Participatory Public Culture and Youth Citizenship in the Digital Age: The Medellín Model

From the success of Obama’s 2008 social media campaign to the so-called “Twitter Revolutions” to Kony2012, we are witnessing new configurations of youth civic and political engagement, invigorated by digital technologies, practices, and cultures. New analytical frameworks that account for these shifts are needed to better understand and enhance youth participation in contemporary public life; this dissertation project developed one such framework. The study finds that digital communication technologies may advance participatory public culture because they can support horizontal, autonomous, open, and dialogical forms of communication—but this is not guaranteed and is heavily dependent upon their architecture, management, and the cultures that develop around their use. It shows that efforts to use digital communication technologies to enhance youth engagement are less technologically deterministic and more effective when they are linked to dialogical communicative practices; to cultures that promote the expression of citizen voices; and to political or other structures that connect the expression of voice to influence over decisions that affect participants’ material reality.

This dissertation historicizes the proliferation of discourses of participation in recent years, situating it in relation to theories of participatory communication and participatory culture—two bodies of work that have so far remained largely disconnected. It then analyzes how youth participation through communicative, cultural, and political practices becomes a valuable resource for various actors, institutions, and networks. The analysis is based on several case studies in Medellin, Colombia—a rising “digital hub” of Latin America—where actors from the grassroots to government have focused on increasing youth engagement in public life. Drawing on these case studies, as well as on scholarship from the United States, Latin America, and Europe in digital media studies, cultural studies, and communication, political, and sociological theory, the study develops a model for analyzing youth engagement in public life in the digital age to inform both theory and practice globally. It intervenes in technologically deterministic discourses of participation to propose a more rigorous and actionable understanding of youth engagement in the digital age. The concept of participatory public culture is proposed as an orienting goal for those working toward more equitable societies in the contemporary moment.

The research for this study was carried out in Medellin, Colombia in 2010-2011, thanks to the support of a Fulbright Student Grant, a Russell Fellowship, the Stark Foundation, and the Annenberg Program on Online Communities (APOC).


Participatory Budgeting 

La Red de Hip Hop La Elite 

Son Batá

Ciudad Comuna 

Medellín Digital