Would the regeneration money be better spent on technology infrastructure, on transport infrastructure, on environmental development? The point was made well on Jim Davis’ BBC Leicester phone-in this morning: ‘If people don’t have cash in their pockets to spend, they can’t be going to events and theatre?’ If you can’t get a cheap bus into the city then you are cut-off from what’s on offer. Perhaps solving these problems is less attractive and brings less glamour, but its a whole lot more important.

Realistically, Leicester has to face up to the fact that other cities are doing the creative economy thing better, and have stolen a march by building infrastructure and networks that have more pull and a stronger sense of identity. Investing in challenging creative activities is not just about spending money on prestige buildings, it is about creating space for people to share and experiment. Other cities, though, have put massive amounts of money, time and expert investment into their infrastructure, buildings, services and communication networks. Leicester doesn’t have an independent contemporary gallery? Perhaps this tells us something about the nature of the debate and gives us a sense of why the next steps for Leicester have to be founded on more than a sense of optimism and blind hope. While Leicester is Forever Steadfast, it isn’t a city of dreams, and ironically, that’s the strength that being missed.

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Rob Watson » DMU 2013-11-21 12:36:54

Leicester’s Mayor Sir Peter Soulsby Photographed in the Leicester Mercury

We were particularly impressed with Hull’s evidence of community and creative engagement”. These are the words of the selecting committee for the UK Capital of Culture that was announced on Wednesday and reported in the Leicester Mercury. Hull’s successful bid to be the next host city emphasised the down-to-earth nature of the city, with the campaign video, according to The Telegraph, emphasising the city’s ‘Golden Rules’:

Don’t go thinking you’re something you’re not; don’t go thinking that you’re better than anybody else, or that anybody else is better than you, and don’t shout about it, get on with it.”

As Leicester takes stock and thinks about why it’s own bid didn’t succeed, it might be worth looking at Hull’s golden rules and asking what can be learnt from this ethos and applying them in Leicester?

If you start modestly, and don’t go unnecessarily claiming to be a world-class city, as Hull suggested it restrains itself from doing, then what implications does this approach have that would benefit arts and culture in Leicester? If the judges where impressed with the level of ‘community and creative engagement’ in Hull’s bid, why did Leicester not represent itself well on this score? Would Leicester benefit from having an extended period of ‘just getting on with things’, rather than thinking that it has to be flag waving to get noticed?

If we take Hull’s advice and stop shouting and get on with things, what are the things that would want to get done? How would these things be done with the support of the grassroots communities in Leicester? Who’s voices and stories would we validate and recognise? How can Leicester develop a mindset that pulls together and blends the diverse range of life stories associated with the city at a time of considerable social and cultural challenge?

Lets not forget, however, that funding for local authorities across the region is about to be cut considerably again. Economic regeneration for Leicester can’t be pinned on a lack-lustre creative enterprise dream when the reality has been that demand for creative services has been sucked out of the economy since the collapse of the banks in 2008. If Leicester is to be realistic, it has to do more than just pin its hopes on the bones of a dead king bringing in a few quid here and there.

Perhaps its time to think about how alternative types of civic, cultural and sustainable commercial engagement can be valued? Forms of engagement that give voice to the unique and vibrant ideas and opinions that are crying-out to be heard in Leicester? Fostering a diverse community-led culture that generates stories and connections between people of all ages, races, classes and backgrounds won’t happen by itself. This needs to be supported – and let’s be honest – without spending even modest amounts of cash, because there are other priorities crying out to be fixed first (pavements, roads, playgrounds, care homes, and more).

The questions that I’ve always had about the challenge of Leicester’s city of culture bid are pretty obvious:

  • Was there enough emphasis on grassroots support?
  • In what way could the social impact of community-led culture be enhanced in Leicester?
  • Was the bid shaped by a desire for economic regeneration rather than as something that iscreative, imaginative, challenging and inclusive?
  • Has Leicester done enough to invest in it’s cultural and community services in the past?
  • Did the bid rely on too many established events and entertainment formats without breaking enough new ground?
  • Would Leicester’s bid appeal to people from across the United Kingdom, Europe and internationally?

There are alternative ways of thinking about community approaches to culture in Leicester. Approaches that offer a different vision to the corporate, tick-box mentality that permeates much of our civic and working lives. This culture would need to offer the chance, at the very least, of being an alternative to the centralised and top-down approach that dominates, and would be one that is built, instead, as Henry Jenkins and others suggest, on “technical affordances that encourage iterative approaches to tasks, fluid roles and a lack of hierarchy, shared rather than owned material, and granular approaches to problem solving, network society encourages collaboration on projects by a ‘hive’ community. This community creates through an ‘on-going, perpetually unfinished, iterative and evolutionary process of gradual development of the informational resources shared by the community’” (Jenkins et al., 2013, p. 183).

