The German federal election of 2009: The challenge of participatory cultures in political campaigns

Andreas Jungherr

University of Bamberg, Bamberg, Germany

[0.1] Abstract—Increasingly, political actors have to act in online communication environments. There they meet overlapping networked publics with different levels of participatory cultures and varying expectations of participation in the (re)making and coproduction of political content. This challenges political actors used to a top-down approach to communication. Meanwhile, online users are increasingly politically involved as legislatures all over the world become more active in regulating communication environments online. These new political actors often share participatory practices and have high levels of new media skills. Now they are challenged to adapt these bottom-up participatory cultures to the traditional political environment. This paper examines these adaption processes by examining three examples from the campaign for the German federal election of 2009. These examples include the attempt of Germany's conservative party (CDU) to encourage their supporters to adapt participatory practices, the German Social Democrats' (SPD) top-down production and distribution of online content that mimicked the look and feel of user-generated content, and the bottom-up emergence of political flash mobs.

[0.2] Keywords—Flash mob; Germany; Angela Merkel; Networked publics; Online campaigning; Participatory culture; Politics; Remix; Transformative work

Jungherr, Andreas. 2012. "The German Federal Election of 2009: The Challenge of Participatory Cultures in Political Campaigns." In "Transformative Works and Fan Activism," edited by Henry Jenkins and Sangita Shresthova, special issue, Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 10.

1. Introduction

[1.1] Increasingly, traditional political actors have to adapt to new communication environments on the Internet, and the ever-growing popularity of Web 2.0 services forces politicians to rethink their traditional top-down communication approach (Lilleker and Jackson 2010). The well-publicized online activities of Barack Obama's presidential campaign of 2007 and 2008 served as an international reference point, after which no major international campaign could afford not to be present on Web 2.0 services (i.e., social networking sites, online video sharing sites, or microblogging services). On these social media channels, politicians did not meet a passive audience eager to receive political messages on one more communication channel. Instead, they met with networked publics, recipients demanding the possibility of active participation. "Now publics are communicating more and more through complex networks that are bottom-up, top-down, as well as side-to-side. Publics can be reactors, (re)makers and (re)distributors, engaging in shared culture and knowledge through discourse and social exchange as well as through acts of media reception" (Ito 2008, 2f.).

[1.2] Often these networked publics share participatory practices and skills that enable them to adapt original communication objects (for example, images of politicians, audio files of speeches, or campaign videos) and create transformative works that build on existing works but add another layer of meaning to the object (for example, for satirical purposes). These practices and skills can be collected under the term participatory cultures. Analytically, these phenomena have been addressed in three different literatures: the technological and business literature on the development and use of Web 2.0, the legal literature on the creation and licensing of transformative works, and the culture studies literature on the constitution of the participatory cultures producing these objects.

[1.3] This (re)making or coproduction of political communication objects provides a challenge for political campaigns. On the one hand, campaigns have to engage networked publics so that their members choose to participate through the (re)making or coproduction of political communication objects. Failing this, the campaign will seem out of touch with online culture and fail to authentically communicate on the Internet. On the other hand, campaigns have to find moderate approaches to dealing with the often satirical communication objects produced by supporters and critics that more often than not seem to come straight from negative campaigning handbooks.

[1.4] It's not only traditional political actors who have to adapt, but also members of networked publics who have to learn how to deal with the sudden presence of politicians and campaign operatives in their communication environments. It is far from clear how participatory cultures manifest themselves in political contexts. The ironic nature of most political remixes and the often ephemeral nature of ad hoc political participation through online channels prove to be a challenge for the sustained political engagement of participatory cultures (Coleman and Blumler 2009, 137f.).

[1.5] Traditional political actors react differently to the challenges of these new communication environments. Some encourage their offline supporters to become increasingly vocal online and engage with and learn from online publics (section 4). Some adopt the look and feel of online objects in official campaign material in an attempt to appeal to online publics (section 5). The case studies selected for this paper will show that these approaches do not necessarily result in stronger political engagement by online publics and even risk alienating them. In Germany, the growing presence of political actors in online environments also led to a politicization of the—up until then—apolitical publics. Section 6 illustrates their challenge to move beyond the original Internet-enabled ad hoc participation to a sustainable contribution to the political process.

[1.6] The first two cases show that it is not enough for traditional political actors to mimic participation practices online to mobilize support by online publics; political actors have to learn from participatory practices of online publics and help their supporters to adopt them. The final case also shows that online publics have to do more than just stage original ad hoc spectacles to sustainably participate in the political process. This paper argues that both traditional political actors and politicized online publics have to seriously engage with the participatory practices of their new environments, instead of simply mimicking or ridiculing them. For traditional political actors, these are online communication spaces. For online publics, this is the traditional political process.

