Why This Project?

The impact of digital media in our everyday lives is magnificent. In addition to the rapid development of digital forms of “old” mass media, the period of “individualistic experimentation” of participatory media is over and all kinds of digital platforms are currently being embraced not only by businesses but by civil society organizations, political parties and universities alike (see, e.g., Clark & Aufderheide 2009). We know from statistical data, for example, that broadband penetration is extensive in the West and growing in many parts of the world[1] and that mobile communications play a crucial role in developed and developing countries[2]. We know that social networks are not only for the younger generations any longer[3] and that a variety of organizations, from universities to the United Nations, have established their presence in many social networking sites. And we know that digital media matter increasingly and in new ways in national and transnational contexts, for policy-makers, for professional and non-professional media-makers, and for “ordinary people” (e.g., Aslama & Napoli 2010; Boler 2008; Hackett & Carroll 2006). At the same time, the question of access and participation is a concrete, real-life challenge, and not only in the Global South  (e.g., Dailey et al. 2010).

Arguably, digital media has evoked extensive interest from various disciplines; notably, and interestingly, from the technology-oriented, interdisciplinary “Science and Technology Studies” (STS) as well as from legal scholars (e.g., Benkler 2006; Solove 2007). Network theorists and others have presented optimistic claims on how digital media can create new kinds of information sharing, resulting in new ways of identity-creation (e.g., as citizens; human communication –based approach, see, e.g., Wang & Hancock 2009), sociality, and (political) activism. Communication scholars with social science background, or with an interest in combining “culturalist” (Dahlgren 2005) and political economic interests, have discussed theoretically (albeit not so often empirically) political participation, gaming, net-based fandom, children and new media technologies, and the like (in the Finnish context, e.g., Hautakangas 2006; Matikainen 2008; Nieminen et al. 2000, Pessala 2008; Sassi 2000). Yet few researchers have tackled user-generated content, peer-to-peer communication and other Web 2.0[4] phenomena from the perspective of the experience and practices of participation, by the participants themselves. For example, only relatively and surprisingly recently, scholars have begun to engage in challenging the term of “mass communication” conceptual/theoretically (Napoli 2009).

This lack of understanding of practices of “user-player-citizen-producer-audiences” (see, e.g., Syvertsen 2004) is coupled with the use and abuse of another slogan, that of globalization. While the digital media environment is potentially borderless in geographic terms, it seems that media structures, policies, as well as actual media contents are often in some way bound to nations states, local identities, and so on. Yet, most importantly, we know too little of the complexities of mediated participation and community-creation in terms of everyday life – locally, nationally, and globally. As noted by Hegde (2005) the transnational context, deeply fragmented and divided by crisscrossing lines of power, exerts a significant influence on the patterns of communicative activity and modes of identification. And as indicated, e.g., by the communication scholars Kraidy & Murphy (2008) and Sparks (2007), globalization is not the term to discuss different contradictory tendencies pertaining to the location-bound and location-defying interests, needs and practices of, for instance, people living in remote rural areas or being members of cosmopolitan diasporic communities.

Furthermore, although the slogans that claim we have entered into the era of the non-proprietary networked information economy (Benkler 2006), or into “post-broadcast democracy” (Prior 2007), may be somewhat historically insensitive and exaggerated, we are not witnessing a fad but a rainbow of interrelated phenomena that have very real and practical socio-cultural consequences. If viewed from the perspective of participatory or Habermasian “deliberative” democracies we can observe the emergence of promising opportunities as well as threats (about Finland, see, e.g., Nieminen et al. 2006). Still, the contribution of social sciences and specifically communication studies in understanding the everyday “uses” of digital media is a highly understudied area. Apart from statistics, through ethnography we know something about fans, gamers and virtual worlds (see account, e.g., in Boellstroff 2008; Hine 2000) and teenagers engaged in social networking (Boyd 2007; 2008). However, there are no extensive studies on digital media in the line of the tradition of media ethnography of the 1980s and 1990s (e.g., Morley 1986; Hill & Gauntlett 1999; Silverstone 1994). Specifically, there is little understanding of different modalities of participation, such as media-based and media-oriented activism (Aslama & Napoli 2010; also Aslama 2010).

