Nelz's Blog

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Participation Culture

Gin, Television, and Social Surplus

WOW! This article is fantastic! I was so psyched after reading this article that I even sent it to my Luddite-ish mother. (After printing the article out and reading it, she said it was ‘cute’ and reminded her of me… <sigh!>)

I have so much to say about this article, it will probably come out all jumbled… But I hope the reader will be able to pull out some salient points.


In the vein of where I am going with my ruminations I had actually named this blog post "Participation Culture" before re-reading the article and seeing that "Tim" (O’Reilly, I’m assuming.) has some concept called an "architecture of participation".

Participation has been a big theme in my life in recent years. About 6 year ago I fell in with the Burning Man community, whose 10 Principles specifically address participation as a founding pillar. A little over a year ago, I came to the Bay Area and was immediately impressed by all the Makers, teachers, and BarCampers. (As I write this, I am impressed that I continually fall in love with ideas that are only a degree or two away from Tim O’Reilly…)

History of the Participatory Audience

While reading the "Gin, Television, and Social Surplus" article, you might be lulled into thinking that audience’s radical demand for participation’ is an artifact of recent past. Then I got to thinking about the history of our culture’s move towards encouraging participation and how little bits of interactivity have made themselves known before the current incarnation of internet culture.

Yeah, I agree magicians have been pulling people up on stage forever, but this doesn’t count. These types of stage shows are more of an exercise in social engineering than in interactivity.

But, think back to the late-70’s. There was a very persistent subsection of our culture who were not willing to sit back and passively watch a show. These people, considered "crazy" by some, would don fishnets and garters and high heels and feather boas to go to a theater to throw bread and yell at the screen and sing along to the music, and some of these people even tromped right up to the front of the theaters to re-enacted exactly what was happening up on the screen at the exact same time. There were, and still are, entire communities built around the pomp and circumstance of late-night showings of "The Rocky Horror Picture Show".

It tickles me pink that Dr. Frankenfurter, the "sweet transvestite from transsexual Transylvania", could be a material ancestor for every tweet I Twitter or every Yelp review I post in this "participatory internet".


The Dr. Frankenfurter bit from above is about where I wanted to end up for this post. However, in writing it, I came up with a couple more links for events or shows that I think are incredibly relevant to the article above or to the rest of this post.

One of the first shows I ever saw that took a fun step out of the passive-audience experience was the Blue Man Group. My family went to one of their shows in Boston during Christmas time, and I was blown away! At the end of the show, they start unrolling streamers off of toilet paper rollers, covering the audience, getting them to move the streamers forward while strobe lights flash and loudly blaring techno music surrounds you. You are covered and involved in a moving black-lit sea of white streamer paper. I have a distinct memory of jamming out in my seat, looking to my right with the biggest grin on my face and seeing my grandmother get all tangled up in the streamers as they were moving forward. It was a sensory overload, but still one of my most fun memories from my teen years.

I dabbled a little bit in Dungeons and Dragons but it never really ‘stuck’ with me. However, I don’t think anyone can debate that it totally serves as the ancestor of the phenomenon described in the above article as ‘sitting in your basement and pretending to be an elf’.

Since I’ve been in San Francisco, I have totally fallen in love with The Extra-Action Marching Band. Though the Blue Man Group involves the audience at the end of the show, Extra-Action not only breaks, but DEMOLISHES the fourth wall. Through an incredible alchemy of sounds, sweat, and audacity they involve the audience as an integral part of the show. (Disclaimer: not for the claustrophobic.) To friends, I have described the experience of being right up in the front row as being in a mosh pit without any of the anger.