2. Participatory culture and transformative works

[2.1] The term participatory culture was originally developed in culture studies to offer an alternative to the concept of the largely passive media consumer (Jenkins 2006, 1). The concept emphasized cultural settings in which avid users of popular culture (i.e., TV series, films, or books) started to create transformative works (e.g., remixes of images or audio files) or narratives that build on elements of popular culture (e.g., fan fiction). Legal studies defined these objects as user-generated content that coproduces or (re)makes transformative works by adding a new layer of meaning to an object. (For a more extensive discussion, see Tushnet 2008.) These practices have led to an uneasy relationship between producers of original popular culture and that part of their fan community eager to engage with their work on an active and creative basis, namely, through the creation of objects and narratives based on elements of these original works (Jenkins 1992; Jenkins 2008a). Jenkins and colleagues defined participatory culture as "a culture with relatively low barriers to artistic expression and civic engagement, strong support for creating and sharing one's creations, and some type of informal mentorship whereby what is known by the most experienced is passed along to novices. A participatory culture is also one in which members believe their contributions matter, and feel some degree of social connection with one another" (Jenkins 2009, 1).

[2.2] This definition contains two important elements of participatory culture. On the one hand, we have the necessity of a fairly permissive approach by copyright holders and creators of original material (i.e., products of popular culture or objects of political communication) toward transformations of their work by fans or political activists. This point is made more explicit by Jenkins when he defines participatory culture as a "culture in which fans and other consumers are invited to actively participate in the creation and circulation of new content" (2008a, 331). On the other hand, the definition emphasizes necessary cultural skills in a community that enables participation, be it participation in popular culture or civic participation.

[2.3] Participatory cultures were thriving well before the Internet. Still, the Internet and its facilitation of the creation, remixing, and distribution of textual, audio, or video content through Web 2.0 services made participatory cultures and their output more prominent. The growing adoption of Web 2.0 services has led to a higher visibility for objects produced in the context of participatory cultures. Suddenly the technology is available to facilitate the easy coproduction and sharing of content with diverse networked publics. This function was already apparent in Tim O'Reilly's mission statement for Web 2.0, which he said would provide an "architecture of participation" (O'Reilly 2005). Web 2.0, which began as technology to revive fledgling online business models, became the technology ready-made for participatory cultures. In the words of David Gauntlett, "the popularity of Web 2.0 is especially significant here, as easy-to-use online tools which enable people to learn about, and from, each other, and to collaborate and share resources, have made a real difference to what people do with, and can get from, their electronic media" (2011, 13).

[2.4] It is not surprising then that forms of expression common for participatory cultures (i.e., remixes of audio, video, or image files) have become widely associated with Web 2.0 usage practices. This is why participatory cultures have become increasingly relevant in the discussion of political participation as politics moves onto Web 2.0 services, dominated by communication practices established by participatory cultures.

3. The Internet in the campaign for the parliamentary election in Germany of 2009

[3.1] To understand the significance of the election year 2009 it is important to understand Germany's political system. Germany is a federal republic consisting of 16 states. Elections on the state level strongly influence the process of policy making on the national level, since representatives of the state governments are involved in all national legislation that also concerns the states (Schmidt 2007, 196–208). State elections are also important since they are often read as indicators of the public's satisfaction with the work of the party governing on a national level (Decker 2006). The state elections directly preceding a general election receive a lot of attention as commentators try to predict the results of the general election based on the results of recent state elections.

[3.2] German general elections follow the voting principle of personalized proportional representation. All parties that are able to gather more than 5 percent of the vote send representatives to parliament. The exact number of these MPs is determined by a complicated formula based on the percentage of votes a party could gather and the number of districts candidates of a party could win in direct competition (Schmidt 2007, 48ff.). This system leads to a situation in which parties with a simple majority of votes are still not able to form a government but depend on coalitions with one or two parties with smaller vote shares. In Germany this leads to a party system in which five political parties manage to regularly win enough votes in federal and state elections to send representatives to the respective parliaments. More importantly, the 5 percent limit is sufficiently low that new parties regularly form and attempt to gain enough votes to enter parliament. In Germany the dominating parties are the Christian Democrats (CDU), a conservative party that headed a coalition government from 2005 to 2009 under chancellor Angela Merkel; the Social Democrats (SPD), a center-left party that from 2005 to 2009 was the junior partner in a governing coalition with the CDU under vice-chancellor Frank-Walter Steinmeier; the Liberals (FDP), a smaller party that runs largely on a platform of economic liberalism and lower taxes; the Green Party (Bündnis90/Die Grünen), a progressive party running largely on a platform of civil rights and ecological conservation; and the Left (Die Linke), a party running on a socialist platform.

