Samuels, Robert (2018) Values of Engagement: Exploring Digital Media through Generation and Neoliberalism. Doctoral thesis, University of Huddersfield.

Within existing literature (Fiske, 1992; Jenkins, 2006; Bruns, 2007; 2008a) digital media engagement is often understood through audience productivity, privileging productive fans over unproductive others, and limiting our understanding of how and why users engage with digital media. In my study, I complicate this discourse by exploring the multi-modal value of digital engagement within an original and empirically-grounded ‘cascade’ model. Adopting a qualitative interview study, I collected in-depth interviews from 34 participants, aged 20-30, exploring my respondents’ performances of their engagement through generation and neoliberalism.

Theoretically, I argue for the plurality of value and engagement, which my participants negotiate across varying contexts (Boltanski and Thévenot, 1987/2006) through my cascade model, which aligns four original modes of engagement: fan-like, guarded, routinised, and restricted, with distinct forms of value: community, personal, habitual, and reflective. Participants enter the model via one of three levels, fluidly hybridising value and engagement in a variety of differentiated ways. Through this analysis, I argue that neoliberalism (Rose, 1999; McGuigan, 2014) emerged as a key contextual factor framing the value of participants’ engagement, with the position via which respondents enter, and thus negotiate, the cascade model relating to their specific neoliberal dispositions towards ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ ‘self-branding’ (Marwick, 2013).

By aligning participants’ neoliberal dispositions with digital cultural capital (Bourdieu, 1993; Rojas et al, 2000), I also critically interrogate the ‘digital natives’ concept (Prensky, 2001; 2012; Palfrey and Gasser, 2008), arguing that the varying levels of capital and differing engagement modes in my data challenge this monolithic discourse which assumes a shared generational digital habitus. Within my innovative model, the value of engagement is not only multi-modal, but inherently fluid, with my approach complicating discourse in this field beyond existing notions of productivity, without arguing for audience productivity as normative or positing a binary of productive and unproductive engagement. This study, therefore, is vital to furthering our understanding of how and why users engage with digital media (Light, 2014; Park, 2017; Bury,2018), and the value of this practice within neoliberal digital media ‘worlds’ (Boltanski and Thévenot, 1987/2006, p. 215).

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