More participatory, collaborative and networked modes of engaging students and learners in teaching and learning have emerged in education. In this blog post I’ll look into participatory culture as the third approach to digital literacies, and I’ll discuss the concept of transmedia literacy and the connected updating of the skills, cultural competences and practices of new media literacies and participatory culture. Seen through the lens of Allan Martin and Jan Grudziecki’s model of digital literacy development, I introduced in The End No 3:1, new media literacies and participatory culture as well as the mapping of transmedia literacy align especially with the levels of digital competence and digital usage.
Participatory culture and new media literacies as digital literacies
The participatory potential of new technologies has given new possibilities in education. Traditionally education has constructed students and learners as readers and synthesizers rather than producers, creators or designers of ideas and knowledge, as both Anna Sfard, Colin Lankshear and Michele Knobel and John Hartley note in The End No 3:2. As this is changing, participatory culture has become an emblem of this development, which Lankshear and Knobel have shown in their presentation of new literacies in The End No 3:2, and participatory culture may serve as a concept and ‘framework’ to embrace and understand the more participatory practices that have evolved within digital literacies. So let me introduce the concept, eventually influenced by situated learning theory (Jenkins, Ito, boyd 2016:4-7) and a sociocultural approach, as it has originally been coined by Henry Jenkins:
Henry Jenkins on Participatory Culture (2013)
Jenkins emphasizes in the video that the main issue is to find out how to bring new media literacies and forms of participatory culture practiced in informal settings into the educational process. That is a concern very similar to Lankshear and Knoebel’s idea of new literacies. In the report “Confronting the Challenges of a Participatory Culture: Media Education for the 21st Century” (2006/2009) Henry Jenkins, Ravi Purushotma, Margaret Weigel, Katie Clinton and Alice J. Robison gave a definition of participatory culture addressed at educators and emphasizing its pedagogical possibilities. This definition was adopted by Lankshear and Knobel and has already been quoted in The End No 3:2:
“A participatory culture is a culture with relatively low barriers to artistic expression and civic engagement, strong support for creating and sharing creations, and some type of informal mentorship whereby experienced participants pass along knowledge to novices. In a participatory culture, members also believe their contributions matter and feel some degree of social connection with one another (at the least, members care about others’ opinions of what they have created.” (Jenkins et al. 2009:xi)
So the forms of participatory culture include affiliations and memberships in informal and formal online communities focusing on various forms of media, expressions focused on producing new creative forms, collaborative problem solving focused on working together in teams on completing tasks and developing new knowledge, and circulations focused on shaping a flow of media (Jenkins et al. 2009:xi-xii;9):
“We are using participation as a term that cuts across educational processes, community life, and democratic citizenship. Our goals should be to encourage youths to develop the skills, knowledge, ethical frameworks, and self-confidence needed to be full participants in contemporary culture. “(Jenkins et al. 2009:9)
As participatory culture is about being a part of shared practices and culture, participatory culture shifts the focus of literacies from individual expression to community involvement, “…to opportunities for participation and the development of cultural competencies and social skills needed for full involvement.” (Jenkins et al. 2009:xiii). From a new media literacies perspective the report points out that “[t]he new literacies almost all involve social skills developed through collaboration and networking. These skills build on the foundation of traditional literacy and research, technical, and critical-analysis skills learned in the classroom.” (Jenkin et al. 2009:xiii). So in the report Jenkins and his team stress that “[n]ew media literacies include the traditional literacy that evolved with print culture as well as the newer forms of literacy within mass media and digital media.” (Jenkins et al. 2009:29). And they point especially to two issues while rethinking media literacies for the 21st century:
1 “As media literacy advocates have claimed during the past several decades, students also must acquire a basic understanding of the ways media representations structure our perceptions of the world, the economic and cultural contexts within which mass media is produced and circulated, the motives and goals that shape the media they consume, and alternative practices that operate outside the commercial mainstream. Such groups have long called for schools to foster a critical understanding of media as one of the most powerful social, economic, political, and cultural institutions of our era.” (Jenkins et al. 2009:31)(my emphasis).
2 “The new media literacies should be seen as social skills…We must push further by talking about how meaning emerges collectively and collaboratively in the new media environment and how creativity operates differently in open-source culture based on sampling, appropriation, transformation, and repurposing.
The social production of meaning is more than individual interpretation multiplied; it represents a qualitative difference in the ways we make sense of cultural experience, and in that sense it represents a profound change in how we understand literacy. In such a world, youths need skills for working within social networks, for pooling knowledge within a collective intelligence, for negotiating across cultural differences that shape the governing assumptions in different communities, and for reconciling conflicting bits of data to form a coherent picture of the world around them.” (Jenkins et al. 2009:32)(my emphasis).
So engaging in participatory culture involves a move towards social learning and includes what Lankshear and Knobel have termed ‘the new technical stuff’/’the new technical dimension’ and ‘the new ethos stuff’/‘the new kind of ethos’. Jenkins and his team have downsized the social skills and cultural competencies, they consider relevant to be fostered in education, into this list of new skills. But each skill and competence on the list has a thorough article attached in the report providing knowledge and examples of how to bring them into teaching and learning:
- Play The capacity to experiment with the surroundings as a form of problem solving.
- Performance The ability to adopt alternative identities for the purpose of improvisation and discovery.
- Simulation The ability to interpret and construct dynamic models of real-world processes.
- Appropriation The ability to meaningfully sample and remix media content.
- Multitasking The ability to scan the environment and shift focus onto salient details.
- Distributed cognition The ability to interact meaningfully with tools that expand mental capacities.
- Collective intelligence The ability to pool knowledge and compare notes with others toward a common goal.
- Judgment The ability to evaluate the reliability and credibility of different information sources.
- Transmedia navigation The ability to follow the flow of stories and information across multiple modalities.
- Networking The ability to search for, synthesize, and disseminate information.
- Negotiation The ability to travel across diverse communities, discerning and respecting multiple perspectives, and grasping and following alternative norms.(Jenkins et al. 2009:xiv)
Jenkins and his team introduce participatory culture and new media literacies in the context of Cultural Studies and Media Studies which is focused on “…studying ‘real expressive and communicative proces’… not just ‘isolable objects’ such as texts” and thus it is a way of studying “the relations between different practices”, while introducing popular culture and everyday life and making way for the social, economic, political and cultural dimensions of culture. (Hartley 2012a:32). It is exactly the changes in the expressive and communicative processes and everyday literacy practices that have resulted in the “profound change in how we understand literacy”, which Jenkins and his colleagues see as the cause for rethinking media literacy into new media literacies and shifting the focus of literacies from individual expression to community involvement.
Whether the theory behind is new media literacies with a focus on culture, ‘texts’ in use in contexts, ‘textual analysis’ and cultural analysis, or it is new literacies with a focus on Discourse/discourse, the ‘structural’ level of new literacies and social learning processes, there is an overlap in inspiration and references between participatory culture seen in a pedagogical context and new literacies with their explicit appropriation of participatory culture and their focus on ‘the new ethos stuff’/’a new kind of ethos’, affinity spaces and communities of practice. So eventually, they share key words when they are framing and understanding digital literacies and digital media in a Web 2.0 and a Web 3.0 context. But still, Jenkins and his colleagues focus more on skills and competences as part of digital practices and uses, than Lankshear and Knobel do.
