The emerging participatory culture of the internet is having a negative impact on the spread of accurate information, causing disingenuous representations of personal and corporate identity, and the silencing of voices from marginalized groups. These epidemics are caused through the internet user becoming a dual identity, in which users within the sphere of web 2.0 act as both a consumer and producer. This allows users to modify their digital experience towards a specific bias as they are able to choose what content they produce and what they consume.
Information distributed in the current media landscape is distorted due to prosumer writing and publishing, causing major issues within news and media. Media scholar Christopher Lutz defines prosumer culture as; an entity thought by the majority as a positive practice in our media landscape (Lutz 2015). Despite the arguments that this era is causing higher levels of creativity within users, the negative aspects of a collaborative identity, false information and uneven distribution, stand against this notion. This urges users to question whether the current media landscape is causing individuals to simply conform to the identity fed to them through their own modification of the digital experience, and whether or not anyone’s thoughts are still truly their own. This paper will demonstrate the negative effects of a “prosumer” culture, through examining the effect that the participatory media sphere has had on news and fake news, identity and collective identity, information distribution and the digital divide.
The creation of a prosumer within participatory culture, brings a newness to the media landscape and the content that can be found within it, as consumers act as also producers. This content is shaped in the context of blogs and vlogs, as well as photo and music sharing. Vlogger Casey Neistat, GQ’s 2016, new media star of the year, exemplifies a success story of the producer as consumer ideology (GQ 2016). Neistat arose in 2015 with the publication of a daily video built with professional equipment and editing, but uploaded as free content. Neistat claims that he wanted to be unlike other creators on YouTube at the time, and wanted to use his movie making techniques to include complex scene changes within a narrative arc. The publication of a daily video to his YouTube channel propelled him forward, and he was quoted as saying that he would now vlog everyday of his life and further publish the work online for the world to see (Neistat 2015). When Neistat joined the media 2.0 site, YouTube, it did not only gain a consumer but also gained a wildly popular producer.
Neistat continued to post daily, and with that posting of content, began to establish a following. By August 2016, Neistat had 4 million subscribers. Neistat shared with this audience both political activism within New York City, such as a push for bike lanes, as well as making creative ‘movies’ that involved scenes such as a human-carrying drone, or Neistat skiing through the streets of New York (Neistat 2016). The creative nature of the videos provided an increase in numbers and Neistat reached a staggering 8 million subscribers in October of 2017 (Neistat 2017). The increase of viewers brought, for Neistat, an increase in ad revenue and job prospects. Neistat accumulated revenue and jobs within companies such as and Nike, and Emirate Airlines, allowing Neistat to have a larger profit for making his own videos into a higher quality for his growing audience to consume for free.
Neistat stands as a success story of a prosumer in our participatory culture; however the role of internet users as both producers and consumers is not solely positive. Despite this constructed view from Casey’s story that participatory culture allows users to share their voice, explore creativity, gain revenue and produce content without governmental control, the negative aspects of having prosumers curate online content, runs parallel to the minimal amount of stories similar to Neistat’s. An overwhelming majority of content created through the work of prosumer culture in participatory online media, is poorly created and non factual. Even though this work is non factual, it is often passed off as true and deemed to even be ‘news’.
This becomes overwhelmingly dangerous when considering the importance that unbiased, factual news reporting has in informing citizens about politics and events that may ignite a desire in them to create change, such as politics. Lutz and Hoffman describe political participation to be “an activity that intended or has the consequence of affecting, either directly or indirectly, government action” (Verba, Sholzman, & Brandy 1995). This form of participation relies on the the public gathering accurate information, but this is not always the case, due to information that is distributed by prosumer culture, which can be deemed to be ‘fake’.
The fake news epidemic surrounding the November 2016 American political election saw prosumer produced content combined with unreliable facts on sites such as Twitter, and this content became indistinguishable from highly produced fully cited news reports. The fake news articles dipped into the realm of real news, as some reporters fell into the deception that user created content was real and began publishing these stories as the truth. The creation of fake news can solely be traced to the roots of prosumer content created on web 2.0 sites, that exists flagrantly and is passed off as truth, due to a lack of media regulation within user produced content. Media scholar Kucharski recalls these events, stating that users are “turning to social media as a primary news source” (Kucharski 2016). This quotation divulges into the danger of a prosumer culture. If citizens are turning towards social media sites to gain news and information, then said news and information will be sourced directly from the users that they follow, friend, and allow to dominate their feed.
