Walking Away and Staying Put: Considering Burn Out and ‘Stoppage’ in the Participatory-Civic Trajectory

This is the first post in our newly created Civics, Popular Culture, and Participatory Culture Blog. Each week over the summer and beyond, the members of the research group here at the University of Southern California will write their thoughts and observations over the course of this pilot study being conducted. The issues discussed are not limited to data recorded or analysis, but also methodological, theoretical and personal notes and observations. As a group we have agreed that these notes are at best, off the cuff and an attempt at capturing some semblance of self-reflexivity as researchers (a participatory culture in and of itself!) and not meant to be considered fully formed, cited, or ready for primetime.

With that, I’d like to touch on two topics I’ve been mulling over for quite some time. The first is, on an individual level, the burn out that can be experienced by members of participatory groups and how our considerations should think about this phenomenon. The second, on a wider scope, I’d like to think about the trajectory we are attempting to construct or model and think about groups who may not neatly fit into that trajectory, specifically by not “progressing” along the track. My main concern going into this research is to keep a broad view of what it is we are looking for in the case studies we’re focusing on as a group as well as our individual work as well. As much as we like seeing successful groups or participatory culture used in a civic manner, it’s also important to remember that both creating and maintaining the structures to engender such action is difficult and some groups will face setbacks implementing these kinds of activities or may decide not to engage with them to a level everyone would agree is “civic” or more than philanthropy.

One of the topics we have talked about informally has been the issue of burnout among members of the groups we are looking at. Especially since one of the groups we would like to look at are long time members as well as former members of these participatory groups, it behooves us to contemplate issues of burnout. If and when we interview former members of groups, it is important to make sure we really can reach at some of the question in the discussion guide with regards to motivation, organization, and persistence. I think Ito’s section in persistence and transition is a good reminder that members of these various participatory groups may not stay long term with once group or another or that, because of the group’s organization, or their personal role or stake in the work being done, have decided to pull back from civic engagement type work temporarily or permanently/

Similar to these concerns, I’ve been thinking about the observation with HPA, specifically regarding the ‘fan research’ group they’ve put together. Their reference to the Browncoats and perhaps pushing them into work beyond philanthropy, while admirable, makes me a bit wary. On our end, I’d like to think about the model we are trying to construct. This isn’t to say that we have been trying to push the participatory groups to fit a model, but that over the course of this early research and, further down the line, we need to keep an eye out for groups who, while perhaps interested in some types of civic-minded activity, would perhaps not be as far reaching as some of our initial case studies. As I mentioned earlier, much of my thoughts in these two areas (beyond a somewhat cynical disposition) is my wariness in falling for the easy trap of trying to model a distinct progression “to move along the trajectories between participatory culture and civic engagement.” In a similar vein, I’m interested in how the HPA’s “fan research group” will fare in terms of outreach and their own attempts, both internally and externally, to expand its political activities outside the scope of the Harry Potter content world and encouraging other groups, such as the Browncoats to move “past” philanthropy into political action. Again, these are goals to be lauded, but it will be interesting to see if members or other groups react indifferently to the shift.

A second form of reticence may not necessarily be an unwillingness to “move up the ladder”, but a sense of built-in cynicism within the community itself. My own personal research on Anonymous has provided example of successful and unsuccessful activist work as defined by the group itself, due to various low-attendance physically-based protests (most recently regarding the once proposed, not dropped plans for an Australian internet content filter), many members of the community feel that offline forms of protest are not worth the effort. I should not of course this example differs from our case studies in terms of overall organization, in group communication, and leadership, but as a model, I think it’s worth taking into account in group narratives about successful and unsuccessful action by the groups and how that may play a role in morale, sustainability, etc. And, I should note that, in the case of Anonymous, as much as in-group critics bemoan physical protests, they are at least given one attempt for each major cause, though if proven unsuccessful, they tend not to be tried again.


  1. To me there are two levels of burnout we need to be thinking about. The first is the burnout of specific members (i.e. how long before they move on and what do they take with them when they do?) and burnout of the organization (how can organizations formed around a particular instance of participatory activism move towards continuity (or not). Thanks for expanding on this issue, Ray.

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