[3.3] From 2005 to 2009, Germany was governed by a coalition of the Christian and the Social Democrats under the leadership of chancellor Angela Merkel (CDU) and vice-chancellor Frank-Walter Steinmeier (SPD). This construct, the coalition of the two parties with the highest vote share, is called a grand coalition and only arises if none of the big parties (CDU or SPD) is able to form a governing coalition with one of the smaller parties (FDP, Bündnis 90/Die Grünen, or Die Linke). Historically, grand coalitions are very rare. In 2009 this led to an unfamiliar situation for the campaigners. Angela Merkel and Frank-Walter Steinmeier were the heads of a successful coalition government while at same time they were directly competing against each other on the campaign trail. This put the SPD in a complicated position. On the one hand they had to argue in favor of a policy change through a change in government, but on the other hand they were not able to attack the work of the preceding government too harshly, since they were actively involved, if only as a junior partner, in the governing coalition. This situation led to a campaign that many commentators saw as lacking in drama and fire. The campaign of 2009 ended with heavy losses in vote share for both coalition partners (CDU and SPD) but offered the possibility for the CDU to form a coalition government with the Liberals (FDP) under the leadership of Angela Merkel without the participation of the SPD (for a more detailed discussion, see Saalfeld 2011).

[3.4] In late 2008 and early 2009 at least one group was not daunted by the expectations of an uneventful campaign. The advocates of online activism and online campaigning were riding high. The campaign for the 2009 general election was destined to have a strong online component—of this, pundits were certain (BITKOM 2009). The online success of Barack Obama's recent bid for the US presidency was fresh in the minds of German journalists and politicians. In late 2008 and early 2009, German campaigners and online cognoscenti focused on how the upcoming campaigns could use the Internet and learn from Obama (Bertelsmann Stiftung 2009; Reichart 2009).

[3.5] It wasn't only the media and campaigning professionals who were ready for an online campaign. By 2009 the Internet had been widely adopted in Germany. In 2009, the ARD/ZDF Online Study found that 64.7 percent of all Germans 14 years or older had used the Internet within the last 4 weeks. This was up from 56.7 percent in 2005, the year of the last general election (van Eimeren and Frees 2009, 335). This shows that the potential for political content reaching a wide audience online had risen. Also the Allensbacher Computer- und Technik-Analyse (ACTA) found that 55 percent of all Germans aged 14 to 64 years used the Internet to search for political news (Schneller 2009, 7). This shows that the Internet was an important news source for Germans during the campaigns in 2009. Still, when asking about the interest in actively participating through creating and posting content on the Web, Busemann and Gscheidle found that only 31 percent of all German Internet users 14 years or older were heavily or moderately interested (2009, 357). So, while in 2009 the Internet was used by a majority of Germans to gather information about news and politics, only a much smaller group was interested in actively producing content themselves.

[3.6] The political campaigns of 2009 were at least partially judged by the German media on how well a political party or candidate seemed to be doing online. One criterion of the online performance of a given party was the number of supporters a candidate or party could collect on various social networking sites. Another indicator was the online activities of the supporters of a given party or candidate (Fischer and Voß 2009). This proved a challenge for the big parties, CDU and SPD. German Internet usage statistics are heavily skewed in favor of young users, especially for the use of social networking sites and the willingness to use Web 2.0 services with participatory possibilities (van Eimeren and Frees 2009; Busemann and Gscheidle 2009). The challenge for the CDU and SPD was that the statistics on the age of their party members are also heavily skewed but in favor of older members. In 2009 the average age of members of the CDU and SPD was 58 (Niedermayer 2011, 20).

[3.7] One of the most intensively covered elements of the campaigns of 2009 was the emergence of the German Pirate Party. The party had originally been founded in 2006 in the wake of the appearance of the Swedish Pirate Party. In the first years the party promoted similar topics as its international counterpart: modernization of copyright laws, leniency towards file sharers, stronger privacy laws, and—specific to the German context—stronger limits for data retention by the state (for the origins of the German Pirate Party, see Bartels 2009; Blumberg 2010). Until early 2009 their success was moderate; in February 2009 the party had 870 paying members. The summer of 2009 brought the party a massive increase in membership. From February 2009 to the end of 2009 the membership stats jumped from 870 to 11,400 (Shinta 2011). What happened?

[3.8] One important reason for the sudden increase in support for the Pirate Party lay in the strong opposition among online users to the so-called Zugangserschwerungsgesetz. In the spring of 2009 Ursula von der Leyen, minister for family, seniors, women, and youth introduced a law to allow German authorities to block Web sites that offered child pornographic content. This initiative met with heavy resistance by German Internet users, who objected because of the perceived threat of a censorship infrastructure that in their view was introduced by the proposed law. The activists used online tools to organize their protest. Their activities clustered mainly around the term zensursula, a word combining the German word for censorship (Zensur) and the first name of the minister who originally proposed the law (Ursula). One of the focal points of the campaign against the proposed law was a popular online petition to the German Bundestag that asked to stop the law (for more details on the use of the German e-petition platform, see Jungherr and Jürgens 2010). When even the highly publicized online petition did not stop the ratification of the law by the German governing parties—the Christian Democrats (CDU), and the Social Democrats (SPD)—the activists moved to a small political party supporting their position, the Pirate Party, which in turn experienced a massive membership increase and public attention.