Reliable news sources are attempting to keep up with the turn towards social media for news by creating online platforms and a presence that attempts to lure audiences into “following” their publication. Sites such as Buzzfeed have dominated the social media sphere, by gaining traction through the means of “clickbait” to appeal to users on social media. Clickbait is the use of shock value in headlines to get users to click on the link on social media and further read the article. The scientific journal of Pragmatics states that; when tested upon college students, the deceiving titles of news articles did not bother the readers “as long as the reference is used in a way considered creative and riveting to the reader” (Blom 2015). This allows news sources to compete for interest within the sphere of participatory culture, but at what cost?
New York Times author Amanda Hess describes clickbait as “grotesque screenshot(s) and gender stereotype(s) that manages to override our thinking brains and reduce us to pure click monsters” (Hess 2017). This notion of the pure click monster is descriptive of what internet users are diminished to in the era of the prosumer. When content is so readily available and is published by a prosumer and able to be accessed by one, it is simple for users to get lost in false stories and useless rhetoric, instead of working towards building intellect and creating positive social change. Distraction in the world of the prosumer runs rampant and is aided by the news sites that it resides in. Media scholar Hess, states that “Sites welcome the easy revenue boost. According to the data analysis firm Datanyze, Taboola and Outbrain are the oldest and biggest services in the business” (Hess 2017).
Although news sites are lobbying for follows and gaining a large portion of readers that are gathered from social media, it is not only from clickbait producing sites, that news is mass consumed, but largely derives from the people you ‘friend’ and ‘follow’.These social media ‘friends’ create non reliable news that is passed off as true, as other users don’t question the authorship of the sources that they have already allowed into their media realms. This adds to the creation of the dangerous dimension of fake news. Stanford University released a report in 2016 examining how students consume news through social media. The report focused around Twitter and showed tweets to students in test groups, with carefully crafted political bias. The students did not recognize “political bias” nor did they “question authorship” when asked if the fake tweets were credible. (Stanford 2016).
This explains the spread of fake news on Twitter as dangerous, due to the sites’ participatory culture that goes unmonitored. Users are able to post whatever they want within the span of 140 characters, which is just enough for news statements, headlines and opinions to be shared. Scholar Sismonda, urges for a spread of media literacy to differentiate political bias and facts in media. “Twitter has made no significant efforts to deter abuse, the platform has stabilized as a site that would be illegal in most places”. (Sismondo 2017). Sismondo’s critique of Twitter is an excellent example of why unmonitored prosumer behaviour leads to dangerous information distribution.
This lack of authorship contemplation combined with the turn towards user abused social media for information, and reliable news sources being forced to utilize clickbait to compete with the endless stream of information but in turn only adding to this needless distraction, defines the problems with the prosumer society within web 2.0. What was once reliable turns to be unreliable and what was never reliable is thought of as truth. These statements of how participatory culture within social media has ruined news, differs greatly from the picture of prosumer culture painted by Neistat’s success of using web 2.0 as a source of money, creativity and influence.
A further divergence from Neistat’s story is the notion of a collective identity that derives from the prominent media and contains highly negative aspects as this collective identity can be thought of as, not only the popular, but the only truth, blocking out differing voices and means of other content. Collective identity from online presences is defined by IGI Global Disseminated Knowledge as an “Individual’s cognitive, moral and emotional connection with a broader community that may form part of a personal identity” (IGI 2016). The creation of a collective identity in media can be created through the same voice and stories dominating news feeds and media spheres.
These highlighted stories can be seen both in Neistat’s Youtube videos, that dominate the vlogging sphere, and within viral movement videos, such as the 2008 phenomenon “It Get’s Better”. The viral videos feature gay, male based individuals filming themselves and holding up cards with a story of depression and a message of survival asking viewers who are feeling the same as them to know that “it will get better”. While videos like this seem to portray prosumer culture in a positive light, the criticism of these videos highlight the problem with prosumer content becoming overwhelmingly popular in terms of its effects on creating a collective identity and in turn silencing other stories.
Gender and media scholar, Gal, studied and critiqued this video phenomenon. According to Gal’s critique, the majority of videos showcased a dominantly male speaker, with only “16% featuring solely women” (Gal 2015). The videos also feature mainly white males under the age of 20. The videos follow the same format as the original phenomenon creator, using similar content and music and subscribing to the same morals, in the creation of a collective identity. Gal states that the videos “follow the general tendency of privileged populations being overrepresented online” (Gal 2015) as each video is representative of the original creators version of the video. The creation of a collective identity ignores differing voices and does not allow for the ideas within the curation of this identity to be altered in anyway. A means of copying, that leads to a complacent conformity.
