Despacito – The Beat of Participatory Culture

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Despacito has become one of 2017’s undisputed musical hits. It could even be the hit of the twenty-tens. With its hip-moving reggaetón beat, and catchy (even by non-Spanish speaking standards) lyrics, the song has become a global phenomenon. And, one that exemplifies participatory culture.

Participatory Culture – A Generation of Creators and Sharers

Henry Jenkins, a professor at USC’s Annenberg School of Communications, defines participatory culture as being one where “fans and other consumers are invited to actively participate in the creation and circulation of new content”. Fueled by increasingly available digital technologies and the rapid production of user-generated content, participatory culture has led to a shift in the power balance between various media industries and consumers. This trend has become even more notable with the pervasiveness of online video.

Professionally produced content still performs an undisputed role. Oftentimes, it is the genesis of user-generated content. It starts with fans watching and sharing a professionally produced video. After this point, the content can take on a life of its own. A new world can emerge around the original piece in the form of remakes and parodies. As the reach and importance of the original content continue to grow, its momentum is propelled further by user-generated content. Despacito is a clear illustration of this cycle in action.

As researchers, we need to stand back and consider how we can draw upon this participatory culture. How does it impact the worldview of the people we are researching? How can we apply it within research approaches? What if we asked our participants to create their own remake of a stimulus video? Or even better, a parody version?

Despacito’s Journey

Published in January of 2017, the official Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee music video took just eight months (203 days to be precise) to reach a record-setting 3 Billion views. It also became the most watched video on YouTube. Showing no signs of slowing down, as of the beginning of September it has just over 3.5 Billion views. This equates to a staggering 21 thousand years of viewing time.

And, people aren’t just viewing, they are engaging with the content as well. It has over 20M likes, 2M dislikes and a whopping 33 Million shares. This is impressive on its own, and the plethora of new content originating from it is equally so.

A Full Entourage

A quick YouTube search returns an abundance of Despacito covers featuring soloists, duets, acapella groups and more. There are instrumental versions, ranging from guitars and pianos to saxophones and violins. There are also ample ”riff” versions, including everything from bedroom renditions to street performers. A popular version making the rounds is of a Jewish band performing the song at a party. This was even shared by Luis Fonsi via Instagram.

Parodies also abound. “I Told You No” features an exasperated mother speaking to her kids. Other self-explanatory titles include ‘This Burrito’ and ‘I Wear Speedos’. From the Philippines to Tanzania, Despacito has inspired people to be a part of this year’s greatest hit.

Adding another layer into the mix, celebrities and traditional media have also appropriated the song, from Justin Bieber’s early remix to Sesame Street’s recent parody ‘El Patito’, an ode to Ernie’s friend, Rubber Ducky. James Corden even summed it up as his ”Song of the Summer about the Summer”.

How Researchers Can Join the Band

First and foremost, as insights professionals, we need to be in tune with the cultures surrounding the people who purchase and use our brands, products, and services. Shifts in participatory culture infuse their (our) lives, and importantly, the ways in which information is consumed. Beyond this, embracing participatory culture within our research methods provides a way to more deeply understand participants and provide richer context to research topics.

To a certain extent, we already tap into the participatory culture through approaches such as mobile ethnographies. It’s common-place for participants to record and share snippets of their daily lives. But we can go further. For instance, we could task people with creating their own covers or parodies of stimuli. The stimulus could be anything – a finished commercial to a vignette of a specific scenario – and presented as an activity within an online community or a focus group setting. Either individually or in groups, participants could then be tasked with creating their own version, which would be shared with others to view, like and comment upon. This fun and engaging task for participants would provide rich, multi-layered information for researchers.

In the end, a participatory culture is all about creativity and expression…two things that drive how people relate to one another and drive the best research insights. As researchers, we need to embrace the beat and take our cues from the culture that surrounds us.

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  • Jenkins, H. (2006). Convergence culture: Where old and new media collide. New York: New York University Press. (page 331)
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