A revised definition of participatory culture
In 2016 Henry Jenkins, Mizuko (Mimi) Ito and danah boyd published a dialogue, discussion and revision of their understandings of what participatory culture means in their book “Participatory culture in a networked era”, where Henry Jenkins states that “…while we may live in a more participatory culture, we do not yet live in a fully participatory culture.” (Jenkins, Ito, boyd 2016:188). In the book, Jenkins, Ito and boyd introduce this revised definition of participatory culture:
“As a set of ideals, we can define participatory culture in opposition to various forms of culture that limit access to the means of cultural production and circulation, that fragment and isolate the public rather than providing opportunities to create and share culture, and that construct hierarchies that make it difficult for many to exert any meaningful influence over the core decisions that impact their lives. People participate through and within communities: participatory culture requires us to move beyond a focus on individualized personal expression; it is about an ethos of “doing it together” in addition to “doing it yourself”. (Jenkins, Ito, boyd 2016:181)(my emphasis).
“Participatory culture can be and has been used both as a descriptive model and as an aspirational one: As a descriptive model, it indicates a set of practices that have centered on accessible and communal forms of cultural production and sharing. As an aspirational model it embodies a set of ideals for how these social practices can facilitate learning, empowerment, civic action and capacity-building.” (Jenkins, Ito, boyd 2016:183)(my emphasis).
“All of this is to say that our understanding of participatory culture should not be static. Rather, we should see participatory culture as an evolving concept that always gets read in relation to existing practices and norms. (Jenkins, Ito, boyd 2016:186)(my emphasis).
The situatedness of the concept dominates this definition, and talking about a movement towards a more participatory culture allows Henry Jenkins to identify the participation gaps and their reasons and to acknowledge that many people either don’t have the means and opportunities to participate or are not able to participate meaningfully (Jenkins, Ito, boyd 2016:22-23, 30). In agreement with Jenkins, danah boyd comments that “…”everyone” supposedly has the ability to have their voice heard. I think that this is seriously deceptive. I would argue that true participation requires many qualities: agency, the ability to understand a social situation well enough to engage constructively, the skills to contribute effectively, connections with others to help build an audience, emotional resilience to handle negative feedback, and enough social status to speak without consequence. The barrier to participation is not the technology but the kinds of privilege that are often ignored in meritocratic discourse.” (Jenkins, Ito, boyd 2016:21-22).
In the report “Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture” (2006/2009), the participation gap is one of three issues that Jenkins and his team are concerned about:
“The participation gap The unequal access to the opportunities, experiences, skills, and knowledge that will prepare youths for full participation in the world of tomorrow.
The transparency problem The challenges young people face in learning to recognize the ways that media shape perceptions of the world.
The ethics challenge The breakdown of traditional forms of professional training and socialization that might prepare young people for their increasingly public roles as media makers and community participants.” (Jenkins et al. 2009:xii).
These three issues are thoroughly discussed in the book “Participatory culture in a networked era” by Henry Jenkins, Mimi Ito and danah boyd, and I would say that the three issues are the reasons why Jenkins talks of a movement towards a more participatory culture: these issues are still very much a concern today. The discussions and pedagogical interventions needed are not so much about the digital divide, which focuses on lack of access to technology – that is, if educational institutions do provide access – but about the participation gap, which is intended to focus much more on questions of knowledge, access to skills, experiences and mentorship and on discussions about how to provide equal opportunities for participation (Jenkins, Ito, boyd 2016:67-69; Jenkins et al. 2009:xiii). It is a much more complex issue than expected, and danah boyd comments on this from the perspective of social networks, as they matter and it matters who you know, as it influences your interests and your possibilities for learning: “Addressing the participation gap isn’t just about access and skills. Some of the most egregious inequities have a lot to do with people’s structural position within a broader network. One of the challenges for me around participatory culture is that even awareness of the kinds of activities in which one can participate is very much shaped by who you know.“ (Jenkins, Ito, boyd 2016:73).
In this perspective, participatory culture should not be seen only as a descriptive model that provides a set of social and cultural practices, but also as an aspirational model that expresses an ideal for how new media literacies as social and cultural practices can facilitate learning, empowerment, civic action and capacity-building, as Henry Jenkins has defined it. Or as he asks in the video at the beginning of this blog post: “What does it mean to be as passionate about the future of society as you are about animé, about games, about the sorts of forms of popular culture that young people are involved with?” This focus on democratic values and empowerment also recurs in Lankshear and Knobel’s comment on the report “Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture” (2006/2009): “Under current and foreseeable conditions, failure to address the participation, transparency and ethical gaps framed by Jenkins and colleagues (Jenkins et al. 2006) will constitute grave derelictions of commitment to democratic values.” (Lankshear and Knobel 2012:66).
But there is also another level of concern regarding the participation gap which is mentioned by David Buckingham, also from a Cultural Studies and Media Studies perspective, in his article “Do We Really Need Media Education 2.0? Teaching in the Age of Participatory Media” (2010). It is a level of concern closer to teaching and learning, but it is not skipping the questions of inequity and inequality, as Buckingham comments on the report by Jenkins and his team (2006/2009), and actually he is much in line with their definition of new media literacies quoted earlier:
“To this extent, it is possible that the Internet may accentuate existing inequalities rather than help to overcome them. If disaffected and disadvantaged young people are to be enabled to participate, they need to develop relatively traditional skills in locating and evaluating information, constructing arguments, and thinking critically; these activities depend in turn on fairly advanced forms of traditional literacy.
This is not to imply that nothing is changing – the Internet may be fostering new forms and styles of civic engagement that are at least potentially more inclusive. But participation, in this area as in many others, also requires relatively traditional forms of cultural and educational capital. Addressing the “participation gap”, therefore, depends upon addressing inequalities: it will not disappear simply as a result of widening access to technology.” (Buckingham 2010:297-298)
Buckingham’s argument is in accordance with boyd’s comment quoted above, but he doesn’t rest at that and turns to the status of critique in teaching and learning:
“The kinds of learning typically celebrated in discussions of digital technology in education tend to allow little space for critical reflection or the explicit development of critical skills. There seems to be an assumption that participation or creative production is good in itself and that it either stands for, or automatically generates critical understanding in its own right… However, none of this is to imply that audiences are readily capable and critical – that they already know everything they need to know. Nor does it mean that we can throw out the critical tools and perspectives used to analyze media. We can accept that audiences can be active, discriminating, and indeed “critical”, while also recognizing there are ideals they generally do not know about media – and indeed that they need to learn. There is a body of knowledge here – about how the media work, about the media industries, about the history of media, about the uses and effects of media within society. It is a changing and contested body of knowledge, to be sure, but it is, nevertheless, a body of knowledge with shared criteria for determining what counts as truth.” (Buckingham 2010:298)
A broader critical understanding of the economic, social, and cultural dimensions of media does not follow automatically from the experience of creative production according to Buckingham (Buckingham 2010:299). So the ideal of participation and production, acting up to the characteristics of Anna Sfard’s participation metaphor, is here being met by the demands for acquisition in the context of Cultural Studies and Media Studies, as well. To Buckingham this is important issues to integrate into an aspirational model of participatory culture. And in fact Jenkins and his team acknowledge this legacy when they state in the report, that new media literacies include traditional literacy as well as new forms of literacies within mass media and digital media (Jenkins et al. 2009:29).
The power law of participation
Already Ross Mayfield tested the idea of participatory culture as providing equal opportunities for participation and opening up to dialogical communication when he mapped the power law of participation (2006).