[3.9] The contentious public discussion of the topic did for the German Pirate Party what the discussion of copyright legislation had done for the Swedish Pirate Party. Suddenly a new and highly interconnected group of citizens felt the need to get involved in politics and chose the Pirate Party as their conduit. These new members entered the political arena with high ideals, but, more importantly, they also brought cultural skills learned in years of heavy computer and Internet use. This led to a party structure different than the established parties and also to highly transparent discussion and deliberation practices. The Pirate Party organized their campaign activities through a public wiki ( In this wiki they documented the events of the campaign, organized public rallies, media reactions, and political positions. In addition to this tool they also used a public message board ( for the public discussion of issues as divergent as "funding, how to learn from Obama" (forum.piratenpartei 2009a) and "how to use Google without feeding Google" (forum.piratenpartei 2010).

[3.10] This was the backdrop for the campaign of 2009, when the actions of three different sets of political actors illustrated the challenges and possibilities of participatory cultures for traditional political actors and activists.

4. CDU: The challenge of encouraging participation from the top down

[4.1] In early November 2009, Joe Rospars, while publicly reminiscing at the Personal Democracy Forum Europe in Barcelona on his experiences as New Media director for the 2008 Obama presidential campaign, pithily summed up the problems of participation from the political operative's view: "The bottom up stuff needs to be enforced from the top down" (Campbell 2009). If you replace the word enforced with the word encouraged you find a statement that seems to reflect the experiences of CDU campaigners during the run-up to the general election of 2009.

[4.2] As shown in section three, the CDU faced the challenge of encouraging their members to actively participate in political discussions or events online. The CDU tried actively encouraging supporters to remix selected official campaign materials, thus taking the role of the permissive producer of content, which is a vital element of participatory cultures. The material the CDU operatives deemed the most promising basis for remixes was the official campaign song. This choice proved both optimistic and wrong.

[4.3] The campaign song is a time-honored tradition in German politics. While there is no accounting for taste, the Christian Democrats like their campaign songs custom made. These songs more often than not tend to be objects of ridicule for political opponents, but they are a common feature in CDU campaigns from the state level up to the federal. For the 2009 campaign, the CDU asked Leslie Mandoki, a successful German pop producer, to compose the campaign song (CDUTV 2009). The launch of the campaign song was heavily covered by the press (Steinbach 2009) and the German blogosphere. In the blogs the reactions proved to be mostly critical and usually came with a heavy dose of ridicule (Haeusler 2009a).

[4.4] The campaign published the song in different formats, invited their supporters to use a specifically prepared version of the song as the basis for remixes, and invited them to e-mail these remixes to the campaign (teAM Deutschland 2009a). This invitation was for the most part ignored. Although a few CDU supporters produced user-generated content during the campaign, specific remixes of the campaign song did not prove to be their object of choice. Was this because no CDU supporters were interested in participating in the online campaign? Another episode from the campaign proves this hypothesis wrong.

[4.5] Starting in July 2009, the CDU campaign started to contact its supporters on the campaign Web sites, social networking platforms, and newsletter, asking them to be part of "Germany's Biggest Supporter Poster" (teAM Deutschland 2009b). Supporters were asked to send in profile pictures so they could be included in a massive collage of CDU supporters exhibited in Berlin during the last weeks of the campaign (teAM Deutschland 2009c). Roughly 4,500 supporters reacted to that invitation by uploading their portraits (teAM Deutschland 2009d). This campaign element turned out to be highly successful. This shows that CDU supporters were indeed using online tools to interact with the campaign and were even willing to lend their own faces to the campaign.

[4.6] These two examples illustrate the nature of the CDU online supporter community. On the one hand we have a highly successful call for participation that asked supporters to send in digital portrait-pictures for inclusion in a campaign poster. This form of participation demands the conviction to offer their picture for a political advertisement, but it doesn't require strong new media skills such as the ability to edit videos, to alter images, or to remix audio tracks. The success of this campaign element shows that during the campaign of 2009 there was a strong group of CDU supporters online who were willing to support the campaign. On the other hand we have the invitation by the campaign to remix their campaign song, which was largely neglected. This would have been a form of participation that demanded a relatively high level of new media skills, especially in the form of video editing and audio remixing. Clearly these skills were in low supply among the CDU supporters who, only a few days before the remix call, had supported the campaign through uploading their portraits (for a more detailed discussion of the CDU social media campaign, see Jungherr 2012).