Neistat witnessed this same collective identity issues occur surrounding the success of his YouTube channel. After two years of vlogging and allowing the channel to gain traction and followers, Neistat noticed a rise in video channels aiming at doing not only the same thing but in the same way that Neistat curated the daily videos. On June 8th 2017 Neistat released a video called “How to Vlog like Casey Neistat by Casey Neistat” addressing the many YouTubers that changed from the previous vlogging style to a more cinematic and professional means of filming like Neistat had done two years prior. Popular daily video makers like Jon Olsson and Erik Conover fell into this category and bought expensive cameras, hired crews to film and edit, and travelled to foreign places in an attempt to gain the same success in the same way that Neistat did. This community of vloggers following Neistat’s recipe, creates a collective identity within the sphere of YouTube.
The idea to copy Neistat marginalizes opposing ideas of how to succeed on YouTube in differing and innovative ways, and rather subscribes to the way that Neistat found power, as the only truth. This creation of collective identity as seen through the “It Gets Better” videos and through vloggers copying Neistat’s videos, seriously questions the ideal of creativity that is part of a participatory culture and replaces this with the question as to whether our ideas and thoughts are truly our own or if they are a result of what we subscribe to in the media.
Neistat’s videos and Gal’s description of collective identity of the “It Gets Better” phenomenon illustrates the danger of silencing voices and creating disingenuous identities for those who subscribe to it, but there is a larger group that is not even able to partake in the conversation. Communities and individuals without access to media and internet, or without the skills to utilize it are left out of the conversations that are being held within a means of public sphere in the space of the internet and are not able to turn to any of the positive aspects of prosumer culture.
The limited access and ability to use the internet results in a lack of participation , which is what Christopher Lutz, defines to be a digital divide (Lutz 2017). Lutz speaks of the concept of the digital divide to be due to people’s lack of “material resources, opportunity, time and literacy” (Lutz 2017). The concept of the digital divide displaces all people not able to participate online from said conversation being held by prosumers within web 2.0. Lutz includes explains this lack of inclusion to consist of, individuals without a digital literacy unable to consume the positive aspects that a online participation may provide (Lutz 2017).
The digital divide also refers to communities and individuals without access to internet or media materials referring to both people unable to afford these materials and societies that prohibit free speech, such as the Chinese firewall. In a prosumer society, the internet further “magnifies the socio-economic standings” (Greengard 2015) as users who aren’t able to access or utilize the web, and are unable to take part in political conversations, as noted above to be a vital aspect of participation culture.
In the age of a prosumer digital culture, a user can also be a producer, disseminating the power of the knowledge hierarchy, as the online source of information can be easily malleable in comparison to print, which previously was utilized to spread intellect. This malleable web-based information forum causes problems for news, as prosumers are ‘Tweeting’ the news and citizens are turning to this form of news consumption rather than the reliability of newspapers. This causes the spread of fake news that has affected, and continues to affect, the dominant political realm.
The ability for users to produce content also adds to an increase in clickbait and becomes a competition for attention in a giant sea of information. This competition only furthers distractedness that takes away from any online positive participation. This sea of information causes crushing waves of sameness over user created content, due to the notion of a collective identity. Favourable prosumer content climbs to the top of newsfeeds due to web 2.0 algorithms and the prosumer society-made ability to customize the content seen by subscribing, friending and following only certain people. This collective identity ignores the stories of marginalized groups and sees the same solutions and same groups dominating and bombarding screens time after time. The conversations being held by prosumers within media spheres are not equal, nor can be thought of as a reliable means of change. Many individuals do not participate in discussions and politics circulating online, because of the prominent digital divide.
Prosumer culture cannot be solely thought of as positive and the internet shouldn’t be relied upon as the only source for conversation and production of thoughts. Until there is an increase in digital literacy, where society can learn to differentiate between reliable and non-reliable authorship, and a regulation of what is known as ‘clickbait’ in the media is implemented, we will continue to have a systemic problem in the dissemination of information. Sites will continue to allow fake news to spread, in this era of lack of user regulation, and groups will continue to not have a voice due to the digital divide and collective identity. The dominant; mostly white, male groups on social media have the balance of power, and until that is offset with different points of view, a collective identity stands strong in segregating equality of access and of information. Until steps towards healing this divide, increasing digital literacy, and moving away from the notion of collective identity, prosumer culture will not be able to be seen as a holistically positive practice.

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