Rather than thinking about Leicester’s cultural identity as something that can be branded and marketed in a temporary slogan, the emphasis has to be on the opportunities that people have to live, share and express their sense of identity through the things that they participate in. We aren’t drones who follow a pre-determined and centralised cultural message, so instead, lets trust people to invest in their own sense of expression and their own sense of identity, and build Leicester’s cultural confidence from the ground up. Remember, reputations are built and not bought.

Jenkins, H., Ford, S., & Green, J. (2013). Spreadable Media. New York: New York University Press.

Hunters and Cultivators

I’ve just finished reading Andrew Keen’s book Digital Virtigo, in which he bemoans the loss of privacy that the networked world represents, and the concentration of exhibitionism and the exhibitionist that dominates so much of the social media ideologies. Keen’s argument is a repeat of some well worn arguments that have been put forward about all forms of media. That with each new wave of media technology we will somehow witness the loss of our intrinsic moral capability and sense of self determination. Keen is arguing that social media is dehumanising, reductive and instrumental – or at least the people who dominate the industries see things that way.

According to Keen, Facebook, Google, Twitter and goodness knows who else, are fighting to control our lives and our fleeting sense of attention by providing a convenient framework in which we can note, share and mark our cultural, personal and inter-personal preferences. In doing this we are betraying the essential mystery of personhood and losing our sense of distinction between the public and the private, the personal and the social. The things that we don’t share are the things that make us cogent individuals, suggests Keen. Restraint and personal conscience are ultimately more valuable to us than being able to ‘like’ or ‘follow’ a profile at the flick of a button. We play with the social personal at our risk, argues Keen.

To some extent a lot of Keens thoughts chime with my own experience of social media – the sense of distance that social media creates; the sense of perpetual judgement; the policing and thought-controlling of our ideas and our sympathies. The social media frontier is not the Wild West of the mythology of entrepreneurial capitalism. It might better be though as the oppressive and tyrannical apparatus of the Soviet surveillance state system. Oppressive and reactionary.

I’ve been thinking about two models of identity that have an almost inverse relationship in social media circles. We are living through an age in which the dominant model of social identity is the ‘hunter’. Pre-civilisation and pre-society man was defined by grazing and hunter-gathering. Men would sit around waiting for the moment when they feel hungry or need to prove themselves. When this moment arrived they picked up their spears and wandered off into the savannah and found some antelopes to kill. The carcass would be dragged back to the group and shared. Probably a barbecue would be lit and a party with wild dancing and music would ensue. Everyone would be happy. The hunters had provided.

The celebratory moment, however, doesn’t last for very long. Managing life between the peaks of abundance and the troughs of scarcity isn’t as straight forward as the hunters anticipate, and after every boom period there is an inevitable bust. This is the moment that the cultivators come forward. Recognising that a more consistent and sustainable provision of managed food supply is essential to balance out the periods of scarcity. The cultivators seek to farm and manage their resources so that they are able to get the collective through the winter and through the periods of shortage. The cultivator has the job of assessing the soil, thinking about irrigation, planning systems for crop rotation, matching plants together to enhance their yield or make them more resilient to attack from pests. The hunters grab the headlines and the glory, but it is the cultivators who build civilisations.

I agree with Andrew Keen that we should be sceptical about social media, but for different reasons. We are living through a time when the discourse of the hunter is predominant. In our society it’s the executive head-honcho who gets all the glory. Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, Fred Goodwin… The cult of the leader has even gone so far as to propel common headteachers into the realms of super-star managers, with egos and pay cheques to match. We are living in the age of the muscular individual who has to be seen making startling social media pronouncements to their network of online acolytes, amassed in the form of hundreds of thousands of followers on Twitter. These are the equivalents of the modern day spear-wielding huntsmen. The alpha-male huntsman roaming the digital savannah looking to make a killing in the markets of public opinion.

For the rest of us, it’s the grind of cultivation that dominates our thinking. Building and maintaining collegiate working relationships. Developing incremental improvements to services and the capability of organisations to deliver over the long-term without putting too much strain on the one another. Storing and holding a store of intellectual and physical resources back for the dry seasons when the period of abundance is finished. There inevitably comes a day when the wandering herds of dumb animals are reduced to a trickle and the hunter starves.

Building a lasting civilisation, on the other hand, is a job that requires careful cultivation. It can’t be subject to fashion – economic, political, ideological, personal or social. Ideas have to stand the test of time and have to be communicated in a way that proves their enduring worth, and are not just the immediate play-things of attention-seeking hunters.

Full Employment is the Best Culture Policy for Leicester

What’s the best way to bring about cultural and economic regeneration in Leicester? The bidding process is underway for the UK’s Capital of Culture 2017, and Leicester is one of the four towns and cities that has reached the shortlist, as well as Dundee, Hull and Swansea Bay. There is now an intense round of bid writing in each of the the competing cities as they build their case and try to put themselves forward in the best possible light.