The Power Law of Participation – Amber Case on Flickr – CC BY-NC
Mayfield finds that the capacity to make a collective pool of social knowledge and the capacity to collaboratively develop, distribute, share and communicate that knowledge are not necessarily the same: “As users engage in low threshold participation (read, favorite, tag and link) we gain a form of collective intelligence. But it is important to distinguish the value of collective intelligence and collaborative intelligence.” (Mayfield 2006). Collective intelligence is connected to the potential of networked communication and communities as “…everyone knows something, nobody knows everything, and what any one person knows can be tapped by the group as a whole” (Jenkins et al. 2009:72), but to establish a participatory culture it takes participants that are engaging at the high end of the model. They must be able to provide a networked community with collaborative intelligence and make sure that the community grows, evolves and collectively learn through ongoing interaction and negotiations of meaning:
“When users participate in high engagement activities, connecting with one another, a different kind of value is being created. But my core point isn’t just the difference between these forms of group intelligence – but actually how they co-exist in the best communities…Participation in communities plots along a power law with a solid core/periphery model – provided social software supports both low threshold participation and high engagement.” (Mayfield 2006)
The kind of community, Mayfield is describing here, seems synonymous with a community of practice as a networked and dynamic community in accordance with Lankshear and Knobel and with Etienne Wenger-Trayner as mentioned in The End No 3:2. And what Mayfield calls ’a different kind of value’ is as far as I’m concerned the equivalent of what Lankshear and Knobel see as the urge to create a shared space of shared interests. A full participant is someone who understands and follows this urge, and it is the quintessence of what Lankshear and Knobel have termed ‘a participatory configuration of ‘the new ethos’’ in The End No 3:2.
But the potential of democratization and empowerment that is seen as inherent in participatory culture, doesn’t come that easy, as David Buckingham and danah boyd agree on, and it is also commented on by Buckingham in this critique of technological determinism:
“To a large extent, the most active participants in the creative world of Web 2.0 are the “usual suspects”: those who already have an established interest in social/political issues, and the skills and motivation to engage in political debate. Indeed, if online participation is as socially, culturally and politically important as the enthusiasts suggest, it seems likely, far from liquidating social inequality, it might actually accentuate it.” (Buckingham 2010:294)
“…it could be argued that far from precipitating a democratic revolution in communications, these new media are merely part of a much broader move towards individualisation, self-surveillance and self-promotion that are characteristic of how identities are formed and lived out in neo-liberal consumer societies.” (Buckingham 2010:295)
Henry Jenkins could answer back, that the worrying about individualisation is exaggerated, and that as an aspirational model with pedagogical and educational purposes, participatory culture exactly takes participation into the context of communities, or he could comment, as he did earlier, that “…participatory culture requires us to move beyond a focus on individualized personal expression; it is about an ethos of “doing it together” in addition to “doing it yourself”. (Jenkins, Ito, boyd 2016:181). This argument could at the same time meet Ross Mayfield’s requirement for the power law of participation, so the tension between individual practice and collective and collaborative concern is what characterizes the ethics challenge, much along the lines of ‘the new ethos stuff’/’a new kind of ethos’ vital to new literacies as introduced in The End No 3:2.
A question of empowerment?
In his article “Web 2.0 user knowledge and the limits of individual and collective power” (2016) Nicholas Proferes explores and criticizes the claim put forward by Tim O’Reilly that Web 2.0 technologies inherently serve as “architectures of participation” and that Web 2.0 “…provides novel opportunities for the articulation of individual and collective social power by enhancing participation in media production and cultural expression (Zimmer, 2008).” (Proferes 2016):
“Notably, this debate often only tacitly addresses the connection between user knowledge of Web 2.0 technologies – how data, algorithms, protocols, defaults, platform business practices, and information flows are implemented and arranged – and user power. This misses the important role understandings of technology and its antecedents play in shaping user’s relative power.” (Proferes 2016)
As Proferes elaborates in his article:
“The work of van Dijck and Nieborg (2009) suggests user’s difficulty in developing knowledge about information flows of Web 2.0 platforms may be perpetuated not only by the structuring/code politics of a site, but also by the technological discourse surrounding it. In analyzing a number of Web 2.0 business manifestos, the two observe:
“Web 2.0 manifestos…typically do not provide any technological details about how various sites render profitable business models…they focus on the emancipation of consumers into users and co-creators, rather than on the technical details concerning how these sites turn a profit.”” (Proferes 2016)
And as a consequence, Proferes concludes in his article:
“…studies showing that users frequently maintain inaccurate, incomplete or incorrect understandings of Web 2.0 platforms cast a long shadow over deterministic, unbridled, user empowerment narratives, instead revealing the boundaries and limits on the possibilities of user power.
Users with diminished states of informational power will face difficulty in excercising power in relation to the wider ecosystem that the information they create becomes a part of. After all, it is difficult to object, protest, or consciously consent to that which you do not know about or cannot learn about. Without knowledge of how these platforms function, users may have difficulty in produsage, in their political- economic relationship with the Web 2.0 world, and in making informed use decisions. A lack of knowledge about how Web 2.0 platforms function limits understanding how the technical environment shapes individual informational experience, thus impacting information sense-making; it inhibits understanding the context of the environment others experience and how others may interpret information from Web 2.0 platforms; and it limits the expression of forms of power with the social, political, cultural and economic world surrounding the Web 2.0 environment.” (Proferes 2016)
A starting point for engaging in Proferes’ critique could be to understand the complexity of user roles that are hidden beneath the narratives of participation as “the emancipation of consumers into users and co-creators” when they engage with platforms and social media in a Web 2.0 context. Proferes doesn’t state this complexity explicitly, but it is indirectly part of his argument about user power. A visualization of the multiplicity of user roles might look like this when the context is Web 2.0 as a business model:
Customer Consumer [& Audience]
(Ole E. Andersen 2016)
The complexity of user roles can be seen in the interactions between platforms, social media and networks and in the modes of participation. In this sense, the differentiation between user roles and participants’ roles matches the differences between the low end and the high end forms of participation in Ross Mayfield’s model of the power law of participation. The user roles co-exist in complex settings, mixing interests, intentions, gains, reliability, validity and manipulation, trust and loyalty, as the “emancipation of users into users and co-creators” easily turns into business and exploitation. So the complexity of user roles is making the communication processes entangled: who is actually the author/sender/producer, who is the consumer/audience/recipient, and what is basically the intention behind any communication? With the idea of participation in a Web 2.0 context, the multiple positions in the communication processes not only cause ambiguity but they also blur the distinctions between users and participants, between producers and consumers, which is also the issue in the two-way dialogical model of communication – author/sender/producer ↔ ’text’/cultural artefact/product ↔ reader & audience/recipient/user & producer – and in John Hartley’s comment on user productivity introduced in The End No 3:2.
The purposes of participation are being questioned in general, and Anna Sfard’s point that “[t]he vocabulary of participation brings the message of togetherness, solidarity and collaboration” (Sfard 1998:8) is certainly being contested and questioned by issues like data and algorithms, personalization, and the by now debated filter bubbles , as wells as by the hard facts of platform business models, the limits of user power and the loss of personal control over data and privacy to what Shoshana Zuboff has termed surveillance capitalism. In other words, the transparency problem is at stake here.
The participation gap once again
danah boyd and Nicholas Proferes address their concerns about the participation gap from two perspectives. While boyd especially considers the role of social, cultural and educational capital for equity in participation, Proferes unveils the importance of technological understanding and informational power for enhancing true participation.
And no doubt, both perspectives need to come to the front in education in order to challenge the fact that many people – and that is true for many students, too – either don’t have the means and opportunities to participate or are not able to participate meaningfully as Henry Jenkins puts it in “Participatory culture in a networked era”. So it seems that the message of togetherness, solidarity and collaboration that clings to the metaphor of participation according to Sfard has a more shaky side, too: that of potentially accelerating inequity, as both David Buckingham and Nicholas Proferes point out.
