Book Review: Participatory Culture in a Networked Era

Since late December, I had been slowly sharing out thoughts from the new book by Henry Jenkins, Mimi Ito and danah boyd called Participatory Culture in a Networked Era. We chose the book as a slow-read after Digital Writing Month unofficial ended in November, hoping to continue the conversations and keep our own participatory elements alive and active.

I’m not sure it all worked as we had hoped (this vision of multiple entry points with various conversations emerging and unfolding), but maybe it is too early to make that assessment. There was some activity here and there, and Terry Elliott offered up multiple entry points for folks to “participate” in the conversations. A few did. Some may be doing it still. Some may still enter in. It’s an open invitation.

You come, too.

But I figure I needed an artificial ending point for myself with the book itself (and I wrote this post a few weeks ago but kept it in my draft bin), while still hoping to keep open the connections with other people reading it and learning from it, too. The last page of a book does not mean the last thoughts of a book. Much of what Jenkins, Ito and boyd talk about in Participatory Culture in a Networked Era rattle in my head. I am still hoping to find more people to talk about it with.


So, here are some take-aways from the book on my end:

  • Just “hearing” the discussions and debates and diving deeper by these three thinkers around Connected Learning and Participatory Culture is intriguing. The book is framed around main ideas, with an introduction by one of the three, and then edited transcripts as the three bandy about the ideas. I felt like I was in the room at times.
  • By the end, they agree that the defining of Participatory Culture is still in flux. I still have troubles grasping a definition. It anchors on the ideas of people being to come together based on common interests, and creating ideas or things together, with experts helping novices. I feel like those ideas are important.
  • I wish there had been more about classroom experiences, but these three are more researchers, and it seems as if much of their research has been done in out-of-school programs. This makes sense, as kids gather around interests in after-school programs or online spaces. But I keep coming back to the question of how to make sense of this in my classroom, and how to use Participatory Culture concepts to engage students in meaningful learning and literacy moments.
  • The discussion around ways that commercial enterprises and corporate culture have sort of hijacked “participation” for financial gain and status in the world of Social Media is something that I appreciated, and certainly do talk about with my students. It’s about empowerment and filtering, and having agency to decide when to participate. The three authors have strong ideas, culled from their research.
  • Talking about what kind of elements help nurture a Participatory Culture had us thinking of how technology platforms (Twitter, Google Plus, Facebook, etc.) either encourage or hinder Participatory Culture. Most of the sites I use on a regular basis seem less than ideal. There are pieces that invite participatory ideas, but there are also walls to a seamless experience.
  • We found it interesting that our open invitations to discussions, of trying to create a small pocket of Participatory Culture around the reading of the book, didn’t seem to gather any reaction or comments from the three authors of the book. Maybe they didn’t even know we were talking about them. Or maybe they are keeping removed from the discussion around their book. Who knows? But it seemed counter to the theme of participation, of narrowing the line between reader and author.
  • I still don’t get the cover art. I am not sure why I keep wondering about it. I guess I find it interesting and intriguing …. but it is strangely odd.

This book is well worth your time, even if you don’t connect with discussions. I think it makes for a richer experience to read with others in online spaces, and explore and create, but the book is worth your time one way or another.

Peace (on pages),


  1. Kevin, thanks for these thoughts. Yes I’m still reading and interestingly this concept of a participation metaphor for learning has come up in my post grad study this week. This has made me return to the book and see it in a different and changing light.
    I agree that the vision of a participatory ‘read’ has not eventuated but can’t say you didn’t try. I would’ve thought would’ve been a great place to start but little activity on Terry’s blog for chapter 4 and 5.
    You made me look at the cover a little closer. While I don’t get the vomiting horse or the sea creatures that seem stranded on dry land, I can get a sense of people, places and things that seem to swim and emerge from the mobile phones and buttons indicating social media tools. I think the double arrows in the middle button might be the generic share symbol and I find that at the root of these conversations. It’s the sharing between people, like minded, shared values, looking for commonality, perhaps, that lies at the root of participatory culture. Full stop or perhaps question mark there.

    • Thanks, Wendy. I know people are still reading, and the experiment is worth it. The idea that anyone can still enter the discussions at any time (particularly at Terry’s blog where he has annotation systems set up) is a real example of why we were/are/maybe reading the book itself.

  2. Hello there —
    One of my students just flagged this post for me. I have been wallowing in work and had not been aware of your conversation before. I am heavily booked over the next two weeks, so may not be able to respond in depth, but I did want to signal a willingness to engage.

    To respond quickly to a few things raised here:
    –If you want to dig deeper into how to explore these issues in a classroom setting, I would recommend an earlier book, Reading in a Participatory Culture, which does describe how we’ve been doing work with classroom teachers to bring a more participatory learning approach into teaching high school English. You might also look at the site for my forthcoming book,, which includes some classroom activities and reports from teachers vis-a-vis participatory politics and civics education. Look for a special issue of Journal of Digital Media Literacy around this topic coming out in the spring. And catch a series of posts starting today on my blog at, which explores the collaborations with teachers that shaped our online resources on participatory politics.

    –As for the cover, I am not sure I can explain it in any literal way. The artist is a manga/anime fan artist that Mimi encountered through her work and the three of us liked the idea of a grassroots artist designing the cover. We were looking for something that expressed the diversity and somewhat chaotic nature of participatory culture, and placed the tech in the context of a living, breathing, culture. I wouldn’t look at the details too closely as communicating specific ideas. I see it as a gestalt that shows us something that is always changing, always open to new participants, always being shaped by individual and collective choices, etc. How do you translate an abstract idea into a concrete set of images?

    Other than that, you are asking the right questions here, including the issue of how our existing platforms promise but do not fully support the forms of participation we are talking about.

    • Thank you, Henry, for taking the time to respond. I appreciate the point to various resources and will be diving deeper myself, and then as part of a course I am teaching this summer on Connected Learning, too. So, your upcoming book sounds like a potential gold mine for what I am trying to do and working to share with other classroom teachers.

  3. Yes, the earlier book helps ground this one. *Reading in a Participatory Culture* is the book that actually started my journey on this digital path. I’m pretty sure both books will find their way into my dissertation in a couple of years.

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