Guest Post: Jon Dovey – Valuing Creative Citizens

Media, Community and the Creative Citizen, Connected Communities

As we wrote in our mid-term report, we are witnessing an explosion of new, digitally-produced and often co-produced content as well as an expansion of access due to digital technologies and social media; these technologically-induced changes are forcing the need to re-think the inherited and one-dimensional model of what culture is and how it should function in our society. The Creative Citizens initiative – introduced below by Professor Jonathan Dovey – responds to this challenge by seeking to understand how new forms of creative citizenship can be unlocked through digital media. As Jon suggests in the last paragraph of his entry – there are some differences between the Creative Citizens project and the Cultural Value Project, perhaps most notably that our project (CVP) is not primarily or exclusively concerned with the digital forms of vernacular production of cultural value (this said, we do have some very interesting projects in this area!). We have however many shared interests – not the least, in figuring out how the sense of individual agency triggered by cultural engagement may translate into a sense of collective agency – so we very much hope that our approaches will meet, as Jon suggests they should.

The Creative Citizens research project was one of three funded in 2012 as part the of AHRC’s Connected Communities and Creative Economy call. Our central question is how creative citizenship generates value for communities within a changing media landscape and how this pursuit of value can be intensified, propagated and sustained. This inquiry is driven by our understanding that the tools of creativity and communication made available through digital unlock new potentials for creative forms of DIY citizenship. The project is a collaboration between Cardiff University, the University of the West of England, Bristol, the Open University, Birmingham City University, the Royal College of Art’s Helen Hamlyn Centre and the University of Birmingham. The team is led by Ian Hargreaves, Professor of Digital Economy at Cardiff University.

The idea of value is in crisis. The 2008 crash has exposed finance as a dangerous game played by out-of-control algorithms; this crisis produced, in Los Indignados and the Occupy movements, worldwide attempts to articulate new critical value systems. At the same time the ‘web-native’ generation coming to maturity during the age of austerity have an historically-unique experience of practices of co-creation and shared forms of socially mediated organisation. These recent histories remind us that value is never stable – it is a permanently contested terrain. Plural belief systems condense as commensurable values through complex discursive, cultural and political processes.

We have been investigating social production in three sites, the burgeoning field of hyperlocal journalism where self-started online news operations are filling the void left by the collapse of local journalism; secondly, in the field of community-led design where local people mobilise themselves to co-design new spaces or services; thirdly, in informal creative networks where aspirational digital start-ups in design, music, media and tech have a range of invisible impacts on their communities.  Our approach to value is in some way distinct from that of the Cultural Value Project – our emphasis rests on the ‘supply side’ rather then the experience of culture for its users. Indeed one of our presuppositions is that user/producer distinctions are collapsed in the digital media milieux that interest us. Our general approach to value is also led by the idea that value is relational. Even ‘intrinsic’ value is produced through a network of relations (otherwise it would merely be subjective judgement).  This recognises that creative-citizen networks are mobilising and activating different valuing practices. Agents in the value-creating constellation will be driven by different values.

We can identify a clear range of different kinds of value in these processes – value that contributes to what we might call Citizen Benefit:

  • Most clearly at a personal level, respondents speak of how their activities with the process we have investigated have changed them, offered them new routes, new assets and contributed to their personal sense of empowerment.
  • These subjective benefits lead into other more obvious benefits in terms of education, training and skills. Commitment to the processes we looked at was either motivated by a desire to increase employability or resulted in unexpected enhancements of prospects. The unemployed journalists who started the Port Talbot magnet are typical: “There was an opportunity. There was a desire to do something to create jobs; that was the starting point. We wanted to create jobs for ourselves. We didn’t want to just sit there and go, well, the old traditional paymasters are not providing us with jobs anymore, boo-hoo, let’s all go and be press officers. We decided we wanted to do something proactive about that and try and maintain ourselves in journalism in a more entrepreneurial way, and to try out new ideas. “

Such an attachment to self-realisation might normally be associated with a strongly entrepreneurial drive, a restless seeking out of new opportunities for development and growth. However we frequently find that this motivation and drive is here understood as a driver of both, personal or commercial development and, at the same time, a community-level asset development. These personal values are also drivers of social value:

  • The creative practices of social media and other digital communication technologies produce a value flow between individual subject, enterprise and community network. South Blessed, in Bristol’s St Paul’s for instance, hosts over a 1000 music videos from the region on its website which constitute a creative community that combats division across different suburbs of the city.
  • The activities we looked at were clearly appreciated by users in terms of local representation and participation. The maintenance of a local public sphere is a motivating value for producers and users alike in the hyperlocal news networks; local news services and police liaison groups appreciated the contributions to community coherence that our respondents made.
  • Community design groups, hyperlocal news and informal creative networks in cities were all identified as creating value in different ways for urban regeneration processes.

We are getting to the end of our 20-month project. We started to draw together some of our findings at the Creative Citizens conference, which took place on 18 and 19 September at the RCA (http://creativecitizens.co.uk/conference/) – where we hosted a joint workshop with the Cultural Value Project, with contributions from Eleanora Belfiore of Warwick University and Patrycja Kaszynska (AHRC). The session confirmed some significant distinctions between approaches. Primarily these have to do with our different sites of investigation, the Creative Citizens research has been focused on everyday creativity afforded by digital media. Our approach to value has therefore not looked at the impacts and transformations of encounters with particular cultural forms but rather at how value accrues within the local public sphere of people’s vernacular creativity. Our analysis of value looks at ‘supply side’ rather than consumption. In the future we might be able to co-operate further in understanding how the distinctions between creative producers and audiences are of declining utility and how understanding these changes might help us to get a better picture of how cultural value is circulated, produced and experienced.

For more information about the Creative Citizens project go to http://creativecitizens.co.uk/

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