But there is also a third perspective on the participation gap that should be mentioned here, and that is the students’ expectations of what it means to produce. It is a perspective that draws on cultural production as a core concern in both new media literacies and participatory culture and in new literacies. In her article “Digital Ghosts in the Modern Classroom” (2018) Ashley Hinck is seeing students’ expectations of what it means to produce and their perceptions of the processes of making and creativity as barriers to full participation when education engages in fostering participatory culture. According to Hinck the barriers are caused partly by the Web 2.0 platforms students are associating with digital media production and partly by students associating teaching and learning with worksheets and an acquisition mindset, not with the exploring, experimenting, iterative and messy processes of making, creativity and not-yet-ness that are inherent in the idea of production. In short, Hinck says, students don’t realize that digital media production is not a quick fix, but takes new knowledge, a bit of coding, time, effort and failure to succeed, and their assumptions about what education is for and what education is about is not tuned in on production, participation and what it takes to participate in a digital age:
“It’s a deeper frustration that their old ways of thinking don’t apply here – that their assumptions about education, digital media, and future careers are turning out not to be true.” (Hinck 2018)
Much like Proferes, Hinck begins with the platforms students use in their everyday practices: “These platforms restrict the choices we make as users, in many ways…” (Hinck 2018). The easy-to-use Web 2.0 platforms and websites reduce the barriers to entry as users get access not only to online media production tools but also to networks and other easy ways of publishing and sharing online. But being based on shortcuts and templates they actually only give you the possibilities that come with the template and the format.
While giving a lot of examples Hinck goes on stating that the role of education is to provide students with alternative practices and alternative models of cultural production, making and creativity that position the students as participants and help them become full participants:
“We have to help students see that they are not limited to using shortcut/template platforms and websites. Nor are they limited to looking to shortcut/template platforms and websites as models of making. They don’t have to settle for half-hearted, structured participation. They can become full, active, empowered participants. That means helping students to see possibilities beyond the “right answers” prescribed by shortcut/template platforms and websites and their corresponding worksheets.
In the future, I look forward to joining students in reflection about our individual and collective positionalities in relation to participatory culture: do we see ourselves as makers/creators/speakers? When? Why? Who ascribes us these identities? How can we claim them for ourselves? Which technologies offer us these identities? How do technologies steer us away from these identities? How might we all re-imagine digital media making and learning?” (Hinck 2018)
In her view on how education may help fostering participation and participatory culture, Ashley Hinck might be said to change her focus from participatory culture as a descriptive model of new media literacies, social practices and cultural production to participatory culture as an aspirational model emphasizing “…a set of ideals for how these social practices can facilitate learning, empowerment, civic actions and capacity-building.” (Jenkins, Ito, boyd 2016:183). Discussing and reflecting on the power law of participation and on user roles as well as developing platform knowledge and technological understanding is part of this reimagining of making, producing, processuality, experimentation and learning. So although Ashley Hinck’s context is higher education, a lot of the issues in her perspective might be considered and practiced in K-12 schools as well.
Updating the practices of new media literacies and participatory culture
In 2018 the Transmedia Literacy research project released its updated version of the practices, social skills and cultural competences of participatory culture in the e-book “Teens, Media and Collaborative Cultures. Exploiting teen’s transmedia skills in the classroom” edited by Carlos A. Scolari. The project has “…worked on an alternative and complementary conception to ‘(new) media literacies’ based on informal learning environments (Sefton-Green, 2013), bottom-up processes (Livingstone, 2004), and participatory cultures (Jenkins et al., 2006; Jenkins, Ito, and boyd, 2016).” (Scolari 2018a:12-13). So the project is “…continuing the cultural-studies tradition of focusing on ordinary culture, the active audience, and ‘bottom-up’ causation in the meaning systems” as John Hartley has summarized the perspective of Cultural Studies and Media Studies (Hartley 2012a:57).
In the article “Transmedia literacy in the new media ecology. Teen’s transmedia skills and informal learning strategies” (2018), Carlos A. Scolari, Maria-José Masanet, Mar Guerrero-Pico and Maria-José Establés present the theoretical framework and ethnography-based methodological approach behind their research and they elaborate on their perspective this way:
“…something is happening outside the school: social and technological changes have reframed the meaning of lifelong (over time) and life-wide (across locations) learning (Sefton Green, 2003; 2006; 2013), and the emergence of new participatory practices (Jenkins et al., 2006; Lange; Ito 2010) has redefined the ways of learning and even the actual concept of ’media literacy’. In this context the idea of ‘transmedia literacy’ proposes a move from traditional media literacy – understood as teaching critical media skills at school. (Potter, 2004; 2005) – to the analysis of practices of participatory cultures, youth-generated contents and informal learning strategies, and their use inside the formal educational system (Scolari, 2016; 2018).” (Scolari, Masanet, Guerrero-Pico and Establés 2018:802-803)
In their article Scolari and his colleagues conclude:
“The inclusion of the concept of ‘transmedia’ (Jenkins, 2003; 2006; Scolari, 2009; 2013) for defining teen’s skills is a clear sign of centrality that collaborative culture and transmedia production/sharing/consuming practices have in young people’s lives. The same may be said about ‘transmedia literacy’: it is not just a new name for traditional digital or internet skills but a brand new approach that considers the subject as a prosumer (producer + consumer) and not just a passive and alienated-by-media person. If traditional literacy was book-centered or, in the case of media literacy mostly television-centered, then transmedia literacy places digital networks and interactive media experiences at the centre of its analytical and practical experience (Scolari, 2016; 2018)” (Scolari, Masanet, Guerrero-Pico and Establés 2018:810)
Scolari and his colleagues stress the change among users from the traditional media consumer to the prosumer or the participatory creator – the producer and consumer gathered in the very same person and focusing on active production (Toffler), or produsage to use Brun’s related term used by Proferes. It is a change in user roles that matches the move from user to participant in the model of the multiplicity of user roles shown earlier.
The concept of transmedia literacy might not seem to add much to the ideas of new literacies and new media literacies and participatory culture. But it focuses on the developments within communication and literacies, that is on media ecology, and adds a sense of historical dynamic and evolution to the concepts used – ‘literacy’, ‘media literacy’, ‘transmedia literacy’ – and to the purpose of the project. The purpose is to expand the existing list of skills and competences identified by Henry Jenkins and his team in the 2006/2009-report “Confronting the Challenges of a Participatory Culture” through adding new skills and improving their classification (Scolari 2018a:18).The intention is to capture the current point in the evolution of participatory culture, so to speak. So networking, digital networks and interactive experiences through networks have come into focus, although they were already present in the 2006/2009-report. During their work Scolari and his colleagues have identified six transmedia skills and classified them according to present practices of participatory culture, bottom-up processes and informal learning:
- Production Skills
- Management Skills
- Performative Skills
- Media and Technology Skills
- Narrative and Aesthetic Skills
- Risk Preventing, Ideology and Ethics Skills
- Informal Learning Strategies: learning by doing, problem solving, imitation, playing, evaluating, and teaching
In this video Scolari and his colleagues present the transmedia skills:
Transmedia Skills and Informal Learning Strategies (2018)
As mentioned, transmedia skills are not just skills but involve a set of competences, practices, values, priorities, sensibilities and learning strategies connected to collaborative culture and users as prosumers or participatory creators (Scolari 2018a:15). Like Jenkins and his team, the Transmedia Literacy project provides educators with ideas on how to use the six transmedia skills in teaching and learning. Apart from the e-book, the online resource Teacher’s Kit is providing educators with transmedia literacy activities and practices for each set of skills on the updated list: “With the Teacher’s Kit, we have compromised to democratize and socialize these skills within the classroom. In other words, we try to pass from the informal to the formal environment, recovering and using in schools this knowledge that is developed in a “wild” way within social media and collaborative and digital spaces. It does not mean that we should abandon the traditional focus on media literacy. Transmedia literacy complements and expands with new techniques and conceptions.” (Scolari 2018b:130-131)
The transmedia literacy activities and practices are mainly aimed at secondary school and high school, but they do establish a horizon for developing transmedia skills and competences in higher education, too.
