Participation Gap

The self-governing, participatory culture (community) described by Kafai and Peppler reminds me of the perfectly competitive markets model from economic theory. For those of you who may have forgotten Microeconomics 101, some of the defining characteristics of a perfectly competitive market are:

A large number of buyers and sellers (i.e. a number large enough so that the actions of individuals do not affect the market, specifically price)

  1. Perfect information
  2. Zero transaction costs
  3. Homogenous products
  4. Rational buyers
  5. No barriers to entry or exit

This market structure is considered egalitarian and fair to all participants. Can Kafai and Peppler’s participation model be considered a self-governing, perfect participation community (analogous to a perfectly competitive market)? Although I want to focus on the barriers to entry that lead to a participation gap, let me elaborate on why each one of these attributes is applicable to the Scratch (or other participatory) media creation communities.

  1. With half a million users and a million projects, the number of producers and consumers in the Scratch community is sufficiently large enough for the actions of an individual user to have little or no influence on the community at large.
  2. The consumers/producers have perfect information about new projects because they can use the information available in the Scratch: Explore area to search for projects based on tags.
  3. The producers and consumers incur no costs in producing or consuming the media (if one does not count the opportunity cost of time spent in production/consumption).
  4. Scratch offers the same user interface, tools, objects and options for importing (including the media accessible on google etc.) for all producers and consumers. Although the products (i.e. projects) are heterogeneous, this is because of producer choices and not because production conditions vary by producer. The production and experience, one can argue, is homogeneous.
  5. Consumers of Scratch projects can be considered rational in the context of the community because they are familiar with the norms for producing and evaluating media. However, this is rationality based on the internal logic of the community. To what extent is this rationality externally valid?
  6. The barriers to entry can be read as the participation gap identified by the authors. Kafai and Peppler acknowledge that participation can be limited because many potential users may not have access to the development/production environment due to social, economic or technical infrastructure limitations. Moreover, a full participant, according to the authors, can access the system, has the technical skills for creating media, the social skills for interaction/collaboration, the media literacy skills for critiquing and deconstructing media, the skills to articulate their assessment, can engage in meaningful reflection of what constitutes a “good” project and engage in metacognition to reflect on how they learn. The participation gap can also occur because a participant lacks one or more of these critical competencies for becoming a productive full participant. Thus, there are barriers in terms of access, skills and experience that can limit the participation in this community. I believe that these participation gaps are the primary weakness in the model of participatory culture presented by the authors. I found myself asking: How many participants drop out because they lack the skills to engage socially in the community in order to learn the required skills? Does participatory learning occur at all skill levels? In “geek out” cultures, pockets of the community always dominate the agenda (and alienate others), is the experience similar for Scratch?

I believe that lack of resources can lead to a participation gap due to inaccessibility and lack of governance/monitoring/scaffolding can lead to a participation gap based on skills and experience. Does external governance/monitoring/scaffolding violate the self-governing principles of the community?

Moreover, a perfectly competitive market is a theoretical construct that can never survive in reality. Although I am arguing by an analogy that may not hold water, does a perfect participation model simulate reality? Will participatory cultures be the experience for these learners in the workplace and in other adult social settings? If not, then can the activity really be considered authentic?


Kafai, Y. & Peppler, K. (2011) Youth, technology and DIY: Developing participatory competencies in creative media production. Review of Research in Education 35. P.89-119 DOI: 10.3102/0091732X10383211

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