Learning Through Practice: Participatory Culture Practices


To what extent are young Americans engaged in civic life today? Where can they learn the skills they need to be civically active? We believe that young people are engaging with civic issues in places that may surprise those researching more established sites of civic learning.

Specifically, we focus our attention on what we call “Participatory Culture Civics” (PCC) organizations. These organizations are rooted within “participatory cultures”, defined as cultures that have a strong sense of community, relatively low barriers to participation, informal mentorship structures and support for creating and sharing one’s creations (Jenkins et. al., 2006). PCC organizations build on participatory cultures and mobilize them toward explicit civic purposes.

Our case studies, Invisible Children (IC) and the Harry Potter Alliance (HPA), are examples of such PCC organizations. Inspired by "Dumbledore's Army" in the Harry Potter narratives, HPA has been organizing fans around political and philanthropic issues since 2005. IC employs film and spectacle to engage its members in humanitarian aid for Uganda. During the study period, these organizations each won a round of the Chase Community Giving competition on Facebook, demonstrating their ability to activate and mobilize civic networks, online and off.

In this report, we present the civic practices of the HPA and IC, defined as activities that support organized collective action towards civic goals. We group these civic practices into four clusters. The distinctive cluster of “Create” practices (including Build Communities, Tell Stories and Produce Media) strongly builds on the organizations’ foundation within participatory cultures. The other three clusters (Inform, Connect, Organize & Mobilize) have more in common with traditional civic organizations, but remain informed by the unique nature of PCCs. All of the practice clusters make extensive use of media, and particularly new media. In fact, engagement with media is a crucial dimension of PCCs.

We argue that, while different in many respects, both HPA and IC combine civic goals with the shared pleasures and flexible affordances of participatory culture.

Neta Kligler-Vilenchik and Sangita Shresthova
Publication Date: 
October 2, 2012