Participation, Collaboration, and Mergers

Adam Fish April 12, 2011
8 minutes

I work here at UCLA’s Part.Public.Part.Lab where we investigate new modes of co-production and participation facilitated by networked technologies. Internet-enabled citizen journalism such as Current TV, public science like PatientsLikeMe, and free and open software development like Wikipedia are key foci. In the lab I investigate the vitality or closure of a moment of freedom and openness within cable television, news production, and internet video when the amateur and the alternative disrupted the professional and the mainstream. What are the promises and perils of social justice video in the age of internet/television convergence? Will internet video become as inaccessible, vapid, and homogenous as cable television? In our recent paper, Birds of the Internet: Towards a field guide to the organization and governance of participation, we draft a guide to identify two species flourishing in the internet ecology: what we call “formal social enterprises,” which include firms and non-profits, as well as the “organized publics” the enterprises foster or from which they emerge. These two types share a vertical or inverted relationship, power comes down from visionary CEOs and charismatic NGO directors to provoke rabid social media production, or a viable movement foments amongst grassroots makers that percolates upwards towards the formation of semi-elitist institutions. In light of this research and with a discreet fieldwork experience to think through I would like to clarify and address three types of social interaction: participation, collaboration, and mergers.

The last morning of a national conference on progressive media one of my friendly informants invited me to a power breakfast at 8 AM at a 4 star hotel. An HD camera rested on a high tripod above two semi-private tables overlooking the harbor via tall glass windows that shed morning light on flutes of parfait and silver pitchers of coffee. Having a rather late night at the cash bar at the local whiskey establishment we hungrily consumed our breakfast, caffeine, and juice as we awaited our invitation to introduce ourselves. Magazine editors, television producers, community media activists, major funders, radio DJs, progressive television personalities, and one out-of-place anthropologist quickly gave their name in an audible wave around the tables.

The editor emeritus of a major progressive magazine presented two timely issues that were cause for celebration and alarm. He wanted to celebrate a success that needed repeating. For that we needed to generate an institutional history of the practices that worked. A small committee was formed through a show of hands. As the house social scientist it sounded like that fit my skill set so I volunteered. I was encouraged to visit the archive of programmatic and pragmatic emails that went quickly and passionately between the groups and individuals hustling to organize leading up to the days of the successful operation. Next, there was not as much agreement, as can be expected, about what to do about the alarming new situation but engaged debated ensued about fundraising, the upcoming 2012 election, and ever increasing media consolidation around corporate mergers. We agreed to collaborate. But what did collaboration mean?

Thinking through this question and about Part.Public.Part.Lab‘s work in the article Birds, I began to typologize social interaction into three types: participation, collaboration, and mergers. First is participation, which was the focus of Birds, and can originate from an organized public or be provoked by a formal social organization. When participation emerges, it can come from three different categories descending in the amount of time and resource commitment, as media scholar Mirko Tobias Schäfer explains in his excellent 2011 book, Bastard Culture! How Participation Transforms Cultural Production. The first, according to Schäfer is modification—the hacking of physical devices such as Xboxs or software. The second is a form of explicit participation, where subject exert agency and act on an ambition for professional or personal growth. Examples of explicit participation include the now classic forms of user-generated content production: making YouTube videos, Facebook profiles, and Tweets. And, thirdly, is implicit participation, the subjectively lackadaisical or algorithmically automated forms of participation such as “liking” this or that, or simply conducting Google searches that implicitly participate with Google’s capacity to fine tune and target its search and advertising machinery. Each of these three forms of participation—modification, and explicit and implicit participation, are vertically organized between an organized public and a formal enterprise. For example, my co-diners this morning—magazine editors, television audience experts, social justice social media gurus—each incorporate the network and economic effects of at least two of these forms of participation into their annual planning and budgeting. The vertical power relation of this participation distinguishes it from what I define as collaboration—which is horizontally ordered. Modifiers and hackers take professional objects and manipulate them for more idiosyncratic and local uses; explicit UGC contributors upload content to billionaire companies; and implicit participants do the same, but often out of ignorance or lack of concern.