Types of teenage produsers
Following the elaborated definition of prosumers above, a study from the Transmedia Literacy project aims at drawing up “…the degrees of productive, narrative and aesthetic knowledge that teenagers put into practice when they create their media.” (Guerrero-Pico, Masanet and Scolari 2019:336). The result is introduced in the article “Toward a typology of young produsers: Teenagers’ transmedia skills, media production, and narrative and aesthetic appreciation” (2019):
“Ever since Jenkins (2006) put the concept of participatory culture, and its offspring transmedia storytelling, on the map there have been countless accounts of how citizens use digital media technologies to empower themselves and acquire the necessary skills to navigate the often complex scenarios of the public sphere. One of these paramount skills revolve around the ability to critically interact, learn and produce with an array of different media platforms from a young age (Buckingham, 2007; Gee, 2003; Jenkins et al., 2006). The transmedia skills that adolescents are acquiring in informal learning settings among their peers away from school and much closer to their everyday interests in the digital world are at the hub of participatory and collaborative culture (Ito et al., 2013; Scolari 2018a).” (Guerrero-Pico, Masanet and Scolari 2019:336-337)
But what are they doing then when away from school? The study presents three types of teenage produsers: 1) the casual produser, 2) the aspirational produser and 3) the expert produser. The typology focuses on the production practices most used by the teenagers in the study: writing, audiovisual and photography production, graphic design, and drawing. So production means both the processes of production involved and the artefact or ‘text’ being produced in the processes. The three types of produsers exemplify what Mimi Ito and her colleagues have called “hanging out”, “messing around” and “geeking out”:
Produser types: authors’ elaboration
|Type of production
|Photos and videos||Writing, photos, videos, graphic design, and drawing||Writing, photos, videos, graphic design, and drawing|
|Spontaneous and simple||Moderately planned||Highly planned|
|Consideration and use of narrative and aesthetic values||Not important. Basic techniques and concepts are applied||Very important. Eagerness to learn and apply new techniques and concepts||Very important. Media encyclopedic knowledge and use of various techniques and concepts|
|Entertainment and relationship with peers||Skill improvement and peer recognition||Skill improvement and originality|
(Guerrero-Pico, Masanet and Scolari 2019:342)
A minority of the teenagers in the study can be seen as expert produsers – ‘the usual suspects’ as David Buckingham called them earlier – so most are to be categorized as casual produsers or aspirational produsers: “Casual, aspirational and expert produsers reveal different paths in participatory culture that stress the necessity to keep fostering and cultivating other relevant skills for media literacy in addition and simultaneously to media production. Some of these abilities revolve around narrative and aesthetic appreciation, but they can also include abilities related to observing and reflecting on the ideology and values promoted by corporate media products and their own contents. The recurrence of these abilities is uncommon.” (Guerrero-Pico, Masanet and Scolari 2019:350).
In other words, there is a role to play for education in making students and learners progress from casual to aspirational and expert produsers, which might challenge students’ and learners’ more varied practices of participation away from school:
“The fact that there are expert produsers with additional abilities to those of their peers does not prevent those same produsers from sliding toward aspirational, or even casual positions in other scenes of their media usage, or in their daily communcations with peers. This typology is not mutually exclusive and it intends to reflect the richness of environments and learning curves that teenagers may navigate when they interact and produce with media. It should not be understood as fixed “levels” of a “participation pyramid” where the expert produsers are always situated at the top of the construction. On the contrary, we prefer to think of this ideal type as part of a complex and evolving network of engagement and participatory practices.” (Guerrero-Pico, Masanet and Scolari 2019:350).
The network of engagement and participatory practices dependent on context and situation meets the power law of participation and what it means, so to speak. So when production is moved into formal education, students and learners need to learn what it takes to engage in full participation in a community or community of practice. They need to find out that there are varying degrees, kinds and gradations of participation, and that some are more useful in the context of learning and education than others. Participation and collaboration go hand in hand, so they must also learn and be taught how to collaborate and gain a repertoire of ways of collaborating through choice, co-creation and co-production, peer-to-peer feedback, negotiation of meaning, and networking and involvement with experts and other resources. So the informal learning strategies mapped by transmedia literacy are engaged here, too. In other words, learning how to collaborate and learning through collaborating, producing artefacts or ‘texts’ and producing knowledge are interdependent processes, which also should be seen as part of what currently passes for literacy education within transmedia literacy.
I think it is important to remember that participatory culture is not just a descriptive model of practices but also an aspirational model – a set of ideals for how social practices can facilitate learning, empowerment, civic action and capacity-building – and these ideals might actually challenge students’ and learners’ present practices of participation and informal learning when entering education, which the typology of produsers might indicate. And as Ashley Hinck emphasized earlier, students’ and learners’ expectations of what it means to produce might also be barriers to full participation when education engages in fostering participatory culture, just as the lack in platform knowledge and technical understanding is a barrier according to Nicholas Proferes. All three objections may make out challenges to a practice-oriented use of the Teacher’s Kit.
The mapping of narrative and aesthetic skills
My reflections on user productivity and producing knowledge presented in The End No 3:2 apply to new media literacies and participatory culture and to transmedia literacy, too. I stressed, that now literacy/literacies mean reading and writing as interconnected social and cultural activities and practices, but even with an understanding of ‘reading’ and ‘writing’ as participation and production in all kinds of media, modalities and modes, including navigating on the web, it leaves the questions of how ‘texts’ and knowledge are understood in the context of a domain, a discipline or a subject matter. Among other things, this calls for dialogical and reception oriented approaches to ‘texts’, meaning making and interpretation, that are able to embrace hypertexts and the networks growing from them, when the communication turns from one-to-many towards many-to-many.
As an example I’ll look into the mapping of narrative and aesthetic skills from the list of transmedia skills introduced above and elaborate on what ‘texts’ and hypertext might mean. The mapping of narrative and aesthetic skills describe that the specific skills and competences students and learners must acquire and practice are to reconstruct transmedia narrative worlds, and that the goals for these sets of skills are to find and check out the different transmedia expansions (film, book, game etc.) that make a narrative world (Scolari 2018a:66). The background for activities like these is that ‘reading’, ‘writing’ and participating in a digital media culture also means interacting with narrative worlds and engaging in transmedia storytelling – characterized by among others transmediality, seriality and worldbuilding – as both consumers, readers and audience as well as interpreters, participants and producers (Jenkins 2009a, 2009b; Waade and Toft-Nielsen 2015; Toft-Nielsen and Nørgård 2018).