This project aims at empirically addressing the question of participation in the digital media environment with specific, concrete case studies. It is based on the (normative) stand that the role of social sciences is to participate and inform debates also outside of academic contexts and show alternatives to existing discourses (see discussion in, e.g., Aslama 2004). It is grounded in the belief that uncovering and understanding people’s concrete everyday practices are the key to innovation and development of tools that support those practices[5]; in ways that enhance and inspire action towards more democratic and participatory societies.

What Are We Interested In?

This research project responds to two aforementioned gaps in the research of digital media that have evoked surprisingly little empirical examination. First, it addresses the question of the contested concepts of “global” and “local” in the network environment. Second, it does so by engaging in empirical qualitative research; in “media anthropology”, specifically “digital anthropology”, by using ethnographic methods (e.g., Boellstorff 2008; Boyd 2007). The research objective is inspired by the emergence and use of various slogans in public discussions – that are often applied in vague ways and naturalized as common knowledge[6].

The core concept in the study is participation. Here the definition is empirically grounded, pragmatist, and examined through cases that focus on any experiences and practices that emerge as important from the study. While the aim is to (re)open the term up for bottoms-up interpretations, beyond scholarly distinctions between interactivity, participation, and so on (e.g., Jenkins 2006), the term is limited in one sense: it is used to describe actions and experiences that related to being a part of a whole, as opposed to describing more general  “media practices” and equivalent (c.f. Hargittai & Walejko 2008; Karaganis 2007; discussion in Braucherl & Postill, in print [7]).

The second central, and related, term is community. To be sure, the idea of community is one of the basic foci of anthropology and has for decades evoked a vast array of theorization around mediated communities, “networked public spheres”, and the like (Aslama & Ericksson 2009). Yet, apart from studies on fan communities, up until recently fewer empirical analyses have been conducted on how mediated communities may come about and are experienced. Again, the concept of community will here be grounded in empirical material.

The third core concept relates to definitions of space, of what of global/local mean in terms of participation. As noted, it can be suspected that empirical evidence will reveal more of a “scale” of experiences and practices between different spatial contexts and identifications; many of which may turn out to be “translocal” (c.f., Kraidy & Murphy 2008). To address this component, the objective is to engage in comparative research in three distinct contexts: that of Finland (developed digital media access and use of internet and mobile, strong long-term information society policies), India (relatively underdeveloped and segregated digital media use, with meager broadband and mobile phone penetration, but exponentially growing, coupled with innovations and technology-orientation and large non-resident, or NRI, communities around the world), and the U.S. (home of many global digital media innovations, relatively high level of penetration, but a digital divide exists, traditionally a very market-oriented media system, lively debates on policies such as regarding net neutrality and a very active media activism and advocacy movement).

In sum, the core research questions are:

(1)   What do people mean by participation and how do they experience it in their everyday lives; what is the role of digital media in it?

(2)   What do people mean by communities and how do they experience them in their everyday lives; what is the role of digital media in those perceptions and experiences?

(3)   How do people understand and experience “spatiality”; how do digital media create and reflect the issues of local/national/global in their everyday lives?

What Are We Doing — And How?


The basic premise of this study is to provide a continuum to important, groundbreaking studies within communication and media scholarship, about different media and everyday life (aforementioned Morley 1986; Hill & Gauntlett 1999; Silverstone 1994; in Finland e.g., Kytömäki 1999) and to “upgrade” the approaches by exploring ways to capture Web 2.0 environment, with the help of multidisciplinary reflections from STS, political science, sociology, cultural studies, and so on. In addition, to systematically contextualize the micro-level ethnography, the research will include macro-level overviews of the media industries, structures, and policies in each country, as well as audience/user statistics when available.

The main idea is take tools of “conventional” media ethnography and modify them for the use in terms of “digital anthropology”.  The former field (of ethnography) refers to methodological issues – qualitative research practices including participatory observation and interviews – and the latter (anthropology) shifts the focus from conventional research object of “media audiences” or “media consumption” – a necessary step in studying digital media that entail a great deal of user-generated content (c.f., Rothenbuhler & Cornan 2005; also Napoli 2009). “Media anthropology” also refers to the urgent need of comparative approaches, relatively seldom addressed in empirical communication studies. The concrete methods include observation, interviews, as well as “media diaries” to systematically track contexts and “significant events” and practices related to (digital) media, participation and communities.