[4.7] This episode illustrates two aspects of participatory cultures in political contexts. Even if a political actor chooses to enable the (re)making and coproducing of political content, this does not automatically lead to active participation. This echoes recent articles that show that the mere possibility of participation does not necessary lead to widespread participatory practices (Carpentier 2009; Nielsen 2011). Online participation requires the encouragement of political actors and their permissive stand on the creation of transformative works based on their original materials, the motivation of networked publics to participate in the first place, and the presence of a new media skill set among their members that enables the (re)making and coproducing of content. If political actors want to encourage "the bottom up stuff...from the top down," to paraphrase Rospars again, they have to be very conscious of these factors.

5. SPD: The look and feel of participation

[5.1] Seventeen days before the German general election of 2009, a new campaigner entered the political arena. From September 10 onward, Charles Montgomery Burns, proud owner of the Springfield nuclear power plant and recurring character on the popular TV show The Simpsons, appeared on online campaign posters next to Angela Merkel. Instead of the official CDU campaign slogan "Wir wählen die Kanzlerin" (We elect the chancellor), the slogan read "Wir wählen die Atomkraft" (We elect nuclear power) (Richel 2009a).

[5.2] This poster remix was an obvious riff on the Christian Democrat's stance on nuclear power, which was a point of contention during the campaign. While the CDU was supporting nuclear power as a bridge technology that would ensure the German energy supply until a time when regenerative energy sources would be able to replace it, the Social Democrats and the Green Party emphasized the necessity for Germany to abandon nuclear power at a fixed date in the near future. This question historically was one of the most emotionally discussed fault lines in German politics. After heavy antinuclear protests in Germany from the late 1970s through the 1990s and a relative lull during the coalition government of Social Democrats and the Green Party, the issue made a sudden reappearance in the last weeks of the campaign for the general election of 2009 (Lee 2009). Three days after a large demonstration of antinuclear protesters in Berlin, Montgomery Burns made an online appearance seemingly in support of the CDU's stance on nuclear energy.

[5.3] At first glance, one might take the Merkel/Burns remix as an example of "Photoshop for Democracy" as understood by Henry Jenkins (Jenkins 2004, 2008a, 2008b). Jenkins described the potential of reaching an apolitical generation with a mix of political images and pop culture references that would register with people otherwise uninterested in politics: "Citizens are taking media into their own hands, producing new works made up of fragments of political and popular culture. And people are circulating them well beyond their immediate circle of friends as a way to both share a good laugh and exchange thoughts about pressing issues" (Jenkins 2004).

[5.4] Jenkins emphasizes the role of participating citizens in the creation of remixes. This is where the Merkel/Burns remix clearly diverges. The Merkel/Burns remix appeared first on a Twitpic account. Twitpic is an online service that allows users to upload images, which then can easily linked to by the user's Twitter feeds. The owner of this specific account was Mathias Richel, who during the campaign of 2009 worked for the German advertising agency Butter. Butter was one of the agencies that worked for the campaign of the Social Democrats, the party directly in competition with the CDU and Angela Merkel. Richel himself worked from the party headquarters of the SPD in Berlin. Thus, the appearance of the Merkel/Burns remix was not the product of the lone "communications guerillo" imagined by Umberto Eco, "patrolling" the semiotic wastelands of German campaign communication (Eco 1967, 144). Instead, appearing on the personal account of a well-connected campaign staffer, the Merkel/Burns remix was an attempt at political guerilla marketing. What at first seems like the subversion of the political process is thus simply a case of the mainstreaming of culture jamming by a traditional political actor imitating visual style and communication conventions. In doing this, the political actor either was trying to appeal to the taste of network publics or imply the creation of this communication object by participating activists. What looks like grassroots user-generated content is in fact negative campaigning straight down from the top. This resembles trends in marketing: "Similarly, marketing and advertising, so responsive to each shifting tide in public behavior and whim, sniff out trends and mimic styles from the counterculture even as they seek to reign in [sic] and channel these viral energies in ways that consolidate the corporate bottom line" (Russell et al. 2008, 71).

[5.5] In the words of Mark Dery, "the look and feel of culture jamming, at least, have been appropriated by the mainstream, tirelessly promoted...and hijacked by guerrilla advertisers to ambush unsuspecting consumers" (2010).

