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

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.


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