Semiotic Democracy

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"Semiotic democracy, or the ability of users to produce and disseminate new creations and to take part in public cultural discourse."

Used by Elizabeth Stark in an article for Open Democracy at


From Elizabeth Stark at

"The term semiotic democracy originated in the 1980s, initially coined by John Fiske in the context of viewers re-interpretation of television culture other than the intended meaning of the producers. It was later refined by Michael Madow, who, in his scholarship on the right of publicity, challenged the top-down approach of popular culture. Madow emphasized the potential for the consumer to “re-code” and “rework” cultural commodities in his exploration of the concept. (Although arguably if the consumer is no longer merely consuming, another term, such as “re-creator,” may be in order.) Yet even at the time of Madow’s writing in 1993, much of the culture available for consumption originated from the conventional mode of mainstream media-based production. In the subsequent years, and particularly the last five, the new forms of cultural production that have proliferated and the emergence of a digital commons have drastically increased the potential and real impact of a semiotic democracy. As a result, it has expanded beyond the mere reworking of previously available cultural entities and has emerged to embrace a whole host of creative endeavors conducted particularly by Internet users.

some may argue that the current products of semiotic democracy lack in quality or are not comparable to that produced by the more traditional media and cultural industries, and these concerns are valid ones. Wide-scale production by non-professionals may never completely overtake that of the professionals, yet we are now only at the forefront of a massive paradigm shift. While the place for professionals within the traditional media and cultural industries will not likely dissipate anytime soon, such players are already adapting to the changed conditions and demands brought about by a greater semiotic democracy. In all likelihood, new forms of media will emerge, perhaps in the “semi-professional” sphere, whereby the content produced is modifiable and users are invited to provide an increasing amount of input and feedback.

Certain obstacles also exist to the proliferation of semiotic democracy and the values embodying it. In particular, a significant proportion of creative works produced by users contain transgressive elements, particularly under current copyright regimes. For the most part, technologies devised to inhibit this kind of behavior have not yet put a halt to these forms of production, and widespread pursuit of such potential infringers is all but impractical from a legal realist standpoint. In fact, many commentators believe that the legal doctrine must change, as opposed to the widespread transgressive practices of users. This massive remixing, reworking, and recoding of culture is increasingly viewed as a positive outcome of the development of cultural production, and the law that renders these practices infringing may very well need to adjust to foster, rather than inhibit, semiotic democracy. The creative destruction resulting from this new paradigm of user-based creation on the Internet should not be prevented by those whose interests are at stake; instead, these players must be willing to adapt and embrace the future that lies ahead." (

More Information

The Free Culture Manifesto at