[5.6] The Merkel/Burns remix is an example of a traditional political actor trying to adapt to communication conventions of the new online environment by producing objects that mimic styles of participatory cultures. What appears to be the transformative work of activists comes, in fact, right out of a campaign operative's playbook. The SPD's reference to the TV series The Simpsons might echo its politics "of comic criticism" (Gray 2006, 146), in which parody provides a check for political discourses and institutions (ibid., 150). Still, this was not the only pop culture reference in remix materials originating from the party headquarters. There were remixes featuring Darth Vader, a villain from the Star Wars franchise (Richel 2009b), and the '90s rapper Marky Mark (Roter September 2009). The association of Angela Merkel and Montgomery Burns did not represent a conscious association with The Simpsons' politics of criticism; rather, it seemed to have originated in something much simpler: the visual similarity of Angela Merkel's characteristic triangular hand position with that of Montgomery Burns. The Merkel/Burns remix hit a nerve and started to spread through the German-speaking Internet. The picture appeared on online message boards and blogs, it was distributed on Twitter, discussed in the media, and even found an offline incarnation in the town of Dortmund as a remix of a real-life CDU campaigning poster upon which the head of the CDU's leading candidate, Angela Merkel, was replaced by the head of the Simpsons character (PC Action 2009).

[5.7] A few days after posting the image, Mathias Richel started posting photographs of a printout of the original remix with buttons documenting the accumulated clicks the image received on his Twitpic account (Richel 2009c). The campaign was attempting to document a seemingly viral distribution phenomenon. To demonstrate the cultural awareness of the campaign, it was seemingly not enough to create communication objects in the style of countercultural objects, but the creators also attempted to create a mode of distribution commonly associated with successful user-generated content. This conscious attempt to create buzz around objects produced by the campaign can also be seen in the reactions by campaign staffers to public critique of this approach. A post by Felix Schwenzel on his blog led to a highly contentious discussion between him and Mathias Richel on the nature of legitimate viral distribution as opposed to staged viral distribution of campaign content (Schwenzel 2009). This reaction echoes concerns of fan communities who felt exploited when the grassroots marketing techniques of media companies adopted the look and feel of their practices (Pearson 2010; Scott 2009). This shows that political and corporate actors have to tread lightly and avoid the impression of simply manipulating online publics by pandering to their communication practices.

[5.8] In the preceding two sections we have seen two different attempts by political actors to react to the challenges of acting in communication environments associated with participatory cultures. The CDU tried to encourage its supporters to voice their support in forms common to participatory cultures but failed to lay the foundation of necessary cultural skills and participatory practices among its supporters. The SPD campaign chose a different approach. Professional campaigners, conscious of the success of political remixes during US campaigns, chose to adapt the format for the German context. With this approach, the SPD campaign succeeded in creating an iconic image that was widely popular well beyond the campaign of 2009. But how did existing participatory cultures in Germany choose to participate during the campaign of 2009?

6. Yeaahh! Participation from the grassroots

[6.1] On the evening of September 18, 2009, nine days before the federal election, the chancellor and leading candidate for the Christian Democratic Union, Angela Merkel, stopped in Hamburg for a routine campaign event. At this point, the political parties in Germany were headed into the final stretch of an uneventful campaign. An audience of roughly 2,000 had turned up to hear Merkel speak. Among the usual crowd of supporters, interested passersby, and protesters was a small group of roughly 30 people. Some of them were carrying signs on which the word "Yeaahh" was printed or handwritten. They also carried camcorders. These were not members of a political party or part of a specific group of activists. The reason they turned up was a comment to a blog post.

[6.2] A few days previously, the German Twittersphere had been abuzz with a picture posted on the photo-sharing site Flickr. Flickr user spanier had posted a photograph of a CDU campaign poster advertising the event in Hamburg. On the poster someone had scribbled the words "Und Alle so: Yeaahh," which roughly translates as "And everyone goes: Yeaahh" (spanier 2009). Soon German bloggers were commenting on the picture and its parody of the campaign (Urban Art Blog 2009; Walter 2009). On his blog Spreeblick, Johnny Haeusler asked his readers (tongue firmly in cheek) to explain why the remix was funny to them. In the following days, over 250 commentators reacted (Haeusler 2009b). Some commenters saw the humor in the juxtaposition of the enthusiastic word "Yeaahh" with the unemotional and highly pragmatic public persona of Angela Merkel (saripari 2009; Andreas 2009). Others saw the humor in the juxtaposition of the word "Yeaahh" and the ritualized context of a campaign event (Martin 2009). Thus, the reactions on the blog indicate a mixture of motives. On the one hand, there is the personal opposition against Angela Merkel and the CDU, while on the other hand we find a critique of the language of campaigning. These reactions were soon to reach a much wider audience than the readers of Spreeblick. One of the commenters on the blog suggested starting a Yeaahh flash mob at the campaign event (Edgar 2009). The idea caught on and soon people had created a song (Haeusler 2009c), a printable sign (Weltregierung 2009), and the flash mob was on.

