Research Topic

Pathways to Participation

The creation and sharing of user-generated content is the key lifeline of the digital economy. In our ongoing research efforts, we investigate user behavior and participation divides, with a particular focus on the social and psychological drivers.


In this research stream, we are investigating online participation and social media use practices. The research is informed by ongoing debates about inequalities, inclusion, big data and privacy. The digital labor literature has stressed the strong connection between online participation and social media on the one hand and work and labor on the other hand. Online participation, including social media use, is understood as immaterial labor, where platforms reap the benefits of their users' participation through data capture, analytics and targeted advertising.

The users, on their part, benefit from participating online in economic, social and cultural terms. At the same time, users are susceptible to harms and risks, as seen in data breaches, privacy scandals and widespread fatigue and cynicism when it comes to using the Internet. Our approach is to critically examine the barriers to participation and the underlying power structures. 

We adopt a user-centered perspective within this research topic and have approached the pathways to participation through qualitative and quantitative studies across a range of contexts, for example in Germany, the United States, and the United Kingdom.


Sub-Topics and Findings

The following four key sub-topics have emerged, with specific research questions and findings for each sub-topic. Many of these findings are presented in more depth in the key publications (see final section).

  • New Understandings and Theories of Online Participation             

What forms of online participation can be differentiated?  How can established social theories inform our understanding of online participation?  Based on rich focus group and survey data, the research on this sub-topic developed a differentiated typology of online participation that reflects the dark sides, the sometimes involuntary and passive nature of participation - when users "are participated" against their will through data capture, analytics or tagging -, and the varied levels of activity. The research also showed the importance of social milieu membership in explaining differences in online participation. 

  • Inequalities in Social Media Use and Online Participation         

Who participates online and who is left out? What are the participatory inequalities on major social media sites? What are the benefits and harms from participating online - and how are these benefits and harms experienced by different individuals?  We answered these research questions with data from the Oxford Internet Survey, finding that age and socio-economic status remain important predictors of online participation and of social media use. However, the participatory inequalities differ by social media platform, showing the importance to distinguish the context of online participation. An noteworthy finding regarding the benefits and harms from Internet use was that users who reap more benefits from their Internet use are also more susceptible to harm, showing that opportunities and risks go hand in hand.

  • Mobile Dating

How do users present themselves on dating apps such as Tinder? What are the motivations for using mobile dating apps? How do  motivations and demographic as well as personality characteristics affect self-presentation ? How concerned are users about their privacy in this context?  In one of the earliest studies on the emerging practice of mobile dating, we found that authentic self-presentation on Tinder is more prevalent than false self-presentation. We also found that romantic relationships and entertainment are key motives for using Tinder, more important in fact than casual sex. Contrary to other contexts, such as social media, we could show that instiutional privacy concerns on Tinder are more widespread than social privacy concerns.            

  • Privacy Cynicism and Privacy Concerns                                                       

How concerned are individuals about their privacy online? Have they become cynical and apathetic towards protecting their online privacy? What forms of privacy cynicism can be distinguished and how prevalent are they?  We approached these research questions based on rich qualitative data, which is currently being complemented by a quantiative survey. In our research, we detected that many Internet users are cynical when it comes to their personal data on the Internet. Feelings of mistrust towards Internet companies and powerlessness are particularly pronounced. Users express less resignation, as the strongest form of privacy cynicism, but the overall findings suggest substantial cynicism around data protection on the Internet. 


Collaborating Institutions

University of Oxford, University of Leipzig, University of Western Ontario, Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam


Activities and Career Paths

The research on this topic revealed a vivid stream of activities and opened up new career paths for all involved members.

Christoph Lutz, who started working on the Fair Labor project from the beginning of 2016 on as a postdoc, established this topic in close exchange with the collaborating institutions. Following up on his doctoral dissertation, which had dealt with inequalities in online participation in Germany, Christoph seamlessly continued his study of the inclusiveness of online media, trajectoring more into a work and labor angle throughout the Fair Labor project. Persistent performance at major international conferences such as ICA, AOM, AoIR and Social Media & Society (Christoph presented papers in all these conferences every year, 2016, 2017 and 2018), the organization of several workshops and pre-conferences in 2016 and 2018, and a strong social media presence led to substantial international outreach and impact. Major publications emerged from Christoph's work on this topic. In 2017, Christoph also became a management commitee member for Norway of the new COST Action From Sharing to Caring: Examining Socio-Technical Aspects of the Collaborative Economy in Europe. As a result of his scientific achievements, Christoph was promoted to associate professor at BI Norwegian Business School in 2018. He will continue the research of participatory aspects of the digital economy in the Toppfork project Future Ways of Working in the Digital Economy.

Throughout the project, Christian Fieseler was strongly engaged in the Global Network of Internet and Society Research Centers and its ongoing focus on AI and inclusion. Christian strengthened the presence of the Nordic research area in that interdisciplinary and quickly growing community. Christian was also the project manager of the succesful Horizon 2020 project Participation, Privacy and Power in the Sharing Economy in 2017, which had synergies to the Fair Labor project, not least in its exploration of the participatory potential of the sharing economy. As a result of his outstanding scientific achievements, both before and within the Fair Labor project, Christian was promoted to full professor at BI Norwegian Business School in 2018. He will continue his work on the digital economy as a project leader of the Toppforsk project Future Ways of Working in the Digital Economy.

Gemma Newlands joined the Fair Labor project in late 2016 and contributed importantly to the development of the research. Based on her expertise in the Fair Labor project, Gemma became a work package leader of the Horizon 2020 project Participation, Privacy and Power in the Sharing Economy and soon after joined the advisory board of the HubIT Horizon 2020 project. She remains at the Nordic Centre for Internet and Society thanks to a succesful application for a PhD position with the Toppforsk project Future Ways of Working in the Digital Economy


Key Publications

  • New Understandings and Theories of Online Participation

Lutz, C., & Hoffmann, C. P. (2017). The dark side of online participation: exploring non-, passive and negative participation. Information, Communication & Society, 20(6), 876-897. Journal link

Lutz, C. (2016). A social milieu approach to the online participation divides in Germany. Social Media + Society, 2(1), 1-14. 

  • Inequalities in Social Media Use and Online Participation

Blank, G., & Lutz, C. (2018). Benefits and harms from Internet use: A differentiated analysis of Great Britain. New Media & Society, 20(2), 618-640. Journal link

Lutz, C., & Newlands, G. (2018). Consumer segmentation within the sharing economy: The case of Airbnb. Journal of Business Research, 88, 187-196. Journal link

Blank, G., & Lutz, C. (2017). Representativeness of social media in Great Britain: investigating Facebook, Linkedin, Twitter, Pinterest, Google+, and Instagram. American Behavioral Scientist, 61(7), 741-756. Journal link

  • Mobile Dating

Lutz, C., & Ranzini, G. (2017). Where dating meets data: Investigating social and institutional privacy concerns on Tinder. Social Media + Society, 3(1), 1-12. Full text (pdf)

Ranzini, G., & Lutz, C. (2017). Love at first swipe? Explaining Tinder self-presentation and motives. Mobile Media & Communication, 5(1), 80-101. Journal link

  • Privacy Cynicism and Privacy Concerns

Lutz, C., Hoffmann, C. P., Bucher, E., & Fieseler, C. (2018). The role of privacy concerns in the sharing economy. Information, Communication & Society, 21(10), 1472-1492. Journal link

Hoffmann, C. P., Lutz, C., & Ranzini, G. (2016). Privacy cynicism: A new approach to the privacy paradox. Cyberpsychology, 10(4), 1-18. Full text (pdf)