The model for the UK Capital of Culture came from the success of Liverpool’s as a host for the European Capital of Culture in 2008. Anyone who knows Liverpool well will acknowledge the transformation that being the Capital of Culture catalysed, and how the lasting effects can still be seen in a city that is now on the map of European cultural destinations.

The question that has to be asked, then, is Leicester being realistic in it’s belief that it can pull-off a similar trick? There is talk that a successful bid from Leicester might pull-in something like £100m of media coverage for the city. Is this a reasonable and realistic prospect? Most important, does Leicester have the capability of sustaining a successful transformation of it’s cultural horizons?

There are several issues that are not boding well for the bidding process. Firstly this £100m figure seems to have been pulled out of the air. If it is talk of media coverage, then the people supporting and writing the bid have to be clear that this is a reflection of a marketing priority rather than money spent on actual investment in resources, building, services or events.

Secondly, the expectation is that each city will have to draw on it’s existing resources in order to facilitate the events and the activities. Let’s face it, Leicester has not invested well over recent years in arts and cultural spaces. The Curve theater is dominated by commercial productions. There is no dedicated art gallery space. Concerts and music events are on a very low scale and consist of touring productions at De Montfort Hall, or cover bands and DJs at Leicester University’s O2 arena. There is no repertoire theater company providing space for new writers, and the library services have been whittled away over successive years to a rump of cultural engagement with little leadership.

Austerity has hit public services in a big way in Leicester, and the need for funding to be directed towards essential care services and functional services like road maintenance is acute. I suspect that if a survey was undertaken of people’s priorities for Leicester, there would be clear demand for a road resurfacing blitz rather than money being spent on prestige arts projects.

There is some great work done in Leicester, with small scale arts organisations struggling to make themselves heard and some niche events taking place, but the tendency is that they are too often compartmentalised and don’t break through into the mainstream. I suspect that the vast majority of people in Leicester are not interested in ‘culture’, though they may enjoy aspects of it from time to time, such as a trip to the theater or cinema. Leicester, it has to be admitted, is on the whole a conservative city when it comes to culture.

Rather than promoting a cultural policy for Leicester, it would be more productive to promote a full-employment and economic regeneration policy. Get people into jobs and full-employment, and Leicester’s cultural policy will follow. It might be an old-fashioned view, but the demand has to be there to ensure that sufficient people will take-up and engage with the activities that might be offered. For many residents of Leicester ‘bling’ is more of a priority than enculturation.

Liverpool’s regeneration was founded on huge investment from the European Union in terms of infrastructure, building, economic development and cultural esteem. There is a strong back-story in cities like Liverpool and Manchester, which are now making their mark culturally, whereas Leicester has a very weak backstory, latching on to the discovery of Richard III’s remains in so whole-hearted a way is a symptom of deep-seated problems elsewhere. Leicester’s cultural renaissance won’t be possible until an economic and industrial renaissance is locked-in first.

Parallels of Charter 77

How do we live a life in the ‘truth’? How do we shape a civic culture that freely allows for the individually determined expression of our ideas and opinions? How do we reiterate the morality of our social relationships at a time when there is a growing impulse towards bureaucratic control?

Vaclav Havel wrote about these issues during the 1970′s. At a time when the oppressive state regimes of the Easter Bloc were enforcing conformity of thinking on a major scale across citizenships in Czechoslovakia, Poland, East Germany, and many other satellite states in the Soviet Union.

As a prominent ‘dissident’ of the Charter 77 movement, Havel questioned the ideology and politics of oppression that drove thinkers and people of conscience underground. This was a time when a play could be banned, and anyone who circulated a handmade reprint of that play, could be sent to prison, have their livelihoods taken from them, and their families social standing materially diminished.

Havel argued that this post-totalitarian form of state power was obsessed with appearances. Czechoslovakia wasn’t short of proclamations and conventions that enshrined and celebrated the rights of citizens. Under the Czechoslovak constitution the state recognised free agency and individuals as holders of respected human rights.

None of which stopped the state apparatus, the police, the employers, the universities, the culture and arts networks, the broadcasters, the media, the factory owners and shopkeepers – the willing neighbours – from bearing-down on those individuals and groups who wanted to express ideas of their own. Views that originated from a moral standpoint and that were not dependent on official approval or on political connections became a threat to the social order.

The world of appearances is an obsession in the post-totalitarian society. Under the post-totalitarian regime all there is to worry about, according to Havel, is what things look like or can be made to look like. In this determination anyone who calls attention to the game that is being played becomes a threat to society and has to be controlled.