[6.3] On September 18, the flash mobbers were not prominently positioned. Between them and the stage stood a large group of Merkel supporters and antinuclear protesters who opposed the CDU's stance on nuclear energy. From the stage, the white Yeaahh signs disappeared among the orange signs of CDU supporters and the red and yellow antinuclear flags. Once Angela Merkel started her stump speech, the 30 people suddenly became active. After every one of Merkel's sentences they loudly shouted "Yeaahh" and shook their signs; however, at the campaign event in Hamburg this had little influence.

[6.4] Only a few hours after the event, the first videos of the flash mobs appeared online (TerminatorX120 2009; undallesoyeaahh 2009; HeyeDigitalLab 2009). Shortly after, one of these videos (TerminatorX120 2009) was picked up by the online news service Spiegel Online, one of the most widely read online news platforms in Germany (Reißmann 2009). Just one day after the video was embedded in the post on Spiegel Online, the video had been seen by over 200,000 Internet users, swiftly making the video into one of the most popular online objects of the campaign. The video was shot by a small camcorder positioned directly between the flash mobbers. Viewers of the video got the impression that the venue was full of flash mobbers and that their Yeaahhs had drowned out Angela Merkel's speech. From then on, the debate was not about what happened in Hamburg, but on the appearance of the event in the videos and the blogged recollections of some of the participants (Park 2009; Plastikstuhl 2009; Haeusler 2009d). Only a few days later, Yeaahh flash mobs appeared at Merkel's campaign stops in the towns of Mainz and Wuppertal. Five days after the first Yeaahhs in Hamburg, one of the leading TV news programs featured this "entirely new form of political protest in Germany" (Tagesthemen 2009), and Germany's leading newspapers printed pieces on the Yeaahh flash mobs (König 2009; Bingener, Veser, and Wagner 2009). What had started as a get-together of a small group of protesters in reaction to a photograph of a sarcastic scribble on a campaign poster had become a recurring phenomenon at CDU campaign events and a major news story.

[6.5] The participants in the flash mobs had various reasons. Some said they came to protest against Angela Merkel and the CDU, others said they had come because it was fun, others wanted to comment on offline politics through the use of "Internet humor" (Tagesthemen 2009). Common to most of these explanations was the claim that the meaningless word Yeaahh was the only possible reaction to a campaign dominated by sound bites free of real political discussion.

[6.6] From the start, the Yeaahh flash mobs were not affiliated with any political party. It was an idea that was clearly motivated out of protest against Angela Merkel; however, if one takes the rhetoric of the protesters seriously, the flash mobs were directed against her in her role as a leading German politician and not against her as the CDU's leading candidate. And although the opposing parties did their best to promote further flash mobs at CDU events, it seems the Yeaahh flash mobs were a phenomenon born outside of traditional party politics. In their coverage, the media connected the flash mobs to the Pirate Party. This might be reasonable, since the flash mobs clearly attracted supporters of the Pirate Party. This is hard to quantify, but discussions on the Pirate's message board dealing with the flash mobs showed strong support among supporters of the Pirate Party for the idea (forum.piratenpartei 2009b). Still, this support was not universal. Critical voices objected to a naive support of the Yeaahh flash mobs since this would endanger the Pirate Party's attempt to be seen as a serious actor in German politics (forum.piratenpartei 2009c).

[6.7] The story of the Yeaahh flash mobs resembles the Candlelight Protests in South Korea in early 2008, although on a much smaller scale. In the spring of 2008, South Korea saw massive protests with over a million participants. Large numbers of the protesters were teenagers, especially teenage girls. One of the sources of the protest was online forums dedicated to the boy group Dong Bang. Just as the Yeaahh flash mobs started in reaction to the discussions in the comment section of the blog Spreeblick, so the Candlelight Protests gained their initial momentum in the discussions among the Dong Bang fan community. In discussing the Candlelight Protests, Mimi Ito (2009) addresses this dynamic: "The lesson here is that you should never underestimate the power of peer-to-peer social communication and the bonding force of popular culture. Although so much of what kids are doing online may look trivial and frivolous, what they are doing is building the capacity to connect, to communicate, and ultimately, to mobilize."

[6.8] The peer-to-peer communication among the readership of Spreeblick much more closely resembles the concept of participatory culture as defined by Jenkins and colleagues (2009, 5), than the party structures of CDU and SPD. There were low barriers to participation in expression and engagement, in this case attendance at one of Merkel's campaign stops and the hearty exclamation of the word "Yeaahh." The flash mobbers also supported each other in the distribution of videos and other objects—printable Yeaahh signs (Weltregierung 2009), T-shirts (, songs (Haeusler 2009c), and blogposts documenting the various flashmobs (Park 2009; Plastikstuhl 2009; Haeusler 2009d). The microblogging service Twitter proved for this community not only an effective distribution channel for these objects but also an easy way to give and receive feedback.