Scolari introduces transmedia storytelling this way: “As Henry Jenkins put it, at the most basic level transmedia stories “are stories told across multiple media”: Transmedia storytelling is not just an adaptation from one media to another: it is a narrative expansion. This textual dispersion is one of the most important sources of complexity in contemporary popular culture. This narrative expansion is one of the basic properties of transmedia storytelling: the second one is the participation of users in that narrative expansion. How? Producing new contents, for example parodies, new stories, trailers, mashups, or recapitulations.” (Eleá and Mikos 2017:125)
So fan culture is a link to transmedia storytelling as the interests behind transmedia storytelling are “…to grasp a significant shift in the underlying logic of commercial entertainment, one which has both commercial and aesthetic potentials we are still trying to understand, one which has to do with the interplay between different media systems and delivery platforms (and of course different media audiences and modes of engagement.)”, as Henry Jenkins emphasizes (Jenkins 2009a). According to Jenkins, the principles of transmedia storytelling point to historical and critical perspectives on present cultural and aesthetic practices (Jenkins 2009a), as in for example science fiction as a genre.
Seriality across media, modalities and modes challenges our understanding of what ‘text’ is, not just in introducing a broader concept of ‘text’ as being multimodal, but also fundamentally with breaking up the sense of closure that is quintessential to print culture according to Walter Ong: “Print encourages a sense of closure, a sense that what is found in a text has been finalized, has reached a state of completion.” (Ong 2012:129). Hypertext and the networks evolving from it are dynamic and potentially open-ended, and hypertext has extended the sense of ‘text’ to involve interactivity, intertextuality and multidimensionality where text seen in a network of contexts becomes crucial for meaning making, understanding and interpretation.
But hypertext also exists outside the World Wide Web which among others, N. Katherine Hayles points to with an interest in literary hypertext: “When Vanavar Bush, widely credited with the invention of hypertext, imagined a hypertextual system, it was not electronic but mechanical. His pioneering article (1945) testifies that it is possible to implement hypertext in a wide variety of ways, not only through the “go to” commands that comprise the hypertext link in digital computers. If we restrict the term hypertext to digital media, we lose the opportunity to understand how a literary genre mutates and transforms when it is instantiated in different media.” (Hayles 2004:69)
Practices of serialization across media, materials and modalities
Claus Toft-Nielsen and Rikke Toft Nørgård suggest in their article “Toy bricks and blockbusters” (2018)(my translation), on the practices of serialization across media, materials and modalities, that defining what a text is becomes more complex when several worlds and media are involved as in transmedia storytelling, and what they describe and conceptualize is a hypertext-like conceptualization of ‘text’. They see texts as engaged in a network of connected texts where the texts are not well-defined and ‘closed’ or set off from other texts but a seriality of interconnected texts and a narrative expansion. They distinguish between three forms of textual connections: 1) ‘intratextual’ relations, 2) ‘intertextual’ connections and 3) ‘paratextuality’.
The ‘intratextual’ relations consist of references connected to a single diegetic universe like “Star Wars”, whereas the ‘intertextual’ connections link up texts through quotations, palimpsests and plotlines as intertextual practices – or as Julia Kristeva has defined intertextuality: every text takes form as a mosaic of quotes, every text absorbs and transforms other texts – and thus intertextuality means creating, understanding and interpreting texts through other texts. Borrowing, adapting and sharing modes and themes is what makes a text, as any text is an absorption and transformation of another text. So intertextuality adds extra meaning through connections to a network of unfinished plotlines in the story world of for example “Star Wars” across media, modalities and modes. In the context of transmedia storytelling, ‘paratextuality’ is used to show how paratexts may change the balance between what we see as primary texts and as paratexts depending on when and in which context they turn up as entry points into the transmedia universe. And it is a universe that is continuously evolving and larger than for example the films, the games, the comic books and the LEGO sets in the example of “Star Wars” (Toft-Nielsen and Nørgård 2018:97-98).
With the idea of transmedia storytelling as serial forms and serial practices, Toft-Nielsen and Nørgård broaden Henry Jenkins’ understanding of transmedia storytelling as fans and users consuming and producing stories and products, when they add a more agency-oriented perspective to users’ interactions with stories and franchise and see seriality at work on both the level of texts and on the level of participation (Toft-Nielsen and Nørgård 2018:99-100). This double perspective of textual analysis and interpretation building on intratext, intertext and paratext and of user productivity building on remix, bricolage or design of new interpretations or products (Toft-Nielsen and Nørgård 2018:98) could more generally help emphasizing the textual dimension that is actually inherent to new media literacies and participatory culture and to transmedia literacy. At the same time Toft-Nielsen and Nørgård’s double perspective lead up to textual analysis and interpretation of hypertext in digital form as well as in other media and materialities as ‘reading’, ‘writing’ and participation in networks.
Claus Toft-Nielsen and Rikke Toft Nørgård have made their bid for how to make ‘reading’ meet ‘writing’, textual analysis and interpretation meet participation and production in the context of transmedia storytelling. They take user’s interactions from more traditional fan culture and fan fiction into co-creation and co-production of stories and franchise aka fan culture seen in the context of Web 2.0, so to speak. So Toft-Nielsen and Nørgård’s double perspective on textual analysis and interpretation and user productivity could add a qualitative stance to the mapping of the narrative and aesthetic skills in transmedia literacy and offer an approach that involves user productivity seen in a participatory context: users participating in the narrative expansion through negotiating meaning and producing new media content like trailers, parodies, new endings, new stories, remixes and recapitulations while engaging in dialogue and modeling as ways of learning characteristic to Learning 2.0. This involves communities of practice as well as networks. Like nodes in a continuously expanding network, or hypertext online and offline, users become produsers of new ideas, plotlines, intertextuality, themes and narratives.
So exploring “Star Wars” and science fiction as narrative and genre in this example of transmedia storytelling makes room for discussing that there is a body of knowledge here, too, as David Buckingham stated earlier, about how the media work, about the media industries, about the uses of media and about the history of media, that students and learners need to know. Subjective understanding need to be connected and related to explicit and validated ‘objective’ knowledge, as John Hartley maintained in The End No 3:2. Participation won’t do without acquisition, as Anna Sfard would say.
Media ecology – a blind spot in transmedia literacy
There is something missing out, a blind spot, when it comes to the concept of transmedia storytelling: a media-specific perspective that implicates the relations between the specific media and the forms of communication involved is lacking. And the blind spot recurs in the concept of transmedia literacy as it is represented in the Transmedia Project. As mentioned earlier, the progressive order of the concepts ‘literacy’, ‘media literacy’ and ‘transmedia literacy’ adds a sense of historical dynamics to the concepts, but the evolution implicated is never elaborated on or connected to the idea of ‘the new media ecology’, although it is part of the title on the main article on the project by Scolari and his colleagues: “Transmedia literacy in the new media ecology”.
One way to start exploring this blind spot is to focus on the concept of transmedia literacy and its bearings. The first step is to uncover what the perspective of media ecology stands for. Media ecology has its focus on the changes and social effects that have occurred in society and culture as a result of the evolution of technology and media throughout history. Walter Ong established in his book “Orality and Literacy” (1982/2002) a way of seeing cultural evolution from ancient times to the present as the impact of communication technologies on how humans think and know: the technologies of speech, writing, print, screen and computer (Hartley 2012b:xiii). His perspective is especially focused on “…the relations between orality and literacy and their dynamics of change or evolutions over the short and long term.” (Hartley 2012c:206). In other words, Ong approaches orality and literacy both synchronically and diachronically (Ong 2012:2).
