Out and about – is participatory culture stronger than ever?

The two young men in the seats in front of us said that this was their third evening this week, “What better way to spend a summer evening?” There were six thousand people jammed in all around us, like bees in a giant hive. Hundreds stood in the centre in a myriad of colourful shirts and dresses. Mobiles were off: the only thing in people’s hands was the programme. The only branding in the hall was in discreet gold lettering: “BBC Proms”.
Driving home later through Kensington we encountered a swarm of hundreds of rollerbladers and cyclists darting and streaming down the road, bringing the traffic to a halt as they swept by. In Hampton, hordes were dispersing from the open-air swimming pool after an evening concert, picnic bags and chairs in hand.
In Covent Garden of an evening, the streets are teeming with people: walking, cycling, Boris-biking, hurtling by in rickshaws. The entertainers and crowds gathered round on summer evenings evoke memories of Marrakech.
All over Britain, people are attending events and participating in sports and culture in record numbers. Over 2.3m people visited the O2 last year. The Association of Independent Festivals claim, in a recent survey, that around 350,000 people will have attended their member festivals this year, including Creamfields, WOMAD and Bestival, injecting more than £130m into the UK economy. The Notting Hill Carnival is expecting around 1m revellers.
People are going horse racing at traditional courses like Ascot and Goodwood and also to Britain’s newest racecourse, Ffos Las, in Wales. Evening race meetings have been a great success at courses like Windsor and Sandown. More than 11m people are expected to attend Premier League football clubs this season and many more support or take part in other leagues and other sports. A new study for Sport England by Sheffield Hallam University says that sport now plays a bigger part in England’s economy than at any time for the last 25 years, accounting for 2.3% of all consumer spending and 1.8% of employment.
Clay Shirky says in Cognitive Surplus, “Before the twentieth century, we didn’t really have a phrase for participatory culture; in fact, it would have been something of a tautology. A significant chunk of culture was participatory – local gatherings, events and performances – because where else could culture come from? The simple act of creating something with others in mind and sharing it with them represents, at the very least, an echo of that older model of culture, now in technological raiment.” On the other hand, it could be argued that the old model of culture still exists alongside the new technology – and is stronger than ever, owing to the symbiotic relationship between technology and participatory culture.
For marketers, advertisers and planners, this busy, active and outgoing populace has previously been hard to define and measure. New thinking from writers such as Mark Earls has helped us to understand more about the super-social ape and the power of influence, and there are conversations about public and private space and the areas where they overlap. New models of segmentation will give context equal importance to content or demographic.
A resounding cheer, then, for Touchpoints3 from the IPA, which measures general life activities, attitudes and media usage, including time spent out of home, social media trends and word of mouth. Also for the forthcoming new Postar which will show, using GPS tracking, where 10,000 real people go and how long they spend in each place – whether walking, travelling or simply standing still.
There are other examples of new technology being used to help us understand human behaviour, such as the face-tracking research being done in shopping malls by Kinetic and Clear Channel, which measures eye contacts with screens as well as gender, age and mood.
As Clay Shirky says in one of his most memorable lines, “New tools get used only if they help people do things they want to do; what is motivating The People Formerly Known as the Audience to start participating?”