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Perspectives on participation in social media


Social media are sometimes perceived as the answer to how museums can involve their users: Create a Facebook page and let users like and comment the museum’s work and exhibitions, then you have user participation. Bjarki and Nanna take a critical stance toward calling this kind of effortless action ‘participation’, and demand that museums truly embrace people’s knowledge and creativity. This is key to deep user engagement.

Produsers, prosumers, creative audience, collaborators ...
Social media users of today have many labels. What these neologisms all have in common is the notion that users are notoriously active, socially connected, and enthusiastically engaged in contributing to the participatory culture by sharing, creating and remixing content online. This utopian perception of social media as mechanisms that transform, emancipate, and empower users into participating and engaged civil actors has also found its way to cultural state-funded institutions such as museums.

Within recent years social media and participation have become inseparable buzzwords, and advocates have had very high hopes to the democratic potential of social media, and to the rise and empowerment of other voices in an institutionalised environment which these media are expected to bring about.

How museums stage their Facebook participation

As the largest and most influential social media platform in Denmark, Facebook has the conspicuous role as the preferred platform among Danish museums. Expectations to Facebook’s potential for user involvement and participation have been high, and a large part of Danish museums have a Facebook presence.*1

In this context, Facebook is regarded as a digital public sphere – a digital arena, or a space for communication in which communicative actions take place. As any public sphere, Facebook facilitates and encourages certain participatory behaviours and interactions. And when discussing museum participation on Facebook, it is of much importance to consider the affordances of the platform that frames these behaviours and interactions. But what does the interface of Facebook afford and what do Danish museums encourage and allow users of their Facebook pages to do? [1]

The general Danish museum Facebook page allows and encourages users to read, comment and question, tag, and share museum content. Less common are museum Facebook pages where users are encouraged or inspired to upload their own content. As museums have different strategic intentions and communicative skills on Facebook, and as the terms of participation are conditioned by Facebook itself, user involvement and participation can be framed as manipulation. This is particularly the case when we take a further look at Facebook’s data use policy and statement of rights and responsibilities. Here, and contrary to the emancipative promise of the ‘participatory web’, Facebook basically sets up a specific media environment with specific terms and rules. This means that users fill Facebook with content, while Facebook runs away with the financial profits.

[1] “Is sharing caring?” This question was posed by Bjarki Valtysson and Nanna Holdgaard in their ignite talk at Sharing is Caring 2012.  CC BY 2.0 Merete Sanderhoff

[1] “Is sharing caring?” This question was posed by Bjarki Valtysson and Nanna Holdgaard in their ignite talk at Sharing is Caring 2012.
CC BY 2.0 Merete Sanderhoff

Even though this is surely the case, the processes generated by users on Facebook also have emancipatory potentials. When analysed from the viewpoint of motivation and use, views on advertising and ownership of uploaded material, and how the platform affects distinction between public and private, users maintain that they gain more from Facebook than Facebook gains from them. Indeed, users maintain to ‘tame’ the affordances of Facebook and make them bend to their will rather than the opposite.*2


From a Habermasian perspective, participation of the public is central to the ideal of the public sphere. Furthermore, this kind of participation requires engagement and is a concept associated with serious involvement rather than superficial consumption.*3 Indeed, as Peter Dahlgren notes, participation presupposes engagement. But in order for this to occur, there has to be a connection to doable activities. If this does not occur, engagement dissipates.*4 The networked media environments, often associated with social media, do provide different channels for ‘doable activities’ as they condition the participative potentials of users that contribute to these environments. But many social media platforms only provide means for effortless participation manoeuvres. They do not facilitate serious involvement. An example of this is the like function on Facebook.*5

Indeed, a study from 2012 of state-owned and state-subsidised museums in Denmark has shown that the typical user interaction on Danish museum Facebook pages primarily consists of likes.

According to Facebook guidelines, a like is to give positive feedback and make connections. In that sense, a like is an affirmative statement or expression indicating acknowledgement, interest, support, affiliation or similar. However, is liking something the same as participation? Optimistic voices such as media scholar Henry Jenkins and Creative Commons founder Lawrence Lessig have both emphasised that it is not important what we say or do, but rather that we say and do.*6 The act of doing – participating as a process – is emphasised, rather than the outcome.

At the other end of the spectrum, critics such as Andrew Keen have questioned and criticized how knowledge and value of professional expertise – from institutions like museums – is reduced and will be extinguished if the institutions are replaced by amateurish creations and comments.*7 Other critics have argued that what appears as democratizing processes are nothing more than commercialisation and commodification of the users’ creativity.*8

Either way, it would be advisable for cultural institutions like museums to reconsider what kind of participation they want to stage within media environments such as Facebook, and the participative depths which they expect of their users, consumers, produsers, prosumers, collaborators, creative audience...


*1  By August 2013, 129 of Danish state-owned and state-subsidised museums had a Facebook presence.
*2  Valtysson, 2012.
*3  Habermas, 1989, p. 166.
*4  Dahlgren, 2009.
*5  See also Shelley Bernstein’s deliberations on this topic p. 192-94.
*6  Jenkins, 2008; Lessig, 2008.
*7  Keen, 2007.
*8  Fuchs, 2010.


Andrew Keen, The cult of the amateur: how today’s internet is killing our culture, Doubleday/Currency, 2007.

Bjarki Valtysson, Facebook as a Digital Public Sphere: Processes of Colonization and Emancipation, tripleC: Communication, Capitalism & Critique, 10(1), 2012.

Christian Fuchs, Labor in Informational Capitalism and on the Internet. The Information Society, 26(3), 2010, p. 179-196.

Henry Jenkins, Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide (Updated and with a new afterword.), New York University Press, 2008.

Jürgen Habermas, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry Into a Category of Bourgeois Society, MIT Press, 1989.

Lawrence Lessig, Remix: making art and commerce thrive in the hybrid economy, Penguin Press, 2008.

Peter Dahlgren, Media and Political Engagement: Citizens, Communication, and Democracy, Cambridge University Press, 2009.

Updated: 26.apr.2018
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