In his introductory chapter to the 30th Anniversary Edition of “Orality and Literacy” (2012), John Hartley states: “Along with his contemporary, Marshall McLuhan, who coined the slogan “the medium is the massage”, Ong popularized the idea that knowledge is a product of language, and that the medium in which language is communicated – by voice, writing, print – makes us think along certain path-dependent lines.” (Hartley 2012b:xiv). The sense of closure connected to print mentioned earlier is an example of this, another is the concluding remarks in the chapter on narrative and the orality-literacy shift in Ong’s book:
“The present-day phenomenological sense of existence is richer in its conscious and articulate reflection than anything that precedes it. But it is salutary to recognize that this sense depends on the technologies of writing and print, deeply interiorized, made a part of our own psychic resources. The tremendous store of historical, psycholo-gical and other knowledge which can go into sophisti-cated narrative and characterization today could be accumulated only through the use of writing and print (and now electronics). But these technologies of the word do not merely store what we know. They style what we know in ways which made it quite inaccessible and indeed unthinkable in an oral culture.” (Ong 2012:152)
This is a way of thinking Ong carries on into characterizing the post-typographic, the computer as medium, and the arrival of a ‘second’ orality dynamically interacting with the forms of literacy on the internet and in digital media today according to John Hartley:
“In the era of the internet, vastly more people than before can make use of literacy, including print-literacy, by publishing it for themselves. So we are in a time of unprecedented convergence among oral, written and print-literate modes, where oral forms like phatic communication are migrating to the web, the term-taking modes of speech are augmented by links, photos, and file-sharing, private conversations are also global publications, text is literally hyper-inflated, and these multi-modal uses of multimedia literacy extends across much wider sections of the population than heretofore (see Baron 2009; Rettberg 2008; Papacharissi 2011). It is clearly important to rethink the relations between orality and literacy – both written and print – for the new media age.” (Hartley 2012c:208-209)
Thus today, media ecology is a holistic and networked perspective that values media and technological practices and offers contrast and historical perspectives on current transformations in the media systems and in the forms and modes of literacy and communication.
Closing the gap between transmedia literacy and media ecology
Building on among others Walter Ong, Sue Thomas, Chris Joseph, Jess Laccetti, Bruce Mason, Simon Mills, Simon Perril, and Kate Pullinger introduce the concept ‘transliteracy’ to embrace the new ways of thinking about human communication generated by the internet. In the article “Transliteracy: Crossing divides” (2007), Sue Thomas and her colleagues establish transliteracy as a concept this way: “Transliteracy is the ability to read, write and interact across a range of platforms, tools and media from signing and orality through handwriting, print, TV, radio and film, to digital social networks.” (Thomas et al. 2007). They extend their definition by stating that “…the concept of transliteracy calls for a change of perspective away from the battles over print versus digital, and a move instead towards a unifying ecology not just of media, but of all literacies relevant to reading, writing, interaction and culture, both past and present.” (Thomas et al. 2007)(my emphasis). They see transliteracy not as replacing ‘media literacy’ and ‘digital literacy’ but as containing them because a transliteracy approach implies a wider analysis of reading, writing and interacting across a range of platforms, tools, media and cultures.
Tracing the concept ‘transliteracy’, Thomas and her colleagues introduce the concepts of ‘convergence’ and ‘media ecology’ – ending up with an understanding of transliteracy very close to Hartley’s understanding of convergence quoted above – to establish a context for the idea of transliteracy:
“In 2001 MIT scholar Henry Jenkins wrote: ”Part of the confusion about media convergence stems from the fact that when people talk about it, they’re actually describing at least five processes” (Jenkins, 2001). He lists these types of convergence as technological, economic, social or organic, cultural and global, concluding that “these multiple forms of media convergence are leading us toward a digital renaissance – a period of transition and transformation that will affect all aspects of our lives” (Jenkins, 2001). Transliteracy is, perhaps, the literacy of this process. However, it is important to note that transliteracy is not just about computer-based materials, but about all communication types across time and culture. It does not privilege one above the other but treats all as of equal value and moves between and across them.” (Thomas at al. 2007)(my emphasis).
“In 1964, Marshall McLuhan saw the process Jenkins describes as occurring increasingly via technology, proposing that “in this electric age we see ourselves being translated more and more into the form of information, moving towards the technological extension of consciousness.”…Walter Ong, writing in 1982 about the relationship between literacy and orality, also approached the matter from the point of view of linear progressive change: “The shift from orality to literacy and on to electronic processing engages social, economic, political, religious and other structures.”…The concept of media ecology developed by McLuhan, Ong, Postman and others is certainly closely related to transliteracy. The difference lies in transliteracy’s insistence upon a lateral approach to history, context and culture, its interest in lived experience, and its focus on interpretation via practice and production. It is characteristic of our deliberations that we do not view digital media as part of a linear historical progression, but see them as manifestations of other similar modes of communication. In our view, the ecology of transliteracy is both global and historical.” (Thomas et al. 2007)(my emphasis).
The interest in lived experience and a focus on interpretation via practice and production is matched by an analytic interest in cultural production: “Cultural production is often analyzed from one of two perspectives:
- the how (practical issues of media and digital literacy, particularly access to and use of the tools and skills of production) or
- the why (social, economic and cultural determinants).
A transliterate analysis would consider both of these, and more: for example, shift in emphasis from static monologue to dynamic dialogue suggested by participatory narratives; the practices and politics of collaboration particularly when many geographically and linguistically spread authors collaborate simultaneously; and the existence of a “group creativity” or “intelligence”, perhaps as an emergent property of individual creativities of intelligences. (Thomas et al 2007)
The participatory, collaborative, networked and collective aspects and the two-way dialogical model of communication emphasized here are connected to communication in a Web 2.0 context, and as such an analysis of cultural production must be supplemented by a dual perspective on transliteracy inspired by the perspective of media ecology according to Thomas and her colleagues:
“Transliteracy is, of course, inextricable from social practice, and social researchers have an influential part to play by investigating from two directions – transliteracy as a cultural phenomenon, and as a lens through which to examine society and culture. On one hand, it is the kind of literacy we require to be able to simultaneously attend to multiple media and modes of communication: the literacy of ‘trans’. On the other, it also refers to that kind of literacy we use to apply the literacies of one mode or medium to another one: transliteration. This dual nature of transliteracy implies that it can be employed to understand communication both diachronically (over time) and synchronically (at the same time). Diachronically, it helps us understand , for example, how the practice of blogging might draw upon non-digital methods of combining modes in handwritten media or how personal blogs relates to diaries and journals. Synchronically, it can help us see how multiple media and modes of communication are used in relation to each other at the same time. (Thomas et al 2007).
So as an inclusive concept, ‘transliteracy’ bridges and connects the past, the present and potentially the future when it comes to cultural production and cultural evolution involving media, forms and modes of communication and ways of knowing. And as Sue Thomas and her colleagues say: transliteracy is a unifying perspective on what it means to be literate in the 21st century.
Thus, transliteracy seems to be closing the gap between participatory culture and transmedia literacy and the theoretical approach to media ecology, Carlos A. Scolari introduces in his theoretical article “Media Ecology: Exploring the Metaphor to Expand the Theory” (2012). Transliteracy might be said to anticipate the idea of transmedia literacy and can now be seen as one contextual grasp on transmedia literacy. Another is zooming in on Scolari’s theroretical reflections on the potential usefulness of media ecology as an approach to understanding the contemporary mutations of the media system, that is ‘the new media ecology’.