It is a case of the Emperor having no clothes, and so, Havel argues, anyone who points to this fact, that the Emperor is indeed naked and that a game is being played by those who insist that he is otherwise clothed, is being antisocial, heretical, and is acting against the moral integrity of the leaders of the regime.

The leaders of the regime are able to maintain their authority as long as no one challenges the world of appearance. This is the spin process that obsesses the modern politicians. That they are in control, that they are shaping events, that the population has a sense that our leaders are ahead of the game and not merely playing a game.

Leaders in the post-totalitarian regime enforce observance to this appearance precisely because they are not ahead of the game. They are not in control, and they are not able to shape events. The leaders of the post-totalitarian regime are themselves subject to the whims of the more-powerful, and so when any regime changes, and regime change is inevitable, the change does not take place without tanks being lined-up on the streets.

This was over forty years ago, and yet to read the words of Havel and others from the Charter 77 movement today, brings forward immense echoes and questions. Is this a historical account of a society that is just a memory? Are we genuinely free from this kind of this ideological control? Are we certain that the supposed liberties that we presently hold dear and cherish, and which are enshrined in our own constitutional proclamations, are able to be practiced freely and openly?

It is ironic that with the rise of social media, we are now, perhaps more than ever, at increasing risk from the ‘informant’, the ‘surveillance officer’ and the ‘bureaucrat’. These servants of power see it as their role and duty to police how people should think and express themselves. Only what is alarming is that this can now be done on an industrial scale that could only ever be dreamt in the age of the typewriter and the stencil copier.

Being arrested and imprisoned for comments made in a hand printed pamphlet is one thing – very 1970′s. Being harassed, arrested and imprisoned for comments that are made on social media is a growing practical and political risk for all who post online and who wish to challenge the orthodoxies of the atrophying British social order, with its reinforcements of privilege, class and social status.

Because social media records the traces of our past actions, it is also increasingly likely that those actions may haunt us in perpetuity. Maintaining a clear separation between our individual and our public lives, therefore, is increasingly challenging.

Whether it is a job application or a funding application for a project, we worry that someone might be running an online search about us. We worry because we are all human and they may find information that can be construed to incriminate us.

Google and Facebook can track faces. What if you take part in a demonstration against unnecessary cuts to pubic services, which are a result of low tax payments by major international corporations that are skewing the tax-pool?

You work for Starbucks, or Amazon or Google? What happens when your face is tagged by a friend, or even automatically when you attend an anti-cuts protest? Do these corporations have the right to insist that you can’t take part in these public debates and discussions?

Can we give up our moral independence when we feel the urge to question the social responsibility of profit-making and public service organisations? Is the corporate governance of major employers a private and internal matter? Is any public discussion by employees, customers and stakeholders to be eschewed because it has the potential to challenge a corporate reputation?

The ability of modern corporate organisations to silence dissent and opposition is becoming ever more pernicious, especially when the values of ‘brand management’ and ‘spin’ clash with the expectations of independent thinking people, fostered by internet and social media activism. Do we need to look again at the debates of Charter 77? Do we need to question the role of ‘reputation management’ and ‘spin’ in contemporary working and civic life? Do we need to test if social media has become a self-imposed instrument of oppression and control once again?

Vaclav Havel’s “The Power of the Powerless”


Vaclav Havel

If there’s one article worth reading this summer it’s Vaclav Havel’s “The Power of the Powerless”. Its an “expansive political essay written in October 1978 by the Czech dramatist, political dissident and later politician, Václav Havel.”

Havel describes the nature of the ‘post-totalitarian’ regime, and how it’s ideology is maintained as ‘appearance’.

It’s well worth reading again today, but instead of thinking of a failing communist dictatorship, think about how ‘spin’ and ‘reputation’ are managed by companies and public bodies these days, as a way of controlling dissent and alternative thinking:
“In a classical dictatorship, to a far greater extent than in the post-totalitarian system, the will of the ruler is carried out directly, in an unregulated fashion. A dictatorship has no reason to hide its foundations, nor to conceal the real workings of power, and therefore it need not encumber itself to any great extent with a legal code. The post-totalitarian system, on the other hand, is utterly obsessed with the need to bind everything in a single order: life in such a state is thoroughly permeated by a dense network of regulations, proclamations, directives, norms, orders, and rules. (It is not called a bureaucratic system without good reason.) A large proportion of those norms function as direct instruments of the complex manipulation of life that is intrinsic to the post-totalitarian system.Individuals are reduced to little more than tiny cogs in an enormous mechanism and their significance is limited to their function in this mechanism.”

Reading this essay has got me thinking about how community media is an attempt to develop an alternative to the mainstream commercial or public service ideologies that dominate and permeate Western culture. This second culture, a parallel culture, that Havel describes, is in itself a dissident act and one that calls into question the game that is being played by the dominant forces and groups in society.