Managing Participation

Chapter Introduction

Exercising power involves making and managing meaning.

What are the various roles that meaning now plays in the exercise of power?

How does global network capitalism use meaning to exercise power?

How is participation in the creation and circulation of meaning embedded in the exercise of power?

What role do our identities play in the circulation of meaning and exercise of power?


In this chapter we examine the:

  • Difference between speaking and being heard.
  • Difference between participating and managing participation.
  • Difference between decoding and managing representations.
  • Difference between being visible and being understood. 

Cases & Activities

Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror

Black Mirror is a drama written by Charlie Brooker. Each episode in the series offers a critical reflection on life in a media-dense society. The episodes are forward-looking, they attempt to imagine the trajectory of media technologies and speculate about their impact on our intimate and public lives, society, culture and politics.

Watch Season 2 of Black Mirror. Each episode offers a critique of interactive and participatory forms of media.

The first episode Be Right Back raises questions about intimacy, surveillance, simulation and sentiment analysis. The episode follows a young couple. When one of them suddenly passes a way, media offers a way for their relationship to endure. What do our smartphones know about us that our intimate others do not? And, how might our smartphones be used in the future to create customized forms of media that simulate our intimate relationships?

The second episode White Bear offers a critique of our participation in media rituals where we are called on to judge others. The episode draws on the culture of smartphone witnessing, reality TV, tabloid media spectacles, and poses questions about of race, class, criminality and punishment.

The third episode The Waldo Moment explores mediatized politics. It follows a local by-election where the candidates include members of the major parties engaging in a highly professionalized and image-conscious form of campaigning. They are joined on the campaign by a satirical animated character intent only on pointing out the broken nature of the media-political process.

Each episode critically reflects on the nature of our participation in an increasingly responsive media system.

Be Right Back suggests that the more we participate the more value we generate, the more data we create, the more that data can be used to control the customization of media and affect how we see the world and live our lives. It asks us to consider to what extent customized media will be able to perform human relationships. After watching the episode, ask: What do you imagine are some of the consequences of media system characterised by a two-way flow of information that watches and responds to us in real time? What do you imagine are some of the consequences of a world where media technologies simulate humans? Would you want a simulation of a distant or deceased intimate other? How do media technologies affect our intimate relationships?

White Bear suggests that the more we participate the more we enact dominant frames of representation, uneven power relationships and rituals of judgment. After watching White Bear, examine media formats and practices where we participate in judging others. How do the rituals associated with these formats and practices enact power relationships? What role do smartphones play in ‘bearing witness’ to events in the world? And, how does that affect our public lives, popular culture or journalism?

The Waldo Moment suggests that the more we participate the more we add to an unending loop of cynicism, snark and apathy. After watching the episode consider to what extent do contemporary forms of popular culture and media enable meaningful and productive participation in the political process? You might consider one or more of: forms of media that involve satire, comedy and cynicism; popular and entertaining talk and panel shows, talkback and breakfast radio, comedy news; political activity and discussion on social media platforms.

Black Mirror provocatively suggests that participation doesn’t amount to much on its own. What we also need is more thinking. This involves careful deliberation, evidence gathering and argument testing. But, it also involves using our imaginations and creativity. Charlie Brooker reminds us of the power of creative and provocative thinking. He may not always get it right, but he does manage in much of this series to unsettle us and prompt us to think. To help us think critically about the media we need to engage with scholarly debate, political argument, and the worlds of art, popular culture and everyday life.

We need to be able to carefully and critically analyse how things are now. But that then needs to be coupled with the work of imagining how they might be otherwise, and going about the real activity of working together in the world. This demands our creativity and ingenuity. Being a good communicator is about more than attracting attention, using technology, or making compelling content. It is about knowing how to orchestrate meaningful and constructive relationships in the world.

We’ve taken a critical approach to media and society in this book, but that shouldn’t be mistaken for a negative position. We don’t think media technology is bad. But, we do think media technologies are bound up in larger relationships of power. The first impulse of a critical position is to draw attention to how media facilitate power relationships. We’ve attempted to puncture the ‘fantasy’ that one day with the right technologies and tools we will solve all the problems! Technical problem-solving will never be enough. We also need critical thinking: what does it mean to be human? What kind of social world are we making? How will we make space for each other in the world?



Black Mirror can be found on many library databases (like EduTV) and be purchased from content providers like iTunes.

British Film Institute Q&A with Charlie Brooker.

Further Readings

In 2014 the international open-access International Journal of Communication launched a forum for debate about participation. The forum featured leading international communication scholars in a structured dialogue about the ‘participatory promise of contemporary culture and politics’. The contributions to the forum address questions regarding creativity, labour, politics and platforms. The forum is unique because readers can follow leading scholars addressing each other in turn and responding directly to each other’s ideas.

Couldry, N. & Jenkins, H. (2014). Participations: Dialogues on the participatory promise of Contemporary Culture and Politics: Introduction. International Journal of Communication, Forum: 1107-1112.

Banet-Weiser, S., Baym, N., Coppa, F., Gauntlett, D., Gray, J., Jenkins, H., Shaw, A. (2014). Participations: Dialogues on the participatory promise of Contemporary Culture and Politics: Part 1: Creativity. International Journal of Communication, Forum: 1069-1088.

Andrejevic, M., Banks, J., Campbell, J., Couldry, N., Fish, A., Hearn, A., Ouellette, L. (2014). Participations: Dialogues on the participatory promise of Contemporary Culture and Politics: Part 2: Labour. International Journal of Communication, Forum: 1089-1106.

Allen, D., Carpentier, N., Bailey, M., Fenton, N., Jenkins, H., Lothian, A., Qiu, J., Schafer, M., Srinivasan, R. (2014). Participations: Dialogues on the participatory promise of Contemporary Culture and Politics: Part 3: Politics. International Journal of Communication, Forum: 1129-1151.

Bird, E., Couldry, N., Hepp, A., Livingstone, S., Losh, E., Mittell, J., Neff, G., Slater, D., Watkins, SC. (2014). Participations: Dialogues on the participatory promise of Contemporary Culture and Politics: Part 4: Knowledge and Education. International Journal of Communication, Forum: 1216-1242.    

Clark, J., Couldry, N., Kosnik, A., Gillespie, T., Jenkins, H., Kelty, C., Papacharissi, Z., Powell, A., van Dijck, J. (2014). Participations: Dialogues on the participatory promise of Contemporary Culture and Politics: Part 5: Platforms. International Journal of Communication, Forum: 1446-1473.