Policies and Participation in Facebook, YouTube, and Wikipedia

Policies and Participation in Facebook, YouTube, and Wikipedia

Laura Stein's article published in Communication, Culture & Critique —6, (2013) pp. 353-37— studies participation in the context of user policies by taking Facebook, YouTube y Wikipedia as sample of media platforms.

The author does a full review of user participation in these online platforms and affirms that even though these sites are presented as platforms for expression and interaction, users cannot fully control the communication that takes place in them. This fact has caused owners and users alike to face argue over the terms and conditions of use, which in turn led to users demanding a more respectful treatment of their personal data, content, and copyrights, with varying degrees of success.

Some have predicted that the interactive media marked the step from a commercial culture of media to a popular culture of content. This was the philosophy of Web 2.0, according to authors, among which is Jenkins who came up with the idea "culture of participation". Stein recalls that just as citizens' influential and communicative are important elements of a democratic society, so are the conditions of participation in the media in general. In principle, digital media offer new opportunities for communication. In practice, it's important to see how this participation is actually realized and what are the real opportunities for participating in the creation of contents, authority over or control of communication.

Participation, Power, and Policies

The central concern of this article was to understand how user policy affects or conditions participation. Stein proposes an adaptation of Arnstein's typology of participation as instruments for recognizing specific forms of participation and the levels of power they offer. Arnstein establishes eight levels of participation in different social systems, which range from "non-participative", to a more formal participation (those affected by decisions are informed, consulted, and eventually reassured of their effects), to participation that really gives "power". After applying this scale to the three online platforms under study, Stein concludes that while YouTube and Facebook's policies offer users some participation on content and control of the site, it is minimal. Wikipedia, on the other hand, offers users maximum influence and control. The well-known online encyclopedia follows a true partnership policy with its users —the main players of the project—enabling them to share or maintain predominant control of the site and its governance.

In her article, Stein presents an exhaustive study on the user agreements or "contracts" since they are such important structural factors of communication that condition the user. Do not forget that for the owners of these platforms, these "agreements of use" are legally binding in such a way that they are protected in cases of conflict, even though users may not be fully conscious when they accept these conditions with a simple click. The author suggests that terms of use of the websites under study provided a fairly accurate, though not definitive, image of how the owners of these companies really understand participation.

Conscious decisions

Laura Stein examines concepts of democracy and participation from the viewpoint of online communication. She tells us that something so ordinary for us, such as sharing our own content, involves a set of decisions made by both parties— website owners and users alike— that perhaps we do not read, or go unnoticed, or are not fully thought out. Nevertheless, it is essential to decide knowing to what conditions or user policies we welcome in order to share information through online media.

It is true that the platforms are privately owned, and we as users can choose to not use them or cancel our profile if we don't like the terms and conditions of use offered. But more important than "contractual subtleties", to quote Stein, "users can and should question the terms and conditions of these platforms in which they contribute content, make exchanges, socialize, communicate and interact".

The article is not based on an empirical study, but rather on the application of a theoretical model of participation taken from the context of citizen participation in urban planning. This approach does help one understand the pubic character of communication, regardless of the means ("new" or "old") through which they are presented. Not even the owners of new media can escape this "public" logic upon which the new media base their business strategy to hook new users.