However, at the core of the documentation of this inductive and descriptive research are visual documentations. While on-line/mobile interaction can be “natural” and suitable for this study, and although it has been claimed that online ethnography is not necessarily bound to place (c.f., Boellstorff 2008), the contextualization is important here (global vs. local; c.f. Boyle 2008), and therefore face-to-face theme and focus group interviews are crucial to the study. The visual documentation is intended to bring a new, unique element to this study; as it can capture and highlight subtle aspects of everyday lives as well as illustrate and provide an interpretation to the participant observation and interviews. In other words, the documentary based on the material will be complementary, yet a work in its own right.

In addition, to record this project as an exploratory experiment in methodological approaches, and in the challenging cross-cultural contexts, the research process will be recoded in a designated blog. The actual research material can be deposited in the Finnish Social Science Data Archive[8].


Since the basic idea of the study is to shed light to different experiences of participation at a time when mediated communication is at least a potential, and potentially global; yet local contexts and individual identities may shape their media practices, needs and interests. An attempt to conduct systematic cross-cultural comparisons would not result in meaningful analyses, as the focus is on describing micro-level phenomena related to participation; and thus the contextual questions as well as the limited research material would not allow broad interpretations. Instead, the idea here is to find a loose network of people in the three locations; in that each shares an issue, platform, some form of a social setting, any participatory connection potential with on or more other participants.

The ideal would be to gather a geographical mix, and one or more representatives of the following groups (altogether some 20-30 participants, including families):

o      Scholar/s [possibility of auto ethnography; incl. documenting the research process, e.g., in a blog]

o      Fan/s, gamers

o      Activist/s

o      IT Professional/s

o      Cosmopolitan professional/s

o      “Middle-class” families (one in each country)

o      Individuals/families in areas/situations with limited access to digital media

The following methods to gather material are used for each participant:

– At least one theme or focus group interview before participant observation; focus on background and participants’ general ideas of communities and networks they affiliate with, and the role of media in their everyday lives (very open-ended).

– One week of participatory observation (at least one day will be filmed, either during the week or at a later stage soon thereafter).

– One face-to-face or mediated follow-up interview to map participants’ own observations after they have taken part in the research process.

– When possible, media diaries (for one day, sometime before the first interview).

Research Plan – Time Table:

Summer/Fall 2010:

–       Gathering of background material for the macro-level outlooks

o      Outcomes: a working paper at the IAMCR on participation and media policies; a book chapter on Indian media system

–       Searching for participants (USA ongoing; FIN in Oct; IND in Dec); piloting filming in the U.S.

–       Related teaching in Helsinki: MA workshop on Global Media Activism


–       Gathering of material in FIN, IND, USA; film in at least 2 of the locations

–       Conference presentations (ICA, IAMCR, others)

–       Related teaching in Helsinki, Spring 2011: BA course on Media & National Identity; other TBA


–       Analysis and writing; film; website.

–       Teaching TBA

Blog: ongoing


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  • Aslama, M. (2010). Diversity of Participation for Strategic Considerations. In Lowe, G. (ed.). Public in Public Service Media. Gothenburg: Nordicom.
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[1] E.g., http://www.internetworldstats.com/stats.htm (accessed 1 June 2010).

[2] Africa being a prime example, e.g., http://www.apc.org/en/system/files/APC_SAT3Briefing_20080624.pdf (accessed 1 June 2010).

[3] E.g., http://www.pewinternet.org/PPF/r/272/report_display.asp (accessed 1 June 2010).

[4] Here, the term is used in the meaning based on the active use of the media, “as a core ‘set of principles and practices’ that applied to common threads and tendencies observed across many different technologies”. See on the history of the buzzword http://www.pewinternet.org/Reports/2006/Riding-the-Waves-of-Web-20.aspx (accessed 1 June 2010).

[5] This line of scholarship, see, e.g., Harvard-MIT initiatives: http://civic.mit.edu/event/harvard-mit-yale-cyberscholars-working-group (accessed I June 2010).

[6] The starting point of “slogans” versus empirical research and related knowledge is an approach that I have applied in my doctoral dissertation, regarding the claims of changes in television contents (Aslama 2008).

[7] http://docs.google.com/View?docid=dxm64w9_209g9vk47ts (accessed 27 January 2009).

[8] See: http://www.fsd.uta.fi/ (accessed 1 June 2010).