[6.9] The flash mobbers chose irony as a form of political expression. They were voicing ironic support for a political stump speech they felt did not address issues but only contained hollow rhetoric. Their reception shows the dangers of irony in the political discourse. While the media were quick to report on the flash mobs and even declare them a new form of political activism (Tagesthemen 2009), nearly all reports ended with a critique of the seemingly simplistic and empty formula with which the flash mobbers were reacting to Merkel's speech (König 2009; Bingener, Veser, and Wagner 2009). The CDU's public reaction was probably more hurtful to the flash mobbers. While Angela Merkel started to greet them at the events as "her friends from the Internet" (Sittner 2009), the campaign started to link to Yeaahh videos from the official campaigning blog with the encouraging statement "great, that's what we think" (teAM Deutschland 2009e). For the final public event of the campaign, the CDU even printed Yeaahh posters in the campaign's design and handed them out to supporters. This appears to be a textbook example of Henry Jenkins' cautionary remarks on the use of irony in political discourse:

[6.10] These citizens have increasingly turned towards parody as a rhetorical practice which allows them to express their scepticism towards "politics as usual," to break out of the exclusionary language through which many discussions of public policy are conducted, and to find a shared language of borrowed images that mobilize what they know as consumers to reflect on the political process. Such practices blur the lines between consumers and citizens, between the commercial and the amateur, and between education, activism and entertainment, as groups with competing and contradictory motives deploy parody to serve their own ends. (Jenkins 2008, 293)

[6.11] The flash mobs of 2009 clearly illustrate the potential of networked publics whose members share participatory cultures. Add to that a skill set of online tools and a sudden igniting spark, and you get a creative reaction to "politics as usual." Still, there is always the danger that the spark remains just that. After the federal election, the Yeaahh flash mobs disappeared from the political scene as quickly as they had appeared. It remains to be seen if participatory cultures in Germany help activists organize political participation that goes beyond ad hoc protests around short-term issues.

7. Participatory cultures in German politics

[7.1] During the campaign of 2009, political parties in Germany faced for the first time the challenge of adapting their top-down communication strategies to the new Web 2.0 environment. They had to find ways to engage with participatory practices widely associated with this communication environment. But not only traditional political actors had to learn. Newly politicized networked publics also faced the challenge of entering the political arena, starting with the public debate about the Zugangserschwerungsgesetz and a few months later during the campaign for the general election. Their examples illustrate the challenges of adapting top-down communication practices to an environment dominated by participatory cultures, as well as the challenge of channeling bottom-up participatory practices into the traditional political process.

[7.2] Traditional political actors tried to adapt by either encouraging their supporters to participate through the (re)making and coproduction of campaign materials or by providing content themselves that mimicked the look and feel of user-generated content. New political actors entered the public sphere because of their ability to spontaneously organize around seemingly marginal topics and manifest their protest in original ways offline. The success of these approaches was mixed at best. This shows that if traditional political actors are serious in encouraging more citizen participation online, they have to move beyond merely imitating or paying lip service to participatory practices online. Instead, they have to adapt to the participatory practices of successful online publics while remaining aware of the cultural skills and communication practices of their supporters. It is necessary to ensure the campaign can interact adequately with its supporters. Sudden calls for participation will probably go unheeded if political actors do not invest the time and resources to establish participatory cultures among their supporters well before a campaign.

[7.3] The Yeaahh flash mobs illustrate the promise and limits of participatory cultures engaging with the traditional political process. The flash mobbers were able to quickly organize and mobilize a large, disparate group of people through the shared use of online tools and shared participatory practices. The flash mobs quickly gained public attention and were widely commented on by the established media. But this attention came at the price of heavy critique of their rhetoric and their incoherent message. Consequently, the Yeaahh flash mobs dropped from view once Election Day had passed. This case shows that it is not enough for online publics to gain short-term public and media attention for their causes. If they want to influence politics in the long run, they have to adapt to the traditional forms of political participation and take them seriously.

[7.4] The German campaigns of 2009 proved to be laboratories of convergence. Traditional political actors tried different approaches to act in a new communication environment while nontraditional actors tried to adapt to the political arena. Like any learning process, this process is ongoing. Time will tell if and how these actors continue this process.

8. Acknowledgments

[8.1] I want to thank Rasmus Kleis Nielsen, Harald Schoen, and Darren Lilleker, who commented on earlier versions of this paper. Their questions, comments, and advice helped me to develop the article to its present form.

[8.2] During the campaign for the state elections in Hessen, January 2009, the author worked for the CDU online campaign webcamp09 in Wiesbaden. During the campaign for Germany's general election in September 2009 the author worked for the CDU online campaign in the party headquarters in Berlin.

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