‘The new media ecology’
In his article Scolari is delving into the concept of media ecology and what it implicates. Setting off from the ecological metaphor, he states how media ecology came into being with divergent views in the field: “The rise of the new ecology was a response to the need for greater attention to holism in science and technology. Working in the same direction, after years of thinking about communication processes from a linear perspective based on the Shannon and Weaver (1949) model – in which the information was an arrow flying from the sender to the receiver – the media ecology scholars proposed a new conception of the relationship between media, individuals, and society based on a different metaphor.” (Scolari 2012:207). According to Scolari, “…media ecologists have interpreted the ecological metaphor in two different ways: a) media ecology as an environment and b) media ecology as an intermedia relationship.” (Scolari 2012:218):
“In a few words, the ecological metaphor applied to media accepts at least two complementary interpretations. The environmental conception considers the media to be an environment that surrounds the subjects and models their cognitive and perceptual system. The intermedia version of the metaphor looks at the interactions between media, as if they were species of an ecosystem. Can both interpretations of the metaphor be integrated into a single framework? In this case we should consider media ecology as an environment that includes different media and technologies (i.e., television, radio, the Internet, radio-frequency identification (RFID), mobile devices and transmission control protocol/Internet protocol (TCP/IP), subjects (i.e., content producers, users, readers, and media researchers) and the social/political forces (Hollywood majors, Wikileaks, legal regimes, etc. ).” (Scolari 2012:209-210)
To explore the media ecology metaphor means to Scolari to take the dialogue with the traditions of the ecological perspective (the environmental conception) and the evolutionary perspective (the intermedia version): “…we can also say that ecology thinks in space and evolution thinks in time. Both conceptions – ecology and evolution – are complementary and can be reorganized following the traditional linguistic opposition between diachronic/synchronic levels.” (Scolari 2012.211). So Scolari includes the concepts of evolution as a framework for studying the history of media, interface as a focus on the dialectics between media, subjects and social interactions, and hybridization as a concept for analyzing and understanding the appearance of new media that combine different devices, languages and functions, also known as remediation in Bolter and Grusin’s understanding of new media (Scolari 2012:218-219).
Carlos A. Scolari’s reflections on media ecology provides an approach to understanding the contemporary changes of the media system – ‘the new media ecology’ – which is the implicit context for the idea of transmedia literacy, as far as I can see. As a parallel to new literacies he is intensely concerned about media and technology in the current historical period. At the same time Scolari contributes with a set of concepts and a meta-language to grasp, analyze, reflect and discuss with when engaging with and relating to new media and the new media systems. So what Scolari offers is not a view of technological determinism, he stresses, but “a dialectic and transactional approach to media and culture”. (Scolari 2012:219).
When viewing transmedia literacy as an updated version of new media literacies and participatory culture, it seems meaningful to combine the ideas of transliteracy and Scolari’s media ecological framework as the context for working with the transmedia skills in a domain, a discipline or a subject matter. The focus of transliteracy on practices, cultural production and cultural evolution involving media, forms and modes of communication and knowledge production – building among others on Walter Ong who in many ways standardized the field of media ecology – matches the understanding of participatory forms, the ideal of full participation and the diversity and complexity of user roles connected to participatory culture. And transliteracy also maintains that digital literacies are more than digital skills, that is, they are the multiplicity of literacies that occur when digital literacies are converging and used in practice in a specific context, as I mentioned in The End No 3:1. On the other hand, Scolari’s framework of media ecology is engaged in the evolution and the present changes of media and technology – going beyond the internet and digital media focused on by Sue Thomas, her colleagues and John Hartley – and this opens up to algorithms, artificial intelligence and the Internet of Things as part of the contemporary changes of the media system. Web 3.0 and Web 4.0 are on the agenda.
Within the framework of digital literacy development
The ideas of new media literacies and participatory culture propagated by Henry Jenkins and his colleagues are complementary to new literacies, as new media literacies favour social skills and cultural competences developed through collaboration and networking, but also build on traditional literacy and on research, technical and critical-analysis skills. So with cultural production and participation in focus, new media literacies and participatory culture work on both the level of digital competence and on the level of digital usage in Allan Martin and Jan Grudziecki’s model of digital literacy development introduced in The End No 3:1. In fact, the two levels are interdependent to Jenkins and his colleagues as they emphasize in their own way in the 2006/2009-report while placing the level of digital usage in the forefront:
“Participatory culture is emerging as the culture absorbs and responds to the explosion of the new media technologies that make it possible for average consumers to archive, annotate, appropriate, and recirculate media content in powerful new ways. A focus on expanding access to new technologies carries us only so far if we do not also foster the skills and cultural knowledge necessary to develop these tools toward our own ends.” (Jenkins et al. 2009:8).
The focus on developing “these tools toward our own ends” point to participatory culture as not just a descriptive model but also as an aspirational model that has among other things agency and capacity-building, democratic values and democratic citizenship and empowerment as its educational ideal. It is an aspiration that aligns with the level of digital transformation in Martin and Grudziecki’s model, as this level implicates not just innovation and creativity but also intellectual empowerment and evolution and emphasizes the transformation of thinking capacities when new cognitive tools are developed. Together these aspects of the aspirational model contain what education is for and what education is about to Henry Jenkins and his colleagues, and in many ways they correspond to the idea of ‘digital Bildung’ – introduced in The End No 3:2 – that inform the definition of digital literacy by Martin and Grudziecki.
But Jenkins and his colleagues also have their own grasp on the perspective of ‘digital Bildung’. Like new literacies they emphasize ‘the ontological sense of the ‘new’’ – although not without attention towards media evolution – and the idea of collective intelligence play a crucial part in participatory culture. Due to the anthropological understanding of culture in participatory culture, pooling knowledge within a collective intelligence is not necessarily in opposition to the idea of the liberal humanist subject featuring rationality, autonomy, free will and consciousness and supporting the idea of Bildung. But somehow the set of relations between the two changes the constitution and the coordination of personal and collective activities, to paraphrase Felix Stalder’s words, and thus influences the balance of understanding oneself, ‘the other’ and the world when new media and new technology are involved. It makes the liberal humanist subject more relational. And maybe it even contributes to what N. Katherine Hayles has called the break-up of “the liberal humanism in its traditional form”?
Now, participatory culture is also an evolving concept that gets read in relation to present practices and norms. That is the idea behind the updated version of the skills, the social and cultural competences and the practices of participatory culture in the Transmedia Literacy project, too. Although the interest in skills and competences is much more explicit in the mapping of the transmedia skills than in the original list by Jenkins and his colleagues that keeps the collaborative and networked ideal of participatory culture in mind, transmedia literacy also works on both the level of digital competence and the level of digital usage. After all, skills, understanding and knowledge are bound up with each other in action.
With media ecology – including ‘the new media ecology’ – as a perspective, transmedia literacy might also be said to take off from the aspiration of matching new tools, new media and new media systems with cultural production and interpretation via practice and production which develop tools, media and media systems “toward our own ends”: “…such production permits citizens to shape social connections that are fundamental to the development of democratic societies.” (Guerrero-Pico, Masanet and Scolari 2019:349). It is an aspiration that in some aspects corresponds to the idea of ‘digital Bildung’, but seen across the e-book, the Teacher’s Kit and the research articles from the project the focus in the Transmedia Literacy project is on ‘the new media ecology’ in teaching and learning and on the passing from the informal to the formal environment more than on meta-reflections on what education is for and what education is about. And that is needed, too, as complementary to the models and educational ideals of participatory culture.
To be continued…
Buckingham, David (2010): Do We Really Need Media Education 2.0? Teaching Media in the Age of Participatory Culture, Drotner, Kirsten and Schrøder, Kim Christian (Eds.): Digital Content Creation, New York: Peter Lang
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