Bastard Culture! How User Participation Transforms Cultural Production

May 19, 2011

The term "bastard culture" refers to unofficial culture. Although Mirko Tobias Schäfer does not dwell on this in much detail, it derives from "bastard pop", the transformation of two music recordings into a third; the mash-up, a fluid cultural entity that shifts shape with and through its users. Here, Schäfer takes this remix concept to the analysis of current digital culture, demonstrating how "the media industry is undergoing a shift from creating content to providing platforms for user-driven social interactions and user-generated content".

Avoiding technological deterministic utopian or dystopian responses to emerging participatory cultures, Schäfer's main aim is to trace pathways of interaction between participants, technological design and culture industries. He achieves this through a mixture of discourse analysis and actor-network theory, showing that the design of the technology is as politically implicated as human actors, in a socio-technical ecosystem, "an environment based on information technology that facilitates and cultivates the performance of a great number of users. Design and user activities are mutually intertwined and dependent in order to improve the overall system."

As an example, Schäfer traces in detail the appropriation of the Xbox game console through the development of "homebrew" software and hardware customisation; such unofficial research and development ultimately benefited the next generation of official game consoles.

After showing how the notion of user participation has been produced in marketing campaigns and in academic discourse, Schäfer makes an important intervention in the debate by introducing a distinction between explicit and implicit participation, arguing that participatory culture must be investigated with knowledge of the material design aspects of computer technologies.

Explicit participation is motivated in a range of ways, from professional development to fan cultures and activism. Implicit participation, however, "is channelled by design" and does not require social networks or a set of shared values. Rather, user activities such as tagging pictures, clicking "I like" buttons or making use of search engines provide datasets to be managed in a range of ways, from marketing to the improvement of information retrieval. Schäfer further explores this argument through a range of case studies that illustrate the heterogeneous characteristics of bastard culture, a hybrid of implicit system-managed participation and explicit participation that interacts with the production of mediated culture and its technologies.

User participation has been responded to by the cultural industries in a range of ways. First, new media practices have collided with old business models that are better suited to the age of mechanical reproduction, whereby user participation is confronted by music and film corporations through tightened copyright legislation, alienating its potential markets. Second, user participation is exploited through the implementation of new media practices into software design, in which user data collection is of importance. Third, a new copyright model is developed that integrates new media practices, understanding these in a different manner in the age of digital fluidity, whereby users explicitly collaborate to produce cultural forms and income is derived in a range of manners. Indeed, Schäfer's book is itself presented as part of this new model, as it is licensed under a Creative Commons agreement: "You are free to share, copy, distribute, transmit the work."

Despite a few structural quirks, Bastard Culture! offers a timely assessment of emerging digital mediascapes through a richly detailed analysis and contains a useful model of how to study them further.

Bastard Culture! How User Participation Transforms Cultural Production

By Mirko Tobias Schäfer. Amsterdam University Press. 256pp, £24.95. ISBN 9789089642561. Published 31 May 2011

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