Second in my typology is collaboration, which my little story above demonstrates, and is usually the tool for the under-funded and those organized to work for social justice. Collaboration is a middle-range theory, between unincorporated or uninterested participation, and fully incorporated and economically motivated mergers. Collaboration is a powerful tactic to resist hegemonic power, and thus codes an antagonistic relationship to vertically arranged power structures–while at the same time resisting the temporal transformation into hierarchy–but it is structurally a horizontally ordered strategy for internal practical formation. The lateral pooling of resources—sometimes with potential competitors as I saw at the power breakfast–proves that, in the social justice realm, the efficacy of the mission trumps the funding operation (sometimes to the point of compromising the efficacy). Despite the fact that many of these organizations compete for a decreasing share of philanthropic dollars, what was agreed upon was a commitment to collaborate, pool resources, and attack the problem vigorously from the skills sets dispersed throughout the group. New media firms also exhibit collaborative strategies as anthropologist Thomas Malaby showed in his study of collective problem solving and virtual world coding in Second Life. But while the visionaries of Second Life devise such pro-corporate tools such as the Love Machine, which enables collaboration and appreciate to flow laterally peer-to-peer across the company, collaboration is not dependent upon digital technology and is a tactic innovated by the dependencies of social justice activism.

The lateral collaboration I viewed at the power breakfast was not an example of what we wrote about in Birds. This was not internet enabled participation, but rather collaboration between people over eggs and hearty dialogue. Email is the most sophisticated ‘new’ media system. These collaborators are all technically literate and use very sophisticated technologies in their broadcast and start-up professional lives. But they are not dependent upon digital peer-to-peer networks for the sharing of Perl code, complex video uploading systems, or sophisticated medical record aggregation databases for their collaboration. Rather, embodied meetings and simple text-based communications suffice. They set ad hoc goals and tasks and produce tools, data, and methods that are generative as opposed to being tethered to protocols within the collaborative community.

The third type of social interaction I have only remotely observed but it permeates the community. While embedded in a hardware, software, and enterprise television and internet research and development laboratory, I witnessed the excitement of employees as their company purchased a world leading internet video database. That is another story, but even without this experience I and several others at this breakfast were literally holding in our hands a physical and symbolic technology at the center of this third type of social interaction (our smart phones): the corporate merger. Throughout the media reform conference, whose final day we were beginning with a working brunch, loomed the historical reality and threat of media consolidation, vertical integration, and mass media industrial mergers of US internet, cable, and wifi industries. The mergers of T-Mobile and AT&T and NBC-Universal and Comcast were the reasons for the alarms of the magazine editor who initiated the debate of our key problem.

I begin to wonder: what is the cultural industrial logic of the corporate merger? Larger firms consume smaller ones to be able to fold their resources into the mission of the behemoth. Complementary firms consolidate their resources to achieve a larger market control. Distinct firms merge to expand their sway over new social, geographical, or technological horizons. Though stated in official press releases as benevolently balanced to those firms merging, the generous laterality I observed in the collaborating social justice media organizations, is unlikely the reality in the case of the corporate merger.

This expansive community in progressive media culture engages with all three of these forms of social interaction–participation, collaboration, and mergers. Modification, implicit, and explicit participation within organized publics, while never without aspirations or connections to formal social enterprises, is essentially on the level of the person. Social media, with ever user-interface simplicity—as well as algorithmic capitalization–is the technological kit for participation. Collaboration, on the other hand, is a tactic for under-resourced and mission driven organizations to share capacities horizontally across their field. In-person meetings, phone calls, and emails are enough of the socio-technical modalities necessary for these collaborations. Finally, is the merger, the hostile or peaceful economic takeover of complementary, heterogeneous, or homogenous firms. Financial and journalistic manipulations fill out the technological app-base for this type of social interaction.